1. A plot of ground where plants are cultivated
  2. The flowers or vegetables or fruits or herbs that are cultivated in a garden
  3. A yard or lawn adjoining a house

Now, I don’t know if you’ve noticed it, but the available “green” space we get with new house (which we call a “garden”), is diminishing by the day. Behind my mother’s house, a large old house was recently knocked down to make way for three “executive” homes. Huge, I grant you; but when I looked over the wall, I failed to see any space we could call a real garden. So I asked the boss of the construction company why that was?

Me: Hi, I like the new houses you’ve built, but one thing troubles me, where have the gardens gone?

Him: Oh! (chuckling) Yes it’s funny you should say that but someone else asked me the same question recently. The answer’s really quite simple. If someone is going to pay a million pounds for a house, they like it to look like a million! What’s the point in having a huge garden and a tiny cottage? No-ones going to be impressed with that!

Me: So you’re saying that the reason there are small gardens is because of status!?

Him: Something like that. Look, people are busy working these days, it’s not like the old days when people had the time to potter around in the vegetable patch. These houses are expensive; people have to work as much as they can just to keep paying off the mortgage. And when they come home, what do you think they want to do? Dig potatoes in the garden or sit in a nice lounge watching satellite tv and drinking a relaxing glass of red wine? If people really wanted small houses and large gardens then we would build that, although thinking about it we wouldn’t earn as much money building a small house, so that wouldn’t be very profitable would it?

Me: No, thanks for your time.

In most developed nations, there isn’t much space left near cities, so the developers try to put as many bricks as possible per square metre. It makes good financial sense for them, but as we can see in cities like london, they have become huge sprawling metropolises, with mile after mile of slate roof. Sure some people have gardens but it is the buildings themselves that take up most of the space. “What are you moaning about?” asks the town planner, “We have lots of lovely gardens and parks where people can walk!” Let me tell you a short story.

One of the reasons I liked the idea of going to live in australia was the space! I had heard a statistic somewhere, that the state of western australia – where only 2.2 million people lived – was the same size in land mass as india, and they had over a billion people there! Wow! I thought, this is going to be more like it, imagine the space we are all going to have.

So, imagine my surprise – when I started looking at houses to rent with my wife – that unless I had my own gold deposit, the most I would be able to afford would be a small house, tightly packed next to another one, with a postage size garden with sandy soil! I couldn’t understand it, so I set out to find why we didn’t all have massive spaces around us.

“Sure we have plenty of space around us, but most of it’s uninhabitable unless you are a kangaroo!” a friend joked. He explained further. “Look, most australians live in, or close to cities, because that’s where the work is. You could live further out, but then you’d have a hell of a commute on your hands, most people are happy to put up with small gardens because (a) they’re close to the city where they work and (b) the government have provided plenty of parks, and if you need more space, there’s always the beach!”

How could this be? A new society created just 200 years ago falling into the same trap a city like london (that had been going a lot longer and so could be excused somewhat) had? And suddenly I realised. The australians were following the same model as every other consumer society with the businesses in the centre and the accommodation/retail parks/transport infrastructure surrounding it. “Of course, this is what everybody’s idea of a modern city is like,” I thought. People go to work. People come home to relax. The garden is only there to look pretty. They don’t need a garden for anything else but laying a lawn and planting nice flowers and bushes around the outside so it looks pretty!

This isn’t like the old days when people needed to grow their own carrots and potatoes and fruit, now they had money from working and could just pop down to the supermarket 24 hours a day in the car if they needed to. Why would they want to spoil their lovely lawn by having ugly vegetables sticking out of the ground! People want to have beauty surrounding them and so they create their own little piece of paradise. Their garden.

We ended up with a house on the end of a terrace 100 metres from the main shopping strip of the area, and were told how lucky indeed we were to have a garden at all in the city, when in fact many thousands of people had only a balcony, at the very most, in their apartment buildings. But I didn’t really count myself “lucky,” in fact I was disappointed with the whole thing; but even so, I decided to start by growing some tomato plants, and some herbs, in the sandy soil. The herbs all got eaten by slugs and bugs and the tomato plants faired no better. I think we got two tomatoes from the plant but boy did we savour them!

Our own piece of paradise, ten feet from someone else’s

I now came to realise that most of australia also lived like this. Maybe if they were a bit further out they had a bit more land, but as I travelled out of the city and looked on in horror at some of the new developments built on little more than dust, surrounded by two metre fencing, it came to me. This is what people want. They want a low maintenance garden that doesn’t take much looking after, and as long as the inside of the house is big and well equipped, it’s enough.

The developers were only building what the people wanted (and want them they did, if all the sold signs were to be believed). They wanted their square patch of land fenced in by neighbours with just enough space so the kids could run around in and a patio large enough to entertain guests during the famous “aussie barbecues.” The plants and flowers were mere decoration.
So, the english developer I spoke to was right. People are too busy to worry about having large gardens with space enough to grow their vegetables, they had work to do during the day and gardens were for enjoying in the evening. They weren’t from farming stock; these were city dwellers, brought up on fast food diets and consumer lifestyles.

