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Learning to Make Plants for Free

Plants for free was the theme of our latest in-service training day, held at the Leicester Botanical Gardens on Saturday.  Garden Organic’s Sally Cunningham, a fount of knowledge on plants and gardening, led our volunteers through a whistle-stop tour of propagation techniques to enable them to create new plants from old throughout the year.  The tone for the day was set when Sally managed to diagnose a diseased sample of quince leaves brought in by one of the volunteers without even seeing it.   Jane only had to say ‘What’s wrong with my quince’, for the quick-fire answer, ‘quince blight’ to emerge from under the table, as Sally unpacked her papers for the day.  Apparently it’s the commonest problem with quinces and pears at this time of year.

20180609_142046After the informal plant clinic we went on to take softwood cuttings of African perennial kale and to learn about ripe, semi-ripe and hard-wood cuttings.   We found out that although placing geranium stems in water produces masses of roots, they are of the wrong type and so do badly once transferred to the airier environment of compost; far better to just stick them direct into a pot of compost and trim the larger leaves away to reduce water loss while they are establishing.
We learned how to sharpen and clean our pruning knives and secateurs and the essential hygiene needed to prevent the transfer of disease between plants on your tools.  Sally’s top tip: carry a small bottle of hand sanitiser with you in an old sock and use the sock to rub the sanitizer well into the blades and the nooks and crannies of your tools.


20180609_123732 copyAfter a buffet lunch with a Heritage Seed Library lettuce and sorrel salad, decorated with chive flowers, followed by gooseberry sauce cake, we had the extra treat of a walk around the gardens with Sally, taking samples of various plants for a practical session on taking cuttings.  Please note that we had permission from the staff at the gardens for this.  Please do not take cuttings from plants that don’t belong to you without asking for permission.  The best time to take cuttings is not when the owner is not looking, but when the plant is ripe and healthy and the owner is feeling generous!
We finished the day with another tour of the gardens, looking at interesting specimens and different plant families, and particularly enjoyed the background music provided by the Wigston Brass Band.  They were still playing after all our volunteers had gone home and so Coordinator Alison enjoyed a brief rest in the sunshine with tea, cake and music.  What a wonderful venue for a day that fulfilled its brief of being both a learning experience and a reward for all the effort our volunteers put in to supporting food growing in Leicestershire.

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Welcome to Our Newest Recruits

It was a glorious weekend at the  Attenborough Arboretum in Leicester for our latest Master Gardener recruits’ induction course and, as ever, a thoroughly enjoyable day in which our recruits shared experiences, knowledge and laughter as well as learning about their new role as food growing mentors.

We always recruit the most generous of gardeners, who can’t help but inspire others with their love of growing and of sharing that love with others.  On Saturday we heard stories of how they have already been supporting  family, friends and neighbours, spreading a love of growing and of good food as well as bringing people together to enjoy the fruits of their labour.  We explored new possibilities of spreading this good work further through the Master Gardener programme, working with food banks, care homes and local communities  and connecting with other keen gardeners to open new avenues and share ideas and learning together.

We look forward to watching this great bunch of gardeners grow into their new role and to hearing how their infectious enthusiasm helps their fiends, neighbours and others grow with them in the coming months.


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Europe Comes to Leicestershire

Friday was an exciting day for the Leicestershire Master Gardeners, who hosted a group of visitors from the Erasmus Plus exchange project on a tour of therapeutic gardening sites in the county.  Garden Organic is a partner in this scheme, which brings together people with a common interest to share experiences and ideas across the continent.

Back in October, Leicestershire Master Gardeners’ Coordinator, Alison McGrath, joined Garden Organic colleagues Sally Cunningham and Sara Brown on an Erasmus exchange  visit to Slovenia, where they met people from a wide range of projects, all based around the use of the great outdoors for  therapeutic purposes.  Friday was an opportunity to reconnect with old friends and make new ones from as far afield as Portugal, Italy, Switzerland, Slovenia and The Czech republic.

We began the day by meeting Sam Clarke from Blaby District Council, and John Beckett, leader at A Place to Grow in Enderby, where our visitors saw a large scale and well established community growing facility, hosting a wide range of growers, many with learning needs, but others simply enjoying the opportunity to engage in shared, creative activity in a beautiful space.

