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Opinion I Of pocket gardens and horticulture therapy

Community gardens have become popular in many countries. They are a sanctum for garden-lovers who enjoy connecting with each other and sharing tips

Mini plantations make for a beautiful visual, and are an unexpected sanctum for garden lovers.
Mini plantations make for a beautiful visual, and are an unexpected sanctum for garden lovers. (Geetika Jain)

Early one morning in May, my friend Bina Emily Murray and I walked on the path along the river Thames in Barnes, London. This is her neck of the woods, and the lawyer with a green thumb had us meander through little-used paths overgrown with wild cow-parsley, delicate as lace, till we arrived at the gated “allotments". This is where Bina has her own tennis-court sized mini farm amidst a patchwork-quilt of 70 others.  She truly relishes coming here once or twice a week, to sow, water, weed, prune and harvest basketfuls of strawberries, raspberries, tomatoes, olives, sweet corn, basil, thyme and colourful flowers. “It’s a wonderful feeling to see a seed grow into a plant," she said, handing me a flavourful strawberry, “and nothing compares to tasting my own organic produce".

Bina had applied for the allotment in 2005, and after a seven-year wait, she got her own key and plot to tend for the princely sum of £50 (around 4,800 now) a year. She can keep it till she no longer wants it, or cannot look after it. The plots do come with rules which must be observed—one cannot, for instance, build on them or stay overnight, they must be weeded and watered regularly, and the planting is not for commercial use.

We walked around, exploring several well-tended gardens studded with glasshouses, mesh covers to keep slugs, millipedes and birds at bay, compost heaps and tiny green storage sheds. Bina showed me how companion plants help each other by giving shade, a chance to climb, or by attracting beneficial pollinators. Marigolds, for instance, repel whiteflies from tomatoes and lure aphids away from beans. I learnt that low-hung strawberries get their name from the bed of straw provided to keep them from touching the ground and getting mouldy.

The mini plantations make for a beautiful visual; an emerald, low-slung, fruiting and flowering oasis in the heart of a neighbourhood. They are an unexpected sanctum for garden-lovers who enjoy connecting with each other and sharing tips, water taps and tulips.

In 1918, a million such plots were allocated in the UK. Over time, many have been given over to housing projects and other developments—but 30,000 of them remain, enjoyed by the lucky few who have won the plottery.

Bina, half-Indian and half-German, first became aware of the concept of Kleingartens (little gardens) as a young girl, when she saw them down the road from her grandfather’s farm in Germany. Originally a post-Industrial Revolution concept, they gained impetus after the death in 1861 of child psychologist Moritz Schreber, who strongly advocated the use of these green spaces for the well-being of children growing up in small apartments, as a means to getting fresh air, exercise and meeting friends. Also called Schrebergarten, they remain an integral part of Germanic identity.

Taking on the responsibility of a garden also means putting down roots. They are a natural venue for barbecue parties aflow with beer and music. Many others enjoy sunbathing, relaxing and perhaps taking a nap in the fragrance of gardenia and jasmine, with the gentle hum of bees in the background.

To my great delight, I discovered a charming allotment with a hidden bench smothered by mint, borage, fig and apple trees close to me in Kensington Gardens, behind the Serpentine Sackler Gallery, and although I had walked past it innumerable times, I hadn’t noticed it till I searched online for one nearby. It was open to people to explore, enjoy, have a coffee on the bench and participate in the planting if they wanted to.

People have been growing plants since 9000 BC, and it has seeped into our blood memory. We have a soul-connection to the earth. In her book The Well Gardened Mind, Sue Stuart-Smith, a British psychotherapist, writes about the calming and cathartic effect of gardening, and the therapeutic effect of contact with the soil. This has been used successfully to renew and rewire the thought processes of criminals in prisons such as Rikers Island in New York.

Community gardens have become popular across the US, Canada, Australia, Japan, Spain, Mali and many other nations. Town planners would do well to make allowances for them wherever possible.

The great covid pause has nudged us towards self-reliance and city folk across the planet have taken to growing “pocket gardens" on the terraces and balconies of their homes. Potted plants have sprung up on ledges and work desks.

Starting with the encouraging “light touch" varieties such as radishes and herbs, I too have been nurturing basil, thyme, coriander, tomatoes and chillies in pots. My kitchen counter has become the base for edible pansies, cornflowers and nasturtiums. I have no need for cut flowers any more; potted begonias and lavender placed in long straight rows have turned my dining table into a field. Even the bees have been fooled.

Geetika Jain writes about culture and experiences from around the world.

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