Stories of Success in the Community Garden!
From homemade Italian delights, birthday parties, and new friends to sharing plant knowledge, gratitude notes and personal growth, we managed to end 2021 on a high in the community garden. Read on to find out we managed to turn things around!
A lot has changed in the community garden since I first started to document my permaculture explorations there at the beginning of 2021. When I first began to get more involved in the community, I was disappointed to find that my oasis in the city contained just as much conflict within its four walls as there was outside of them. Rather than a loving, alternative community, I found a space full of complaints, insults and disillusion.
My permaculture investigations revealed a big rift in the collective in terms of values and principles. On the surface, it looked a little bit like it was a hopelessly lost cause, with the different fractions fixed in their positions. Some people secretly (or not so secretly) hoped that others would leave; others were defiant in their point of view; others felt trapped in the middle of a battle zone. The quarantine months with no assemblies, a freak snowstorm and other covid restrictions only made the situation worse.
Thankfully, after a tough few years for the community garden, things have finally started to improve. My stakeholder interviews and get-togethers for my permaculture design project brought fresh ideas and allowed people to express themselves. I was able to get to the bottom of some of the longstanding conflicts and gain a wider perspective of the space and the community. It allowed me to see the various different points of view and understand how the space works. It also brought people together and reignited the original spirit of the project.
Now, over the year since I first began this exploration into urban permaculture, I am happy to report that things have improved massively. Below I share some of the ways in which we have managed to bring fresh life to the project and some of the different ways that I have grown as a person during this process.
Las Tiernas Guerillas
One of the biggest problems facing the community garden over the last few years has been the lack of involvement from the people who visit the garden. One person in my stakeholder interviews summarized the situation perfectly: “¡Esta es Una Plaza! has gone from being an alternative, experimental and self-governed public space to a place for leisure only, where there are fewer and fewer people involved in its management”.
A potential solution to this problem came in the form of a new workgroup called “The Tender Warriors”. As I mentioned in a previous post, the meaning of the name is the heart of this group philosophy; ‘tender’ because we aim to put the care of people into everything we do, and ‘warriors’ because engaging people and encouraging them to go from garden-users to garden-participants isn’t an easy feat.
Our mission began by infiltrating the maintenance session that happens at the end of every month. Between the hours of 11 am and 2 pm the garden is open only for maintenance and cleaning. Some of the maintenance sessions in 2021 were quite disastrous. One time, no one even turned up to help! This added to the sense of hopelessness and resignation that added to the negativity of the previous year.
The words of our cactus friends from my earlier posts about conflict rang in my mind. “Here no one works”, they said. Perhaps they had a point after all. How can we keep the garden open for the enjoyment of all if we are not maintaining it ourselves?
Mission: Maintenance Day
Our first intervention as the ‘Tender Warriors’ was to try and turn this situation around. We decided that the most obvious plan of attack was to man the door during the maintenance sessions and inform people in a friendly way of what was going on.
We made sure to only use positive language such as “we are open only for maintenance” rather than “we are closed for maintenance” and always made sure to invite people to participate. This also became a great PR opportunity! It enabled us to inform people about the project and tell them where they can find out more information about how to get involved.
Sometimes little children as young as two agree to come and help out (often to the dismay of their parents!). When I am manning the door, I tend to speak to the children directly and ask them if they would like to participate. More often than not, they say yes and really enjoy feeling useful, even if it’s just for 20 minutes.
The best thing was that this helped to renew interest in the maintenance day, and slowly we began to organize it in a more effective way. We implemented better systems so that when someone who is new to the garden comes to help, there are people ready to guide them on what to do. This simple organization led to more productivity, more teamwork and therefore more sense of accomplishment.
Soon we spontaneously started to take up the tradition of eating together after we have finished working. “This is how we used to do it in the past”, some of the longstanding community members told me. Indeed, the last few years have served to dismantle many of the social aspects of the community that held it all together.
This renewed tradition brought a much greater sense of camaraderie and uplift to the collective. It seemed like the difficult chapter was behind us and we were finally starting to have a fresh influx of positive energy. One person even said, “I didn’t think that this would work, but it has! It’s been really cool!”.
The wave of positivity continued into the autumn when a group of young Italian friends came to the monthly assembly and were interested in helping out in the vegetable garden at the weekends. Whilst it was great to see new young people interested in helping out, the problem was that the vegetable garden workgroup only got together during the weekdays in the mornings. Not a very convenient time for most people and not very conducive to helping more people get involved.
This was really frustrating for me because after so many complaints about the lack of involvement of new people in the collective, here was a group of motivated people wanting to get involved and there was no way for them to do so!
That’s when I decided that something had to be done. I couldn’t sit by and let people miss the opportunity to help more people get involved. But at the same time, I have no knowledge about growing food- I am a total beginner! I didn’t feel like I had the required skills and knowledge of organic food growing to guide people or give instructions.
