Our doorbell rings. It’s drizzling, the kind of fine mist that coats your hair with liquid cobwebs. I peer through the spy hole; I can’t see anyone outside but when I open the door there’s a jam jar sitting on the steps. It’s full of sweet peas, hovering above the water like a handful of purple butterflies. I pick them up and take them in, text my mother-in-law to say thank you for this silent gift from her garden.
In partnership with the Garden Museum, Rough Trade Books has published four pamphlets this summer celebrating open spaces, community gardens, and the history of plants. It is a joyful series, focusing on the importance of respecting nature, understanding history, and decolonising gardening. As Susanna Grant writes in From Gardens Where We Feel Secure: “Community gardens have their origins in rebellion — in reclaiming green space for communal use… Arguably the first guerrilla gardeners were the Diggers, small groups of men and women who planted up patches of wasteland in the 16th century with the intention of growing food for their communities.”
During lockdown, open spaces have become all the more important: a space for breathing, which we explored last summer for TOAST Book Club with Jini Reddy’s wonderful book Wanderland. This past year, my husband and I have been tiptoeing through the field at the end of our road and peering through the gates at the allotments, before slipping into the ancient woodland beyond. Growing up in the northeast of England, I remember my granddad’s passion for his allotment, how he and his friends would grow different vegetables then swap them, bringing huge white onions home, hanging from his shoulders like a necklace. My granddad would also take me to the local park and convince me that my favourite characters from books were hiding up in the sycamores. We would call to them gleefully, keeping an eye on the speckled shadows. This spring, walking through our local wood, my husband and I found a fairy washing line someone had made between two branches, lined with handmade clothes. Later that week, I cut my own miniature dresses, dungarees and shirts from old headscarves and added a second washing line between the trees, delighted to find that others had added fairy doors to the base of an oak tree, and someone else had left a tiny bell. I imagined all the children filtering through the forest, gaping at these hand-me-down spells. After all, when the world is falling apart, we’ve got to make our own magic.
In Enjoying Wild Herbs, Nat Mady shares snippets from The Herb Map, a physical collection of personal memories, recipes and stories relating to herbs from all over the world. She’s collected these through Hackney Herbal, a project she set up in 2015 to help connect people to the herbs all around us. She discusses foraging, and how to do so whilst being mindful. How foraging is as much a pastime as it is a radical form of self-reliance. Earlier this year, I watched a video by the artist Holly Exley who was making “flower bombs”: wildflower seed balls that you can throw into open spaces to encourage growth; and she also showed how to pick wild garlic, which I later tried, making a pesto. The taste reminded me of the first time I had mint tea made from mint leaves, not a teabag. Something that should (probably) be obvious to us but is often forgotten along the way. Like Holly’s flower bombs, the Rough Trade pamphlets all come with sow cards: some containing herbs, some wildflower seeds declaring boldly “plant it and it grows!”.
The pamphlets Horticultural Appropriation and Zakiya McKenzie's Testimonies on the History of Jamaica discuss the erasure of indigenous communities’ knowledge of plants, and the history of how and why certain plants have travelled around the world. As Claire Ratinon states: “How do we think breadfruit and manioc that fed enslaved people were moved from one country to another?” arguing that “agriculture and horticulture are fertile grounds for deconstructing the coloniality that is foundational to their practices, plants and mindsets.” This is part of a conversation with Sam Ayre, an important look at reconsidering history, to shed light, acknowledge and drive change.
These four pamphlets are must-reads for those of us wanting to think more critically, and passionately, about how we maintain and share this earth of ours. Rough Trade Books are also giving away a set of these pamphlets to one of you. Please leave a comment below sharing your memories of herbs, plants or open spaces for the chance to win.
Article written by author Jen Campbell whose latest book is The Sister Who Ate Her Brothers.
Shop the Rough Trade x Garden Museum pamphlets through their website.
Images courtesy of Jen Campbell.