Everyday Changemakers: Catherine Lawson, Bonnie Dundee IYN

You can listen to all of the episodes of 1000 Better Stories podcast here.

Our Story Weaver, Kaska Hempel, talks to Catherine Lawson, one of the volunteers behind Bonnie Dundee (In Your Neighbourhood) group who take care of green spaces in Dundee City Centre.

The story is the first in a 5-part series of weekly interviews with members of Dundee Community Garden Network (Grow Dundee) and an audio tour exploring the meaning and impact of community gardening. 

You can find a draft of the audio tour here.


Interview, recording and sound production: Kaska Hempel


[00:02:38] Kaska Hempel: Hello, it’s Kaska, your Story Weaver.

What is a community garden? Who is it for? And what difference can it really make? Over the next five weeks, we will explore these questions in Everyday Changemaker interviews with people involved in several of the community growing spaces which make up the brand-new Dundee Community Garden Network.

On the 24th of June this year, most of the 25 odd gardens within this network threw their doors open in celebration of growing in conjunction with the Dundee Art Night. So I peddalled around Dundee to catch up with folk at Bonnie Dundee In Your Neighbourhood Group, Uppertunities Garden at Dudhope Castle, Victoria and Fruit Bowls Community Gardens, and one of Dundee’s wee forests.

Each Monday, you will be able to dip your toe in the sounds of summer from one of those gardens here on the 1000 Better Stories podcast. In parallel, each week we’ll be collaborating with the Garden Network to put these stories on the map and to build an audio tour. This way, anyone can enjoy a guided visit to these thriving community places by downloading the tour onto their phone.

Editing this story for you brought back memories of that unusually warm and muggy Saturday morning, with a thin, claggy layer of grey cloud overhead, barely holding the sun back from bursting through. My first visit was with Bonnie Dundee in Your Neighbourhood Group who maintain several city centre green spaces.

It’s one of several so called IYN In Your Neighbourhood Groups across the city that support Dundee’s entry into the Beautiful Scotland campaign in partnership with Dundee City Council. And there’s absolutely no doubt that they significantly contributed to Dundee taking the Gold medal in the Large City category this autumn.

By the time I cycled over the Tay Bridge and arrived at the car park between the Dundee Science Centre and Dundee Contemporary Arts Centre, at nine in the morning, Trudy and Catherine were putting finishing touches on their wheelbarrow garden. Their “Well Barrow”, as they called it, was the group’s entry into the wheelbarrow garden competition taking place that evening at the pop up Woosh Gallery as part of Dundee Art Night.

It sported a jolly bunting over a cascade of colourful flowers, and was studded with references to the ways plants affect our well being through our senses. Trudy and Catherine’s playful spirits were very much catching, and I enjoyed a healthy giggle together as we added wooden me bees to sensory labels for a final flourish to the display…

[00:05:37] Trudy: We only buy them for ourselves, really. It’s not for the kids.

[00:05:41] Kaska Hempel: They’re adorable.

[00:05:43] Trudy: I love these. There we go. I’ve got one on my work badge.

[00:05:47] Catherine Lawson: I’ll put a bee on the hearing. The hearing is meant to be the sound round about you. Or I’ll put a bee on the vision. Like…

[00:05:58] Trudy: Right.. Come on. I better go soon.

[00:06:06] Catherine Lawson: I need to stop playing with grandchildren. We were standing here and a plane… A plane went above and I very nearly went…PLANE!

[00:06:15] Kaska Hempel: That’s brilliant

[00:06:16] Catherine Lawson: I’m so used to it with Alfie, anyway, sorry.

[00:06:18] Trudy: Right, I have to go in a couple of minutes. I have to get my bus back to Wormit, you see.

[00:06:22] Catherine Lawson: What are you doing all afternoon?

[00:06:24] Trudy: Gardening!

[00:06:24] Catherine Lawson: Does that mean sitting in a chair in the garden with a book?

[00:06:29] Trudy: Yes.

[00:06:29] Kaska Hempel: That’s it. That’s a proper way of approaching the task.

[00:06:34] Trudy: It’s too hot to garden.

[00:06:36] Catherine Lawson: Yeah, Trudy. Yeah, yeah. Yeah, yeah….

