Putting down roots: at home with Deena Kestenbaum
Listening to Deena Kestenbaum talk about the area where she lives, anyone might think that the horticulture and wildlife tutor’s home is tucked away in somewhere quaint and rural. In fact, it’s a stone’s throw from the North Circular and a 15-minute tube ride from Central London – and she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I’m surrounded by greenery but I’m so close to the city,” says Deena, whose house sits opposite an old dairy farm and overlooks a field of cows. “It’s a strange juxtaposition, but I’m very happy here.” And yet, finding this house wasn’t a love-at-first-sight scenario – it took many years to turn it into the home it is now: filled with memories and much-loved by Deena’s large family.
Outside, densely planted gardens surround the house, complete with winding pathways and a wildlife pond. Inside, two dogs, Leo and Bazil, lounge in pools of sunlight, summing up the warm and peaceful mood. Instantly transported from the bustle of London (and eager figure out precisely how this happened) we got ready to quiz Deena on the joys of life outdoors and the story of her suburban oasis.
You have a very special spot here. How did you find the house?
It was a bit of an accident. I moved back to London from the Middle East 19 years ago with my four kids, and I needed to live somewhere close to where they’d be going to school. My sister-in-law found the house; I came over for two days, went for one visit and then made an offer. Six months later, I moved in and it seemed like the most terrible mistake. It was so depressing, I just didn’t know how I was going to live here.
What kind of state was it in?
Everything was brown, and from the 1970s. I didn’t have money to do it up as I’d spent all my money on the down payment. It took a long time to make it into the place that it is now. The garden was a big selling point though, as it was fence-to-fence grass with no planting or paving… a real blank canvas.
We bet you couldn’t wait to get your hands on it. Have you always worked in horticulture?
Actually, I used to be a historian. Then, 35 years ago, when I was pregnant with my first child, I moved into small house with a garden and started to read about gardening and trying things out. I’ve always been very aware of nature, and I love animals, but I think that getting a garden at the same time as having my first child made me much more conscious of the environment.
So you decided to retrain?
Yes, I retrained as a garden designer when I came back to London. I felt that I needed a dramatic change and it became very apparent to me that my sense of wellbeing was dependent on being outdoors. While retraining, I met a friend at college and we set up our own company together, which we ran for ten years. Then, very sadly, she died of a brain tumour and I just didn’t want to run the business without her. She was a very dear friend and I just missed her too much.
That must have been incredibly hard. What did you decide to do?
I realised I wanted to be part of something where I could use horticulture for the good of the community. Now, I work as a tutor, teaching horticulture to people who are dealing with mental health issues. I also run a therapy program for depression and anxiety, and I really feel I’ve found my place. I feel very privileged to be able to make a small difference to people’s lives, even if just for a small amount of time.
And, with all the gardening you do at work, do you still enjoy it as a hobby?
Absolutely. I now have an extremely high-maintenance garden and I also have an allotment for fruit and vegetables. Oh, and right next to the allotment, I keep bees. I have three hives, with around 50,000 bees per hive.
That’s a lot of bees! Any other animals we haven’t spotted?
Other than the dogs, I have two chickens called Brenda and Barbara. And there’s an ancient tortoise called Fluffy… my son named him when he was five. He clearly had a sense of humour even then.
Not an obvious choice for a tortoise, we agree. It sounds like this always been a real family home…
The house became a family home both unconsciously and consciously. My four children all experienced growing up in this house, and now I have three grandchildren who spend a lot of time here, too. Because I travelled a lot before coming back to London, life was very fragmented for a long time, and I really wanted to put down roots. I knew when we got here that we had to stay in one place from now on, and that this had to be it.
But, with your love of nature, do you ever think about moving to the countryside?
No, I love London and all that it has to offer. I can be at the National Gallery in 15 minutes. I really like going to galleries, concerts and lectures… although I only tend to do this in the winter when the garden needs less work and the bees are asleep, there’s just no time in the spring and summer.
Spoken like a true gardening devotee. Do you ever head out of the city?
Yes, I love to go away in February for a week on the coast by myself and just walk with the dogs. And then, in June, we tend to have a family holiday in the countryside.
Do you think seeking out nature is helpful for handling stress and tough times?
Yes, but it’s important to talk to people too. And to be kind to yourself. Do the things that help you feel good and stay well, even if that’s just listening to music at home or eating healthily. And getting outside does help. Especially if you can slow down and be more mindful of what you’re seeing and hearing, which can help you step out of your own mental state.
Very sound advice. What about your feel-good rituals and routines?
I like to go to the allotment and harvest whatever is ready to be brought home, and then I’ll cook up a big batch of vegetables for the week, ideally enough so that I can give some to my kids as well. I love listening to the radio, and walking the dogs with friends. And if I have time on the weekend, I like a daytime nap.
Nothing beats a nap. Or a big tray of veggies. We bet you’ve had some great dinners around your kitchen table.
Yes, I always look forward to Friday night dinners with the family. Sometimes, I sit at the top of the table and I look at them all and remember all the challenges we’ve faced, and what it was like being a single mother. I consider my family, my house and my animals, and then I think: I did ok.
A lot more than ok, by the sounds of it…
Well, in the the last few years I’ve really learnt the meaning of that word ‘gratitude’. I’ve learnt to look at what I have and not what other people have. This house very much reflects a journey, which has been long, and at times painful. I feel now, to an extent, that I’ve arrived, and that I understand how to ‘do’ life. I’m very grateful for that.
Recognising the truth in Deena’s wise words, we made a mental note to remind ourselves to be grateful for the everyday, and for the simplest of life’s pleasures. Then, with beehives and an allotment at the top of our newly revised list of life goals, we headed back to into the hubbub of city.