Home » Sowing Roots: Caribbean Garden Heritage in South London » Sowing Roots: Esiah Levy

Sowing Roots: Esiah Levy

Esiah Levy, known as Rodney Levy to his family, created SeedsShare in 2016. This involved growing vegetables in his back garden, saving the seeds and then sending the seeds to people around the world for the cost of packing and posting. He hoped that people would send different seeds back to him, for him to grow, save and send. He came to the Garden Museum in January 2018 to take part in Incredible Edible Lambeth’s Seed Swap event sharing seeds that he’d grown.

Esiah was born in Croydon in July 1986, was married and a father to two young sons. The Garden Museum had hoped to interview Esiah for our Caribbean Garden Heritage project but in January 2019, Esiah passed away very suddenly, at the age of 32.

The 2019 Seed Swap at the Garden Museum was dedicated to his memory. Organised by Incredible Edible Lambeth, spoken word poetry was performed in his memory by Mama D Ujueje and Carole Wright, an extract of which can be seen here.

When we finally embarked on the Sowing Roots Caribbean Garden Heritage project in 2020, we still wanted to include Esiah Levy’s story. We set about trying to make contact with his family. Food writer (and Great British Bake-Off finalist) Ruby Tandoh had written about him. It was via contacting Ruby directly that we were introduced to Esiah’s widow Kealy and his sister Syreeta who both agreed to be interviewed and be part of our Sowing Roots exhibition.

Syreeta Levy is the older sister of Esiah Levy, known as Rodney, to his family. Both Esiah and Syreeta were born in Croydon. Esiah was born in July 1986. Their mother is of Jamaican descent and was born in the UK and their father came to the UK from Jamaica as a teenager.

One of the young people involved in the project and who interviewed Syreeta, Edward Adonteng, was so inspired by Esiah when he read Ruby Tandoh’s article very early on in the project, that he immediately got involved in gardening and food growing. Edward interviewed Syreeta in July 2021. Syreeta is a barber, and it was her brother Esiah’s (Rodney) dying wish that she follow her passion and open a barber shop. She was photographed for the project in her barber shop with Esiah’s bike in the background. It is a permanent fixture in her shop in memory of him.

Syreeta Levy (c) Federico Rivas

“Nobody knew he was going to pass away” she explained, “he went to hospital when his lower back was hurting him, and he collapsed. His wife called the ambulance.”

Esiah and Syreeta’s father came to the UK from Jamaica as a teenager. Their mum was born in the UK and her parents had come from Jamaica. Syreeta describes her father as a disciplinarian. He liked to garden and grew vegetables, leaving little space for his children to play without fear of damaging his plants. She remembers “sweetcorn, there was always tomatoes growing, there was mint … strawberries, onions, runner beans.” Syreeta thinks that food growing is a skill that “people brought with them from India, Jamaica or whatever, just the whole cultivation, rather than just having a Tesco down the road.”

Syreeta thinks that her brother started gardening when he bought his house in Croydon. He ‘was at his calmest when he was in this garden.” He also had an allotment. When Syreeta went travelling to Thailand, Malaysia, Cambodia, Vietnam, Esiah would ask her to bring seeds back, like unusual tomato varieties, “I’d get him a little seed as a souvenir, he liked to have seeds”.

Her fondest memory of her brother growing up was watching him go through different phases “but one thing he stuck to, I have to give him credit, was the gardening.” She thinks that gardening was even more important to him after he became a dad, “I think his son being born was the catalyst that helped him to look at food and growing food…. I think that was more his passion, his little boy incentivised him to grow stuff and eat healthy”. She believes that he was trying to show his son that “you can actually grow your own food and be resourceful, and things can be recycled”.

When Syreeta lived with Esiah and his wife Kealy, there were no dustbins in the house, everything was recycled. “I remember the cold nights you had to scrape your plate outside.” She can also recall the unpleasant smell from the oven when he was baking banana skins, eggshells and coffee grounds to make fertiliser for the garden. He would tell her that “you don’t need the best soil; you can make your own soil… I remember he used to get coffee grounds from coffee shops for his soil… Yeah, he was very much that guy, he was passionate about it.”

Syreeta can remember her brother explaining the idea of SeedsShare to her. He’d send seeds to people across the world, charging them for postage and packing. People could then grow the seeds he’s saved from vegetables in his garden. They could then send him seeds saved from their own vegetables for him to try to grow, “And I remember him showing me this map of where his seeds have gone to and people messaging him from Ghana… I was like, oh my God, it made it to Ghana!”

Rodney would sometimes “tweak” vegetables by cross-pollinating them or grafting them, to create new varieties. Syreeta thinks SeedsShare grew through Esiah’s Instagram account, Croydon Gardener.

She remembers being at Esiah’s house when he was preparing seed packets for posting – envelopes were stacked high with seeds in. She’d accompany him to the Post Office – to send them to addresses all around the world, “It used to really excite him.”

Syreeta thinks Esiah’s favourite plant was probably squash, “the reason why I say squash is ‘cos I remember him talking about squash a lot… from my memory, I think he was more passionate about his squashes and pumpkins… And I’m not going to lie, they were good!”

At the end of Syreeta’s interview with Edward, Esiah’s legacy was discussed. Edward explained to Syreeta how he’d read Ruby Tandoh’s article and the impact that Esiah’s story had on him. He said:

“And for me, like a young black man, looking at someone I can look to and his dedication to his plants, based on what I’ve seen so far, is astronomical to me… Like, he’s my direct inspiration to horticulture. So, when you were talking about his legacy, to me it’s now my duty to spread his name, like the seeds, just spread it.”

