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. 

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30 comments

I remember my grandma’s tulsi plant on her window sill, with the blinds turned slightly down and the sunlight filtering through on to the household shrine. Tulsi is a sacred plant for us and my grandma can be superstitious about the health of the tulsi being an omen – good or bad. Hers is usually thriving, thankfully.

Suraiya 2 months ago

I grew up in a chaotic childhood home in Blackpool. A home full of secrets, affairs, alcoholism, arguements, deception and emotional instability. I was a child that parented a parent. When not being verbally abused I was neglected so because I was a quiet child I’d take myself to Stanley Park alone with a note book and my dog to the rose gardens. I’d sit peacefully with the roses, writing poetry and day dreams, watching senior citizens play bowls across the carpet of green and children with families being treated to ice cream from the cafe. This green space gave me peace of mind and grew my sense of adventure. As an adult I love traveling, particularly to great green landscapes! I’ve seen the valleys of Nepal, the Sa Pa mountains of Vietnam, the Balinese volcano and it’s surrounding tropical plantlife, Cypriot rock plants watching the seas and more! I always come back to the rose gardens though, that memory is so soothing and so simple. Such a protective and healing space for a little girl.

Katie 2 months ago

‘Let’s go to the Island’, we’d say. A narrow strip of green, squashed behind the Safeway carpark and the brown suburban fences. Paper bags rustling from trolley to car. Giving us a window of time, the two of us, to explore the terrain. Weaving between trees, or saplings? How tall were we? Hand in hand, our familiar dances, up and down slopes, around fairy rings. Ready to go now? Hiding behind branches. See you soon Island….

Kate 2 months ago

I think I must be a wandering soul at heart, because wherever I am I am always longing to be on the horizon. I stare out the window, and I see just a patch of green between the buildings and that is where I long to be, and if I do make time to journey there, then that’s not enough and I just want to keep walking and disappear into the wild. If I had to pick one place, I would say the woods by the house I lived in for my teenage years. They are not beautiful in the colloquial sense – no artist would go there to paint the scenery. But they are beautiful in a rugged way. They are dark, and many of the trees are marked by lightning strikes or forest fires, and there is a lot of bracken and thorns and tangled vines everywhere. These old woods felt to me like they had had a long lifetime of hurt, but had endured and continued to endure, and now they were strong in a certain sense of the word. I would walk through these woods as a teenager, and feel inspired that I too could learn to be strong and to overcome. I would listen to Johnny Cash and Lady Gaga’s country album and Fleetwood Mac and I would think of better days. In a way, I did my growing up in those woods. Now I am older, and slightly stronger, though I still have some growing to do. I have moved away, and I have new woods to walk in. I think nature is the one thing that makes my life make sense. It is a constant that ties together all the selves I have been. Wherever I am and whoever I am at that time, nature is always with me, inside my heart and my head. Picking one memory is so difficult for me, and I suspect for others, because it feels like picking a memory of your liver, or a memory of your blood circulation.

Lauren 2 months ago

‘Do not cut me down, Filled with hunger, Filled with thirst, I watched you light and burn the earth, Do not cut me down,’ are the lyrics to the song ‘The Wishing Tree’ by Megan Dixon Hood. She sings from the perspective from the tree itself to simply ask not to be cut down. Listening to this song while walking through Ness Botanic Gardens in Liverpool, is a reminder that trees and all things green should be treasured and preserved. The gardens are absolutely stunning and a paradise of colour, wildlife, peace and beauty amongst the concrete metropolis we as humans have created around us. You can’t help but feel calm and removed from the daily worries of life whilst you are in the gardens and a few hours sitting under a willow tree or beside the allium borders, gives a feeling of presence. Gardens and green spaces like Ness are simply beautiful and everyone should have access to them.

Lauren 2 months ago

Last summer I helped a friend with her small bit of land in a community garden, which was some of the happiest moments of that summer. This year me and another friend share a plot in that garden, and we have just started to harvest cuumbers. I like meeting the other people there, helping each other out, and working with my hands in the dirt still makes me happy.

Åsa 2 months ago

I have one memory, so treasured, that I have dreamed about it many times. As a child we used to visit my grandaunt, whom we called Tía María. She lived in the countryside in a town so little that it had just one tiny road. To get to her house there was a vast extension of green grass, we used to call it, the green road. Far, far away there was a red metallic door, that was Tia María´s house. Once you went through the door there was a beautiful garden, with a big Pirul tree, which had a swing. It is believed that Pirul is a good fortune tree, so before anything, we all went around it, then took one branch and swept our bodies with its leafs. This recollection is engraved in my memory like an enchanted time. Nowadays all of it has disappeared. The city ate that beautiful space and transformed it in an awful neighborhood.

