Four ways to a communal food garden

Last week I presented the Anglican Church’s food sustainability project Communal Food Gardens providing a number of social justice benefits and climate change mitigation actions. So this week, I look at the practicalities of establishing a Communal Food Garden.

To appeal to as wide a range of parishes as possible, the first-up food sustainability project of the Anglican Diocese of Auckland offers a number of variants on community gardens.

These range from a conventional food garden utilising raised beds, through two approaches to high raised beds for those less able to work at ground level, to a food forest garden.

My favourite approach to community food gardens is a food forest but that is suitable only where sufficient land is available – at least 50 square metres. To get a handle on what that means, a typical double garage will measure 7m by 7m or 49 m2.

Having established the Franklin Food Forest at Pukekohe High School, I know that food foresting has the potential to grow a wider variety and achieve a greater yield than a conventional garden and/or orchard. Whilst it is more work to establish, within 3 – 5 years, a food forest needs less maintenance and care.


food forest layers
Food Forest garden

So what is a food forest? Alternatively known as a food garden, it has been defined as a ‘perennial polyculture of multipurpose plants‘.


Perennial plants grow for more than two years, so a food forest implies permanence.

A polyculture is the opposite of monoculture with all the implications of a variety of fresh foods, sustainability, and reduced use of poisoning ‘cides’.

Multipurpose means they can provide two or more of the seven ‘F’s: Food, Fibre, Pharmaceuticals, Fodder for animals, Fuel or Fertiliser. And not to forget Fun.

To me, a food forest is a designed agronomic system, based on trees, shrubs and perennial plants, that mimics the most stable and sustainable type of ecosystem – a natural forest.

All that makes food foresting sound more complicated than it is! Have a look at this food forest page for a fuller description.

If space for a food forest is not available, or perhaps tall trees are not appropriate on your site, then a conventional raised-bed food garden is a great alternative.

Lazy garden

This can be as simple as a single garden bed, a long row or multiple rows according to the space and helper support you have available. Have a look at the Lazy garden beds page for more details.

For some people, bending down to work at ground level is no longer an option. For them, we have an exclusive design for a higher raised garden bed. Higher means a bed with the soil surface at waist level.

Actually, we have two options here. First is a ‘keyhole’ garden, the second a hugelkultur garden.

Keyhole raised garden

The keyhole raised garden beds are circular and only two metres in diameter so that all parts of the garden can be easily reached. Of course, multiple keyhole gardens could be installed to provide the planting area needed.  Keyhole gardens can be clad in stone, wood, plastic or earth bags.

Hugelkultur raised garden

Hugelkulture raised garden beds are raised to waist height by burying tree logs in the ground, hence their name which in German means hill culture. The logs, which last for many years, provide a nutrient store and hold water for long periods which makes them suited to drier climes. Of course you need a supply of large tree logs to make this method work.

When considering these options, please do keep in mind that this project is title Communal Food Gardens, which implies more than a place for visitors to relax in, although that is one of the project’s objectives. As discussed previously, this is a place for the community to work in as well as enjoy, socialise and harvest crops.

For further information on the establishment of a communal food garden in your parish, either email me, visit our resource page at Communal Gardens Project or leave a comment below.

The Justice of Communal Food Gardens

There are four broad aspects of sustainability that we individually and collectively need to face up to: energy, food, water and waste. This post focuses on food sustainability and adds justifications for the Anglican Diocese of Auckland’s sustainability project introduced last week – Communal Food Gardens.

Last week I introduced Communal Food Gardens as a food sustainability project that provides a number of social justice benefits as well as being an action that mitigates the effects of climate change.

Following organic growing principles, our gardens yield food that is healthy, nutritious and safe, and thus helps improve positive health outcomes in the community.

Each parish will decide for themselves how to distribute the food grown in their gardens. This can be to the workers who planted the seed and nurtured the growing plants, to the sick or elderly, or to those in greater need. The choice is the parish’s to make.

Any one of these social justice benefits is in itself, a sufficient reason to start a food garden. So what additional climate change benefits do communal food gardens bring?

First is that food grown locally means a reduction in the green house gas emissions from the transport fleet required to bring produce from the growers to the market.

Second, by adopting organic growing principles, we do not requires fossil fuels to be used to manufacture and deliver fertilisers and various poisoning ‘cides’, to the garden.

Third, by eliminating the risk of individual exposure to pesticides, herbicides and insecticides, we eliminate risks to human health.

Fourth, by eliminating the excessive use of nitrogen-based fertilisers, we eliminate the degradation of our soils and the microbial soil-based life that plants depend on.

Fifth, our gardens will not be tilled so organic materials in the soil will not be oxidised and returned to the atmosphere as climate-warming gases.

