collective gardening in an age of social media

The snowdrops and crocuses are up here in Glasgow which means that true spring is somewhere not too far around the corner. For me, a sometimes gardener who is also a working mother without a permanent job, it is both too soon (since I haven’t acquired let alone started any seeds), and never soon enough (after 5 months of cold, damp greyness). One way or the other though, it has got me thinking about gardening, and in particular about the small collective garden in the North Kelvin Meadow (NKM) that I helped to care for last summer.

Still some edible sprouts under there. #northkelvinmeadow #urbancommons #wintergarden

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This is a garden that, though modest in its ambitions, suffered a series of organizational and logistical problems–all of which were exacerbated by the lack of regularly present volunteers. As one of the facilitators for the garden, I was undoubtedly part of the problem. I struggled to be available to participate in work sessions on a regular basis, to keep the garden watered in some fashion through the summer’s improbable (and for many Glaswegians, scarcely conceivable) drought, and to contribute to the group’s Facebook page. Then I went away for a month (which unfortunately roughly coincided with the departure of the other two facilitators). Needless to say, while we did well with the peas, greens and brussels sprouts, the garden did not produce quite as bountifully as it could have under more consistent care.

Exploring the fine line between collective gardening projects and urban foraging. #growyourown #northkelvinmeadow #urbancommons

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Such gardens normally survive their early days on the backs of a few hard-working volunteers who are sufficiently invested in its success to give it inordinate amounts of time and energy. Other volunteers may come and go, but such a project continues as long as those key organizers do. I would dearly love to be one of those people for the NKM garden, and in fact, for certain stretches of last season I was, but I couldn’t keep it up: it brought extra stress to my family life, and after I injured my back, physical discomfort. But this post is not supposed about me, or rather, not only me–because I am surely not the first volunteer gardener to come up short on time.

The troubles with this garden are important, since they speaks to circumstances that are increasingly common, and increasingly normalized. In times of increasing austerity measures and decreasing opportunity, where people are required to work more and more, and at the same time make do with less (renumeration, health care, job security, etc.), they don’t have the time or the energy to work on the kinds of projects that might make their lives and the lives of others better. Consequently, not only is the number of volunteers available for collective garden projects declining, but the skills necessary for their organization are also in short supply. After all, who has time for developing interpersonal relationships, let alone a group process anymore – it’s all about getting something–anything–done with the resources available.

My question as I contemplate my involvement with the garden this season, is how it might be made to respond to these circumstances without simply mirroring them. That is, how can it be made to function effectively (as a community resource and creative space) without overworking its key volunteers? How can we have something we want and need, but pay less dearly for it? In this context, and because it has been part of my ‘job’ over the last couple of years to think about the relationship between visual social media, plants and place, I have been wondering whether community gardeners (and other grassroots organizers) might learn something from social media.

In posing this question, I don’t mean that what we need is more, or better, social media. As much as people are happy to ‘like’ grassroots social endeavours and voluntary organizations on Facebook, it hasn’t done much in our case for actually getting people out to the garden. It is more because, as Matthew Fuller and Andrew Goffey have observed, the success of social (and other, similarly ‘evil’) media is based to a large extent, on its exploitation of otherwise wasted time–the moments where people have nothing better to do, or when they are too tired or bored to do ‘real’ work. Checking your news feed, liking a photograph, tweeting–these social actions fit into the cracks of the everyday, making life a bit more interesting and enabling the maintenance of otherwise severely compromised social relations. I am just wondering if a collective garden could be made and maintained using a similar strategy?

To the ears of serious gardeners and garden-philosophers alike, this may be a somewhat shocking proposition (because gardening is one of the quintessentially ‘slow’ human endeavours, is founded on relations of care, and so on). But my reasons for making it are serious: part of what makes collective gardening such a socially and politically empowering experience is its requirement that the people involved create and find ways of sustaining the relationships necessary to the garden’s survival and effective use. Except in situations where a garden is administered and provided with funding by a larger organization, the solutions to the myriad practical, organizational and interpersonal problems that arise in the course of collective gardening projects do not exist prior to the involvement of those who make and care for it. When time is in short supply, are we therefore to give up on the creation of gardens altogether? I am suggesting that changing times may inspire a new form of garden, and new kinds of social relation to sustain it.

To give an example, the kind of tactics I am thinking of here pertain mainly to an expansion of the possible occasions for gardening work. What if volunteer gardeners were encouraged to complete tasks in the garden in a more piecemeal fashion and at times that worked best with their schedule–on the way home from work for example, or as a short activity to undertake with young children? If information could be provided that was adequate to coordinate such contributions (perhaps a rather large ‘if’)–utilizing for example, an updated version of the community notice board, complete with garden plan, ‘to-do’ list and QR codes that link to appropriate instructional Youtube videos–then it might become easier for certain time-pressed gardeners to make a contribution. It would also change what is entailed by ‘collective’, putting a greater emphasis on communication processes, and less on physically being together.

Just doing a bit of advertising for @ilovenorthkelvinmeadow. #northkelvinmeadow #urbancommons #instagramforgood #guerrilamarketing

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I think it is an open question as to whether this would be a worthwhile trade-off (less time together, but potentially, a better-cared for garden and healthier volunteers). It might also lead to mistakes on behalf of less experienced gardeners, an unevenness in the pace of work, and failures to respond to changing conditions (a garden needs watering when it’s dry, after all, which may be long before someone finds the time for it). But at least in our case, where attendance at work sessions was highly variable last year, these risks are present already. More important to me, is how the processes of experimentation and refinement to make such an arrangement function effectively would offer insight into the changing social and communicative possibilities that a garden offers in an age of social media. How might the identity of ‘gardener’ change, when gardening is something you do on the way home from work? Can people still feel they are part of something bigger than themselves if they don’t spend time with the other human beings who are helping to make it happen? Perhaps most importantly, such an experiment affords the opportunity to articulate more clearly what is in danger of being lost, and to identify strategies for re-inventing the political potential that collective gardens have held in the past.

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