Gardens are very personal, an extension of how we see ourselves in the world. They can also be a strong reminder of what is excluded as much as what is included. In our first episode, presenter JC Niala asks: What does the garden reveal about the way we relate to the natural world and to each other? She explores ideas of belonging and colonial legacies, guerrilla gardening in response to a tragic event, and the link between an urban nature reserve and a GP’s surgery.
JC Niala (00:06): In times of crisis, I tend to turn to plants. It’s bizarre, because the thing is, plants could kill me. I have over 40 allergies and have been hospitalised numerous times. Still, I believe that nature never presents a problem without a cure. Kind of like how near a stinging nettle, you’ll nearly always find a dock leaf to soothe the sting.
So despite my allergies, I spend a lot of time outdoors. My name is JC Niala. I’m a writer, a poet and a keen grower. I’m currently carrying out doctoral research at the University of Oxford on our relationships to plants. And I am specifically interested in how our imaginations of nature affect how we treat it.
My discipline is anthropology, and we are concerned with what makes us human. One of the tools we use is what we call “thinking with”. We take anything that human beings interact with, and analyse that relationship to see what we learn. I think with plants. And in this series, I am exploring what the plant world can teach us about being human, taking as our jump-off point the current exhibition at Wellcome Collection, ‘Rooted Beings’.
Over the next five episodes we’ll journey through different landscapes to rethink our relationship with plants, asking: How does our relationship with plants affect our health? How does the circulation of edible plants knit us into a broader global picture? And how can rethinking our relationship to the vegetal world help halt the climate crisis?
We’ll move from the domestic to the wild – starting with the garden and ending in the wasteland. So let’s start close to home, with a landscape that we all have opinions about – the garden.
There are many definitions of the word ‘garden’, but one thing that they all have in common is that gardens are a planned space. You could say that gardens are a space where we begin our relationship with the plant world, and there’s this commonly held view that early in our history, gardens were about subsistence, or basically people growing food to feed themselves. That doesn’t tell the whole story.
On the African continent, in the ancient world, Egyptians grew a wide variety of flowers and planted trees and even had rectangular-shaped ponds with fish. As you’ve probably guessed, these early gardens were planned purely for pleasure – and they were mainly for the rich, who also often enclosed them with walls and trees. We still attempt to create this sense of privacy today with our own domestic gardens, but as the plants often remind us, it is impossible to keep the world out of any garden.
Where I am in Oxford, we have terrible mobile phone reception, so when I have to explain to people that it is because I live in a hole, they usually look at me sideways. Then they come to visit and they go, “Oh you do live in a hole.”
Our close was built in what used to be a quarry, and so people walking past the park and allotments nearby can see into parts of our garden. It doesn’t really bother me because I’ve never been convinced that gardens are totally private. If we think about the classic British front garden – now that’s never really been a private space.
It may sound extreme, but I have even met a lady who took out an antisocial behaviour order against her neighbours because of the height of the trees in their front garden. Gardens are hugely personal – they are an extension of how we see ourselves and how we are in the world.
Claire Ratinon (4:17): There are so many plants that are growing here of their own accord; they found their way into this space, and who am I to tell them they don’t belong here?
JC Niala (04:24): In this episode, we’re looking at the sorts of gardens that are often overlooked or rendered invisible, whether that’s food growers in the city or marginalised communities reclaiming green spaces.
Tayshan Hayden-Smith (04:36): I didn’t go into this politically kind of motivated at all, but I think guerrilla gardening is all about making a stand.
JC Niala (04:43): We are also examining the plants that we usually dismiss as weeds.
Michael Smythe (04:47): Ribwort plantain, it’s one of those plants that you pass constantly in a city as you walk around. It has so many remarkable properties.
Claire Ratinon (04:59): For me, coming to know the alchemy of growing plants has been nothing short of transformative.
JC Niala (05:05): Claire Ratinon is a writer and a grower of Mauritian heritage whose life radically changed course after an encounter on a rooftop in New York.
Claire Ratinon (05:17): We weren’t looking for it. We were on a walk, a friend and I, and just saw a sign for something that sounded implausible and we just thought, what could that possibly be? You know, went to this top of this very industrial building, and found, like, over an acre of vegetables growing, and it was the most amazing place. Finding that rooftop farm changed my life.
