Planting a revolution in the community garden
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
A mile north of London’s M25 orbital motorway, a deep-set lane through woodland and fields leads to an undulating 240-acre estate in Hertfordshire shared by three Stuart-Smith siblings. One of those acres is home to Tom and Sue Stuart-Smith’s remarkable not-for-profit enterprise to cultivate good mental health, community and a “plant library”.
The Serge Hill Project will officially open in June 2024, though many seeds have already been sown. The plant library, for example, began life in 2020. It is a living record of 1,500 mostly herbaceous plants, shrubs and bulbs picked for their climate-change resilience and beauty. Despite this year’s unpredictable growing season, the planting is already a prairie-like tapestry of oranges, blues, purples and off-whites set off by ornamental grasses.
Each specimen lives in a square-metre patch grid with gaps between, giving 360-degree views of each plant. The top of the sloping site, mulched with 15cm of sharp sand, displays drought-tolerant plants, while shade lovers are planted into the clay at the bottom of the slope through a mulch of green waste from the local authority that helps water retention and reduces weeds. All the same, a team of about 15 volunteers, plus some employees, still do a fair amount of hand-weeding.
The Stuart-Smiths raised two-thirds of the £1mn capital cost for the project. The other third came from Tom’s eponymous, internationally renowned landscape company. “We cashed in part of our pension and mortgaged our house in order to make the plant library and the 800sq ft orchard barn,” says Tom of the green oak-clad, carbon-sink building at the centre of the site. Like the plant library, it will be available pro bono for schools, community and education three days a week. The rest of the time it will be used by Tom’s practice, and will host talks, workshops and events to generate income for the project’s community interest company, which allows profits to go to community good and will pay a peppercorn rent for the building.
“My business is helping to fit out the building,” says Tom. “Now we’re trying to raise money to install a teaching kitchen. We will just have to go on working until we’re very old!” Like Sue, psychiatrist and author of the bestselling The Well-Gardened Mind, he has no official retirement age. Seed funding is one thing. Financing the ongoing costs of workshops, schools programmes, maintenance, the education hub and a full-time project coordinator is another. The aim is to cover these with corporate sponsorship, lectures and workshops, hiring out the barn, an entry fee to public openings and a friends scheme.
Early benefactors include Tetra Pak heir Hans Rausing and his wife Julia, who are helping the Hertfordshire-based charity Sunnyside Rural Trust to create an on-site nursery to take cuttings and seeds from the Plant Library to grow and sell with profits going to Sunnyside. The nursery will also train Sunnyside’s young people and adults with learning difficulties. “Tom and Sue are a down-to-earth power couple who give the trust the opportunity to be aligned with their excellence,” says its CEO Keely Siddiqui Charlick. “[The trust] grew the plants for Tom’s 2021 Hampton Court show garden; he demanded perfection,” continues Siddiqui Charlick, adding that the show helped hone Sunnyside’s workers’ skills.
Every month, plants from the library will be rated by a “citizens’ appraisal” of garden volunteers. As plants self-seed, any seedlings deemed worthy are potted up and sold. Prize specimens include grasses, species peonies, Benton irises, 60 salvia species, unusual lavenders and euphorbias, and an exquisite selection of spring bulbs, from grape hyacinths to narcissi.
The Sunnyside Trust is also propagating commercially popular specimens from the plant library, such as the bronze-leaved, mauve-flowered verbena “Bampton” and scented purple-spired salvia “Amethyst”. Some will be sold at Serge Hill garden openings, but most through the trust’s food garden in Hemel Hempstead. All profits will go to Sunnyside.
The complex model of funding, outreach, education and gardening is shaping up but, as Tom says, “We’ve only just begun. The easy bit was building the barn, but building a sustainable community and layers of support is infinitely challenging and possibly more rewarding.” So far, five allotments are up and running for local people. One further allotment provides Tom’s office of 20 with vegetables throughout the week. And six local schools, one young people’s counselling charity and two special-needs schools have indicated they want to be involved in gardening and other creative activities. Tom and Sue are keen that they facilitate rather than prescribe any activity at Serge Hill.