Sixth, if we do this right, we can actually remove carbon from the atmosphere and sequester it in the soil where it may remain for many years.

Seventh, the planned introduction of an integrated composting system for our kitchen and garden wastes, means a reduction in the volume of refuse going to landfill sites. This waste sustainability action will itself significantly reduce methane emissions as well as maintaining the fertility levels of our gardens.

So many benefits to a communal food garden!

Why would everyone not want to start one this spring? Why not contact me, John Allen, right now and find out how easy it is to start your own food garden. Just use the contact form below.

Communal Food Gardens – a sustainability and social justice initiative

Of the four broad aspects of sustainability that we individually and collectively need to face up to: energy, food, water and waste, this post focuses on food sustainability and introduces an Anglican Diocese of Auckland sustainability project – Communal Food Gardens.

My last post introduced food sustainability as an issue of importance to each of us.

Our industrialised food production and distribution systems have served us well for many decades but some now see that industrial approach to be unsustainable.

What is needed, is a food system that is equitable and meets the food needs of our local communities without degrading natural or human resources.

The Anglican community can take a step towards natural farming systems by getting involved in the new Anglican Diocese of Auckland project to establish communal food gardens.

community garden
Community Garden in San Diego (image courtesy Wikipedia)

The project matches Anglican beliefs around care of creation – safeguarding the integrity of creation, and sustaining and renewing the life of the earth. It also advances the Diocese’s response to the House of Bishops Statement on Climate Change and their media release in November of last year – We choose to fight climate change rather than drown.

Communal food gardens are a tool in that fight.

Communal gardens is a term heard less often than community gardens. How do the two differ?

Community is a noun and defines a garden that members of a like-minded group of people might access. A community garden could be a food, decorative, or flower garden and is a place for people to enjoy. This is the what of our project.

Communal is an adjective, related to community, and describes how the community garden is owned/worked/harvested – together. This is the how of our community project.

We name this project as Communal Food Gardens and distinguish them from other community gardens as in the Table below.

Type of gardening Description and/or example(s)
Allotments A garden in a public place where individuals or groups each garden their own plots
Communal gardening A garden in a public place where the gardening is carried out communally (that is, by members of the community)
Shared gardening Where a resident offers spare land for neighbours to garden or neighbours assist each other with their home gardens (often on a roster or working bee arrangement)
Revegetation projects (a variation on communal gardening) These projects usually focus on planting indigenous vegetation on public reserves. These sites sometimes also include community orchards and/or community gardens.
Guerrilla gardening Planting without permission on public or private land such as road reserves, traffic islands, parks and empty sections.

This definition embeds some reasons that Communal Gardens are beneficial – they are: a place for social activity; for bringing communities together; a means for city dwellers to connect with nature; and a healthy place for individuals to just be.

We see our communal food gardens providing all these benefits alongside their primary purpose – being a community learning and demonstration resource that expresses the Diocesan Climate Change Action initiative and extends the role of the Diocesan social justice initiative.  That extension is from researching and communicating justice issues, to providing equitable access to good, nutritious food as a means to better health.

The project is rolling out this month so for further information on the establishment of a communal food garden in your parish, either email me, visit our resource page at Communal Gardens Project or leave a comment below.

An introduction to food sustainability

There are four broad aspects of sustainability that we individually and collectively need to face up to: energy, food, water and waste. This post focuses on food sustainability.

Sir Dove-Myer Robiinson
A statue of Sir Dove-Myer Robiinson, former Mayor of Auckland, in Aotea Square, Auckland City

Back in 1984, ex Auckland mayor Sir Dove-Myer Robbie Robinson said “If mankind is to achieve optimum health he must consume healthy food grown in a healthy environment.”

Was Robbie commenting on the direction that the first two decades of an industrialised agricultural system was taking us? Things like the degradation of our soils, water and ecosystems? Or agriculture’s contribution to excessive GHG emissions that would lead to climate change?

We do not know what his motivation for those comments was but today, over 30 years later, and in the face of these and many other societal changes, Sir Dove-Meyer’s musings are now even more relevant.

The sustainability issues of our food production and supply networks are multi-faceted.

Some of these facets are the subject of a new report published by the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable food systems (IPES-Food). The IPES-Food is a Europe-based expert panel exploring new ways of thinking around food research, sustainability, and food systems.

TFrom Uniformity to Diversityheir June 2016 report From Uniformity to Diversity concluded, “Neither industrial nor subsistence farming work to the benefit of people and planet. Instead, diversified agroecological systems represent an improvement on both.”

Amongst the key messages from the report is an acknowledgement that today’s food and farming systems have been successful in getting required volumes of foods from producers to global markets.

