Bostanie - The First Community Garden in Skopje
Interview with Dimitar Samardziev, member of the civic organization "The Green Ark" and coordinator of the project "Development of the first urban garden in the city of Skopje"
The interview was developed, led and realized by Sonja Stavrova on behalf of the Skopje 2028 team.
Photo: Kiril Sentevski and Sonja Stavrova
Where did the idea for the first urban garden in Skopje come from?
The concept of social gardening spread in Europe and around the world some fifty years ago. And in our country, it happened in 2019 when the social gardening idea was finally recognized by the City of Skopje. As members of the civic organization "The Green Ark" on several occasions, from 2008 onwards, we tried to develop similar gardens, but due to various reasons, none of them survived longer than two to three years. However, the City of Skopje in 2019 had an open call for the realization of the program activity "Development of the first urban garden in the city of Skopje" with an application of permaculture gardening, so we submitted a project proposal, which was accepted. The term "urban garden" sounds a bit general to us, so we decided to name it a social garden, emphasizing the human or social aspect of gardening. A place where people can garden together and exchange knowledge and experiences about gardening horizontally, and not in a hierarchical way.
What are the principles of functioning of “Bostanie” and its main goal?
The social garden “Bostanie” was created with joint efforts, this means that people who use the plots actively participate in the constant remodeling of the garden, where they grow edible plants, primarily garden crops for personal use. The principles of gardening and the conditions for participation are specified in the gardening rules and regulations where, among other things, it is clearly emphasized that all crop is intended for personal use and not for sale. The goal is to enable people who want to garden, and who do not have those conditions in the urban areas, to do it here. At the moment, 40 to 50 people use the plots in the garden and therefore have the opportunity for direct access to plant-based foods, which they grow themselves. Many new things related to gardening and other similar life skills can be learned here, so there is no need for any prior knowledge as a prerequisite for participation. We constantly organize training and workshops, and this way even the beginners can start gardening and gain knowledge and experience while gardening. In addition, gardening covers a number of other areas of social life, so we treat the various related subjects and realize events in other areas.
What kind of crops can grow in raised beds and who can use (grow in) the garden?
The users of the fruits that are grown here are the people who grow them - the gardeners. Here we have horticultural crops common for this region, starting from tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, arugula, broccoli, kale, spices, rosemary, lavender, summer savory, mustard, flower crops such as marigold, gladioli, daffodils, sunflower, then beets, onions, garlic, turnips, carrots, parsnips, etc. The most exotic plant that is planted in one of the beds is turmeric, but we prefer the local varieties already adapted to the local conditions. We support diversity and constantly encourage gardeners to try as many different crops as possible in a smaller space. This way, it is possible for different plants to support themselves. If there is only one crop, it can be more vulnerable to pests, but with a variety of crops, they can support each other and exchange necessary nutrients through the root systems or protect each other by releasing compounds through the aboveground part into the air. What one plant needs, the other may excrete, so they can help each other. Some crops serve to repel some pests with odors and others with the chemicals they emit. Some plants serve as traps for pests, others attract pollinators. We sacrifice those plants that serve as traps at the expense of something we want to survive, and pollinators make it easier for all plants to have more fruits. These are some of the gardening tactics inherent in permaculture design, which can be learned in the social garden “Bostanie”.
How do you irrigate the plants?
The irrigation is automated, we set up a drip system in all beds. We got a donation from the Construction Institute Macedonia of a well with a pump, which makes us independent in that regard. We can irrigate at any time. The system is automated and programmed according to the sectors of the garden and the specified time for irrigation, which usually takes place during the night. One of the reasons for this approach, besides saving water, is the high temperatures in the summer that cause stress to plants if they are watered during the day. Thus, among other things, the risk of various fungal diseases of plants is reduced.
Why is the existence and maintenance of this type of garden important?
