Ukraine’s ‘Roof Garden’ thrives

The idea to use the roof space at the top of the Goncharenko Centre in Kropyvnyskiy, central Ukraine, was born before Russia launched its unprovoked aggression on the country, 22 February 2022, but the attack had not stopped its dedicated gardeners following the cycle of the seasons, planting, nurturing and harvesting root vegetables, salad plants and berries. 

Although it is 600 km from the frontlines, the city – situated between Odesa and Cherkasy – has suffered occasional rocket attacks and frequent air-raid alarms. The only change made to its programme, says Anastasia Polischiuk, who started out as a participant and now manages the project, is that children have been excluded. 

“Adults are better able to respond to the alarms,” she explains. “Last year, during an attack, we were running a workshop for kids and felt the windows shaking. After that we stopped activities for children.” 

The Goncharenko Centre – one of a network of some 30 centres established by a Ukrainian Member of Parliament, Oleksii Goncharenko, who is currently deputy head of the Verkhovna Rada (parliament) – usually runs lectures for young people and adults, ranging from psychology to history. But the empty roof of the centre was begging for better use, says Viktoria Talashkevych, Goncharenko Centre director. 

“We had this roof on the top of the centre and, although we did hold different activities there – yoga and dance classes – it was empty. We wanted to make use of it and make it beautiful. As there were no other public gardens in the city, and I had seen a lot of such places in Europe, we wanted to create an example of how it could happen and make a community around it.” 

Although the idea may not have been as interesting as lectures to many people, Viktoria felt that a gardening project would create a community and offer a new perspective on learning in a community setting – a key feature of the approach of the Goncharenko Centre. 

As with many projects that were submitted for the European Training Foundation’s Green Skills Award 2023 (the Goncharenko project was one of the higher placed among 600 applications, although it did not make it to the top 10), a happy coincidence helped push it along: a local journalist had a quantity of wooden boxes he wanted to give away. They were idea as planters, and the first 20 boxes enabled the project to begin in the spring of 2021. 

That number has now grown to 36 and there are at least 30 people in the planting team; the number fluctuates as some people have left Kropyvnyskiy since the Russian aggression, and others – like the journalist – have joined the army.  

The concept behind the project is a simple one, embedded in educational and training principles: new participants are introduced to the project with a lecture on the principles and practices of plant husbandry. Then they are offered to become the “owner” of one wooden container, agreeing to plant it and take care of the seedlings through the growing cycle. Tools, bio-humus and advice on growing plants in the containers are offered free, but participants must provide their own seeds. 

Anastasia, who was inducted when the project was under the charge of a qualified horticulturist, has now taken over as project curator. 

“For me, gardening was a completely new thing that I wanted to try,” she says. “Taking care of one box in the company of like-minded people seemed a rewarding and interesting activity. After a year, I took charge of the project.” 

Participants keep to a rota to communally water the plants. Anastasia remarks that even air raid alarm these days usually don’t disturb her watering and taking individual care of the plants. For some, who doubted their green-fingered skills, the first year involved simply cultivating a small, but healthy lawn. Once confidence is established, they can move on to salad plants, tomatoes, carrots, tubers and fruits, such as strawberries, and even pumpkins. Growing plants on a roof that in the summer can be very hot and dry is sometimes a challenge, but a surprising range of plants have thrived under the care of these constant gardeners. 

The benefits, both in terms of training in gardening skills, and a deeper understanding of our place in nature, have been profound, Anastasia notes. 

“The roof garden has a clear ecological dimension: it gives you planting skills but it also contributes to green thinking. It has a psychological, even spiritual aspect: when we plant it is like drawing or painting, we forget about our everyday problems. It connects people with nature. From these little steps we start to understand the environment around us. The understanding deepens as you work with plants.” 

In terms of a more formal skills dimension, centre director Viktoria says they are now thinking about the possibility of introducing some kind of certification that could help people who want to go further into studying horticulture, or agriculture. There are also plans to resurrect a seed library – which was paused when the war started – and encourage people to bring seeds and use seeds. 

“We have plans to expand the project but have not yet been successful in our grant applications to fund this,” Viktoria says. “We want to make it bigger, with more plants and attractive pots – the world of marketing also impacts us – as we’d like to attract people to a beautiful space.” 

A local NGO, Behind the Mirror, which has relocated from Sloviansk (a frontline city) has donated flexible structures to give the planting area a roof to keep the elements at bay, which the project organisers hope will further expand the range of plants they can propagate. 

The roof garden was planted first in peacetime but the roof top gardeners expect to be propagating peace and plants long after the aggression is over. 

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