Meet the designer: Hands Off Mangrove

From professional footballer to founder of an inspirational gardening charity, Tayshan Hayden-Smith is on a mission to inspire, heal and educate through gardening. He also created a garden at the 2022 Chelsea Flower Show

Tayshan Hayden-Smith
What’s the story behind your garden at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show?

“The garden captures two stories. Firstly it honours the ‘Mangrove Nine’: nine black activists who confronted discrimination and racism by protesting against police brutality at the Mangrove Restaurant in North Kensington in 1970.

They were taken to court and it was the first acknowledgement in the judicial system of racial hatred within the police. It began a change that we still see today.

The second story was the destruction of mangrove forests and the social and climate injustice this represents, captured through a stark Corten-steel sculpture of deforested mangrove with nine roots, each representing a Mangrove Nine member.

Mangroves are really interesting and unique. They’re coastal trees that provide a natural barrier against disasters like tsunamis, and they sequester carbon at an incredible rate.

Yet we’re killing them off in the same way that the police were kicking down the door of the Mangrove Restaurant. We need to understand the impact of our actions.

Tell us about your journey into gardening
My love for gardening started in response to a massive tragedy, the Grenfell Tower Fire. I live beneath the tower, on the same estate, born and raised. The night it caught fire I lost friends, community, neighbours.

“A lot of local people took to artwork, but that didn’t really work for me. Then I saw this neglected, unloved green space. My son, my partner and I cleared it up and it became a gardening space: neighbours would walk past, see us gardening and engage with us, whether it was sharing a smile, or a conversation or an offer their time to help out.

This derelict plot eventually became the Grenfell Garden of Peace.

“Gardening saved me at a time I was feeling really low and I’d like to think it saved others, too”

How did gardening help you?
Turning to gardens and nature to heal and unify ourselves was a response to tragedy. It was really empowering for me as a young 22-year-old. It was a way of dealing with trauma and a form of self-expression. It was like plants were paint and the garden was the canvas.

Gardening saved me at a time I was feeling really low and I’d like to think it saved others, too. On reflection I was getting a lot off my shoulders, just by speaking and gardening with other people; it has had a big impact.

Young people, young black men in particular, we bottle a lot of stuff up, and a garden is a good way to open up and break down barriers and relax. It’s not a therapy session, no one is questioning you, it feels very natural.

Hands Off Mangrove by Grow2Know
What does gardening mean to you now?

Horticulture wasn’t even in my vocabulary before 2017. That’s the beauty of it: you don’t have to know everything to be involved. You don’t become a gardener, you’re already a gardener, you just need to activate that.

At first I was embarrassed to be in a garden because I felt I didn’t belong there. Now I shout about it. I’m here to inspire change, and most of that is through nature.

I set up Grow2Know which is a grassroots non-profit organisation that empowers young and disadvantaged people through horticulture. We aim to inspire, heal and educate, reclaim space and reconnect people with nature and with each other. 

What do you hope will be the legacy of your Chelsea Garden?

After the show the garden will be relocated to North Kensington, close to the site of the Mangrove Restaurant. It’s fitting for the garden to have a home within the community, so people can engage with it, and remember their stories. Even gardening itself is a form of activism – you can plant a seed in people's minds. 

The planting is suited to an inner-city location, it’s resilient and promotes biodiversity. We’re putting edibles in there too, showing how food can be integrated into shared spaces. It's a beautiful way of capturing a legacy and thinking about the future. I hope the garden we build will stand proud for years to come. ”

Interview by Gareth Richards, RHS Group Features Editor

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