Sunday, 21 July 2013

NEW LEAF: community gardening with young people

An inspired use for the strip of land by West Dulwich railway station.
a tangled bank Dulwich

New Leaf shop
the New Leaf shop - this is the hub of the project; it also sells second hand books.

The chunks of land by rail stations do not pass me by: I love to look at them. I enjoy being passively hidden behind the glass as the train glides into and out of the innumerable sweet towns of Somerset, Devon and Cornwall: the beige stone stations, with their green doors are adorned with ordered rectangles of pansies -  purple, red, yellow, orange – some striped with white; mid-height peach geraniums with their networking heads; and from the ceilings hang huge neat and blowsy balls of Spring-pink geraniums. It’s the care and effort that impresses me. I love that people would think it’s worth caring not just about the land they own, but would go out and tend to public spaces. Does the council employ a gardener? Or (I almost fizz with hope) does a group of people naturally spring up and organise itself to tend so lovingly and diligently to these sweet stations?

It’s just such a novelty for a Londoner. The predominant feature of the stations I pass through seems to be tarmac – and lot’s of it. A sweet bed of flowers (for I noticed one… was I speeding through West Ken? I don’t remember…) brightens my way, almost like an epiphany. Perhaps more petunias and pinks would make that journey to work more hopeful, more sunny. There is a long triangle of a bed in Gospel Oak. I watch a horde of patent hooves and pinstripe trousers trample across it to catch the Barking branch. I think really, the reason I neatly walk around it is as a respect for the effort; and a longing for more colour in the greys and muds of London.

Worse even than the tarmacked-over stations of central London, are those stations just outside of London – those stations where spending money is not seen as a priority by local councils. Where getting from the train to the road, requires scurrying down long corridors which cut through piles of discarded heroin needles, old mattresses, cigarettes, broken glass, rubble, graffiti. Long corridors that nice girls must walk through late at night, whilst they look ahead and affect bravery.

Such a place was West Dulwich train station - 2005, where Vinnie O'Connell - a botanist and gardener by trade - was doing a community litter pick in his spare time as part of his volunteering mentoring work for Southwark Youth offending service. As he picked cigarette stubs, coke cans, broken glass and heroin needles off the ground, an idea started to form in his mind - this long strip of disused land - he pondered - would be the ideal shape for a timeline to tell the evolutionary story of flowering plants. He pitched the idea to Lambeth council, and to Network Rail. Network Rail gave him a rolling lease on the land on either side of West Dulwich train station, for no charge. Vinnie then contacted Southwark Youth Offending Service and asked if he could have some of their young people so he could switch them onto the joy of nature and plants, and they said yes. And in 2006 The New Leaf Project began.

bat box
a bat box
It took the New Leaf project long enough to simply clear the rubbish away, and prepare the ground. And to be frank the whole project was beset with problems: - there was a protracted problem with putting-up the wire fence needed as a safety measure - during this time the young people were not allowed to work at the train station, and they did work in Bel Air park on other nature projects.

In fact it has taken 7 years for Vinnie's initial vision of the Phylogeny Strip (Timeline of Planting) to begin in earnest. The salient features of the phylogeny strip have already been given physical expression: - the ditch for the pond featuring basal monocolpates has been dug; there is already a Buddleja (trendy foreign import to native stock during 18thC). But it is more-or-less all to be planted.

Here is a film in which Vinnie O'Connell explains what New Leaf intends to do in the next 2 years:

 the Phylogeny strip (a timeline of planting)

(with thanks to Clapham Film Unit for loaning me a directional microphone)

Planting the Phylogeny Strip Garden (a timeline of planting)

The timeline will run from right to left (more-or-less - there is some curving). It starts to the left of the New Leaf shop hut (this used to be a newsagents - it is owned by Chandni - the family-run Indian restaurant next door - who rent it out to New Leaf for a peppercorn rent. Check out Chandni's Indian cuisine - it is awesome!).

New Leaf terrace
terrace built from logs - April 2013
diagram of planned scheme for New Leaf terrace
diagram of planned planting scheme for terrace

And the timeline of flowering plants starts in the already-dug ditch - which will be filled with water to become a pond to house the basal monocolpates. Vinnie explains to me that a colpate is a pollen grain: colpates are classified according to how many ridges they have: - hence a monocolpate has one ridge; a tricolpate has 3 ridges. The first flowering plants on earth were monocolpates. 
waterlily (nymphaeacae)
(You may have heard of basal
angiosperms - these are the same thing - but angiosperm is the old term - basal monocolpate is the new classification.) Basal monocolpates are called the ANITA group. ANITA is an acronym for: Amborella, Nymphaellis, Illicaceae, Trimeniaceae, Austrobaileya - and they are the forerunners of all flowering plants. They include the early nymphaeacae group (waterlilies). There will also be some acorus (this is a long leaved plant with spikes that flower on bracts)

As you can see in the photograph - a terrace has already been built out of recycled timber logs. This was done on a volunteering day on April 2013. 18 tonnes of soil was moved by a large party of people ranging in age from 5 years old to 75 yrs old. Gaps have been left in the timber - and these will be planted in. Vinnie envisages it as a big slumbering dinosaur - "a big flowery slumbering dinosaur" - he says. And this big slumbering dinosaur will double as habitat for miner bees and lace wings.

