How to change your neighbourhood (and your life) with gardening

July 19th, 2015
Posted In: Garden style & living

Have you got a patch of bare earth near you? There’s a new kind of middle-sized garden popping up in our cities, towns and villages – the volunteer-run community garden. Thousands of amateur gardeners are getting stuck in to patches of neglected land, turning derelict tennis courts into vegetable patches, abandoned piles of bricks into rockeries and neglected municipal beds into communal herb gardens.

Wildlife and people both love commuity gardens

A London squirrel appreciates the Kitchen Garden community garden in West London – perhaps he is hurrying to a committee meeting…

You can do it as a club…

The West London Bowling Club was set up in 1903 to provide recreational facilities for the St Quintin’s estate in West London. Gardening has always been a major element here, and it regularly won awards for its gardens between 1968 and 1978. But by 2008, the club had run into difficulties and lost its licence in 2013. With the help of The St Helen’s Residents Association and volunteers from the nearby St Quintin’s Kitchen Garden, the club was re-opened. Now it’s run by volunteers, who are all also members. Gardening is done on Sundays between 11am and 3pm, directed by Denis Smylie. People bring their own gardening equipment.

Community gardens can be private clubs, run by members with lots of volunteering and a shoe-string budget

The West London Bowling Clubhouse, from the early 20th century, and one of the new beds planted by the volunteer gardeners – all members of the club.

The volunteers all join as members of the club,’ explains chair, Ruth Hillary. They started by clearing away the brambles and saplings that choked the award-winning rose garden. Some of the classic early 20th century roses, with their vibrant hues and circus-canopy patterns have re-appeared, and the bowling club volunteers are also growing plants, both for sale and to re-plant. The gardeners are all amateurs, some beginners and some very knowledgeable. ‘We’ll leave some areas of the garden as a wildlife area,’ says Ruth, ‘ and we’re planting fruit trees so we can make jam to sell.’

Community gardens can restore derelict beds

Harry Wheatcroft – an award-winning rose from the 1970s – emerges from three decades of brambles.

At the moment funding comes partly from renting out car parking spaces, and partly from membership fees. The club has fund-raising events, such as pop-up evenings and fairs, and Ruth will keep her eye out for other funding.

Volunteering and community gardening are sociable activities

Members make their own tea and coffee on mismatched china acquired over the club’s 111 years.

Community gardening clubs include the West London Bowling Club

When the club gardens were planned in the early 20th century, some beautiful trees were planted – such as copper beech and robinia frisia. Many have survived and have been rescued from a forest of saplings,

Community garden volunteers cleared a space amongst the tangle of roses and undergrowth for a garden shed

Volunteers cleared away thickets to create a space for a garden hut – you can just see it amongst the trees and roses.

For the time being, clearing is the main job. Shrubs such as berberis, choisya, philadelphus and other less familiar ones are slowly re-appearing. Several people have sponsored the fruit trees.

Clearing away the wilderness at the West London Bowling Club

This used to be where the award-winning rose garden was. The community garden team have decided to leave some areas wild and to plant others with fruit trees so they can make jam for sale.

The bowling green itself is being coaxed back into life by a professional groundsman – the only paid member of staff. Otherwise members make their own teas and coffees, and run the club on a voluntary basis. There’s no licence but they stage pop-up events as fund-raisers – such as a murder-mystery dinner. They’ve participated in the London Open Squares event, held a Summer Fair and a Barefoot Bowling and Sunday lunch. People often use the words ‘a hidden gem’ when they see it for the first time. It’s surrounded by houses, so you would never know it was there. Membership costs from £75.

volunteers in community gardens also fund-raise

My kind of emergency…members work together to contribute time, expertise or Pimms to cover the costs of running the club. They also participate in London Open Squares and the It’s Your Neighbourhood community garden initiative.

Find council-run community gardens

When an old hospital tennis court fell into disuse, Kensington & Chelsea Borough Council decided to turn it into community garden allotments through its environment project. This is a scheme where the borough works with communities to transform and plant ‘grot corners’, under-used parks or open spaces (even roundabouts), all cared for by volunteers. RKBC doesn’t have allotments, so by working with the community to turn odd bits of space into growing places, it both improves the environment and creates allotment facilities. There are now dozens of similar projects around the borough.

Find out how to be part of a community garden.

The St Quintin’s Kitchen Garden was started as a community garden by the council because there are no allotments in the borough.

