Meet 2018’s Gar­dener of the Year

NZ Gardener - - CONTENTS - Mei Leng Wong

Com­mu­nity fruit and vege stand founder Mark Den­nis is our win­ner.

When Mark Den­nis pro­posed build­ing a stand in front of his house to put ex­cess veg­eta­bles and fruits from his gar­den for any­one to take, feed­back was less than en­cour­ag­ing.

He had posted the idea on his lo­cal com­mu­nity so­cial me­dia page, and the first com­ments pre­dicted noth­ing but strife and heartache. The stand would be van­dalised, he was told. Peo­ple would just take with­out giv­ing any­thing back. Things would get stolen, it was sug­gested.

Mark did it any­way. “Well, I had the bits of wood in the gar­den to make the stand,” he re­calls, and who­ever helped them­selves to the pro­duce would surely make good use of it, he rea­soned.

And so He­lensville, a his­toric town on the south­ern edge of the Kaipara River about 50km north­west of Auck­land, came to host the first of­fi­cial Com­mu­nity Fruit & Vege Stand in New Zealand. Con­trary to the dire pre­dic­tions, it has never been van­dalised in the year or so since Mark put it up, and the close knit com­mu­nity keeps it tidy and stocked most of the time.

Mark has also in­spired other gar­den­ers and many other stands have popped up all over the coun­try, first in neigh­bour­ing towns such as Parakai and River­head, but it would not be wrong to say that stands now stretch the length and breadth of New Zealand, from Kaitaia to In­ver­cargill.

Re­gret­tably, some have in­deed been van­dalised – about 1 per cent of them, Mark es­ti­mates – but with the num­ber of stands to­talling about 150 and grow­ing, it is un­de­ni­able that the op­er­a­tions man­ager and father of three young chil­dren has sparked a grass­roots move­ment pow­ered by lo­cal gar­den­ers and proud res­i­dents keen to pro­vide for friends and neigh­bours in need.

This, Mark says, is the take­away from this busy year. “I have learnt about how gen­er­ous and re­spect­ful peo­ple can be when given the op­por­tu­nity to ex­press those qual­i­ties,” he says.

The premise is sim­ple and ad­mit­tedly, hardly orig­i­nal. Gar­den­ers have al­ways shared pro­duce and ex­changed goods within their im­me­di­ate cir­cle. Mark now reck­ons many oth­ers didn’t spread the good­will fur­ther afield sim­ply be­cause they didn’t have the op­por­tu­nity.

In har­ness­ing the power of so­cial me­dia, he ap­pears to have fixed this nig­gly lim­i­ta­tion: take a photo of what you’ve dropped off and share it on the Com­mu­nity Fruit & Vege Stand page to let peo­ple know what’s there. It is a great way to keep in­ter­est up and stands stocked. (Sig­nage for the newer stands even in­cludes a QR code which sends view­ers to the page with all the rel­e­vant in­for­ma­tion.)

More im­por­tantly, it’s an in­ge­niously easy way for peo­ple to ex­press pride in their con­tri­bu­tion and pay it for­ward; on the other side of the coin, it is a stigma-free way for any­one to find a free meal – or at least some in­gre­di­ents for a home-cooked one – when they need it.

In a way, the stands pro­vide an av­enue for peo­ple to make a tan­gi­ble in­vest­ment in their com­mu­nity be­cause, as Mark has dis­cov­ered, “peo­ple re­ally do want to be a part of a com­mu­nity. They truly want to con­trib­ute and share and con­nect with oth­ers.”

As gar­den­ers, res­i­dents’ groups and com­mu­ni­ties con­tinue to put their hand up to build and stock stands in their area, Mark con­tin­ues to pro­vide lo­gis­ti­cal sup­port, en­cour­age­ment and ad­vice. On the day we speak, for ex­am­ple, he is still try­ing to find vol­un­teers in Franklin for a stand that a lo­cal busi­ness wants to spon­sor (some stands are spon­sored by lo­cal busi­nesses which might do­nate time, re­sources and ma­te­ri­als).

A year ago, he had never ex­pected such re­spon­si­bil­ity, of course, but it is a task he takes on will­ingly, though he does seem to be slightly at a loss as to which way to go next. That is un­der­stand­able per­haps. He lit the match, but the fire of this move­ment is now fed by the thou­sands of vol­un­teers – givers and tak­ers of hun­dreds of thou­sands of dol­lars worth of home­grown fruits and veges – who stock the stands, clean up af­ter the van­dals and send out mes­sages of grat­i­tude and pos­i­tiv­ity to strangers.

Mark doesn’t know whether the num­ber of stands will con­tinue to rise as it has done re­lent­lessly in the past year. “But I hope com­mu­ni­ties and groups take own­er­ship of their stands and com­mit to keep­ing them go­ing. It can turn out to be a lot of work,“he says with the laugh of a man who is still en­joy­ing the roller-coaster, “but it’s great that we can all help each other.”

This year’s Re­sene Most Colour­ful Char­ac­ter of the Year prize was awarded to the vol­un­teers at Whangarei’s Rid­ing for Dis­abled plant stall.

“Peo­ple re­ally do want to be a part of a com­mu­nity. They truly want to con­trib­ute and share and con­nect with oth­ers.”

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