The first setback – and the therapeutic benefits of allotmenteering

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This last week brought elation, frustration, and a large dose of despondency – and yes, I admit it, the first tears, being as I am such a girl.  At the beginning of the week, to add to the funds already raised and the contracts secured, we received a donation from the William Cadbury Trust which we will be able to use to put in new accommodation at one of our sites, Salop Drive Market Garden (pictured in this page’s header).  We ran out of space a long time ago, for community activities and use by visiting school groups.  There was an outbreak of pogoing in delight around the office, as we had a couple of days before put our heads together and decided that we were going to have a Portakabin type building, come what may – and so come it did in the form of a lovely cheque.

However, by midweek it became clear that as getting the lease for the new Barlow Road site from the local authority has been to agonisingly, painfully, slow, and as the critical signing off has still not taken place, it is now too late for us to start the regeneration of the site before July, a full six months after the process of procurement of the necessary services, and undertaking the first phase works, should have started.  We are a few days shy of the ‘official’ start of the bird nesting season, which means we cannot start work until 1st July.  Cue stress-out and tears, as I have not been well for some time, with a flu type virus and my constant stalker, fibromyalgia, which so restricts my energy levels that what is normal activity for most people is an exhausting struggle for me.  Plot temporarily lost.

There is a robust body of evidence in place now which demonstrates the health, social, and therapeutic benefits of gardening, food growing, and being in a green space.  Through our work we reach thousands of people of all ages and abilities, creating beautiful, safe, productive and well managed community farms and gardens, and providing a wide range of accessible activities.  In need of a dose of the same medicine myself after the rollercoaster week, I sought refuge in the hard labour of bringing a formerly abandoned 100x30ft allotment back into productivity, spreading and digging in lovely sweet smelling composted manure, sowing seeds, and watering newly planted top and soft fruit and herbs, as well as the rows of newly sown seed.  I have designed a six-course rotation, that includes one part red clover green manure, with two plots receiving a healthy dose of the compost.  I laboured in the magically warm weather, until the sweat was dripping from the end of my nose.  My physical strength and stamina has vastly improved in the ten months since I took on the plot, and this weekend it was the saviour of my mental health.

I love allotments, with a passion.  The site I am on, Thompson Terrace Allotments, in east Oxford, is a large site of 7 acres, with nearly 200 full size plots of ten poles each, the traditional allotment size for a working class man to feed his family.  The allotments tradition is alive and well, with new practices being brought in as women, people from ethnic minority communities, and younger people, take up allotment gardening.  The slide show is of the allotments and my plotholder neighbours, showing the diverse and sometimes amusing characteristics of the people on the site.  I have a bit of a thing about allotment sheds, too, the retreat of the gardeners as well as a handy storage space.  People improvise, as you can see in the slideshow.

It’s the first time I have gardened in the social space that an allotment site provides, and there is always some one to chat to, exchange gardening tips with, or as in the case of an American man I met on the site, discuss deep economic philosophy and theory, and the state of the world’s economy.  He was very well read, even if he did lean quite heavily towards a neo-Con world view, and hold some sympathies with the Tea Party.  On my last visit I must have chatted to at least five plotholders, including my Zimbabwean neighbours, who grow corn, squashes and collard greens in the traditional African way, although their crop of corn partly failed last year as they were using African-bred seed not adapted to our short growing season and wet autumns. Alastair and Owen, next door, have built what I call the Chicken Palace and cosset their small flock of hens, and other growers are setting up beehives.

So, I am largely cured of my outbreak of depression and frustration about the setback to our starting date by a wholesome dose of allotmenteering in the spring sunshine. I am now working on our service contract, to get that in place quickly so we can get paid rather earlier than we were in the previous two financial years (it was October!), and on reprofiling the Barlow Road project, as the programme of seasonal activities that were to follow the initial site clearance has been jettisoned out of the window. We will have to take a whole new tack to get the site into a reasonable semblance of order by the time winter sets in, and the Big Tree Plant funded scheme gets going.  Sowing a grass clover ley into thoroughly cleaned ground cannot now take place until next year, so we will have to resort to a much later sown rye and vetch overwinter green manure, tackle the weeds as best we can in an extended summer fallow, and reprofile other key activities.  It’s not the best we can do, and it IS frustrating to be put in this position by forces beyond our control, but I just have to swallow it and solve this first big problem with the project.  There will be plenty more big problems, and I’m sure there will be more girly weeping along the way.

Regeneration, regeneration, regeneration

More or less 12 years ago, we were commencing the regeneration of two parcels of land, about as different as it is possible for them to be, as were our approaches to their regeneration.  The first, and smaller of the two, was the footprint of a former 20 storey tower block, a pair of which were brought down at the same time, leaving a scar in the landscape, and an opportunity for new developments.  The tower blocks were being brought down as part of the regeneration of a ‘difficult’ area.  The other land parcel was a former 1.1 ha (3 acre) allotments site, which had gradually fallen into neglect and dereliction over about 15 years or so, save for a stalwart group of first generation immigrant Jamaicans, huddled together on one part of the site.

