Meet the community transforming city-centre green spaces

Guide

Step off the bustling street and into one of the E1 Community Gardens and it’s quiet. There are raised beds with neat rows of beans, salads, aubergines and even dhudi. Bees and butterflies pollinate colourful blooms. You might hear a robin’s trill in the surrounding trees, and throughout, there’s a warm, earthy smell of freshly-laid wood chips. It might sound like an exaggeration, but in these gardens, you wouldn’t know you were in the centre of London.

The E1 Community Gardeners

This is a collection of seven city-centre gardens, tended by the gardening group, E1 Community Gardeners. A local community of people from all walks of life, E1 gardeners come together to grow plants for people and wildlife in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets. Together, the group transforms unloved spaces throughout the E1 postcode, including one area that was previously wasteland.

The aim? To make a city-centre haven for nature and people.

Chance encounters blossom into a thriving community

E1 Community Gardeners started a few years ago, as local volunteer gardeners, Genia, James, Anthony, Julian, Pat, John S, Melvyn and John F were gradually introduced to each other. Finding a common passion, they began to share ideas, seeds and gardening tips. One thing was clear, everyone wanted to look after the community’s green spaces, and to share gardening knowledge. Over a few beers at the local music hall it was agreed - the E1 Community Gardeners (E1CG) was established.

A joint enterprise, each of the seven founders came to the enterprise with their own specific experience and skillset, a factor that is crucial in how the organisation thrives. New people came to the group, not all with experience, but wanting to help and to learn. They formed a new purpose of ‘sharing and caring for community green spaces’. Today, E1CG is a 20-strong team of volunteer gardeners, tending seven gardens (and counting) across the London borough.

 

The power of plants to bring people together

Speaking with James, it’s clear this is a group of people working to benefit the wider community and nature. E1CG is open to anyone in the E1 postcode who would like to volunteer their time, in whatever way they can. Together, they develop gardens that in turn, develop communities.

While the founding members have gardening experience, newer members often don’t. A hugely important part of the E1CG purpose is to share knowledge through practical gardening and organic growing practices. New members are invited to get stuck in whenever they feel ready, encouraging those new to gardening to build their confidence.

 

Helping local people from all walks of life learn new skills and maintain the gardens builds a sense of connection, ownership and pride for the plants and wildlife. It’s not all hard graft though, members are welcome to simply enjoy the green spaces. At the centre of every garden is a desire to build awareness and appreciation of nature in this urban environment.

Welcoming wildlife in the heart of the city

The range of plants grown across the seven gardens is huge. Explore them and you’ll find a variety of vegetables, fruits, annual and perennial flowers, shrubs and fruit trees. A particular focus for the group is planting pollinator-friendly flowers, such as in the wildflower meadow areas. In fact, attracting wildlife to the gardens is a key priority.

One of the gardens now has a small pond, which is a busy frog breeding ground in the spring, while flowers and trees attract bees, butterflies and insects of huge variety. The rise in insects, alongside bird boxes, feeders and baths have also brought birds to the gardens, including goldfinches, robins and wrens. James also mentions their resident peregrine falcon family, which has been visiting for the previous few years. He laughs as he recalls the youngsters hurtling around last summer.

Most of the gardens now have their own composting set-up, with hot boxes producing homemade compost to feed the gardens sustainably. In the Swedenborg Square Orchard, the team have built three wormeries and four hot boxes, meaning neighbours and local residents can recycle their kitchen scraps. The composting side of the community is going so well in fact, the local council encourages other allotment and community groups to pay E1CG a visit to talk about all things compost!

Growing the E1CG profile

Next in the group’s sights is to work in partnership with landlords, landowners and the local council to improve biodiversity and create more sustainable gardens and green spaces for the community. Raising awareness for the group is important for this next step. Two small grants allowed the team to put on garden tours last year, to build awareness of the E1CG work and encourage new members to join them.

This summer, the E1CG team have been invited to be a part of the Tower of London Superbloom Communities project, to celebrate the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee. Genia and James, representing E1CG, visited the moat for a day of planting, and the group has also been given a selection of annual and perennial wildflower seeds by Historic Royal Palaces as part of the project. The aim is to help communities across London grow a rich tapestry of colour and biodiversity this summer.

 

Bringing people and nature together

For many members, simply being a part of a vibrant, diverse network of people brings the community together. It’s as much a social club as it is a gardening group, and specialises in building confidence and sharing knowledge. The great thing about managing seven diverse gardens is the variety of skills to be learned.

Variety is a key way of getting the community children involved in the gardens too, who are encouraged to get stuck in. Watering, creating bug hotels and planting flowers for pollinators are particular hits. Come Halloween, the Botanical Woodland Glade at Vaughan Way is lavishly decorated by John, for local families to enjoy. Two neighbourhood nurseries also often pop round to the allotments so the children can discover new plants and meet the wildlife.

“Since the lockdown, we’ve met a lot more local people, as they’ve been working from home.” explains James, “We’ve found more families are heading out for a walk together, and discover this lovely area in the heart of the city.” These chance encounters are a great way for the group to encourage people to join the E1CG team. For the founding members, the level of interest in gardening in London has been a delightful surprise, and is proof that community gardening groups such as this are so important, for people and nature.

Discover more inspirational community gardening stories, and share your own wild community tales with us, by joining the vibrant Nature on Your Doorstep Facebook group!