Everyday Changemakers: Jon, Holm Grown & Maria, Knocknagael CIC

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Jon Dixon from the new Holm Grown and Maria from Knocknagael CIC talk about shielding their green spaces from the wave of urban sprawl in Inverness.

The story is the 4th in a 5-part series of weekly interviews with a variety of grassroots organisations involved in climate, biodiversity and social justice action across Inverness.


Interview, recording and sound production: Kaska Hempel


Kaska Hempel (Narration):

Hello, it’s Kaska, your Story Weaver. I hope you’re ready for the third and the penultimate instalment of Everyday Changemaker stories from Inverness? Today we have a double feature for you! We talk to Jon from Holm Grown and Maria from Knocknagael. Both groups have been working to hold on to and care for community green spaces within the rising wave of suburban sprawl in the South of Inverness.

In the last episode I left Gina and Mike at a quiet urban Aultnaskiach Dell, and continued my cycle south, leaving the established suburbs, full of stone houses and expansive gardens and following the road along the River Ness. I was heading towards Holm and its newly open community garden, which incongruously nestled at the side of the suburb’s massive Tesco. I wouldn’t have even known it existed, were it not for the Incredible Edible Inverness Facebook page. 

Soon, the houses became more modern, and as I approached my destination, it looked like much building in the area was still in progress. The giant supermarket was hard to miss. It stood back from the road and was surrounded by the obligatory car park, in addition to the vast expanse of short shorn grass and concrete concourse. I headed for the bike racks and immediately spotted the garden itself, around 25 square meters of it, carved out of the lawn. It was tucked away against the massive native hedge at the edge of the property and sported a welcoming mix of ground and raised beds, a pergola with some climbers, along with plenty of seating. 

After the morning’s sunshine, it’d become increasingly drizzly. I was happy to take shelter in a small open tool storage shack at the back of the garden to have my lunch. I enjoyed the chatter of the songbirds feeding on berries in the hedge behind me and their playful displays on the garden’s feeders.

Soon I spotted my host, Jon, parking his bike next to mine across the expanse of the lawn. Before we settled down for a chat, I asked him to show me his favourite spot in the garden…

Jon Dixon: Uh, yeah. Um, so I think, I’ve, I’ve been really enjoying the, um, along the edges of the garden. We got these, um, beds established quite early on in the process. And We’ve just been planting out with mainly plants that we’ve been donated, um, and we’ve kind of kept it all, um, perennial plants. So, things that will just keep coming back every year.

Kaska Hempel: Oh, you have rhubarb.

Jon Dixon: Yes.

Kaska Hempel: Edible things and lots of flowers.

Jon Dixon: So it’s a mixture of edibles and ornamentals. We’ve got lots of verbena and some grasses and this is Nicotiana and, um, yeah, so it’s kind of a, it’s a, it’s a bit of a funny mix but it, I really like this time of year, it’s just looking quite nice and it will continue to bulk out and the idea is it was going to become a bit of a, a hedgerow sort of thing, like a, just a bit of a, a soft boundary to the garden because beyond this, this isn’t our land. We didn’t want to build a, proper hedge or a fence or anything, we just wanted it to be quite soft and I think that’s working quite nicely.

Kaska Hempel: Yeah, it looks pretty random, but like, just quite joyous at the moment.

Jon Dixon: Yeah, yeah.

Kaska Hempel: Lots of colour.

Jon Dixon: I’m John Dixon. Up until about three months ago, I lived, um, just up the hill from here. I now live the other side of Inverness but it’s a 10 minute cycle so it’s, it’s still really close. I’ve been involved in Holm Grown community garden, since the start really, which is, I think almost three, three years ago. Um, my first involvement with the project was, really helping to design, the layout of it and get planning permission. When I first moved to Inverness four years ago, I was working as a gardener, and I’ve got a bit of a background in design, so, um, yeah, it was a really fun kind of, task to bring together, the community’s different ideas that we pulled together and put it into a plan that we’ve eventually realized pretty, pretty well, I think really, in the last year especially.

It’s been a really good process seeing it from the design through to, a place where it’s obviously not finished, but it’s, now a community asset and, um, space for people to be able to use.

Kaska Hempel: How come you actually ended up getting involved in a community project and it’s to do with growing and community gardening, but, um, for you, how does it link into climate emergency and other systemic issues that we’re experiencing right now?

