The churchyard in Waterloo #4: Jonathan tells the story of Putting Down Roots

We're now exploring the Churchyard at St John's Waterloo, its history, its plants and its kind carers. Jonathan Trustram, from the Churchyard, reflects on the recent stories of the churchyard.

Putting Down Roots (PDR) is the gardening project run by St Mungos' to provide voluntary work and training for homeless and ex-homeless people. We began working at St John's in 2001 – I joined the project a year later and retired in 2012. My work was mostly in public open spaces. In SE1 we worked on Waterloo Green, Emma Cons garden opposite the Old Vic, Mint Street Park and St George's churchyard in the Borough. With funding being a constant problem, St Mungo's changed the direction of the project to concentrate more on training and work that generated funds through itself.

The cherry tree (on the side of Waterloo Road)

The parterre marked out with box was the first big PDR project at St John's, carried out in 2000, a year or two before I joined, by Lorin Colwell, the first gardener/trainer (as the job was entitled). Lorin had high expectations of his first volunteers and wanted to involve them in something creative and difficult and precise.

The box hedging has had a difficult time of it. Recently almost killed by the dreaded box moth caterpillar and before that often cut too hard by zealous volunteers. It can sometimes seem as if the chief function of gardeners is to prevent the growth of plants. Growth too quickly equals jungle. And the temptation is always to plant too close: too close to the edge of the lawn, too close to the house, too close to the pavement, and most of all too close to each other. So then having designed badly and set up an unsatisfactory structure, the gardener is kept busy for years trying to make corrections. Or some people just love cutting things back. The box hedging suffered in particular from never being able to grow out sideways; clipping the sides hard meant that they ended up bare, the vigorous new growth being all on the top, and any hopeful new shoots sticking out were immediately snipped off.

I was greatly taken recently to discover that in Greek you do not grow a beard, you allow it. Some gardeners delight in allowing very little; their whole style is about prohibitions, not permissions. From my experiences and work, I have the impression that due to the uncertainties of their lives, some homeless people exhibit a love of order and like to create order in their work. However, if you are trying to create habitats for wildlife, this causes challenges. Insects, birds, mice like ecosystems which we might find disorderly, even alarming so that they can make their own order, their own hidden nests, burrows, cocoons. The idea of the wildflower meadow is popular partly because here is a disorderly habitat which is nevertheless pretty, but it's difficult to hold onto the idea that some of it shouldn't be cut down for the winter, no matter how messy, because there are certain varieties of grasshopper which leave their eggs on dead grass stems. Anyway, for whatever reasons, it used to be very common for many to be always itching to reach out and snip, snip, snip, and wouldn't or couldn't see that the plant they'd just restrained had been about to flower. Or they would say, it’s too big! How big is too big? Sometimes we would talk about these things and I would not always get my own way.

Making the bed for the koelreuteria, 2007

In the beginning, before the parterre, the churchyard was notorious for rough sleeping, drinking, drug taking. There was a little children's playground near the south east corner of the church which was unused because hardly anyone would allow their children to play there. Most of the top few inches of topsoil had to be removed by the council before PDR could start work. St Mungo's ran a day centre for the homeless in the crypt. This closed in about 2004. We began to work there partly to engage with rough sleepers. Sometimes we helped them with the process of getting into a hostel, sometimes we gave them cups of tea, occasionally one of them would pick up a broom for ten minutes, often they would praise our work. They liked just to be said hello to. Martin Snowden, my manager and our onlie begetter, used to say that we gardened with their permission, if not their participation, so that they respected what we did.

Dry garden

And our style made for resilient gardens. If you allow self-seeding you create a seed bank in the soil. An area which is trashed recovers quickly. Plants destroyed or damaged in one place can appear in another. Some plants have seeds which can bide their time for a century before springing up. When I began gardening again at St John's in 2016 after the Years of Neglect, it was fascinating to see the resurrection of onopordum and blessed Mary's thistle.

