Ladbroke Grove might not have been the greenest place to grow up, but Tayshan Hayden-Smith’s mother made sure that amidst the football training and matches, and dreams of playing professionally, her son understood the importance of pausing to take in the sunset. Despite living in the heart of London, his mother had a deep appreciation of the natural world and she taught him and his siblings about the beauty of unfurling leaves, morning birdsong and humming bees. He didn’t know it then but this love for the outdoors - for growing plants and watching creatures, for old trees and big skies - would come to shape the path his life would take after the area he was raised in changed forever.
In 2017, Tayshan was living in Austria and doing the thing he was most passionate about - playing for a professional football team. One June evening, his phone started beeping and buzzing with panicked messages from friends and family at home. Grenfell Tower, the block of flats that overlooked the home he grew up in, was on fire. As soon as he could, he flew back home.
Tayshan returned to find a burnt-out tower looming over his distraught community. Anger, confusion and a deep grief swirled around the neighbourhood as people tried to find their loved ones and make sense of what had happened. Feeling unsure of what to do, he found himself heading to where people were gathering under the Westway bypass. His community were coming together to talk and seek solace, play music and write messages on walls as they collectively raged and mourned for those who’d been left without a home, for those they knew had perished and for those they could not find.
During this time, Tayshan spotted a neglected raised bed made of brick and instinctively started tidying it, clearing away the dead plants and detritus. Wielding tools he’d never used before, he created a blank canvas that was swiftly populated with donated plants gathered from nearby garden centres and planted by the members of the community who felt called to be part of the garden that was emerging. There was no design, not even a plan, just an impulse to create a space of peace and healing for a neighbourhood of people brought closer together by tragedy. They named their sanctuary garden the ‘Grenfell Garden of Peace’ and it blossomed into a space where all were welcome to lend a hand or just be.
Horrified after watching Grenfell Tower burning on the television, garden designer and TV presenter Danny Clarke felt called to offer support to the local community and so, reached out to the borough of Kensington and Chelsea. Much like Tayshan, Danny grew up with a deep love of the natural world - climbing trees, building dens and adventuring in the woods as a child - yet, similarly, had an entirely different career before discovering horticulture. Through being tasked with taking care of a garden that belonged to a woman named Jo, Danny learned how to tend to the garden’s plants and the soil they grew in. While Jo taught Danny what it took to be a dedicated horticulturist, it was her profound appreciation for nature’s wonder - down to the perfection of a dewdrop-covered spiderweb - that reminded Danny of this important part of himself. Another mother figure whose love of the earth was contagious and transformative, and who laid the foundations of the organisation that Danny would help to build one day.
Following many emails, Danny was put in touch with Tayshan - who he heard described as a young man who’d turned to guerrilla gardening in the aftermath of the fire - and soon became his horticultural mentor and firm friend. Supported by Danny’s experience, Tayshan began to learn more about the practice of gardening and went on to create five more gardens around his neighbourhood. But it took Tayshan leaving London - to play football for a team in Cyprus - to realise that the plants that he’d grown in the gardens he’d created were calling for him to come home. On his return, he met with Danny in a cafe with an idea and, that day, Grow to Know was born.
Three years on, Grow to Know is an organisation committed to encouraging people - especially children and those with limited access to green spaces - to cultivate a relationship with the natural world through the practice of horticulture. The many community-led gardens they’ve created on underused pieces of land throughout North Kensington are what this ethos looks like when put into practice. Fuelled by Danny and Tayshan’s shared passion for the outdoors and their infectious enthusiasm for using the practice of growing plants to bring people together, highlight injustice, tell important stories and imagine hopeful, joyful futures, they have already changed the horticultural sector for the better.
Grow to Know is turning into a movement. In 2022, they were invited to create their first show garden at the Chelsea Flower Show and, after watching BBC’s Small Axe, Steve McQueen’s retelling of the story of the Mangrove Nine - a group of nine Caribbean men and women who, after years of racist harassment for engaging in community activism, stood trial for inciting a riot then represented themselves in court and were acquitted - they set to design a garden that honoured this pivotal piece of history. The ‘Hands Off Mangrove’ garden was filled with a combination of ornamental and edible plants, set around a 4-metre-tall steel sculpture which represented the delicate and threatened ecosystem of the mangroves, and featured nine roots - each one put in place to honour the Black activists whose story the garden told. Most poignantly, the garden was designed to be relocated after Chelsea to a permanent location in North Kensington, providing a space where local people could congregate and share the stories and histories of their neighbourhood.
They took home a Silver Gilt Medal for their first Chelsea garden and then returned the following year with a garden called ‘Closing the Green Gap’, which - at 4.2 square metres - was the smallest garden that had ever been created for the flower show. Featuring a concrete block with a burst of wildflowers growing from it, their 2023 offering was designed to highlight the stark disparity in access to green spaces between the north of Kensington where Grenfell Tower is located and the far wealthier south of the borough, where life expectancy is a staggering nine years higher.
Their 2023 garden was small but it was mighty, and that would also be an accurate description of Grow to Know as an organisation that, while still somewhat fledgling, is having an outsized impact on the horticultural sector with both what they are creating and what those creations have to say. While they have an important message about how wealth, class, race and other social stratifications impact whether a person has access to green space and all the benefits that come with that, they are busily demonstrating what it looks like to address that inequitable landscape. They tell stories through their gardens that make the argument for embracing and uplifting the diversity within our population not as a cynical box-ticking exercise but because they genuinely believe, as nature demonstrates in its most vibrant and resilient of gardens, that diversity benefits every one of us.
Words by Claire Ratinon.
Photography by Serena Brown.