What I was talking about was the past, a time when people couldn’t afford to buy vegetables so they grew them themselves out of necessity, not out of some idealistic dream to be self-sufficient. And anyway, even if they wanted to be self-sufficient they sure would find it difficult to grow all they needed on a five metre square patch of land! It was me who was being idealistic, out of touch with the “real world,” a world where everything I wanted and more was available to buy just as long as I had earned enough money.
That was the dream that people were chasing now. The ability to have everything you want at your fingertips. Heck, with internet shopping, all our groceries could be delivered to us without us ever having to step foot out of the door! I was living in the past, and I needed to wake up (I was told). Old men had vegetable plots. Old men had vegetable plots because they had nothing else to do.

The demise and rise of the veggie plot

Although I was resigned to the fact that modern cities needed modern gardens, my hopes were lifted last year when I was in the czech republic; where although the gardeners were, what you could call “retired,” I saw many of these community plots dotted around the city. I found someone who spoke english and asked him why they were still doing it.

Me: Hi. Can I ask you why your still growing your own vegetables in a city. It seems most people gave it up a long time ago.

Gardener: Have you seen the state of the vegetables you get in the supermarkets? They’re disgusting, they are full of chemicals, and they have no taste.

Me: Oh, I agree with you. It’s just that it looks like a lot of hard work.

Gardener: It is, but I find it relaxing coming down here after work.

Me: Oh, you still work, I thought you must be retired!

Gardener: No, I can’t afford to retire, I still work in a factory for eight hours a day; this is my bit of peace at the end of the day, and it feels good to get your hands dirty, knowing that at the end of it, you will have beautiful tasting fruit and vegetables. Come. You look at the soil here, there are no fertilizers and no chemicals, you won’t find soil like that on the big farms.

Me: I can see that (I had to agree, it not only felt good, but smelt good too.). But don’t you have too much produce here for your own needs, won’t it go off?

Gardener: No, we have a community garden here, there are over 30 of us each tending individual plots, but we all grow things we can exchange with each other. For example, my friend over there grows potatoes. I grow apples and pears. He has no apples and pears and I have no potatoes, do you understand?

Me: Yes, I think so.

Gardener: Other friends grow different fruits and vegetables, and we exchange. If we have too many we take them down to the local market and sell them and we split the profit. It is not much but we manage to pay for a few drinks with it, if you know what I mean?

Me: So do you have your own gardens at your homes?

Gardener: No, most of us still live in communist-era apartment blocks, but some have gardens. They don’t grow anything there, just flowers and plants. But here when we get together we grow! It is very friendly here; sometimes we bring food up to share and maybe some beer in the evening during the summer.

Me: So would you like to do this for a living?

Gardener: No way, much too hard work, this is for fun, but we never have to buy any vegetables and they taste so good.

Me: It sounds like you’ve got it made.

Gardener: Maybe, my friend.

Me: Goodbye and good luck with the growing.

This got me thinking. If we can’t beat the developers who build the houses so close together with the tiny gardens, and we can’t convince people that having them just to put some flowers in is a waste; then maybe there was another way. Perhaps if we used an example like the gardener I had met, people could have fun mixing with other people, whilst at the same time supplying each other with all of their fruit and vegetable needs. And when they have too much they just whip it down to the local market and sell it. “Fresh, organic community vegetables, locally grown,” then you can split the profits and maybe treat yourselves to a nice meal or a few drinks every so often. Who knows maybe you’ll make more!

The rise of the community garden

So how do we start this community garden? Who would be in charge? Who would decide what vegetables to grow? How much is a five kilo bag of potatoes worth? One kilo of apples perhaps? What if people cheated, what if the people who worked there stole from each other? And other modern dilemmas created by the capitalist consumer society. But when we start thinking like this, the whole project is doomed from the start!

So, instead of worrying about who is going to cheat who, start chatting to your neighbours (you know, the people who live next door!) you may never have spoken to, or people at work or at social and sport clubs and see if they want to start a new club, but this time with no leader and no committee (otherwise you’ll never get anything done), and see if anyone is interested in trying to start a community garden which grows fruit and vegetables etc. for the people involved with the project. So instead of having two sorry looking tomatoes to show for your growing effort, you will be rewarded by an endless supply of produce, as long as it is planned right!

There will, of course, have to be agreement on what to grow, and who will grow what, and how to manage pest control (no pesticides pleeeease), and then you are well on your way to the next stage; where to get the land from?

Now I am not suggesting that anybody should front up the money, or go to the bank and ask for a loan; we’d just be back at the beginning. No. We have to go to the council and ask them for some space for a new community garden. And we won’t pay a penny for it!

The council always has some spare land somewhere that a greedy developer hasn’t snatched up already, and as you are members of the tax paying community, you would like some community space (please). They are sure to listen to your charming persuasion!
Who knows, there may already be a community scheme like this operating in your local area and that will save you all the hassle of starting a new one. What do you think? Do you like the idea of having your own vegetables and fruit for “free,” sharing in some community spirit, and taking away some small part of the supermarkets profit?

It sounds like a good deal to me, and when I eventually find a place to settle my weary head, I too will try to start one of these. Come on, it looks like it could be fun, sitting around on a summers evening with some friends sharing a cool drink and having a laugh after tending your crops. The city gentleman farmer is born.

It just seems as though we are wasting so much space – which we could be using to grow good quality food – that has now been engulfed by bricks and mortar. But instead of just complaining and blaming the developers, I have to look closer to home; to our own consumer tendencies, and the lifestyle we helped create for everyone. Maybe this project is one simple way to start appreciating where the food comes from and having a good time into the bargain!

Campaign for space to be given for your own community garden today!
Let’s grow! (sorry for the pun)


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