Whatever one thinks about getting down and dirty, gardening, like cooking and making art, is an activity that can spread joy. Granted not everybody who beholds a garden will be awestruck by its beauty and hypnotized by its scent, but there is something undeniably magical about observing life emerging from plain dirt!
If you haven’t got a green patch, one way to get your hands in the ground is to join a community garden, or as the Spanish call it – un huerto urbano. A community garden is a plot of land, usually in an urban area, that is gardened collectively by a group of people. The land is divided into individual or shared plots where gardeners or hortelanos grow vegetables, fruit, herbs and decorative plants.
A huerto urbano can be owned publicly, privately, be a non-profit association, or a combination of the above. The gardeners pay rent for their allotment and water use, which also covers maintenance of common areas.
Most community gardens strive to be organic and encourage planting what suits the zone and climate.
Many also have social and educational mandates as added benefits to the local community.
We always see a rise in edible gardens in times of economic crisis. The concept of public allotments began in the early industrial era, when city expansions led to a lack of urban green spaces. During the First and the Second World Wars, Poor Gardens as they were called, helped address the problem of food shortages.
Communal gardens regained popularity during the latter part of the 20th Century, when nonconventional locations, such as abandoned train tracks or rooftops, were converted into public green spaces. The idea that urban populations can grow gardens and feed themselves has gained momentum as people recognize the financial, health and environmental burden of food importation.
Most rural Andalucian families have a piece of land where they grow olives and vegetables. Since urban populations normally do not have this opportunity, Andalusian cities have allocated space for community gardens. The oldest one is Miraflores outside Seville from 1991, which has 170 individual plots, as well as a waiting list of people eager to get their hands dirty.
I asked agro-ecologist and specialist for rural development Patricia Montesinos Maestre why huertos urbanos are so important:
“These types of gardens usually take advantage of urban land that is abandoned. Quite often they are located in what used to be a communal conflict area, such as a hangout for drug addicts or a place where people would dump garbage. By recuperating this land, we give it life and value and make it into something useful for local residents. Huertos are environments where people of very different walks of life can meet. It is also fantastic to be able to cultivate your own food. It is not the same to buy food at the supermarket as eating what you have grown yourself.“
Patricia is a technician for the non-profit association Silvema, which established the first organic huerto urbano in Ronda in 2013.
“Our initial goal was to recuperate traditional varieties of edible plants, which are quickly diminishing. Unfortunately there are very few spaces in Spain dedicated to this type of work. We were in fact the first in Andalucía to do so. Our goal is to have huertos urbanos in every neighbourhood, which gradually can become autonomous.”
Patricia also recuperates traditional plants through seed collection. Her company La Indiana Rural is part of the network of Andalusian seed banks, which again is part of a nation-wide network.
“It is vital to help develop and strengthen the traditional grain and plant types at this moment in time. For a nominal fee, you can become a supporter of the Andalucian seed bank and receive seeds once or twice a year. Alternately, you can order traditional seeds from their catalogue, exchange seeds or even become a godparent for a traditional plant.”
The benefits of community gardens go far beyond offering city dwellers partial food self-sufficiency. Through exchange of ideas, seeds, plants and advice, communal gardens encourage social interaction and intergenerational activities.
Some huertos collaborate with local schools, teaching students about composting, rainwater collection and organic agriculture. In addition, many huertos urbanos organize workshops, garden visits, seed exchanges, open garden days, lectures, nature walks etc.
While most of its health-bringing properties are obvious, others are less apparent.
Huertos can give bees, frogs and other small creatures a refuge in an otherwise hostile urban environment.
They promote biodiversity and respect for the earth. Gardening always involves a certain amount of experimentation and has endless room for creativity.
Some people also find digging in the ground meditative.
The thirty plots in our community garden Huerto Leveque is tended to by families with young children, retirees, workers, unemployed, students, doctors, artists and politicians. I decided to ask some of them why they are hortelanos. Retired Juan said he likes to do something productive with his time, Mari Carmen likes the exercise and José Antonio enjoys sitting in the shade of his quince tree watching the plants grow.
The five families who share a large plot always have a beer cooler on the table, so for them the huerto is a party. Laura, the huerto’s newest addition, told me that her father died of the Corona virus in Ronda, so to her, the huerto is a way of healing and getting on with her life. For Laura and many others, community gardening can be a kind of therapy.
Although I always have broken nails and scratched-up arms, I love our huerto. It is a green and peaceful refuge. I can quietly putter about in our little piece of Eden while listening to the birds tweeting and bees buzzing. Every year we have a lizard family in our rosemary bushes. Occasionally a snake will come out to sunbathe. We have ants, beetles, worms and butterflies. Every summer, our 9×10 meter plot gives us ample vegetables to eat and share with friends and neighbours. Of course it is work and the weeds always grow quicker and deeper than edible plants, but even weeds are part of the magic.
As a foreigner in Spain, being part of a huerto urbano will give you a chance to meet people, learn new skills, become acquainted with local traditions, save the gym membership and improve your Spanish by the bucket load, while potentially becoming healthier and happier by eating your own organic crop.
Want to find out more? Since most huertos urbanos are connected with the municipality, your best bet is to check in the local town hall or ayuntamiento. If this gets you nowhere, check online or better still, ask your older neighbours…