Karen Liebreich on Chiswick Flower Market, fruit gluts, and never taking 'no' for an answer
The driving force behind the new Chiswick Flower Market and countless horticultural campaigns in west London on fruit gluts, fairness and never taking 'no' for an answer. Photograph Charlie Hopkinson
If you’ve ever been to Chiswick, west London, and have been stopped in your tracks by a lovely pocket park, or the sight of verbena swaying in a tree pit, there’s a good chance that Karen Liebreich will be behind it. Not literally – though she is frequently to be found weeding, picking cigarette butts out of flower beds (a particular bug bear) or supervising contractors installing some of her more complicated projects. Without Karen’s drive and tenacity, this city corner would be a more dreary place.
A life-long Londoner, Karen’s first horticultural intervention came when a neighbour coolly annexed a patch of unloved land at the end of the road where she lived as a teenager. Her father promptly removed the newly erected fence and Karen and her brother gardened the plot for the next few years, formalising a cut-through into a path, and planting daffodils, herbs and donated plants. “It was the unfairness of it,” she says. “The idea that this guy, a local political bigwig, just thought he could appropriate it. It was common land, it belonged to us all, and by doing something as simple as planting a few bulbs, we made it a joy for everyone."
By planting a few bulbs, we made it a joy for everyone
Beautifying un- or under-used bits of land for the common good is now how Karen spends most of her time, but it wasn’t always thus. Having received her doctorate in History at Cambridge, she worked as a cultural attaché at the French Institute before moving on to make documentaries for the BBC and other production companies. She then launched and subsequently sold her publishing business, The Baby Directory, and, through it all, has written books, including the highly acclaimed Fallen Order, an exposé of 17th-century paedophile priests.
So thoughts of horticultural activism were far from her mind when, one day in 2005, she took her dog for a walk around Chiswick House. Chatting to some workmen, she discovered that the historic walled garden there was soon to be turned into a car park. She was outraged and, having galvanised the local community, set up a charity and spearheaded an often bitter but ultimately triumphant campaign to save it. “To have a beautiful walled garden dating to 1682 in London at a time of increasing childhood obesity and the biodiversity crisis, and to see it only as a car park for those attending corporate events – that’s a catastrophic failure of imagination,” she says.
To have a beautiful walled garden dating back to 1682 in London and to see it only as a car park for those attending corporate events - that's a catastrophic failure of imagination
Since then she’s been involved in countless horticultural projects, including Abundance London – a charitable organisation she set up with local resident Sarah Cruz, which harvests fruit gluts, and plants and maintains the aforementioned pocket parks (around 15 at the last count) – and was a founder member of the Chelsea Fringe. In 2013, she was awarded an MBE for services to horticulture and education in west London, and in 2016 she designed and created the Salopian garden, a community garden in Isleworth for Cultivate London. Most recently, she was one of the driving forces behind Chiswick Flower Market, London’s first new flower market for 150 years.
Her motivation is primarily environmental and she feels it viscerally – particularly since she has seen first-hand through Abundance London that the apple harvest in Chiswick is now a full month earlier than it used to be. “We all worry about the climate and the increasing disconnect with nature and I just want to do something that’s effective, if only on a minuscule scale,” she says, modestly.
Her motto of sorts is ‘small, defiant acts of beauty’, a phrase with which she signs off some of her project missives, and she’s keen that more of us engage in them. “Urban environments are often harsh and ugly, but if you can create a little patch of bee-friendly plants where rubbish used to collect, then you’ve achieved something.”
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Just don’t expect it to be easy, Karen warns. While a flower market or a bed of perennials might look beautiful, the underlying reality, even for the simplest intervention, is often months of liaison with the council and other organisations, mountains of paperwork and, sadly, online personal abuse by those opposed to the changes. And even once it’s built, the problems don’t stop. “Our patches get strimmed, dogs use them, people throw their beer bottles in,” she says. “It can be depressing.”
Seeing the gardens alive with bees makes me think I'm doing my bit for the planet we're so mercilessly trashing
Despite it all, she’s adamant it’s worth it. “Most of the time, these projects are fun. It’s fun to work communally with others and many people locally have got a lot in terms of physical and mental health and sociability out of the projects that I’ve started and which they themselves have then put huge amounts of effort into.” Then there are the environmental benefits: “Seeing the gardens alive with bees, butterflies and grasshoppers makes me think I’m doing my bit for the planet we are so mercilessly trashing.” And finally, there’s the pleasure that it gives, both to her and to others. “Someone came up to us while we were weeding and said, ‘are you the people who put joy in my heart every time I come past here?’ That made us feel pretty good.”
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