JC Niala (05:36): I met Claire online during the first lockdown, when she was writing her book, ‘Unearthed’. She’s the sort of person you can quickly get into a deep dive and passionate conversation with. Claire is a very successful food grower who has grown produce for the Ottolenghi restaurant, ROVI, and her focus is very much based on food.
Although I grow food, I also enjoy ornamentals. My love for ornamentals has seen me travel up and down the UK to look at stately gardens full of topiary, Capability Brown and Gertrude Jeykll designs. Because being in gardens already posed certain challenges to my health, I didn’t spend too much time thinking about the other ways in which gardens, and garden spaces in the UK, can be exclusive.
Claire Ratinon (06:23): When I look at a botanical garden, when I look at a formal manor-house garden, I see the manifestations of empire and of colonialism. And I see this kind of performance of those aesthetics created by someone who did not look like me, did not look like my family.
JC Niala (06:42): And it’s interesting that you talk about, you know, edible plants, and yet most of those are grown in rural areas. But you had this big moment in a city. Could you describe what that’s about?
Claire Ratinon (06:58): I would say that I actually felt very alienated from the rural landscape or from the countryside. It felt very much like a space that was preserved for, you know, the white population of this country. And so I don’t know whether it would have found it quite as affecting if I had seen these edible plants in what I had assumed was the normal place for them to be growing, but it was seeing them in the city in this radical way, growing in this unexpected place that was so captivating.
JC Niala (07:26): I love the way that plants always call attention to something. Gardens, because they are planned spaces, are a strong reminder of what is included and what is excluded.
Claire Ratinon (07:37): The way that I understand myself as a grower is somebody who is in a relationship with this land, as opposed to one who is trying to dominate and coerce.
JC Niala (07:48): Both Claire and I have our roots in the African continent. Our African heritage means that we have a sensitivity to the idea that you can’t just enforce your will, your plans on nature, without considering what the consequences might be for nature and other human beings. All of this affects the way we grow.
For me, it means that I support wildlife in my garden and so I was really interested when Claire mentioned that she is happy for her gardens to be ‘unruly’. It was unruly people on the African continent, after all, that led to their countries attaining independence.
Just wanted to pick up on something you said. You arrived in this garden and you said it was unruly and there were plants that hadn’t been cared for in the way that you might have cared for them. I just think it’s very interesting, this idea of unruly or wildness, and then the idea of domestication as care. And the care that is required for domestication. I was wondering might you like to speak on that at all?
Claire Ratinon (08:50): The way that I garden is an embrace of the so-called wildness. I’m not somebody who will eject a plant based on some arbitrary belief around whether it does or doesn’t belong, whether it has value or whether I even like its aesthetics. I’m just – I think there’s much more interesting ways to garden if you are trying to participate in being part of a thriving ecosystem, as opposed to somebody who is trying to impose their aesthetics or their narratives on the earth that they steward.
There’s so many plants that are growing here of their own accord; they found their way into this space, and who am I to tell them they don’t belong here, you know? I try to be as non-interventionist as I possibly can.
JC Niala (09:37): This is what brings me great joy when I carry out my research: I get to hear people talk about what they grow. When I ask people why they grow particular plants, the answer is almost nearly always, “Because I love it.” This love between people and plants has a long history. Gardens and love feature in many stories and traditions from all around the world. From the Garden of Eden in the Christian tradition to the gardens of paradise in Islam.
Research has shown that having access to outdoor space and being in nature improves our health and wellbeing. Yet there are many people in cities who live in flats and don’t have gardens. This is even worse for people who live in financially poorer areas, which tend to have fewer parks and less green spaces.
Michael Smythe (10:28): This site is small, but it is tenacious and is resilient. And there’s a lot of things that mirror the human populations that live around here.
JC Niala (10:38): Michael Smythe is an artist who co-founded the Bethnal Green Nature Reserve in an old bomb site in east London. He is aware that it’s impossible to care for something without forming a relationship with it.
Michael Smythe (10:49): Often in cities, a lot of us can disassociate from the landscape for various reasons, be it socioeconomic, cultural, be it we’re overstretched. But once you start connecting with a piece of land, you start seeing how it changes over time, you start building a closer relationship with it. I feel like it can help you address a lot of things that feel impossible to even begin to take on, such as climate change.
