Patchwork gardens

Corner House gardenCorner House garden

Wanstead Society member Marian Temple will be talking about urban gardening at this month's Wanstead WI meeting. Here she looks back at the story of the Corner House garden.

Some patches of neglected flower bed just call out to you, and so it was 10 years ago with the front garden of the Corner House, the Age Concern luncheon club on the corner of Wanstead High Street and Grove Park. At that time it was waist-high in weeds, with an understory of bottles and take-away food cartons. All this in a prime position on the High Street. The potential was great.

We at the Wanstead Society discussed the possibility of adopting this neglected front garden as an honorary Wanstead flower bed. There were anxieties about vandalism in such a public plot, but we decided to go for it and the council were happy to let us take it over. Ten years down the line and we've never had any such problems with vandalism.

Easter 2003, we got going. Weeding; rubbish collecting; pulling hefty bits of concrete out of the earth and then incorporating vast amounts of compost and leaf mould from our own garden compost heaps and digging it all in. How dead the soil seemed at the time. Not a worm, not even a snail! In former times, Wansteadians had enjoyed the bluebells and the hydrangeas, but most of all, the wonderful mid-summer hollyhocks with their towering spires of colour. All this we kept, but added so much more.

Wanstead people were immediately interested in what was going on and offers of plants from their gardens came aplenty. We had no budget – we didn't need one. This garden was produced with volunteer time and energy and was soon stocked with good-tempered, old-fashioned garden perennials, which flower every year, spread and seed themselves in unexpected places. We introduced wild flowers as well so that the garden in summer is abuzz with insects, bumble bees, ladybirds and damselflies. The stars of the show are still the hollyhocks, but they have more company now.

In that first year, much grew from seeds dormant in the compost we had dug in. Tomato plants and an exotic looking pumpkin jostled mallow, evening primrose, achillia, campanula and the frilliest, flooziest poppies ever witnessed on Wanstead High Street – what a feast for the eyes and a delight to the soul! Children were mesmerised by the insect life at their eye level. Elderly people were thrilled to see plants remembered from a grandmother's garden and not seen for years. This patch of High Street cottage garden has gone from strength to strength, changing every year, surprising and delighting us.

Somehow, whenever we've needed a bit more muscle or a special skill, it has materialised. We certainly need someone to put up some trellis. Any offers? Three years ago, a volunteer built us a beautiful raised bed out of old slabs from the rear garden and last year, as we worked on the back garden of the Corner House, neglected for years, out of nowhere, someone offered to help. He cleared away scrub, dug out chunks of masonry and built us a lovely tapestry wall to support the bank. The wall is the Wanstead version of a dry stone wall, but made of bricks lifted from every skip in Wanstead. Last summer, this patch of garden came alive with tumbling nasturtiums, tulips from the Lost Gardens of Helligan and other old favourites. The staff at the Co-op watched this garden develop and keep a sharp eye on it. Woe betide anyone who tries to help themselves to flowers. This garden patch is along the rear of the Corner House car park and can be seen by anyone walking down Grove Park.

Street gardening can get to be a habit and, with permission, we now look after most of the High Street flower beds, those pocket patchwork gardens. Some are more successful than others but all have the character, not of an anonymous urban street flower bed, but of a patch of soil, adopted and cared for by locals. This gives the High Street a totally different feel, especially when patches are watered by children and mums. The more people are involved, the more the community takes ownership.

When gardening in such a public place you have to be prepared for interruptions. Passers-by might want to know the names of flowers or why a plant isn't thriving in their own garden. Some just want to tell you how much pleasure they get from your work. This is always appreciated – it isn't just about digging and delving, it's about the community.

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Gardeners meet at the Corner House on the first Sunday of every month at 10.30am. If you would like to help (no experience necessary), get in touch by leaving a note at the Corner House or via the Wanstead Society website – www.wansteadsociety.org.uk. Marian will be giving a talk to the Wanstead Women's Institute about the Corner House garden at 8pm on 21 February at Christ Church hall, Wanstead Place. Women visitors are welcome (advanced booking is required; tickets: £3) – email This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it


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