London is a city where council blocks stand cheek-by-jowl with Georgian townhouses, and its myriad community gardens are places to come together with your neighbours.
Working in a vegetable patch is a great leveller; laughing over weeding and seeding, and sharing a cup of tea afterwards brings you closer to people you might otherwise pass by in the street. You'll also reap the rewards — literally — walking home with armfuls of fresh fruit and vegetables.
Many of these places are more than just gardens or allotments. They're where people come together to learn about horticulture, watch bands, eat food, or play. They're little pockets of resistance; places to nurture relationships, plan projects and walk home with enough vegetables for your tea and a warm feeling. Cherish them hard.
1. Bonnington Square, Vauxhall
Bonnington Square in Vauxhall was reborn in the 1980s, when squatters formed a housing co-operative and created a volunteer-run cafe and community garden on a bombed-out section of the area. It's now been renamed as The Pleasure Garden. Look out for the 9-metre, industrial revolution iron waterwheel.
Nearby is the wonderful vegetarian and vegan-oriented Bonnington Cafe, a community-run, very affordable restaurant with a collective of cooks where you can eat Italian, French or Japanese food by candlelight. Bring your own bottle of wine, and sway home dreaming of communal, utopian living.
More information here.
2. Skip Garden, King's Cross
Constructed in movable skips on one of the biggest developments in Europe, the King's Cross station enlargement, this community garden has now put down roots.
Elements from the construction site have been used cleverly by a raft of community groups to create a flower-bedecked oasis, complete with kitchen, chicken runs, beehives, vegetable patches and a yurt with wood burning stove.
Their free summer Saturday afternoon children's art, storytelling and marshmallow toasting parties always book out in advance, and their twilight gardening sessions are also hugely popular with workers from nearby offices.
3. Calthorpe Project, King's Cross
The Calthorpe Project's community garden is the green hub around which the rest of its bogglingly diverse range of activities spin. The community garden is hugely popular, with specialist sessions and plots set aside for children, older people and Bangladeshi women.
There's special provision for kids and young people, with drop-in sessions for under-5s, and a weekend play project for older children, which might include classes in homemade pizza baking, fire making, crafts and cooking outside. The beating heart of a community buffeted by cuts, change and development.
4. Myatt’s Fields Park Greenhouses and Beehives, Camberwell
Myatt’s Fields Park is a special place – 14 acres of community-focused green space, with a social enterprise cafe, a kitchen anyone can use, wild areas, and a volunteer-powered greenhouse.
It's a great place to get your hands dirty — the glass building is filled with the chatter and laughter of volunteers on even the grimmest of winter days, helping to grow fruit and vegetables that are used in the park cafe. There are excellent children's sessions at weekends, taught volunteer sessions, as well as chances to just drop in and lend a hand.
5. St Mary's Secret Garden, Hackney
St Mary's Secret Garden has been cleverly designed to pack as much into a minuscule space as possible, yet still retains a feeling of calm. There's a mini-meadow, a small pond, herb area, woodland and beehives. The garden is designed to be accessible to all, a place where anyone can experience nature and greenery.
The team specialises in working with people with learning disabilities, mental health issues and physical disabilities, providing opportunities for groups and individuals to garden, and reap the benefits of growing, both mentally and physically. It's a rewarding place to volunteer, either to help out in the garden, or to support those who are gardening.
6. The Culpeper Community Garden, Islington
Named after the herbalist Nicholas Culpeper, the Culpeper Community Garden has been run since 1982 on organic principles. It’s tiny, but a lovely place for a wander, with allotments for local people and community groups, a lawn, flower beds and a pond.
Their summer children’s art workshops are cleverly curated, and draw on the garden for inspiration — think dyes made from plants, and printing using the sun’s rays. Head over there for a picnic and a scout around; you may even end up taking on some volunteer work.
7. Allens Gardens, Stoke Newington
Truly secret-feeling, these heavily wooded gardens are built on the former communal garden of ten blocks of flats in Stamford Hill. In 2004, it became one of Growing Communities' not-for-profit urban market gardens, used by the local community to grow food (it specialises in salad leaves) for vegetable boxes and a market in Stoke Newington.
Allens Gardens is home to a play area, a giant coastal redwood tree, an eco building with a 'living roof' and a pond. An unexpected and beautiful place to explore.
8. Curve Garden, Dalston
Built on an old railway line, Dalston's Curve Garden is a well-used community hub. There are beds that Dalston residents use for growing lettuce, tomatoes, herbs and peppers, a cafe that sells delicious, home-baked cakes and food made from local supplies, a pavilion for rainy-day picnics, and a greenhouse, complete with cosy woodburning stove and even cosier cat.
However, it's the community events that really set this place apart; truly inventive children’s workshops during school holidays, contemporary art exhibitions, and the wonderful, summer Woodburner music nights, where three bands play as hand-made pizzas are baked in the clay oven; a true blend of East End hedonism and rural bliss.
9. Grow Mayow, Sydenham
The most fun way to learn about healthy living, growing food, recycling and organic growing is by getting hands-on. Grow Mayow allows you to do just that.
It's set in Mayow Park in Sydenham, an earthy, joyous place, with ponds, beehives and poly tunnels, and runs gardening sessions for both kids and adults through the week.
All about allotments
There are thousands of allotments across London, mainly run by local councils, but some in private hands.
The waiting list for central plots can be several decades, but it's always worth putting your name down in case something becomes available. Head out to the borders of London to hunt down vacant plots — the National Allotment Society's website keeps an updated list.
Rents are low — usually under £50, but you’ll have to prove you can take care of your patch of land. They're also places of retreat; sit in your shed with a cup of tea, or have an al fresco dinner followed by a bottle of rum shared around an open fire.
Rural London: Discover the City's Country Side by Kate Hodges, is out 11 May 2017 (Michael O’Mara Books).