I’m Catherine Lawson I am treasurer of Bonnie Dundee and I got involved, in 2005. The council put out a plea for groups to join them to put together, a portfolio which goes to Beautiful Scotland.

So it’s all the environmental things that go on in the city, all the groups, um, to represent Dundee. And winners in Beautiful Scotland going to Britain in Bloom, and, you know, it’s a big, it’s a big thing. So, St Paul’s Cathedral. were one of the groups of people that were interested because obviously their city centre, they felt they should be doing something for the city centre and I got nominated to do it.

The reason I got involved mainly is, um, I’m a trained PE teacher. My life has always been outside, so anything outside I’m interested in, so that’s, this just suits me down to the ground.

[00:07:50] Kaska Hempel: Um, where is Bonnie Dundee based?

[00:07:53] Catherine Lawson: Bonnie Dundee is the big umbrella that covers in the region of twenty odd community gardens throughout the city. That’s, that’s the big group.

There’s also a smaller group, which is Bonny Dundee IYN, which stands for It’s Your Neighbourhood, which is connected to Keep Scotland Beautiful.
So, that’s, the neighbourhood, we have five areas that we plant and maintain throughout the city. So where are we today? We’re at Dundee Science Centre. I can’t remember the exact dates, but we started off with eight planters here.

Then, a project called DUO decided there would be twenty five urban orchards in the city. And because this is at the back of DCA, they linked in with… Dundee Contemporary Arts to create an art based urban orchard.

[00:08:51] Kaska Hempel: And can you describe for our listeners what it looks like?

[00:08:55] Catherine Lawson: It’s based, and I’m going to get this wrong, it’s on a design Fabru or something

[00:09:03] Kaska Hempel: Fibonacci.

[00:09:05] Catherine Lawson: Fibonacci, that’s it! All to do with spirals and numbers of adding the previous number, all that. This is based on that. So we’re sitting here. It was decided that there would be a sitting area so that people in the community could come for a picnic, for a chat, to just relax.
So there’s this seating area. There’s a little, what we call a stage over there. Because there was a thought that children might want to put on little, you know, for their parents, just silly things. And then round the outside are 14 planters, Slightly less than a metre square. And in them we have 7 trees, 7 apple trees.

Kaska Hempel: And do they get apples?

Catherine Lawson: They do. But this was a bit of an experiment to have an orchard in Planters and it’s been here for seven years and yes we get apples but they’re very small. So two years ago we moved that orchard out which is now in one of our other areas and we put in trees that we have been told are more suitable to planters. We’ll find out.

[00:10:26] Kaska Hempel: So what’s what’s your favourite part of this
particular space ?

[00:10:30] Catherine Lawson: I can’t say sitting here, can I mean, why? one of the things I really love is the, the orchard we’ve underplanted with wildflowers.

Um, this year we got seeds from NatureScot. Before it was seeds from Seeds of Hope. And there are things like corn flowers and corn marigolds. We do insect surveys. So it’s lovely coming down here and just searching. for different types of bees, for the ladybirds, for lacewings. And just recording what we see and when we see it.

Um, I love things like that. You know, because you plant things, but it’s lovely seeing it being used, if you know what I mean. All the little honey bees and solitary bees and… Yeah.

[00:11:18] Kaska Hempel: You’ve got lots of bumblebees today on the cornflower, just behind you.

[00:11:21] Catherine Lawson: Yes, I mean, it’s really good. And for children. And for passers by, you know, so many people talk to us. So we say, oh, this is…and this is .. and did you know? Yeah, it’s good.

[00:11:35] Kaska Hempel: Wonderful. When I say biodiversity, what’s the first thing that comes to your mind?

[00:11:41] Catherine Lawson: Climate change, probably. Because the word, biodiversity has always been around. But since climate… It was really COP26 that I think the whole thing just snowballed.

There, there’s a phrase, nature based solutions, in that the climate is changing and everybody can do something. You can get completely confused about your heating and the plastics and the, and everything. But concentrating on, on nature to me is the route that I would like to go down.
You know, in nature based solutions, planting different things, encouraging wildlife, changing your garden from your immaculate lawn with stripes up and down to maybe leaving a wee bit wild, maybe leaving it a wee bit untidy in an area. When you see a nettle, don’t go: Aaaagh! Pull it out, or squirt it with something. Just leave it. Because… butterflies need nettles, because they lay their eggs on things like nettles.

