Tayshan Hayden-Smith lives across the road from Grenfell Tower, and lost friends and neighbours when it was ravaged by fire in 2017.
In the wake of the tragedy, he felt he had to do something to help his community, and set out to create beautiful spaces to reconnect people with nature – and with each other.
“It was initially a response by me, my family and other community members responding to the tragic events of the Grenfell Tower fire, turning to nature and doing ‘guerrilla’ gardening (reclaiming space without asking permissions from the landowner), taking back spaces in the community and turning them into spaces which reflect beauty and how amazing our community is,” Hayden-Smith explains.
While owners reclaimed some derelict space, it gave local authorities something to think about, he recalls. And when he realised what a difference a pretty outdoor space can make, Hayden-Smith founded Grow2Know (grow2know.org.uk) in 2019, a social enterprise that showcases the power gardening has to heal and unify.
The 25-year-old – whose father is Jamaican-Italian and mother is Egyptian-Kuwaiti – was born and raised in Ladbroke Grove, in the shadow of Grenfell. A semi-professional footballer, he grew up playing football on the Astroturf pitches nearby.
He readily admits he stumbled into horticulture after the fire, before going to college for proper training. Along the way, he met experienced garden designer and fellow local Danny Clarke, whose has used his profile as The Black Gardener and appearances on TV shows like The Instant Gardener for public good. Clarke became a co-director of Grow2Know.
“At the beginning, I was freestyling,” Hayden-Smith admits. “I didn’t even know what the word horticulture meant. But I would go to local plant nurseries and garden centres saying we wanted to beautify a space for the community to enjoy, and people were willing to support with free plants, tools and resources we could then use in the garden.”
From small seeds, the enterprise grew – and he approached RHS Chelsea Flower Show organisers about creating a garden for the show two years ago. When the pandemic hit, some sponsors pulled out which freed up some space, he recalls. Clarke has helped him design his debut Chelsea show garden, Hands Off Mangrove By Grow2Know.
“Grenfell definitely opened my eyes to the historical and cultural importance of spaces in my community. It forced people to get to know one another and through that, learn inter-generational stories. A garden allowed those conversations to take place, to share our feelings, thoughts and ideas.”
The show garden unites two major issues: global deforestation and social injustice, inspired by the infamous story of the Mangrove Nine, a group of British black activists who were tried – and acquitted – of inciting a riot at a 1970 protest against the police targeting of The Mangrove, a Caribbean restaurant in Notting Hill. The restaurant was a meeting place for the West Indian community and radicals who were calling for change.
“Grenfell opened my eyes to the history, culture and journey of people that were before me, and we can really learn from understanding the past to appreciate the present and try to inspire a better future, which is why I wanted to honour the Mangrove Nine through the Chelsea garden,” says Hayden-Smith.
“It was a space where we could make a statement to confront not only the social injustices that the Mangrove Nine experienced, but also to raise awareness of the environmental challenges that we face and the deforestation of mangrove forests globally.”
At the centre of the garden sits a 4m-tall deforested mangrove sculpture, with nine deliberately bare roots, each honouring a Mangrove Nine defendant and symbolising a stark reminder of the impact humans are having on the planet’s most important ecosystems.
The planting – all selected to thrive in the inner city – features trees including Salix Alba, while shrubs including Fatsia japonica, yuccas, Tetrapanax papyrifer Rex and myrtus, as well as ferns and grasses, peppered with the purples of Verbena x baileyana, rich salvias and Ajuga reptans Catlin’s Giant, among others. The garden will also feature edible plants – beetroot, peppers, rocket and tomatoes – providing a means of growing fresh produce.
When the show is over, the garden will be relocated to its true home in the North Kensington community, although the exact location has not yet been decided. And Hayden-Smith stresses that people don’t have to know anything about gardening to get involved in community gardening.
“I’m no Monty Don, I’m still learning. But in the horticultural world, there’s a perception that you need to know everything before you get involved. By pulling down that barrier, I’m hoping people will be able to get stuck in, make mistakes and learn along the way.”
He’s dipped his toes in the world of TV, with appearances on BBC 2’s Your Garden Made Perfect. How does he feel that what might be deemed a rather politically-motivated garden will be received by Chelsea visitors?
“I have two young children and I feel like I would be doing them an injustice if it wasn’t something we were fighting to improve, especially for future generations,” he says.
He will not forget those terrible days after Grenfell, or the response he witnessed from the community for his horticultural efforts.
“It gave people something to smile about and a feeling of hope. I remember gardening in those spaces, and whether it was just giving a flower to someone walking past, or having a conversation, it was the garden and that universal language of nature that allowed people to express themselves in a way that they otherwise might not have felt comfortable doing,” says Hayden-Smith.
“Gardening saved me at that time in my life, and I hope it will do the same for others.”
The RHS Chelsea Flower Show takes place on May 24-28. Visit rhs.org.uk