Gardens as sanity-building and peace-building activism?

This post has been written by Stuart Read who described himself as a horticulturalist, bureaucrat and educator – I will let him make the call on the order. I worked with Stuart for a number of years and reached out because I wanted to get an expert’s perspective on the landscapes around us. What Stuart has written is a powerful and touching piece on how the simple act of gardening can heal, connect and nurture. Bad things happen in this world and if the simple act of planting a seed can build a bridge, well maybe we should look at gardens with a whole new respect.

Stuart Read is a horticulturist, bureaucrat and educator on landscapes. He helps the NSW Heritage Council identify, list, assess and manage key parks, gardens and sites.  Stuart has worked for the Australian Heritage Commission and Environment Australia’s world heritage & biodiversity units. He has studied gardens in Australasia, the Middle East and Europe, including a 2005 Pratt Foundation overseas fellowship study tour of Spain, and then in 2010 he led a tour of Spanish historic gardens. Stuart contributed to the National Trust (NSW) book Interwar Gardens … (2003), Oxford Companion to Australian Gardens (2002) and Gardens of History & Imagination: Growing New South Wales (2016). He wrote Spanish lessons for Australian Gardens… (2005) and regularly contributes to Garden Drum and Australian Garden History.

I recently really-enjoyed reading a book called ‘War Gardens – A Journey Through Conflict in Search of Calm’ – check out my review. This book is fascinating and relevant. We will keep going to war. Stealing each other’s land. Yet somehow gardening – planting a seed, nurturing a plant, gazing at and smelling a flower, picking and savouring a fruit, screening some unattractive view, creating a retreat, remain as fundamental and nurturing human acts. Sanity-preserving rituals we continue to do – need to do.

Havana, Cuba’s organoponicos – shared cultivation zones in otherwise unused spaces around and between nondescript apartment blocks aren’t war gardens but are survival and motivation ones. They bring nutrition and hope to people with slim resources and options. Check out more on them.

SBS TV years ago, ran a series ‘Over the Fence’ on neighbours in suburbia and some weird and wonderful things going on here and there. Like Riverwood’s (Sydney)’s two grandfathers, one Vietnamese/Australian, one Iraqi/Aussie, both ex-army and shell-shocked by the horrors of civil wars in their former countries. Both quietly cultivating vegetables on adjoining bits of land. Snake beans on one plot, chillies (I think) on the other. Neither spoke a word of each other’s tongue. Yet both drew some solace, some catharsis, by tending their green patch daily, glancing ‘over the fence’ at each other’s. Exchanging nods and the odd smile of admiration. Peace-time gardening, somehow both healing wounds and building community bridges.


A very old mulberry tree, collapsed but still thriving and full of fruit (Cambria, Tasmania: Stuart Read)

A necessary thing in an increasingly fractured, nervous world with too many of us retreating into insulated siloes, watching and listening only to media of our own (non-world-threatening) choosing. Increasingly drawing up drawbridges, growing distance and alienation. We should be doing the opposite. Peace-building; together. That’d be a far-better use of resources, time and effort.

Allotment and community gardens are long traditions in some cultures accustomed to dense, urban living. Where space is tight. They may be across town. Or right outside: under and between homes. Yes, negotiation is an integral part of sharing space. Yes, things may get pinched (though more players can mean more presence, surveillance having the opposite effect). (Find out more about allotment gardens).

Community gardens are a growing thing – I’ve lost count of how many have sprung up across not only Sydney but also across New South Wales. Historians looking back at the 1990s and 2000s might find this movement of interest – a ‘collectivisation’ in direct opposition to our increasingly individualist (d)evolution. Stephanie Alexander’s Kitchen Garden Project funds vegie and fruit gardens in schools nation-wide. Run by children they’re linked to learning how to pick, prepare and cook simple, fresh, wholesome food from their produce. This is such a useful and encouraging trend. Lunch need not be ‘fast’, fried or in heaps of glossy packaging. And might be a heap of fun and satisfying to make: more so when you’ve had a hand in growing it and cooking it. Kindergarten grounds (even the German word means children-garden) suggest strong possibilities.


A ripening fig on the bough (right). Fresh cherry on the bough (Cambria, Tasmania: Stuart Read)

Aged care homes and over-55 age apartment complexes and town house clusters suggest other opportunities to rethink gardens and build bridges between isolated social groups. Why couldn’t grandchildren, neighbours including children come together to tend these over-trimmed, under-thought and under-used spaces, to encourage isolated people in society to mix? Have a look at these sites from the Australian Ageing Agenda and Better Health Victoria.

Both the elderly and the young are ‘looked after’, corralled, kept apart. Both have a bit too much spare time: too few visitors. Social stimulus lacking, beyond a nurse with a cup of tea, or a busy childcare worker. Yes, there are issues: security: trust: organisation: resourcing involved. Yes, things could go awry. Not everyone’s abilities and motivation are up to it. But isn’t it worth a try?

Heritage places often have gardens, sometimes the only ones left in subdivided estates, ever-smaller lot suburbia. These of course are potential community assets – and tending those (often neglected) gardens offers opportunities for education, exercise, community-building, socialisation, even employment-generating skills and experience. Again, this takes organisation and effort – but isn’t such ‘infrastructure’ worth investing in? Don’t the benefits outweigh the necessary effort? I think they do.

A hazelnut / filbert ‘walk’, Cambria, Tasmania (Stuart Read)

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