JC Niala (11:15): Michael set up the Phytology medicine garden in the reserve in 2014 with the aim of providing free medicine for the local community, sourced primarily from the plants in the garden.
Michael Smythe (11:26): We worked with Kew Gardens to develop a seeding programme of 30 or so species that were common to the streets of London for, let’s say, a thousand years as a baseline. We wanted things that were embedded within folklore within this part of the world, things that were adapted to urban environments, things that will grow up from the cracks, and things that had ongoing, peer-reviewed, proven medicinal value.
JC Niala (11:52): I partly grew up in West Africa, and it reminds me of what the Yoruba deity Osanyin taught all other gods and also human beings. Osanyin has one leg and one arm missing and he’s also blind in one eye. As the story goes, when his brother told him to weed the garden, he said he couldn’t do it because every plant has a use. So what I like about the medicinal garden that Michael has set up is that it uses almost entirely what we would consider weeds to create medicines on site.
Michael Smythe (12:26): Looking into the garden now, we’ve got a combination of plants that we use quite regularly. Ribwort plantain, which is like a common street grass. It has these ribbed leaves, and they’ve got this lovely little rosette of yellow flowers at the top. It’s one of those plants that you pass constantly in a city as you walk around. It has so many remarkable properties. But two of the things we are drawn to is its hydration qualities, and it also has an antimicrobial property, so it’s a natural antibiotic.
Michael Smythe (13:01): We’ve also got a plant called yarrow, named after Achilles. Achillea millefolium is the Latin name and Achilles was dipped into a river full of yarrow and the only part that was covered was his heel. So they say, by using yarrow, you kind of build strength within you, and it has traditionally been used to pack wounds in the Second World War – if they didn’t have bandages, they would find yarrow and fill the wound with yarrow.
JC Niala (13:32): The garden was funded by the Wellcome Trust and they were very clear about making sure the science behind these remedies was robust.
Michael Smythe (13:39): That’s something the Wellcome Trust were very thorough about, making sure that everything we claimed was peer-reviewed through scientific research.
JC Niala (13:48): Michael uses these plants and works with the community to put together home-made remedies.
Michael Smythe (13:54): So one of the remedies we make from the garden is called Good Skin. It uses the plants that we grow here: yarrow, ribwort plantain, marshmallow and chamomile. It’s basically an all-round balm: you can apply it all over your body, on your face and your arms, in your hair, on your scalp.
JC Niala (14:12): So I thought I’d give this Good Skin a try, because I’ve had really bad eczema this year and my skin has been very dry and quite raw. I’ve got some here and I can smell the lavender; it smells lovely. What’s interesting is you don’t actually need a huge amount of it. I’m just going to rub it on my hands; let’s see how I get on with it.
JC Niala (14:34): It’s great to think that these remedies are being made available to people from all sorts of different backgrounds – and not just in expensive health-food shops. But if you’re not local to Michael, there’s all sorts of plants from your own garden that you might be able to use.
Michael Smythe (14:48): The best thing is to pour hot water over the herb. Let it sit for a few minutes to get the most out of the plant, not to boil it, so you don’t boil off all the nutrients. If you’re making nettle tea as well, it’s to be observant to the kind of – what looks like an oil slick at the top of the cup. And that’s actually histamine: that is really good for you to fight things like hay fever, for instance, or allergic reactions. It’s the histamine that will build your immune system. So it’s really important not to kind of think that’s something else and sort of syphon it out.
JC Niala (15:27): We often forget that many of the medications described by the World Health Organization as ‘basic’ or ‘essential’ actually have a plant origin. Take aspirin. It’s extracted from bark of a willow tree and as well as being a painkiller, can reduce the risk of heart attack. But gardens do not only grow physical health – they are probably better known for supporting mental health.
Claire Ratinon (15:53): I’m always sort of cautious when we have these conversations around mental health, but I can honestly say that as somebody who had experience of mental health challenges throughout my life, the presence of this work is something that has profoundly upheld my mental health in moments when it has faltered.