However, after my permaculture investigations and experience being involved in the garden over the previous year, I did have knowledge about how the space works and how the workgroups are organized, as well as the practical knowledge such as where the tools are kept etc. So I decided to step up and offer to facilitate the weekend workgroup. I made it clear that I had no expertise in vegetable growing to offer but that I was able to organize the tasks, collaborating via WhatsApp with the rest of the group to know what needed to be done and generally offer an orientation to newbies.
This was a new experience for me, as so far I had not taken a leadership role in the community garden. At first, I felt a little bit nervous, but I soon discovered that I was more than capable of facilitating the group. Being an experienced teacher helped, and I was surprised by how comfortable I felt being the one facilitating everything. Plus, it gave me an opportunity to realize how much I have learnt about the community garden up until now.
The best thing about this experience is what can happen when you just decide to take a chance and try something new. This surprise came in the form of the delicious homemade food that the Italian friends had made as a picnic on the first Sunday that we worked together in the garden. They had planned to eat together in a park, and after our session was over they asked me if I knew a place nearby where they could eat.
“Here of course!”, I said surprised. “Feel free to stay here and eat”.
“But can we drink beer here?”, they asked.
“Yeh!” I said.
And that settled it!
Then they went about setting up the table and invited everyone to join them. People went to buy more things (re: beer!) to share and then before you knew it, we had a spontaneous social get together!
This then became the Sunday ritual: we worked together and then we ate together. But forget a shared packet of crisps and a readymade tortilla de patatas. No, we took our food much more seriously than that!
Following the lead of the Italians, everyone made an effort to bring something homemade. We had homemade cheesy cauliflower, tomato sauce with pasta, pizza and homemade hummus. One guy even brought homemade bread! For me, this was really special and the fact that it was all homemade stimulated more conversation and more connection between all of us.
The next week someone made babaganoush from the eggplants that we harvested from the garden the previous week, and I made a sweet-savoury pastry using some fruit that had been harvested too. Sharing food that had been grown collectively made it even more special.
One funny moment was when someone did bring some store-bought hummus and guacamole. No one minded of course (it isn’t sustainable to cook something every week to share, perhaps), but it did make me laugh that these were the only items left on the table when the rest of the homemade goodies had been demolished.
New Connections and Encuentros
This influx of new people also led to new connections being made. Since so many of us are interested in plants and we are all from different countries and cultures, two women from the Sunday group organized a ‘plant knowledge exchange’. Many people came and it was a really beautiful meeting of like-minded souls.
There were books to look at from different cultures such as Brazilian indigenous tribes and traditional Spanish knowledge, and we did a group meditation too about being part of the plant world. We were also invited to walk around the garden and pick a plant to talk about. Some people wrote poetry to share and others chose medicinal herbs that they had stories about from their home countries.
What was very special about this event for me was the common thread of conversation that showed me that so many people are feeling the call to connect with the plant world, myself included. Regardless of the culture, we were from, so many of us felt disconnected from nature and yearned for a deeper relationship with plants that almost felt primordial.
Even though it seems that the machine of industrial society seems to take us further and further away from our natural habitat, it was inspiring to feel part of a movement of people sharing knowledge in the spirit of collaboration and slowly making our return to a way of life that is more connected to the Earth.
The best thing for me about having undertaken this permaculture design project for the community garden is the new friends that I have made. As I wrote about in the post ‘taking the greatest leap of my life‘, over the last few years my social circle in Madrid has reduced significantly to the point where I felt like I had no good friends left here in the city. I also felt that city life -bars, restaurants, cafés- no longer fulfilled me.
Now, thanks to the community garden, I have made new friends who share the same love of being in nature and the desire to co-create a better world. We have had dinners together, been on bike rides and done trips to the mountains together. Finally, I feel like I am building a community of like-minded people who are aligned with who I am as a person. And for that reason, I am very grateful to be doing this permaculture design course and have the opportunity to learn new skills, new knowledge and build new friendships.
And of course, no summary of recent developments in the community garden would be complete without an update about our cactus friends that have been in the middle of so much conflict over the past year!
I am pleased to say that the cactus conflict seems to have died down. The people in question seem to have taken more of a collaborative approach, as I have noticed that they ask more before doing now, which no doubt has made a difference. They also have been attending the monthly assemblies more and participating in a more friendly way.
However, I am sure that it won’t be long before a fresh conflict breaks out. There always seems to be something that happens that makes someone unhappy. But where there is conflict there is movement. In solutions there is expansion and growth, so now I tend not to take it all too seriously or worry unnecessarily. This community garden isn’t perfect, nor are the people who are part of it. Instead, I focus on creating more of what I want to see and experience there: more appreciation, more gratitude, and more joy!
Gratitude Box and 13th-year Anniversary Fiesta!
And that is how we ended the year, with a birthday party and celebration of the 13 years that the garden has been going. There were more homemade goodies, music and good Christmas vibes!