It is important to have and develop a social garden, because people here have the opportunity to see how much attention, time, and dedication it takes to grow a plant that will bear edible fruit. Something that can be rare nowadays, as it can happen to people in urban areas not to have the opportunity for direct contact with plants or to grow edible plants. Usually, people are used to buying their fruits as consumers in supermarkets, without paying attention or thinking about where from, and how those fruits come to the shelves. Unlike the consumption monotony and uniformity, people from different ages come to our garden, so in addition to gardeners of over 60-70 years or middle-aged, often their children or grandchildren participate in the garden. Also, we organize visits from kindergartens and schools, which is an important educational aspect of shared gardening. This way, people get the idea of what it means to grow a nutritious crop and to start value more hard work, knowledge and dedication. This way a connection is developed with the other crops that are more typical for agricultural families, which is something not so typical for city life. The community garden in that respect has a good location because it is situated at the transition from an urban to a peri-urban environment. On one side is the spontaneous settlement Lisiche and on the other is the urbanized settlement Novo Lisiche. At this location, within a park, "Bostanie" is situated at the edge of the so-called shimmering semipermeable membrane where the two cultures meet and melt, where the plans have an exchange of organic material on a biological level, tougher with the exchange of values on a cultural and social level.
What is the social impact that "Bostanie" has on the users?
The influence spreads initially in the family environment of the gardeners. The experience from the garden is transmitted between the closest ones and their friends. People who passed by and visit the park are also curious and ask questions, we also have basic media coverage that helps to spread the concept. The social garden "Bostanie" nurtures a renewed culture of community, mutual support, friendliness, and solidarity. I hope that our work will encourage other people and that in other locations, not only in Skopje but also in other cities, the community gardens will be initiated. Smaller joint ventures of this type can cause a positive shift, taking into account the overall effect.
Do you think that with "Bostanie" you create a community, if yes, what kind?
We want to create a community and that is our goal, but we know that this requires a lot of commitment and dedication. Everyone should have the will for such a thing. We can talk about a nascent community, depending on what we mean and how we define community. We have common things that connect us which can develop in a common interest. Gardening is expanding in the field of environmental protection, concerning green areas in the city. All these issues are somehow intertwined in the agro-ecosystem of "Bostanie" and this can be a focal point where the joint efforts to restore the disturbed environmental and social relations, could come to light. The gardeners and visitors of "Bostanie" can discuss, reflect and develop other similar initiatives. The community of gardeners who take responsible action to rebuild the environment in the city is something we strive to develop. If we manage to create a sufficiently coherent community, in that situation we could be strong enough to actively protect the city greenery and to provide significant constructive resistance, in cases where it is endangered.
Do the citizens of Skopje need other types of reuses of public areas?
Yes, of course, the public areas in our country are neglected, and when they are not neglected, they are occupied. Mostly the occupation wants to regulate the consumer's mentality, thus the public spaces are often taken by shopping and business centers, parking lots; the greenery is especially jeopardized, and the space for movement is reserved for motor vehicles, ousting the pedestrians and cyclists. Peoples’ needs in the urban environment are to move without distribution from, to, and through green zones, free from traffic jams. Ideally, we need safe forested corridors that connect agreeable places for humans and the rest of the living world, a network of fertile forests and gardens that would permeate the urban structure and effectively connect various parts of the city; with the suburbs; with the periurban settlements and of course with the outskirts of the city. There is a need for a variety of content, spaces where people can feel a little more relaxed, where useful interpersonal relationships among people are possible, instead of restrictions and obstacles to move through or make a longer break in a certain space. Instead of arranging the urban environment that suppresses citizens, we need to design public spaces that offer a respite and arouse curiosity with fresh diversity.
What is your vision for "Bostanie"?
The vision for the social garden "Bostanie" is to be a good example that will encourage other people to take similar initiatives in their communities. To be a source not only of ideas and knowledge but also a functional community of gardeners. We are striving to make a seed bank, a reserve of seed material that will be used by the gardeners in "Bostanie". If we manage to collect enough seed material, other people will be able to use it. Here we also make compost, whose production we will increase in this period. We want "Bostanie" to be a durable positive example that encourages changes in the direction of preserving the environment through agroecological and permacultural approaches. Preservation, maintenance, and propagation of old seeds in situ. For now, this is a pioneering example, which we hope will spread and become part of our culture, something common and regular.
What is the impact of urban gardens on climate change in cities?
Urban gardens, if they are sufficient number, i.e., on large enough area, can have a significant beneficial impact on the microclimate conditions in a city. The city has heat islands, air pollution, noise, and many other environmental and climatic challenges; but well-planned and connected gardens with pedestrian and bicycle paths could mitigate the consequences and can develop skills to easily deal with the onward challenges. The urban gardens can make significant shifts - especially if they are social and public - in the behavior and the way people live if we develop a culture where gardening is important so that in the context of agroecosystems more aspects of environmental protection are treated. With gardening in the urban environment, we create a potential for the development of a wider movement that will take care of the city life quality, in general.