…and relax. Yes that really is in a community garden!
We recently blogged about setting up a relaxing, convivial space for autumn evenings in your garden. However we closed with acknowledging that many people don’t have gardens at all. So we realised that in these difficult times it’s a good time to look at what alternatives there are for people who just don’t have a garden, and would love to enjoy all the health and soul benefits of one. Or people who, whilst having and enjoying a garden are lonely and long for some company in a safe way.
Of course you can still walk in parks, woods and the countryside. But what if you want a more intimate connection with a garden? Let’s talk about Community Gardens.
What Are Community Gardens?
We have a long history of communal land use stretching back to the times of the commons, when everyone in a settlement shared large tracts of land that they gardened, farmed and raised stock on. In the last hundred years or more we’ve had allotments, and they are a real jewel in the crown. But in most parts of the country they’re also pretty much impossible to get into as they are heavily over-subscribed.
This is where community gardens come in. They started off in the 60s as a response to the lack of gardens in new builds in cities. Tower blocks were spreading and the most you could hope for was a small balcony. They have grown and changed since then and now come in a huge variety of sizes and types. According to Caroline Fernandez, the Local Food Project Coordinator of the Women’s Environmental Network (WEN). “They can be tiny plots, gardens on roofs, school gardens, private or open to the public.”
They are used for many different purposes, from growing fresh fruit and veg, to play areas, outdoor classrooms, wildlife refuges, sensory gardens for blind people and those with diminished sight, and safe public spaces. What unites them all is that they are managed and run by local people, usually on a voluntary basis.
So community gardens can meet many needs and are perfect places to meet people in a Covid safe manner. It’s much easier to maintain social distancing outside, and all the evidence to date says it is also much safer to be among people in the open air than in enclosed spaces. That is of course as long as all current covid guidelines are observed.
How can I join a community garden?
Chepstow Community Garden
First step is to find out what’s going on in your area. The RHS and the BBC both have guides to local community gardens. Some local authorities also have lists of local gardens. We searched the RHS guide for West Yorkshire community gardens and over 200 came up!
Once you’ve found one that you like the look of the next step is to get in touch. Every garden has it’s own way of working and welcoming newcomers. They aren’t covered by any statutory law so they set things up how they see fit. Some will be tiny with a few local people working on a plot of disused land that they persuaded the landowner to let them use. Some may be set up by charities or local authorities. Some will be large enough to provide inductions and training to newcomers. It’s simply a question of getting in touch and chatting with them to find one that feels right for you. There’s no need to hesitate, they are set up and run by passionate enthusiasts who know that not everyone who wants to volunteer is an expert. They are keen to spread the benefits to anyone who wants to get involved.
How can I set up a community Garden?
Culpepper community garden a little oasis in a city
The RHS has a good guide on the steps you need to consider in setting up a community garden. There are links at the bottom of this blog. We haven’t space here to repeat what they say but, as garden designers, we’ll add some of our own thoughts.
We’ve seen that community gardens are not just for growing food; relaxation, socialising, beauty, mental health, disabled sensory gardens – there are many possible uses. So there are two essential steps we recommend when starting out.
Decide what your garden is for
Money is often tight, imaginative use of whatever’s to hand can be great fun and make a big difference!
This will massively influence how you plan your project. A garden that is for play will be a different creature than one for growing lots of healthy food. Of course most gardens will be for a variety of uses and may change over time. So don’t get too hung up on this. But it’s worth at least asking yourself the question.
Understand your plot, soil and climate
Take a good hard look at the plot. Is it overshadowed by buildings? Are there mature trees? Does it face south? Will you be able to put any kind of structures up like sheds, pergolas or greenhouses? Is there a water supply?
The soil will profoundly influence what kind of plants you can grow. You’ll need to know it’s pH (acid, neutral or alkaline) different pH levels suit different plants. You can get a kit as cheap as chips from the internet. Alternatively for a general guide check the Soilscapes information. Is the soil sandy? Is there clay? Is the ground boggy or maybe bone dry?
The climate is important; Does it rain a lot? Is it exposed to high winds? Are you near the sea? What are the average seasonal temperatures? Do you get hard frosts? Local knowledge will help, ask anyone you know locally who gardens. Find another community garden in a similar situation.
Community gardens – a welcome comfort in difficult times
Community gardens are great for just about anyone, even if you already have a garden! But they’re especially welcome to those of us who are isolated or without a garden of our own. They are gloriously diverse, welcoming people of all ages, abilities, backgrounds and ethnicities. It’s a wonderful way to socialise in a covid safe way, making them great for our mental as well as our physical well-being. We hope we’ve given you enough to whet your appetite and you find or even set up a community garden that you love.
Here’s some useful links if you want to find out more.
Setting up a Community Garden: https://www.rhs.org.uk/get-involved/community-gardening/Resources/community-garden
An example of an established community garden project: https://www.growinglinks.org.uk/about-us.html