Allotments and community gardens

The New Brighton community gardens

The New Brighton community gardens

I concluded last week’s column on the lost gardens of Christchurch with the vibrant New Brighton Community Gardens.

I always follow allotments with interest when I visit the UK and I believe they are found in some Northern European countries too. They have been around for a long time. Apparently when people live in densely populated areas with little personal space, there are some for whom the urge to grow plants, usually vegetables, remains so strong that they will walk or drive to another space to satisfy that need.

Allotments with a million pound view at Gerrans in Cornwall

Allotments with a million pound view at Gerrans in Cornwall

Traditionally our sections or plots of land in this country have been so generous that there was no need for allotments on public land. The quarter acre per family is quite sufficient for most. But of course the quarter acre section is on the way out, in our major cities at least. These days people are more likely to find themselves on an area half that size or less and much of the land will be taken up by the larger footprint of many modern houses.

Community gardens appear to find more favour with local authorities. The word “community” has a better ring to it than the individualism which is a part of the allotment, although in the UK many allotment areas operate somewhere in between. While they retain individual plots, a high level of interaction, cooperation and community can evolve – and with that, peer pressure to keep your allotment up to scratch.

No one system fits all. Community gardens fill a different niche. Everything is shared and participants or volunteers are required to work within that cooperative ethos. I don’t think it is a coincidence that community gardens are springing up through Christchurch – over 30 of them, I was told. In the aftermath of the quake, there is comfort in community at a very local level.

004The New Brighton Community Gardens were created before the earthquakes but the coordinator, Catherine O’Neill, told me that interest had grown exponentially since those events and she now has around 100 volunteers registered. For two hours work a week in the gardens, they can take home free vegetables. This project goes way beyond just the gardens, though they are at the heart of it.

It is the site of a former sports club (croquet, then bowls if my memory serves me correctly), so it did come with a very handy building incorporating toilets, kitchen and a good sized meeting room. The building is used by other community groups as well as being a base for the gardening volunteers and related workshops.

On a sunny summer’s day, the gardens were a riot of colourful flowers and vegetables. There is so much more to it than mass producing utility cabbages and Catherine observed that they wanted them to be a place of beauty and colour as well. There is a growing recognition now that it makes good sense to inter-plant vegetables with flowers which can attract and feed beneficial insects but flowers also lift the spirits with a joy that it is hard for a carrot to manage.

A quaint bird house built by a volunteer at the New Brighton Community Gardens

A quaint bird house built by a volunteer at the New Brighton Community Gardens

This particular community garden has developed in infrastructure which includes a paid coordinator. Its success must lie in part with having found coordinators who have gardening skills, interpersonal skills and a strong sense of community. There must also be people in the background with good administrative and fund raising skills because there is a need for some outside funding. These things do not run themselves.

It will be interesting to see how the community gardens and allotments develop in the next decade or two in Christchurch. One aspect of the quake damage is the large number of plots of land which are likely to remain vacant for some time to come. While there is a certain amount of guerrilla gardening going on and some less guerrilla-like and more community-based (you can check out Greening the Rubble on line), will it be just a matter of time before residents spread their wings – or their patch of dirt in this case? There is a limit to how many green parks, gardens and street plantings rate-payers will want to pay for Council to maintain and it certainly won’t be taking in all the open space that is being created. In the new normality that Christchurch has forged, it is likely that some local residents will start expanding their gardening space.

The indefatigable gardener and garden writer, Di Madgin, told me that she would be needing an allotment when they move to their new house shortly because it is in an area of high density housing. She offered up what must surely be one of the most practical suggestions to combat the destructive nature of vandals where gardened areas are not attached to a house. Beehives. “A larrikin would never try to graffiti a beehive more than once,” she said.

First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.

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