Goalscoring, not gardening, was Tayshan Hayden-Smith’s first passion.
But now the 25-year-old former professional footballer, who grew up in west London a stone’s throw away from Grenfell Tower, has won an award at horticulture’s most exclusive event – the Chelsea Flower Show.
While he may have had his heart set on goal as a youngster, Mr Hayden-Smith said he now feels his real calling has always been gardening. But he says if you told him five years ago he’d be presenting a garden at the Chelsea Flower Show, he wouldn’t have believed you.
“I’d tell you you’re mad,” he told The Independent at the start of the show, which runs until Saturday.
While the Chelsea Flower Show takes place in the same London borough in which Mr Hayden-Smith grew up, the show had not entered his orbit until recently. The sequence of events that ultimately brought Mr Hayden-Smith through the gates of the Royal Hospital Chelsea, a home for veterans of the British Army on the banks of the River Thames where the show is held, started in 2017 when a fire tore through Grenfell Tower in North Kensington, killing 72 people.
Mr Hayden-Smith was playing football for Austrian club FC Kitzbuhel when the blaze broke out and immediately boarded a plane to be with his family and his grieving community. In the days and weeks that followed, in a spontaneous response to the disaster, Mr Hayden-Smith says he began picking up litter and attempting to clean up a small garden under the Westway flyover that came to be known as the Grenfell Garden of Peace, helping bring members of the community together through nature.
“It was gardening that saved me at that time,” he said. “It was my experience in being in the garden which showcased how healing and unifying gardening and nature can be and that inspired me to explore horticulture and how we can make it more accessible and more inclusive.”
Nearly five years on, the community has reclaimed three more spaces in North Kensington: Acklam Nature Project, Maxilla Nursery and Kingsnorth House. Out of the ashes of Grenfell Tower, guerilla gardening – greening abandoned and neglected urban spaces – was thriving in northwest London.
Mr Hayden-Smith has since founded Grow2Know, a grassroots nonprofit that aims to reclaim space and reconnect people with nature by empowering communities to create green spaces. And this in turn led him to Chelsea.
Grown2Know’s garden at the flower show this week is called “Hands off Mangrove” and is inspired by the events of Notting Hill’s Mangrove Nine activists in the 1970s, as well as the global deforestation of mangroves. The Mangrove Nine, a group of black activists, were put on trial and later acquitted of inciting a riot after a peaceful protest against the police, which started outside a Caribbean restaurant called The Mangrove, ended in violence.
The garden aims to drive awareness of the severe impacts that racial and environmental injustices are having on the planet, according to Grow2Know’s website. The Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) announced on Tuesday that it had won a silver-gilt medal.
After the show, Mr Hayden-Smith said the plan was for the garden to be relocated to a space in North Kensington and he has called on the RHS to collaborate with communities in the borough of Kensington and Chelsea to build a permanent garden each year.
“This is positive disruption,” Mr Hayden-Smith said of his participation in the Chelsea Flower Show, which he described as having been perhaps purposefully “out of the way” of his own community.
“Gardening shouldn’t be something that is gated off from people,” he said. “This should be a place to celebrate community, it should be a place to celebrate nature being accessible for all.”
“It hasn’t operated in that way, but I don’t think it’s too late to change.”