A Place To Grow is a free to use sustainable Community Garden with the purpose to support positive Health and Wellbeing. This is done by encouraging people to learn new things by producing and eating healthy food, being physically active, getting involved in the community and meeting new people in a friendly, informal and safe environment.  The site is aimed at supporting and encouraging those living with or affected by a health condition to enjoy the outdoors.

Erasmus Plus leics visit March 2018 Enderby aErasmus Plus leics visit March 2018 Enderby b

Our visitors were fascinated by the way in which this wonderful facility had been built up by local people, applying for funding and overcoming the challenge of an arson attack, to the point at which it can now sustain John’s Council funded post to coordinate and lead the site.  This was in stark contrast with the large, state funded projects we saw in Slovenia.







Our next stop was a total contrast, being a tiny community garden, behind Wigston Library, developed by local people and the LCC Adult Learning Service, with support from Leicestershire Master Gardeners.  Jayne Edwards, LCC’s Local Engagement Coordinator, was delighted to share the news that as a result of the success of this garden, her department will be introducing a new 30 week community gardening course as part of its portfolio of community courses.  The library will also be hosting a new Seed Exchange set up by Incredible Edible Oadby & Wigston, at which local people will be able to drop off their surplus seed and pick up new varieties.  This will make seed freely  available for community food growers in the area and will encourage growers to make use of the free educational resources in the library’s gardening section.  Our visitors heard about the impact that the garden has had on staff in the library as well as local people who come to grow there.  The evidence of engagement was clear in a very healthy looking compost bin, full of fruit waste and tea bags from the offices as well as garden weeds and waste paper.

Erasmus Plus leics visit March 2018 Wigston Library dErasmus Plus leics visit March 2018 Wigston Library bErasmus Plus leics visit March 2018 Wigston Library f


Wigston Library Garden Erasmus visit b










Our next stop was lunch at the Salvation Army in Wigston, followed by a visit to the Kennedy House Asylum Seekers’ Garden with project leader Chris Huscroft and Master Gardeners Malcolm Brown and Alan Pittam.  When we arrived, Alan was busy helping one of the residents to barrow a delivery of compost into the new greenhouse, supplied by John Lewis, and a succession of new raised beds, which are to be planted up with potatoes.  Crops of chillies, callaloo, an exotic leafy vegetable and tomatoes as well as African kale and middle eastern herbs are also planned, while garlic and broad beans are already well established.

Although initially a little overwhelmed by the arrival of so many strangers, the resident was soon part of a laughing, chatting crowd, all trying to communicate in various levels of English and German.  This informal language exchange is one of the key objectives of the garden, set up by the Oadby and Wigston Multi-cultural Group to promote integration between this often traumatised and very vulnerable group, and local residents.  Locals have volunteered to offer free English lessons every Thursday and these lessons are reinforced as residents work alongside others in the garden.  They also benefit from cycle maintenance courses, enabling them to make good use of the cycles that have been donated to the project to address their difficulties with transport.

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Our final stop of the day was at the Loughborough University student Landscaping and Gardening Society’s Garden (LAGS), supported by Master Gardeners Martha Worsching, Helen Burgess and Irene O’Malley.  The growers were hard at work as we arrived, planting potatoes but were happy to share their garden with the visitors.  Martha explained how the garden is particularly important for overseas students, who find in it a way to ‘put down some roots’ and feel at home.  The students work with Transition Loughborough to grow and cook their crops on the site and to spread the joy and health benefits of growing and cooking through lots of events.

Helen shared with them her work with the home-educated children’s group on this site, and with the 3 Close Tenants’ ‘Gardening Gang’ on a housing association estate in Loughborough, details of which can be found here.

The LAGS focus on sharing was apparent as members of the  group began appearing for their regular Friday afternoon gathering, bringing lots of goodies, from nuts and dried apple slices to Irene’s delicious dairy free brownies.  The kettle was put on in their capacious shed and, as the children of staff and postgraduate students ran around under the trees and explored the compost heaps, the European visitors mingled with the locals in another multi-lingual hum of conversation and the afternoon developed a party atmosphere; a fitting end to a wonderful day.

Loughborough University LAGS Erasmus Visit aLoughborough University LAGS Erasmus Visit d

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Spring Has Sprung!

Spring is here and our volunteers are busy enjoying the spells between rain and snow to support our new  food growers.

