Community Gardening as a part of sustainable living in Oxford

This past week I got the chance to sit down with Carley-Jane Stanson to talk about a sustainability project through the Oxford Hub that she is heavily involved with called Edible Gardens.

Can you explain the Edible Gardens project to me?

So, we are a small team starting off now with a 5-week training program involving about 14 students form a number of different colleges and we are doing training on how to start your own garden: from planning of the space, what to plant, where, when, how to harvest them to also the community impact and activist side. We really want people to start thinking before they even plant a vegetable about how these things effect the community, how we create bridges across barriers to access, how do we do this in a way that is going to shift the food system to one that is more equitable? We want to teach people to plant seeds of vegetables but also to plant seeds of food systems that are more equitable. For a number of our participants this has been their first time really planting something which I think was really valuable for them. It is the early days but the group is very enthusiastic.

How did you get involved with Edible Gardens?

I am from Edmonton Canada and was heavily involved in the Local food scene there. I worked for a farm for a number of years, I volunteered for a community garden, I was on the food council and so just sort of my whole life was around food. And then here I didn’t do much in terms of gardening until the Oxford Hub just started these environmental projects. So they received funding from the University to fund sustainability projects and Lizzie at the Oxford Hub wanted to get some new environmental projects going and I was immediately signed up. I was interested when she mentioned wanting to do some stuff in edible gardens because I think as a student there can be a lot of difficulty gaining access to gardens around Oxford.

What is the idea for the location of these gardens?

The training program, which we are planning on doing every term, is open to students and non-students. For students we are thinking that they would be starting college gardens. Some people, even students, have extra space and really that’s the idea of urban and edible gardening, it is creatively looking at unused space and figuring out how you can learn to grow food on it and share that food with the community. My vision for the legacy of this project is to really use these community gardens to break down the walls between town and gown. To give these long-term residents access to these institutions and swaths of land and resources that have for centuries been sort of closed off to those in the university.

What has been the biggest roadblock that you have run into thus far?

None yet for our project in particular but in Oxford in general, with starting college gardens, there is a very strong gardening culture- and by gardening, I mean UK gardening, right? Which is not edible food plants and so a lot of these colleges have pristine gardens and lawns and caretakers who have long running histories with colleges who take their work very seriously. So, suggesting that they give up some of that control and land to students who are very transient in a lot of ways, can be a big barrier, to try and convince these colleges this is something that students are committed to and that it’s a worthwhile project. In the past it has been quite an issue for a lot of ‘would be gardeners’ to organize and work with their colleges to get space. We hope that being paired with the Hub and having that long running institution will create a network around gardeners that students can bring to their college as a sort of leverage by being a part of and trained by the Oxford Hub.

For the reader who doesn’t know much about food sustainability, can you give the elevator pitch as to why people should be passionate about this?

So I think for most people they think planting a garden in and of its self is a socially just act but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is very equitable for the community. Thinking about community gardening and being mindful of those issues at the beginning can be a way of bringing communities together which can enhance food security- which is the ability for people to access healthy and culturally appropriate food at all times. So how we see gardening fitting in to that is that gardens are places where people come together to work on a project and so it is not only a place where you find food, that’s sort of a secondary benefit. The larger benefit are things like meeting other people in your community so that perhaps if you need childcare you are able to call upon these community connections so that you don’t miss work so that you are able to afford groceries, so all of those sorts of benefits that are really about community as opposed to growing food. And then there are also secondary benefits such as being outside working on a garden being good for mental health, a really good form of exercise for older people, and having fresh vegetables is always nice as well

How can students or non-students get involved in Edible Gardens or for those who don’t feel like they can give that big of a time commitment, get involved in community gardening in Oxford?

We will be opening up the training program again next term, so for those who want the full run down on how to start a garden and how to think through these things in a social justice activist kind of way then they can just stay tuned on Oxford Hub website/Facebook page to sign up next term. In terms of casually getting involved there are a number of community gardens around Oxford already, the most notable and open for volunteers to drop in is called OxGrow and it is just by Abingdon road. It is really open to everyone and you can just kind of drop in for the afternoon, they have work parties every Sunday and it is absolutely lovely. In terms of other food sustainability related things there is Good Food Oxford which an organization which links up a lot of really important projects across the food system dealing with food waste or food charity- they are really the central resource for that.

Thank you so much CJ, and thank you so much for the work you are doing to spearhead this, I am excited to see the impact it has on the community here in Oxford.

Photo Credit: Lizzie Shelmerdine