Jon Dixon: I think for me, community gardens have been, an interest and a passion of mine for a while. Before I moved to Inverness, I’d been involved in a few communities growing projects. And when I came up here, and I was working as a gardener on a private estate, I really missed, what to me is such an important part of, um, growing, it’s the kind of people that are involved and, um, I didn’t didn’t get to share the garden I was working in with people.

Um, so, I really wanted to be involved in a project that was, completely open for anyone to, to join and be part of and, also, um, one thing that I feel quite strongly about is when I was first involved with the project, I didn’t have my own garden. And I’ve actually only just got my own garden in the last three months.

Um, so I think it’s like a really valuable space for. People that don’t have gardens as well. I guess we’re quite fortunate in Inverness where there is a fair amount of wild land around the city, but in the city itself it’s really good to have one in the center of this particular part of Inverness for people to share. From a climate perspective, I think what’s really great about this garden is it shows local people as well what they can do in their own gardens.

Because a lot of people around here have their own gardens, I’d like to think it’s showing people how they can, make their gardens more biodiverse and more productive and, we’re hoping to, in the future, run workshops and how to’s and that kind of thing on how people can, um, make a more of an impact in their own spaces.

Kaska Hempel: When I say Incredible Edible, what’s the first thing that comes to your mind and how would you explain it to people that wouldn’t know what it is?

Jon Dixon: Incredible Edible is, it’s really like a network of volunteers for Inverness, it’s, you know, volunteers that work across many gardens of varying scales and, ideas of what a garden is, I guess. So, there’s, um, a garden in the front lawn of a GP surgery, there’s fruit trees that have been put in on a residential street. There’s planters outside, uh, the theater in Inverness.

It’s a kind of a patchwork of green spaces that are designed to provide, edible harvest for anyone that wants them, completely free to access.

We do differ from a lot of the other Incredible Edible gardens in that we are a lot bigger and it’s a partnership with Incredible Edible and Holm Community Council. A lot of the management of the garden kind of comes from the community council and Incredible Edible. They’ve helped source fruit trees for us and, especially at the start, um, their input was really valuable because this is what they do, they, they start up gardens.

So, um, yeah, that was a, been a really great partnership.

I think just the more connected these green spaces and gardens can be across the city, the better really.

So, yeah.

Kaska Hempel: Because it’s a partnership project, I was going to ask whether you would recommend that community groups work in that kind of way.

Jon Dixon: Yeah, I, I, I absolutely would recommend it.

I think as with everything, just communication is, is key. And being open minded to what people want to achieve. It’s been really good to see other community projects grow as well alongside ours.

It’s really great to know that they’re around us and that we can maybe like share tools that they’ve got or volunteers as well, just, it’s really encouraging, you know, we had our open day, and a lot of them would come along, even if they’re not involved on a weekly basis, it’s great to know they’re supporting us.

Kaska Hempel: What’s the smell that you would say most reminds you of this place?

Jon Dixon: At the front of the garden where you enter, the first thing we did was we built some raised beds along the front perimeter of the garden. Um, and my thoughts when they went in were that the first thing we should get in were herbs, I think fairly kind of easy to use ingredients, a lot of them are perennials so they’ll just stay there and keep growing year after year and uh, people wouldn’t have to buy little bunches of them in plastic packets from Tesco, uh, and uh, so we’ve got, a couple of different mints and, lemon balm and rosemary and thyme.

Kaska Hempel: So, which one is your favourite?

Jon Dixon: I think the one that I go back to the most is probably the mint. Um, we’ve got apple mint and black pepper mint, um, which are actually plants that I donated to the garden because I didn’t really have anywhere to plant them.

And I put them in one of the raised beds, um, with the intention that I knew they would go kind of wild and fill the whole space because that’s what mint does. At the moment it’s in flower and the bumblebees are just like swarming on it. It’s great. So, just the smell and the sound and everything at the moment of the mint is, um, really nice.

Kaska Hempel: That’s great. That’s a great story. I think I took some pictures of, sleepy bumblebees on the mint flowers earlier.

Jon Dixon: Yeah.

Kaska Hempel: Um, who or what inspires you personally?