In Wigston, Master Gardener Radha continues to support groups of students from South Leicestershire College who have been developing food growing areas at the Salvation Army Centre.  Last autumn they planted bulbs to form the Salvation Army’s logo, which is now showing in all it’s  bright yellow glory.  Last week they planted pallet collars donated by Toyota to create some new beds and spruced up old benches and tables with a lick of paint.

Radha is also working with a group of students on raised beds beside the barn at the Brocks Hill Country Park, where onions, garlic and chard are already well established.

S Leics College at Salvation Army Wigston  March 2018c logo in daffs S Leics College at Salvation Army Wigston  March 2018d

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Learning to Manage Pests and Diseases Organically

Last Saturday saw our largest in-service training day for our Master Gardener volunteers yet, with 26 of them gathering at Leicester Botanics for a day dedicated to learning about organic management of pests and diseases with Garden Organic’s horticulturalist and soil science expert, Anton Rosenfeld.

Despite the pouring rain and cold, and the less than attractive bugs and plant materials at the centre of the day, there was a general concensus that it was a thoroughly enjoyable and informative session.  One of our volunteers even chose to come and study slugs with us on her birthday!

We learned about the importance of using a wide range of organic practices to ensure that our soil and plants are in good shape to prevent or reduce attacks by pests and diseases, thus reducing the need to wade in with heavy controls once the problem has occurred.  Anton explained how avoiding high Nitrogen levels in the soil reduces the excessive lush growth that aphids love, and sticking to a well planned crop rotation prevents pests, viruses and the like building up in the soil.

Hoverfly larvaRecognising that not all ugly critters need to be squashed and that some are friends that eat pests or pollinate our crops was also an important lesson to learn.  Hoverfly larvae may look like caterpillars but they hoover up vast numbers of aphids.  Cabbage white caterpillars are also predated on by a wasp whose larvae eat it from the inside out and reprogram it to protect them from attacks.  For a gruesome insight into this micro-world that has inspired horror films like Alien, have a look at these amazing videos here

After lunch we braved the foul weather for a visit to the glasshouse, where we saw organic trapping methods in action and discussed the challenges and advantages of growing under cover where poor ventilation can favour fungal infections but a contained area can also allow the introduction of predatory species.

As ever, our volunteers had a great deal of experience and knowledge to share and there was much animated discussion both of their own tips and some interesting traditions passed down from grandparents.  Derek shared his grandfather’s tradition of planting potatoes on Good Friday with a dollop of soot and a piece of rhubarb in each hole and we learned that while the acid rhubarb may have helped against potato scab, the soot would have been full of heavy metals and therefore not such a great idea.  Ruth and a group of school children had been carrying out experiments with slugs, surrounding them with rings of various substances believed to create barriers.  She reported that they slithered across everything!

The day ended with the presentation of certificates to 10 of our volunteers, two of whom have clocked up more than 400 hours with us over 4 years.

Thanks to Anton for such a stimulating day, to Leicester Botanics for hosting us and to Zeph’s Café from Oadby for bringing us a delicious jacket potato and cake lunch to keep us going.


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Case Study: Lenthall Care Home, Market Harborough