[00:12:50] Kaska Hempel: And if you were to explain biodiversity to somebody that doesn’t know what it means, what would you say?

[00:12:57] Catherine Lawson: I would just say it’s the, the whole balance of… of nature so that you get as much as diverse an amount of wildlife vegetation in an area as you can, basically.

[00:13:17] Kaska Hempel: Lovely. What’s the thing that you’re most proud of in this project?

[00:13:21] Catherine Lawson: I think if you enjoy doing something, you don’t tend to think along those lines.

I wouldn’t say proud of. But one thing, when you’re talking about making a difference, and you’re talking about just ordinary people getting together and making a difference, we put in a fundraising bid for Tesco Bags of Help. Took a lot of work, but we managed it, and we got £12, 000.

So we gave the council £12, 000 and we have one of the little pocket gardens in Slessor. And we’re the only group that, that did that. And no, it’s not ours because it actually costs more But in, in our heads, you know, when we go and look after it, it’s kind of ours, you know.

The Slessor Gardens is, um, an area that… was built up and everything was demolished and now it’s a big open green space with a big um, grass area and round the sides a little what we call pocket gardens. And each one is based on the connections that Dundee has around the world and at home.
Um, and our pocket garden is basically the city of Dundee with the Law and with the river. The river’s in slate and the Carse of Gowrie. Um, we planted it with as many different plants as we can because of the Carse is full of your raspberries and your strawberries and your herbs, all the colours of the rainbow, the oilseed rape and flax used to be grown.

And the two bridges are little privet hedges. So, it’s quite quirky. We meet so many people from all over the world chatting about plants and gardens. Yeah we enjoy it. Yeah, that’s good.

Kaska Hempel: Where in the world are you happiest?

Catherine Lawson: In my garden. But, I would say in my garden with my grandchildren. Because they’re enrolled in Bonnie Dundee. So we plant things and we yeah.

[00:15:38] Kaska Hempel: Can you think of a challenge that you had to overcome, in this project? And how did you do this?

[00:15:44] Catherine Lawson: There’s millions of challenges. And I think because there are so many challenges, you just, just look at it and go, right? What’s the solution here?

Like, trying keeping planters going, especially as the weather’s getting warmer and warmer and warmer, um, watering is a massive challenge for us. I live in Broughty Ferry, so I would fill my car with watering cans and bring it into Dundee, and then it clicks, wait a minute, this, this, this, this is just silly, you know.

Um, the council help as much as they can, but, um, what we’ve decided now is we’re just going to go with it, and we’re just going to see what survives. And so our displays now are changing. We do Union Street, which we always used to plant in four rings.

We did it in circles around the outside. We’d, we’d grow something like petunias, the next layer in, something slightly higher, maybe geraniums, maybe the next layer in, really quite formal, um, bedding plants, very colourful patterns. But as the years have gone down, we are now down to one. We used to order from Pentland plants up to 5, 000 annual bedding plants.

We’re now down to about five to six hundred because the bedding plants just can’t survive. So we put colourful around the outside for wellbeing, we think it’s crucial for the people in the city centre. We were working in Union Street and a man came flying out of one of the flat doors, looking totally harassed and he just stood and he took a deep breath and he came over to us and he said, you know, you’ve no idea what a difference seeing the colourful flowers makes to me.

He says, some mornings I come down, I’m just past it. I come out that door and I just stop. And I just look and I just calm down. And off he went. So we make sure the ones in the city centre have some formal colour. But we’re into wildflowers, wild grasses, we’ve discovered a beautiful wild grass that kind of floats, seed heads that float.

We found one area really difficult to grow anything. So we bought marigold yellow plastic gloves and put them on a stick and put them in the garden with a big notice.

“Because of the lack of water, we have decided this year to only plant marigolds.” Now, okay, they weren’t, they weren’t flowers, but you know, people, people loved it and they’d come up to us and say – gee that made us smile, you know?

[00:18:57] Kaska Hempel: And that’s so important. That’s so rewarding. You must find it really amazing just when you work, we’re maintaining things and you’re able to talk to people.

[00:19:06] Catherine Lawson: we do tend to go down the line of let’s make people smile. if we can’t cheer them up with plants.