Wilma Bol (16:27): So, my name is Wilma Bol. I’m a social prescriber, but I call myself a wellbeing link worker. And I work in the Mission Practice, which is a GP surgery, literally two minutes’ walk away from here. Social prescribing is basically the idea that our health and wellbeing depends on more than what the clinical world can offer. Because clinicians realised that it’s quite limited, what they can offer.
JC Niala (16:55): So when patients come into the GP surgery with certain social or mental health needs, the doctor can connect them to local community services which could improve their wellbeing. The Bethnal Green Nature Reserve is one of the places that Wilma can suggest. We recorded this on a very stormy spring day at the reserve and, just to let you know, she briefly mentions suicide.
Wilma Bol (17:21): So for example, we see lots of people that are suicidal; maybe there’s a way we can focus on okay? Is there anything that would give you a little bit of a break from this, or gives your mind a bit of breathing space to then face the world again. So being in a green space can really connect them with a different senses, instead of the brain going into overdrive.
JC Niala (17:42): Gardens also offer something that GPs are short on: time. The NHS rolled out social prescribing in 2019 and although measuring the impact is a challenge, there has been a noticeable effect in some areas.
Wilma Bol (17:21): Yes, there has been evidence that people have less appointments with the GP, less turning up to A & E, but also improves health and wellbeing, self-esteem, people feeling less lonely etc, there’s definitely evidence for it.
I hear people’s stories, and I hear, obviously, not every case is a success, but how grateful people are for just having a person in a GP surgery that has a bit more time to listen to you. That’s not a professional, but just a human being that will ask you what’s important to you? And how can we help you with your health and wellbeing a little bit – it’s so powerful.
Michael Smythe (18:40): I feel like it’s kind of a radical space, as these kinds of spaces are, they’re political spaces. This is critical infrastructure like schools and hospitals and we anecdotally know the benefit of these spaces and we know that they do bring us a lot. But often, especially in cities like London, it’s really hard to sort of advocate for these kinds of environments to be mandatory.
JC Niala (19:10): I think health is much more than an illness to be fixed. Health is also about how we integrate the experiences that we have had, in a way that we can live with them. Social prescribing isn’t a cure-all for severe mental health issues but is a step forward in recognising the health benefits of having access to urban gardens.
JC Niala (19:36): We tend to think of cities as places where people are dominant and nature is squeezed out, but that’s not that simple. All over the world, I’ve seen people growing in unexpected places. Security guards in Nairobi growing on little patches of soil, just outside their posts, spinach and kale. And in the UK since the 17th century there have been people doing the same. Finding places in cities where they can grow food.
It’s pretty radical. In the middle of the 17th century, there was a group called the Diggers, who had a really charismatic leader called Gerrard Winstanley, and he led a group of people to grow food on common land in Surrey. He was fed up with high food prices and how, very much like today, only a relatively small number of people owned most of the land in the UK. If he was practising today, we would call him a guerrilla gardener. One thing that all of the guerrilla gardeners have in common is that they use plants to protest.
Tayshan Hayden-Smith (20:41): Guerrilla gardening was my way into gardening. I didn’t go into this politically kind of motivated at all; my knowledge of politics at the time just was non-existent. But I think guerrilla gardening is all about making a stand, and reclaiming and liberating spaces.
JC Niala (20:59): Tayshan Hayden-Smith is a guerrilla gardener from west London whose work draws attention to social justice.
Tayshan Hayden-Smith (21:03): As it stands, when you think of gardening, definitely in my eyes a few years ago, you think of old, white, middle-class people going into allotment spaces, unfortunately. Or you think of like these grand kind of gardens that are locked off and private, with these perfectly prim hedges and perfectly lawn mowed lawns. That’s just not my experience of gardening at all.
JC Niala (21:25): Tayshan was training to be a professional footballer and wasn’t involved in gardening at all, but that all changed in 2017.
Tayshan Hayden-Smith (21:32): When the Grenfell Tower fire happened. I was abroad at the time, and I booked a flight straightaway to come home and I came back to absolute chaos. People that I know were on missing posters, people that I know who were literally watching it all unfold. Family, people that were closest to me who have clearly been traumatised by what they saw, what they heard, what they witnessed and experienced on that night.
