windmill garden celebration

By Helen Smith


I'm Helen Smith and I have been involved with Permaculture for over 20 years. The word ‘Permaculture’ was already in my awareness when I was fortunate to meet the amazing Permaculture teacher Jo Barker at antenatal yoga and natural birth classes. I found myself following Jo into the worlds of both motherhood and permaculture as the new millennium dawned. Inspired by Jo I undertook an Introduction to Permaculture weekend at the earliest opportunity. My Diploma in Applied Permaculture immediately followed, which I finished during lockdown and accredited online at the Permaculture Convergence,  alongside co-facilitating various Permaculture workshops. 

It was while I was facilitating a Permaculture course at the Windmill  Community Gardens Margate (WCGM) in 2018 that I was invited by their programme manager to apply for a new position working with disadvantaged families. This role seemed to have been made for me, I am a qualified nursery nurse, with experience of working with children and young people with Special Educational needs in schools, and with parents who needed support through volunteering with the charity Home-Start. In addition to that I helped to establish Stream Walk Community Garden, as part of my position on the steering committee of Transition Town Whitstable.

Helen and Jo
windmill volunteers

The Windmill Community Gardens are located in particularly deprived area of Thanet, Kent, a coastal area previously described as an ‘urban food desert’ due to the lack of fresh produce available. The gardens were established to give local residents the opportunity, not only to purchase seasonal chemical free food but also to learn how to grow and cook it for themselves. 

WCGM transitioned from being part of a CIC (Community Interest Company) under another organisation to being a CIO (Community Interest Organisation),  to function more like a charity than a social enterprise and to give ourselves more funding opportunities. This enabled us to work more directly with and respond more directly to the community and implement the Permaculture ethics and be more open, accountable, nonjudgemental, objective and inclusive.

 The gardens have become increasingly more solution focused and environmentally sustainable and I’m delighted to hear the word ‘Permaculture’ cropping up regularly in day-to-day conversations as well as in our documentation, as it has become integral to the way we work. Our vision is to ‘grow community in the heart of Thanet’ and we provide a variety of inclusive outdoor activities to improve the wellbeing of individuals, community, and the environment.

Windmill Community Gardens Margate is split over two sites.  The community garden ‘Bottom Plot’ is in the valley and ‘Top Plot’ is on the brow of the hill and a market garden. Having the two sites means that we have a large enough quantity of produce to provide weekly vegetable bags, supply restaurants, and run a market stall. 

The Top Plot also enables young people and the unemployed to gain valuable and more diverse work experience.Both sites are packed full of inspiring sustainable and resilient features to demonstrate Permaculture and with Jo’s help became a ‘LAND demonstration’ site in 2013. 

windmill market stall
windmill poly tunnel

As soon as you enter the community garden you are greeted by a herb spiral, a wheelchair accessible key hole raised bed and no-dig beds where chemical free soft fruit, vegetables and flowers are grown. There are three recycled shipping containers providing indoor space for tools, a kitchen, and a classroom the roofs are used for rainwater harvesting and supporting solar panels.

A polytunnel extends our growing season and is particularly welcome on cold and wet days where you can still feel like you are outside but can avoid inclement weather during sessions. It is surprising how seldom we are forced to retreat into the classroom and light the wood burner. 

On the far side of the polytunnel is the orchard area and a pergola where the family sessions are mostly based. Following on along the accessible path there is a ‘tree bog’ (a kind of compost toilet surrounded by willow), dead hedge and a wildlife pond. At the very back of the site is the Forest Garden (a perennial, edible wildlife friendly growing space) ending with one of the ‘dead hedges’ (upright posts contain woody material that is cleared to provide both a division and a wildlife habitat).

We are particularly proud of the way we have been transitioning more and more to the no-dig way of growing, recognising the importance of soil and improving its structure, health and biodiversity. The tractor at top plot has been sold and has been replaced by mulching and an experimental hot bed. 

The beds at bottom plot are all narrow enough to be reached across so that that all of the bed can be accessed with an arm’s reach, and no one needs to step on the soil which is reducing compaction. The no dig system we use is reliant on covering the ground with a layer of mulch, we use compost, to save water, supress weeds, add organic matter improve the quality of the soil and the life within it.

Despite having multiple composting areas over the two sites, we found that we never had enough compost to use as mulch in the no-dig system. We have regular deliveries of manure from a local stable and woodchip from a tree surgeon and even when supplemented with waste seaweed from the sustainable skin care company Haeckels and all our own waste organic matter more is always needed.

Last summer we hosted a workshop by an organisation called ‘Heart and Soil’ who are passionate about all things compost. This passion proved contagious, and we were so inspired by their advice that we set up a new initiative to work with the community to help to solve the problem of the need for more mulch and promote the benefits of composting. 

windmill beds

The ‘Thanet Community Compost Scheme’ officially launched on the 22nd February this year to promote composting, to help those who aren’t able to compost themselves and to provide us with more lovely composting material. We already had 3 bay ‘New Zealand’ style timber composters, ‘Dalek’ and tumbler style plastic bins and had previously worked with ‘Angela’s’ a local restaurant on a ‘fork to fork’ project where they used a ‘Ridan’ hot composter to break down cooked food and other food waste that would not be suitable for the usual methods. The heat produced in this system kills off pathogens and the resulting compost once fully broken down can be used in the same way as that produced in the other systems. The restaurant can then purchase produce from the garden that was grown in the compost we make from their waste and the cycle starts again.

The ability to break down cooked food is so useful that a new ‘Ridan’ composter has been purchased for ‘Top Plot’ to enable both sites to compost cooked foods. We have also been talking about building a Hugelkulture bed, a way of utilising excess wood that slowly breaks down to build a long mound shaped growing space for several years and the new project gave us the perfect excuse. During fortnightly Saturday gardening groups, the bed is being created starting with logs and branches from where trees have been cut down or pruned back. Finer layers of material will be added to this finishing with a layer of topsoil to create a three-dimensional growing space that slowly releases nutrients and provides a reservoir of moisture. 

Work continues the 9th and 23rd of March and you are welcome to drop in and join us. 

We are encouraging everyone to get involved, the groups that run at the garden, our families, wellbeing participants, our volunteers and the local community. Our family groups have learnt all about worms, how to make a simple wormery and what to feed our little wriggly friends, there are a series of workshops running to introduce people to using the different types of composters, the benefits of composting and to answer questions and local restaurants and cafes are being invited in to see how they can be involved. We will be celebrating all things compost with the community at the Windmill Compost Festival on April 5th starting at noon. This will be a chance to discover the magical world of composting with engaging activities, delicious food, live music and inspiring talks. We are also very much looking forward to the return of Heart and Soil. 

If would like to meet us the best day to drop in and say hello is on Thursdays from 10am-4pm when you will be able to buy produce from the market stall, plants from our nursery, look around the garden, discover which seasonal events and workshops are running or, of course, bring in your kitchen waste. We welcome new volunteers, it’s a great way to learn about nature, growing vegetables, fruit and flowers, cooking seasonally, meeting new people and generally gaining new skills and knowledge while improving your physical and emotional wellbeing and having fun. 

We hope to see you at the gardens soon.

windmill plants