AWONDERFUL older friend of mine said "that Matai St Community Garden is terrible ... half the plants are going to seed".
For me this was a sad reminder of how detached many of us are from growing food.
Yep, we let a lot of plants go to seed, that's how we feed the bees and get seeds.
The award-winning Matai Street Community Garden (Trustpower Community Awards 2016 Regional Winner, Education/Child/Youth Development) is just one of five community gardens that I know of in Whanganui. The others are Tawhero Community Allotments, The Koha Shed, Aramoho Community Garden and Food Forest Wai Ora.
There is even a community garden at the prison.
There are also many Enviro Schools gardens, and gardens at several preschools and kohanga reo. I hear Whanganui East School's orchard is particularly spectacular.
A community garden seems like a wonderful altruistic idea: volunteer in a garden in which anyone can help themselves to the food.
But for me, my involvement in the garden has been incredibly helpful personally.
I have tried and failed many times over the years to have a productive vegetable garden.
I had a nasty lesson in non-organic gardening several years ago. I put out slug pellets.
A few days later, in broad daylight, a hedgehog staggered up to my back doorstep and died.
Then I met Phil, Aaron, Sandie, Tori, Graham and Lyn and the many others involved in the Matai Street Community Garden. Now, with the help and guidance of the wonderful Chris Harrex, I have a wonderful, bountiful, organic garden at my own home.
For the first time I'm growing cauliflowers that aren't full of earwigs. The slugs and snails are controlled by the birds (and probably hedgehogs). I frequently hear "thwack, thwack" as thrushes open snails on the concrete. I'm able to give away eggs year round and we will have an abundance of fruit and nuts this summer.
But a successful garden isn't easy. It is a science and an art.
The community garden is a great place to learn the skills of gardening, especially how to create healthy soil.
The garden gatherings are an excellent opportunity to swap seeds and seedlings that have have been selected over the years to be disease-resistant and to grow well in local conditions without the need for pesticides (local commercial growers are also useful for this, for example Bristol Plants and Seeds at the River Traders Market and the Whanganui Garden Centre).
These plants are not genetically modified and their seeds will be fertile and grow similar plants to their parents.
You will find people who will trade or sell chooks and fertilised eggs and teach you how to look after them, and people who are passionate about beekeeping.
The garden is also a great place to meet like-minded people from all walks of life, including new people who have moved to Whanganui, leaving the big city to escape the rat race, wanting a simpler, better life.
So a community garden is not just some land and some plants. It is a living repository of information, of rich plant and animal genetics, a gathering place of wonderful people ... and the best fresh peas in town.
Over summer we have a working bee at 115 Matai St on the first and third Sunday from 10am-2pm. We finish with a shared kai (meat and alcohol welcome) and perhaps some singing and guitar.
The next working bee will be on Sunday. Please join the fun in the sun, and bring some food, your kids or mokopuna, garden tools and a musical instrument if you have one, or feel free to leave before that kai if you want to.
A community garden is a great place for kids and adults to learn the almost lost art of gardening, to learn how to nourish bees and harvest and sow seeds.
It is a place we can reconnect with each other and with nature, and create a better future.
■Dr Chris Cresswell is a local doctor and member of Whanganui Peace Action and the Green Party of Aotearoa.