To mark National Allotment Month, we spoke to the Community Garden in Cambridge whose six allotments are a beacon of hope to those who are or have been homeless. Ruth Hazel Wood, project co-ordinator, answered our questions:
How many people directly benefit from your allotment gardens annually?
We have a core group of about 15 members who attend the community garden twice a week, but we have many other people who come and use our space on a more irregular drop-in basis.
So, all counted it’s more like 40 to 50 group members annually plus some volunteers who can get work experience and support from attending also.
Tell us about the people who use your services and how they come to you
All the group members who come to the community garden are either currently homeless, have previously experienced homelessness, or are vulnerable to homelessness due to issues such as mental health.
Referrals come from homeless services including hostels and the local day centre plus other organisations such as the council and mental health workers in Cambridge.
What are the most common benefits of tending the allotments that you see in people attending?
The community garden is based on horticulture as a therapeutic tool, although it is less structured than a STH project as we accommodate people who need a lot of flexibility.
So, the main benefit that group members mention is the therapeutic nature of the community.
Being immersed in a natural environment, the achievement of succeeding in practical tasks and the sense of belonging from being an important member of the community all support an individual’s mental health and help them to settle into a positive lifestyle.
How important have the allotments been to people during Covid?
The community has been essential support for many of the group members, some of which are very isolated and have no other support network.
Members have been supporting each other through the recent lockdown periods by phone calls, emails, texts and our social media sites.
It was such a relief to be able to open the community garden again with some Covid safety practices in place. We’ve all enjoyed catching up and getting back into our routines again.
What's the future for the community gardens?
Rising homelessness and poverty in the UK has had a damaging effect on people’s mental health and ability to cope with everyday life. This makes supportive communities like ours even more essential.
However, funding and support has been cut from a lot of so-called non-essential services, so this is a concern for our future.
We hope that the long-term benefits from community support such as growing, cooking and healthy eating projects will begin to be considered by policy makers.
Obviously, climate change and the extreme weather patterns we are seeing across the world currently are very worrying for the future of our community garden and growing as a whole.
We have already seen changes in seasonal growing and we’re having to adapt. For instance, the very wet and mild winter/ spring weather is causing a lot of disease and rot issues, so we’re sowing seeds later and lifting onions earlier. We are also growing a lot of companion plants for pest control and shading for hot spells.