How A Footballer Became A Gardener

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For a long time it looked like football was the way Ladbroke Grove-native Tayshan Hayden-Smith would make his name. Then he got into gardening. Now 25, he’s about to make his debut on the BBC’s Your Garden Made Perfect. Tobias Gourlay asked him how this happened…
Photography ARTISTEER;CJP/ISTOCK

I still play semi-pro football. I’ve been lucky to play in different countries, but if you’d told me a few years ago I’d mainly be doing gardening, I’d have laughed. From a very young age, I was in academies and it was always my ambition to play football. There was always a ball at my feet, I’d go to parties in football shirts – all that sort of thing. But maybe there’s a link between gardening and football. I grew up playing in parks all the time, so I guess I was immersed in nature in this way too – trees as goalposts, having to climb into bushes to get your ball back. There are some big-name footballers who are now into gardening, like Eric Dier and Hector Bellerin. And the way football can capture an audience, gardening can certainly learn from that.
 
From about the time I was 12, my mum had cancer. She was on her own with us, but she’d never let it get her down. She was always positive and one of the things she’d always revert back to was nature. She had a very holistic perspective on the world – always pointing out beautiful sunsets or plants that had grown. There were never moments when we’d all be, like, right – let’s go out and garden! But, looking back, it helped us be in the moment, and I think that’s had a massive influence on me.
 
I live in north Kensington, close to Grenfell Tower. When the fire happened in 2017, the whole community went into shock. Whether we knew them well or not, we lost 72 neighbours – 72 people who you knew to say hello to in the street, who you’d interacted with. They were also people’s aunts, uncles and kids. No one really knew how to react, but I guess I instinctively turned to gardening. I started doing some guerrilla gardening in the community. I didn’t know what it was back then – I thought people were calling me a ‘gorilla’. Basically, though, I got into greening up public spaces as a way of healing, and that was my first experience of gardening. Eventually we created the Grenfell Garden of Peace. I saw how powerful it can be in bringing people together. As well as engaging with nature, I was interacting with people in a way I hadn’t done before.

My generation is getting more and more disconnected from nature. Technology is putting distance between us and nature, but there’s also an access issue. I’m blessed I’ve got a really small balcony to work with, but I know a lot of people who live in blocks on estates who don’t have that. They’re also worried about putting food on the table, so why are they going to be thinking about making a garden look pretty when they’re trying to survive?
 
Guerrilla gardening wasn’t really sustainable, I couldn’t just keep going out and taking over spaces without permission. So I started a non-profit called Grow2Know. During the pandemic and the lockdowns, I was quite noisy about access to nature. Where I live we’ve got big houses in South Kensington, with front gardens and back gardens, then just up the road there were people stuck in small flats with no access to green space. Nature is something that’s helped me through trauma, so I was vocal on that access – and then I got approached to be the low-cost garden guy on Your Garden Made Perfect. It’s an amazing platform to try and inspire people to get into gardening.
 
Sometimes I’d see some of my boys walking past me gardening with their boots in hand. They’d look at me and be like, is that Taysh?! I think it was a bit of a shock because the perception of a gardener is not of someone like me. So there was definitely a bit of a laugh and banter on social media, but then I’ll get a message on the sly from one of them saying they really want to grow their own tomatoes and what should they do. So there’s definitely interest. Maybe it’s a bit like when I was growing up: I saw Raheem Sterling, who talks like me and comes from a community like me, doing well as a footballer and that was inspiring. Maybe I can be the Sterling of gardening.

‘‘Anyone sees my ambition and love for it, and starts to think that gardening’s cool, that’s great – even if they don’t think I’m cool! Maybe ‘sexy’ is a better word. I reckon gardening’s something we could make sexy.”

I couldn’t choose between the two. They’re both absolutely essential ways of life. Can I garden at half-time? Forty-five minutes of football, 15 minutes of gardening, then back to the football. That’d be the only way. Though if I was thinking more about the long term, in football your career’s over at 35, but gardening’s for life, so that’d be the sensible investment.
 
I don’t like to use the word ‘cool’ –  I mean I think gardening’s super cool anyway, but I’m not out to prove that to anyone. But if anyone sees my ambition and love for it, and starts to think that gardening’s cool, that’s great – even if they don’t think I’m cool! Maybe ‘sexy’ is a better word. I reckon gardening’s something we could make sexy.
 
I'm really blessed to have two beautiful children and I guess being a dad puts things into perspective. They’re probably why I’m so interested in legacy – you plant a tree today and you might enjoy it but the future generations might too. I find that really powerful. I also don’t want my children growing up a polluted, disconnected kind of world, so if I’m not trying to impact and influence, I’m not doing what I should be. There have been times when I don’t know how I’m going to get through – home-schooling in lockdown was definitely one. We had one iPad in the household and I’d need it for a meeting just when my son was meant to be on Zoom for school. I think I’ve got a very positive outlook on life – that’s my mum’s influence – and that helps. But there are still hurdles. I think we need to normalise just chatting about things. In my friendship group, I think I’m the only dad, so that can be hard, but it has really helped me. Gardening can help with that – it gives you something in common with other people and that breaks down barriers. Doing the Grenfell garden, I’m pretty sure I told my whole life story to a lot of different people – older, younger, from every religion and background. It was a very natural way of doing it and it gave us the space to chat. So, yeah, talking and gardening. That’s how I get through.

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The first episode of Your Garden Made Perfect airs on BBC Two at 8pm on February 4th.

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