You think you are building a garden. You’re really building a community! Hans Wieland
I still remember very vividly meeting Michelle Share and Dr. Prannie Rhatigan from the then NWHB in October of 2003, who wanted to improve the national Cardiovascular Strategy. Their question was how to increase knowledge, awareness and skills among target groups in relation to fruit and vegetable production, preparation and consumption, and to promote positive health and well-being. My answer was the Community Food Project organised by The Organic Centre. The concept was simple: a garden, participants, an experienced gardener and a small budget. The aim was: grow together, eat well, be well!
Fast forward 10 years later and community gardens are part of a movement for a new food culture emerging in Ireland, cultivating the soil, the soul and the senses.
There are many reasons for the arrival of community gardens in Ireland, which, as a more rural country, has not had a history of community gardens and allotments like England and other European countries.
One reason is the reclamation of public spaces; for example, the Dolphin’s Barn garden in Dublin was established on a derelict site of some former urban allotments.
“At the time, it was just a disused, overgrown area behind a factory, hemmed in by the canal and a row of houses. And so it happened that about twenty of us sat around in a circle by the canal at Dolphin’s Barn and shared our ideas for what the rough patch of land could become.” ~ Participant
Some community gardens have become community enterprises, producing vegetables for the local market, like the Glor Na Mara community garden in Bundoran.
Some gardens are initiated by immigrant communities as a means of social and cultural expression, and many gardens play a vital role in integrating people from other parts of the world.
Environmental reasons like protecting biodiversity, as in the new Notice Nature measure for the Tidy Towns competition, have become very prominent. The ‘Notice Nature’ Award is a special competition sponsored by The National Parks and Wildlife Service as part of their campaign to reward communities who have undertaken initiatives to protect the biodiversity in their local environment. Some community gardens have wildflower meadows, insect hotels and mini orchards with native Irish apple trees.
When I asked professional gardener Dee Sewell, who works with community gardens and has founded the Community Garden Network*, for her top 5 reasons why people organise themselves around community gardens, she said the following:
1. They learn new skills and how growing, harvesting and eating your own food is good for both mental and physical health.
2. They learn about the seasonality of food, and pick up recipe ideas and new cooking techniques.
3. They have a better appreciation of how difficult it can be to grow food without chemicals and why organic food is venally more expensive at markets and shops.
4. They learn how the successes and failures of growing food are normal.
5. Community gardens are available to anyone regardless of their age, gender or socioeconomic circumstance.
Schools for Gardeners
I think what sets community gardens apart from private gardens or allotments is the learning aspect: community gardens are almost public garden schools, where locals learn about soil fertility, the best varieties of vegetables to sow, how to control weeds and prevent pests and diseases.
This is a very empowering process, as the skill of producing food is very fundamental to human culture. Cooking sessions, summer festivals with a BBQ, harvest celebrations, twinning with local school gardens and seed swaps are just a few features of community gardens. They are becoming a focal point in towns and cities.
Go find your local community garden or start one yourself!
The Organic Centre provides a “how to” guide, a manual on how to start a community garden, on www.theorganiccentre.ie
Also, check out the GIY Ireland website and their new community funding scheme. www.giyireland.com