Amaranta 2 months ago

When I was a little girl, and used to have a family, my grandmother’s house had a garden. It was unkept at the back and sides and almost felt like a scary jungle of grass to the seven year old me. The front though was an altogether different universe. There was a huge mango tree that I often attempted to climb, because I wanted to be a boy and that’s what boys do. They climb trees. There was a litchi tree on the other side of the paved way which gree the sweetest juiciest litchis I ever had. My mom says they were only just okay. Every night we’d go up to the terrace post dinner, which we shared with a huge neem tree and some birds and a really scary cat. I remember hearing stories of a Brahmadaitya (an Indian saint-ghost who usually lives on neem trees). There was a tall weird tree that I only remember as lanky and starved beneath whom we buried a dog that I’d never met. I used to think if any tree was haunted, it should be this one. My grandmother had a habit of waiting for us sitting on the steps of the house at the other end of the main gate. I’ve countless memories of her sipping tea in the evening there but I can’t seem to remember her voice anymore. All I hear are birds, sparrows and pigeons mostly. Eery time I get the image of her saying something to me, I hear the birds. It’s a deafening uncomfortable noise. I’d rather hear her voice. I was barred from going to back with those tall grasses, apparently there were snakes. I never saw one. Last time I crossed that street the house was gone. So were the people I know. The burds were gone. So were our trees. Grasses were trimmed with cement. There’s a huge house now, the gate hid most of it. New boundaries. New plants perhaps. Maybe some sunflowers and hibiscus. Who knows. It’s not my house anymore.

Agni 2 months ago

I grew up in Cornwall, a slightly odd and lonely teenager. I now realise that one of things that saved my mental health was the daily long walk I would take with my dog. And the two plants that will always remind me of that time are gorse and wild garlic. The bright yellow, coconut scented, cheerful smell of summer, and the rain-fresh nodding wild garlic heads. When I moved to the city as a young adult I eventually learned – through its absence – the life-saving power of wandering free in wild places.

Emma 2 months ago

Sounds wonderful! I grew up in Istanbul in a fairly green neighbourhood, in Istanbul standards that is! There was a walnut tree growing across the window in my bedroom. I loved watching it grow and reach my window. I used to stare at it when I was feeling anxious or sad. There would be bird nests in the spring, crows would collect walnuts and dropped them from high sky to be able to eat it. I remember waking up to its leaves rustling. I felt like we grew up together. Unfortunately, the apartment block decided to cut it down two years ago, after I moved out. Apparently, the tree got too big, too free, reached too high. I can’t still help mourning after my tree, lived in a city like Istanbul for so long and gave comfort to I don’t know how many people like me.

Irmak 2 months ago

I was able to have a community garden plot when I lived in Chicago and it was my favorite way to spend summer mornings, watering my plants and talking to my neighbors about what they were growing. I’m glad to see my generation of millennials continuing to enjoy gardening like our grandparents and ancestors did.

Jocelyn 2 months ago

I’m really intrigued by these pamphlets, especially the one about Horticultural Appropriation. For work, this summer I helped setting up 3 community gardens in a disadvantaged area of my city, and it was really great to see all the kids involved in the process, planting seeds for the first time and getting all dirty and happy! And also how proud and happy people are of their beautiful plots! Gardening can really create communities! I tried to buy these pamphlet when I heard Jen talk about them for the first time, but it’s kind of complicated from Canada… it would be cool to win the set because it would give me the opportunity to access them and learn something new that I could then share with the people I work with!

Benedetta 2 months ago

i love this & have really increased my appreciation for gardens / greenery in recent years.i’m chronically ill so often feel its just so so hard to get outside but when i am outside [whether standing, sitting or lying] it always feels so good. i especially just love swimming & bodies of water & the sea, but i also love being surrounded by trees and putting my fingers in the dark moist earth & imagining i’m ingesting all the nutrients to feel energy and joy. I also think a lot about caring meaningfully & responsibility for the people on the land / for all of us & i always want to learn more about histories of resistance and colonisation with regard to land/ownership/care. <3

anna 2 months ago

I have so many lovely memories of green spaces, but this summer might be one of my favourites. We’ve built a beautiful, working greenhouse of our own all from scraps and dumpsterdived pieces, and it has been the first year of my life when we’ve also grown vegetables from seeds. It has been extremely rewarding to see the tiny green tomatoes and cucumbers starting to grow and bloom, and I also have learned a lot. Squatting abandoned or unused green spaces and turning them to blooming insect paradises or gardens of free communal edibles as a form of activism is something we are all very interested in in the future!

Noora 2 months ago

I recently got married to my partner of 12 years at bodnant gardens, a beautiful national Trust garden. It was a place we have visited for many years for a day out to enjoy the giant sequoia trees and formal rose gardens next to wild flower meadows and the spectacular laburnum arch. There are hidden nooks buzzing with wildlife and views of the Welsh hills steeped in mist. A special place we got to share with our closest family and friends.

Caroline 2 months ago

Love the idea of the seed cards. It reminds me of the agricultural club I joined when I was at primary school. I planted tomatoes in my tiny flat in Hong Kong. Now I moved to the UK and finally have a bigger flat to myself, I’d like to start a little garden on my balcony. The green space that I can think of is the wall garden we have at university. Back in Hong Kong, we have a hotel for us the hotel managent students, and there is a garden wall, very iconic and love that idea of bringing the green into a hotel. Very refreshing to look at. P.S. I’m a big fan of Jen! I spent so much time baking and watching her videos. Love her recommendations for books too! That’s how I discover Yoko Ogawa!!

