Have a seat with...

Rowena Birch, community garden designer.

Gardeners World 2020, Episode 22 featuring Rowena Birch
Gardeners World 2020, Episode 22 featuring Rowena Birch

You can see Rowena and the beautiful community garden that she created by clicking the above image. She features from 38:26 to 40:19 and there are some lovely views of the garden. We were lucky enough to catch up with Rowena and find out more about her motivation, the help she had in building the garden and how the Kyokusen swing seat fits into this project.

Thank you for agreeing to chat to us about your fantastic community garden, would you mind explaining how you came to bring to life this previously disused space?

I was an international judo player, I spent much time travelling the world for competitions and training, competing in the Atlanta Olympic Games and also winning the European Championships. Whilst away on these trips, I would read and plan what I would do next with my small back yard - what I would grow, how I should look after it. The best bit of getting back home was to walk outside and see how it had changed. Soon it was packed with pots and plants, and I started looking over the back wall with envy at the big space, which had been left abandoned by three brothers, my elderly neighbours. When they realised I was interested in using it, they would share their knowledge of growing vegetables and kidnap me during the week to take me to the local garden centre for tea and chat and a look at the plants. Eventually, they gave me the land and encouraged me to get our other neighbours to help me with it.

A swing seat in the community garden while the pond was being built

What motivated you to create this haven for you and your neighbours?

I love the process of learning, planning, creating and then making it happen, adapting as necessary along the way. My motivations have changed over the years, and through that, the garden has evolved.

Initially, I was motivated by growing vegetables, thinking I might save some money (which I didn’t as most of the veg got eaten by slugs long before I got to eat them!). This also meant I got time to spend with the elderly brothers, who were right characters.

Then it was about creating a garden for my young children to play in with their friends and the neighbour’s children. I drew a rough garden design on a piece of paper, based around two circles defined by a winding path around the curves that the kids could ride their Trikes on. Dave, one of my neighbours, quickly made it his project to find flagstones and pavers lying around the plot and lay the path. My husband Ryan, who was also an Olympic judo player, then worked with Dave to prepare the land for a lawn inside the circles for our son to play football on and for a climbing frame. And I gave freedom to my potted plants from the back yard, to start developing the planting structure, including an old Christmas tree and holly bush.

In 2013, Ryan died suddenly. The garden then became a place for healing and enjoying precious memories. Together, we had travelled many times to Japan for judo training. In our time off, we loved to explore how gardens were done differently there and dream of building our own Japanese garden back home. In those difficult months after his death, my daughter drew out a picture of a pond idea. I was nervous about taking on a project of that size but liked the idea that one day we might do it and shared this dream with one of our friends. Before we knew it, a whole team of people (who also missed Ryan deeply) were out in the garden armed with spades, rocks, a pond liner and pump and started digging. And so our beautiful koi pond, with waterfall and stream was created.

These days, it’s about continuing to create a space for us all to relax, let off steam and enjoy being outside. To spend time with each other, without having to travel anywhere.

I was nervous about taking on a project of that size... Before we knew it, a whole team of people were out in the garden armed with spades, rocks, a pond liner and pump and started digging.

Before photo of the derelict garden
The pond with fish and a table and chairs of lawn in the background

Above: Before and after, the disused space on the left and part of the renovated garden on the right. 

How did you find the time (and energy!) to make such a dramatic change to this large garden?

It has taken 20 years, and as you’ve already heard, I’ve had lots of help from friends and neighbours along the way. Also, it’s not about time and energy. It’s about relaxation, getting your head into a really good place, dealing with the stresses of life, and that feeling of satisfaction when you fall into a hot bath after working hard outside in Manchester’s inevitable rain. Takes a lot to beat that!

The trunk of a Tibetan Cherry tree

Which of the many plants that you’ve added to the garden bring you the most joy?

Tibetan Cherry tree – given to me by my friends from judo and gym for my 50th birthday. The bark such beautiful shades of red, burgundy, orange, particularly special in winter. Like squeezing a spot, it’s also very therapeutic peeling off the paper-thin bark, although I’m not sure you should do this!

How many people in your community are enjoying this garden?

All my neighbours, in our row of red brick terraced houses, are always welcome (and I don’t mind if they pull out any bindweed they see while they are there, or help paint the shed!). There are now ten of us and we all look out for each other, support and help where we can. It’s good to know you have someone to talk to when you want to, which was especially important during the recent COVID lockdown. I love to see the young children come in and explore, want to help out, and be amazed by all the creatures they find, although it can be a little irritating when they wee on your Rhubard!

It’s good to know you have someone to talk to when you want to, which was especially important during the recent COVID lockdown.

When you’ve had a stressful day, how do you take a moment to relax and unwind?

I go and sit on my beautiful swing seat by the pond and listen to the water flowing, the trees moving and gently swing. Normally, I then see something that needs attention in the garden, and before I know it my mind is in a totally different place, as I potter around, doing whatever job in the garden takes my fancy. This is a wonderful contrast to my day job where I support people with their financial planning, giving coaching and advice to help them achieve their goals.

Is there significance to the ammonites in the arms and the carving in the back?

The ammonites were on option when the seat was made, sourced locally. They are so smooth next to the texture of the wood, and a lovely connection with the past.

Above: A close up image of an ammonite

What made you select the 3 seater Kyokusen Swirl Back for the garden?

I wanted something very special, for me and my family to sit on, take time to enjoy our memories and dream new dreams. I was drawn immediately to the Japanese styling, and it never ceases to give me pleasure. The 4-year-old twins who live next door, also love it. One day they were standing on it and made it swing so high, that the little boy flew off and landed headfirst in the pond, with only his tiny red wellies visible!  Luckily he was unhurt and loves to tell this story of his flight!

From your relaxing swing seat, what can you see? How is the view?

I can watch my fish in the pond and the large trees moving, just outside my garden on the canal bank. There’s an old door on the wall, partially hidden under the ivy, enticing to you to wonder what secrets hide behind that door, what exciting possibilities life will offer you when you open the next door.

The Sitting Spiritually 'Have a Seat With' series takes a look behind the scenes at how we switch off from the bustling modern-day lifestyle. We speak to people of all sorts of backgrounds and lifestyles around the country as we seek to explore the different ways of relaxing and just taking a moment.

Posted on November 11th 2020


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