Case Studies: Exploring Four Community Gardens

In earlier work, colleagues and I undertook to ascertain the mechanisms of health improvements particular to the Tasmanian community garden (Marsh et al 2018). We found that community gardens were not delivering healthcare in deliberate or obvious ways, or even practicing Horticultural Therapy, which utilises particular gardening activities to achieve physical or mental health goals (Haller and Kramer 2006). Nor did many gardens incorporate specific therapeutic design components such as enabling gardens (Raske 2010) or dementia-designed ‘wander’ gardens (Detweiler et al 2002). Rather, in that qualitative study we found evidence of health care that was more covert, which drew on salu- togenic functions of participation in community gardening. Through thematic analysis of stakeholder interviews with community gardeners across the island we found numerous positive health benefits from gardening, including exercise and socialising, as well as from sustainable food production and nutrition education. Participants also provided descriptive examples of more surprising health giving benefits that arose from things like the solace, safety and comfort of garden-based end-of-life care, of bereavement support or from the support for people living with dementia. This research provided some insights into the ways in which health was improved and inequities were tackled, but we were keen to know more. Applying case study methodology, and using methods of textual analysis and interviews, this Chapter delves more deeply into the nuances of community gardens and their health impacts.

A Healthy Community around the Goodwood Garden

The Goodwood Community Garden is a small garden, which wraps around a community house located in one of the oldest public housing areas in Hobart. Amongst ageing weatherboard housing, in an area sandwiched by light industrial hubs and major highways, here the gardeners practice sustainable horticulture: seed saving, crop rotation, composting, worm farming, cooking and preserving the harvest. Preserves and seeds are sold to the community in the local shop, and garden produce is freely available to anyone who wanders through the garden, which is open at all times. It is a deliberately intergenerational space, where creativity is welcomed and encouraged. Gardeners and neighbourhood house staff integrate gardening and healthy eating and provide education in relaxed and informal ways.

Although there is a deliberate looseness to the Goodwood garden daily activities, everything that happens there is underpinned by a palpable commitment to improving health outcomes. A combination of biodiversity, horticultural activities and empowerment form the basis for tackling a reduction in population health inequities. The garden coordinator works 10 hours per week, alongside a team of regular volunteers. People with a range of neurological challenges and mental health issues garden alongside carers, children, and other volunteers. Gardeners are guided by the garden coordinator, who in turn is guided by each person’s interest and skills. Caring through cultivation is encouraged. People are given the space and opportunity to interact with each other, and to actively care for each other. The garden coordinator describes people ‘wrapped in the support of fellow gardeners’. For some, the garden is the only place where they access support - they may not speak with anyone else, nor listen to anyone else in other parts of their daily lives. They are also enabled to feel ownership of the garden and its outputs. All that is produced is the shared work of the community.

Goodwood Garden shares a unique partnership with the Tasmanian Junior Beekeepers Association. What started out as a plan to celebrate a local beekeeper’s 100 birthday and 92nd year of beekeeping turned into ongoing school holiday activities, a Bee Book produced by the local children, public presentations. media coverage and the establishment of a Bee Literate Grant Scheme. The timing of this coincided with a surge of interest in small-scale, backyard beekeeping in Tasmania. So enthusiastic had Tasmanians become for beekeeping that at one stage the Tasmanian Beekeepers Association reported demand for starter nuclei (or Nucs) had outstretched supply.

Backyard beekeeping forms a key element of salutogenic gardening. Understanding the role of social bees like the European honeybee (Apis mellifera) helps us to appreciate the importance of biodiversity, and the interconnectedness between plants, pollinators and humans. The vulnerability of bees alerts us to the dangers of inorganic pesticides and the value of organic food production. And as the Goodwood Community Gardening Bee Book reminds us, honey itself has a myriad of health-giving properties (boosting energy and immunity, minor burn treatment, insomnia, skin and digestion). Although not totally aproblematic (concerns about the over-popularity of social bees threatening the function of native or wild bees have been raised (Norfolk, 2018)) saving bees from annihilation is another well-intentioned expression of caring cultivation, and community empowerment.

