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March 14, 2011 | by  | in Features |
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Operation Green Thumb: Ahakoa he iti, he pounamu

In 1845, a man named Henry David Thoreau built a wooden cabin by Walden Pond near Concord, Massachusetts, and lived by himself in an experiment with self-sufficient living.

A rebel in a suit and bowtie, Thoreau turned his back on the industrialising society around him and recorded his musings in a text that would later become an influential reference point in American culture—a fact acknowledged in academic discourse, as well as on The Simpsons.

Although Wellington is a city at the edge of the world in a different culture and century, community gardens provide a method of experiencing simple living that is reminiscent of Thoreau’s ideal lifestyle. A collective of community gardens in the Wellington area called Operation Green Thumb (OGT) aims to aid people without land of their own to grow their own low-cost food. This simple idea has been running in an official capacity since 1994, and has resulted in an impressive number of gardens in the Wellington area. There are currently close to 200 plots that have been established through the group, with a significant portion of the gardens in Council housing areas. There are also two public community gardens in the Upper Hutt and three in the central Wellington area.

Development of Operation Green Thumb

OGT co-ordinator Sue Boyle comes from a long line of gardeners, stretching back to her great-great-grandparents. She has been working for the group for close to 14 years, helping to set up and maintain gardens as well as providing knowledge and assistance to gardeners.
Boyle says the initial idea for OGT developed in economically scarce times.“Rumour has it, that when they cut the benefits when the National government was in, [then Prime Minister] Jenny Shipley said that people on benefits should be growing their own vegetables,” says Boyle. “So, the council here in Wellington [along] with other relevant community groups got together and had a big pow-wow, and one of the things that came out of it was community gardens.”

“Mokai Kainga, a Maori organisation, suggested that their people needed land, so they ended up in Brooklyn. Then the Council put a garden in at Strathmore Park community base, so there’s two little pilot gardens, and it just went berserk after that, it just took off.”
After the initial period of fast development, the interest in community gardens tapered off slightly and “there was a lull—it was like we were the voice in the wilderness for about five years”.

In recent times, the Wellington City Council has become increasingly supportive of community gardens, with the Prendergast Council recognising community gardens in their planning documents. The Wellington City Council Guidelines for Community Gardens (September 2009) provide a mechanism for community gardens to apply for council funding, as well as the provision of council land. Over the last two years, the number of OGT plots has approximately doubled, thanks to funding from charitable organisations such as the Tindall Foundation and the Community Trust of Wellington.

When asked why communities would be resistant to the OGT project, Boyle describes people who are unable to visualise the gardens and how they would operate, as well as those who are concerned about the impact of gardens on their view. One proposed garden in Karori was unable to go ahead because of concern over “people hanging around in the park area”. Boyle says that much opposition to community gardens is “fear-based”.

How Community Gardens Help

Despite occasional opposition to community gardens, individuals profit from OGT in ways that extend past the tangible gain of producing low-cost, spray-free food.
Boyle believes that the initial motivation for taking out an OGT plot is often financial: “Needs will drive people to gardening… when it hits them in the pocket”. But she says that once people start gardening, other less obvious benefits come into play, such as its therapeutic and social value. Boyle says that community gardeners often form friendships through gardening, and points out that gardening is a way for recent migrants to form connections in their new homeland: “It’s such a ‘universal right’ type of activity. There is a rightness about it… it breaks down the barriers—the commonality of growing food and veges”.

Boyle notes that there is a diverse range of people who participate in community gardens: retired gardeners, low income gardeners, young gardeners, gardeners in high-density housing, students and families. An OGT gardener might be “in an area with no land and they miss [gardening], but there are also those people who are onto it in another way, in having a source of organic food for themselves”.

Boyle says some of the people who are involved in Operation Green Thumb “are quite aware, really, of what they’re doing… they’re into recycling and all that sort of thing, into growing food and being environmentally sustainable”.

Boyle believes this group of gardeners are motivated by beliefs that run deeper than political conviction.
“I don’t think politics should claim that—I think we’ve claimed it as a way preserving what we can see is going down the gurgler,” says Boyle. “I suppose it’s people power, isn’t it?”
As well as having significant benefits for the individuals involved, Boyle believes that community gardens have a positive impact on their surrounding community. Operation Green Thumb acts as an important source of knowledge, where gardening, recycling and environmental knowledge can be transferred to people outside of the community gardening network. The gardens are also an enhancement to the scenery, with Boyle describing the public garden in Brooklyn as ‘really quite beautiful—people come by and they can admire the flowers and then they can talk to the gardeners… there is no negative impact that I can see”.

The gardens include a seed bank where gardeners save their own seeds and swap with others, thereby preserving the diversity of the seed gene base. Boyle sees the seed-saving programme as an important element of the gardens, particularly in light of the limited range of seeds available on the international market, monopolised by companies such as Monsanto and Shell. “You’ve got to watch that lot,” says Boyle, noting that it is “community-based agriculture that really feeds the world”.

Plans for the Future

Boyle says that with the increase in funding over the last couple of years, the Operation Green Thumb gardens have now developed into managed areas “which the community can take ownership of, so when I get taken out of the picture, they’re independent”. When funding stops at the end of the year, OGT will have to source more money for basic gardening resources. Boyle does not seem fazed by the uncertainty of this financial ebb and flow: “We’ve just got to keep on keeping on—that’s us”.
Boyle’s enthusiasm is such that it’s not hard to see why so many people gravitate towards having their own OGT plot. Gardeners care for their food from seed to tomato sandwich, from sapling to fruit bowl. And the community element of gardening, such as the friendships that gardeners make and the skills that they learn, is just as important. Gardeners “make beautiful things out of stuff just lying around”, says Boyle—an idea that Thoreau may have sombrely tipped his top hat to.

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  1. justin bieber says:

    this fucking sucks asshole bitch mother fucker

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