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June 15, 2011

Govanhill gorilla grabs gold

Every year, Scotland’s finest garden designers and horticulturists gather at the gardening calendar’s big event -Gardening Scotland – to show off their talents and compare garden produce.  This year a gardening group from Govanhill who spend most of their time caring for tenement back courts and nurturing what little green space they can find, decided to mount a challenge. And what a challenge it turned out to be

The cream of Scotland’s garden design talent spent the week transforming the bare grass of the Royal Highland Centre in Edinburgh into elaborate plots where trees sway, flowers grow in exuberant profusion and native species dot the rough grass of meadows that look as if they have lain undisturbed for half a century: in fact they are made from new turf which was unrolled just a few days earlier. It’s all for Gardening Scotland, the national flower show, and everything will be in the best possible taste from planting combinations that display a sophisticated understanding of texture and colour, to garden furniture that would put most people’s interior design to shame.

So what the 35,000 visitors made of a giant, plant-covered gorilla bursting through a wall and into a gap site scarred by neglect and graffiti remains to be seen. But it is to this garden, that owes more to King Kong than it does to Monty Don, that an unlikely organisation from Glasgow is pinning its hopes of a medal.

The Resistance Is Fertile garden is being created by GREAT Gardens, a social enterprise company that works with special needs groups and the long term unemployed to provide them with gardening skills.

Unlike most of the other contenders in the medal stakes at Gardening Scotland, most of whom spend their time creating expensive gardens for affluent private clients, GREAT Gardens cares for the back courts of more than 2300 properties in the south side of Glasgow.

While other landscaping companies are sourcing rare plants with unpronounceable Latin names, the trainees are clearing up illegally dumped rubbish and renovating bin stores in Govanhill.

It doesn’t seem like the stuff of gardening dreams, but to the residents of this densely populated square mile, hemmed in on all sides by motorway, railways and arterial routes, every square inch of green space is precious.

Among them is Anne Elliot who is part of the Govanhill Housing Association residents’ committee which has worked with the garden project to win improvements to the backcourt of her home in Garturk Street involving the removal of overgrown trees, the installation of railings and the creation of raised beds and a patio.

“We have trouble with rubbish being dumped here and we are hoping that the work will help stop intruders from coming into the garden and also provide us with somewhere to grow food and flowers,” says Elliot.

It is precisely this sort of small-scale improvement that Colin Anderson, who runs GREAT Gardens, says can make a real difference to owner-occupiers and tenants.

“There is a real interest in growing your own food and people here want to be part of that movement,” says Anderson.

But while working on existing gardens is one thing, creating a show garden is something different.

For a start there’s that deadline of little more than a week in which to create a garden from scratch. Every element, from the plants to hard landscaping, must be transported to the site and nothing can be dug into the soil, which two weeks after the end of Gardening Scotland becomes the pristine show-jumping ring of the Royal Highland Show.

Fortunately Colin Anderson has previous form. To his credit he has three Chelsea gold medals which he won when he worked in Southend-on-Sea.

“It will be challenging for everyone involved, but it should also be a hugely satisfying experience for trainees and it will give visitors some sense of the work that we do in urban regeneration.”

Janice McEwan, of the housing association, says: “The experience of creating this garden can only benefit the trainees and help them to get jobs in the future.” She says tenants are increasingly viewing their back courts as somewhere that can offer them far more than just a place to keep the dustbins. “We know Govanhill residents want to be active in their gardens. They want to be involved in growing plants, composting and recycling.”

Linda Gillespie, who is the chairman of GREAT Gardens, says constructing the show garden will give trainees an opportunity to develop skills and improve their employability.

In addition the show garden will demonstrate that even an unpromising gap site can be cherished by local people as much as the fanciest suburban garden with its herbaceous borders and smooth lawns.

And the gorilla – or guerrilla as he should really be called, representing as he does the urban gardening movement that surreptitiously explodes seed “bombs” on gap sites and derelict spaces?

And the result of the competition?

GREAT Gardens Ltd swept the board in the ‘ Show Gardens ’ category

o         Gold Medal
o         Best Show Garden
o         Best New Show Garden
A fantastic achievement!