Warwick Flats is a sheltered housing complex for older people, run by the Nottingham Community Housing Association and located in the large Leicestershire village of Bottesford. It was a familiar site for Master Gardener Joyce Slater before she joined the Leicestershire Master Gardeners, as it was home to her mother-in-law for several years before she passed away. As a new recruit to the Leicestershire programme, Joyce was looking for new growers to support and immediately thought of these elderly residents, many of whom had been gardeners before giving up their homes and moving to their small warden supported flats. They had some communal areas that could be used for growing, including a sunny courtyard.
Getting Growing: the Challenge of Creating a Constituted Gardening Club
Joyce and the warden at that time, Alison, organised a residents’ meeting to float the idea of a weekly gardening club, which was attended by 20 of the 22 residents, with one remarking that he,’might as well get involved. I’m just sitting here waiting to die.’
In December 2015 they secured a grant for £1,400 from LCC SHIRE Grants after travelling to County Hall with Joyce for an evening meeting, at which they had to present their case. This was no easy accomplishment for a group with significant mobility issues.
The group required a great deal of support from Joyce to create the necessary constitution and bank account and this was complicated by their impaired mobility and location in a village with no access to the banks. There were also delays due to the Treasurer’s lack of acceptable identification, not having a driving license or passport, or ‘Not existing’ as his neighbours joked’. In the early stages the group became very frustrated at the slow progress of this side of their project. This was worsened by delays due to the need to comply with formal procedures surrounding the erection of the greenhouse. Changes within the housing association also lead to the loss of their dedicated warden and the arrival of a new warden shared across several sites, who has less understanding of gardening but is very supportive of the group.
However, Joyce reports that these challenges resulted in an unexpected benefit. The residents were motivated to organise meetings and write joint letters of complaint, giving them a reason to meet during the winter months when there was no growing to be done.
Once the money arrived, they purchased a greenhouse and water butts, as well as other equipment to make watering their plants less of a physical challenge. They were given several compost bins by the housing association as their composting reduced the site’s need for green waste bins. The greenhouse was finally erected in June 2015, until which time, the seedlings that they had planted were kept in Joyce’s own greenhouse.
The residents have a large common room, where they now meet for weekly gardening sessions with Joyce on a Wednesday, as well as a sunny courtyard full of flowers, with seating and a greenhouse, water butts and large planter troughs, which make reaching their crops possible. Behind the complex is another area with four compost bins and more troughs full of crops.
Enjoying the Fruits of their Labours: ‘We Had Some Very Nice Tomatoes’
The residents have a common kitchen, as well as their own facilities, and are responsible for arranging their own meals. Most have microwave meals delivered, so the addition of fresh salads and fruit is particularly welcome. During this first year they grew lots of salad crops, lettuce, tomatoes and spring onions. They also grew green beans, peppers and chillies as well as strawberries and some flowers.
Their first target was to grow their own strawberry cream tea for the Wimbledon fortnight. They already had a series of outdoor raised trough beds, one of which they planted with strawberries, which produced a good sized bowlful in the first year. In June 2015 they enjoyed their strawberry tea very much in the complex’s large common room with 20 residents attending. There were not enough strawberries to feed everyone, so they bought in some more but looked forward to a larger crop in 2016.
In autumn 2015 they organised another social, enjoying home grown tomato soup from 2kg of their own tomatoes. This prompted lots of conversation about the good flavour and cooking methods used, of ways of making soups and how they might grow tomatoes for salads in hanging baskets in 2016, as well as growing them in the greenhouse.
You can meck a bit ‘o soup in a few minutes can’t you? I like a bit of onion soup I do.
I’ve got a recipe for the Boston Bean soup from Slimmin’ World that I’m in two minds of trying if I can get the bits together.
Encouraged by these early successes, and supported by Joyce, they began the 2016 growing season with a planning meeting. Fruit bushes in containers, dwarf raspberries and plums were popular choices as well as beetroot and courgettes. One gentleman reported having enjoyed eating the courgettes they grew in 2015, fried in butter. The conversation during this meeting, about increasing the volume of crops grown, showed that the consumption of home grown produce extended well beyond the group present at the meeting and that growing salads in particular gave them access to more fresh food than had been possible previously.
We had some very nice tomatoes, some lovely little peas in small little pods. They were delicious.
Lots and lots of little chillies
That was quite a lot considering how late we started wasn’t it?
The group has not tried growing anything new, preferring to grow what is familiar and they are particularly resistant to the idea of stripy tomatoes.
Overcoming the Challenges: ‘We Got there in the End’
One of the challenges that Joyce has faced has been the loss of key group members either through death or declining health. Many have significant mobility issues and there is a ‘parking area’ for walking frames next to the table where they meet. The age and infirmity of these residents makes them more dependent on her for motivation and support than some of the other younger, more able groups that our Master Gardener volunteers support.
There is also a minor issue with the lack of able bodied people capable of doing the small amount of heavy digging and lifting of containers that is needed. However, one of the younger residents has launched into the growing with enormous enthusiasm, taking on many of these tasks, despite his own health problems, and benefiting enormously in the process. He has already started some tomato plants in his own area of the grounds, which he offered to the wider group, along with a range of seeds he had obtained through a former employer. The growing is keeping him active and outside on a regular basis. The greenhouse and planters also provide a reason for other residents to walk outside into the courtyard to enjoy some company or activity in pleasant surroundings.
This group differs from our other project, in which we support novice growers, in that several of the key contributors have a long history of gardening, which ended when they moved to the complex. The project has enabled them to resume this activity and share it with their neighbours. Their shared reminiscences about their experience of gardening with their grandparents echo the accounts of children we speak to today, whose experience of growing is often from time spent with their grandparents.
Me Grandparents used to put the kidney beans on the frames and then they used to put the sweet peas underneath so they combined the two
Valuing these older people’s lifetime of gardening knowledge and helping them to pass it on is just one of the wonderful aspects of this project and is something we also engage in with schools who run Food For Life’s Grandparent Gardening Days to continue this long tradition of intergenerational learning.
Joyce reports that another of the challenges of this project has been the shift from residents being used to growing in their own space for themselves to participating in a community garden. During the planning meeting, a resident came in to complain that people who had not contributed to the growing had been picking the crops. The consensus among the gardeners present was that this is not a problem as the crops are intentionally grown for everyone. After explaining this to him, they decided that their response to this should be to grow sufficient crops to meet the demand. This contrasts with some other projects where participants have been frustrated that local people have been reluctant to pick the crops available.
Despite, indeed because of, the many challenges that Joyce and her group of gardeners have faced, they can be very proud of their achievements and we hope that the fun and enjoyment they have had in coming together to produce delicious crops will inspire others to follow their example. As one resident summarises it.
Well it were a bit of a learning curve wan’t it last year? We got there in the end.