When Community meets Gardening

Sujata C

Community gardening is a growing trend across the world and urban food growing projects are cropping up everywhere in the US cities. The concept of community gardening took birth in the economic recession years of the 1890s which left many people unemployed and hungry. These ‘potato patches’ nurtured by the community were able to feed and provide work for a few. The concept of community gardening remained popular for nearly thirty years before losing steam. 

You might think where is the need for us to grow vegetables in India where they are really cheap most of the year and the green leafy veggies are often bought with the loose change. Well think again, because the greens you buy from the weekly market is grown by the side of the drain where all the sewage goes. The same water gets used to ‘wash’ the vegetables. There are reports in the mainstream media confirming this. Everyone knows about the pesticides that are sprayed on crops and the residue that remains. Maybe this is the reason why food tastes better when it is grown in your own garden, by you.

To check if the community gardening is indeed as popular as it is made out to be and if it will work in India, Sujata C met and spoke with a farmer from Australia who was on a visit to India to learn about the traditional farm practices followed here.

Sharon is an urban farmer, permaculture practitioner and teacher from Australia. She has been practicing permaculture for 23 years now. She trained under permaculture pioneer Robyn Francis and since then has been doing a lot of things with permaculture, from growing organic vegetable, to teaching people about permaculture and running a local farmer’s market. When she relocated from rural Australia to a city, she started urban farming on a four acre farm where she grows most of the food for the family and friends. She tours to spread the word about permaculture.

[caption id="attachment_1195" align="alignleft" width="246"]community garden expert Sharon, a permaculture farmer from[/caption]

You have been an urban farmer for a long time now. Do you think community gardening can work in India? What kind of advice can you give to city dwellers in India where space is really a constraint?

"The food that we eat is the most important thing in our lives. Where it comes from is equally important. In a city environment you can grow food on terraces, vertical spaces, balconies, and container gardens. But most importantly I would say growing food collectively in the city is worth a try even for a congested and crowded country like India. Starting a community garden is a worthwhile proposition and is catching on fast in a lot of countries.

When you look around the city, you will be surprised to see there is a lot of spare land. The real estate developer allows it to lie fallow for a long time. Even in a year’s time you can grow a lot of food. As I walk around in India I see a lot of disused and vacant plots and there’s just waste and weed growing. One has to be resourceful enough to identify the land that can be used to grow food.

Community gardening is a wonderful way of connecting with people around you, especially in these times, when everyone seems addicted to their phones and disconnected with their neighbourhood. It is not good, as it will snowball into something big. Community gardening can be a simple solution to this complex social problem. Of course, each country has its own peculiar challenges and you have to get around those to get a community garden going.

I travelled to India because I love meeting people and see how they grow their food, collect it and store it. There is so much traditional wisdom here that we can learn from. This (local knowledge) is very valuable and I try to see how I can use this back in my own farm and see whether it works.

These days the climate is challenging the farmers all the time. Weather patterns have changed everywhere and we can’t rely on seasons. Our planting seasons in Australia are out of whack. We get torrential rain rather than our normal gentle spring rain. So yes it’s really worrying."

That sounds familiar. The same thing is happening here too. It rains when it shouldn’t and is warm when it should be cold. How are you adapting?

"We are struggling to adapt to the seasonal changes and look to planting different varieties of plants. That’s something we have to do and that’s where permaculture plays a big role. Because of the changes in the weather, the seasonal vegetables are not holding up well, so we are growing perennials and testing out new things because that’s really important for food security. Food prices can really eat into your household budget.”

Square foot gardening, vacant lot gardening are some of the old concepts that are being revived  by experts now to reclaim waste land and are worth exploring. For urban dwellers sky is the limit as terraces and rooftops are ideal for gardening and the fact that there are nearly 20,000 members of an organic terrace gardening Facebook group goes to show how popular the trend is. Besides being a productive activity, it is a great antidote for city blues and improves the mental and emotional well being of those involved.

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