Community Gardens: do we care?

July 17, 2014

in Articles, General Interest

Bee on Inula flower Aug 2013 Veddw copyright Anne Wareham s

I am very busy just now, so instead of the usual post  I am inviting a discussion by means of two links about community gardens.

Do we really care about them? Are they a sop to a sentimental notion of community? Do they open up gardening?  Do we like them? Are they the future of gardening? Or just terribly worthy?

I know you can comment on the sites in question, but you might like to think of coming back to a discussion here.

Here are the links:

Darryl Moore on Designing Community Gardens in the Guardian


Lia Leendertz: ‘Getting Dirty with the Neighbours  on Garden Buildings Direct

My thanks to Lucy Masters once again – this time for this suggestion. And to the editors of the sites linked to.

Anne Wareham, editor

PS I think there may be a place still on the thinkingardens supper on September 20th, which will involve tea at Veddw, then supper at the Anchor in Tintern with the discussion: do we still want beauty in our gardens or is beauty passé? For that place contact Lucy:

Fushia drip Early July Veddw copyright Anne Wareham 017


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Sara Venn July 24, 2014 at 12:10 am

Community gardens can be emotive, of that there is little doubt. But as someone who is making their business partly to be that of setting up community growing groups, so inevitably gardens, I feel I must fight for the corner of the community garden and the difference it can make to people’s lives.
Whilst setting up Incredible Edible Bristol what was foremost in the minds of myself and those I am working with, wasn’t actually gardening. The reality in any community project is that what you set up to do is actually inconsequential until the project is set up, the boundaries made and often remade several times, the fights and falling outs had, and the friendships made. The most unlikely people always come to the fore, and the projects you expect to be simple end up fizzling out whereas those that seem tough often flourish. Gardening, or the idea of it, brings these people together, but often it becomes so much more in that it empowers individuals who often feel they have no voice to stand up and shout for something that until recently they had no idea was even open to them.
It’s not surprising community gardens mainly arise in cities. Nor is it particularly so that often it’s people from deprived areas who gain most from, and return back to, a community project. Five children in a 2 bed flat, 7 storeys up in Central Bristol is enough to make anyone run to a sanctuary where and when ever they can.
Often we are asked, particularly of the gardens that are in public spaces, what we might do if people take the food. The answer of course is that the food is there to be taken but this obviously often takes people aback. Why would a group make a space to grow food in and then be happy for others to take it? The answer is to look at what community is. A group of like minded folk coming together to make a garden is one thing but what makes them a community? And why do they think their community shouldn’t support the rest of the community that is out there? Complex questions which are made harder by complex communities, who often are communities, within other communities, all of whom are mixing together. So our ethos is that the food is there for all. Does this make us terribly worthy? No. It makes us realists who know that in open spaces food will be taken and it’s preparing groups for the inevitable. Not worthy and in fact almost cynical.
As for are they the future of gardening, that I doubt. But what they do is allow people who often have a wish a way of making that wish come true. Mrs 7 Storeys Up exists and being part of a community growing project has given her a voice to stand up for things that previously she never would have. And her children now spend time outside and know where food comes from. Small steps that make enormous differences to people’s lives, and to the lives of the people around them. Growing is powerful and growing food is more powerful still, particularly if you think it is an option you will never have. From someone who could only talk soaps and sadness, Mrs 7 Storeys Up now watches cookery shows, shares her kitchen with friends to make healthy meals for kids all around her from food from the garden, volunteers at other gardens and projects when her brood are at school and is making a difference in those spaces too, as well as in her own community. Mrs 7 Storeys Up of course says this is because of the garden, but it isn’t. It’s about the empowerment that garden and food growinghas given her. It’s about saying I’m taking control.
So like them or not, think they’re worthy, a bit sentimental or whatever, the reality is ‘gardening builds communities'(huge thanks to Ron Finley for that quote) and I think myself lucky to be working to support groups to find their voices and fight for what they think is important. It’s never going to change the face of gardening but it might change the world, one small step at a time, as lots of small steps lead to big movements of change.

lucy July 18, 2014 at 2:47 pm

The World bank has estimated that 80% of the UK population lives in urban areas.

