“I want to be the change that I want to see in the world.” I’m having a chat with Aku Nkem a Horticulturalist from Northumberland Park and she’s telling me about her garden, only it’s not just any ordinary garden. She started a community project that’s transformed a corner of busy Willoughby Lane and it draws many residents from the whole area.
Aku’s pretty French provincial cottage garden sits outside a small block of flats and it’s become an unusual patch in this part of town. Her colourful pots are displayed on step ladders, milk jars with seeds balance on wheelbarrows, vintage benches are covered with sunflowers, hydrangeas and masses of experimental planting, all shooting out from pots – it’s an artful, creative mess of life and it’s hard to miss. Passers-by stop to stare and they can’t help but have a chat with Aku about her plants. In return for their shock, she kindly teaches, gives out plants and tells them to come back.
“I learnt that the way to improve things was to do it yourself, I tried asking for help and there was no help to be had. I called a guy at the Metropolitan Trust and he told me the only way was, to do it myself and so I did.” An ex-saleswoman, she started her obsession with gardening by volunteering at Wolves Lane Nursery, to get tips and plant donations, then a plantsman took her under his wing. She didn’t stop there, she went on to do a course at Capel Manor and learnt all aspects of gardening and with the course, came her confidence and then her new path. She carried on volunteering and went to Edible Landscapes for even more plants but they also pointed her in the right direction for funding. “Once I started properly, everyone came. They were all saying, ‘put this here, here’s a rose bush put it into the ground! It’s just taken in mine!’ So all this,” she says gesturing around her, “it’s from everyone around here.”
She works with locals on their gardens; giving them advice, carrying over bucket-load of plants, digging, clearing, pruning and helping them to cultivate anything and everything. She shares her knowledge and has spread her green-fingered bug along the street. Now, many grow fruits, vegetables, seeds and herbs. Walking along the lane, you’ll find everything from artichoke, chillies, tomatoes, rosemary, lavender and my personal favourite, a huge bay leaf tree that I pinch from.
Speak of changes in the area and Aku is not phased about the plans. She’s more fussed about educating her neighbours to act. She wants to urge locals to come out of their homes, pick up the rubbish, take back their pride in the area and work together to make it beautiful. We both agree that by staying indoors, we’re helping the council to sell-off the area as a dump, “It’s like [the area] is not going to be used, people don’t care, they don’t live here but if we can show that they do care…’ When I ask, of all the projects she has worked on in Northumberland Park, which she’s most proud of, she says all of them, she just likes to see it tidy, colourful with lovely plants and like other villages all around London, why can’t north Tottenham be pretty too? I nod away at that rhetorical question.
She’s currently working on a mega project (for the love of her manor) that will hopefully change another bit of outside green space in the same area. She has spent the better half of six months coordinating and going back and forth with the Metropolitan Trust and Pinnacle. They have both finally agreed to put help into clearing the patch and then going forward, the community can guide them on how best to maintain it – this is just another sprinkling of Aku’s green magic fairy dust.
“All of this is a necessity, we can’t just have grey after grey after grey after grey. Whenever people past [her cottage garden], you can always see them do a double take and they start smiling and it’s how you get to know your community. When I first started, people would ask, ‘Have you just moved in?’ and now everyone knows me. Well they know the garden, I’m not sure if it’s necessarily me they know.”