We knew the green space was only a walk away, but it felt like we’d just landed in the centre of a housing estate. We are surrounded by high rise buildings, terraced houses and hoardings blocking the site of the development underway behind the facade.
While we wait we pop into a coffee shop next to the pharmacy and sit on the chairs outside. It's overcast, fresh and we sit quietly, looking at the main road, hearing the rush of cars and feeling the vibrations from the passing train behind us.
In the distance we notice a lady walking towards us, she raises her hand and gives us a wave. By the time we’ve taken our last sip of coffee, Sandra greets us and gives us directions to get to the allotment.
Sandra Salazar D’eca, Soil Sister or Miss Dandelion as the school children call her, is based in London and is a horticulturalist and farmer with a focus on community growing. She works with collectives, schools, market gardens and community groups, teaching practical food growing skills, land and food sovereignty.
We walk with Sandra to the end of a row of terraced houses where a locked gate leads to a patchwork of growing spaces. Each space planned, laid out and tendered too in a different way. As we walk down to Sandra’s plot we pass people weeding, digging, relaxing. The majority of them momentarily pause, look over, give us a smile or a nod and then return to what they were doing.
Within moments, we’d moved from a narrow terraced street, with houses, cars and tarmac all jostling for space, to a wide vista of nature with differing heights, colours and textures. Trees in the far distance cover the urban view behind, and to our left and right tower blocks and houses peer above the bushes and tinpot sheds dotted around. Sandra stops and ushers us through another gate. “I don’t think we’ve actually had any men on this plot before.” We instantly feel honoured to be allowed in.
This growing site is home to an organisation she founded called ‘Go Grow With Love’ from here she runs a program called ‘Women Living with the Land.’ She says, “We teach women of African & Caribbean heritage, how to cultivate the land, how to grow food and then how to enterprise from the produce that they’ve grown, everyone involved is called a soil sister.”
This is the first season Sandra has taken over the space, so together with ‘The Soil Sisters’ she will be getting ready for the first full growing season. She invites us onto the land and smiles, “I want to create a land hub were every woman that comes here has skills to share. Together we will grow and we will share, eat and tell stories, make up stories, write books. I’ve got big plans for this place that go beyond just nature. I’m a firm believer that if we nurture nature, then nature will nurture us in return.”
The energy here is different, the noise dampened, the speed of world seems to slow down. Within a few minutes we can feel a physical change. As we walk around the space, glass pendants hang from branches, reflecting the sun’s light into our gaze, fabric seats attached to branches sway in the gentle breeze. There is a subtle scattering of colour from late flowering plants and two poly tunnels hug the top and left edge of the space. One for growing and the other for bringing people together. The space flows and suggests a way you should explore it. As we stop and take it in, Sandra grabs a few chairs and then we sit under a tree and chat about her journey back to the land.
“OK this is where I’ll get all airy fairy, I do what I do because I was told to by nature.” She pauses, almost expecting me to interject with a comment, but I nod and ask her to explain. “Years ago I was working in retail, I was a city girl. I had a dream. It was me in the woods, I was old woman, surrounded by nature and I felt at peace. Everyone would come to me for advice and guidance and I was warm and welcoming and happy to share my knowledge.” She plays with a shell attached to one of her dreadlocks, “Back then I had bushy, curly hair like Mel B, from the spice girls, I’d dress smart. There was no way that I’ve ever thought of having locks or wearing overalls. No way. But look at me now. The image of that dream never left me.”
The connection to the land happened when she became a new mum. Sandra moved to Tottenham from West London but didn’t know anyone in the area. She saw an advert for a community food growing group so went along to meet new people. “Something sparked in me, once I saw that first seed grow, I couldn’t believe it. I was like, Wow, I made that happen. Why isn’t everyone doing this?”
Her re-education began at that community group and a series of influential women in her life opened her eyes to the power of sharing food knowledge. “There are so many brilliant people I have met, but to name a few; Leyla Laksari who runs ‘Living under one sun’, a charity, community hub and cafe in Tottenham, she showed me how having a passion and complete dedication can help touch the lives of so many people. My mentor Marian Kandake is a medical herbalist, her knowledge and energy is unmatched by anyone I know, she is truly inspirational. And Annaelle, form OrganicLea, she taught me empathy. At a time in my life when I was kind of upside down, she took her time to listen, to be patient and to teach me so much about nature.” Sandra nods gently, and then raises her hand, jumping back into conversation. “Of course, I can’t not mention Paulette Henry who runs Black Rootz, the first multigenerational black led growing project in the uk. Each one of these beautiful women do so much for the community. I’m truly grateful they came into my life.”
Eleven years on from that first community food group she attended, Sandra now supports and develops food growing projects to reconnect the community to nature. “I want people to come together and embrace each other. There is no reason for us to be fighting or competing with one another. We all have individual sets of skills and the beauty happens when we come together and share those skills, so that we can grow together and create a better today.”
As we leave, we think about the power food has, the fundamental need to power our bodies and the unique ability to be a focal point to bring people together in so many different ways. From planning and growing to the enjoyment of eating and celebrating together. It was a real treat to spend time with Sandra in a place set up to grow together, to laugh together and just be together.