From the shadow of Grenfell Tower to the Chelsea flower show … in just five years

The concrete space underneath the Westway, an elevated dual carriageway that cuts across the Victorian terraces of west London, is not a hospitable place for plants – nor for people, some would say. But it is nevertheless at the heart of the community that calls itself North Kensington. Between the Westway’s shadow and another dominant structure, the shrouded Grenfell Tower, sits a narrow slice of a garden.

Lanterns hang from a tree, halfway down a path of bark chips leading to a welcoming bench. With planting that is green and tall, the little haven is so immersing that even the loud hum of overhead traffic is easily forgotten. The community green space owes its existence to Tayshan Hayden-Smith, a 19-year-old at the time of the Grenfell fire, who in its aftermath was gripped by an impulse to start planting things. He found a piece of wasteland and with no prior experience began to explore the two-way nurturing process of gardening. A promising footballer of mixed race, he was acutely embarrassed at the idea of being seen with a plant; he would duck out of sight when friends went past. “I felt so at home in the garden, but so out of place,” he says.

The Chelsea flower show, which opens its gates to the public on Tuesday, is in the same royal borough as Grenfell Tower, but the week-long event has previously had little impact on Hayden-Smith’s neighbourhood. Now, just five years after he first picked up a spade, Hayden-Smith will showcase his work at the show for the first time. The Hands off Mangrove by Grow2Know garden features a 4-metre high installation that pays tribute to the Mangrove Nine, who stood up to racial injustice in the 1970s, and also promotes the idea of ecological and social coexistence.

Hayden-Smith is not the only presence at Chelsea this year to be given an opportunity that might not otherwise have been afforded to them. A new grant-giving organisation that supports gardens for good causes, Project Giving Back (PGB), has taken the financial pressure off 12 entries, with a strong showing from mental health charities.

Alan Titchmarsh with Danny Clarke
Danny Clarke, known as the Black Gardener, presenting a television show with Alan Titchmarsh last year. Photograph: ITV/Shutterstock

With Danny Clarke (AKA the Black Gardener), TV presenter and co-director of their not-for-profit company Grow2Know, Hayden-Smith found a friendly gatekeeper in Project Giving Back. Now half of the PGB-sponsored gardens, including Hands Off Mangrove, will showcase the talents of designers at Chelsea for the first time.

Through his original community garden, Hayden-Smith was able to see that perceptions of horticulture were more offputting to people than the physical act of gardening. “Being in among nature has an impact on you and your mental health. It’s putting your hands in the soil and engaging with the greenery,” he says. His family helped in the garden, followed by many more people he didn’t know. While working together, strangers felt comfortable sharing confidences: “It alleviated a lot of pressure, and trauma and stress.” But when he first set his sights on the world’s most famous flower show he was met with incredulity in his circle. “People said, what business is it of yours, going to the Chelsea flower show?” he recalls. “But we need to ask ourselves, why aren’t we involved in this; why do we feel a certain way about it, and why isn’t there a wider and younger demographic involved in gardening?”

Other PGB gardens include one by the Wilderness Foundation UK, a charity that aims to preserve wild spaces while improving the lives of young people. The charity was approached by Charlie Hawkes, a gardener whose who has worked with the best, including Tom Stuart-Smith, Dan Pearson, and Fergus Garrett of Great Dixter. His design research involved immersing himself in the charity’s mission, trekking, camping, and engaging with the youth programme, all the while concocting an esoteric plant list.

At the St Mungo’s homeless charity’s Putting Down Roots, on the show’s Main Avenue, first-time Chelsea designers Darryl Moore and Adolfo Harrison of Cityscapes will be using a large number of plants grown by their clients.

“Homelessness is something that we avert our eyes from as a society,” says the CEO of Project Giving Back, Hattie Ghaui. “I think there’s something quite symbolic about this cause having a garden on Main Avenue, in this central position at Chelsea.”

PGB is intended as a facilitator of change, while supporting the RHS, which is also a charity.

Each garden will have an afterlife when it has done its job at the show; Hands Off Mangrove will take some of Chelsea to North Kensington, as a community garden near All Saints Road.

“We’ve got very passive in the way we engage with our natural surroundings,” says Hayden-Smith. “But there’s also a system that limits people from engaging with horticulture. Hopefully Grow2Know can look at collaborating with the RHS beyond Chelsea.”