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Growing thriving communities from the soil up

Gay Search takes a look at how community gardens nourish neighbourhoods and help wellbeing to flourish.

Over the last thirty years or so, the steady rise of community gardens have done wonders to green up our towns and cities and have often brought beauty and nature to what had been areas of dereliction and urban decay.

Although it’s hard to be precise, according to Ian Egginton-Metters of the Federation of City Farms and Community Gardens there are around 1,300 community gardens now in the UK, and over half of them are entirely volunteer-led.

Community gardens have been springing up in all sorts of places

You can find a community garden in a variety of places – in schools, for instance, like the Phoenix School Farm in Shepherd’s Bush, west London, one of four sites run by one of the oldest and most successful schemes, Hammersmith Community Gardens.

The Phoenix Farm Garden won Gold at this year’s Hampton Court Flower Show, while the real thing is a very large plot next to the school and open to the local community, where the students and volunteers grow masses of fruit and vegetables, as well as keeping chickens.

As the awareness of the importance of green space for health is growing (indeed gardening features increasingly in “social prescribing” where doctors prescribe activities instead of medication) so hospitals and health centres are building their own community gardens. In Glasgow, for example, five new health centres will all have gardens, to be tended by patients and the wider community.

In other places, groups have reclaimed derelict land used only for fly tipping. On the Cranbrook Estate in east London, a run-down concrete children’s play area is now a productive fruit and vegetable garden. As part of London’s Capital Growth scheme ahead of the 2012 Olympics, the garden’s produce is shared among the volunteers and any surplus given to other local residents.

While obviously growing food is immensely valuable in times of austerity – nature’s food bank – the other benefits are even more important. As one of Cranbrook’s prime movers, Laura Buckley put it “Before this happened I didn’t know anyone on the estate. I just went on to my balcony when I needed fresh air. Now I know almost everyone. The garden has changed the place for me, and I think that’s true for all of us.”

Community gardens building friendships within the community

Social isolation is a major problem and community gardens can play a huge part

Social isolation is a major problem and community gardens can play a huge part

Social isolation is a major problem, especially for people with mental health issues (Cathy Maund of the Hammersmith Community Garden reckons that is true of over 70% of their regulars) and undoubtedly, community gardens can play a huge part here.

[blockquote cite=”” type=”left”]Many community gardeners talk of friendships made, a sense of being part of something positive and of belonging.[/blockquote]

For the elderly too, it’s a great way of preventing loneliness, and, as important, making them feel valued and useful. As Jane Bird, who helps to run a community allotment in Cambridge, explains, “It is a great combination – old people with knowledge and experience but without the strength to dig and young people with plenty of energy but no knowledge.”

Gardening is also a great way for refugees and other migrants to find their place in the local community. Minu is from Nepal. She and her family rapidly cleared her badly overgrown plot with traditional Asian hand tools, which impressed the locals greatly, and among the familiar aubergines, runner beans and potatoes, she grows Nepalese crops like carella and ghiramla. “People here are so friendly and helpful that if I m not at work, I’m much happier here than anywhere!”

Flourish programme at Livability Holton Lee

Livability runs the ‘Flourish’ programme at Livability Holton Lee, our wellbeing centre in Dorset. Flourish is a volunteering programme that looks to support disabled and disadvantaged people through horticultural and wellbeing activities. You can find out more about the Flourish Programme here.

Gay Search is a television presenter, writer and gardening and wellbeing expert. She is best known for her work on BBC’s Gardeners’ World and the groundbreaking series Front Gardens. Gay has also worked as gardening editor for Sainsbury magazine and has authored many books, including Delia’s Kitchen Garden with Delia Smith and The Healing Garden: Gardening for the Mind, Body and Soul which explores the wellbeing benefits of gardening. Gay is also an active speaker at arenas, presenting at Channel4’s ‘Grand Designs Live’ shows and is on the Royal Horticultural Society list of speakers.

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