We are finding that so much of the practices in community gardens entail sharing and exchange. As Amy described in her last post drawing on Ash Amin’s work on ‘micro-publics’, spaces like community gardens are significant to fostering a sense of ‘togetherness’ in urban and suburban spaces largely inhabited by ‘strangers’.
But at the same time, our research is also revealing how the practice of conviviality entails hard work. In this post, Kristine reflects on a regularly occurring topic that finds its way in many of her conversations with other gardeners and one that constantly reminds us of the labour involved in achieving togetherness, connection, exchange and ‘community’.
Amidst the vibrant greenery that fills the community garden where I have been spending my Tuesday mornings, the steel fence which encompasses its plot of land, can easily fade into invisibility. At this particular community garden, the fence is only waist high. It is unassuming and not at all intimidating. After all, you want to be welcoming. As the big sign reads at the garden gates – “Our garden is a space for people to come together…” But, nonetheless, the garden fence creeps into regular conversations between myself and the gardeners; inflecting the desire for exchange and collectivity with the unavoidable appeal of boundaries.
Many community gardens, while open to all of the community, are bordered by fences – sometimes small, sometimes very high. While ‘public spaces’ in the sense that they are for the ‘public’, often they are council property or run by an organisation, and their existence and maintenance relies on protecting the garden’s resources. The garden where I have been volunteering is located in the busy Blacktown CBD and off a main highway. I have been told it has fallen victim numerous times to people jumping the fence to steal produce or equipment when the garden is unattended at night. This is in spite of the taller and much more cautionary fence that protects the public park in which the garden is located. The gardeners’ stories expressed frustration, understandably, because the spirit of community gardening is in many ways about contribution and reciprocity. Stolen crops and plants also mean that the aesthetic of the garden, which become important to many gardeners who spend hours pruning, weeding and curating, is spoiled. On the other hand, in other moments, the garden fence realizes its purpose although with an unintended audience. Passers-by taking their morning stroll in the park while we are gardening curiously peer in. But as the fence literally separates us from them, it creates ambivalence as to the communal nature of the space. Those ‘outside’ are uncertain if they are welcome or invited. Yet this is not to say that the garden doesn’t have visitors. There are plenty who walk through the gate and freely wander around; sometimes they also enquire about volunteering. The fence becomes invisible again in these fleeting and transitory moments.
Beyond the community garden, conversations about the gardeners’ own fences at home are also prominent. A few of the stories I hear involve neighbourhood spats about overgrowing plants. One of the gardeners can no longer plant seed in her backyard because she suspects her neighbour has poisoned her soil with sodium as revenge for overrun plants that found their way on the wrong side of the fence. She can now only plant in raised beds which can be limiting at times.
As Amin reminds us, it is easy to forget how considerable a cultural and social achievement coming together can be, especially “given the myriad prospects of indifference, self-interest, opportunism and hostility … in the contemporary city of amassed diversity, continual and rapid flux, and increasing unfamiliarity”. In our fieldwork, we continue to observe the many ways the promise of conviviality and connection in community gardens is fulfilled. But we also observe the hard work and sometimes ambivalence this entails. Some garden members would like the fence to be higher to keep out unwanted trespassers. They express exasperation and sometimes anger as they feel their hard work goes to waste and goes unappreciated. The temptation to create boundaries is therefore constantly being negotiated and is part and parcel of ‘community’.
Mostly, the gardeners conclude that a taller fence would be unwelcoming. I think this ultimately outweighs for them the risk of having crops or equipment stolen. As one of the gardeners told me in both frustration and in hope, “You can always plant again. Things always grow back eventually.”