Of course, the fire was still going on to the next day. So by the time I’d come back, the fire wasn’t over, there were still firefighters flying in and out of the building, people that I knew just running around crying, clearly very pained by what happened, and I felt the same. And I think it was a few days after that night of the fire where the community started to come together. And in that, for some reason, gardening was what I turned to.
JC Niala (22:27): In the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire, Tayshan, along with other members of the community, would congregate in a little plot of scrubland under the motorway, just next door to where he used to train, to discuss what to do next.
Tayshan Hayden-Smith (22:42): It was under this space called Maxilla, so under the Westway. And so everyone would come together in this space. It was in this kind of barren, neglected bit of land. We took over that space, started to green up by going around to different garden centres and nurseries and just saying that we’re trying to build a garden in the community, have you got any plants left over that we could take? And often they’d say yes, and give us what they could.
JC Niala (23:08): Out of the rubble, Tayshan and other guerrilla gardeners transformed the patch into a green space, a place of sanctuary for those suffering trauma in the aftermath of the fire.
Tayshan Hayden-Smith (23:19): That’s what then made the Grenfell Garden of Peace at the time, which I know now is called the Hope Gardens.
JC Niala (23:26): Tayshan’s gardening career has blossomed from there – he founded his not-for-profit company Grow2Know in 2019, which continues the legacy of the guerrilla-gardening projects in a more formalised way. This year he was invited to design a garden for the Chelsea Flower Show.
Tayshan Hayden-Smith (23:43): I’m proud of what I do. And that wasn’t the case from the beginning. I was kind of embarrassed and ashamed and I think that’s very much to do with the perceptions of who a gardener typically has been, and the portrayal of horticulture in the industry in the past, but I’m here to change that.
Claire Ratinon (24:12): It’s so much more than just producing something. It’s culture, its heritage. There’s such an emotional journey that you can go on when you grow something that is important to you.
JC Niala (24:23): Gardens help us to feel like we belong somewhere. When people move to the UK from other parts of the world, growing food they grew up with allows them to keep in touch with their heritage, while at the same time making profound connections to their new home.
Claire Ratinon (24:40): One of the things that I really wanted to do with a garden of my own was to grow certain crops that would show my parents sort of how powerful this practice is. It was the first summer here that they started to grow, and I was able to grow Mauritian cucumbers for my dad for the first time, and it’s an amazing thing to be able to do, to give my parents something that makes them really understand why I’ve gone on this journey that they I think they find a bit perplexing.
JC Niala (25:07): Most people don’t think about it in their day-to-day lives, but a huge amount of the plants that grow in our gardens are originally from somewhere else. A couple of plants that we think of as quintessentially English actually come from other parts of the world. Dahlias come from Mexico and Central America, and apples come from Kazakhstan.
Claire Ratinon (25:27): There are so many dialogues, and so many narratives that are invisibilised in favour of the practice of creating beauty. What it doesn’t do is speak to the plants that are being used, how they found their way here. You know, we don’t want to talk about how our glorious manor-house gardens and our botanical gardens were complicit and part and parcel of the colonial project, enslavement and the trade of people, and the ways in which plants were weaponised as part of those exploitative extractive and grotesque systems.
JC Niala (26:01): Remember when I was talking about imaginations of nature? Well, the colonial project is a sobering example of what happens when groups of European peoples decide to try and shape the world to fit their imagination. With no consideration for peoples who lived with the plants that were being moved around the globe for economic gain, European colonial powers extracted vast numbers of species from their places of origin, to create gardens and farms in places routinely hundreds of miles away.
They imagined nature as something to be controlled and exploited, and it was not long before this exploitation was extended to people. And so many of what were termed “cash crops”, be they sugar, cotton or coffee, that we take for granted today, could not have been grown on a mass scale without the accompanying horrors of enslavement.
Claire Ratinon (26:53): I find it so important and captivating to look at the garden as a prism through which we can understand the ways in which colonialism shaped the society that we live in now. The plants that we grow, the plants that grow here of their own accord, also, were often brought here on the same ships that traversed the globe, either with enslaved peoples in their bowels, or exploring and mapping and then also, effectively, stealing.
And so the plants that we grow in our gardens didn’t just arrive here of their own accord, they were often brought here. A really good example of that is the Himalayan balsam, which is a beautiful plant, and it was it was introduced by someone who invariably would have been called a plant hunter.
