Growth Point Autumn 2017: Great Gardens - Core Landscapes, E1

'Meanwhile’ gardens make temporary use of land awaiting development.  

These Social and Horticultural Therapy projects or Community Gardens provide valuable green spaces in the urban environment, and opportunities for community involvement in horticultural activities.  

Growth Point writer Neil Wilcox will feature a series of articles looking at some of these different sites in London over the coming issues.  We hope that you will find them informative and inspirational, and perhaps be encouraged to pay them a visit.

'From Hornbeam trees to salad leaves’ 

Core Landscapes - community garden and plant nursery E1

"Transforming meanwhile sites to promote positive mental health for all’


The current Core Landscapes site is sandwiched between the looming shiny blue Royal London Hospital and a beautiful listed church building in the heart of Whitechapel’s bustling streets.  

It is enclosed by the sort of hoarding used around building sites.  The way into the garden is through a small doorway in this hoarding, and until you go through it, you have no idea what is on the other side.  Once over the threshold, you enter a different environment, an area of greenery and plants that is so different from what is outside that the word 'oasis’ seems entirely appropriate.

Nemone Mercer, Core Landscapes Manager, is busy talking to someone in the garden. The visitor has seen the doorway and the signs, and decided to pop in to see what goes on inside.  They want advice on plants and gardening.  

This sort of visit is encouraged and welcomed and Nemone makes the time to talk.  By her reckoning, 95% of visitors are not confident gardeners or just beginning to garden, so this is her chance to encourage their interest further and offer advice.

Volunteer Mic (right) is watering tomatoes.  He is one of the garden volunteers attending the open volunteering sessions held on Tuesdays.  Structured workshops are held on Thursdays through a referral process, in which people learn specific horticulture skills in more detail.

The entire garden is designed to be mobile, and everything is container grown from Hornbeam trees to salad leaves.  Containers range from pots to large 1.2 metres squared plastic food containers and raised beds built on pallets to be easily movable.  

Even the pond has been designed to be dismantled and moved if necessary.  'Buildings’ are a couple of shipping containers, a wooden shack and up-cycled perspex bike sheds reinvented as a green house and the 'grass’ is of the roll-able variety.

The project started in 2009 at a site in Canning Town. It received funding for two years as part of the MIND Ecominds project.  Its aim was, and still is, to support adults with mental health issues.  They moved to this site in June 2017, and this has been their third move.  

Due to its central London location and premium land value the new site is much smaller but easier to maintain. It contains a food growing area, pond, orchard, polytunnel and greenhouse as well as the publicly accessible garden, seating and plant sales area. Compost is produced from plant waste on site and then blended with topsoil to use as a planting medium.

Nemone with her hands in the compost!
In their own words: "Core Landscapes transforms vacant land in deprived urban areas into hubs for community engagement through horticulture, design, workshops, training, and events – improving physical health, mental wellbeing and community cohesion – resulting in a green haven for the community by the community."

Core Landscapes is a part of Core Arts, a Hackney-based not-for-profit social business that provides support and creative learning opportunities for those with mental health issues in five areas - Arts, Music, Multimedia, Horticulture, and Sport. Core Landscapes opens on Tuesdays and Thursdays and have plans to develop the services they offer more widely to meet interest and demand.

The Tuesday open volunteering inclusive sessions are for anyone to join but with an emphasis on people with mild to moderate mental health issues including depression or anxiety.  Longer-term volunteers are able to support newer volunteers and pass on the skills they have learnt. 

People learn about plant propagation, plant identification and maintenance and help to run the project and keep the nursery well-stocked with plants.  Evaluation and monitoring of the programme’s effectiveness is carried out using a feedback sheet based on NHS five steps for mental wellbeing.  These are to connect, be active, keep learning, give to others and be mindful. 

Core Landscapes also aims to increase confidence and self-esteem, create a space for friendships to develop, help improve mood and manage mood changes, improve sleep, encourage an interest in eating fresh produce and create an environment to release stress. People also come for hands-on horticulture practice whilst studying horticulture theory elsewhere.

On Thursdays, a structured programme of eight weekly sessions of two hours takes place.  These workshops are for people who have moderate to severe mental health conditions and operate on a referral process. Up to 10 people take part. Those with milder mental health conditions, in recovery, or interested in gaining skills in community horticulture are able to act as support volunteers within the group and assist the trainer.  Sessions cover soil management, seed sowing, ground preparation, compost, organic gardening techniques, propagation, herbs, food growing and seasonality.  

