On Common Ground. Planting with purpose, gardening with soul

By Philippa Hadlow

Reading time: 16 minutes

With seven billion mouths to feed, filling a global need for food is a crisis on the rise. It’s called food insecurity, and in 2019 was defined by the Ministry of Health (New Zealand) as a ‘limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods or a limited ability to acquire personally acceptable foods that meet cultural needs in a socially acceptable way’.

People are classified as food insecure if in the past 12 months they have had to use special food grants or food banks, been forced to buy cheaper food to pay for other things or had to go without fresh fruit and vegetables often (Aust. NZ J Public Health, 2010).

The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimates that more than one billion people in the world are ‘suffering from chronic hunger’. That is one in

By Philippa Hadlow

Reading time: 16 minutes

With seven billion mouths to feed, filling a global need for food is a crisis on the rise. It’s called food insecurity, and in 2019 was defined by the Ministry of Health (New Zealand) as a ‘limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods or a limited ability to acquire personally acceptable foods that meet cultural needs in a socially acceptable way’.

People are classified as food insecure if in the past 12 months they have had to use special food grants or food banks, been forced to buy cheaper food to pay for other things or had to go without fresh fruit and vegetables often (Aust. NZ J Public Health, 2010).

The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimates that more than one billion people in the world are ‘suffering from chronic hunger’. That is one in seven people going hungry.

Three centuries ago, there was famine and starvation amongst the poor during the Irish Famine of 1740 and the Great Famine of 1845. At the same time, corpulence was favoured and associated with affluence, power, and influence as reflected in the portly figures of the industrial barons of the rich.

Hunger led to the 19th century immigration of the Irish to America. The Nazis used hunger as a weapon against the Russians during the famous Siege of Leningrad. Hunger led to the French Revolution.

The struggle for, and imbalance of food supply has shaped our history and is still doing so today.

And as our modern-day population increases so does the shortage of ecosystems that support the three main producers of our food: croplands for grains; pastures for meat; and fisheries and aquaculture for seafood. We’re now facing a confronting polar dynamic with a food shortage in some parts of the world, and an obesity crisis in others.

The pressure is on!

Early predictions of food scarcity.

In 1798, British economist and philosopher, Thomas Robert Malthus, wrote An Essay on the Principle of Populationand created shockwaves around the world by saying that the population would grow in a geometric progression (1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64…) while food production would increase in an arithmetic progression (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7…). Malthus said that food production “is subject to the law of diminishing return” and concluded that “population would outstrip food supply which would create pollution and poverty”.

Much later, in 1968, an American economist, Paul Ehrlich, stressed the same through his now-famous book, The Population Bomb.

Solutions to food shortages in the west sprang into action around a hundred years after Malthus expounded his far-sighted ‘population versus food supply’ theory, also known as the ‘Malthusian catastrophe’. While some solutions refer to the improved productivities and efficiencies brought about by industrialisation, others were actioned as community gardens: spaces developed expressly for the purpose of growing food. Very quickly these gardens became holistic endeavours that went beyond filling a need for food, and into growing a culture.

“We must cultivate our garden,” Voltaire wrote in Candide in 1759.

Feeding the masses.

The European history of community gardening in the US dates back to the early 18th century, when Moravians – a Brethren-faith West Slavic ethnic group – created a community garden as part of the community of Bethabara, near modern Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Bethabara is still active and open to visitors today and food grown there now is similar to what early community gardens produced: pumpkin, potatoes, turnips, beans, cucumbers, sugar peas, cabbage, and corn. Bethabara also has a medicinal plot, originally laid out by Doctor Kalberlahn in 1756.

Community gardens were established in Europe in the late 18th century when the British Government allocated plots of land to the poor to grow vegetables and flowers.

