There is a lot of research that demonstrates the fact that gardening is very good for us. Gardens and landscapes have long been designed as sanctuaries and retreats from the stresses of life – from great urban green spaces in many cities to the humblest suburban backyard. But beyond the passive enjoyment of a garden or of being in nature more generally, we also now understand that gardening plays a role as a therapeutic and educational tool.
The recent growth in community gardens has also shown that gardening can have a therapeutic effect on the community. It can help with social inclusion, building community spirit and capacity and, along with providing exercise and activity options, it can also assist in increasing the consumption of fresh fruit and vegetables.
Today community gardens have become places where the people in a community are able to come together to grow food, promote good health and nutrition, create green urban or town environments, support whole of life learning and cultivate vibrant communities.
But there is nothing new about community gardens. Gardening on public land dates back to the early 19th century when the British Government allocated plots of land to the poor to grow vegetables and flowers. Since that time they have continued to flourish in some form. From the victory gardens of WWI and WWII to large-scale modern greening projects, to small kerbside or verge gardens, community gardening has continued to adapt to the requirements of the community and the times.
Community gardens have played a critical role in community and social development all over the world. In the UK and Europe allotment gardens have been an important source of food for many families, some passing on allotments for several generations. In Cuba, organically farmed community gardens fed millions of people after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the withdrawal of its economic support in 1989. In Asia, community gardening remains a typical way of life in many villages.
In Australia, community gardens started with people working together in response to war and food shortages. The modern iteration of community gardening began with Melbourne’s Nunawading in 1977, followed in 1985 in Sydney, with community gardening at Callan Park in Rozelle. From these early beginnings, community gardens became increasingly popular and now many councils have supportive community garden policies. Some community gardens are so popular they have long waiting lists, highlighting the strong demand for people to become involved.
Community gardens have been recognised as an innovative way to grow food and improve health. Social connectedness is also a key feature of community gardening. They bring together people from all walks of life, backgrounds and ages to foster a lively and connected community. While gardening is the attraction and the focus, these community gardens have become community hubs for a variety of activities – learning and education, playgroups, arts and creative activities, preparing and sharing food, community events, celebrations and social enterprise.
Transforming an unused plot of land into productive community hubs is just one of the benefits of community gardening. These neighbourhood groups develop a shared passion for fresh produce and work together to learn and share knowledge of growing food, help reduce family food budgets and provide opportunities for exercise, recreation and learning, as well as being spaces for contemplation and relaxation. Community gardens point the way to living sustainably in an urban environment, demonstrating waste minimisation, composting and water-usage techniques that can be used by people in their own homes.
There are now many ways for a community to start a community garden. Forming a group and locating and securing a suitable site sometimes takes a while, but there are now many great examples to assist with that. Gardens are usually located on vacant public land, which can be donated by local councils or other organisations under various lease arrangements. They can be sited in schools, universities, parks, cul-de-sacs, vacant lots, rooftops, verges or nature strips, or retirement homes – indeed anywhere there is a large enough space with good access, adequate sun and a water supply. Given their long history and popularity, there is a wealth of material available to assist groups wanting to establish a community garden.
There is no one way to set up or run a community garden. Each has its own particular character depending on the people participating, garden size and design, the environment, what’s grown and how the garden is managed. A really critical part of the community garden set-up process is to work through what model will best suit your community. Gardens can be communal or shared gardens, where the group shares the work and harvest; or allotment-style gardens, where people garden their own individual plots. Having partnerships with a diverse range of individuals and organisations helps ensure the success of the garden. While sometimes things go wrong, with good consultation processes and willingness by everyone to make it work, the benefits are massive.
The Australian City Farms and Community Garden Network is a great resource for all new community gardeners and groups looking to start a garden. They can be found at https://communitygarden.org.au/
Just remember, that for all the other benefits of a community garden, you also get wonderful produce like tomatoes and strawberries!
Written By LeVergne Lehmann GCWWRRG