Unexpected Israel: A quiet green revolution

During Britain’s mandate in Palestine, British architect Charles Ashbee planned to encircle the Old City of Jerusalem with greenery, envisioning the city silhouetted against this backdrop.

Volunteer at work in communal garden in the German Colony, Jerusalem (photo credit: RUTH CORMAN)
Volunteer at work in communal garden in the German Colony, Jerusalem
(photo credit: RUTH CORMAN)
Open any newspaper today and you will read about “sustainability” and “carbon footprints” – exhorting us to save the world’s natural resources and make it a better place to live in.
This is not an original idea. As far back as Genesis 2:15, the Bible said “God took Adam and put him in the Garden of Eden to cultivate and care for it.” This precept, embodying the ethos of protecting nature, was intrinsic to the philosophy of the early pioneers in the Land of Israel.
They established the Kibbutz movement, planting the roots (literally) for the sophisticated agriculture that exists today.
During Britain’s mandate in Palestine, British architect Charles Ashbee planned to encircle the Old City of Jerusalem with greenery. He envisaged the city silhouetted against this backdrop. He also planned a walkway on the ramparts so the view outwards would overlook verdant spaces. Ashbee never realized his dream, however, as Jerusalem grew and buildings were soon erected on the much needed and available land.
With the establishment of the state in 1948, the imperative was to provide accommodation for the successive waves of immigrants who reached its shores. Urban areas became densely populated with people housed in blocks of flats with little access to green spaces.
For the last 15 years, however, there has been a quiet “Green Revolution.”
Three hundred community gardens have been established throughout Israel. About 50 of them are located in Jerusalem. Here, Amanda Lind, community gardens coordinator for the Society for the Protection of Nature, responds to grass roots initiatives supporting the establishment of the gardens in theory and practice.
Arriving from Britain at the age of 21, she went to Kibbutz Ma’agan Michael and subsequently gained an apprenticeship at the magnificent Rothschild Gardens in Zichron Yaakov.
From here she was sent to train at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, near London, before eventually returning to Israel.
Together we visited some of the community gardens. The first, the Zamenhof Garden, is a tiny square surrounded by Jerusalem-stone buildings and the fortified block of the US Consulate. There I saw a miniature ecosystem with birds, butterflies, flowers and vegetables all overseen by the watchful eyes of a scarecrow.
It is a perfect example of how even the smallest urban plot can be transformed into something magical, where people meet to enjoy a connection with the soil.
Next we went to grounds of the Natural History Museum in the German Colony. Seven years ago it was an uncultivated strip of land. Today it is an unbelievably beautiful garden with a profusion of trees, flowers, organic vegetable planting and a composting area, tended by locals.
When I arrived 40 or so volunteers of all ages were weeding, hoeing, pruning, planting and composting. The team is led by Amnon Herzig, a dedicated enthusiast who has been involved since its inception.
It was especially moving to chat with the gardeners and hear how much this place means to them. It is a community center in every sense of the word. Someone told me how it provides an opportunity to relax in her otherwise hectic life. Others spoke of the essential role it has in bringing people of different backgrounds together. The isolated, the stressed or those simply seeking to be a part of this tranquil oasis meet, join in the work or sit in the shade chatting and watching small children play. I stayed for two hours and was reluctant to leave and confront once more the hustle and bustle of the city.
The value of such gardens is inestimable.
Studies show how an involvement with nature reduces stress, ADHD symptoms and improves cognitive function in youngsters – school grades and behavior in general improve. Children experience a sense of wonder at seeing how food grows, as unbelievably many today still think it comes in plastic containers from a supermarket.
Each of the 50 gardens is unique. In the tenement blocks of Talpiot, one garden caters predominantly for elderly Ethiopians who back home were farmers, but on in Israel had little contact with the earth. The young generation assimilated through school or the army, but the older generation was cut off, speaking little Hebrew and with few ways of integrating.
Their garden helps resolve this. They now grow vegetables for a traditional Ethiopian dish called Gomen-wat, made from collard, garlic and onions. To be able to take this home to their families gives them great feelings of self esteem.
At all the gardens volunteers learn about water conservation and composting.
They bring their waste food to the compost bank, and before Passover any surplus flour is used to make pita at a communal pita party. Nothing is wasted. The gardeners are now learning how to follow the principle of shmita – a biblical injunction to leave the land fallow every seventh year. While the land is allowed to rest, volunteers are encouraged to engage in other activities such as making benches and equipment for their gardens from recyclable materials.
I have loved gardening since childhood, inspired by my mother. When I married Charles he thought that it was something that you paid a little man to do. Today, however, he is a changed person and constantly thanks me for introducing him to his passion – the garden.
In Britain, it is customary for people to take up gardening as a hobby when they retire, provided they can still bend down, but here in Jerusalem we have Amanda, encouraging enthusiasts of all ages to engage with the soil.
The Roman philosopher Cicero wrote “He who has a garden and a library wants for nothing.” With my own love for gardening and writing, I realize that very little has changed over the centuries – they felt then much as we do today!
Ruth Corman, who lives both in London and Jerusalem, is an art consultant and photographer. Unexpected Israel – her third book, should be published later this year.