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Northern Ireland

Community Gardens

Community Garden Network in Northern Ireland – A lesson for us all.

March 15, 2013

If you’ve read the previous blog post that explained the reason behind the trip to Northern Ireland and the mixed emotions it evoked, hopefully reading about the two community gardens we were shown around will explain why we left with such positivity.

The two gardens in question were nominated by Derry City Council in the 2012 Pride of Place awards under the City Category for Community Garden and obtained runners-up place.

The cost of each project was small in comparison to other projects (just £1,000 and £5,000 respectively) but the rewards and effects of bringing horticulture to the people have been considerable.

leafair laneway community garden

Leafair Community Garden

Leafair Community Garden

The first garden visit was to Leafair Laneway Community Garden and was a fantastic example of how community gardening and horticulture can so positively impact on residents and communities.

This series of gardens were developed in early 2011 by Leafair Community Association due to ongoing anti-social behaviour in the laneway. Cars were being driven up and down and residents had nailed their gates closed.

The project involved residents from the houses, Leafair Mens Health Project and Galliagh Off the streets initiative.

Leafair Laneway community garden

Community Gardening and Positive Learning

During 2011 a series of horticultural courses were organised in the laneway by North West Regional College, working with Greater Shantallow Area Partnership which saw 48 people attend National Open College Network accredited horticultural training.

New Community Laneway Under Development

This laneway has since spawned a further three laneway projects in the area, with another four areas secured for redevelopment in the same style.

There must be hundreds of lanes and back alleys that would have room for raised beds like these… can you imagine them all in the summer and autumn months when they’re bursting with produce!

St Therese, the local primary school has installed over twenty raised beds in the schools grounds, started a school composting system and various flower and herb beds as a direct result of the laneway.

Fountain Community Garden aka Bastion Plots

The second community garden is just below the Derry city walls, hence the lovely view below. Developed in early 2011 this project saw the lead being taken by Cathedral Youth Club who had identified an area of their estate which was just ‘poor wet grass’ and obtained funding through Co-operation Ireland to develop a grow-your-own project. The garden was constructed by residents, young people and Conservation Volunteers Northern Ireland.

Fountain Community Garden

Fountain Community Garden

The primary school has a strong involvement in the garden area, visiting the garden every fortnight to participate in general horticulture. (The blue buckets in the back left of the picture above are full of strawberries that they children will take home.) The school also has a number of beds and horticultural areas developed in their grounds.

The garden project has spawned a number of other initiatives in the community, such as large-scale daffodil planting, litter picking, graffiti removal and the installation of a new play park area – all led by the Cathedral Youth Club.

Fountain Community Garden

Fountain Community Garden

The garden involved co-operation from Derry City Council, Housing Executive and Roads Service.

Last year the two schools joined another school to create a new park space beside the Guildhall, now known as Foyle Gardens. This was formally a car park but is now a quality small park facility for tourists and residents to enjoy. The project involved Leafair Community Association taking the lead with support of Department of Social Development and Derry City Council Parks and Cemeteries department.

Gareth Austin was the community horticulturalist in all of the projects mentioned whilst Janey Stewart from @atthegardengate has offered huge support to the Community Gardens by providing seeds in bulk. The RHS (@rhsschools) has a ‘school focussed arm’ offering support to the school horticulture curriculum.

The Community Garden Network

One of the reasons I was so keen to find other community gardeners was to see how other people were doing it so that I could bring that knowledge back to my own nearby towns and villages. With the Community Garden Network we can all learn from each other and share our experiences and expertise.

The network’s first trip was to a small urban garden in Dublin called Serenity (pictured below) and now we’ve been treated to Leafair and Fountain gardens.

Serenity Community Garden, Dublin - bottle greenhouse

Serenity Community Garden, Dublin

The next network meeting will be taking place in Sligo at the end of June where we hope to see more gardens. For anybody who can’t travel to the meetings, the gallery on the website is filling nicely with various groups pictures. I’ve written several posts on the community garden projects I’ve worked with here too.

If you’ve felt inspired by any of the projects you’ve seen or would like to share your own, please check out the Community Garden Network site and add your name to the growing list of people and groups who are finding out the benefits of this type of horticulture for themselves and connecting. Here’s some feedback from a group of Kilkenny community gardeners on the benefits and changes its made to their lives.

If you know of some land nearby that could be transformed into a community garden and aren’t sure how to do it, here’s some tips.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the projects… do you know of any areas near you that could benefit from something similar?

Community Gardens

Community Gardening: Horticulture, Hurt, Healing & Hope

March 11, 2013

Credit: Twin Towns Community Garden on Derry City Walls

A wild, wet March day in Derry / Londonderry

I’ve just returned from quite an adventure (for me anyway). My first journey into Northern Ireland and the longest drive on my own for many years, with Donegal and Derry / Londonderry the destination. This was an 800 km round trip undertaken in just over 24 hours when we’re doing everything we can to reduce our mileage/carbon footprint!! However, weighing up the pros and cons, the journey was necessary and not taken lightly.

The reason for it was a meeting and get-together of the Community Garden Network that I was instrumental in establishing and have voluntarily coordinated since its inception in the autumn of 2011, hence my need desire to attend all the meetings!