Jon Dixon: With regards to the project, I think my motivation and inspiration has sort of changed as we’ve gone along, so at the start, I think my intention had actually been that I’d help with the design, and then I hadn’t necessarily intended on staying in Inverness, and so I didn’t think I would really be involved with the project long term.

But as I kind of got more involved and decided to stay in Inverness, I think just getting to know more people in the area and, forming friendships and, just a more of a connectedness with the land. That’s been a really nice experience

Kaska Hempel: Amazing, the power of gardening.

Jon Dixon: Yeah.

Kaska Hempel: What do you say, um, is the biggest challenge of doing the type of work like this community project in Inverness and then the Highlands?

Jon Dixon: Locally, we’ve had a lot of support from, local councillors and,the community council. So we’ve been really fortunate with that.

I think, going forward, the challenge will be finding a kind of sustainable way by, you know, um, the garden gets managed essentially that it doesn’t all land on one or two people.

We’re completely volunteer run, so it’s um, it’s making sure that no one gets sort of burnt out by the experience and it’s, continues to, you know, work for everyone, really. That’s something we’re kind of exploring at the moment.

Kaska Hempel: Mm, hmm. And I always ask everybody this, and this is like a bit of a time travel into the future, jumping into a time machine, I would like you to imagine this space ten years from now and share one memory from that future, uh, with our listeners.

Jon Dixon: Yeah, so I think in ten years time I can really, picture all the fruit trees that we’ve planted being three, four meters high, just covered in, flowers and fruits. And, the back of the garden being a, a really nice, verdant wildflower meadow with paths going through. And I think the garden will have expanded out.

It would have reclaimed a bit more land, with more veg and flowers. It’d be great to see food being made and prepared in the garden.

The garden will be really self-sufficient. We’ve just started getting a composting system in place in the last year. So we’ve got some bays that we built. So I can just see those being full with all the cuttings and everything that we’ve been taking off the garden. And we’ll have a rainwater harvesting system.

I think everything will just be bigger and fuller and, it will really be a kind of hub for the community,

I’m really hoping that, well, um, more people will cycle and, it’ll link in with the kind of sustainable travel routes that are going in around the city.

At the moment a lot of the houses are, behind where we’re sitting, so they kind of go all the way up the hill and then out towards, well, they’re sprawling out towards Loch Ness basically. And then there’s fields all around the other side of Tesco which are quite rapidly starting to be built on now.

So, although it’s kind of on the edge of the Holm, area at the moment, it’s beginning be very central once it’s fully developed. So sort of in 10 years time, there’ll be hundreds and hundreds more people.

Kaska Hempel: I think you need to take over the whole lawn.

Jon Dixon: To me, it would, you know, make a great place for a market or something like that. It’d be great to, to see, a place like this sort of bring in, people that want to have similar ideas that want to maybe, use the adjacent space

Yeah, I think it’s all kind of possible.

Kaska Hempel: I want to come back. Yeah, do.

Um, I’m going to ask you whether you’ve got anything else you’d like to share with people,

Jon Dixon: If you’re interested in being involved in a community garden but you’re not, or you don’t really know what you could bring as a volunteer, I would just encourage you to just come along because it’s so great to meet new people that are interested and there’s always something that you can bring to a garden, just coming along and enjoying the space is just, it’s great as well.

Kaska Hempel (Narration):

The Holm Garden was lovingly developed on a patch of land that seems to have been designated for community use during the planning phase for the development of the suburb and the supermarket.

But as many of you’d know, getting land in the community’s hands is often a struggle. Just down the road from Holm Grown, a community group put in 8 years into the Asset Transfer process for the “Smiddy Field” at the Scottish Government’s Knocknagael farm. The idea is to shield it from the suburb’s future expansion. At the time of my visit in September, they’d just celebrated a win of their final appeal which assures that the land will end up in the community’s hands sometime soon.

A member of the group, Maria, happened to attend our Northern Gathering that weekend, where she shared Knocknagael’s inspiring story during the Super Simple Audio recording workshop. The interview was recorded by another workshop participant, Craig Dunn, SCCAN’s Operations Support Lead.

Maria de la Torre: My name is Maria. I’m part of a group called Knocknagael Limited and we are, setting up a project to try and acquire some land where we are trying to set up a community growing involving allotments and orchard recreation areas. It’s been a project we’ve been involved for a number of years now and we’re coming a bit closer to it because this week we actually had some good news and we won our appeal. So that’s a little bit of a significant milestone, really. In that process, uh, to, to, uh, make it happen.

