Growing Gardens and Communities (GGAC)

Beth Lew tells her story…

Growing Gardens and Communities is a project that shows how people passionately committed to living their faith can translate their faith convictions into tangible actions to protect the environment and serve the needs of marginalized communities.

Like many, many people here in Aotearoa, I have always loved the outdoors. Being in nature brings me much inner peace and makes me feel closer to the Divine, the Creator, or whatever Names you prefer. Gardening and growing my own veggies was something I had aspired to all during the time I was raising my children. Not that I did it very well, mind you, but I still got a lot of satisfaction from gardening. In 2015 I discovered that many of the health problems I was manifesting were caused by coeliac disease. I was so happy to retire the following year. We bought a house in Palmerston North so we could be close to our youngest daughter and our newest grandchild. I determined to grow veggies – spray free and as organic as I could- to try to regain my health. Honestly, I spent about 80% of my first year in Palmy sleeping. I was so exhausted and weak. I could spend about 3 hours a day with my new granddaughter and then would collapse and be unable to do much else the rest of the day.  I read a lot – about gardening, autoimmune diseases, improving gut health. I learned about microbiomes and permaculture and Palmerston North and windmills and libraries ‘as the living rooms of the community’.
Gradually, I got stronger and could stay awake longer and think better.  I began to go along to Interfaith group meetings and it occurred to me that maybe these wonderful, well-meaning spiritual people might like the opportunity to share prayer and devotional readings with each other and so I invited people to come with me for a Walk in the Park where we would share devotional readings from all Faiths. I searched for ways that we could talk about uplifting, meaningful spiritual things. My friend, Chris, had found a video at the library about sustainability and we invited our new friends from the Interfaith group to come and watch it with us. The video challenged us to pick something practical to do in the community to help make a change at a local level that would improve the world and after some discussion; the group thought forming a teaching garden to foster food resilience in Palmerston North would be a good idea.
And so we began – 12 of us formed a group called Growing Gardens and Communities. Some of us belonged to the Interfaith Group and others didn’t but all wanted to help. We liked the idea of helping people garden more effectively by offering free gardening workshops- which would be offered by us but also by any experts we might meet and we felt it was important to foster friendships and a feeling of community with the people who would become involved. We were given some plots in the Awapuni community garden and after New Zealand came out of our first lockdown, we held our first workshop about winter gardening. We did some more workshops but began to realise that for most people, getting themselves out to garden in a plot in another neighbourhood was going to be too difficult. People needed a garden in their own yard or very near to their home.
I began to talk to everyone about this and eventually heard that we could apply for a small grant from the City Council. We got funding, and began to help people put in no-dig garden beds-a simple and effective way to start gardening with just a few tools and no back-breaking labour.
Growing Gardens and Communities (GGAC) began to work closely with Manawatu Food Action Network (MFAN)- an initiative driven by Environment Network Manawatu whose main purpose is to help build food resilience in Manawatu. Assisting people who live in the 4412 postcode, area which has a high proportion of people using food banks, has been a particular focus for MFAN. So getting more people to grow their own kai was high on their priority list and empowering our small group to provide gardens and mentoring to people was an easy step for them.  We began to collaborate with MFAN to lead discussions about gardening at a local library and Let’s Grow Highbury! was born. Making more friends with people in the Highbury neighbourhood led to people asking for gardens and recommending to their friends and neighbours to also get a garden.
Three volunteers with trailers were found who could help to deliver compost to the start the new gardens. We recycled free untreated wooden packing boxes to make the frames for the boxes. MFAN and GGAC donated a few seedlings for the new garden beds. A seed bank and a tool library were started at the library to provide people with free seeds and garden tools they could borrow.
The goal has been to encourage the new gardeners to meet the others who have gardens, to do little working bees and to share what they are learning. We also have a Facebook page that helps to encourage new gardeners. Since November 2020, we have put in 13 gardens and have more people on a waiting list.
A couple of stories: One of the first gardens we assisted with belonged to a pensioner who was determined to provide more fresh food for the neighbourhood. He had a large sunny front garden and wanted to grow vegetables to give away. In January 2022, he discovered another supply of wooden boxes that could make more garden beds and we helped him put in 4 more beds.
Another new gardener was a grandmother who is raising her mokopuna. She was desperate to feed them fresh healthy kai and was struggling with the rising costs of everything. Her backyard needed major TLC to get the garden beds started but knowing we could provide 3 garden beds, helped her determination. She organised several clean-up projects with her extended family as well as her church. Now she has a huge thriving garden providing tomatoes, kale, pumpkin and more.
A workshop story- After attending a Sustainable Living series of workshops, I collaborated with the Palmerston North City Council to offer a “Composting Garden Tour”. Over the course of a morning, 15 people visited 4 different gardens and learned about various ways to compost (a vital process in mitigating climate change). It was a great success and we hope to do it again.
The Palmerston North Interfaith group keeps close watch on the development of GGAC and encourages people to contact GGAC for assistance.
What have we learned? That taking small steps on a local level can make a bigger impact than you think. That these small efforts can strengthen and empower the efforts of other organisations and collectively we all are strengthened and even more opportunities arise that surprisingly are achievable.

Beth Lew was on guest on the radio programme Muffin Talk.
Listen to this radio interview here. For the video recording, please see the YouTube video below.