A wonderful camaraderie is quickly established between neighbours at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show. Whether it’s borrowing a crate, taking snaps of handshakes with visiting VIPs, or loaning a van’s tail-lift to get a good angle for photography, the favours fly back and forth thick and fast. From our stand on Main Avenue, we soon got to know the delightful team behind the Lemon Tree Trust garden, our neighbours ‘across the road’.
The hugely evocative Lemon Tree Trust garden is beautiful to look at, but carries a remarkable message. A delightful courtyard incorporates the core elements of a classical Islamic garden: a trickling fountain, cooling rills, fruit trees, elaborate metal and wooden fretwork screens. Yet this garden is no palace, or grand city’s elegant public gardens. This is a garden created by everyday people obliged to leave their homes behind them; a refugee garden.
Created by first-time Chelsea designer Tom Massey, the Lemon Tree Trust garden aims to shine the spotlight on the resilience, determination and ingenuity of refugees living in Domiz camp in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Domiz is home to around 26,000 refugees, mostly from Syria. Although there’s an assumption that refugee camps are makeshift, temporary affairs, in fact most exist for many years. Family life goes on; people fall in love, babies are born, children go to school.
When people have so little, great resourcefulness is unleashed. The skilled craftspeople of the camps turn their hand to using the most basic and sparse materials for their homes and gardens, making them beautiful with techniques such as polishing, casting and crafting into patterns and intricate Islamic-inspired designs.
The planting in the Lemon Tree Trust garden is beautiful too, a masterly mix of shrubs, grasses and perennials. Those most ‘Chelsea’ of flowers, alliums and roses, nestle cheek-by-jowl with more exotic species to great effect. Poppies and lilies dance in the dappled shade beneath gnarled pomegranate trees. Lemon and fig trees sway gently as their fruits are caught by the breeze.
On Press Day at the show, Syrian musician Maya Youssef gave a performance on the qanun, a traditional Middle Eastern instrument related to the zither. She tweeted later how much she’d enjoyed playing by the fig trees and fountain, and how it had reminded her of home. As warm breezes stirred the foliage, and Maya’s beautiful music washed over us, we were transported to a different place, a world away from Chelsea.
But the garden has a different facet; an ‘innovation wall’ is filled with everyday objects such as tin cans and plastic bottles used as containers for vertical planting, ideal for gardening in limited spaces. Breeze blocks serve as planters, lengths of guttering as growing space for salad leaves and herbs, and tomatoes drape across concrete warmed by the sun. It’s a stark reminder of how little these resilient people have, yet how resourceful they are.h
Gardening is a way to help restore dignity, purpose, and cultural identity, and gives hope to the people in Domiz; the very act of planting a tree is an investment in the future. Incredibly, even when fleeing their homes and often becoming separated from friends and family, some people have the presence of mind to take cuttings or seeds from their own garden. In the camp gardens, these are grown on to give a powerful link to home. Herbs are grown too, for use in dishes to remind residents of home. But people don’t just grow food; they grow flowers, too. The soul needs to see beauty blooming, especially in an inhospitable environment. The act of gardening brings people together and helps them form new friendships.
Tom visited the camp earlier this year to meet the residents and see at first hand the gardens they’re creating. He explained, “It was fantastic to see the individuality people express in their personal spaces. The atmosphere in the camp was friendly and positive, and people I met were strong, resilient and inspiring individuals.” He also took the opportunity to explore the hills surrounding the camp, to find inspiration for this very memorable Chelsea garden.
Congratulations to Tom Massey and the team on winning a Silver Gilt medal with the beautiful Lemon Tree Trust garden.
The Lemon Tree Trust has been working in refugee camps in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq since 2015, supporting gardening initiatives as a way to restore dignity, purpose, and cultural identity. It helps bring people together through the provision of seeds and plants, garden competitions, and education centres. Find out more at www.lemontreetrust.org.