Care homes for elderly people often have a reputation for being places where residents sit in high backed chairs with their backs to the wall, staring into space and waiting for the relative excitement of the next meal. At Lenthall Care Home in Market Harborough, manager Doina Matei has very different ideas and has been working with David Palmer from the Anglican Diocese of Leicester, Sustainable Harborough and our Master Gardeners to create a garden that will encourage residents and their families to get outside in the fresh air and enjoy gardening.
A year after the initial planning meetings, the home’s central courtyard and lawn have been transformed. There are now sturdy raised beds and do-dig veg. beds on the lawn, which supply the kitchen with fresh green beans, potatoes, carrots, tomatoes and many other foods less familiar to the residents. The unproductive old apple trees are being renovated and new fruit trees and soft fruit bushes have been donated by Sustainable Harborough. A former ornamental bed of shrubs has been 20170906_151119replaced by a large pumpkin patch, opening the possibility of some intergenerational fun with the pumpkins, which are already glowing orange in the sunshine.
As we tour the garden a carer walks by, pushing a resident in a wheelchair and talking about the tomatoes. As ever, things are slow to change and there is much work to do to encourage more staff to bring the residents outside, but the initial work to create a productive and beautiful space in which they can sit or get involved is done. Residents who are unable to leave the central courtyard without a carer are becoming intrigued, peering through the gate and asking what is happening. Master Gardener Judy Rowley has offered to run some workshops for the staff to help them support the residents in getting actively involved with the garden.
20170906_151503The Friends of Lenthall have taken up the baton and developed the courtyard’s previously tired and run down beds into a series of sensory beds full of bright flowers, scented herbs and edibles like chard. On the central lawn, two young silkie chickens provide interest and the promise of eggs to come. Their fluffy feathers make them popular pets alongside a white rabbit and a couple of guinea-pigs.
We are joined by a young man who is a regular visitor, cutting the grass and tending the beds. He has learning disabilities, but chats enthusiastically about his gardening, bombarding us with questions and ideas and enthusiastically picking beans for the kitchen. He has brought a bag of apples that have fallen from a tree in his garden to add to the compost heap and enters into a spirited exchange about whether he should also tip in some old bread he has brought. He is keen to get busy and so I finish the visit by presenting Mark with a certificate for 100 hours of volunteering that he has contributed to the Master Gardeners programme and leave them to their gardening. I look forward to returning next season and seeing what else they can achieve.

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Reviving Shelthorpe Community Garden, Loughborough

Shelthorpe is a hidden gem of a community garden, tucked away at the end of a narrow cul-de-sac and surrounded on all sides by 1950s council houses.  The entrance is through a high wooden door that looks like an access to someone else’s garden, down a shady jitty, lined with high board fences, and through another door.  Beyond is secret garden, full of vegetables and mature fruit trees, a shed, greenhouse and polytunnel, bordered by thick bed of beautiful borage, alive with the sound of bees.
The land for this garden was given to the Shelthorpe Community Association by Charnwood Borough Council in 2008 and, like many community gardens, has had a varied history as regular growers come and go.  Children’s art around the fences is a testament to local schools’ involvement over the years and the site is well set out with facilities tEntrance to Shelthorpehat include raised pathways, water collection tanks and a compost toilet.  However, by 2014 numbers had dropped off and students from Radcliffe College answered an appeal for help in tidying the site up and keeping the ever encroaching weeds under control.  Sadly, local support was not sufficient to sustain their work, with only one local continuing to grow on the site and keep it secure in recent years.
In 2017, Leicestershire Master Gardeners were approached to find some support for the Community Association and bring the community back into the garden.  Master Gardener Dave Bull offered his help, and Master Gardener Helen Burgess joined Fearon Hall Garden Group’s Amanda Bolton in supporting a gardening group for people with learning difficulties.  They now grow here once a week as well as in the Fearon Hall garden.
Back in the spring, a group of young people from the Princes Trust carried out a major clear up of the site, covering heavily weeded areas with suppressant fabric and tarpaulin to block the light and starve the thick perennial weed roots beneath.  There are now full veg beds around the site and by next year this mulching will have cleared more areas for planting up.  Visitors are greeted by a thick rows of beans, rows of sprouts and cabbages, beetroot and sweetcorn.  In the greenhouse are cucumbers and tomatoes, chilies and peppers.
20170821_102530Fearon Hall Gardener Louise proudly shows us her patch, tying up vigorous tomatoes with help from Helen and showing us the rows of lettuce and radish she has grown.  Each row is neatly marked with a row of cockle shells collected on a beach trip and she chats animatedly about her plans to plant carrots next.  This is her space and like most gardeners, she loves showing it off to others.
At a table, Amanda sits with two other gardeners from the Fearon Hall group, teasing apart a tray of carrot seedlings and exploring the tiny roots.  Each one looks like a tiny cake decoration.  It’s not an orthodox way of planting carrots, but it seems to work and germinating carrot seed in Leicestershire clay is never an easy task.
Having weathered a bad patch, Shelthorpe Community Garden is now on the up again and is open for locals to join in with the growing on Mondays and Fridays, between 10am and 12 noon, with support from Amanda and our Master Gardeners.  It is a space in which to relax and enjoy the calming pleasures of getting your hands in the soil, to learn new skills and make new friends and to produce your own food in an area where many families struggle to meet the rising costs of fresh fruit and vegetables.