JC Niala (27:38): So in Victorian times, plant hunters were people who travelled around the world and brought back beautiful plants for homes and gardens. The people and the plants in the places of origin had very little choice. And the Himalayan balsam which Claire just talked about – whose origins are in the name – is an attractive pink flower that’s shaped a bit like an old-school bonnet hat, or a trumpet. As the story goes, it then “escaped” – those are the exact words from the Royal Horticultural Society website – into the wild, where it became what they describe as “a cunning invader”. I think that is an astonishing description.
Claire Ratinon (28:17): So many of the plants that we grow came to this land this way. The rose for example, did not come here of its own accord, the hibiscus neither, but they’re beautiful and they behave and so they’re embraced and so their origins are often erased, they are just co-opted into the aesthetic practice of gardening. And yet, it’s when the so-called non-native plant becomes invasive, and then it becomes known as non-native, its non-nativeness is only ever articulated when it is perceived to be a problem.
The Himalayan balsam is a perfect example of that. It’s a beautiful plant that was introduced here in 1839. I think it was deep into the years of the colonial project of those years of empire. And now it’s considered invasive, you know, it grows prolifically. And so I find that the languaging that we use is also a kind of inheritance from that colonial system.
JC Niala (29:14): If you look at the sort of language used to describe plants like Himalayan balsam and Japanese knotweed, and compare it to the language used in British newspapers to describe migrants, it’s almost identical. Plants and people are intimately linked and the way that we treat plants in our garden often reflects the ways in which we treat people. These questions have only become more urgent.
Claire Ratinon (29:37): The ways in which colonial practices established the kind of environmental destruction that has led us to this point of climate crisis, they are not over. They’re not historical, they’re happening right now. So I think that the interrogation of those historical systems is something that is a necessary part of how we figure out collectively to move forward into a future that has planet that thrives. I think we should feel responsible for understanding how those plants got there. And what they represent.
JC Niala (30:09): So we’re in our gardens. We have this prism which you’ve beautifully opened to us. So in practice, what does that look like for Joe Bloggs wanting to engage with these histories, but then practising in their garden? What does that look like?
Claire Ratinon (30:26): At least for me, what decolonising the garden means is caring enough, or being inquisitive or curious enough about the forces that shaped the space in which we grow plants. I think for me, decolonising the garden is to care to have these conversations.
JC Niala (30:47): Conversations about plants can change how we see things. Knowledge about plants that we use to make medicines did not come out of thin air. People in the places the plants came from often knew what the plants could be used to treat, and had been doing so for years. By the time the medicine is sitting on the counter in the pharmacy, their story has also been erased.
JC Niala (31:23): We have seen how access to plants – whether through gardens or medicine derived from plants – is critical for our health. In the next episode we’ll be looking at farmlands and other conversations about plants that have changed lives. Farmlands are at the heart of our food supply chain, and yet we barely stop to think about them. They form the basis for our health by providing us with the nutrition we need. We’ll delve into this and the ways in which our health is directly linked to the health of farmlands.
JC Niala (32:01): Thanks to all our contributors: Claire Ratinon, Michael Smythe, Wilma Bol and Tayshan Hayden-Smith. If you’d like to dig deeper into the ideas we’ve covered here, go to the Wellcome Collection website, where you can also find a transcription of this episode. And if you’re in London, head to the ‘Rooted Beings’ exhibition, which is on until August 2022.
‘The Root of the Matter’ is a Reduced Listening production for Wellcome Collection. The producers are Alannah Chance and Mae-Li Evans. Our music and sound design is by Alice Boyd, and I’m JC Niala. Thanks for listening and see you next week.
Writer and grower Claire Ratinon explores colonial legacies in the garden through our use of language and readiness to embrace and celebrate some plants while excluding others.
We visit the Bethnal Green Nature Reserve, where artist and urban farmer Michael Smythe showcases the uses of common so-called weeds like ribwort plantain and yarrow in locally produced remedies. Wilma Bol, a social prescriber at a local GP surgery, highlights the relationship between this urban nature reserve and the local community when it comes to communal health.
The gardening activist Tayshan Hayden-Smith reflects on the image of horticulture today, and shares his introduction to guerrilla gardening in the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire.