The Secret Community Leader is an anonymous column sharing the highs and lows of community leadership. It provides an open and honest forum for community leaders to get nagging challenges and worries off their chests. It also aims to share some of the most rewarding moments of community leadership, in the hope of both relating to, and inspiring, other leaders and communities...
This column was first published in STIR Autumn Issue 2021.
My starting point as a community leader is being a guerrilla gardener. I have gardened all my adult life but only recently have I been a guerrilla gardener: planting and cultivating on land that is not my own. A while ago I started a community garden growing fruit and vegetables on housing association land where I live. After a bad storm seven years ago, I started to take care of two council beds down the road with some friends.
Gardening in the public realm is very different from gardening in one’s own domain. The spaces aren’t mine and I have no right to say what happens. Anyone can help themselves to anything in the beds such as picking flowers, taking seeds or digging up plants, although this rarely happens. People can leave whatever they want there, and they do. Other people have their own ideas about how the beds should look, and many have connections with spaces that no one else knows about. These may go way back in time connecting into personal history, family, and sense of self. Working in one spot several people said that they picked the rosemary for their Sunday roast and would I please leave it alone!
The kind of care that one can provide in a public space is different from in a private space. Principally it’s much more limited by the resources available. Water is heavy to carry any distance, plants are usually expensive, and although three of us usually work together, there is only so much we can do in a weekly session.
One bed in particular has taught me much, turning around my thinking about gardening, what care plants really need to thrive, and what is possible. As I work in the larger community, images of this bed often come into my mind. I am reminded of what I have learnt working with these plants, and how these lessons apply to my other work in the community.
This bed is a difficult space to garden, a long narrow bed along a road which is well used as a walkway, as well as for cars. Like many areas where community work takes place, it is a sadly neglected space.
Initially I was desperate to get things to grow, planting anything we could get our hands on, but many plants died due to neglect, drought, or trampling by dogs. Lack of resources then disciplined me to slow down, look at what was growing there. Observe what the plants were doing and see what I could do to help. Tender shoots need soil and a space to grow where they will not be trampled, and they need shelter. They don’t care where the shelter comes from – we learnt that weeds, dead plants, even rubbish that is well-bedded can provide a space for plants to grow. This growth in turn creates a spot for more plants to grow.
Plants do better in communities (as do people). I noticed that when we left the weeds to grow around young plants they grew better than the ones we cleared. This made me stop and think. I had always assumed that competition for water and space would weaken the plants I wanted to foster, but I hadn’t understood the sustenance that a plant community provides. By sheltering each other from the wind, and shading the soil to preserve moisture, plants create a microclimate that is beneficial to growth. In the soil roots are working together to increase biological activity. This releases nutrients, water, and information that help plants survive. Now the bed is much healthier, and much of it is filled with well established plants. But we are still cautious, and leave as many weeds to grow as we can, just pulling away rampant growth that threatens to suffocate the growth we want.
In the same way, life in a human community can become more varied and complex if there is adequate shelter. Last year I started a swap box in an obsolete phone box. It’s mostly books, but many other items have been left and taken including a bread maker, wellies, and a teapot. Sometimes it is bulging with stuff, sometimes there is space. It is well used by locals and visitors. A few neighbours have started taking care of it as well and it is working in a very natural way. The corner where the phone box stands is opposite the community garden and I’m sure that its success is due to the location.
Working in the wider community I am drawn to places and people that are providing shelter and sustenance for new growth. Much of this is through people connecting with each other, building networks of support, encouragement, and information exchange. When I stop and look to see where my input is most helpful I can often see that the best contribution that I can make is to introduce people to each other. In plant communities this would happen in the roots, unseen by us under the ground. Even something as basic as knowing each other’s names is the start of making connections and creating a fertile environment for a community to thrive.
The Secret Community Leader column is published in partnership with Practical Governance.