Then, during WW1 and WW2, large garden projects were developed to replenish food supplies depleted by wartime hardship, poverty, and economic recession. Known as ‘Victory Gardens’ they were developed on spare plots of unused land designated for families or groups to cultivate and tend. The activity of gardening for common purpose was a way to re-engender community spirit, positivity, and a sense of security – as well as provide food.

The word community has always been integral to the concept and provide pathways for a variety of cultures to come together, work as one, and create a stronger community.

Since 1926, Luxembourg-based Office International du Coin de Terre et des Jardins Familiaux represents three million European community gardeners. It describes the socio-cultural and economic functions of allotment gardens as offering an improved quality of life, an enjoyable and profitable hobby, relaxation, and contact with nature.

For children, gardens offer places to play and to learn about nature, while for the unemployed, they offer the satisfaction of doing something useful as well as providing low-cost food. For the elderly and disabled, gardens offer an opportunity to meet with and share activities with like-minded people, and to practise positive things such as planting and harvesting.

During the ‘70s and ‘80s, community gardening really blossomed and nowadays many councils encourage and support gardening projects, all throughout the world. Once you take an interest, you’ll see farms, churches, maraes, community centres, retirement villages, schools and disused council land all playing host to community gardens. Some gardens are connected with special interest groups; most are open to anyone who’d like to donate goods, educate locals, and share the fruitful proceeds, and all welcome anyone with a desire to get their hands dirty over the weekend.

The focus now includes environmental stewardship, as well as a sense of community. In New Zealand, food banks and ‘crop swaps’ are chocka, because, on spare plots of land in almost every province, there’s community gardening action-a-plenty. And in Taranaki, we hear that if:

“Jesus fed the five thousand with four fish and ten loaves of bread; we can feed just as many with a packet of seeds.”

This quote by Bell Block community garden coordinator Verna Balsom epitomises the goodwill that charitable gardens thrive on. Verna’s been gardening since she was seven years old and a childhood spent digging, weeding, composting, and harvesting the fruits of her labour led to a life-long love of growing bountiful crops.

Seven years ago, Verna moved off the farm and into Bell Block. She was inspired to apply for consent (a 12-month process) to set up a 700m² community garden at Northpoint Baptist Church, which at its peak had seven helpers running 15 plots – that’s a fair few broccoli!

Verna’s gardening ideology is altruistic to a T: teaching people about composting, water usage, seed raising and saving, and how to cook produce once it’s harvested – she’s a natural educator. Verna enthuses about the way community gardening helps people find a space in the urban environment to come together to work with nature. Her gardening space in Bell Block also houses 8 tonnes of Pukekura Park Lake duck poo! It’s a valuable source of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, but she’s short on volunteers to help spread it – an ongoing dilemma.

“The success of any community garden is only as good as its last volunteer,” says Paul Scouller general manager at Waitara Initiatives Supporting Employment (W.I.S.E) charitable trust.

The WISE community garden boasts a few ‘bladder-fulls’ of Pukekura Park Lake sludge too. Utilising this natural resource is typical of the recycling, regenerating ethos that community gardens hold dear. WISE garden coordinator Pounamu Skelton is passionate about the concept, which underpins her philosophy of giving back – both to the earth and to the people. Pounamu loves the idea of the 360° natural cycle and will even dig weeds back into the soil to biodegrade and ‘return to source’.

She brings a special approach to WISE around Māori perspectives on growing food and encourages people to embrace self-sufficiency by learning how to sow seed, save seed, nurture, and harvest crops. Pounamu says: “A garden is only as sustainable as the people who work it. If you’re gardening solo, then it’s only going to be as good as you. A community garden is a community developing.”

Manaaki whenua, manaaki tangata, haere whakamua
(Care for the land, care for the people, go forward)

 

Holistic practices such as sustainability, permaculture, food resilience, and protecting heritage foods are tantamount to how community gardens operate worldwide, alongside educating folk on how to grow, harvest, prepare and cook the food produced.

A sense of community.

Not just food resilience either. Community resilience, psychological balance, physical wellbeing, mental health management and addiction healing are also subliminal – but crucial – beneficiaries.