Photo (c) Federico Rivas

The following extracts are from the interview with Esiah’s widow Kealy Levy in July 2021 at the Garden Museum. Kealy was interviewed by Jen Kavanagh, oral historian for our Caribbean Garden Heritage project.

Kealy and Esiah were both born the same year. They met at college in 2006. He was not like other guys; he was quiet and focused on work and college, “I always say he was a bit of me”.

Kealy has a large extended family (her grandmother had seven children) and is still close to Esiah’s family too. She has two sons aged eight and three at the time of interview. She doesn’t consider herself to have green fingers. She grew up living with her grandmother who is Jamaican, and grew vegetables, herbs etc. in her large garden, “So it was always very vibrant, especially in the summertime.” As more grandchildren came along, the garden changed use.

Kealy’s grandmother came to the UK from Jamaica in the late 60s. “My grandma’s an amazing cook… Her favourite thing which I think she’s known for, that everyone knows her for is her curry goat.”

Kealy recalls her grandmother instilling in her and the family certain plants as medicines for any ailments she had growing up “that she carried over from Jamaica. The one thing that just always stands out, and every Jamaican British person that’s over here can’t stand it, is called Cerasee tea. Whenever you’re sick or you’re got a bellyache or whatever she’ll always make sure that I drank that.  It is the most disgusting thing you will ever have in your life; it is so bitter. So yeah, that’s one thing that stands out. And also, aloe vera.”

Kealy thinks Esiah was always green fingered. “He’d never spoke about it until he moved in with me to my nan’s, just before we got married”. Then about six months after their marriage, “we moved into a flat that didn’t have any gardening space, so he started growing stuff in pots… and that’s when I started thinking, oh, like this is more than, just, you know, the average gardening, he was really invested and then it kind of grew from there… so I’d say that was about, like 2010, is when I really started seeing a different side to him in regards to the fact that he loved gardening.”

Kealy attributes this to the fact that Esiah had grown up with a garden which he took for granted and that when he moved to the flat there was no space to grow anything, “so I think that’s what inspired him too.”

Kealy Levy and her son Mehki (c) Federico Rivas

He used to talk to Kealy’s grandma about food, herbs and spices. He also tried to cook some of her recipes which were not written down but passed onto him verbally.

Esiah did a gardening course and they moved to a house with a garden. It soon became a garden full of plants, “It was like a forest….. it was such a plain canvas when we first moved in…I couldn’t believe it, it was amazing.”

“SeedsShare started in 2016, it kind of came out of the blue actually. I think he got sent some seeds from somewhere, and it just popped into his head one day like, oh my God, I can grow stuff, get the seeds out of them and resell, like give them away. So, I think that was – that’s how it kind of started and as his social media grew the – like his business so to speak grew.  And yeah, his main focus was just getting seeds to people that might not necessarily know how to get them, or how to access them, easily.”

Kealy and Esiah had had their first son and she was pregnant with her second son when they discussed what to do about the garden as there was no space for the children to play. Esiah decided to get an allotment. “I used to joke about with him and say that (the garden) was his mistress.”

They decided to leave the garden and move house in 2018 “taking some trees and some small plants…but a lot of it was left, and so the new owners were very fortunate to be honest, and the plan was for him to start – we had raised beds… but then have an allotment as his main source. But unfortunately, that didn’t happen.” Kealy found out after they moved house that the new owners had taken all the plants out of the garden and she thought it best not to tell Esiah. They had moved in during 2012 and moved out in 2018 so it was six years of hard work.

“I think it was his solace… he had such a high-pressured job, he worked for TfL, and it was his way of releasing a lot of stress and he enjoyed it, you know. It was one of those things that he passed down to his son Mehki, so it was something that gave him a lot of peace… everything else was stressed and manic. I used to see him just relax when he was in the garden.”

Amongst Esiah’s favourite plants, Kealy cites corn on the cob, “just because he didn’t just grow yellow, it was like a rainbow” …..”and one of his favourites, actually his favourite, was squashes, he used to love the squashes, all different types.” For Kealy, the most attractive part of the garden was where the corn on the cob was grown, “the corn, beautiful, it was just long and luscious”. One of the plants that reminds Kealy of Esiah is the apple tree that he brought from the old garden to the new one. His son, Mehki, even knows the name of the variety.

Kealy thinks that Esiah valued gardening for its potential to reach people, “he wanted, especially young people in the areas that he grew up, to be able to know that you can eat healthily, you can grow your own fruit and vegetables and it doesn’t have to cost a fortune. And I think that’s probably where SeedsShare came about, you know, being able to just give food away at no cost, and you can still eat well, you know. I think that was high up on his agenda.”

Kealy used to help Esiah to pack up the seeds and label the envelopes. She and the family did not realise how much reach SeedsShare had until Esiah died. “I especially was overwhelmed with the amount of people that contacted me when he passed away… people from abroad were contacting me, Ghana, the Caribbean, it was mad… but it’s the power of social media as well, you know, he was on Twitter and Instagram, and Facebook, so it was quite powerful.”

Photo (c) Federico Rivas

Kealy hasn’t been able to continue SeedsShare. For a long time, she couldn’t look at Esiah’s packets of seeds, it was too painful. Her wish for the future is that “his philosophy will continue, that you can obtain seeds freely, and quite easily… and his passion, I’ve never known anyone as passionate in regards to gardening, so I really do hope that continues with whoever, the people that he interacted with, he touched… I’m hoping so.”