The first thing Ivan Markov grew was a mango tree. His father showed him how to take the seed out of the mango when it is fresh and put the head of it into the soil. “One mango bean can produce over 20 plants,” says Markov, 57, who lives in Lewisham, south-east London. “Can you believe that?”
Markov grew up on Bougainville Island, Papua New Guinea, and learned to love nature in these tropical climes. “I used to chase butterflies through bushes and walk through the creeks,” he says.
When he was 12, he moved to Brisbane, Australia, to go to school. As an adult, he worked as a built environment consultant and structural landscaper. In his spare time, he grew things. “At every property I’ve ever lived in,” he says, “I planted bananas, mangoes, pawpaw trees.” Gardening gives Markov the “feeling of creating something from nothing. It gives me so much pleasure.”
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In 2007, he moved to London to work as a teacher. One morning in 2010 he woke up feeling horribly sick. Markov clawed his way to the kitchen and called out to his daughter for help. He was having a heart attack. “Every breath I took was pure pain,” he remembers. “It was pure horror.”
Diagnosed with heart failure, he limped on doing part-time work until 2016, when he was signed off for good. The doctor said the best way Markov could improve his health was with exercise. He read about a Lewisham council award for best residential garden, and though he only has a front garden outside his council flat, he thought the competition would be something to work towards. He worked on his patch for most of the year, planting seeds and plants from pound shops, and cuttings given by neighhours: bleeding hearts, daffodils, tulips, berries and herbs. He won the best front garden prize. “I couldn’t believe it,” he says. “I nearly fell off my seat.”
That was the start. Markov created a community nursery at the side of his house, and started planting bushes across the road. “I had so much beauty in my garden,” he says. “I wanted to share what I had.” One day, Markov heard a chainsaw. Council workers were cutting down some conifers. “I started a new garden on the spot where they chopped down the trees,” he says. “Got beautiful things growing there – stone fruit, strawberries, figs.”
News of Markov’s green-fingered altruism began to spread through the estate. He started offering free one-hour consultations. “I go to someone’s property and give them advice on how to plant a garden,” he says. He delivers cuttings and seeds and helps people repot plants – he charges a pound to cover the soil, but everything else he does is free.
Slowly, Markov’s estate was transformed. “It’s a tranquil paradise here,” he says. “There are vegetable gardens. The kids can learn how to pot and propagate plants.” When he sees a young person with an interest in gardening, he nurtures it. “As soon as a kid comes over and is inquisitive,” Markov says, “I give them a shovel, and show them how to dig a hole properly with their foot.”
Residents’ associations from neighbouring estates began contacting Markov for advice. His first project was in nearby Deptford. To date, Markov has helped six estates embrace sustainable gardening. “What amazes me,” says Sian Griffiths, who met Markov through a local community centre and nominated him for a treat, “is how he uses everything, including grass clippings and weeds.”
He wants to show people you don’t have to live in the country to create beauty. “It doesn’t matter how much space you have. Outside my place there’s a tiny square, tiny. I grow tomatoes there for my supper. The opportunities are endless.”
Markov does all this despite living with heart disease. He walks with a stick and is often dog-tired after a day weeding or digging. Just speaking to me, Markov is out of breath. “I get angina when I’m pushing it,” he says. “But it’s OK. I know what my body can do.” His dream is to create a meadow next to his estate, and he is in negotiations with the council.
When I offer to make something nice happen for Markov, his thoughts go immediately to the community gardens. He says, tentatively, that if it wouldn’t be too much bother, a battery-powered lawn mower would be life-changing. He would finally be able to mow around the nursery and central courtyard – where there’s no power supply. Online retailer Very offer to send Markov a complimentary Einhell cordless lawnmower. I catch up with him the day after it arrives and he’s already put it to good use.
“It’s fantastic,” he says. “Much better than I thought.” He has run it around the communal gardens and used it to mulch some leaves, which he will bag later this week and take to an estate in Deptford. “I’m making a daffodil and tulip bed,” he says. “I’m going to layer it into the soil.”
With one bag of mulch at the time, and a new mower, Markov is making this corner of south-east London a bucolic paradise for all.