Connecting with people and nature

 

Community gardens not only make use of empty land and nurture plants, they also foster friendships, bring a sense of
community and increase fitness, writes FIONNUALA FALLON

THEY’RE CALLED COMMUNITY gardens, and over the last decade they’ve been appearing in old car parks, city squares, green-field sites and rubbish-strewn areas of wasteland as well as in the grounds of community centres, nursing homes and sheltered housing complexes.

If all goes according to plan, then one such garden may even occupy part of the footprint of the old Smurfit Print plant in Glasnevin, Dublin, on a site owned by Nama.

Yet despite their increasing ubiquity (it’s estimated that several hundred community gardens now exist around the country), it’s still surprisingly difficult to define exactly what they are.

One popular belief is that they’re unique to large cities, yet as the Co Carlow-based horticulturist and community garden expert Dee Sewell ( greensideup.ie) points out, these gardens are also being established in small towns and villages around the country.

In the last number of years, Sewell has overseen new community garden projects in Bagenalstown, Leighlinbridge, Goresbridge, Ballyfoyle, Millennium Court and Derrinturn, training participants in the necessary horticultural skills while also offering advice and expertise.

Another common perception is that they’re used primarily for the production of fresh garden produce, which is often, but not always, the case, as there are community gardens where the emphasis is instead on creating a decorative space or a sensory garden, or even on growing flowers for the local church.

So perhaps the easiest and most commonly used description is, in the end, also the best; that a community garden is simply an outdoor space that is gardened communally. And just as the reasons that motivated the creation of these community gardens are as richly diverse as those who tend to them, so too are their many benefits.

The obvious environmental rewards aside, studies have shown that these gardens improve, in myriad ways, the quality of life of all those who garden them. In particular, they’ve been found to promote psychological well-being by fostering friendships, social interaction, social inclusion and a greater sense of community.

Similarly, they’ve been shown to encourage better physical fitness and healthy eating, through regular exercise (all that digging, hoeing and weeding) and the greater consumption of fresh, locally grown and often organically produced fruit and vegetables.

In Ireland, some of these plots are as small as your average suburban front garden while others stretch to a couple of acres, and they’re being run by a diverse mixture of religious orders, residents’ groups, charities, volunteers and students, with the help and backing of the country’s town, city and county councils, and the support of VECs and organisations such as GIY Ireland and St Vincent de Paul.

Funding is coming both from within the local communities themselves as well as through a variety of funding bodies.

One example is that of St Michael’s Estate in Inchicore, Dublin, where as part of the long-planned physical and social regeneration of this 1970s estate, the regeneration board recently hired the Dublin-based landscape architect and UCD lecturer, David Andrews ( commondesigns.wordpress.com), to run a community-led workshop helping participants to design, build and plant their own community garden.

The result is a once-neglected plot of land that’s being transformed into a communal outdoor space. There is a food growing area, a children’s garden, herb garden, bamboo hedge, several nut trees and box-edged flower borders as well as a propagation area, compost bays and a water storage tank.

“The plan now is to involve as much of the community as possible, to draw people in and get them interested,” says Andrews, who runs a variety of similar community-led courses around the city.

A different example of a community garden is that of Glor na Mara in Bundoran in Co Donegal, which was created six years ago at the instigation of two dynamic Mercy Sisters, Assumpta Butler and Mary Kate Hagan. Both women were motivated by a desire to provide a means of “reskilling the local population, of sowing the seeds of a local, sustainable economy”, of educating people regarding the planet’s dwindling resources as well as restoring people’s connection to the natural world around them.

The kitchen garden that they worked so hard to create with the help of professional gardener Klaus Laitenberger (the nuns also provided the two-acre site) is now a thriving, gloriously colourful, organically managed and hugely productive space that’s tended by an annually rotating team of gardeners drawn from the local community and headed up by the horticulturist Ingrid Foley.

As for what it takes to set up a community garden, Ingrid Foley, Dee Sewell and David Andrews all have similar words of advice. Along with bucket loads of enthusiasm and an aptitude for hard physical work, you need a suitable site and/or site provider, a committed group led by a trained or experienced gardener who also has good people skills, and enough funding (at least €2,000) to cover set-up costs. But while all that may sound daunting, just think of the rewards.

HOW TO START A COMMUNITY GARDEN

Anyone interested in establishing a community garden is invited to attend the next meeting (on May 19th) of the recently established Community Garden Network Group, a voluntary (non-funded) group chaired by Dee Sewell and supported by GIY, Transition Towns, Healthy Food For All, The Federation of City Farms and Community Gardens, and Dublin City Growers. Email Dee at TheCGN11@gmail.com for more details.

For advice or information on establishing a community garden, check out the following websites: theorganiccentre.ie, healthyfoodforall.com, giyireland.com, dublin.ie(see Dublin City Guide to Community Gardening), dublincommunitygrowers.ie, cef.ie

Garden festivals

The Wicklow Gardens 2012 festival kicks off next Wednesday while the inaugural Waterford Garden Festival continues until May 13th. For more details, go to wicklowgardens.comand waterfordgardentrail.com

DIARY DATES

From May 10th to 13th, Klaus Laitenberger will be giving a series of courses around the country on Growing Organic Vegetables in the Polytunnel. The courses are organised by the National Organic Training Skillnet (Nots), and cost €25, with free places for unemployed. Booking at nots.ie

This week in the garden

Where soil is warm/ not waterlogged, sow herbs seeds

Start hardening off young, module-raised plants

Sow seeds of annuals such as Californian poppy and nasturtiums

Where soil is warm/ not waterlogged, sow herbs seeds

Start hardening off young, module-raised plants

Sow seeds of annuals such as Californian poppy and nasturtiums