When wandering in New York I have always loved to peek in to the community gardens which are scattered across the city. Often with little more than a small sign on a metal gate to announce their existence, these tiny gardens sit between huge apartment blocks, bars, car parks and shops, providing a much needed flash of green and natural life in a large, man-made city. Sometimes they have children's play areas, or small ponds and fountains. Other times they are little more than brown dirt and some straggly flowers which look as if they probably planted themselves rather than had been dug in by some careful volunteer gardener. Blink and you may miss them as you walk right by on the pavement. (Or should that be "sidewalk"?)
Recently I was delighted to discover that this cooperative horticulture is going on here in London too. Groups of locals across the city give up their precious free time to dig, plant, water and mow. Using designated public spaces they transform unwanted and unused land into much needed and appreciated community facilities. In the summer, outside space is highly sought after by over-heating Londoners. Any space will do if it has sunshine, preferably some grass, and enough space to lie down and read the newspapers or have an impromptu picnic. Community gardens are the perfect place.
Last weekend as the sun drove everyone outdoors I discovered Culpeper Community Garden. Outside the gates an ice-cream van idled, its tinkly music providing the classic British summer soundtrack. Inside the garden, Islington residents were making the most of their green space. They picnic-ed and read papers on the grass. A crowd of small children squatted together, staring into the murky depths of a pond, wherein tadpoles made themselves scarce to avoid being poked at.
A gaggle of older kids draped themselves across a wooden bench, discussing proudly just how drunk they had been the night before. Hard at work amid the relaxing Londoners was a volunteer gardener, spraying the parched plants with a hose (and looking like he wouldn't mind spraying the uncouth, hungover teenagers as well). Perched on a low red-brick wall was a man having a screamingly-loud mobile phone conversation, whilst also managing to eat fish and chips. Beside a patch of mismatched tulips, under an old hat, with a discarded beer can by his side, snoozed an old tramp.
More than a place for frustrated Londoners without gardens of their own to exercise their horticultural skills, a community garden seems to be more like a village hall in the summertime. It is a meeting place, and a space for entertaining. It's a home for birds and small creatures, and a source of local food too. (There were some impressive fruit trees and vegetable beds marked out, although one row of lettuce looked as if it would feed more slugs than people.) The city should have more of these little green spaces. Despite the fact that they require a lot of work to keep them looking lovely, there is no doubt that they are far nicer than asphalt-floored play-grounds and wide grey concrete-filled yards. I know where I'd rather spend my sunny weekends...