It’s been a long journey. It originally started because, the site was sort of threatened by development.

And it’s a really good agricultural, um, land that is being used for growing cereals and also for grass as part of the Scottish government bull farm. And it just felt like the wrong thing to do with the site. we are, uh, losing all our good land, uh, to housing. And we thought as part of the future, we should try and create a space where we could continue growing some of that, food close to where we live.

Originally, we just wanted really to give it a try and maybe rent a bit of land. But because that wasn’t possible, then we’ve had to actually take the route of going through a community asset transfer request and, setting up a company that will allow us to buy the land.

So it wasn’t quite what we thought, but in the long term, we feel that that might be a good way of creating a space that actually is owned and the community have the certainty that they can look after it for generations. Although it’s the harder route that we followed.

It’s about being able to grow food where we live. So, uh, people be able to walk and cycle to the site without having to get the car and we’ll have a space nearby that brings them, um, peace and quiet and that they can enjoy and improve their mental and physical health.

And the other good thing is that, there will be a lot of opportunities to develop a lot of climate initiatives like, you know, composting,reducing our food miles, um, providing areas for wildlife and pollinators. It will really be quite a key part of developing visions for the future about how we can live in a much more sustainable way.

We, and I think it’s a vision shared by many of us and the rest of the directors and those that are members, which is that there’ll be an area what is currently is a grass field.

We’ll have, um, you know, sort of beautiful allotments. It will have an area for people to walk with sort of flowers and lots of nice corners. There’ll be an orchard with apples, and other fruit trees. There’ll be also a community hub in the centre where people will be able to meet. And hopefully, even longer term, maybe a café classroom space that people will be able to enjoy and use.

The biggest challenge so far has been, securing the land, really, although Scottish Government owned the land, it hasn’t been an easy process. to get hold of it.

One of the things that is actually easy is the community engagement side. There is a lot of interest, so we know there is a big demand. Our next challenge is also going to be able to secure the funding to make it all happen. And we sort of know that that will take time, but we’re confident that it’s possible to achieve it.

A lot of the people that have been supporting us have inspired us. Some of them are neighbours that live close to the site. Some of them are people that work in other organisations that are keeping us going. And, you know, when you feel like, oh, it’s not worth it, they’ll say, you know, well, come on, keep going.

And, or they’ll say, you know, what’s happening next? So that has been an important part of the journey. And also the fact that there is a group of us really working together on this. It’s the effort of a community of people making it happen.

There’s a lot of information available with the Climate Highland Network, DTAS and Highlands and Islands Enterprise, they do a lot of work with communities. Community Land Scotland works with, groups of people that want to take things forward.

So I think there’s quite a network of support available there for people to go through this journey.

Just don’t give up. Just persevere and keep going. That’s probably our own strategy which we’re still implementing at the moment because we know we’re not there yet.

Kaska Hempel (Narration):

You can find out more about the history of both projects from the links to local press coverage that I’ve put in the episode notes. I’ve also linked information about Incredible Edible movement, Community Land Scotland, Asset Transfers, Northern Islands and Highlands Climate Hub, and the Highland Good Food network. All of these organisation websites are full of useful information for these kinds of projects, as well as contacts and case studies.  

After my visit to Holm in the South, it was time to start on the last leg of my journey around Inverness. I was now heading all the way north to the Merkinch Local Nature Reserve, looking over the Moray Firth. Tune in next week to hear the story.


Holm Grown https://holmcommunitycouncil.org.uk/holm-grown-a-community-growing-space/

Holm Community Council https://www.facebook.com/Holmcommunitycouncil

Incredible Edible Inverness https://www.facebook.com/IncredibleEdibleInverness

Incredible Edible Network https://www.incredibleedible.org.uk/

Knocknagael Ltd  https://www.knocknagael.org.uk/

Community Asset Transfers https://www.gov.scot/policies/community-empowerment/asset-transfer/

Community Land Scotland https://www.communitylandscotland.org.uk/

Highlands and Islands Climate Hub https://hiclimatehub.co.uk/

Highland Good Food Network https://highlandgoodfood.scot/