Seeds of hope: Chelsea Flower Show inspires refugee gardeners

Lemon Tree Trust's garden reflects the hidden beauty in refugee camps; UNHCR is working with others to create small plots in camps in Iraq and elsewhere.

Two refugees sitting in a garden at Domiz refugee camp.
© Dirk Jan Visser

LONDON, England: As the world’s largest flower show blooms into life this week in London, hundreds of Syrian refugees in Iraq are reaping the benefits of seed packets sent to them recently by the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS).


The 2,000 seed packets have been delivered to the Domiz Camp in Northern Iraq, which is run by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency. The camp was the inspiration behind the Lemon Tree Trust Garden, one of the most striking installations at this year’s Royal Horticultural Society Chelsea Flower Show.

Created by garden designer Tom Massey, who collaborated with UNHCR in 2016 on the award-winning Border Control garden at the RHS Hampton Court Flower Show, the garden aims to reflect the hidden beauty that can be found within refugee camps and highlights the vital lifeline that gardening can provide to people who have been displaced by war.

In March this year Massey visited Domiz Camp, which is home to over 40,000 Syrians, to see how refugees are using the power of plants to improve their environment, and their sense of well-being.

His Chelsea garden makes use of materials that are available in the camp, such as concrete and steel, and an ‘innovation wall’ is filled with tin cans and plastic bottles used as containers for vertical planting, ideal for gardening in limited spaces. Channels of water radiate from the Islamic-influenced star-shaped fountain, representing the importance of grey water reuse in the camps and the many improvised fountains refugees have built in their own gardens.

The Lemon Tree Trust Garden - designed by Tom Massey - at this year's RHS Chelsea Flower Show.   © Britt Willoughby Dyer

“I was continually amazed by the ability of the camp’s residents to create gardens in such a harsh environment and with very limited resources,” said Massey. “It was fantastic to see the individuality people express in their personal spaces. The atmosphere in the camp was friendly and positive, and people I met were strong, resilient and inspiring individuals.”

UNHCR is working with the UK-based not-for-profit organisation Lemon Tree Trust by providing water and drainage systems for the makeshift gardens that residents have begun to plant in the small plots of arid land surrounding their shelters. There are also plans to create a fresh marketplace that has the potential of providing a small income for refugees from the sale of surplus vegetables grown from the seeds.

For many refugees, simply having a small patch of garden around them is a way to put down new roots and a means to help feed their family.

Aveen Ismail fled Damascus with her family and now lives in Domiz Camp. “Syria is green,” she said, “but here it was like a desert until we started growing plants and trees. Creating a garden was a way for us to heal and remind us of home. When we learned about the donation from the RHS, we were thankful not only for the seeds but also for a feeling of friendship with other gardeners across the world.”

"For those displaced by war, gardening gives individuals and families a sense of peace and purpose"

The RHS’s seed donation to refugees this year marks the centenary of a striking historical parallel. In 1918, around the end of the First World War, the RHS sent cases of seeds to British prisoners of war in the Ruhleben internment camp in Germany. Both the POWs and the refugees had similar requests of the RHS: a mixture of cut-flower seeds, including marigolds and sunflowers, to bring colour and revive memories of home, along with vegetables such as peppers and cucumbers.

The similarities show that, for people suffering from the trauma of conflict, gardening has the ability to provide sanctuary, and the potential to heal. In Iraq and elsewhere, UNHCR is helping refugees to establish small gardens and growing schemes for the positive practical and psychological benefits they bring to the displaced.

In parallel with the Chelsea Flower Show, this week the Lemon Tree Trust is running flower competitions in five camps in Northern Iraq, to be judged by UNHCR, as a way of encouraging the budding gardeners.

The Trust’s founder, Stephanie Hunt, explained why it was important for the organisation to support gardening initiatives: “For those displaced by war, gardening gives individuals and families a sense of peace and purpose, allowing them to take pride in nurturing a favourite rose bush or adding garden-grown herbs to meals that remind them of home.”

At Chelsea, Massey’s garden has won a Silver Gilt medal in recognition of its innovative design and creative use of planting, which includes plants found in Syria such as pomegranate trees, roses, alliums, dazzling blue anchusa and of course, a magnificent, flowering lemon tree.

Vote today for the Lemon Tree Trust Garden in the People's Choce Awards

  •  A rose bush growing in Domiz refugee camp, home to over 40,000 Syrian refugees.
    A rose bush growing in Domiz refugee camp, home to over 40,000 Syrian refugees. © Dirk Jan Visser
  • Limited space, unlimited creativity: the "innovation wall" in the Lemon Tree Trust's garden draws parallels from the vertical planting used in Domiz refugee camp.
    Limited space, unlimited creativity: the "innovation wall" in the Lemon Tree Trust's garden draws parallels from the vertical planting used in Domiz refugee camp. © Britt Willoughby Dyer
  • The fruits of labour: Massey's garden won a Silver Gilt medal for its innovative design and creative use of Syrian flora
    The fruits of labour: Massey's garden won a Silver Gilt medal for its innovative design and creative use of Syrian flora  © Britt Willoughby Dyer
  • Flower power: Massey's experiences in the Domiz refugee camp inspired his work on the Lemon Tree Trust Garden.
    Flower power: Massey's experiences in the Domiz refugee camp inspired his work on the Lemon Tree Trust Garden.  © Britt Willoughby Dyer