From professional footballer to garden activist, Tayshan Hayden-Smith has had an extraordinary journey through his young career, including leading one of the legacy gardens at this year's Chelsea Flower Show.

Earliest gardening memory

My earliest gardening memory was with my late mother in our small garden in North Kensington. I had impulsively bought a baby banana tree with my full budget of £5 at my school summer fair and I distinctly remember my mum jokingly saying, "Well, where do you expect me to put this?" The banana tree still stands proud at my mum's place in a pot in the sunny corner of the garden.

RHS / Luke MacGregor

First plant love

Ferns. As a child, wandering through forests of ferns on our family travels in the UK really evoked feelings of excitement and exploration, taking me to a different realm and allowing my imagination to run wild. There is also an avocado tree that I planted with my mum as a seed which has grown up alongside me and means a lot to me.

Who has inspired your career?

My mother. Her teachings, love and way of life put me in good stead to embark on the journey that has been set out for me. I am forever indebted to her and try to continue her legacy through everything that I do.

You haven’t always gardened…

Gardening as a career is a complete change of direction for me, and I am still adjusting. When I see a perfectly mown lawn, I instinctively want to play football on it. Growing up, I’d always have a football at my feet. My love for football was, and is, profound. My aspiration to be a professional footballer was met with hurdle after hurdle, although I had some success playing professionally in Austria and Cyprus. I dedicated my life to football, and it was only after the Grenfell Tower fire [in 2017], when I turned to community guerrilla gardening to heal, that I began to realise the social and environmental impacts of nature.

Community gardening
Grow2Know's Prairie Garden on Lancaster West Estate, West London. © Trustees of the Natural History Museum

Who are your horticultural heroes?

Designers Danny Clarke and Cleve West. I first met Danny at one of the lowest points in my life. After the Grenfell Tower fire, Danny had offered himself up to help the local community in any way he could. Being introduced to him was the best thing that could have happened to me. He’s now a good friend, colleague and mentor, as well as a fellow director of Grow2Know, the not-for-profit organisation I founded in 2019. He is a prime example of how relatable and inspiring role models can have a positive impact on young people. If it wasn't for Danny, I wouldn't have pursued a career in horticulture.

Cleve is another hero of mine, although I know he won't like me saying it. His kindness, humility and values have always empowered me, and I appreciate beyond measure the support and love he has shown me. If only there were more Cleves in the world.

Which garden has most influenced you?

Meanwhile Gardens in Paddington. This brilliant community garden was founded in 1976 by local resident Jamie McCollough on a patch of derelict council-owned land. As he explains on the website, he struggled to get the necessary permissions, paperwork and money to transform the site but when the council admitted it had no current plans for the plot, he managed to bring the community together to create this garden in the ‘meanwhile’.

Back then the area around Meanwhile was one of the poorest in the country, and it still is today. It is less than two miles from Grenfell and much of the immigrant and working-class community that was devastated by the fire has roots and family in the estates around the garden. Its future is still not certain, but those around it continue to improve it, enjoy it, and feel part of it.

More like this

Jamie wrote a book about the making of the garden – all the tensions, the effort, the victories and the disappointments – and what seeps from every sentence is the power of a vision to bring together a community.

Favourite planting style

Naturalistic and informal. Gardens don't need to be perfect, and the environment and biodiversity should always be considered.

Favourite ‘weed’ you’re happy to have in your garden

Dandelions take me back to my childhood and time spent outdoors with my mother, Nancy. Not to mention that as I've grown older, I've learned about the medicinal properties of the plant – that ain't no weed!

Tayshan believes the dandelion should be cherished, not banished. © Tim Graham/Getty

Three most worthwhile tips for every gardener

  • Remember that everyone is a gardener. We are nature and nature is us, so let's embrace and reconnect with it.
  • In the words of Ron Finley, the American guerrilla gardener and social activist, just "plant some shit!"
  • Take an interest in community spaces, speak to your neighbours and maximise the use of your spaces from both an environmental and community perspective.

Most valuable training

Jumping in at the deep end, making mistakes and learning from them.

Biggest challenge facing gardeners today

The lack of interest from young people particularly upsets me. Gardening needs to be part of the school curriculum, for the benefit of young people and the climate. My mission is to make horticulture more inclusive and nature more accessible.

Community gardening project
Tayshan with a young helper in Grow2Know's Prairie Garden, West London © Trustees of Natural History Museum

What can we do as gardeners to help the environment?

Be more sustainable in their gardening. Build a circular economy. Compost is the best way to start. The answers are all in the soil. Healthy soils mean healthy plants, healthy foods and, ultimately, a healthy planet.

What principles have guided your attitude to gardening?

Environmental and social activism are at the core of every project. Change isn't happening quickly enough. I'd be doing my children and future generations an injustice if I didn't take action.

Favourite gardening blogs, Instagram feed, or books?

Rewilding organisation the SUGi Project, We Are Grow (a sustainable food growing and outdoor learning programme in north London), and our very own Ali Yellop, who creates the amazing Grow2Know monthly newsletters.

Do you have a particular aim in your gardening career?

With so much conflict in the world, I want to harness the healing and unifying power of nature to create thriving communities and work towards healing the planet. We have become disconnected from each other and from nature, and there's no sign of that slowing down. I will always make a stand for what I feel is right and try to be a voice for the voiceless. As Bob Marley says, "it takes a revolution to make a solution". This can only be done through collaboration, conversation and understanding – and I'm all ears.

You can see Tayshan's 'Hands off Mangrove' garden for Grow2Know at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2022