Shelthorpe is a wonderful community resource but a hidden gem, which can be a problem when trying to engage local people, the challenge now is that facing most community gardens, to reach out and draw in new growers, something that Leicestershire Master Gardeners are all too happy to help with.

If you’d like to get involved, contact Amanda at or pop in to say hello on a Monday or Friday.  You’ll be very welcome.


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A Right Royal Visit

A Right Royal Visit

On Friday, our Leicestershire Master Gardeners and their guests enjoyed a day trip to Highgrove Gardens, the home of Garden Organic’s patron HRH The Prince of Wales, as a thank you for all their hard work and enthusiasm in supporting new growers across the county.

HRH runs the estate on entirely organic principles and has created a beautiful and productive landscape, overflowing with beautiful ornamentals, trees, fruit and veg, interspersed with some surprising artistic touches.  Unfortunately, tight security regulations meant that we were unable to take any photographs, but we recommend an online search for ‘Highgrove Gardens images’ to see something of this beautiful estate.

Highlights include a magnificent walled kitchen garden divided by two huge apple tunnels, dripping with fruit and leading to a central dipping pond occupied by giant carp and pink water lilies.  The large asparagus beds and other vegetables are intermixed with flowers, from sweet peas to cannas, a veritable banquet for pollenating insects, and bordered by wide bands of African marigolds.

The central walkway leading to the back of the house features a thyme path, bordered by quirkily clipped yew shapes; the scent of thyme reached us even although we were not allowed to walk on the path.  A giant Magnolia grandiflora reaches to the third floor, covering several of the windows and a deep purple glory vine smothers the front of the house, trailing into the pathways and requiring HRH to push the fronds aside as he passes through his front door.  All through the gardens, formal clipped yew and box hedges contrast with the relaxed, organic approach to planting, in which flowers, ferns and grasses are allowed to intermingle and spill over edges rather than conforming to immaculately trimmed edges.  ,

A walk through a large flower meadow leads to a series of wooded gardens, including an arboretum and stumpery, a Victorian gardening feature through which wealthy gardeners displayed their collections of ferns and other shade loving plants.  Brightly coloured benches and gates are dotted throughout, drawing the visitor’s eye down long vistas and inviting entrances to hidden gardens.

Throughout the garden, HRH’s artistic interests are apparent in sculptures, doors, monuments and topiary, both commissioned by and gifted to him.  The Spirit of the Woods sits cross legged between two oak temples among the trees, but had apparently been less tranquil last summer when wasps nested under her bottom.  Highgrove reflects everywhere its status as a deeply personal project, from a large oak monument featuring a portrait of the Queen Mother, to a topiary elephant dedicated to the Duchess of Cornwall’s brother who died recently, or a young poplar planted by Prince George; HRH shares our view that you can’t start children gardening too young.

We finished with the exquisite Turkish Carpet Garden, designed by HRH and inspired by a carpet in Highgrove.  Its high walls surround columnar cypress trees and a magnificent central waterfall,, surrounded by bright mosaics, in which the water spills over into a series of bright turquoise tiled channels, descending in geometric patterns to the edge of the central carpet.  The garden is studded with highly scented and coloured  jewel like flowers, creating a wonderfully relaxing and enchanting space.

The day was over all too soon but the delights we had seen kept our volunteers and their guests chatting all the way home through the long, 3 hour journey.

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Tammy’s Allotment

Tammy’s Allotment

One of the great privileges of coordinating a Master Gardeners programme lies in the opportunity to visit some of our supported growers and see at first hand the joy that learning to grow brings them.  Today I am being shown around a plot full of plump cabbages, lush herbs, strawberries and leeks that are beginning to go to seed.  The plot is part of a special allotment, run by the charity Enrych, to offer suitable space for gardeners with disabilities. A wooden plaque proudly proclaims this to be ‘Tammy’s Garden.’  Tammy comes to this site with a support worker every week and, with the support of Master Gardener Fiona MacDonald, has created a highly productive and beautiful space, which clearly gives her enormous pleasure and pride.  I visited her when the two were first introduced and Tammy has been keen for me to return so that she can show me how much she has learned.


