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Centre empowering people to grow

Bev Jack [Wairarapa Community Centre manager], Pete Watson [St Matthew’s vicar] and Marg Lawson [GROW project manager]. PHOTOS/ERIN KAVANAGH-HALL

For Wairarapa Community Centre manager Bev Jack, the old aphorism rings true: “Give a person a fish and they’ll eat for a day – teach them to fish and they’ll eat for a lifetime.”

Next weekend, the community  centre will be launching its latest initiative to tackle food insecurity in Wairarapa: a community gardening project to empower people to grow their own kai.

The GROW project [Gardening for Resilience and Optimal Well-being], a partnership between the community centre and St Matthew’s Anglican Church, welcomes people who are interested in “living off the land” but may lack the skill set, confidence and budget to sustain a garden of their own.

Jack said the project has linked with social services and support organisations, whose clients will be invited to work with a team of volunteer mentors, all experienced gardeners who are “passionate about giving back to the community”.

Alongside their mentors, clients will learn basic organic gardening principles: From seasonal planting, to composting with coffee grounds, to using a hand-watering system.

At the centre of the GROW initiative is its allotment garden: A renaissance of a disused community garden on St Matthew’s Masterton premises, made possible with a combination of government grants and community donations.

The garden, in its new form, will be open to the public on September 10, with the GROW team hosting a community meet-and-greet, barbecue, and structured composting workshop.

Jack said GROW was “phase 3” of the community centre’s ongoing project to address food poverty in the region: The first two being the centre’s Community Kitchen – providing emergency meals to whanau in need – and classes for cooking “on a budget”.

The inspiration behind GROW, she said, came from meeting people who had attempted to grow their own vegetables during the 2020 lockdown, with limited success.

“During covid, people were seriously thinking about living off the land and being less dependent on supermarkets. During lockdown, you couldn’t find seeds at any of the local nurseries, they’d all sold out,” she said.

‘‘But, with gardening, you can’t just dig a hole and put a seed in. People found they didn’t have the knowledge or the money to keep it up. Their crops failed, which was disappointing and frustrating.

“We want to give people the tools and the resources to be more self-sufficient and show them gardening can be simple, sustainable, and enjoyable.”

Jack said the project has been in the planning since 2020: With the community centre working behind the scenes to secure funding, put together a governance group, and gauge community interest.

The GROW team in front of the project’s new greenhouse, funded with support from the Department of Internal Affairs.

The bulk of the financial support came from Department of Internal Affairs funding for community resilience projects, which went towards a 30,000-litre water tank, greenhouse, and storage space for seedlings.

The community centre also engaged the Department of Corrections community work programme, which tasked participants with removing fencing around the garden site, clearing debris, and preparing garden beds.

Jack said she was thankful for the numerous donations from the community: Horse manure from Wairarapa Riding For The Disabled, bark chips from Masterton District Council, sheep dags [for fertiliser] and pea straw from farmers, and coffee grounds from cafés, collected by St Matthew’s Collegiate students as part of their Duke of Edinburgh Award programme.

Any donations people can bring to the open day, she said, would be gratefully received: from gardening tools and gloves, to old fadges, to cardboard to act as weed protection.

“It goes to show: One person’s rubbish is another person’s treasure,” Jack said.

For the St Matthew’s church team, which originally partnered with the community centre to deliver meals to its homeless shelter, the GROW project is a “full circle moment”.

Vicar Pete Watson said the church had set up its community garden in 2012, but the space had remained unused for several years.

“People moved away, or got busy with other things, or lost interest,” Watson said.

“We were excited to partner with the community centre for this project, they had the idea, we had the space.

“We had a resource that was under-utilised, and it’s great to see it resurrected and, hopefully, used to its full potential.”

Jack was hopeful the project would help break down barriers for people who would otherwise struggle to grow their own food: Those on fixed incomes, who are transient [between permanent accommodation], or who are renting and have a section they’re unable to dig up.

GROW project manager Marg Lawson said the programme would also help boost mental well-being.

“Life can be hard for many people and, if you’re not an experienced gardener, growing food will seem like more hard work.

“But, once you build up the basics, gardening is extremely therapeutic.

“We’re hoping that people can come and get a bit of respite, do something relaxing and tactile, and have a moment to slow down, breathe, and smell the roses.”

The GROW open day will be held on Saturday, September 10, from 11 am, at St Matthew’s Church, 37 Church Street, Masterton.

Erin Kavanagh-Hall
Erin Kavanagh-Hall
Erin Kavanagh-Hall is the editor of the Wairarapa Midweek. She has been a journalist for the past 10 years, and has a keen interest in arts, culture, social issues, and community justice.

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