Meet 2018’s Gardener of the Year
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.”