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James Wheale

Founder & Director, Nomadic Community Gardens

Every borough needs someone like James Wheale: a passionate community gardener who breathes life into disused parts of the city. Jimmy's new project, The LightHouse and Gardens, finds him in Stratford where he is transforming an empty space into a vibrant garden where people can grow food, create art, and experience their community in a new way.

Nomadic Community Garden, East London

Your three favourite flowers?

It’s got to be Valerian, St John’s Wort and Herb-Paris (or true lovers knot) I like endemic British wildflowers especially for their medicinal benefits and tenacious nature. Herb-Paris is a ancient woodland indicator so if you find it you know you’re standing amongst the ancestors.

Tell us about your childhood garden?

It was a small garden in the back of my mum's terraced house in South London. She did great things with it - I remember once we lifted a load of broken roofing slate from a nearby skip and paved some of the garden with it. There’s an apple tree and a camellia that have been there since we were kids over thirty years ago. The apple tree I had the pleasure of pruning just this January.

Who or what inspired your career choice?

My granddad was a huge influence on me. He had all these great sayings like ‘children rarely die of exposure, but they certainly die of the lack of it’ and ‘the trick my boy, is never to miss a trick’

What is a typical day in the life of Jimmy?

I’m a very active person and I’m moving about quite a bit throughout the day so I try to be slow moving in the mornings. Mornings are sacred. Once I leave the house I don’t really stop – we’re currently in the process of opening a new Nomadic Gardens in Stratford on a piece of brownfield land so I’m busy organising, networking and making stuff happen! I try to get my hands covered in soil at least once during the day as it’s so good for the soul and the immune system.

No garden is complete without …

Somewhere good to sit, a nook or somewhere in the sun, to sit and be silent, observe, contemplate. It's so important just to be, especially when we’re caught up in the city’s movement, its vibrancy, we need some time to rest and let everything else move about while we are still.

Something we’d find:

· On your bedside table: A book and my Himalayan salt lamp (so good for cleaning the air) – I’m currently reading Feral by George Monbiot

· In your flower arrangement: Lillies, thistle, cabbage flower and mimosa, bit of a weird mix but I love the shapes and dimensions of each so much!

· In your garden shed: Tat, I love tat! Everything has a purpose to some point but it’s important not to hold on to too much and to know what really will come in handy and what is just junk!

The flaw you wish you didn’t have?

Vanity. I care too much about my appearance!

What would you be in another life?

An engineer, I love knowing about how things work, that or a professional dancer, maybe both, a dancing engineer...

Guiding principles?

I believe we are the sum of our relationships: to ourselves, each other, our environment, our work, our home, so live life with authenticity and purpose, try to harmonise with your surroundings and yourself and don’t be too hard on others or yourself. It’s ok to get things wrong, be crap at something or be selfish – sometimes!

Who is your horticultural hero?

My grandad, he inspired me a lot with his vegetable patch and general gardening but I’ve got a thing for Dusty Gedge (what a name!) He’s a real pioneer of green roofs but all who tend the earth lovingly in some way or another are heroes.

What is the one flower or plant you’d never plant in your garden, but don’t detest when you see others plant it?

Geraniums! They stink!

If there was a fire, and you could only keep one book on gardening, what would it be?

I would have to say ‘Wilding’ by Isabella Tree, I read it recently and it really inspired me to observe nature and allow it to do it’s thing and to not fear weeds but to see them as part of the mosaic we create.

For posterity, what would you like your work to be known for?

My work is inspired by community empowerment through increased access to green spaces, but green spaces that are defined by activity -- gardening, art, education and celebration. I would like these places to be remembered for the relationships they have built that have helped people’s quality of life, their happiness and ultimately their personal and interpersonal development.



The Roving Cafe visits the community garden in East London

Quick fire: some favourite things

Book (fiction): The Master and Margerita by Mikhail Bulgakov

Film: High Fidelity

Painting: The Ancient of Days William Blake

Smell: Bed linen hung outside to dry in the breeze

Meal: Venison steak, collard greens and roasted veg

Travel Destination: My woods down on the Surrey/Sussex border

A cause near and dear to me: Homelessness

Place to go for inspiration: Chelsea Physic Garden or Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park

A great walk near where you live: Leyton, Walthamstow and Tottenham marshes

Thing to collect obsessively: Jars! You can never have enough

Museum: V&A

Favourite person to follow on Instagram: My friends

Garden in the UK: Abbey House Gardens, Malmesbury, Winchester

Garden anywhere else: Hanging gardens of Babylon

James Wheale
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