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Community gardening is taking off in Brussels: join one and reap the benefits

20:09 29/04/2015

From the street, I get a faint whiff of compost. Entering through the gate, the fumes from the street fade and I am met with the smell of damp organic matter. Laid out before me are rows of wooden garden beds, test plots, vines growing over trellises. In the back of the long narrow space there is a pond. It may be the power of suggestion, but just seeing this, I feel my muscles relaxing.

This is the Gray Street Garden, one of Brussels’ first community gardens, nestled on the border where Etterbeek meets Ixelles, and what I am experiencing is what many tout as one of the chief benefits of urban gardening. Besides producing local, short-chain food, using disused land and creating common space for city denizens to meet, putting your hands in soil simply makes you feel good.

Community gardens have been growing more common over recent years in Brussels. Today, Gray Street, established in 2007, is one of nearly 70 community gardens in the Brussels region. They are also becoming more organised, thanks to the efforts of Le Début des Haricots, a non-profit organisation that for the past 10 years has been working to promote urban garden projects in Brussels.

Le Début des Haricots helps community gardens get up and running: recruiting members, finding plots, teaching gardening skills and connecting to other gardens to organise workshops and exchange tools and other resources. All this out of the conviction that community-run green spaces improve cities, making people happier, healthier and more connected.

“Community gardens can be a way to learn to live together, to meet people different from yourself, and to exchange, to discover,” says Olivier Servais, who has been a member of Le Début des Haricots since its beginnings. “They’re about meeting your neighbours, being part of the community, finding a place of exchange and taking part in something where decisions must be made as a group.”

Community gardens in a city also create green breathing room between buildings in dense, urban spaces. This is certainly the case for the Mille Semences-Ceuppens community garden, just behind Midi station in the commune of Forest. It’s a collaboration between the Wiels centre for contemporary art, the Flemish library Bli:B and the Youth House of Forest.

“It’s a very urban neighbourhood,” says Frederique Versaen of Wiels. “There isn’t really a green space in this neighbourhood – the garden is really a green island in the city.”

Within this green space, Versaen says, the garden makes room for people to connect with their community, whether it’s by families joining together to cultivate a plot of land, children using the open grass field or orchard to play, or simply by neighbours bringing their organic rubbish to the community compost. In a piece published in Wiels’ own magazine, gardener Mohamed Boulahya describes how his garden is a meeting place: “We talk about sprouts and carrots and tomatoes, which then flows into other conversations. Nature brings us closer.”

But the garden also helps some of its members return to their roots. “Many of the gardeners are older men who come from Berkane, an area of Morocco known for its orange orchards,” Versaen explains. “There, many of them farmed pieces of land… Now the men live in small apartments and they miss this connection with the land.”

In this way, Boulahya says, “it’s something to do besides sitting in a bar playing cards. They come and do concrete things that give more meaning to their lives. They bloom open, come out of their cocoons and work through their problems with the vegetables.”

Despite what it brings to the community, Versaen is careful to point out that the Wiels garden is a temporary one. “Wiels is a private terrain, and we asked the owners if we could develop a temporary project. Any time that the owner has plans to build there, he can.”

Finding spaces to build urban gardens on can be a real struggle, according to Servais. And unlike Wiels, which has accepted its fate as a temporary project, some gardens are deeply embroiled in fights for their own existence.

Take, for instance, Ernotte, a 3.5-hectare garden in Ixelles. Ernotte member Stefano Guercini tells me that these allotments date back to the 1930s, when the commune provided working-class people living in social housing with plots of land on which they could grow their own food. However, 20 years ago, the commune decided it wanted to take back five hectares to develop and convinced many of the gardeners to hand over their rights to the land. At this point, many people stopped gardening.

Then, eight years ago or more, Guercini says, a new generation of gardeners arrived with a renewed energy to “fight the commune of Ixelles to preserve this green space”. Today, Ernotte is a lively place dedicated to its own preservation, and its story can be seen in the 2013 documentary Les Potagistes by Brussels filmmaker Pascal Haass.

Everyone is welcome in the Ernotte garden, all languages and backgrounds, says Guercini, who is Italian. However, he offers one warning: “This is a battlefield: we are gardening and fighting at the same time.”

Thanks to the website Les Potagers Urbains, run by Le Début des Haricots, finding a community garden is simple. There you’ll find a list of all the gardens in the Brussels Capital Region with a convenient map.

You’ll also find other projects, such as Potage Toit, a 350-square-metre organic garden on top of the Royal Library in the city centre. While less intimate than a community garden, Potage Toit is equipped to welcome anyone from interested visitors to people wanting to dig in the dirt for half a day to regular volunteers. It’s also a very international project, so people with limited French or Dutch skills should be able to keep themselves busy.

The trick is to find the right garden for you. Gardens come in all shapes and sizes, with various focuses, resources and strengths. Every garden has different expectations in terms of the effort they expect from their members. Language is something to consider. Some will only speak French, others will have very international crowds and will operate in a wide mix of languages.

Also important is the atmosphere of the garden. Servais says the best way to join a garden is by showing up and seeing if the feel of the place is a good fit for you. “Some gardens are more open than others. Sometimes there is a leader who is very willing to teach and talk and spend time with people.” Others, he says, expect you to work more independently.

If you have any doubts, Servais recommends contacting Potagers Urbains, who should be able to tell you which gardens are looking for new members, which would suit someone with, say, limited language skills, or which might be open to short-term members. 

Upcoming events

4 May
Learn about phytoremediation, the use of green plants to improve the health of soils, surface and groundwater and other elements of an ecosystem, as part of the Urban Ecology Centre’s Operation Sunflower project (in French). Forest abbey.

8-10 May
The Brussels Garden Festival promises artisan crafts, kids events and heaps of inspiration for aspiring gardeners. Cinquantenaire park, free.

10 May
Stop buying plastic packets of herbs and learn how to grow fresh herb in your own kitchen (in French). Ferme Nos Pilifs, €10,

16 May
A workshop and discussion about raising chickens in urban settings and how to reap the benefits (in French). Park Farm.

This article first appeared in The Bulletin Newcomer spring 2015

Written by Katy Desmond