Autumn: The Secret Garden
The first in a series of features highlighting a different community garden each season.
By Sophia Baker
For an industrial, rugged town, Aberdeen has a vibrant community garden scene.
From Bonnymuir Green, a garden-turned-bowling-green-turned-back-to-garden, to Earth ‘n’ Worms, nestled in an unsuspecting corner of Tillydrone, to St Fittick’s Edible Garden, an ex-council depot on the wind-wrapped Torry headland, the city is a patchwork of little horticultural kingdoms. Something they all have in common is their wonderfully improbable locations.
It’s easy to mistake the car park by the Butchart Centre for nothing more than just... a car park. But as the wardrobe was to Narnia, so is this tarmaced lot to something wild, whimsical, and wholly unexpected. Over the car park’s western wall lies one of the aforementioned horticultural kingdoms - The Secret Garden.
The 1993 film of the same name transfixed me in childhood. I yearned to scramble through brambles, to tenderly free the first spring shoots from beneath decomposing leaves, to watch as leaves unfurled themselves, pale, fresh, to meet wan sunlight. It's unclear whether Aberdeen’s Secret Garden is named for the children’s classic or for its concealed location - either way, images of unfurling leaves and shoots pushing through soil were instantly reconjured when I first saw The Secret Garden Society listed on the AUSA website. Fast forward and I’m now the society’s social media officer. This, of course, makes me highly biased- but trust me when I say that the garden is one of our campus’s best assets.
Rumoured to be the remnant of an ancient orchard, the space feels timeless. However, the sycamores dominating the garden’s central lobe, “The Core”, are deceptively young, and the garden has only been maintained by the society since 2018.
The “Mycochamber”, named for bygone mushroom-cultivation attempts, is home to the garden’s composting system. Despite the decaying matter, the air is anything but noxious. Anyone can bring their organic waste here, so long as it’s not meat- or fat- based, or saturated with harmful dyes or chemicals. The society even gives out free compost caddies.
It’s not just kitchen scraps that are “cooked” here, though. Freshly picked comfrey, a brilliant source of nitrogen, has been added to the mix today. Stirring the steaming, fragrant compost heap, treasurer Arkan is Puck in an anorak, a twinkle in his eye. “I love compost”, he tells the gathered volunteers. You can tell he isn’t lying.
Arkan and vice president Ainhoa are members of the society’s founding generation. It’s improved a lot since the beginning, Ainhoa says. Membership has shot from 14 in her first year to over 80 today. You’d think such an increase wouldn’t be conducive to a tight-knit, caring community, but the society is friendlier than ever, flourishing thanks to the influx of knowledge brought by the diverse crowd. The forest garden bed, a semi-wild collection of perennials inspired by the teachings of local permaculture expert Alan Carter, is a prime example of this. An artichoke bends over kale gone wild and swaths of fluffy, feathered yarrow.
Even 80-strong, there’s still room to grow solo. The garden has afforded garden manager Shaun a sanctuary to grow his own alongside the communal beds. Foster-father of a patch of vegetables and flowers in the "North Strip", you'd be forgiven for thinking he had sprung fully formed from the earth, such is his affinity with the garden. But Shaun is actually one of the society’s newer members. The people here are so welcoming that it doesn’t take anyone long to become deeply entangled in the garden’s going-ons.
Ainhoa joined the society by accident (“I kept coming every Sunday because I had paid for the membership”). It quickly grew on her. “Honestly, I woke up every Sunday excited because I was going to the garden,” she smiles.
Like Ainhoa, general member Aina didn't previously know much about gardening. Unlike Ainhoa, she joined on purpose. The seed was planted long ago. “I have pictures of myself watering tomatoes from when I was two,” she says. “I joined the garden society so that I can actually learn.”
Volunteer Ross is here thanks to his genuine love of physical labour. “It gives me something to do on a Sunday morning ... If I didn’t have anything, I would just sleep in, and I’m trying to get over that horrible habit.”
“Coming for the gardening, staying for the people” appears common. “I had no idea what I was doing ”, Ainhoa confesses of her early days, “but the people were so nice.”
Everyone agrees. “I’ve met a lot of friends here,” says president Barbara. “I was pleasantly surprised that the garden was such a diverse space ... it made me feel ‘at home’ as an international student.”
Newcomer Clara also comments on how great it was to immediately find such a welcoming group. “To find such a great project in the middle of the area you’ve moved to is amazing.”
Its on-campus location is another of the garden’s strengths, with members grateful to have a space to observe nature between classes. Perhaps the society’s best quality, though, is its openness to failure. “I like our experimental nature”, Arkan tells me. “We’re chancers in some ways. As we try stuff, some things might not work out, but these are lessons.”
Magical as the garden is, though, it’s not untouchable. An unseasonably hot summer left nature confused.
Snowdrops were already revealing their foliage in October; Shaun showed me the tender, premature shoots with deep concern. I reeled in anxiety for both the plants - frost will claim those shoots with swift ease - and the planet. Snowdrops in October are undoubtedly symptomatic of climate change.
It’s an issue the society is acutely aware of and trying to combat. The garden’s number one mission, president Barbara says, is sustainability, from its role as a tangible tool for learning about permaculture, to its existence as a space for individuals to come together and effect systematic change. “From experience, [a space like] that’s hard to get,” says well-being officer Gabi.
This isn’t a mission the Secret Garden is on alone. Campaigns with other organisations, such as Fridays for Future, are proof of this; the passion the broader community has for green activism is heartwarming. And if there’s anything the people here are good at, it’s collaborating towards a greater goal.
Back in “The Core”, a tribe of magpies watch as the volunteers rake the thick carpet of golden leaves into ordered piles. The job looks daunting, but working together, they make quick and easy work of it, chatting and laughing together. I don’t blame them - with the enchantment that the Secret Garden instils in the soul, it’s hard not to crack a smile.