[00:19:13] Kaska Hempel: Final question for you. It’s looking into the future. And, um, imagine that maybe the project or the Bonny Dundee in 10 years time and think about, about it in terms everything that we could do has been done to improve life in Dundee or improve things for the planet and for the people, looking around, what you can see, what you can smell, what you can hear.

[00:19:41] Catherine Lawson: In ten years time?

[00:19:42] Kaska Hempel: Yes, and share one memory or impression.

[00:19:47] Catherine Lawson: It’s interesting to see the way it’s changing. And it’s quite frightening to see the way it’s changing so quickly. in ten years time, I would say that city centres are going to be completely different. Because of the urban heat island effect, things aren’t going to survive. I mean, Kevin at the Botanics. He’s, doing a project where he’s planting trees as a test.

And we’ve got one in Slessor Gardens. Um, and it’s from China. a rowan based kind of tree. from an altitude twice the height of Ben Nevis. And it’s been planted because of its resilience and its ability to adapt. And so if I shut my eyes and think in 10 years time, I would hope that Councils have completely woken up to the fact that they’re going to have to change. They’re going to have to change what grows, how they grow it. Because the way we’re doing it now is not working. If you walk around the city centre and look, you will see trees struggling. There’s trees here struggling. We’ve got trees in Union Street that are struggling. Now, ten years, if the climate’s warming as quickly as it is, it’s going to have to change. And also something, what we’re finding, the rain is so heavy now and the flowers that we grew, like petunias and busy lizzies, they’re just getting squashed because the rain is so heavy.

So if I shut my eyes and have a think of what I would like to see in ten years time, I would like there still to be grass. I would love Slessor Garden still to be grass. I would like to think that concrete buildings could be covered with greenery in some way. You know, to hide the, just the basic outline. And, I would like to see as well is, is maybe little areas specifically for well being because that is so crucial. With everything that’s going on. So little areas that you could go and sit in and shut your eyes and hear the trickle of water, and smell maybe lavender, and just, yeah.

Oh, it’s a dream! Ha ha ha ha!

[00:22:41] Kaska Hempel: Well, thank you so much for talking to me.

[00:22:44] Catherine Lawson: No, that’s fine. Thank you very much.

Kaska Hempel: I left Catherine to chat to passers by, packed my gear and headed up the hill towards Dudhope Castle, where I was meeting Rowan from Uppertunity to chat about their gardening project. Look out for our conversation next Monday night. In the meantime, you can find out more information on Bonnie Dundee in the resource section of the show notes, along with a link to the draft audio tour, as well as the Dundee Community Garden Network.


Audio tour of Dundee Community Garden Network (DRAFT): https://izi.travel/en/browse/ff0a9bcf-009d-4c1d-baaf-19e3e1d7e056/en

Bonnie Dundee Facebook https://www.facebook.com/BonnieDundeeBloom/

Bonnie Dundee Instagram https://www.instagram.com/bonniedundeebloom/ 

Bonnie Dundee website https://www.dundeecity.gov.uk/service-area/neighbourhood-services/environment/beautiful-scotland/bonnie-dundee

Bonnie Dundee IYN (It’s Your Neighbourhood) write up on Keep Scotland Beautiful


A map of groups and places participating in Beautiful Scotland and It’s Your Neighbourhood (IYN) https://www.keepscotlandbeautiful.org/community-and-place/its-your-neighbourhood/beautiful-scotland-and-its-your-neighbourhood-map/ 

The Art-Science Orchard at the back of the Science Centre/Dundee Contemporary Arts Centre https://dundeeurbanorchard.net/art-science-orchard/

Dundee Urban Orchard (DUO) https://dundeeurbanorchard.net/about/

Pocket Gardens at Slessor Gardens, Dundee (Bonnie Dundee takes care of ‘Reflections of the Tay’) https://www.dundeecity.gov.uk/service-area/city-development/slessor-gardens 

Urban rewilding projects at Dundee Botanics https://www.dundee.ac.uk/projects/rewilding-dundee 

Dundee Botanics – Urban Arboretum https://www.dundee.ac.uk/corporate-information/botanic-garden-and-grounds-strategy 

Interview with Kevin Frediani about the Botanic Garden’s role in future-proofing Dundee’s green spaces https://youtu.be/hXGuLwSFtg0?si=K1Df5oU0DjA5a-QQ