Wednesday, 3 March 2010

A distinctively Quaker vision for Meeting House gardens?

This week’s posting is a guest post from Alice Yaxley. She’s writing about an initiative in Central England Area Meeting, but it’s full of transferable ideas.

Alice Yaxley is a member of Coventry Meeting and an editor of the international Quaker social networking site She is a scientist by training and the mother of a toddler.

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“Now was I come up in spirit through the flaming sword, into the paradise of God. All things were new; and all the creation gave another smell unto me than before, beyond what words can utter. I knew nothing but pureness, and innocency, and righteousness, being renewed up into the image of God by Christ Jesus, to the state of Adam, which he was in before he fell. The creation was opened to me; and it was shewed me how all things had their names given them according to their nature and virtue ...Great things did the Lord lead me into, and wonderful depths were opened unto me beyond what can by words be declared; but as people come into subjection to the Spirit of God, and grow up in the image and power of the Almighty, they may receive the word of wisdom, that opens all things, and come to know the hidden unity in the Eternal Being.” George Fox (Journal)
I have an image of a kind of gardening that reflects our Quaker spirituality. When I first came across this quote from George Fox’s journal I was gripped by it. The kind of edible ecosystems that can be created with permaculture principles conjure up an image of the Garden of Eden. We can know ourselves part of nature, work together, and become fruitful through hearing and attending to God’s leadings. It would be wonderful to be able to show people the garden as a vision of how our lives can be transformed by God. We could make relatively low-maintenance community food gardens with this approach - dozens of different kinds of food plants growing together beautifully – to share with each other. We can show our transformed lives, made fruitful by following Christ – bearing fruit to share and witnessing to the way we are called to live.

Seventeen Friends met at the Priory Rooms (Bull St Meeting House, central Birmingham) to learn about Permaculture and think about what we might do with Meeting House grounds and gardens in the Central England Area Meeting. Simon Watkins from Coventry Meeting gave us an overview of the Permaculture design philosophy.  We spent some time starting to explore how we might want to take the ideas forward. Six local Meetings were represented plus the Ecocentre in Northfield: Coventry, Hall Green, Sutton Coldfield, Stourbridge, Cotteridge, and Selly Oak. 

The permaculture approach is aimed at making a sustainable garden which is easy to care for, and this fits in well with what is needed for Meeting House grounds. Most are currently organized to be as low maintenance as possible whilst till looking presentable. Most other food-growing styles are quite high maintenance, requiring a lot of work to set up and to keep in order, such as raised bed systems. If we use the Permaculture approach we could produce food in a way which is quite easy to keep tidy.

We could produce food for ourselves, which we could harvest and share. We could produce food for the rest of the community – neighbours, friends and visitors. We would like it to have an educational purpose – lots of people use the Meeting House and can see what we are doing. We think we are all meant to be learning where our food comes from and to grow some of it ourselves and we want to share the knowledge with other people. Lots of other groups use the Meeting Houses and would be able to learn alongside us by observing what is going on in the gardens.

We have a lot of different kinds of properties in our Area Meeting. Meetings range from lively and growing to faltering. Some Meetings have a property, others don’t. Some are elderly in membership and there is not physical ability to do much more about grounds keeping. There are varied needs for the grounds. Lets such as nursery schools are common, grounds may need to be suitable for small children to use.

We want to know more about what to plant – we need to observe the habitats we have and we have Simon to ask for advice! We want to know more about how to grow food. We are aware that there are issues about how we organize the space – we want to make sure our neighbours continue to have the privacy they need. The site needs to be tidy and manageable over the long term. We need to make sure the grounds are still attractive for all users of the Meeting House. We want to be able to share food – using produce communally. We want to have gardening sessions – keep tools/gloves at the Meeting House so we can spend odd half hours gardening when we are there anyway.

Potential problems include:
- vandalism
- theft of produce or plants
- insurance (it needs to be safe for all users)
- what about pollution from main road – how will we know if it’s making our food poisonous?
- labour – what happens if the volunteer labour dries up or moves on?

There are constraints associated with existing uses. The grounds need to be safe and secure for members of the public who use the grounds, and for us. We need to get the right advice about positions of trees with respect to subsidence and shade. Some of our Meeting Houses have ancient burial grounds – there are probably restrictions on digging and moving earth, and we need to find out about that.

Next steps for the network of Friends involved:

• Pray for this endeavour.
We want to do God’s will and that means we have to pray to practise asking for guidance and listening for what God wants us to do. We want our grounds most of all to reflect our understanding of how God wants us to live. We want to be ready to change tack if it seems that an original idea or direction could be superseded by a better way, or even if it turns out that the status quo is the right thing for the time being (though it's more fun if it isn't!)

• Assess the sites
One of the principles of permaculture design that was introduced is to observe first and intervene as little as possible with as much impact as possible. Volunteers for each of the sites need to draw up a plan of the existing grounds and nearby surroundings, showing what's there and highlighting any ongoing issues of whatever nature - to do with uses (desired and unwelcome), site conditions (shade, damp, poor soil if known, weeds etc.) and other constraints real or potential, as well as opportunities such as "potentially attractive frontage" or "lots of space".

• Involve the relevant communities
List the aspirations, either individual or established consensus, for the use of the grounds. Include everyone's.

• Consider the available resources
Identify what resources are available, including people's time, skills and experience, within the meeting community or locally, practical resources such as equipment, potential donations of plants or seeds, memberships of useful organisations, etc.

• Build up a knowledge base
Study topics of interest such as cultivation of food plants, composting, water storage, wild and native plants, case studies of successful community garden schemes, etc. Visit Northfield Eco-centreRyton Organic Gardens  and any other local projects which seem relevant to the cause.

For anyone else thinking about something similar, it would be helpful to do this in groups so that you can discuss your reactions to the same experience, with a view to drawing out any new ideas or issues which could influence your collective thinking about your projects.

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Thanks to Alice for this post. If you want to post a comment and are having technical difficulties, you can  email your comment to me at, and I can post it for you.

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