Fiona tells me, rather ruefully, that Tammy’s cabbages came as seedlings from her own garden and are far healthier and larger than her own, growing in this sunny, open position.  Gardeners always sow too many seeds and this kind of generous sharing of excess is one of the most wonderful aspects of gardening.  In learning to grow with Fiona, Tammy now shares in this generous world; today she will take leeks and herbs home to her parents to make soup and she offers a share to us too.  She is also generous with her new knowledge, instructing her support worker in how to make mint or lemon balm tea and in so doing, changes the balance between them.  In this space it is Tammy who is in charge and confident, leading the group around.

Tammy also tells us that she is  losing weight as a result of eating so much of her own fruit and veg and getting regular outdoor exercise, in addition to her clubacise classes.  Unlike many people, she enjoys weeding; indeed it is clear that she just loves being here in this space.  Today, she and Fiona plant French and runner beans in pots as well as courgettes to replace earlier sowings that withered in the heat when she was unable to come.

20170602_143508When Fiona and Tammy first began, Tammy was brought to the site by the same driver every week, but sadly this person moved on and she has missed several sessions as a result.  However, today her support worker is so impressed with her achievements and her obvious pride in and love of what she does, that she promises Tammy that they will make a special effort to ensure that she has the driver she needs to bring her every week from now on.



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Living With Dementia and Windowsill Salads

Living With Dementia and Windowsill Salads

This morning, the Leicestershire Master Gardeners visited the Melton Mowbray Memory Café, to run a hands-on gardening workshop for people living with Alzheimers and for their carers.  This was one of a series of such visits around the county to memory cafes run by the Alzheimers Society and, as ever, was a joy to attend with much laughter, mess and reminiscence about gardening and food.  Master Gardener Marian Curry and I arrived laden with compost and potted herbs and were warmly welcomed with tea and biscuits.

Early conversations about learning to grow mundane spuds and turnips during the war quickly moved on the joys of homemade fruit wines and slow gin!  Very early in the visit the topic of the current crisis in supplies of fresh veg from Spain was raised and concerns expressed at the rising costs of fresh veg.

“Did you know, my local supermarket is limiting people to 3 lettuces a week?”

This led on beautifully to our first activity.  I had brought along a well known brand of seeds for pea shoot salads, priced at £2.95 for  250g  and compared these with a pack of dried marrowfat peas at 80p for 500g, which are perfect for home salad growing.  We planted these in paper cups to grow on the windowsill at a cost of a few pence each.  These will produce 3 or more crops of salad leaves, if the lower leaf joints are left to grow, and are happy on a sunny windowsill even in the depths of winter.  A fist full of peas can produce as much salad as you might buy in bags for £3.00 or more (pre-Spanish  crisis price!).  They can be used in fresh salads, stirred into soups and stews or nibbled on as you pass by in the kitchen.  This was of particular interest to one frustrated carer who has been trying to find ways to sneak fresh vegetables into her recalcitrant husband’s meals and, as a mum with similar concerns for my children’s 5 a day intake, we compared strategies.

“I learned to garden from my mother during the war, when my father was away. She did all the digging and everything until I was old enough and then she taught me to do the digging.”

The cheap and cheerful theme continued as we divided pots of supermarket  ‘living herbs’ and potted them on for stronger windowsill growing and possible transplanting into the garden in the spring.  A potted parsley or living lettuce salad can give you dozens of spindly plants that, when given space in their own pot or used to edge a flower bed, can produce vastly more greens than one person can eat, and look beautiful at the same time.

I learned from my granddad when I was a child. I could keep up with him because he’d lost a leg in the First World War. He planted onions on the top of the ground and I followed behind and re-planted them all underground because he’d got it wrong.

We passed the pots around the group, who chatted animatedly as they pinched and rubbed the leaves to release the aromas and had a nibble at each one.  The session finished with a gardening crossword puzzle, set by Joanna, the group’s leader, which triggered much merriment at some of the answers that hinted at who would be nurturing their new salads:

Crossword question: what would you use to mow the lawn with?

Answer: the wife

By the end of the session, even the least enthusiastic members of the group were proudly carrying their ‘Give It A Grow’ bags home and talking about watering their new crops.

If you’d like our volunteers to come along and run a session like this for your Leicestershire group, get in touch with us by clicking here.

If you’d like to have a go at your own pea shoot salad, click hereLeics MG_20150707_12_28_59_Pro Growing Pea Shoots Sheet








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