The 4-tier terrace will tell the story of the very first flowering plants (see diagram). Behind the pond full of basal monocolpates, there will be a clump of marginals. Marginals include spice plants - such as nutmeg. Then behind the marginals, there will be early Ranunculacae (buttercups).
magnolia - the first true terrestrial
Then up the slope towards the back there will be a magnolia tree. Magnolia was the first true terrestrial plant - it hasn't got its feet in water. Magnolia - Vinnie tells me - is a modified leaf, coloured-up. It used to be pollinated by beetles as this was before the time of bees.

Then the journey in time continues along the railway bank; running as I've already mentioned leftward. Important to the British habitat are foreign imports, brought back usually by explorers. There was Joseph Banks - who went with Cook to Australia. Once they had collected their species, Banks laid out the sails of his ship on what was to be named Botany Bay, after this very event. And first they fixed the sail. And then they laid the plants he had collected out on the sails to dry so they could be transported to Britain - and used for seed, and to be catalogued. The New Leaf garden will definitely feature the plant Banksia. There was another explorer - Ernest Wilson - known as 'Chinese Wilson' who brought back lots of plants. One of which is Wilsonia which will be grown. Of course the New Leaf garden already features a lovely
Buddleja daviddii
Buddleja davidii
Buddleja davidii. Buddleja davidii grows in the mountains of China. When it first came here to Britain it was so sought after that people would give a years wages for one plant. It has become a native - and is a tough invasive plant which grows by railway sidings. It is named after Adam Buddle (17thC Cleric and botanist) and Per Armand David (Basque missionary and explorer in China): it is one of the only plants named after 2 botanists.

Folklore and Medicine
The New Leaf garden also will reference medieval folklore: it already features a lovely peony. And lore had it that if you pulled up the roots it would screech so loudly it would deafen you. People used to loosen the roots and tie their dog's chain to the root of the peony, go down the road, put their fingers in their ears and call their dogs. The root was then used in medicine. Indeed the peony is still used in medicine all over the world.

Dandelion (taraxacum officinalis) has the country name 'wet-the-bed' because it weakens the walls of the bladder. I ask Vinnie - but was it used in medicine? It must have been he responds because it has the epithet "officinalis". If something has the epithet "officinalis" it means it was included in the Office of Apothecary, and therefore it would have been used in medicine.

The country name for comfrey is knitbone as it speeds the healing process. It is indeed still used in medicine to heal bones.

Poppy (papaver somniferum) contains morphine for pain relief - it is very valuable.

Chinchona is known as 'Jesuits bark'. This bark is an astringent and is used as a cure for malaria.

The Doctrine of Signatures
The Doctrine of Signatures stated that if a plant looked like a part of your body then it would cure that part of your body: this was a cute whimsy which killed thousands of people.

Walnuts look like the brain - therefore they must be good for the brain - this was harmless - walnuts contain Omega-3 which are good for tissue function.

Digitalis purpurea look like fingers so would cure problems with fingers - actually it gave you a heart attack and you would die.

Taxus baccata

The needles of the yew tree (Taxus baccata) were used to cure pins and needles: The first sign of poisoning from yew tree needles is sudden death.

fly agaric - so-called as it is
used to make fly paper

The toadstool - fly agaric (the one you see in children's fairtytales) was thought be like the buboes which erupt on the face during scarlet fever - thus it was ingested by sufferers. It didn't cure them. Actually it was quite poisonous and could kill you depending on your personal strength. Let's just say it wasn't the best thing to ingest when you were already in a weakened state.

The New Leaf garden will reference books - common, popular, and literary. Clearly the most important book of our time is the Harry Potter series: and the teacher in Harry Potter refers to beech, betony, blackthorn, borage.... to name a few. And Vinnie will have them all. "Did you know?" Vinnie asks me "that in Asterix, the Obelisk is dropped into a potion made from mistletoe, and that mistletoe was picked under the silver light of full moon by a Druid with a golden sickle." "I did not," I respond. And Shakespeare is not neglected. For when Juliet said "give me not to drink the mandagora" - she was referring to the Mandrake which indeed does have soporific powers, and is indeed earmarked for our garden. When the witches in Macbeth talk about 'eye of newt' - they are not referring to an actual newt's eye - they are referring to a plant. The so-called witches would have been healers and botanists, and Newt's Eye was a common name for a magical/medicinal plant; some modern botanists speculate that they are referring to mustard seed (with its yellow beadiness).