The tower block land was a mess, as you can imagine – Brownfield with a capital B.  It was contaminated, a mix of all sorts – rubble, live power cables, etc, and far from the kind of land that you would imagine could produce stunning gardens to support a professional standard therapeutic horticulture programme.  Part of the development land had already been dedicated to the development of Sandwell‘s flagship Independent Living Centre, bringing together public authorities and a user led organisation of disabled and disadvantaged people, now known as Ideal for All (IFA), about which I will write more in future posts. The people that made up IFA had put forward a proposal for a garden on the neighbouring brownfield site, and as hard cash for regeneration was flowing into deprived areas under the New Labour government of the day, IFA was able to secure a capital grant to develop the infrastructure of the gardens (later known as Malthouse Gardens) in more or less once lump.

In contrast, the second site was a greenfield site, in the sense that all allotments, along with public parks, cemeteries, etc, are designated as ‘green’.  We had found out in the first round of investigations, in 1999 or thereabouts, that a greenfield site can be badly contaminated, and a brownfield one not necessarily so, harking back to layer upon layer of use through the industrial revolution and beyond.  This site, which became Salop Drive Market Garden, was a mess of abandoned sheds, sofas, bed frames, broken bicycles and supermarket trolleys, all thoroughly overgrown.  We had no money, and had to set about raising the investment we estimated we needed through a focused campaign, trying to convince funders that our ideas for the transformation of this land parcel into a thriving, multifunctional, community resource, through gardening and food growing, were not completely barking mad.  And so we did, but the funding packages for each phase of development were assembled from multiple pots of funding, all stopping and starting at different times.

With this site, our first task was to strip off all the overgrowth, and the understorey of junk.  Which produced us rather large piles of a mixed up mess of green waste liberally interspersed with all sorts of debris. We realised that it would be impossible to separate the waste, so we had it compacted into a ‘bund’ around parts of the site, soiled it over, and planted a mixed native species hedgerow on top, which is now fully fledged, and rather lovely. Following this was a topographical survey to map the lie of the land.  The soil was ‘riddled’, to separate out some of the sticks, stones, broken glass, and other sundry junk.  All the while we were fundraising madly for the different elements of an urban market garden, alongside a fully inclusive community development process, within which the masterplan for the project was developed by members of the local community.

Incredibly, it all more or less came together, and a properly managed ‘build’ began.  Not so luckily, in the few weeks before the autumn sun shone daily, and the land was relatively dry, but the day the plant and machinery went on site, the heavens opened, it rained for weeks, and the combination of heavy machinery and heavy rain turned parts of the site to porridge.  As a former farmer and grower, this was horrifying to watch, as I knew we would have problems further down the line restoring the (once good) land to productivity, but I could not pull the machinery off site as funding agreements and financial year ends meant we had to carry on.  We put in drains, water supplies, a pressurised irrigation system, power, polytunnels, a large greenhouse, built roads and pathways, and craned in prefabricated buildings, which gently settled down onto all of their service connections, and were connected up, just like that.  Amazing.

But then we had to reclaim the poor, battered soil.  In the first year, we did no growing on outdoor land at all, while focusing attention on the soil structure in the tunnels, getting them cropping.  Outdoors, we allowed the weeds to grow, and sprayed them off, once.  From that moment, we used organic methods.  We used green waste compost, deep rooting green manures (rye and vetch), and careful cultivations to nurse the compacted land back into life.  I’d guess it took about 18 months, much quicker than I had imagined, before productivity was starting to build, as the soil was a quite decent medium loam before the bulldozers got to it.

And now we have to do it all over again on the new 1.2 ha site.  This last week we tracked down and met up with the civil engineer (whom colleague Veronica describes as ‘unflappable’) who helped us put Salop Drive Market Garden together, as we are now beginning again to consider the many and intersecting parts of developing a robust new community agriculture project, most of which have to be thought through in painstaking detail, as you don’t get a second chance to get some things right.

It’s not glamorous, and it keeps you awake at night.  I’m entering into that phase where I eat, drink, and sleep drains, mud, easements, leasing, fencelines, and much more, knowing full well that all sorts of things can crawl out of the woodwork to stop you in your tracks.  Being able to think yourself out of all sorts of boxes, and deal with multiple problems, continually, becomes normality.  But this time, my hair is already white, having given up to the ghost last time around.  And I’ve given up trying to fight it, finding it somehow rather cool to be a silver surfer, so that’s one less thing to worry about.