Inspiration for the project came from several directions. Seven years ago, Sue, who has long recognised the potency of gardening therapy, was in the US researching her book, and she visited Chicago Botanic Garden’s outreach programme for at-risk young people. She was asked where she’d like to be in five years. Her answer was swift and clear: “I’d really like to set up something like this.” She persuaded Tom, who has created two pro bono gardens for local schools, to bring his practice back home to Hertfordshire, from London, in 2016. “Sue and I have always worked away from home, and so part of this project is for us to be more rooted in this place,” he says.
Such gestures by landowners are increasingly providing hope for the future. In the words of the former Country Land and Business Association president Mark Tufnell: “As a sector, we need to do more to shout about the impressive philanthropic contribution that land and property owners make to rural communities.” sergehillproject.co.uk
Ground forces: three other land stories to inspire
The Layberry Foundation, Kent
Octogenarians Marion and James “Knocker” Layberry are deeply anchored to their 52-acre farm in Kent and, like the Stuart- Smiths, accept that they will probably never be able to retire – in their case, from supporting children and young people.
In 1978, the couple bought a few acres with a tumbledown cottage for £14,000, and gradually increased their landholding to include ancient woodland populated by deer, badgers and myriad bird species, and a 26-acre bluebell wood. They invited local young people to come and enjoy their idyllic surroundings, but soon realised that several were in difficult situations at home. “We set up a not-for-profit fostering agency more than 25 years ago, tried to retire, but had to set up another, All4U, six years ago,” said Marion Layberry OBE. “We were fed up with venture capitalists snapping up independent fostering agencies.” The Layberrys, who never had children, have fostered more than 20 young people, and today work with 50 fostering families, as well as running life-skills workshops at the farm – with plans for grow-your-own workshops in the spring. And when a local animal charity, Safe Haven, lost its premises, the Layberrys welcomed two elderly pigs, two ancient sheep and 14 ponies onto the farm for a nominal rent of £5 a year. The couple have bequeathed everything to the Layberry Foundation, so the farm can continue to be used for children, young people and animals. thelayberryfoundation.org
SummerHome Garden, Denver, CO
In 2019, Lisa Negri, the founder and retired CEO of an environmental engineering company, bought the house next door to hers in Denver, Colorado. But rather than extend her home, Negri, a longtime volunteer at Denver Botanic Gardens, knocked down the house and created a sustainable garden, planting (along with a team of volunteers) 8,000 bulbs, grasses, trees, shrubs, wildflowers and succulents that thrive in an arid climate, from California poppies and purple grass to tall red trumpets and blue flax bush. (Plus installing an epic bee hotel.)
Negri is working with The Garden Conservancy (the US equivalent of the UK’s National Garden Scheme) to turn her personal garden into a public one. SummerHome Garden is open to visitors every day, with Negri on hand to teach the local community about sustainable gardening – how to grow and nurture plants native to Colorado and introducing them to other suitable plants. summerhomegarden.com
St Catherine’s Hospice, West Sussex
Thanks in part to 82-year-old Bill Bridges’ land gift of five acres (valued at £1mn) plus £220,000, the airy, well-equipped new St Catherine’s Hospice in Pease Pottage has just opened. It is Bridges’ tribute to the institution that cared for his mother, Grace, in 1984. St Catherine’s Hospice CEO Giles Tomsett, whose organisation supports more 1,250 people a year with end-of-life care, calls the gift “transformational”.
Bridges, who left school at 15, has given the land from the 1,000 acres he has assembled over 60 years in a remarkable rags-to-riches story. “My dad earnt his living in vehicle recycling and farming, and still works six days a week,” says his daughter, Billie. Her father loves the land so much he has found giving it away to be both a “blessing and a curse”, albeit for a cause dear to his heart. stch.org.uk/newhospice