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Student Secret Garden in jeopardy

Flytipping, neighbour feuds and “overcomplicated, inefficient and exclusive” AUSA blight

food-sustainability project


By: Jake Roslin



Secret Garden Society - Credit: SGS



A long-running project to teach students horticultural skills on campus is at risk after a series of setbacks and disputes.

Bags of rubbish, building materials and plastic road barriers have recently been dumped in the half-acre ‘Secret Garden’, located off University Road by the Butchart Centre.

Prior to Covid-19 the tending of the vegetable plots had also been interrupted by heated disputes between residents of adjoining properties and students of the self-sustainability project, which has doubled as an outdoor social venue, used by Circus Skills and other student societies.

But the Secret Garden Society (SGS) which runs the space claims it is AUSA that is responsible for most of their woes, with the Student's Association’s alleged 'bureaucracy and incompetence' resulting in SGS being wrongly expelled from AUSA's societies union.

“The pile has not stopped growing with trash,” an SGS representative, who asked to be known only as Lily, told The Gaudie. “Even though we reported these issues to AUSA and Estates, nothing was done.” She noted construction workers have recently been working near the garden.



Photograph: Rubbish dumped into the Secret garden - Credit: SGS

Something of a feud has also developed between SGS and neighbouring houses along the east side of College Bounds. Residents have entered the garden to dispute the boundary line of the site and their rights to let their children play there. Meanwhile, signage put up by SGS inside the garden has allegedly been removed on multiple occasions.

The Secret Garden began to be cultivated in early 2018 through AUSA’s AberGreen project, funded by the Scottish Government, on previously unused University land. In November last year, with AberGreen’s funding approaching its scheduled end, a group of students formed SGS to take over running of the maturing fruit and vegetable allotments.

After what the society describe as “hurdles” and “delays”, the society obtained AUSA affiliation and funding. However, this was revoked in March, the annual society re-application month, because, AUSA say, SGS did not follow the correct administrative procedures.

Lily told The Gaudie that the SGS committee only discovered they had been struck off the societies roll when they were not invited for September’s officer training and Covid-19 guidance.



Photograph: SGS


A spokesperson for AUSA blamed SGS “fail[ing] to reaffiliate in-line with the process communicated in March. They unfortunately sought information about extending their deadline to September for reaffiliation and holding their AGM from another source. Due to this, AUSA staff were not informed of the correct contact details and the SGS were left off communications for 20/21 due to this misunderstanding.”

Relations with the Old Aberdeen Community Council (OACC), an active local residents’ group, have also been uneasy, although some of its members have voiced support for the project. SGS had hoped to join OACC directly and make the garden a community as well as a student enterprise but told The Gaudie that AUSA would not let them do this. The Association countered that AUSA’s Communities Officer Radeen Moncrieffe sits on OACC, and SGS were invited to attend last November’s meeting as his guest.

During the two years of cultivation of the allotments, students have benefited from training in self-sufficiency by gardening experts brought in by SGS, as well as being able to take home natural food and houseplants grown on the site. Before Covid-19 hit, the space was becoming popular for picnics and society events.

“The goal of the society has always been to offer a green growing space to the students of Aberdeen and the local community,” Lily said. “We have a small group of dedicated volunteers that usually meet every Sunday to garden. And we also have links with a multitude of growing initiatives in Aberdeen and other community gardens. The garden is an open place for anyone to visit”.

AUSA refuted SGS’s allegations that they failed to ask Estates to patrol the site following the altercations with neighbours, or that they ignored their request for directional signage to the garden, although Estates maintain there has been no such contact, and the Secret Garden – ironically – remains hard to find.

The Association also told The Gaudie: “accumulation of litter and garbage was not mentioned as a priority,” a statement SGS vehemently deny, describing it as “hilarious”. AUSA also ventured to The Gaudie that flytipping of this sort “has generally been a problem across Scotland during the pandemic”.

SGS, the AUSA spokesperson said, followed “the same process as all new society applications” and could not comment on the alleged “hurdles”. They denied the Association have ignored SGS’s emails since March, although concede “there may have been delays while waiting for updates”.

AUSA also told The Gaudie they “reached out” to SGS last week (w/e 23 October) “looking to arrange additional meetings with the committee to discuss challenges, however they have declined to meet.” Meanwhile, Lily branded the Association “overcomplicated, inefficient and exclusive”.



Building materials and rubbish left in the garden - Credit: SGS

With relations between the two organisations now at an all-time low, the Secret Garden Society now intends to apply for charitable status, formally reach out to the community as well as University students, and once again disaffiliate from AUSA.

“It's such a shame,” Lily continued, “they have the budget, the infrastructure and the resources to be of great help to students, instead it's just a bunch of people making money and notoriety off of students. Their lack of support to us has been shocking this year, and it really makes something like gardening that should be pleasant and light-hearted so difficult. AUSA wants to supervise everything but doesn’t do it in a way that is competent”.

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