Abbey Gardens - What Will The Harvest Be?

Abbey Gardens - What Will The Harvest Be?
(Photo: Janne Watson)
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Abbey Gardens is a public space designed by artists Karen Guthrie and Nina Pope of on behalf of the Friends of Abbey Gardens.

Initiated and led by the friends' group, what was once a neglected wasteland has been transformed into a unique open-access harvest garden where anyone can grow and harvest flowers, fruit and vegetables. The gardens surround part of the ruin of a protected 12th-century Cistercian abbey, where monks ran a productive garden. The site also displays more recent 19th-century remains.

Devised four years ago by the artists as a horticultural and social experiment, the project invited anyone to participate in the communal growing and harvesting of vegetables and flowers. Over the last three seasons the active friends' group has grown and flourished alongside the garden.

The garden occupies a 2000-square-metre urban site in Newham, east London, protected by English Heritage from development due to its medieval monastic and Victorian ruins. The local area - in a state of change and growth - provides an inspiring backdrop, bringing in new transport links, residents and commuters. Historically this echoes the hub of travellers, commerce, debate and food production that the Cistercian abbey would have been and the idea of returning the land to production was very influential on the project.

Later influences such as wartime ‘Dig for Victory’ allotments and an early 20th-century group of Newham ‘squatters’, the Plaistow Landgrabbers, also inspired the artists' design. This group of unemployed men took over a nearby piece of empty land to prove that the unemployed did in fact want to work. They called their plot the Triangle Camp and this directly inspired the shape of the raised beds at Abbey Gardens. The slogan painted on the wall behind their camp provided the project name - What Will The Harvest Be?

The contemporary garden design centres on formal raised beds, arranged in a flag-like layout. As well as providing a striking structure for the site, suited to both experienced and novice growers, the design dealt with the issue of polluted soil, allowing food production to begin. The design mixes flowers and produce and is informed by the practical requirements of vegetable growing. Its scale and style also evoke the Edwardian heyday of the English civic park, as well as honouring the Landgrabbers' Triangle Camp.

A dense network of paths throughout the beds enables access for gardeners and visitors, and the entire site is visible from the adjacent road and DLR train line.

Free garden-club sessions take place from March to the end of October three times a week, and the site is open every day to visitors. Rather than people claiming individual plots, the idea is to experiment with treating the garden as a single shared resource and to distribute the produce among the regular gardeners as well as through an honesty stall on site.

Capital Growth garden: 79

Designers: Nina Pope & Karen Guthrie

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