The Short Warwick-Edinburgh Mental Well Being Scale is being used to evaluate the effectiveness of the programme as well as monitoring the confidence gained around the new skills learnt. There is the option for attendees to then progress onto the Tuesday sessions if appropriate.

The Core approach to meanwhile gardening has always been much more than providing therapeutic gardening opportunities to the gardeners that attend.  It has involved wider aspects of the community as part of its ethos.  The gardening project is there for anyone who would like to positively engage with it to benefit their mental and physical health and reflects the richly diverse communities it is part of. 

It depends on participants’ dedication and enthusiasm to learn about horticulture and to care for the space to keep it looking inspirational. Passers-by are encouraged to visit the garden and have the opportunity to buy plants or chat.  Benches are provided and nearby hospital workers, patients and visitors as well as local residents, come and eat their lunch by the pond and also use it as an outdoor meeting room.

Corporate group
"From a mental health point of view, it’s a fantastic site," Nemone says "we get lots of health and social care professionals popping in from the local NHS buildings."  This leads to a greater awareness of their presence and what they do, and in turn can result in referrals and placements.

Core Landscapes has a network of connections with other health and wellbeing based community and voluntary organisations, as well as schools, and other community gardening projects. 

It aims to act as inspiration and resource for other meanwhile gardens, and be a source of horticultural education, food growing and healthy eating.  It also offers general support and training for other community projects and encourages community empowerment.  

Corporate groups can attend the project for team building Corporate Social Responsibility days. This provides an opportunity for them to benefit from giving back to the community work in such an inspiring environment.  

They have tasks in design and construction, painting, horticulture and landscaping. 

The project benefits financially and in getting work done that would be outside the capacity and time frame of the regular gardeners. CSR groups are charged £40 per head for groups of 10 to 35, with an additional £150 charged for materials. This covers the cost of two staff members to set up, plan for and oversee the day, photos, and participants’ feedback, and helps towards project costs. 

Corporate engagement provides an essential part of the sustainability of the project long term and offers good value team building opportunities for the companies involved.

The unique sites that meanwhile gardens occupy generate a different range of opportunities and challenges to those that other STH projects have to face.  Some of these are related to the temporary nature of the possession and relocation logistics, while others occur due to the intensely urban environment that they often inhabit.  

In London green projects such as this are becoming increasingly valued by local authorities and developers for the work they do: stewarding otherwise inaccessible sites to create much called for green spaces for people to engage in albeit on a temporary basis. 

The value of the benefits received by being outdoors in meaningful and creative activity for those involved is becoming increasingly recognised by the medical profession and society in general. 

Meanwhile projects also have the potential to feed into discussions around urban planning and green infrastructure in the locale they are situated in.

Core Landscapes moved to their new Whitechapel site in June 2017 held an opening event to celebrate their arrival.  They had to move from their previous site in Canning Town in May after three and half years as the site is now being developed.  Relocating is logistically challenging given the size and scale of some of the trees and containers but it also gives an opportunity to focus the project and re-evaluate the essential components for maximum engagement and impact in the next site. 

Container growing is the only type of growing available to many Londoners so it also showcases how to garden in unlikely places and overcome potential obstacles such as irrigation and ongoing soil management.

Donated bus
Practically, while there is water on the site, there is no mains electricity.  A bus (left) has been donated by Branston Potatoes over the summer and this has a generator on board, so there is the capacity for electricity to charge batteries and boil water for tea and coffee!  

Future plans for the site include harvesting the water gathered from a large roof, which borders one side of the site.  

The water will be used to irrigate the large, and thirsty, hornbeam trees.  This will be facilitated by used of a solar powered pump.

One of the positive outcomes and legacy of their presence at their previous site was influencing part of the design to include more horticultural elements.  There were plans to include public open space, raised container beds, an area to grow flowers and vegetables, and a play space.  These elements were attributed to Core Landscapes use of the land prior to re-development. [This was featured in an article in The Garden magazine, March 2016].

Core Landscapes hopes to stay at the current site for two years, with strong support from the Whitechapel Vision Delivery Team, Tower Hamlets and Barts Public Health teams and Barts Health NHS Trust, who offered the land on a peppercorn rent.  With this combined support they are hopeful another site in Whitechapel will be identified when the current lease expires. 

The Core Landscapes project has been shortlisted for Groundworks award for "Best Community Project for Health and Wellbeing".  The winner will be decided in November.

For further information about Core Landscapes volunteer and workshops programmes 
please contact: Nemone Mercer or visit

Core Landscapes is a Core ARTS project
Positive mental health through creative learning

Registered Charity no: 1043588
Company no: 2985939