Photo copyright GABAT
There are many ways of building communities. Often it’s small groups of committed people who have an idea, a vision, a dream that they quietly set about putting into practice. Through doing this, social capital is created and the wider community benefits.

One of the best examples of this which I’ve seen recently, is on the Island of Barra. Garadh a’ Bhagh a Tuath (GABAT) is a local charitable horticultural project. Staffed by volunteers, it provides work experience for adults with support needs and a source of locally grown plants and produce to the residents of Barra, Vatersay and beyond.

The organisation is around ten years old. Over the years its site has grown and the amount of community work undertaken has increased. For example, the photo above show the planters that are about to be placed throughout the communities in Barra. In many areas, local authority staff undertake this task but on Barra, GABAT have stepped in to provide this service.

The Barra churches all have floral displays provided by GABAT. The photos above and below show the planters and hanging baskets which have been created specifically to order for individuals who have requested them. They are extremely competitively priced. With no garden centre on the island, the GABAT volunteers provide a service that is appreciated by many.

The volunteers are very dedicated and experienced at using materials available locally on Barra and unwanted items for their gardening work. This makes a refreshing change from large-scale commercial practices. Below, leek seedlings are being planted out in cardboard tubes…

Visitors can pick up paper pot plants from as little as 10p each. I remember one village sale at Achnasheen where the children planted up around 300 plants and sold them too. So this is an enterprise activity that schools should remember, once they get going with gardening.

The paths around GABAT are a beautiful white colour. Upon closer examination, I could see that they were created from crushed shells and were ever so pretty. In such a sea-based community, shells can be found everywhere. The home-made compost was immediately identifiable by the shells scattered within it.

I like the natural link this makes to the many beautiful beaches on Barra. Below is the immaculately maintained airport beach. It’s the only beach landing strip in the whole of the British Isles. Connections to the land and sea are immensely important wherever one lives. No matter how hard we may try, the places in which we live leaves emotional attachments and memories. As Lawrence Durrell once said:

“We are children of our landscape; it dictates behaviour and even thought in the measure to which we are responsive to it.”

Connections are made in other ways too. One of the workers at GABAT is a master drystane waller. He builds remarkable stone structures such as this well, using local stone from the island quarry.

His work is immaculate. In fact you can tell as you travel around the island which work has been undertaken with or by him. For example, in the wall below, you can see the perfect placement of each stone – and I believe this was a job undertaken with volunteers!

Rather than spending unnecessary money on mulch and fertiliser, the GABAT beds are mulched with gathered seaweed. Apparently it decomposes really quickly so usually around a depth of one foot is put down at a time…

The garden is a hive of activity all year round. Barra is a windy place so the polytunnels are super strong and about the poshest ones I’ve ever seen.

The polytunnels are used for a range of purposes. Much of the potting and planting of tender seeds goes on inside the polytunnels. Lettuces and other greens are also grown for salad bags that are sold in local shops. Traditional greenhouse plants such as tomatoes and courgettes are raised here. You can see the strings hanging down to provide support for the tomatoes as they grow.

Naturally when the weather is inclement, it means that there’s plenty of shelter. GABAT is being recognised for its expertise on the island, and workers are able to provide advice to other organisations including schools about how to make best use of a polytunnel and other practical aspects of gardening.

Below is a raised bed with an A-frame. I rather liked this structure. It is covered with polythene in the winter and used as a cold frame. Once the summer months arrive, the polythene is removed. The bed is at a useful working height for the adult volunteers, but a similar design could be created for children.

GABAT is constantly seeking sensible ways of saving money and reducing costs. The volunteers now collect seeds from established plants rather than buying them wherever possible. Cuttings are taken from plants and composting of waste plant material is part of the overall approach.

Best of all, is the use of fish boxes, pallets and bread crates as seen in the photo below. It’s good to see another sector re-use these resources creatively. It makes me realise that milk crates will probably fit a certain size of flowerpot! It also demonstrates that gardening can be more than pretty perennial borders.

Before leaving Barra to begin the 12 hour journey home, I gathered a few shells of my own as a memory of my visit and the enterprising approach of GABAT. The west coast island shells are now living in an east coast whisky barrel as a mulch for my apple mint. The lavender bush and thyme I bought there have just been planted at the school where I work.

Finally I’d like to thank Barra Children’s Centre for inviting me to work with GABAT and the local schools and nurseries on the island. It was an inspirational two days, not least because of the talent and skills of those who live there to take outdoor learning and play to higher levels. Partnerships between local organisations like GABAT and the education sector can reap wide benefits when skills, ideas and expertise are shared. If you are ever visiting Barra, you can have a lovely meal at the Children’s Centre Cafe (with a community garden beside it as well as an indoor playspace) and remember to buy some plants from GABAT!

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