Look at Wee Jackie go. Four-foot-nine, 43 years old, gabbing non-stop, grafting non-stop, her Sunday name – Jacqueline – tattooed on the back of her neck, she shoves that wheelbarrow around the garden like Glasgow’s own Sisyphus. She’s a force of nature in whose life nature has become a positive force.
“I don’t know where I’d be without this garden,” she says. “I was in a right horrible deep dark place. Up to my eyes in debt. Isolating myself, not going out, and getting to the stage where I was keeping my second-youngest off school to keep me company in the house. But this place has been absolutely amazing for me.” She smiles. “Life-changing.”
We are in the Riverside Garden, part of the Riverside Hall community centre. Jackie Murphy is one of around twenty regulars who garden here for pleasure and as a way of coping with a variety of personal issues – addiction, poor mental and physical health, and so on. Jackie was a user of heroin for almost twenty years, and of the prescribed heroin-substitute methadone for a further eight. She credits the garden with giving her confidence to finally come off methadone altogether. She has been drug-free for a good long while now, and is busy with various projects to help the local area.
This is Govan. A district on the southern bank of the Clyde, it predates the city into which it was later subsumed, and retains a certain independence of mind. The area is often associated with hardship and hard men. Locals find this wearisome. They’ll tell you that crime and deprivation statistics do not represent its true character, which is a gruff tenderness and instinct for solidarity in the face of life’s struggles. A beautiful community garden in Govan is not an anomaly; it is a perfect expression of the spirit of the place – earthy, caring, everyone mucking in together.
Squeezed between a housing estate and a busy road, on what had been a litter-strewn gap site left by a demolished tenement, the Riverside Garden is about the size of two tennis courts lying next to one another.
Open since last summer, it was designed and part-funded by Stalled Spaces, a council programme supporting community groups in developing underused land. At its centre are two raised beds, ablaze with flowers – cosmos, forget-me-nots, granny’s bonnet – and crowned by tall lengths of pipe, painted red, white and black in homage to the funnels, beloved in Glasgow, of the Waverley paddle steamer, which is docked nearby.
Over by the entrance is a maple planted by Jeremy Corbyn when he visited last year. The maple is deepest red, which seems apt, but the lettuce planted around its base is of less obvious political significance. Perhaps Corbyn, after all, is a romainer.
Riverside is accessible all week, and users spend an average of 10-15 hours a week working here. Some are referred by family support and mental health organisations, or are introduced via the adjoining community hall. The garden is also popular with children from the school and nursery across the road, not one of whom seems able to resist picking the fruit before it is quite ready.
Apple and pear trees; blackcurrant, redcurrant and strawberry bushes line one side of the garden. A polytunnel is planted with cucumber, tomatoes and melons. Each gardener is given their own bed, typically planted with potatoes, onions, turnips (“tatties, ingins, neeps”) and anything else required to make a hearty Scottish soup.
The idea is to help with food poverty, allowing people to grow vegetables and fruit, broadening palates without emptying purses. It’s all free to take home. “I didn’t even know what a courgette was,” Jackie laughs. “A deprived life, right enough, but not now. Don’t get me wrong, we’re just as skint as everybody else round here, but we’re rich in other ways.”
The garden is enclosed by a steel fence. This is to prevent vandalism and theft, but also acts as the boundary of what, to the gardeners, is a safe space. “What’s said in the garden stays in the garden,” you’re told. It is a place where one can share confidences and troubles. Struggling to stay solvent, or sober? You will find a listening ear and good advice from people who, very likely, have been through something similar themselves. The most abundant crop here is stories.
Taking a break from strimming, Eddie Harkins tells his. “Gardening has probably saved my life,” he says. “It’s given me something to focus on, to strive towards.” Eddie is in recovery from alcoholism. He started drinking at 16, self-medicating for panic attacks, and by his early twenties had a serious problem. In his final year on the drink he was hospitalised seven times for detox. He quit at 40, four years ago. He would like to become a support worker helping people overcome addictions through gardening. After all, it worked for him. It keeps brain and body busy, he explains; you don’t get stuck in the house, or in your own head. “It’s food for the soul.”
Eddie’s partner is Jane Burdass, the professional gardener here. She’s 54, comes from Hull, has seen it all and kept on trowelling. In the early 1980s she shared a flat with Paul Heaton; the fledgling Housemartins rehearsed in the kitchen; she is “Jane” from The Beautiful South’s Song For Whoever. Her position here is funded by the National Lottery, but one senses money is low on her list of priorities. She isn’t just tending plants, she’s tending people: David, the retired taxi driver, who had to give up his allotment following a stroke; Kelly Ann, who brings along her wee boys, and finds it soothes her depression; Basil “Gibby” Gibson, survivor of three heart attacks, who tells that tale with the pride of a striker reliving a hat-trick.
Nicola Sturgeon is a familiar figure in the garden; MSP for the area, she holds constituency surgeries in the community hall next door. On a recent day of gusts and showers, she stopped by the funnels and asked about a particular plant, rain gathering in its scalloped leaves. “This is my favourite: lady’s mantle,” Jane explained. “In Edwardian gardens, the head gardener was sent out in the morning to collect the dew so the lady of the house could wash her face in it.”
The First Minister smiled. “My grandad was a gardener, and I remember him telling me that story.” Rob Sturgeon was employed by the estate house in Dunure, Ayrshire. As a child, his granddaughter would sometimes meet him at the end of his day’s work; he’d teach her about the flowers and – “a real thrill” – allow her to pick and eat strawberries.
We stepped in to the potting shed, out of the drizzle. “There’s something so calming and peaceful about this place,” she reflected. “When I first started doing surgeries in the Riverside Hall, this was derelict land, an eyesore. It’s now beautiful, and a real asset to the community. A lovely oasis in the heart of Govan.”
It is tempting, when writing about Riverside and how it helps people, to reach for metaphors: renewal, regeneration, green shoots of recovery. The gardeners themselves are well aware of this inherent symbolism. Ask any of them. Ask John Thomson. Eight years ago, in his early forties, following the death of his mother, he suffered a nervous breakdown. He was living in a one-bedroom flat, felt trapped; anxiety attacks, sweat lashing, then the darkness came down. Five days of hell, when some malevolent force seemed to have taken him over. The only bit that seemed to function was some fragment of his brain, deep down inside, but a smothering blackness was all around. For anyone who has gone through that sort of experience, the opportunity to spend one’s days outdoors growing roses, lupins, foxgloves is not a pleasant diversion – it’s a lifeline.
“I think everybody needs a garden,” he says. “Aye, your own wee bit.”