As I turn the corner into Orwell Close, Loughborough, the community centre, run by the 3 Close Tenants’ Residents’ Association, is a beacon of bright colour and appetising smells. Begonias, geraniums, bacon, and coffee mix in a warm welcome. I am here with a group of representatives from North West Leicestershire and Oadby and Wigston, who are keen to learn from these Loughborough housing association residents how they transformed their estate, locally known as ‘Colditz’, into a buzzing, gardening community.
The small converted flat is full of locals and a pair of PCSOs join us for a cup of tea. They help to tackle the table loaded with sandwiches, crisps, quiches and goodies, prepared for our visit. Outside, a group of community payback ‘lads’, as they are known here, are busy tidying up the planters and trees and raking the leaves.
This project has its origins in these residents’ frustration at levels of anti-social behaviour and a depressing, litter-strewn environment, which made their estate notorious in the area. The Residents’ Association, led by Chair Josie Falconer, approached Glebe House for some help to erect planters to make the area look better cared for. The group’s initial growing of ornamentals had a marked impact and in 2014 they were award winners in Loughborough in Bloom. However, the ‘Garden Gang’ as they christened themselves, struggled to maintain their project, as age caught up with many of its members, who were mainly pensioners.
Following a community cookery event, run with the support of Love Food Hate Waste, their difficulties were brought to the attention of the newly formed Leicestershire Master Gardeners, a volunteer gardening mentorship programme run by the national charity Garden Organic and funded by Leicestershire County Council Public Health. Master Gardener Helen Burgess offered to support the group and help them to learn how to grow edible as well as ornamental plants and so draw in some more young gardeners from the estate.
Together, they have flourished and in 2015 won an RHS ‘It’s Your Neighbourhood’ Award graded 5 – outstanding, with special mention being made of the raised beds full of food and engagement with residents of all ages. Josie and her ‘Right Hand Man’, Sue, describe Helen as a part of the community and ‘part of the family’ now.
I was against doing a kitchen garden because I knew it was going to be a problem for us, but having Helen here to give us that guidance, we know we can take it on now.
I think we’re a lot more confident now because we know there’s somebody there now we can fall back, we can say ‘Helen, what would you advise there? ‘
we’re gonna do the flowers because we like them, but (now) we’re more interested in growing stuff we eat ourselves.
Beside the front door, a small table holds their community fruit and veg stall. Most of the crops have been eaten before they made it this far, but their harvest is growing year by year, especially since nine new planters were installed last year with part of a £2,400 grant from the LCC SHIRE Community Grant scheme.
To begin with there wasn’t that much that we could put on sale but Helen brings a bit and then we bring our bit and we put them on here
Maggie’s had her potatoes from here and the onions and things and scallions … for a small charge. So we haven’t made any money on it.
Their small version of a farm shop doesn’t just offer fruit and veg from their kitchen garden, but local honey, jam and chutney. Last summer they made £50 from pies and jam made with the cherries already growing around the estate.
We’ve got no end of cherry trees here and nobody ever gets up to harvest them but we made cherry jam … and now people on the estate are doing it. Evie, she got up one before her back went. She got loads down. She made £50 on cherry pies and sold them for the funds.
With Helen’s help, they have also learned to propagate their own ornamentals, taking cuttings of geraniums to stock their flower beds rather than buying all their plants each year.
It’s not just learning to produce free plants that has helped them to reduce their costs. A large compost area with a leaf mold bin enables them to produce their own growing medium too.
We dig it into the planters. But we never saved our leaves before Helen came and we do have a lotta leaves.
They explain that the composting also means that the Housing Association’s waste disposal costs have reduced.
The local residents are not just benefiting from fresh food grown by a small number of people; they are being drawn in and are benefiting from getting involved in many ways. As with any community event, free food is a great incentive.
We have a plantin’ day in May. Everyone that’s involved over the year we invite over and we have a nice hog roast, but we do it in the oven, you know and everyone comes along and gives a helping hand and then there’s about forty or fifty come to that. And then at the end of the season we have another big day when we have a cob meal, you know, a hot cob and the police come, but we have the housing officers come as well.
Some of the younger residents do the heavier work but other less able people are also deeply involved as Sue herself demonstrates:
If I can’t actually bend to do it, I have a little stool and I sit down on that and I just work my way round, move round, do another bit.
Others benefit from being involved by offering less physical forms of support and guidance:
To begin with, two or three years ago, Diane could help us. Now she can’t do anything, she’s too poorly. She can’t even do the kitchen garden. She says she’s in charge of the kitchen garden but it gives her an interest. She’s not frightened to tell ‘em off you see (laughs). I’d be a bit more discrete but she won’t.
For others, the involvement of their children offers a welcome respite:
We’ve got two single dads, you know, one’s lost his … the mother died, the others’ partner’s left him. I had a word, ‘If we can get a little planter, would Lily like to come down and be with us? ‘Because he knows us, she doesn’t have to have her Daddy there,’ just come down with us’.
It’s not just the residents who are being drawn in. The probationers, who have come in for a cup of tea and a sandwich, began by painting planters and raking leaves. Before long they were building a compost heap and asking to get involved in the planting and some are now getting the confidence to teach each other.
They do all the critical hard work. They do the proper digging. But they do like to do a bit of planting, because it’s nice for them to plant as well. I mean we had one young woman here, who was with the probationers; she’d never done gardening before. When we planted the pots over there she loved it. She said ‘I never known’, she said ‘I love to see the plants. Don’t they look lovely?’ She’s kept it up now. The lads weren’t doing it right; she says ‘Oh, no, no, that isn’t right.
All around the estate, small pocket gardens are springing up, bright splashes of colour, decorated with personalised plaques, gnomes and wind chimes. People are taking a real pride in their surroundings and woe betide anyone who is seen dropping litter now.
They’re much more aware, because people can do gardening, if anyone’s throwing cigarette ends out … ‘Litter. We’re not having our gardens littered up! We’ve worked on ‘em’. ’
Josie’s hairdresser joked.
I think we should do a collection for your plants Josie because it makes the access to our own homes so much pleasanter
There is an enormous sense of pride and achievement in this community and their successes have not gone unnoticed by the outside world. During their judging for the ‘It’s Your Neighbourhood Award, Josie heard a judge comment ‘I know this estate. You wouldn’t believe it’s the same estate’.
Sue sums up this transformation of the people as well as the neighbourhood
We’re starting to bloom now. So we are. We’re starting to Bloom.