The UK National Ecosystem assessment (NEA) have calculated that 6.8% of the Uk’s land area is classified as urban.

That means most of us are squashed into a tiny bit of the country, which means all green spaces or derelict waste land in the cities are an incredibly precious resource.
Why then don’t we care about them? Is it because they are so often hidden patches of green kept behind gates? Perhaps it’s because if you don’t know anything about horticulture they are intimidating places? Do the friends of become an impenetrable clique? Or are we just generally to lazy to get up and help?

The trouble is I think we have a single idea of a community garden and it a parochial one. If the notion that community gardens are valuable because they bring communities together – getting people outdoors, engaging children in the natural world rather than video games, then they stop becoming a community resource that can be enjoyed in innumerable ways. Sometimes, the benefits of a community garden are not always self evident. I used to live by the Bonnington Square garden in the middle of Vauxhall. Even though I didn’t work in them and visited just on and off, they were profoundly wonderful. I still remember the feeling as having fought my way on and off three trains on the underground and then crossed six lanes of traffic I could turn a corner and suddenly hear birds singing. After a usually wretched day it was an amazing thing.

I believe that in order to breathe life into community gardens we need to broaden our thoughts about what and where they are. The oasis run by the wonderful ‘Friends of..’ are essential but they are only one type. I love the idea of public gardens, so you have Gibbon’s Rent that Darryl describes or the new series of 100 Pocket Gardens that have been given the go-ahead by the London Mayor. These aren’t going to involve community hands on work but will undoubtably benefit the community who pass by them. They will require local councils to care and invest and they won’t do that unless we want them to. Alternatively, there is a fantastic project in Canning Town run by Core Arts Charity. In the swathes of derelict land that are awaiting the new construction of town centre a temporary community garden has been established to use the land while it’s not being used – as it were. In this instance the charity is using the land for people to work on it and there is no public access but surely this is a good model and use of space? Popup shops are happening all over the place – why not the pop up gardens? A single season of flowers and vegetables grown in pallets that can be transported to the next site. A waste land scattered with poppy seeds and you wouldn’t need to go into the space – just to walk past a field of poppies would make your day.

World Bank figures

This is Mark Easton about how much of the UK is built on – the (NEA stuff)

GrowingPlace in Canning Town

Pocket gardens

Holly Allen July 19, 2014 at 10:35 am

What a wonderfully well-argued case for the community garden. Thank you for that, and for posting the links.

I completely agree, the many pressures on urban areas are critical and the retention of under or ill-used green spaces in these areas is indisputable. Green spaces alleviate many stresses on urban dwellers, acting as breathing spaces for people whose lives are often dominated by concrete and tarmac. The ‘worthy’ debate for me just seems to comprise of a few people who get their knickerbockers in a bit of a twist about being ‘told what to do’ and what is important.

I concur that the ‘community garden’ moniker implies a certain amount of busybodyishness and maybe for that reason it’s not particularly helpful to the cause. I think being irritated by the ‘worthiness’ of community gardens is a highly priveleged stance – I can’t afford to be annoyed by it, because I believe that the reappropriation of underused or poorly maintained green spaces for community purposes would certainly enhance my own life immeasurably. I live in an urban area with no trees on my street at all, and a woeful patch of land down the road (previously a small park with play equipment) is horribly underexploited.

I’ve been trying to secure the land for community use for some time, and am happy to say that I’m starting to finally get somewhere. Yes, I do care, and so do the rest of the residents on my street, fortunately. You won’t hear them talking about worthiness, because they all want to be able to sit under some nice trees in a thoughtfully maintained, super-local green space like I do.

All the beautifully maintained garden squares in wealthy areas of London are essentially just ‘community gardens’. I think the moniker is the most offputting thing about this type of garden – I’m sure they are as interesting and diverse as the people who run them.

