A powerful plot

Umma and Les are Friends of Graham Street Park (FROGS). They talk to IslingtonLife about Bangladeshi vegetables, mental health, and how a shared garden helped create a community 

I became a member of FROGS two years ago. I used to do a bit of gardening back home in Bangladesh, 16 years ago, but since coming here I haven’t really had the opportunity, especially because I live in a flat. I looked into hiring a little plot, but there wasn’t anything around where I live.

Then I found FROGS. I knew some of the other members beforehand, because our children go to the same school. They asked me if I wanted to become more involved because I was quite interested and always willing to help. They have allowed me to grow anything I want, which has been amazing. I have mainly been focused on growing traditional Bengali vegetables that are not available here, such as traditional Bangladeshi spinach and bottle gourd, also known as ‘lau’. It’s a vegetable from Bangladesh and India that is similar to marrow. The leaves, which we call ‘saag’, are edible as well.

Being fully involved with gardening and the community helped me a lot during the third national lockdown, especially with my mental health. I wasn’t working at the time, but it pushed me to leave my house. Having a good time with my friends, working in the community, and growing vegetables made me really happy. My son has also really enjoyed getting involved with gardening.

The great thing about FROGS is that everyone helps each other. In the beginning, I had limited experience of gardening and didn’t really know what to do. Some of the other members, such as Les and his partner Brigid, are more experienced, so they gave me lots of tips and ideas. They explained everything step by step – how to grow the seeds at home and then later transfer them here.

I now do shift work again, but whenever I have time I come in and look after the plants. When I can’t come, I let the other volunteers know via our group chat, and someone will jump in to help look after my plants. It’s been great for me and my two kids to be involved in such a friendly and welcoming community at our local park.

At the beginning of 2020, I began going for walks to Graham Street Park very early in the mornings, before it got busy. On one of those walks, I found a poster from the Friends of Graham Street Park which said, “We have vegetable plots available – get in touch”. I worked as a gardener for 30 years, but I had to stop for health reasons. I used to run a community food growing project as part of my work so I thought, this is perfect! The other members of the group welcomed me with open arms and they were especially delighted when they heard about my gardening knowledge, as many of them had little experience.

Since then, I have become involved in shaping the direction of our gardening and growing project. We started growing wild flowers this year and we grow lots of edible plants, fruit and vegetables: from lettuce, rocket, mustards and chards to tomatoes, carrots, strawberries, pumpkins and courgettes.

I had to shield during the Covid-19 pandemic, as I was in recovery from a major surgery. It meant I couldn’t take part in some of the community events, but I enjoyed hearing about them and tried to contribute in my own way. For example, we dug up some potatoes and some of the group’s members took them home to prepare dishes with them. I made a potato cake using a Dorset recipe, Umma made a Bengali dish, and we also had other dishes like stews.

Being involved in FROGS and going to the park has been a breath of fresh air – quite literally. My partner Brigid and I are at home all day on our own without seeing anybody, except when we go to the park in the mornings. It gives me a place to go to get some fresh air and exercise, and it’s become an essential part of my day. Lots of people come up to talk to us when we’re working on our plants – they’re really surprised that you can grow all that produce in the middle of London and they’re fascinated by what we’re doing. The park has really changed over the past few years.

I think it’s also really important that the park is a community space, so you can’t be too precious about things. Sometimes it gets really busy, with people sunbathing and the kids coming out after school to use the playground. When I come out in the mornings, I mostly meet and chat to dog walkers. I think it’s key that the park fulfils all of those different community functions.

I hope our work encourages more people to get involved, as it’s a great way to start gardening. People are really welcoming and happy to help. There’s a great sense of community that comes with that.

Visit the Graham Street Park website to find out more and become a Friend.

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