Category Archives: Education

What’s the point of community gardens?

John has invited me to write this month’s blog post as it is 15 years this year, since we started the Triangle Community Garden (www.trianglegarden.org) with a group of friends around our kitchen table in Hitchin.

Over the years, the question I get asked most often is: what is the community garden for? So I thought I’d try and answer it properly this time …

As many of you will be aware, the community garden movement started in the 1970s in cities, where plots of land lay undeveloped awaiting a better financial climate. High rise populations looked longingly at the waste land and sought ways to cultivate it and use it in the meanwhile. Once these ‘meanwhile gardens’ became established they took on massive importance to urban communities, as oases of usable productive green space and a way of bringing people together for positive ends.

Making a garden, as a community
Making a garden, as a community

At the Triangle Garden our tagline is ‘Connect, Grow, Enjoy!’ and it’s the sharing of the process of growing, creating, planning, gardening, harvesting, baking, making and just soaking it all up, that is what it’s all about.

Many people assume that community gardening is all about food growing, and for many projects it is, but the Triangle Garden has always been about the making of a garden, for everyone to enjoy.

That’s not to say that we don’t grow food – we do – but there are other, equally important, yields to be had. Over the years we’ve shared in the creation of a place of unexpected peace and beauty; a magical place between a busy road and a noisy railway line, with a magnetism for children and a time of its own … a secret garden.

Volunteers have come and gone, and as the Triangle Garden has evolved, so those involved have grown with it. We’ve learnt skills, like willow weaving, composting, pruning, mosaic making, peace-making, delegating, problem solving. We’ve shared wildlife adventures: the discovery of bats, hibernating newts, basking lizards, new froglets, bumblebees, butterflies, the creation of a wildlife pond, a bug hotel and a pollinators’ garden.  We’ve made mistakes, missed opportunities, suffered setbacks, had successes, been inspired, worked hard and had fun.

Volunteers picking this year's apples, and showing off a bottle of last year's juice
Volunteers picking this year’s apples, and showing off a bottle of last year’s juice

This month we’ve been busy picking and receiving donations of apples, to be processed locally into bottled juice, and sold to raise funds. We don’t make much money out of it, but it’s positive and fun, and makes use of fruit that would otherwise go to waste. People can’t wait to give us their apples or offer us their orchards to pick.

They say horticulture is a de-stresser because plants can’t talk back at you, but I think it’s more than that. Working with nature grounds you in a way that nothing else can: nature works to its own agenda and at its own pace – try and tame it at your peril! But when you observe it, try to understand it and work with it and not against it – then it gives back in spades!

One of our gardeners with some of the things she's grown this year
One of our Growing Ability gardeners with some of the things she’s grown this year

Our Growing Ability project for adults with learning disabilities, demonstrates that in abundance. In between the weekly sessions, nature is at work, rewarding our ‘gardeners’ for nurturing their plants and helping to achieve a small step towards a result they can be proud of, whether it be a crop of beans, a bed of strawberries, some bee-friendly flowers or a long-awaited and much-revered aubergine.

For those who attend, the project is a place where they can come together for a purpose and interact with the natural world.

Through planning their crops and tending their plots, our gardeners are learning and consolidating their literacy and numeracy skills, recognising cause and effect, and taking responsibility for seeing something through. From choosing and buying seed, to enjoying and sharing what they’ve grown, there is much to discover, learn and remember.

Growing Ability gardeners and staff at our allotment
Growing Ability gardeners and staff at our allotment

Observing and interacting with nature, even just being outdoors, can be therapeutic – individuals enjoy sharing their knowledge and feelings about the life around them: whether it’s birdsong, butterflies, earthworms, bees or the robin that frequents our allotment.

The social aspect of the project cannot be underestimated either. For some of our gardeners it is the only activity they do outside the house during the week. With no work, no spare cash and a limited circle of people who accept you, life can be very isolated. Sharing one morning a week in a supportive, positive, natural environment is a highlight to look forward to.