Xenia 2 months ago

Growing up, I was blessed with abundance when it comes to gardens. My mother grew a garden every year, and still does to this day. We harvest our home-grown vegetables and herbs and use them in our cooking. My favorites, which have always been staples in my mother’s garden, are zucchini, crookneck squash, tomatoes, strawberries, and spearmint. Nothing tastes better than fresh veggies that you grew yourself. We are huge iced tea drinkers, and fresh spearmint leaves are the perfect embellishment to a glass of sun tea. I grew up helping tend to the garden, instilling in me a life-long love of plants. Also, my paternal grandmother was such a magical woman. Going to her house as a child was like stepping into a fairytale. Her yard was covered in green foliage, vegetable plants, and multitudes of different flowers. She often used old items as flower pots, like wheelbarrows, bathtubs, and rain boots. There was a hidden playhouse formed in the bushes, and she created many fairy gardens and bird baths. I spent many Easters there, basking in the wonder of springtime. In the fall, we picked carrots, potatoes, among others, to make a delicious stew. I never knew how wondrous her property was until it burnt down and my grandparents passed away. I have lots of fond childhood memories surrounding plants and gardening!

Celie 2 months ago

These sound so interesting. The slightest scent of mint is so evocative to me, it always puts me in mind of being very little, and holding my grandmothers hand while we walked through her very small concrete garden where she grew herbs.

Charlotte 2 months ago

Green space I never thought of before my son was born: playgrounds. Now that he is walking confidently at 17 months, the playground and the church grounds are where most of our day takes place. This is where he is discovering for the first time how nature is, how it feels to walk barefoot on the grass, how the little branches snap under your toes, how hot the stone can get if it’s in the sun. I love being there with him on the ground and discovering it all again for myself as well!

Krisztina 2 months ago

My best memory around nature is actually quite recently. Well, actually, it is not just one. It’s all the good moments I sat around in my garden during the Covid. I have never care too much about the green spaces around me, although I have had them around me all my life. I suppose I have taken them for granted. But one week after Covid hit pretty hard in Spain, I was diagnosed with cancer. So, I was extremely vulnerable to Covid. Well, I suppose I am still preety vulnerable, even if I am now fully recovered. But I have been 16 months at home, and my garden has becomed my sanctuary. Nothing flows in the “right” way, but my plants, my herbs and my little orchard, that grow no matter what. I can count on them to make my time fly away, since there is always something to do with my full attention. I even have a dance movement for every time a new flower or vegetable grows. It has becomed my best source of happiness, and more important, peace, in these strange times. I don’t think I’m going to take nature for granted from now on.

Miriam 2 months ago

Growing up in a city in a different country than England I always felt so far away from green, wild, rural spaces. Parks and an occasional trip to the mountains was the best I got for most of the time. Then, when I was about 11 or so, I spent almost two whole months of the summer living with an uncle and aunt who were teachers and helping me study for an upcoming exam and while they lived in the city for most of the year too, during the summer they retired to the most beautiful rustic cottage they owned in a teeny tiny rural village in the absolute middle of nowhere. Their cottage also had a huge garden and an orchard as well and I must have spent the entire time I was with them outdoors. I learned how vegetables look when they grow on a plant which I had never seen before outside of perhaps pictures and I went down to the bottom of the garden every single day to pick these huge bushes of berries even though I don’t like eating most types of berries and certainly never ate those. I got all mucky and muddy and probably a little sun-burnt too though I definitely don’t remember much about that. But I do remember how much I loved picking food straight out of the soil and turning it into a meal right after and learning to carefully tend and prune different plants – they’re some of the fondest memories I have. I think that whole experience definitely contributed to the deep love of nature and horticulture I have even today.

Bianca 2 months ago

Smell can transport you anywhere and one of my favorite “trips” is smelling dried oregano from my island Lemnos. I immediately go there and feel calm, like if I was having a walk in nature.

Konstantinos 2 months ago

I remember in our old garden next to the big old lilac tree wafting the most beautiful fragrance, Nasturtiums, Astors, everything growing wild and the pond my father made full of life with frogs and especially newts with their orange bellies. A beautiful garden to grow up in, I close my eyes and I’m back there in my childhood.

Teresa 2 months ago

How fascinating. I think these themes are so relevant now as we are appreciating how important nature is at the moment to our wellbeing.

Melanie 2 months ago

The history of land ownership is something that interests me so these pamphlets sound very interesting! I saw a show once titled Three Acres and a Cow and it’s one of the most memorable things I’ve ever seen. I recommend looking it up, they’ve got a lot of interesting info online. I’ve really valued a local project called Grow Your Road in the past year, which has given out growing kits to local residents to encourage people to grow and share what they can and also to make connections to support each other in learning how to grow your own. I really value the community where I live.

Fran 2 months ago