• Lucy Xia and Phoebe Atkinson beside the seedling stand which has been the Forrest Hill Community Garden’s main promotional tool (alongside social media) since Level 3 of lockdown.

Creating a Community Garden

Phoebe and Dave Atkinson are a couple of “garden enthusiasts and hopeless romantics”. “We can’t bear the idea of a bunch of great people in Forrest Hill staying behind their fences and not getting to know each other.” The answer? A community garden in a spare patch of land in in Seine Road reserve in Forrest Hill.

They envisage it as “a place to learn to grow organic food, and a place to get to know our neighbours. It will be a beautiful space, a learning space, a place to get stuck in, and a place to experience what community can really be.”

The dream began almost two years ago, and has finally made its way through various planning and approval processes. As spring approaches, it’s the perfect time to start gardening. Christine Young from Channel asked them a few questions about their dream and how they’ve gone about making it reality.

Christine Young: Where and why did the dream begin?

Phoebe & Dave Atkinson: Phoebe has been a gardener since she can remember and amongst other things studied horticulture post-school. Dave has a design degree which he can't help but apply to landscape design as well. During a difficult time in life, our own garden became a very therapeutic space for us. Both of us are community-minded people and romantics / idealists at heart, and we live opposite a park. The combination of all those factors resulted in the seed of the idea, but it was a chance comment by a kindergarten teacher (from the kindergarten that is through the fence to the garden) suggesting the park would be a good place for a community garden that was the real confirmation and catalyst which planted that seed. And so the journey began!

CY: You’ve lived in Forrest Hill since 2010 – was your own garden already established when you moved in, or has that been something you’ve developed since your arrival in the area?

P&DA: Our property was the proverbial blank canvas when we moved here, and the landscaping of our own garden has been an incredibly satisfying, rewarding and therapeutic process. We have six raised beds, a mini orchard, chickens and beehives in the back yard and native landscaping at the front of the property.

CY: Please tell us a bit about your backgrounds and why sustainability and organic gardening are so important to you?

PA: While studying horticulture 20 years ago, I became aware of and really interested in the young but growing industry of organic horticulture and agriculture in New Zealand. Studying the various means of food production, organic methods made the most sense to me. Furthering my education lead me to an interest in resource management and a degree in Town Planning where sustainability had moved beyond a buzz word to the very foundation of best practice. Now as a teacher and mum, both these concepts influence the ways we live out the practicalities of daily life.

CY: Is it primarily about the garden, or about connecting community?

P&DA: Great question! We're glad you asked :-) It's primarily about connecting community. The gardening is the means but the connections are the end we are endeavouring to foster. We believe gardening is the ultimate leveller; no matter who you are and what your background, when you garden shoulder to shoulder with others, experiences are shared, connections are formed, and that is the basis for relationships to be built. We were delighted by the silver-lined sense of community and willingness to connect we all experienced during lockdown and want to capture that sense in the community garden. We are also thrilled to have Lucy Xia, a fluent Mandarin speaker, on the team in the role of Chinese Community Liaison. She has been translating our social media communications into Chinese, and helping to make the dream a reality.

CY: Are there any community gardens you are modelling your ideas on?

P&DA: There are several different models of community garden, and as opposed to the allotment style where individuals are responsible for their own plot, we are opting for a communal model where participants come to garden together with a mutual goal of getting to know others while maintaining the garden and sharing the produce. We have adopted aspects from a number of fabulous local community gardens including Kelmarna (Herne Bay), Pt Chev's Growing Point, Devonport Community Garden and Hobsonville Point's Catalina Community Garden.

CY: It’s been a couple of years, and you still haven’t turned the first sod – what has kept you going?

P&DA: We are absolutely captured by the vision of a flourishing community where we actually know our neighbours, whether we share the same language and culture or not. Furthermore, we are continually buoyed by the enthusiasm of the people who have been coming on board along the way.

CY: Do you have a garden design, or number or size of gardens, in mind? 

P&DA: We have had a preliminary design approved by the local board which includes 10 5x1m raised beds, a shed and covered communal potting space, compost bins (which we hope to be a community collection point), a glass house and fruit trees.

CY: What will be the first things you plant?

P&DA: We can't wait to get some fruit trees in, given the Chinese proverb: "The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, the second best time is now"!

CY: It’s going to be volunteer driven – how many people do you need to make the place really hum?

P&DA: Ideally we will have a core organising team of five or so people and we'd hope to see 10-20 people out each weekend working bee - but the more the merrier. We have 70 interested locals signed up to our database so we think we are well on the way.

CY: What about the costs involved? You have a number of community partners; how actively are they involved, and what are their roles?

P&DA: While it is of course possible to develop a garden on the smell of an oily rag, we're determined that this garden should be a beautiful space and the reality is, the more funders and supporters we have on board the more we will be able to do with the garden. We've been encouraged so far by initial conversations including a local builder who has come on board as our first sponsor. We would be thrilled to welcome on board any other local businesses who share our vision for our local community. If anyone is interested in supporting through in-kind sponsorship or a contribution towards costs, they can contact us through our website.

CY: What is your vision for the shorter- and slightly longer-term future for the gardens?

P&DA: In the short term, a flourishing and beautiful garden which becomes a place to recapture the sense of community we experienced during lockdown. 

In the long-term, a place for people young and old to cross paths, a space for new immigrants to meet local neighbours, a source of shared knowledge and inspiration around sustainable practices. In other words, a real community hub.

Forrest Hill Community Garden.

Corner of Seine road and Tiber Road, Forrest Hill

Visit the website to find out more, volunteer, sponsor or make a donation www.communitygarden.co.nz/

Photo caption:

  1. Lucy Xia and Phoebe Atkinson beside the seedling stand which has been the Forrest Hill Community Garden’s main promotional tool (alongside social media) since Level 3 of lockdown.