I came across these remarkable lines from George Herbert, (he is also the author of the lines written up on the south side of the church):

Who would have thought my shriveled heart Could have recovered greenness? It was gone Quite underground; as flowers depart To see their mother-root, when they have blown, Where they together All the hard weather, Dead to the world, keep house unknown.

The mother-root is a bulb or equally the living part of an herbaceous plant which becomes dormant for the winter, but the idea also suits the hidden reserve of seeds in the soil. I love the idea that housekeeping is going on underground all through the winter, an active dormancy, and that his shrivelled heart comes back to life like the flowers in spring. Maybe we could have those words on a plaque.

The idea of plaques reminds me that soon after we put one up with that quotation from Gibran, that to the flowers the bees are messengers of love, I heard a scientist – can't remember who - on the radio say that to the flowers the bees are flying penises.

After the parterre we began to move around the church, gardening in more and more of the churchyard.

Landscaping (2006)

We asked the council to stop pruning the shrubs. We allowed the pyracanthas to grow up and up against the wall of the church, too much of a good thing, though I did enjoy seeing pigeons eat the berries, behaving for once like self-reliant creatures. We looked after the roses on the south side of the church, feeding them and not pruning them too severely. In 2005 we made a new garden next to Waterloo Road. With money from the lottery we had landscapers take out the redundant playground, remodel the lawn and replace the rectangular path around it with an oval. On the east side we made the big herbaceous bed. The council being stretched to do much, so we did some work on the trees, on the self-seeded walnut by the dry garden, on the crab apples on the southside of the lawn, and the diseased old crabs against the Waterloo Road. Part of our achievement was to do nothing to the big mahonias and very little to the winter flowering viburnum.

Landscaping (2006)

In the winter of 2006-7 when the landscapers had departed, we made the dry garden through skip-hunting, begging, improvisation. We dug deep, breaking up the foundations of old paths and of the little playground. We added rubble which had been left half hidden in every corner of the churchyard. From skips we got sharp sand left over from building sites, ballast, more rubble. We chopped up and dug in turves left over from the new lawn. The idea was to create a free draining shallow mound with low fertility. I think that the only material we bought was the pea shingle with which we dressed the finished bed. At the same time, we dug over the area which has become the 'exotic' garden, in front of the privet hedge, struggling with massive concrete and deep, tangled shrub roots. Here we worked to make the soil richer.

During the summer of 2007 we helped with the memorial bench and once again we did the spade work, though later some of our volunteers helped to cover the concrete shell with mosaics.

Hard times came later when St Mungo's changed the direction of Putting Down Roots. It could no longer afford to work on public open spaces unfunded and reasoned that society had had a good bargain with us for ten years or so. Gradually our work at Waterloo Green, Emma Cons garden, Mint Street Park, Archbishop's Park and St George's churchyard dried up. Before I retired, I was working on my own at St John's. That was a struggle. That period became the worst for a good many years for vandalism. PDR did carry on at St John's after I retired and then they withdrew altogether. These were the Years of Neglect (see pictures below), when many flowers departed to the mother root, underground, to keep houses unknown, dead to the world.

Putting Down Roots volunteers did not just make and look after gardens. We cleaned up dog and human faeces, helped people with directions (the Imperial War Museum was one place they seemed to have a lot trouble finding,) chatted to tourists and locals about some of the plants we'd grown, to rough sleepers to respect our gardens and all those who used them, picked up needles and cigarette butts and all manner of rubbish, picked up lost and stolen property and restored it to its owners or to the police station. I understand that at times we occupied a rather uneasy middle ground and could be seen as too soft on the street drinkers, that we could be seen as being 'on their side', but they equally felt sometimes that we were on the side of the authorities.

Jonathan Trustram is a gardening volunteer at the Churchyard of St John's Waterloo. You can follow his blog here.

Find us at:

St John's Waterloo

Waterloo Road

London SE1 8TY

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Website design and illustrations:

Hart Club

David Bassadone

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