Dee Holgate spent the first six months of the pandemic locked up alone. When she was 27, she had been told she had months to live, and though a kidney transplant saved her aged 29 in 1976, in her seventies she remained immunosuppressed. From March through September 2020, she had almost no human contact beyond greeting neighbours from her stoop. She says, “It was a killer for me, because I’m a people person.”
When finally allowed out for walks, she discovered her local community garden, Sunnyside in Archway, north London. “It saved my life,” she reflects, a mask pulled up almost to her eyes, basking in the garden’s pale April sun. “I got to know some of the people that volunteer and work here. Then we got the ducks. That really changed my life.”
Community gardens are an old phenomenon infused with a new excitement. They seem to have potential to mitigate many problems of our era: loneliness, ageing populations, obesity, poor mental health, lack of exercise, concrete cities and overstrained health services.
Especially in the UK, there is a trend to “green prescribing”: healthcare professionals advising patients to spend time in nature, whether through woodland walks, wild swimming or gardening. Community gardens cannot replace doctors and pills. But a growing body of research is asking whether they can supplement them.
Community gardens are booming in many places, notably London. Ahead of the city’s Olympics in 2012, the Capital Growth project set a target of creating 2012 new food-growing spaces in London. When the target was hit, Capital Growth and other groups barrelled on. Many gardens sprang up on disused “grass deserts” on council estates, hospitals and schools, says Amber Alferoff of the Social Farms & Gardens charity. Now there’s potential to start gardens on former parking spaces.
Sunnyside, which opened in 1978, serves a typically mixed London neighbourhood: the garden’s front gate faces council estates with social housing, and nearby are houses worth £1.5mn. Sunnyside is open day and night, year round. On nice evenings, council tenants, who don’t have gardens at home, come to barbecue or picnic.
Sunnyside is a rare spot where London’s haves and have-nots meet (and the haves take care not to mention fancy holidays). One recent Sunday afternoon, locals of all incomes, ages and ethnicities were chatting in manifold accents. There was a plant sale, a volunteer bike repairer fixing a wheelbarrow, and a woman with her carer helping make everyone soup and sandwiches in the portable cabin. On the cabin’s wall is a group photograph from the funeral of Ron, a longtime regular who could no longer speak but urged on the gardeners wordlessly.
“It’s a sphere of voluntary association, like a pub or a church,” says Sunnyside’s manager Anna Portch. “We all come here to heal. Me too: I started coming after my mum died.” Eventually the then manager asked her, “You wouldn’t like to run this, would you?” Portch says the post-Covid crises of cost-of-living and healthcare have made the garden even more sought after: “People are more anxious now.”
Much of her job is fundraising. Most community gardens are forever under financial pressure. When Sunnyside’s three-year grant from the National Lottery expires, Portch will again need to find £60,000 or £70,000 a year to run the gardens, nature reserve, pond and plant nursery.
Four days a week, Sunnyside serves lunch to volunteers, some of whom don’t always eat regularly. One famed eater is Jonathan, a smiling middle-aged autistic man in baseball cap and tracksuit, who has been coming here 10 years. “It gets me out of the house, keeps my mind occupied,” he says. He never misses a session — or, the others joke, a lunch.
Some people who come here are doing fine. Others are recently retired or bereaved, recovering from illness or in residential care. Dean, a young man who enjoys litter-picking, watering and weeding, says Sunnyside is his favourite place. His Zimbabwean carer Kimpton adds: “The most important thing is: it’s free.” This is one of London’s few spots where time is not money, where you can spend hours without buying a £2 tea.
Anyone can drop in for a gardening trial session. If you can’t garden, you can chat, make the tea or tend the ducks in their pond. “The first year, the duck had six eggs,” says Holgate. “But a human had them — I don’t think it was a dog or a rat.” Later, the same duck hatched nine ducklings up the road on Highgate Hill, and one Sunday, walked them to Sunnyside. “Unfortunately, one died on the way,” says Holgate. The family’s arrival sparked joy, and Holgate led group discussions on what to feed them (not bread).
Esther Coles, a community gardener and beekeeper, walks me around the gardens. There are wild plum trees, celandine and native London weeds. Locals have brought plants from their own gardens that they can no longer manage: roses, fig trees, even an avocado tree. One volunteer has created a fern garden. The cow parsley will flower soon.
Coles, originally from the Midlands, says: “This garden has made me love London more than ever. It’s taught me not to judge any person that comes here.” There are people here whom you might walk past unthinking on the street. Coles says: “Some people come and pour their hearts out about how they are feeling in their accommodation, and I might never see them again, but we have all stood around supporting them.”
Marco, a young man in a bobble hat, began coming here after his mental health disintegrated and he had to stop teaching at a primary school. When a therapist recommended gardening, he googled various community gardens to fill his week.
He says, “It provided a safe space just to be, without judgment, during the day.” Nobody at Sunnyside will ask you about your problems, unless you choose to talk about them.
Growing food together, says Marco, “is humanising and humbling. We’re just beings who need food, and food needs to be grown. Also, you can see something tangible. I was a teacher, the results are less tangible.” Now he works part-time, teaching children and teenagers about plants, food and biodiversity.
Nobody pretends that gardening can heal severe depression or bipolar disorder. But then, Marco adds: “The NHS right now doesn’t have the capacity to heal. The mental-health system is totally overloaded. It’s firefighting just to get people functioning and carry on.” Gardening hasn’t solved all of Marco’s problems but, he says, “Connection with nature and connection with people is healing. If people are isolated, healing is difficult.” And even when gardening cannot heal, it can improve a sufferer’s wellbeing.
The benefits of community gardens to mental and physical health feel intuitive. Charlotte O’Connor, who manages Loughborough Farm near Brixton, south London, says health providers increasingly refer patients to the farm. Mitigating some forms of depression and other disorders through gardening can save public money: by one estimate, the average nine-minute GP consultation cost the government £42 in 2021-22.
GPs, in any case, often cannot help people whose problems might be loneliness, a battle with the benefits system or simply what doctors in deprived areas call “shit life syndrome”. The NHS, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and other institutions are running a £5.77mn-project at seven “test and learn” pilot sites to assess the impact of green prescribing on mental health.
For now, evidence for the health benefits remains scarce. An academic team led by Clare Hume of the University of Adelaide published a paper last year called “Community gardens and their effects on diet, health, psychosocial and community outcomes”. It reviewed 53 past studies and concluded: “Effects appeared positive for fruit and vegetable intake, some psychosocial and community outcomes, but mixed for physical health outcomes.” However, it added an important caveat: “Evidence quality overall was low.”
One problem was that most studies only looked at community gardeners, without comparing them with a control group of similar people who hadn’t gardened. That meant that positive findings might stem simply from selection bias. Perhaps community gardening attracts people who were already sociable and interested in nutrition. If so, they might have thrived even without gardening.
This January, The Lancet Planetary Health journal published a groundbreaking study led by Jill Litt of the University of Colorado, Boulder. It followed 145 new community gardeners in Colorado, but also established a control group: 146 people who had been on a waiting list for community gardening but didn’t get a place. The findings: the gardeners added about 7 per cent more fibre than the control group, averaged nearly 41 minutes more moderate-to-vigorous physical activity per week, and had greater declines in perceived stress and anxiety.
More evidence of this sort might encourage governments and donors to support community gardens, which for now depend on the willingness of managers like Portch to work for paltry wages even as the cost of living rises. British local councils rarely give grants to community gardens anymore. Worse, authorities will always be tempted to replace these places with homes or roads, which can show a financial return — as if somewhere like Sunnyside were a luxury rather than one of the last vestiges of community that many people have.