Our Growing Ability project has a sister initiative, born a couple of years ago from the desire of many of our gardeners to lose weight and get fitter. Growing Health provides a supportive environment where individuals can learn about weight management, portion control, and how to plan and cook healthy food on a limited budget, using the facilities available at home – usually a microwave and a kettle. The group share cooking and eating experiences, support each other in setbacks and successes, take regular walks together and play outdoor games in the summer.

Cricket with Growing Health
Cricket in the park with Growing Health

In the first year of the project, the group lost a total of 3 stone 12lbs, and this year another 14lbs was lost overall. As well as playing basketball and cricket, and walking together around the park during sessions, individuals are now choosing to walk into town instead of catching the bus and several have joined Hitchin library, making regular visits on foot. At break times in both projects, biscuits have been replaced by fruit as the snack of choice. Impressive stuff .. . and thanks overwhelmingly to our amazing staff team led by Project Manager Liz McElroy.

I must end now, having probably gone on far too long, but that’s what happens when you’re passionate about something…  (just don’t get me started on latin drumming).

Any questions on this blog, please drop us a comment below.

Vicky Wyer (landscape architect at Bowles & Wyer, Chair of Trustees at the Triangle Community Garden, wife and mother to his children,  mad drumming woman).

If this has inspired you to find out more, please visit our website at www.trianglegarden.org.

Our community gardening sessions are on Friday mornings and the last Sunday of every month and are open to all. Our learning disability projects: Growing Ability, Growing Health and Growing Gang (a community-based work-experience project), run during the week from our allotment and the Triangle Garden.

If you’re in the area, come and find us at our next local event: Apple Day in Hitchin town square on 17th October 2015, 10am-2pm. Follow us on twitter @triangle_garden and Facebook: TriangleGarden

The great divide … north/south? or capital/maintenance?

I met up with some old friends a couple of weekends ago. Not just any old friends, but a 30th reunion of graduating from Manchester with our postgraduate diplomas in landscape architecture. As you can imagine, there was a lot of catching up to do. Lunch merged into dinner followed by a couple of beers as we put the world to rights. As we compared our working experiences over the last couple of decades, differences began to emerge and crystallise.

There was something of a north south divide – no real surprise there. Actually, this was more of a local authority/private practice divide than a north south, but it just so happened that most of the people working for local government were based in the north of England. Many of these people were disillusioned. My experiences of working for a local authority were exhilarating, but were thirty years ago. Not surprisingly, things have changed since then.

The great hedge-trimmer massacre - can this really have been the designer's intention?

The overwhelming theme seemed to be one of lack of funds and skills completely driving the agenda. Even when there was money available for capital projects, the complete dearth of maintenance/management funding meant that the design of projects was severely clipped to meet the skills and funds available. One colleague told me that she had been told to do only schemes with ‘trees and grass’ as ‘trees needed no maintenance and we can cope with the mowing’. Another told me of a flagship city-centre garden restoration scheme in the north of England that received funding. He spent some time working on the restoration – it was the best project he’d had in a long time – and it was installed complete with planting by a competent contractor. When he revisited it a year or so later, he described it as ‘The great hedge-trimmer massacre’. I’m sure I don’t have to explain what this means – I witnessed a similar thing on my way to work this morning. He has just taken ‘early retirement’ at the age of 56 and is going to work in the private sector.

A sad state of affairs.

The final irony was that we were having the last part of the conversation in a coffee bar in Piccadilly Square – which looked pretty sad. Most of you will know this as the recipient of a highly prestigious landscape scheme a few years ago as a result of a design by Tadao Ando and EDAW. It all had a rather tired unloved look. Some of the seeds of this were undoubtedly in the design – like the timber benches (see left), and of course all city centre spaces get well used and show the signs of wear, but given that this is Manchester’s ‘mantelpiece’ I had expected a bit more. This is a sad state of affairs indeed. You might recall that this is a bit of a pet subject of mine; I wrote a previous blog about it – ‘The whole life cost of a Citroën’ and also spoke at a recent conference on the subject – SGD spring 2013 conference

There are a number of lessons that emerge. The first is an obvious one – there seems little point in spending money on capital projects which are then not going to be maintained adequately. This is a downward spiral, because if future capital works funding is sought, but the evidence of previous schemes is unconvincing (because of poor maintenance) then bids are unlikely to be successful, or least that should be the case.

