Helen Lerner

Waltham Forest Heroes of Horticulture: Helen Lerner

Tim Hewitt from Forest Flora caught up with Helen Lerner from Walthamstow Village in Bloom to discuss her journey into community gardening...

What’s your favorite part of the work within Walthamstow Village in Bloom (WVIB)?

Being able to use any outside space as my own garden. It massively increases the amount of plants I can grow. I have a relatively small garden, so being a volunteer with Walthamstow Village in Bloom means that anywhere I fancy is a planting opportunity.

And your least favourite?

Dog poo. Human poo. Vinyl glove are a must when you are working in the public realm!

Wow that wasn’t expected!

When did you get an inkling that you might pursue horticulture alongside your regular job?

Well, I was always interested in biology and botany. As a kid I was pressing flowers, collecting things and looking at insects down a microscope. My parents aren’t gardeners, but encouraged me. I was given a scientific curiosity.

What training did you do?

I studied day release courses at Capel Manor.

When you aren’t working in Walthamstow Village on Bloom What is a typical day like?

Stuck in an office on a P.C. doing accounts, so I’m always desperate to get outside and garden whenever I can. I work in finance.

What was your first job ever?

I was a clerk in the Civil Service.

What was your first job in horticulture?

Well, I went from the Civil Service to working with people who have special needs (I have Asperger’s) then when my children were small I opened the shop at my house called The Magic Carpet, then tried design and maintenance gardening. Sadly, I could not make it pay enough. Everyone wants your advice and plans, but not everyone wants to pay. I was working for a gardening client and doing the Telegraph crossword in my lunch break. He said “You did that crossword quickly, come and work for me”. He worked in finance and offered me a much better paid job, so I self trained and got into doing that. It was working in an office that made me want to carry on gardening though. So in 2003 I started up the Walthamstow Village Gardening Club, with Teresa Deacon and we have been gardening on the streets ever since.

We have a volunteer-base of around 75 people and 15 stalwarts who turn up come rain or shine. In 2008 we decided to enter the Village in RHS London in Bloom and have been awarded Gold in both regional and national community categories.

How do you persuade people to volunteer with Walthamstow Village in Bloom?

Cake. That’s the main thing. Then maybe it is enthusiasm and the attitude that I am going to do it anyway, so if you want to join me then feel free. I don’t have any fear of being told off or told that I cant’ do something. I sometimes say, “You need a pillock of the community and that pillock is me!”

You do need to be organized and have good admin skills when you’re gardening on such a large scale, which I have. But I would rather just dig. You need to delegate too. And have a thick skin, a devil-may-care attitude. I think those things tend to drag others along with you. I lead a committee of six like minded residents who work their sock of too.

What are the skills that you would like to develop next?

Grafting and rootstocks and getting Mistletoe to grow in a tree. I got one bit started, then a bird or something came and ate it! Propagating our native species. What I am really keen on is greening urban areas and looking at buildings in a different way e.g. a block of flats/terrace of houses is just a cliff-face/isolated hill and if I had my time again I'd like to learn more about high-rise architecture including green roofs, lichens, planting climbers (not green wall modular systems) into the ground for insulation/cladding, three-dimensional arboretum planting (like the Dutch architects MVRDV and Van Boven) and creating habitat for wildlife through the build (nesting bricks for bats/birds etc).

Who is your horticultural hero?

Chris Packham for inspiring me to look at the built-up area differently and create habitats for wildlife. Not Alan Titchmarsh though. People used to give me his books thinking that, as I was into gardening I would like them.


What are the pay and career prospect like?

I think if you are madly into gardening, there is a compulsion to go into it. It is not really about the pay. But it should be as it is hard work and you need so many skills.