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The Benefits of Community GardensRuth OConnor looks at one of the fastest growing trends in recent times.We are all familiar with the allotment - a piece of public land divided into plots forindividuals to grow their own vegetables and fruit. The idea of the community garden,on the other hand, is something that is less well known in this country, yet is aconcept that is slowly beginning to take root here.Community gardens are a common notion in Britain and the United States. In Britainthe Federation of City Farms and Community Gardens is the representativeorganisation for 59 city farms and almost 1,000 community gardens. These gardensare a familiar feature of urban life in the United States. The American CommunityGardening Association estimates that there are 18,000 community gardens across theUS and Canada. Many of these gardens have been built on vacant lots in citydevelopments or on pieces of land donated by the local Parks Department. In the US aleaning towards philanthropy means that community gardens are often subsidised bylocal businesses, whether through the provision of funds, or materials such as seeds,tools or fencing.Meeting community needsCommunity gardens are community-managed projects that have generally beendeveloped in response to a lack of green space, making them most common in urbansettings. In Britain, community gardens focus on the growing of flowers, fruit andvegetables. Many of these community gardens are often run in conjunction with localschools projects and provide after-school and holiday workshops, growing classesand training schemes.According the Federation of City Farms and Community Gardens in Britain thebenefits of a garden to the local community are manifold, providing "productive,creative, safe, high quality open spaces." They provide "opportunities for people tolearn new skills and abilities, either informally or on formal accredited trainingcourses; provide approximately 2,500 training places for adults with learningdisabilities each year; improve physical and mental health in their communities;provide a valuable tool for bringing people together of different abilities, ages, andcultures and aid in community cohesion." It is clear that there are many benefits to thecommunity garden - local people become more in tune with their environment andwith the food they consume, a greater sense of community is achieved becausegardening can be tackled by people of all ages and abilities. The trend now is towardsorganic growing, providing people with locally produced, organic food and theexercise gained by working outdoors is also good for physical and mental health.
New developmentIt is difficult to gauge exactly how many community gardens there are in Ireland asstatistics are not widely available but it does seem that the numbers are increasing allthe time. However, representatives of the various councils approached by this authorwere unsure of the existence of any community gardens in Dublin. Plots of land havebeen donated by parish priests and schools for use by local schoolchildren and arepresentative of Dun Laoghaire Rathdown County Council said that he believedthere were some small private parks maintained by locals as "contemplative spaces"but was unsure of their locations. South Dublin County Council is currently helping tobuild a garden with the Greenhills Community in west Dublin. The Councils role willbe to clean and enclose the site and leave them with soil in which to build a garden.Karen Feeney is development worker at a community garden in Ballybane in Galway.The project is in its second year and there are approximately nine people whoregularly garden on the site. The garden is part-funded by the Health ServiceExecutive (HSE), by RAPID (Revitalising Areas by Planning Investment andDevelopment) and by the VEC (Vocational Education Committee). Feeney says thatthe community garden at Ballybane "promotes awareness of healthy food and oforganic food. It stimulates an interest in growing and helps teach the skills of growingwhich people can then transfer to their own back gardens." The programme alsoattempts to dispel some of the misconceptions that people may have about growing -that it is difficult or requires great levels of physical fitness.Social benefitsThe "Community Food Project" run by The Organic Centre in Rossinver, CountyLeitrim is also part-funded by the HSE. The project is in its third year, with sixgardens based in Sligo, Leitrim and Donegal. The project employs a team ofprofessionally trained organic gardeners and each garden has an average of 12gardeners from a variety of different backgrounds and ages. According to AndyHallewell, the Community Food Project co-ordinator, the social perspective is a verystrong feature of these projects because people get to work together as a team to growtheir own food. Hallewell says that the community gardens have many benefits. "Thelocal community can see the food being grown so that gives people inspiration andencourages them to find out whats going on. The participants will also go back totheir friends and family and tell them what theyve been doing which has a knock-oneffect on the wider community. The skills are also transferable amongst thecommunity. There are also the health benefits of the programme - I guess you couldsee it in terms of preventative medicine."Hallewell says that "You can do a lot with a small space and its not a good idea toover-stretch yourself. Within an area as small as eight or ten metres squared you cangrow a huge amount of vegetables." Fruit grown on their sites include gooseberriesblackcurrants and redcurrants. The soil type, aspect, shade and sun are all importantconsiderations when selecting a site and Hallewell stresses "Dont get over ambitious;dont bite off more than you can chew."
Organic Centre can offer advice to anyone who would like to establish a communitygarden. The City Farms movement is gathering steam in the north of Ireland andcommunity gardens are also growing in popularity around the country, so why notcontact your local Health Board or county council and start up your own communitygarden.The Organic Centre, Rossinver, Co. Leitrim, Ireland.