Whose garden is this anyway?

Maxwell Centre community garden is an astonishing example of care without contrivance, art without artifice – with more than 300 varieties of mostly edible plants rubbing shoulders amicably in borders, raised beds, containers, trained along the walls or bursting out of the polytunnel. From wallflowers to walnuts and tayberries to tomatoes, it’s a tribute to sunny Dundee.

But it’s not about the food. On a Monday morning in the school holidays the garden is buzzing with people as well as bees. In one corner, children are harvesting produce and cooking lunch, and there’s a group under a trellis working with a jewellery designer to learn about bacteria and natural dyes. But what’s most striking is the children who are just hanging out, at home in the garden. They have the natural confidence that comes easy to children who grew up with their own garden – but they’ve found that confidence here.

It’s a confidence that’s extended to food, as they’ve discovered that ‘mostly edible’ goes much further than the truncated offer in the supermarkets. They enjoy the thin-skinned purply tomatoes which could never meet the shelf-life test and split at the first opportunity but taste utterly different; they try beetroot leaves, radish leaves, edible flowers – calendula, nasturtium, courgette. Cultural diversity brings added knowledge – how to cook with vine leaves the way we do in Greece, how to make walnut jam like we do in Iran.

So, how’s it done? Take one church backyard in Dundee’s Hilltown. Add some topsoil, plenty of Discovery compost from the city’s green waste recycling. And then you need the magic ingredients. There’s only one Alison Goodfellow, but you can watch what she does.

Start with inclusion. The garden’s just one of the things going on at the Centre – alongside help for job-seekers, advice on social security, classes and cooking, a community food exchange and plenty more. But there’s no them and us. Everyone knows they’re welcome.

Then there’s contribution. The garden makes room for people to bring what they know, help where they can. As staff member Manuela cheerfully admits ‘there’s loads I don’t know about.’ It’s become a garden of the community, not for the community.

There’s thrift. Like nature, the garden is a model of recycling, with its compost bays and its second-hand pots and tubs. Minimising waste is baked in.

And then there’s the caretaking. Hours and years of paying attention. That needs staff, as well as volunteers. And some specialist knowledge. The Appletree Man has been back to show how to prune the apples and plums, one reason why they’re heavy with fruit and trained beautifully along the walls. But most of the maintenance is of relationships, a connection made here, some encouragement spread there.

The Maxwell Centre is ahead of the curve, but our public policy is catching up.

Firstly, the Scottish Government’s consulting on a new Land Reform Act – it’s twenty years now since we got the right to roam.
The new Act will create a public interest test when large estates change hands, and require them to publish management plans. (Large estates are defined mainly as 3,000 hectares – half the size of Dundee and big enough for 20,000 Maxwell St gardens).

One of the underlying principles of the land reform policy is “to create more opportunities for communities to engage in decision making about the land around them, and share in the benefits it brings”. While that’s normally thought about in terms of the Highlands and Islands, it’s as relevant in downtown Dundee. Whose garden is this anyway?

Secondly, the Government’s new biodiversity strategy is out for consultation. Its 2045 vision is that ‘everyone will understand the benefits from and importance of biodiversity and will play their role in the stewardship of nature for future generations’. It’s hard to see how that happens without a lot of Maxwell Centres, where every child in the nearby primary schools has done a bug hunt in the garden. Our children will need a more deep-rooted love of nature than their parents if we’re really going to tackle the nature emergency.

So the Maxwell Centre isn’t just a nice to have place. It holds valuable lessons for policymakers, whether that’s the way they embed dignity in their response to food insecurity or the way they embed nature in the way they build community.

The Maxwell Centre – and its close relatives across Scotland – need to be considered a key part of our social infrastructure, on a par with schools, GP surgeries and libraries. They need consistent long-term funding and confident backing from the local and national policymakers.

Each community garden is unique, with its own story to tell. This one is definitely about the right to roam and engaging in decision-making about the land around you. Two boys broke into the garden one night, scaling the wall even though the gate was open. They were carrying water in a bucket which they managed to get over the wall without spilling. They didn’t break any glass. They didn’t uproot any plants. They didn’t steal any tools. No, they carefully tipped the fish they’d been carrying into the garden pond and left the way they came. Jings!