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Besson Street Community Garden

Besson Street Community Garden, on the very busy north-east corner of the junction with Kender Street, is a remarkable green oasis in the middle of the Kender Estate and the New Cross Gate one-way system.

Despite the heavy passing traffic, the surrounding trees and hedges make this a surprisingly peaceful site, which is much loved by local people.
It is appreciated even by some people who cannot actually set foot on it; house-bound elderly people in adjacent sheltered housing enjoy a view over the greenery.

Kender Street, in the historic manor of Hatcham, was first laid out in the 1820s and houses from this time do survive. Besson Street, running off it, was built up by the 1860s. Much of the housing in these close-knit streets was swept away in the early 1970s when the Kender Estate was built by the Greater London Council.

At the same time the New Cross Gate one-way system was created, which saw both Kender Street and Besson Street converted into one-way main roads.

The idea of a community garden on the site was originally conceived by local people when a youth club, which had been using a prefabricated building on the site, moved to more suitable premises. The suggestion was, after some discussion, supported by the Council, which had previously intended to build houses on the land.

The Nature Conservation Section became involved in the design, and planting began in the summer of 1990.

Multi-cultural garden

The garden consists of two main parts. Half of the site is a 'traditional' community nature area, with a meadow, a pond and a mixed native hedge along the fence.
The pond supports large numbers of frogs and is popular with local schools for pond dipping. The meadow is unusual in that substantial numbers of the tall, purple spikes of Argentinian vervain, an escapee from the other side of the garden, appear in some years.

The western half of the site was largely the brainchild of Mike Prime, latterly of the Council’s nature conservation section. It has been innovatively designed as a 'multi-cultural garden', with plants reflecting the diverse origins of people in the local community.

Thus Spanish-dagger from the Caribbean grows alongside ricepaper plant and bamboo from China and Vietnam, olives and pomegranates from the Mediterranean, ginger from India, the very spiky Eryngium horridum from Central America and fan palms from North Africa.

Hardy species from every continent have been planted, and most seem to thrive here, despite the traffic fumes. Indeed, many have outgrown the native species planted at the same time; one specimen of Eucalyptus delegatensis from Australia reached over ten metres in height in its first five years.

From closer to home, an unusual hybrid between the native common ragwort and silver ragwort, a common garden plant, was moved here from a development site on Adamsrill Road, where it was found by the Council’s nature conservation section.

This wide range of plants of different origins ensures a year-round supply of nectar for local insects, with shrubs such as Buddleja officinalis (a close relative of the familiar B. davidii) flowering in winter. The garden also has conservation significance in that several species growing here are endangered in the wild. These include the Chilean wine-palm, Mexican strawberry-tree, and Canary spurge from the laurel forests of Madeira and the Canary Islands.

The garden became even more innovative in 1998, when a small area of temperate rainforest was planted behind the study centre.

Study centre

A study centre, funded by the London Marathon, was opened by Commonwealth Secretary-General Chief Emeka Anyoauku in November 1993.
Currently, the site is leased to the Family Learning Project run by New Cross, New Deal for Communities. The site has frequent open days, but is otherwise kept locked for security reasons.

The adjacent Kender Street School has a gate leading directly into the garden, and visits are frequently made for lessons, 'bug hunts' and to help with site management.