Soil Sisters – transforming more than gardens by Natalie Szarek

 

Three months ago I sat in an overgrown garden in northeast London, drinking in the dappled sunshine that filtered through the ivy tumbling over the fences and walls enclosing the space. A handful of women joined me on the rickety garden furniture, energetically discussing leaves. Specifically, we were exploring the various ways in which stuffed grape leaves show up in various cuisines across the Middle East. From Yaprak Sarma in Turkey, to Mahshi in Egypt and Persian Dolmeh Barge Mo (in Iran), the many regional variations of stuffed vine leaves all represent distinct cultures with the humble grape leaf as the common ingredient - an ingredient which many of the women were surprised could be easily grown in the UK. 

This was not how I imagined my first session as part of the Women’s Environmental Network Soil Sisters project. I had expected to excavate the vegetable beds from the tangle of weeds that carpeted the whole garden and then start planning which vegetables we would grow - but as is often the case with gardening projects, the starting point of plants led us to unexpected and enriching conversational territory. The ability of gardening and growing your own food to inspire learning and discovery of common ground between people coming from different contexts is the driving force behind the Soil Sisters project, which sees the Women’s Environmental Network partnering with five womens’ refuges across northeast London to deliver gardening sessions and empower the residents of each refuge to transform their gardens into beautifully productive and therapeutic spaces.

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Garden before: Garden after - raised beds for growing veg:

 

The project is already accomplishing fantastic work - previously bare plots are producing bumper crops of tomatoes and chilis, and weeds have given way to cucumbers, nasturtiums and salad leaves. Five WEN gardeners are working with the residents and support workers at refuges run by Hestia - who run 29 domestic abuse refuges across London - and Ashiana - who provide specialist services for women from Black and Minority Ethnic backgrounds, particularly those fleeing forced marriage. The weekly gardening sessions encompass horticulture as well as cooking, arts and crafts, and herbal cosmetics, and are driven by the interests and energy of the residents at each refuge.

 

 The weekly gardening sessions encompass horticulture as well as cooking, arts and crafts, and herbal cosmetics, and are driven by the interests and energy of the residents at each refuge.

The weekly gardening sessions encompass horticulture as well as cooking, arts and crafts, and herbal cosmetics, and are driven by the interests and energy of the residents at each refuge.

The project is funded by a Big Lottery Reaching Communities grant, which is supporting the project through 2020. I’m excited to witness the continued transformation of spaces as well as the transformative power of therapeutic horticulture on the lives of the women participating in the project. Watch this space for further updates and news about the Soil Sisters project, as well as opportunities to volunteer.

Soil Sisters is an exciting 3 year programme creating therapeutic gardens and delivering weekly social and therapeutic horticulture (STH) or green care sessions at 5 women’s refuges across East London. Funded by BIG Lottery Reaching Communities and working with our partners Ashiana Network and Hestia, WEN’s Soils Sisters will support recovery and transformation for vulnerable women in traumatic transitions within refuge settings to improve wellbeing, raise aspirations, build confidence and develop skills. 

For more information on the Soil Sisters project please contact beth@wen.org.uk