Martin July 17, 2014 at 9:37 pm

Journalists always seem to give an unbalanced view of community gardens – in fact community anything. I expect it’s because they turn up, listen to people trying to make a place sound exciting and then forget to mention the negatives which would give a more balanced view.

For a start community gardens require retired people active within the community or ladies whose husbands earn sufficient for them to be involved in active volunteering (rarely does this work the other way round). And then it also needs someone to organize everyone, to coordinate the gardening, make sure the insurance is paid, apply for grants, etc. It’s usually two or three people in each group who do much of the work – they are the ones who say thank you to the troops for turning up to do the gardening on workdays, arrange the tea and cakes and generally make sure things run smoothly. They rarely get thanked themselves.

Equally there are the disagreements over what should be done and not done – with volunteers everyone is equal so the discussions can get heated and personal. Some people may be vocal but horticulturally clueless so their ideas don’t work, or they have ideas but expect someone else to run around and implement them. You can’t tell them to go away because it’s a community decision, right?

And then imagine….you’ve been tending a crop of gooseberries all year, they are going to be ripe next week (you’ve been checking) and someone comes and picks them all before you get to them…well it is a community garden.

The reality is that community gardens are a small group of people who run and use some public open space that the vast majority of the local community at best like the idea but never actually visit and at worst are indifferent. Let’s face it, if you have ever walked down a street you can see that most people don’t even know what to do with their own garden let alone one permanently in the public gaze.

That said, usually the only viable option for some sites is a ‘Friends of’ group particularly with local authority cutbacks occurring in the UK, and where a community garden does work it can be a great resource for the local community and give a sense of purpose to many lives…but it is hard work.

I wrote some general tips about community gardens illustrated by pictures of a community orchard in a rural village in the Yorkshire Dales –

Tristan Gregory July 17, 2014 at 7:50 pm

The re-emergence of commons is to be lauded, enclosure was one of the filthiest acts of economic and social domination the British ruling class ever undertook. To describe them as community gardens almost underplays their potential for making societies out of individuals. To work their rules must be simple and membership an unequivocal right of residency.
Just don’t try to squeeze something else into gardening’s Big Tent.

Skr July 17, 2014 at 4:33 pm

There was a lot of cheerleading for community gardens in those pieces. In my experience, the community garden experience can definitely be enjoyable but it can also be very dramatic, as you can probably imagine would be the case when you bring a bunch of different people together.

The first issue that typically comes up is organic or not. Even when you settle on organic you still get friction with other members about the level of organic. Some people will adhere to a ‘no chemicals’ version of organic and thus end up having some nasty infestations that they don’t control and then spread to neighboring plots. When their neighbors spray pyrethrin to control the advancing hordes you can bet you will get an ear full from the ‘no chemical’ gardener if they see you spraying your plot to control the bugs that came from their plot.

Then there is the issue of varying notions of tidiness. Some people will keep pristine well tended and weeded plots. Others will take a more laissez faire approach to weeding and thus have horribly overgrown beds that go to seed and drop seed all over your well tended plot. This then carries over to the communal spaces that are typically only tended by the few tidy people. If those people get busy then the whole thing gets overgrown and weedy. One community garden in the area has a very strict director who yells at people if they don’t chop up their compost feedstock properly with a machete. Don’t worry, you have to take his mandatory class on chopping compost before you are allowed to have a plot. So you’ll know how to do it right. All of these issues are pretty common out here, but in the end aren’t that big of a deal. You are always going to have friction when you bring a bunch of people together. It’s not going to be all rainbows and unicorns.

Then there is the potential for more serious drama. When you have a community garden, there needs to be some sort of hierarchy to manage the garden. When you have fundraisers you have funds and that necessitates a treasurer. All this leads to politics and factions. Funds also presents a target for con artists. We had a garden member that had been with the garden for years. He eventually became president. At some point, the treasurer had to quit for personal reasons. So the president became the temporary treasurer because there were bills that needed paying. Well, those bills never got paid and he skipped town with thousands of dollars. Because the rent hadn’t been paid in months, the garden got locked down and we were evicted. Drama. Drama. Drama.

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