This is a quintessential public health model of gardening. The individual health benefits come from increased health knowledge, increased confidence, self-worth and empowerment. Importantly, these benefits are also aimed at benefiting the wider community. The gardeners combine agroecology with community development principles to develop a resilient neighbourhood. This is a caring village with biodiversity, beekeeping and communal small-scale agriculture as its beating heart.

Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens Community Food Garden with Trauma Support

In a sheltered part of the 200+ years-old, carefully manicured Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens (RTBG) in the south of Tasmania, a community food garden boasts 40+ beds of healthy, bountiful produce. The garden is maintained by RTBG staff and a team of regular volunteers. At the time of writing, the produce was being collected by a community organisation. Loaves and Fishes, which distributed the food through community houses and other welfare organisations to supply emergency food relief for people experiencing food insecurities.

This garden-within-the-Gardens was originally established as a food growing area for a national Gardening Australia television program. In 2012 the Tasmanian Food Security Council expanded the space into a community garden, as a means of enacting a Food Security policy. The Policy aimed to try and improve health outcomes by making access to healthy fresh food easier for people on low incomes and living in disadvantaged areas. Plots were set aside for use by various community groups, including plots for veterans and their families. The Department of Veterans Affairs (DVA) were keen to see these garden beds provide “security, control and confidence” for people with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) (Department of Veterans Affairs 2014) as a means of mitigating and helping to overcome this debilitating condition.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is characterised by intrusive memories of the traumatic trigger event(s), severe anxiety, negative thoughts and mood, and a sense of loss of control. These symptoms may manifest in social isolation, depression, inactivity/avoidance, anger or mood numbing. The cures range from “time and good self-care” (Black Dog) to clinical psychological treatments such as trauma-focused Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) (Watkins et al 2018). One of the garden-related non-pharmaceutical treatments is exercise, which has been found to improve depressive symptoms, sleep quality and sedentary behaviours (Rosenbaum et al 2015). Social and therapeutic horticulture has been shown to have wide-ranging benefits for mental illnesses and disorders (Lorber 2011; Sempik 2010).

The RTBG has a long history of offering therapeutic horticulture and horticultural therapy. I undertook workplace experience there in the 1980s as part of my horticulture study, on placement with the resident occupational therapist. She worked with people with a range of abilities and diversities using various gardening tasks to improve function and capacity. Although that particular program no longer runs, the tradition is continued through the intentional design of the trauma support in the community food garden. The trauma support was designed to improve mental health and wellbeing through an emphasis on peer support and easy conversation, in a space for a non-clinical informal support group. Peter Cundell. war veteran and high-profile Tasmanian gardener, explained at the time of its establishment that gardening provided particularly appropriate support for people experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) because of its predictability: “we know exactly what’s going to happen. We know that when we sow seeds that they'll be germinating in two or three weeks’ time and that they’re going to grow into plants. There’s a certainty and a reassurance about gardening, and this is what people need” (Department of Veterans Affairs 2014).

Another of the gardening-based health benefits is thought to come from the opportunity to contribute to the community—to not feel as though you are on the receipt of hand outs or special supports. Self- worth is an important part of returning to civilian life post traumatic events. In the original model, the gardening was combined with education sessions: guest speakers, beekeeping courses, landscaping projects in the space. Large numbers of regular veterans were volunteering and a news story from the time highlights just how therapeutic people found it: “It gives me a positive place to come, to get out of my head space ... we are all from similar backgrounds ... and I can just be myself’ (Australian Broadcasting Commission 2014).

Nevertheless, the extent to which returned veterans engage with the community food garden has oscillated over the five years. The coordinator of community programs at the DVA attributes varying interest levels to the passion and availability of the volunteer coordinator at the time. There is no specific funding for a garden coordinator, so when there are too many competing demands, and stress levels rise, the program is put to the side. There have been periods when there has been no coordinator at all, and the program has entered into a hiatus. Moreover, veterans are part of a broader, general volunteering team, and reportedly have felt little sense of ownership of the garden plots.

The RTBG Community Food Garden highlights some of the challenges of running a health program that uses principles of therapeutic horticulture, public health and agroecology located in shared community spaces. As this, and the following example, demonstrates, it can be difficult to create a communal gardening environment where people feel surrounded by and supported by people with shared experiences and needs, and simultaneously an environment that provides opportunities for social engagement with people from the broader community also.

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