The word ‘stress’ is a trespasser in most vegetable gardens, but Evelyn Community Garden in Lewisham is now hosting a new kind of allotment therapy, thanks to the work of the London Action Trust.
The project was inspired by celebrity gardener Monty Don’s ‘Monty Project’ in 2006 that used what he described as ‘the healing power of the land’ to help drug addicts reintegrate into society by working in the natural world.
Inspired by his success, the London Action Trust set up their own version in 2008. The Allotment Learning Project received three years of funding from the Big Lottery to provide adult offenders and their families with a plot of land, tools and training so they can produce food for the table and improve cohesion with the local community.
The project now works with 17 different families in Sutton, Barnet, Enfield and Lewisham as well as 12 Vietnamese women in Deptford who got on board at the beginning of February. One of the women, who asked not to be named, came to the UK several years ago and has children at school here. She says she is really looking forward to getting her hands dirty. “London is so busy. I am so happy I can grow vegetables here with my children.”
The women are the first community group to have come on board the allotment project. Sophie Wellings, LAT spokesperson, says: “At first we were working with ex-offenders and their families, but there was such a positive response that we started approaching other groups in the community. We got in touch with groups for victims of domestic violence, the long-term unemployed and single parents. It’s made a huge difference to these people’s lives.”
Families are given free tools, and are partnered with a mentor from the trust and a horticulture specialist who help them maintain the plot. Families keep a diary with photos and complete sign-in sheets. The work nurtures family values because it encourages them to work together to learn how food grows, says Pia Cammarata, mentor for families in Lewisham.
“Many people just see sprouts in the supermarket. They don’t know they grow up a big stalk. Learning about how food grows is a good way to improve people’s diets. Another of the projects aims is to produce a cookbook using the vegetables families have harvested on their allotments.” Working the land is therapeutic on many different levels, she says. “They work outside. They learn new things together as a family. It’s an oasis from the everyday.”
Although the project is voluntary, so far there has been very little lapse in attendance, says Ms Cammarata. “Seeing people commit is the biggest proof that the project is successful,” she says. “Last month I turned up at the plot and all the families were there, even though there was two inches of snow and the ground was frozen.” Another incentive is the opportunity for adults to gain an Open College Network qualification in horticulture.
Chris Tibbs got involved with the project last summer after she was made redundant from her job at Woolworths. She comes to the plot in Sutton every few days with her granddaughter Charlie.
“She’s got three other brothers and sisters, but they run around harum-scarum. She’s the quiet one so it’s good for her to get away from them. It’s a safe environment here, a completely different world from outside those gates.”
Aaron McBride also visits the plot with his two young daughters, Megan and Leona. “I like the idea of growing your own food,” he says. “You appreciate the taste more.”
But maintaining a successful allotment would not be possible without expert advice. This is where London charity Groundwork come in with their team of community gardeners who give the families advice on what to grow and how to grow it.
Catriona Andrews works with staff and volunteers at the Sutton allotments. She is very positive about the work LAT are doing. “Allotment sites are very friendly places because everyone is there with a common purpose, and you can share plants and seeds. It creates community around something that is very non-confrontational and crosses generations too.
“Up until now we’ve been clearing the space and I’ve been giving advice on planting seeds, pest control and diseases,” she says. “Next month we will start monthly meetings with families to give them advice on planting fruit trees, and canes, potatoes, Jerusalem artichokes and companion plants for pest control like marigolds, rosemary and sage.”
Ms Andrews also gives tips on plants that shouldn’t be planted next to each other, like strawberries and cabbages. According to Ms Andrews, the two plants don’t grow well together.
But that’s not the case for the families working on the LAT allotments – hats off to Monty Don for sowing the seeds of inspiration.
Catriona’s top five stress-busting vegetables for families:
“Children really like looking at worms and millipedes, and they love digging things up.
2. Soft fruit
“Strawberries and raspberries are sweet and delicious. Kids love getting their fingers sticky.”
3. Peas and beans
“Children are more willing to eat things raw, and peas and beans are easy to grow.”
“Pumpkins can grow to a huge size and kids like that, and there’s Halloween of course.”
5. Rocket and oriental salad
“Cut-and-come-again plants are easy to grow and are good for families on a small budget because salads are so expensive to buy at the supermarket.”