Brittany Ryan, communications manager of Sustainable Taranaki maintains that in newly developed Marfell garden, a nucleus for the community has been created.

“No matter what time of the day you’re there, there’s someone who always wants to come and have a conversation. It’s pulling people out from their houses and bringing them together,” she says.

Marfell garden started as a 400m² sqm horse paddock on New Plymouth District Council reserve land. The horses had compacted the soil, and (though well fertilised!) it took many volunteers many hours to till and shape the area into anything resembling a productive garden.

Urs Signer, community gardens coordinator for Sustainable Taranaki has led the gauntlet on Marfell garden, and on other community garden projects. According to Brittany, Urs has a knack for getting people on board, speaking honestly and passionately, and crowd-funding the support needed to make tools, stock, equipment, and manpower materialise.

Urs is a busy man and partner Emily no less so! She’s very much involved in the Parihaka Papakāinga community garden and food forest where sustainability, Te Reo Māori language revitalisation, collectivity, tino rangatiratanga (Māori sovereignty) and peaceful resistance all meld into one, building unity, mutual care, and positive relationships.

A few kms south-west is the Oākura Pā – Okorotua Marae Garden, and a bit further up north in Waiwakaiho, is the Moeone – Growing for the Future marae garden. In Inglewood, the Catholic trust community garden features eight raised beds run solely by Arnold Coch to help top up pensioners’ pantries. And in the suburb of New Plymouth are New Start Gardens, owned by the Saxton Road Seventh-day Adventist Church.

Down in south Taranaki, Morna Matangi is the coordinator for E-Kai community garden in Eltham. Morna’s a mad-keen gardener and established E-Kai to supply fresh and frozen vegetables to the food bank in Eltham/Kaponga and to the elderly. Permaculture features here again, as with all community garden practice, and if you Google the topic, you’d come closer to understanding the wisdom underpinning the community gardening ethos. Morna studied the subject and lives and breathes it in order to pass on her knowledge to others.

Part of that kind of vision includes understanding the benefits of gardening on the psyche and on wellbeing. She says: “Getting dirt under your fingers is a bit like taking a natural antidepressant!” And, in fact, Morna’s now taking her commitment to increasing psychological health one (big) step further by studying for a (W.I.T.T) National Certificate in Mental Health and Addiction.

You can see that there’s a clear theme running through all community garden leadership, right throughout history. It’s certainly more than getting out there, doing a spot of digging, and planting some veges. In real terms and on a much deeper level, community gardening encapsulates far more than that.

Just what is ‘community’?

The historical definition of the word community as a group of people living in the same place is now outdated. More contemporary, comes the thought that community is a fundamentally unified body of individuals, and even better, according to Fabian Pfortmüller, co-founder of the NYC Together Institute:

“Community = a group of people (real humans with real lives, real stories, real hopes, real dreams) that care about each other (trust, share, support, hope) and feel they belong (home, family, peers) together (identity).”

You now get a sense of the value community gardens contribute to, well, yes, to the community as a whole! However, perhaps Marfell garden’s Earth Day celebration (April 22) best portrayed the philosophy behind community gardens, when an aeronaut was engaged to let kids experience the thrill of flying high in the basket of a (tethered) balloon.

Marfell Community Garden

Brittany Ryan of Sustainable Taranaki likened it to the similar way community gardens work by offering “sustainability, science, and innovation to support future generations reach high to achieve their dreams”.

Feeding the masses, both body and soul via community gardens could well be a contender – and is already proving so – in providing next-level, drug-free, multi-faceted mental health, crime, and obesity solutions, on a global spectrum.

Why not get involved?

Community gardening: It’s all good.

 

Sources: 1. Evidence from the Longitudinal Survey of Families, Income and Employment 2. The Agricultural History Review, Vol. 51, No. 1

To immerse yourself in more articles like this, Subscribe or Log in