This was also the inauguration day of another new project that I had proposed to the community with the help of the Tierna Guerillas, the Gratitude Box! The idea was a simple one: if I wanted more gratitude and appreciation in the space, then I needed a channel of communication for this to be possible. And so the idea of a Gratitude Box was born. With the help of my new friend Oscár, we went about decorating what looked like a voting urn that he found on the street.
When the day of the fiesta arrived, we had it all set up and ready. We invited people to contribute their appreciation for the garden by writing a little note and posting it in the box or hanging it on the tree. It was slow to take off initially but little by little more people came to see what was going on. When they read the messages from other people, they soon wanted to add one of their own.
Again I was reminded of how natural it is for kids to get involved. Some helped us make the box and added their suggestions to make it more beautiful (“it needs more flowers!”, “more colour!”) and others went to town writing as many notes as possible.
In the end, we had a tree full of gratitude which really added a special touch to the day. They were beautiful to read, with messages such as:
“Giving thanks to this space; a calm place in the city where you can relax in nature and meet nice people”,
“I am grateful to this garden for being a wonderful place to play, inspire people and participate in a different kind of world”,
“Thank you Plazita for receiving everyone in the same way, for inspiring me with your colours, for your vegetable garden, for giving the kids a place to play and for uniting us all in a community”.
The kids’ messages were equally lovely:
“Thank you for the peace”,
“Thank you for looking after the plants”,
” Thank you for the raised beds”, and, my personal favourite:
”Merry Christmas Pokemon”.
I was also reminded of how many different cultures make up the community in the garden. There were notes written in French, Hebrew, German, Dutch and English. Even those who couldn’t express themselves well in Spanish wanted to take part.
The Power of Gratitude
It makes me think that gratitude is as basic of human emotion as anger or joy. It is the natural feeling when you have received a true gift. It seems to me though that all too often, gratitude isn’t given enough importance in modern society. We don’t see the world through the eyes of the gift. In a world where everything is bought and sold, with so much separation between those who make things and those who consume them, it is inevitable that our sense of gratitude becomes diluted or dimmed. Also, the fast pace of life prevents us from reflecting on all the reasons we have to feel grateful.
Indeed, one person wrote: “thank you for inviting me to stop and appreciate”.
That’s why, for me, the Gratitude Box is more than just a cute idea. It is a way to invite people to connect to a sense of appreciation, to slow down and reflect. It provides a method for people to put their thoughts on paper and give back in return for what they have received. In this way the giving and the taking is equal; there is a balanced energetic exchange.
For me, it is a small but powerful way of sowing the seeds of a different kind of world; a world with more appreciation, more reflection, more gratitude, more joy, more inspiration, more upliftment, more gifts and more expressions of love.
Now that we are in 2022, it is time to take my permaculture design project to the next level and begin really begin to create my design for the community garden. This year has been more about understanding how the community garden works and building up the social capital to be fully part of the community. However, time is of the essence; I need to have this finished by the end of May this year. This is a big project and I have a lot to study and a lot to discover in regards to the more physical side of my permaculture project.
I need to document all the plants, the different kinds of weeds, test the type of soil, draw up maps and more! I must admit, I have subconsciously been avoiding these things because I don’t have any knowledge or previous experience in these areas. I am more at home with the social side of things; human relationships and group dynamics. (I am a teacher after all!) However, the time has come for me to bite the bullet and develop skills and knowledge in new areas.
It’s funny how sometimes we tend to put off the things we want most just because it is unfamiliar or new to us. I want nothing more than to be able to read the land and be able to have a deeper understanding of our natural environment. However, I put it off, in favour of the things I do already know. Whilst I have very much enjoyed offering my gifts and skills on the human relationship level to the community garden this year, it is time to put my focus on the practical side of my studies.
But who knows, maybe I can combine the two and invite people to discover with me. It could be another way of giving back to the community garden in a way that allows me to progress with my design project and use my social skills to facilitate more people coming with me on this journey into permaculture. With so many people yearning to have a deeper connection with the Earth, I’m sure many would appreciate the opportunity to learn with me.
Another of the unexpected gifts that this permaculture course has given me so far is that, through being more involved in the community garden, I have grown immensely as a person and stepped into more of who I am. It has helped me feel more confident in my abilities and allowed me to see where my natural strengths lie. It has helped fill a void that was left after I left my job in June 2021 and has given me a sense of moving forward whilst living through difficult times.
I am also proud to be part of a community that, in times of intense divide and polarisation, has kept to its principles of being open to everyone. In a moment in history whereby many have fallen into separation and segregation mentalities, we have instead embraced the principles of community in a bigger way. This is the true spirit of this community garden and what makes it such a special place.
It is also a testament to the resilience, creativity and open-hearted generosity that human beings are capable of. This gives me hope that when these current challenges we are facing a globe pass, we will be able to come together stronger and more resilient than ever and heal any conflicts that occurred between us.
I am very grateful to the community there who continue to maintain the space so that all this is possible. ¡Gracias a todos!
Let’s see what 2022 has in store for the Community Garden!
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