The second is a broader though parallel one on the design community. Why will practices invest time and care in projects that they know are not going to be looked after? This applies to commissioners as well – the effect is pervasive.

Finally, the whole process exerts a downward spiral on wages and profits in the landscape industry. Excessive profits at the expense of public bodies is clearly bad for all of us, as taxpayers. Nonetheless, profits are essential for re-investment in companies, for resilience, innovation, training and all the other things that make our industry great. Take this away and you end up with a sector made up of under-resourced, demotivated companies staffed by under-paid demotivated people. Hardly a good omen for the future.

The sad result of all this is that the industry is just reinforcing stereotypes and preconceptions that outsiders hold about it. Maybe some of the direct works departments of the 70’s and early 80’s were lazy, bloated and inefficient. But they were also great training grounds, fantastic centres of horticulture and beacons of local character. Has the pendulum perhaps swung too far the other way?

Is landscape education in the UK in free fall?

Recently (as every year for the last three) I was at Greenwich University in my role as an external examiner.  I find this a stimulating and rewarding experience. The work on display is always interesting and I find it useful to see the presentation techniques being used by students. The two courses which I examine (which are both excellent) are degree courses, one in garden design and the other in landscape architecture. In previous years, I have been amazed by the percentage of students for which this is a second career. In some years the proportion has been as high as 85 or 90%, although this year, those coming straight from school or almost so made up the majority of the students.

I have long been fascinated by just why it is that landscape design and garden design should be such a popular choice for second careerists. I suspect that many people are drawn to (or fall into) more profitable lines of work early on their careers, but become bored and want to search for something more rewarding. Others come from related fields (architecture, interior design, landscape contracting, etc.) and have perhaps come across garden/landscape design in the course of their work. At Greenwich, the two degree courses run alongside each other and there seems to be a reasonable degree of porosity, with students choosing (or transferring to) the course that suits them better. Some of the garden design graduates go on to do a masters in landscape architecture, but many go straight into practice.

As is well known, the education system has been going through some major upheavals in recent years. The first has been the transference of funding from direct government funding of teaching to the universities, to funding via increased tuition fees from students. The net effect of this has been that most universities have increased fees to almost the maximum (£9,000 per year). This means that a degree course will now cost students at least £25,000 for a degree, or much more if living and accommodation costs have to be taken into account. This has had an almost immediate impact on the level of applications.  The second change is the extra visa restrictions that Central Government has introduced to combat the abuse by some bogus colleges of educational visas. This catch-all measure has involved many bona-fide institutions in a considerable amount of extra work. It coincides with a diminishing capacity amongst universities to commit fully to the overseas marketing needed to fill these places because of budget cuts, particularly the legwork and paperwork needed to follow-up the initial marketing campaigns with actual places filled. All this sends a message to overseas students that they are not particularly welcome. Australia introduced similar measures a few years ago and additionally restricted the number of hours that students could work. Following dwindling applications from abroad and an AUS$3bn dollar gap in the education budget as a result, the Australian Government effectively did a U-turn in March 2012 and has (anecdotally) seen applications rising again.

For landscape architecture courses in this country the situation is in free-fall. One member of staff told me that according to the Landscape Institute, there were only 580 applications to landscape architecture degree courses from UK students last year. As he pointed out, if one takes out the multiple applications by students to different courses, this drops to around 120 unique applicants. Hardly enough to sustain a design industry, let alone the degree courses to train them. When I trained 30 years or more ago, there were over 300 applicants for 30 places on the landscape architecture degree course at Manchester Poly (Manchester Met as it is now). We started with 30 and finished with 15. The course was one of about six in the UK at that time, with a much smaller profession than now. If the figures of 120 are right (and I have not checked them) then there is a real crisis brewing. The course at Greenwich is excellent, amongst the best. We can little afford to lose any of the courses in the UK, but I suspect that many will struggle over the next few years.