Mangrove Nine garden brings activism to Chelsea flower show | Chelsea flower show

They were worlds apart in 1970, when the face of the Chelsea flower show was Britt Ekland posing with the rose of the year. Months later, the 55-day trial of defendants who became known as the Mangrove Nine would make legal history as black activists took on and overcame the might of the British state.

More than five decades later, their story has pride of place at this year’s flower show, where thousands of visitors are getting their first view of a garden inspired by what the nine activists endured and achieved.

The Mangrove restaurant on All Saints Road in Notting Hill, west London, used by the local community and activists. It became the focus of a protest against police victimisation. Photograph: Tim Ring/Alamy

Hands Off Mangrove – one of several show gardens representing the pinnacle of horticultural excellence – is the work of Grow2Know, a nonprofit organisation founded after the Grenfell Tower fire in west London to highlight the healing power of gardening.

At the centre of the garden is a 4-metre-tall, deforested Mangrove sculpture with nine bare roots – one each in honour of a defendant from the trial, and also serving as a stark reminder of the impact of humankind on the world’s most important ecosystems, including mangroves.

The Hands Off Mangrove show garden.
The Hands Off Mangrove show garden. Photograph: Jim Powell/the Guardian

“It is meant to be a sanctuary, a space where people can feel safe and protected, but also encourages intergenerational connection,” said Tayshan Hayden-Smith, the founder of Grow2Know.

Immersed in abundant plant species, a crushed concrete path runs through the garden, representing the challenges and threats of racism, poverty and violence in Notting Hill during the 1960 and 70s but also today.

Its edible plants – which include beetroot, peppers and tomatoes – have been selected to encourage horticulture within the community and also to thrive in the garden’s second life in North Kensington, a short distance from the flower show’s grounds and where it will be relocated.

Steel band plays at opening of Hands Off Mangrove garden at Chelsea Flower Show – video

Hayden-Smith expects the garden will “evoke conversation” about the Mangrove Nine, a group of activists tried for inciting a riot at a 1970 protest against the police targeting of the Mangrove, a Caribbean restaurant in Notting Hill that served as sanctuary in a community that was patrolled by a group of officers in a manner likened to that of a colonial army.

A jury acquitted all the defendants of the main charge, after a trial that generated the first judicial acknowledgment of evidence of racism in the Metropolitan police.

Hayden-Smith and others from Grow2Know, which has also become a platform for calls to “decolonise” horticulture, have been heartened by what he describes as an “opening up” by the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) to the communities who live near the show’s grounds in south-west London.

Tayshan Hayden-Smith, who aims to ‘decolonise’ horticulture.
Flower power to the people: Tayshan Hayden-Smith aims to ‘decolonise’ horticulture. Photograph: Jim Powell/the Guardian

“There has definitely been a response from the RHS to society, and to the fact of where the show is located, which is just down the road from North Kensington – one of the most diverse places there is,” he said. “But I don’t think it’s just a cultural or race thing. It’s a class thing as well. Often it’s the people who are most vulnerable who could most do with the resources and support that something like the Chelsea flower show bring.

“I feel like opening up the doors of the show is an amazing opportunity for it to support communities and build a relationship with them because it is, essentially, the world cup of horticulture.”

While admitting to feeling “contradicted” by factors such as ticket prices, which remained beyond the reach of many, he said the garden was ultimately “positive disruption”.

The garden is designed by Tayshan Hayden-Smith and Danny Clarke.
The garden is designed by Tayshan Hayden-Smith and Danny Clarke. Photograph: Jim Powell/the Guardian

Hands Off Mangrove is one of a number of gardens with connections to the theme of societal reform. Another is The Body Shop Regeneration Garden by the botanist Jennifer Hirsch, which takes a conceptual approach to telling the story of environmental and societal regeneration inspired by activists.

The controversial topic of rewilding is the inspiration for another garden, by the landscape designers Lulu Urquhart and Adam Hunt, which shows a naturally rewilded landscape in south-west England.

This year’s show runs until Saturday, after which 25 gardens will live on in their entirety while a remainder will distribute their plants and flowers to benefactors.

Mangrove Nine evidence photo.
Mangrove Nine evidence photo. The defendants made British legal history. Photograph: FLHC Maps 15/Alamy