The Waterloo Farm Cottage Garden is a collaborative project, providing space to grow together for the residents of the Market Harborough area. It was set up in 2014/15 by Sustainable Harborough, in partnership with Waterloo Cottage Farm in Great Oxendon, 3 miles south of Market Harborough. When the Leicestershire Master Gardeners programme began in June 2014, the garden was still an idea in the planning stages, but with the hard work and dedication of four local gardening enthusiasts, who quickly volunteered for the Master Gardeners programme, it soon began to take shape. Bev, Mark , Ruth and Judy have put hours of their time and passion for growing into what was a muddy corner of a field, accessed through a swamp full of very interested pigs. Master Gardener Alex Hopkinson joined the team in 2015 and then secured a job with Sustainable Harborough, so is now responsible for the project in that capacity, as well as being a Master Gardener volunteer.
The pigs are now securely fenced away from beds full of flourishing crops and a small orchard around a natural pond. The first year was been taken up with setting out the site and controlling the weeds, but has also produced significant crops and a lot of learning. One of the regular growers on the site paints a picture of the challenge that they all took on:
When I arrived it was all trying to control the nettles and all the areas where we wanted to get sort of more planting and the beds working. There was a point when I thought the community garden was growing nettles, as a complete novice.
They now have several beds, including a highly productive ‘lasagna bed’ created on top of the turf to cut down on the need for digging. This followed a ‘no-dig’ presentation by horticulturalist Charles Dowding at the Garden Organic Masters Conference at Ryton Gardens in September 2015. The group are now planning for ‘barrow beds’- long raised beds, and are starting to think about crop rotation.
They have successfully erected a polytunnel, which took them a week, and have planted an orchard. Mark has run a pruning master class there, following his attendance at a pruning in-service day with the Master Gardeners in January 2016. They have also run a composting master class, which was well attended by local people. There is a bee hive and they have recently moved it, having learned the hard way that it is not a good idea to site it where the bees’ flight path out of the hive crosses the gateway.
As a project initiated by Sustainable Harborough, there is a strong emphasis on helping people to live more sustainably and to think about their impact on the environment. There is an ethos of shared working and learning together and the idea is that volunteers can eat anything grown in the garden. The work and cropping is all done in common. Their explanation is, ‘If you can figure it out you can eat it’. At the start it was agreed with the farm that the surplus crops will go to the farm shop. The garden didn’t produce enough last year for this, but this year they will focus on things that work and that people like to eat. They have also learned a lot that will enable them to grow more successfully. For example, to recognise when crops are ready and to protect them from pests.
we all had our heads in our hands because all the sweetcorn had been eaten by the mice before anybody realised there was sweetcorn to be had.
Despite this disappointment, producing edible sweetcorn was a significant achievement in what was an unusually dark and cold year. They also produced a large crop of ‘fantastic’ potatoes. This June, they report that they have made their first contributions to the farm shop, another major achievement.
Having focused on the structure of the garden, and finding that some crops were not picked and used, they now are thinking about their communications and the need to anticipate when crops will be ready so they can let people know when to come to pick them. They are also considering what to grow that people will want to buy or eat.
We had loads of fruit but mostly straight off and in your mouth, although I had it on breakfast for a week or two … Leek and potato soup was a good one, then roast vegetables with the butternut squash. We’ve got a spinach mountain building up. Nobody seems to want to eat spinach.
Around a dozen people are involved in total and their ages vary from early twenties upwards. They have a regular day to meet but, once they have had an initial induction to the site and its rules, people also come at other times to work alone. One of their growers comments:
you don’t realise how many people come as they are not always there at the same time’.
This communal approach gives a great sense of shared achievement, even when growers are coming to the site at different times and don’t necessarily meet each other frequently.
The butternut squash was great and that, for me was a revelation because I’d never had them I think, let alone grown them … and they’re really lovely… I didn’t plant them so I didn’t have that ownership, but somebody put them there and watered them.
For this grower, the shared experience of growing has given him the interest and confidence to begin developing his own garden, with encouragement from his partner who enjoys the results.
I’ve just planted some fruit trees in my garden. I’ve never had fruit trees before, so the pruning master class was perfect. But also, we’ve decided this year to grow some fruit and veg. Goodness knows where or how, because I don’t want to lose half the lawn, but I’ve said just ‘let’s go for it.’ So we will be growing some stuff and I would never have done that if I hadn’t been up at Waterloo Community Garden. It gives you a little bit of confidence and encourages you, and also she says to me ‘How come you’re doing all that out there? Why aren’t you doing it in our garden?’ So there’s a little bit of pressure there.
The Waterloo Garden is not only benefiting those who grow on the site; the cascade dimension of the Master Gardeners programme is very apparent in this supported grower’s enthusiastic observations of the impact of food growing on a neighbour’s son:
I was encouraging my mate to do it as well. He’s getting his kids to getting planting in the garden. His little lad is really chuffed because he’d seen the carrots come up so he’d been pushing them back in so they could grow again! It was really good and he’s saying ‘I don’t understand what’s going on. I’m sure there were carrots there!’ But at least he’s had the experience. They love it, they love it.
The infectious joy of growing can be seen here at two removes from the community garden it started in.
Despite the challenges of its location, our Master Gardeners at Waterloo Cottage Farm Community Garden have been highly successful during the first growing season and have been an important part of both creating a new growing space and reaching out to local people about the benefits of growing. They are also helping the project to move forward and become more sustainable by reviewing the challenges the growers and organisers have faced and planning to address them. They are using the networks that are available to them through Master Gardeners to make contacts with other community growing projects, in Harborough, elsewhere in Leicestershire and beyond. In May 2015 Mark and Bev presented their experiences of and thoughts on the project to their fellow Master Gardeners at a Master Gardeners community growing in-service day. Through this they were able to learn from others’ experiences as well as inspiring and teaching them. The day was instrumental in bringing Alex into the programme as a volunteer as well as in inspiring Judy to organise a joint Master Gardener/Council trip to Incredible Edible Todmorden, which has triggered two new projects in the town, Incredible Edible Harborough and Grow and Pick. We are looking forward to seeing what they achieve next!