Homeless people growing vegetables may seem an unlikely concept, but sometimes great notions have the most improbable beginnings. At this year’s prestigious Chelsea Flower Show, held in London in late May, the Eden Project’s large show garden was entirely designed and built, grown and planted by 500 people who are currently homeless or imprisoned.
Named “Places of Change,” the ambitious 705-square-yard show garden was the largest ever built at Chelsea, which is known for its refined, idealized plantings, sponsored by the likes of Laurent-Perrier, Chanel and even Cancer Research. Eden Project understood Chelsea’s media power — the BBC offers prime-time TV coverage daily throughout the show — and used it to bring the message home.
The Eden Project, whose work is focused on sustainability and human dependence on the natural world, is one of Britain’s most remarkable educational charities. Its headquarters are in Cornwall where, on an abandoned and barren china clay quarry, it has constructed the world’s largest biomes. These giant sustainable greenhouses recreate rainforest and Mediterranean microclimates and are surrounded by extensive outdoor gardens. In just 10 years, they have become southwest England’s biggest tourist attraction, bringing 1.2 million visitors to an area that is at risk of being marginalized.
“The Eden Project has always been committed to helping people on the fringes of society,” says Tim Smit, the project’s chief executive. “We work on programs like ‘Growing for Life,’ which enables prisoners to grow food inside jails, and ‘Great Day Out,’ which brings groups of homeless people, offenders and the marginalized young to visit the Eden Project. These are people who are normally excluded from educational or cultural activities, and our aim is to encourage them to gain self-confidence and take steps forward to change their lives. Working with plants is a very constructive way to do this.”
Building a garden, and a message
Creating a garden at the Chelsea Flower Show is a complex business. Months before construction can begin, detailed designs must be approved by the Royal Horticultural Society, which runs the show. There is no fee. The RHS prefers the money to be invested in the show gardens themselves. It is an expensive undertaking — sometimes upward of $125,000 to build a garden of these dimensions — and their lifespan will be just six days (most plants are then moved to other destinations).
Chelsea is visited by 157,000 garden enthusiasts and ranks as high as Wimbledon tennis in the hearts of the British public. Both show gardens and floral exhibits are judged by notoriously severe panels of experts: the gold medals are some of Britain’s most coveted awards. The Places of Change garden was designed by Paul Stone with the Eden Project and funded by its many sponsors and partners, in collaboration with local government and the Homes and Communities Agency.
On the last day before the official judging and opening of Chelsea, which is historically followed by a visit from the queen and the royal family, the Eden Project’s garden was abuzz with activity. Two timid men raked broken glass into a neat path through one part of the garden, while a young woman decorated with tattoos put the final touches to a disused washing machine from which vines were now happily growing.
“Places of Change is more than just a name for our garden: It graphically shows what it feels like to find yourself without a home and how, sometimes, you get the chance to restart your life,” she said. “Imagine coming in with that sharp path under your feet, past frightening thorny plants and closed doors, to reach the peaceful, more constructive parts of the garden, and of your life.” Places of Change was shaped like a large triangular fish, divided along its center by a spine of hand-carved wooden posts. Around it, five distinct zones were created by separate groups of workers, each with its own theme: food, the senses, health, industry and the environment.
Eden Project garden grown in Britain’s prisons, homeless hostels
“We are very reliant on plants for eating, health, industry and medicine, yet we are increasingly ignorant about these vital sources of human sustenance,” explained Rob Lowe, a coordinator from the Eden Project. “Growing food is a major theme as it is so accessible for everyone. However we’re living, we all have to eat, and it’s important to know where our food comes from.” In Britain every citizen has the right to an allotment, a piece of public land available for a very modest rent from the local councils, upon which to grow vegetables. The large allotment on the Eden Project garden featured neat rows of diverse vegetables that had been grown in Britain’s prisons and homeless hostels, a colorful scarecrow, a fruit orchard under-planted with wildflowers, and an inspiring greenhouse made of recycled plastic bottles.
The health sector showed medicinal plants that can heal as well as those, like tobacco, that can kill. The environmental area included bird feeders and insect-attracting plants, while the industry zone paired industrial plants with the detritus — broken machinery and abandoned microwave ovens — that now litters the earth.
The future is looking brighter for many of the Eden Project “learners,” as they like to be called. One man, a former drug abuser known as Scruffy, has become the gardening correspondent for The Big Issue, the 17-year-old U.K. magazine sold by the homeless (the vendors keep 50 percent of the cost of each magazine copy they sell). His earth-covered woodman’s shelter was based on those of the “bodgers”: men who lived in the woods of 1940s Britain, surviving by foraging and making tools. His Chelsea hut was surrounded by edible wild plants. Other learners are finding work tending public gardens and parks. As for the medal, Places of Change won a silver to the delight of participants and admirers of this exciting, thought-provoking garden.
Carla Capalbo is an award-winning food, wine and travel writer, as well as a photographer, based in Italy for more than 20 years. She writes regularly for magazines and newspapers, including Decanter, BBC Olive, The Independent, World of Fine Wine, Bon Appétit, Departures, Food & Wine. She is a long-time member of Slow Food, the Guild of Food Writers and the Circle of Wine Writers and has won Italy’s Luigi Veronelli prize for best foreign food writer. Her articles have been included in anthologies Best Food Writing 2011 and How the British Fell in Love with Food. Carla is a co-organizer of Cook it Raw, an itinerant think tank featuring top international chefs. In 2006, she and designer Robert Myers were awarded a gold medal at the London Chelsea Flower Show for the Costiera dei Fiori garden she produced for the Campania region.
Carla was born in New York City to a theatrical family and brought up in Paris and London. After getting a degree in art history, she made sculpture in London, wrote about design, and later worked in Manhattan as a food and interiors stylist for photography, for clients that included the New York Times. She moved to Italy in 1989 and worked as the Milan correspondent for Vogue Décoration before writing her first cookbooks on Italian food. Her spirit of adventure led her to undertake three personal and detailed guides to the food and wine culture of Italy. The first was The Food and Wine Lover’s Companion to Tuscany which took three years to research and write (Chronicle Books, 1998, shortlisted for Food Book of the Year by the Guild of Food Writers).
It was followed by another three-year project: The Food and Wine Guide to Naples and Campania (Pallas Athene, 2005) which was illustrated with her photos. To write it, Carla lived in fishing villages and mountain communities in diverse parts of the large region to meet and write about the many restaurants and small food artisans of Campania. Her most recent book, Collio: Fine Wines and Foods from Italy’s North-east (Pallas Athene, 2009-10) is also richly illustrated; it won the coveted André Simon Award for Best Wine Book 2009. Her other books include Cheeses of the Amalfi Coast and The Ultimate Italian Cookbook. Carla divides her time between Italy, Bordeaux, London and further afield. When she has time, she leads food and wine tours in Italy and France.
Her travelog, Assaggi, has just begun on her newly launched website: www.carlacapalbo.com.
Photo credits: Carla Capalbo