Residents of Colonsay realise their garden dreams

Young Helen Piper helps out with a spot of watering. Picture: Contributed
Young Helen Piper helps out with a spot of watering. Picture: Contributed
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When residents on Colonsay were asked what would improve life on the island, their top priority wasn’t a faster broadband connection or more affordable housing and job opportunities.

Instead the inhabitants of the small Hebridean island voted resoundingly in favour of a community garden.

Having raised the funds to build a village hall at the start of the millennium, the 130-strong population had since talked about creating a garden on the adjoining wasteland.

Work towards creating the garden started in earnest two years ago, and after securing a lease for the land and applying for funding, the project received a boost earlier this year when it was selected by the television programme Beechgrove Garden as one of its “community garden specials”.

From hospitals and primary schools to projects supporting the homeless or bereaved pet owners, more than 200 communities in Scotland have benefited from the support of the gardening programme since it launched its community garden initiative in 1996.

Colonsay is one of five communities selected for the show this year, which for the first time in its 35-year history is being aired to the whole of the UK on a Sunday morning following its Thursday night BBC2 Scotland slot.

The other projects are the restoration of an old curved walled garden in Ardentinny, near Dunoon, the creation of an inspirational space at the Moniack Mhor mountain top writers’ retreat in Kiltarlity, a shared community area at Ninewells Hospital in Dundee and the recreation of the original garden at the restored Knockando Woollen Mill, near Aberlour.

“We came up with the concept of community gardens from the old Hit Squad days where we moved from straight makeover into community makeover,” says Gwyneth Hardy, producer and company director of Tern TV, which has been producing Beechgrove Garden for 21 years.

“In those days we were directly involved in creating the garden itself. From 2000 onwards we decided to create the community garden special programmes where we used the culmination of the community garden as an excuse to feature an area to see all aspects of it horticulturally on screen.

“It’s also now about the community creating a garden for themselves, by themselves with just a little help, push, kick start from Beechgrove. It’s a lovely thing to be involved in - the most rewarding thing that I do.”

Beechgrove Garden presenter George Anderson, who has been involved in the filming on Colonsay, adds: “It’s fantastic. Each community garden is so different. You learn so much about different climates and different areas of Scotland.

“It’s important for us as presenters and for people watching the programme who see Scotland from different perspectives.

“It’s not just Edinburgh, Glasgow and Dundee, it’s other places too. As we’re gardening in so many different environments, it helps people gardening in similar places.”

In order to be selected for the programme, the islanders had to be prepared to organise their project, complete the work and show they could provide future maintenance of the site.

In return they were offered a financial contribution towards plants and materials, advice on garden design and help from the Beechgrove Garden team during the course of the project. Having come up with their concept for the garden – a low maintenance space that would attract wildlife but was also both child and teenager-friendly – the community was then given additional ideas from garden designer Karen Laing.

Given that so many of the islanders are keen gardeners, Laing was able to use their expertise when it came to making decisions about planting the garden, with cuttings being taken from around the island.

She also suggested draining the land so they could create a lawn for people to sit on and asked the residents to scout the island for unusual objects washed up by the sea which could be used in the garden – a search that has turned up a whale’s skull among other artefacts.

“What we’re doing on Colonsay is working very closely with the community to develop a sustainable garden,” says Laing. “It’s not about putting in a quick fix. It’s giving them a structure which will then move on. We can’t put in 20ft trees. We have to put in smaller trees and let them grow. We’re working with nature and we have to work in the long term.

“It is very much about learning what gardeners there are doing and taking that into the community garden. We are using plants they have propagated there and learning about the environmental conditions they have there.

“You’re not dealing with the same things as you’re dealing with on the mainland. It’s quite a tricky situation, quite unique. It’s a small island and it’s battered by wind but equally it doesn’t have hard frosts. It doesn’t have the same amount of rain and it has a good deal of sun. It’s quite temperate.”

The villagers had a lot of work to do to prepare the land before the Beechgrove Garden team arrived for filming this month, from strimming the shoulder-height bracken, rushes and brambles to putting in drainage, fencing the perimeter and building steps from a terrace outside the hall to the garden.

“This has stimulated the community to work together and work to a different timescale,” says project manager Morna Piper who is a local development officer for Colonsay. “We were meandering along. It would have been done eventually, but having this filming we have had to get it done.”

And she says, in the end the effort has all been worthwhile. “It’s going to be a lovely recreational space which the islanders will get to enjoy, even if it’s just sitting there with an ice cream watching the boat come in,” she says.

“For people coming off the boat, it’s the first thing they see. Tourism is the main industry here. It gives a better impression of the island, makes it look cared for.

“We have a music festival in September, which is really popular. It is held in the hall but you get people mingling about outside. Before it was a case of trying not to fall off the terrace into the brambles, Now people can go out and enjoy the garden.

“There is a sense of pride having achieved something like this. A programme like Beechgrove wanting to come and see us and invest their energy in us has given us a massive sense of pride and feeling of self worth.”

The Colonsay community garden will feature on Beechgrove Garden on 25 July (BBC2 Scotland) and 28 July (BBC2 Network). The other community garden stories will be shown between August and October.