But the industrial system we have come to rely on has negative consequences. These range from wide spread soil loss and water pollution, to the persistent hunger and nutrient deficiencies suffered by many in the developing world.

The developed world do not escape consequences but they are of a different kind. The rapid rise in obesity and diet-related diseases is in part a consequence of the sales and marketing imperative of an industrial society.

A fundamentally different model of agriculture is required to restore food sustainability – that model is variously named natural farming, organics, permaculture, biological farming and agro-ecological farming.

This implies that farmers must diversify their production, ensure and increase biodiversity and replace chemical inputs with natural ones.

Data shows that these agro-ecological systems can at least match industrial agricultural systems in terms of total outputs and, in times of environmental stress, even show an increase in productivity.

The report also found growing evidence that these agro-ecological systems retain carbon in the soil, support bio- diversity, rebuild soil fertility and sustain yields over time, providing a basis for more secure farm livelihoods.

Change is already happening. Industrial food systems are being challenged on multiple fronts, from new forms of cooperation and knowledge-creation, to the development of new market relationships that bypass conventional retail networks.

In particular, small plot intensive and urban farming systems are gaining in popularity.

So what can we, individually and collectively, do about these issues of food sustainability? There is plenty we can do and the first project that the Anglican Diocese of Auckland will seek your involvement in, is the subject of the next post – Communal Food Gardens – a sustainability and social justice initiative.

An opposing view on this issue, one presenting the sustainability case for industrial agriculture, argues that small-scale food system enlarge the human footprint.  The author of the article is Ted Nordhaus, an author, researcher, and political strategist.   He is a founder and chairman of The Breakthrough Institute which advocates a pro-GMO, pro-Nuclear and an ecomodernist solution to the world’s food issues.

A practical view of sustainability

If 2015 was a year that sustainability issues came in to sharp focus, then 2016 is the turning point for taking action on the many issues.

Three pillars of sustainability are commonly advocated – environmental, social and economic.

These pillars are reflected in the Cherished Earth initiative of the Anglican Diocese of Auckland. This is about taking actions that “strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth” (matching the environmental pillar), and to “respond to human need by loving service and to work to transform unjust structures of society” (the social pillar).

The first pillar, environmental, is about enhancing and maintaining the ecological systems that sustain all life on Earth. In so many areas has our environment suffered because of man’s economic activities, with devastating consequences for many. This pillar is reflected in the Anglican Church’s focus on Caring for Creation.

The second pillar, social sustainability, is about equity between sections of today’s society. One example is between the things our generation take for granted compared to what future generations will likely inherit. Another example is between developed and developing nations. This pillar is reflected in the Anglican Diocese of Auckland’s initiative on climate justice.

Economic sustainability is about the financial success of notional entities including the firm, the farm, the town or city. Competitive advantage and continual growth are at the core of economic sustainability and the goal for most is to maximise shareholder profits.

The order in which we think about the three pillars is important.

Figure 1. Traditional view of Sustainability

The traditional view (figure 1.) is of three overlapping circles with sustainable development occurring only in the area where all three intersect

This implies that some economic activity can occur without environmental or societal implications. Whilst it is the case that some societal or environmental activity can occur independent of economic impacts, the reverse is not the case. All economic activity has some social or environment impact and so, to me, this model of sustainability is not itself sustainable.

Figure 2. Neoliberal view of Sustainability

A few see a model (figure 2.) that places economics in the outer of three concentric circles. This is the neoliberal view of sustainability – resources in the environment and workers in our society are there to serve the economic needs of the firm. For many, and by unstated implication, increasing shareholder wealth is more important than social or environmental impacts.

A more widely held view of sustainability (figure 3.) inverts the three concentric circles, putting the environment in the outer position, surrounding and constraining society which in turn encompasses and constrains economic activity. In this model, economic activity is for the benefit of all the people in a community rather than for only the owners of the capital invested.

Figure 3. Sustainable view of Sustainability

Of all the sustainability issues we face, climate change induced by global warming, is the greatest.

Our government seem to be following the neoliberal model of sustainability – that of economics over-riding the other two pillars. Hence, they are not actually planning for a reduction in our gross green house gas emissions, and instead are looking to buy their way out of future trouble through cap and trade financial instruments.

Given that our political leaders appear to favour economic imperatives ahead of people and the environment, it falls to the people to take climate actions, both collectively and individually, that will give expression to our caring for creation.

The Diocesan Climate Change Action Group are planning a number of new climate action projects that add to their earlier work around energy efficiency and conservation. The first of these is a practical project to establish communal food gardens, or food forests, in as many churches as have space available and want to participate.

Whilst the Diocesan Climate Change Action Group continue the planning work for this project, what other actions do you think parishioners might take? Please leave your comments below.