We decided in the very early days that we’d aim to hold quarterly meetings that would move around Ireland and Northern Ireland to give as many community gardeners the opportunity to meet, network and share experiences and knowledge. The fact that the group is countrywide rather than local just makes it slightly longer to establish and trickier to make arrangements. I’m therefore very grateful to have the help of local community gardening enthusiasts to help with local arrangements! The next steps may include Skype and Google+ hangouts but in the meantime, there’s nothing like meeting face to face all the people involved in establishing a network.

So far we’ve met in Dublin, Waterford and Athlone and when we announced that we’d like to meet in NI and were looking for a venue, we were delighted to be invited by the hosts of the UK City of Culture 2013 (which Gareth Austin has developed a City of Horti-Culture programme around) to hold the Network meeting in Derry / Londonderry.

I don’t mind admitting that I was personally anxious about this trip. I was about to embark on a five-hour journey on my own into a country with a history that, like many of you, has surrounded me for many years. I’m an English woman who’s lived and borne three children in the Republic yet the van load of mortars that were discovered in Derry last week instantly took me back to my years of commuting and working in London during the height of the bombings, with all the fear and uncertainty that brings.

As it happened the journey itself was uneventful though it did provoke emotions I hadn’t expected. I crossed the border almost without realising, there being no checkpoints or border controls. It was only that I noticed road signs had changed colour, petrol pump prices switched from euro to sterling and my mobile phone flashed its roaming sign, (something I hadn’t considered when I planned to sat nav my way across the country) that I realised I was now officially in the UK and the English voices on BBC Radio 2 confirmed this.

Driving along the ‘A’ roads through the fog, passing sign posts that for many years have been synonymous with ‘the troubles’ I struggled to make sense with what I was seeing. The countryside didn’t look any different from that which I’d just left. I was still driving along the same road. Through the drizzle I was glimpsing signs of beautiful rolling green hills, farms, villages, shops and roads that didn’t look overly different from the ones I was familiar with. Men, women and children were shopping and spilling out of schools, workmen were fixing roads and delivery vans going about their daily business.

However, I was also passing by names of towns I’d only ever associated with pain and hurt, not beauty and green fields…. Armagh and Omagh, Enniskillen and Belfast and I was driving closer towards Derry, a city laden with a troubled history.

On arrival in Derry, thoughts jumped around again. Yes, there is a history with visible signs of conflict, but there’s also architecturally beautiful buildings, huge green spaces and parks with old trees, as well as shopping centres that were busy and bustling – something that’s missing from our own local towns. There are a lot of hardworking, genuine people there doing really good things like Conor from NI Youth Action, Marion who wears a Transition Towns and GIY hat and who organised the lovely straw bailed & solar heated meeting room for us at The Playtrail, and there are lots of community gardening projects taking place too.

It was fascinating to hear Gareth, a Scottish horticulturist and our guide, talk about the many community projects he’s been involved with. For the past six years he’s been teaching young and old, nationalist or unionist, how to garden and take pride in their surroundings. He promotes gardening on Radio Foyle, writes about gardening, drives a car emblazoned with flowers, butterflies and Todds of Campsie (he’s a green ambassador for Todds Kia and their EcoDynamic message) and if that wasn’t enough to keep anyone else busy, he recently added voluntary weekend walks for anybody interested in major parks with local historian GeraldMcGill to combine history and horticulture to his interests.

As someone with no particular political or religious persuasions myself, just a love of our planet and a desire to look after it, when I asked Gareth about his motives he simply said:

“A blade of grass doesn’t care where it grows”

I immediately knew where he was coming from and what had motivated him to move to an area that wouldn’t immediately attract newcomers to it and to try to help with its healing. Gareth’s overwhelming desire to bring beauty, flowers and plants to a city that’s still divided and enclosed by wire fencing, barbs and bars and to give every individual living there pride in their place no matter what ‘side’ they’re on, was truly inspiring.

The beginning of a new community laneway project

We know that horticulture, or the simple art of gardening, is a tried and tested relief for mental health issues and goodness knows the stress people living within cities so full of conflict (past or present) must have to manage – stress that many of us hope we’ll never have to face.

We were given a tour of two community garden projects that are working hard to  overcome the issues that surround them and actively do something to improve their lives. It was tremendously encouraging to say the least.

My next blog post will share the story of the two community gardens as to add them now might send you to sleep it would be such a big post!

Leaving the North

So what did I and others come away with after our brief tours, talk and meeting?

I know I wasn’t alone with the positivity I felt as I left, as well as a feeling that a considerable amount of people want to see and help to improve their surroundings through horticulture. That when groups of people (or individuals) want to enact positive changes in their communities rather than negativity they can do so. That these laneways and ‘brown’ spaces exist everywhere, not just in Northern Ireland and there’s no reason whatsoever they can’t be replicated. That classrooms full of young children are growing up in the UK with Horticulture on their curriculum so they are learning the power of plants from very young ages, which can only positively influence them as they grow into young responsible citizens.

Lastly I came away with a sense of hope. The recent security alerts that are resurfacing in Northern Ireland cannot be ignored, but from one city at least, people are trying to overcome their issues through growing flowers and vegetables. They are experiencing  for themselves the positive place gardening leaves them in… which can only be a good thing however difficult their task.

“Hope is a walk through a flowering meadow.  One does not require that it lead anywhere” ~ Robert Brault