It’s hard to do justice to this garden in a photo. A maze of planted baskets spreads over much of the ground area of the Jardin de l’Univert, interspersed with shrubs and small trees growing directly in the ground. The ground around the baskets is rough grass, muddy in winter, baked hard in summer. The plants in the baskets are dependant on regular attention, so the shrubs in between have an advantage. Any view of the garden is likely to include some thriving, healthy plants and some that have been overlooked in the watering, or shaded by an overhanging shrub. There’s always something good to see here, but often something that hasn’t quite worked out yet as well.
The pictures on the Jardin de l’Univert’s own blog mostly focus on the people, as that’s what this garden is really about. The garden provides a relaxing place to meet and to chat, to share problems, to learn and to celebrate. Gardening is a shared activity but not an end in itself. This is a jardin solidaire (a solidarity garden), supported by the association Halage, and also a jardin partagé (or shared garden), signed up to the Main Verte charter. The garden carries the weight of a lot of hopes and aspirations.
Gardening in baskets isn’t a sign of short term tenancy and an imminent move. Paris Habitat, the owners of the land and the city’s main social housing provider, were concerned about the possibility of soil contamination from previous land use, so specified above ground cultivation for edible crops. Soil tests could establish whether this is a necessary precaution or not, but the baskets are now part of the character of the garden and they would be missed. When baskets rot and collapse, after two or three seasons use, it’s time to head down to the market on rue Dejean to collect some more. The lightweight baskets are non-returnable containers, used for shipment of fresh produce from west Africa and available in seemingly endless, free supply for community gardens in the Goutte d’Or quartier.
I spend three or four hours here each week, so I’m getting to know the horticultural and human aspects of the garden quite well. Nominally I’m a volunteer and help support the gardening activities, but I’ve also been improving my French, enjoying good company and conversation and putting down some roots in the city. At first I found the gardening frustrating. As a designer I kept seeing ways the baskets could be better arranged and as a practical gardener I wanted to get digging, to improve the hard-packed clay soil, but I soon realised I was missing the point. Here working together, with time for coffee and conversation, comes before efficiency and productivity. And beauty is in the eye of the beholder.