Everyday Plants of Britain now
At the end of the strip will be a woody herbaceous border full of cottage garden plants: Spirea, dahlias, foxgloves, roses, true geraniums (Vinnie explains to me that 'granny' geraniums are no longer called geraniums any more - they have been re-classified as pelargoniums.)

true geranium

What about wild plants I ask? Well all along the railings will run wildflowers. We already have some buttercups, and some old man's beard - he takes me to show me.
common blue buttercup

clematis vitalbis
clematis vitalbis
He gestures to some beautiful wild blue buttercups; and then picks a leaf of Clematis vitalbis and strokes the fronds. Clematis vitalba he tells me is a very vigorous plant - it grows everywhere - hedges, waste spaces. And it is also called 'Old man's beard', also 'Travellers joy' - this is because it grows near to habitation, so when you are walking through the woods and you see it, it tells you you are near home.

This is what I love about the New Leaf Garden: it is not about exotic plants, it is not a hothouse full of orchids, this is not Kew with its dome of palm trees, or the Eden project with its sub-tropical dome about maize-farming in Africa - as wonderful, educational, and delightful as those places are. 

This is a garden about how fascinating the native plants we see everyday are. This is a garden which makes you look more closely at the wildlife you see around you as you rush to work with your Starbucks in your hand - and the more you learn about the nettles, the green alkanet, the beetles that creep about us everyday... the more you see how absolutely fascinating the environment of Britain is. Vinnie - ever the charismatic visionary - tells me that he sees the New Leaf garden as a teaching tool on a par with the Eden Project. He wants to teach people - young, old, medium-aged and just off the train from work - about the wonders of the nature all around us. And frankly so infectious is his enthusiasm; so full of energy and positivity and determination is his chatter - that he could be telling me about how he brews his tea, and I'd listen.

New Leaf is a Youth Project firmly inlvolved in the community
Many environmental projects attract the older generation - and that's great. But New Leaf is a youth project. You only need a quick glance at the breakdown of New Leaf's Facebook stats - 70% of the likes are from the under 30 - this is virtually unheard of in the world of environmental conservation.

New Leaf's appeal to youth springs largely from the fact that it is engaged with the local youth community. For the first six years the work in the garden has been done by youths doing their community service. Vinnie used to do this on his week-ends: one group on Saturdays and another on Sundays. They worked in the garden doing whatever needs to be doing - be that moving soil, building structures, planting things, or even researching plants for the garden, helping with the plans, or even with the accounts. The young people were directly involved with the garden, they learnt things from Vinnie who acted as a mentor. They came referred from Southwark council on a short-term rehabilitation basis. New Leaf had the links to be able to refer them on to whatever other services they may need.

New Leaf has already had many success stories: Many youths enjoy the work they do here, and go on to gain qualifications in horticulture. Several have become tree surgeons, some have gone on to become gardeners. Many go on to work in construction; and one has become an accountant. One has re-offended.

Yesterday when I was interviewing Vinnie O'Connell for this article, I met Ivon. Ivon used to work in the New Leaf garden. New Leaf referred Ivon to the Construction Youth Trust, where he is now studying for his open college network level 3 - which is the equivalent of an AS level. He will acquire his CSCS which is needed to go on a building site. When I met him Ivon seemed a cheery sort, well-adjusted, likeable - and it is testament to Vinnie's approach that his alumni pop in-and-out of the shop to visit him.

tree surgery
Here is Ivon up a tree

However in February 2013 New Leaf had a change in direction. They no longer work with people doing reparations. During the Summer of 2013 New Leaf ran a pilot scheme - running accredited training courses for young people who have an interest in pursuing a career in either horticulture or construction work. The aim is now to run accredited training courses for 16-25 yr-olds, hopefully offering BTEC and Level 2 Horticulture courses. Although the pilot scheme has only just been completed (New Leaf had their end-of-season party on 22nd August) - the feedback so far has been positive. 

Here is what Keelin (16) from Bermondsey had to say:
"I’m proud to be a part of new leaf it has been a great experience, and I believe it will help me with my future and to find work. I’ve had a great time working with new leaf as it is fun and a great place to learn new things. I hope to continue my work with new leaf. It is a great project and really helps us younger people to focus on the environment and our own futures."
And I believe her. Vinnie is a great guy - it is always fun down at the New Leaf garden - I sometimes go there just for succour - The New Leaf garden is already a hub in the Dulwich community - with old friends who come-and-go, do shifts in the shop, deposit their unwanted books for the shop to sell on, say "Hi" to Vinnie, and drink that famous New Leaf tea. 

go to the New Leaf website for more information, or follow on facebook 

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