The St Quintin’s Kitchen Garden, as it is called, is a series of raised beds behind high iron gates. Each bed is shared by three families, ‘so lots of us garden the beds together rather than divide it up into tiny bits,’ says Anna Campbell. She and her husband, Hugo (my brother) have been involved with the Kitchen Garden since it started, and are growing artichokes, perennial spinach and rocket in their bit.

The Kitchen Garden community garden

The St Quintin’s Kitchen Garden is a haven of home-grown fruit and vegetables, tucked behind the old tennis court gates in a London Street

‘It’s a brilliant way to meet a cross-section of people,’ says Anna. ‘The council make an effort to prioritise people who don’t have their own gardens, and there’s a complete mix of ages and types. We’ve really got to know people in our community we wouldn’t otherwise have met. I’ve learned alot about gardening from everyone’s suggestions – I hadn’t thought of planting either elephant garlic or perpetual spinach for example.

Community gardens mean city dwellers can grow cartichokes

Hugo and Anna Campbell grow artichokes in their bed – donated by a fellow Kitchen Gardener. They also grow cut-and-come-again salad, perpetual spinach, elephant garlic, watercress and radishes.

‘The council do a ‘compost day’ once a year, when a truckload of compost is delivered and everyone digs in, and there are also garden-related workshops as part of the scheme. It’s all about finding sad, disused plots of land around the Borough and bringing them alive by connecting them to people,’ explains Anna. ‘We open to the public some days, and we also have an annual party – it all really puts a smile on everyone’s faces.’

Community gardens have colourful personal touches...

There are lots of personal touches in the beds, such as this tin butterfly fluttering in the breeze in Hugo and Anna’s vegetable bed.

Colourful bins and bunting in the Kitchen Garden Community garden

Colourful bins, toys, bunting give the Kitchen Garden a fairground feel, especially with all the different chairs everyone brings..

Or you could try crowd-funding…

Edible Avondale SE1 are a community group based in Southwark using horticulture and carpentry to help regenerate the area. Avondale Estate is the City of London’s largest housing estate, with 6,000 residents. Volunteers have built raised beds and sowing boxes, taught carpentry and held family events. They build raised beds for open land and are now crowd-funding to raise money for their carpentry workshop inside an old shipping container (Trainer in a Container). You get rewards for pledging money – see here. Crowd-funding is hard work, especially in communities where there’s a high level of deprivation, but even volunteer projects do need funding.

How do you start a community garden?

There are various legal and insurance issues associated with running a community garden, although not everyone bothers with them. The Federation of City Farms and Community Gardens runs an advisory service and their starter pack is free to download. Or you could consider joining Landshare who ‘connect growers to people who have land.’ Or ask around locally – people who have larger gardens have always connected up to people who like growing things – near where I live, there’s at least one of these informal landshare projects.

Abels Acre Community Garden in Faversham

Abel’s Acre is a steep, exposed slope at the entrance to Faversham. A group of 7 volunteer gardeners meet every Tuesday and achieve miracles.

There are also gaps left by cuts to park services, and when a local park is getting neglected, community action and volunteering often sorts it out. Here in Faversham we have several of these – Abel’s Acre, which is a steep slope of rocks and bricks gardened by 7 volunteers, and the Memorial Garden which has been rescued from an overgrown state by a group of Sunday gardening volunteers. If the park or piece of open space at the end of your street is looking sad and neglected, get together a group of neighbours and approach the council about it.

The Memorial Garden in Faversham

The Memorial Garden in Faversham had become completely overgrown with evergreen shrubs until it was rescued by a community gardening group.

It’s Your Neighbourhood, run by the RHS, supports local neighbourhoods in cleaning up and greening up their streets, so if you want to get involved, you can find your local co-ordinator on their hub. It can be as simple as spotting a patch of waste land and deciding to do something about it.

How your community garden is changing the world around you

Fun, friendship, fresh vegetables – what could be better?

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8 comments on "How to change your neighbourhood (and your life) with gardening"

  1. David says:

    Excellent post, can I just say that I love the idea of a colourful bin. It’s such a simple change to make yet enhances the garden in so many ways, I’m shopping around online for one right now!

    I think as a gardener, I can be guilty of overthinking my garden and sometimes a simple change can make such a difference.

    1. I think bright colour can work really well in gardens – perhaps because flowers themselves are so colourful

  2. Wow, it’s amazing idea and really great way to contribute to your local community. Well, actually this is a really good lesson for all the misguided folks who try to change the world. Here is the deal, first you should start from yourselves, then your surrounding and after that you are maybe ready to change the world. Think about it. :)

    Cheers, Sven.

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