Gardening for God

Delia Henry discovers you can find spiritual renewal in an allotment.

As a child I lived in a tenement in the east end of Glasgow and never had a garden. I only discovered the joy of growing when I moved to a house in the suburbs around thirty years ago.

At that time, I worked in a large hospital that had a market garden and the gardeners there inspired me to potter with plants, often unsuccessfully, but I kept at it.

When my grandchildren were small, we planted wildflower seeds in my garden for bees and butterflies, together we watched with excitement when the seeds develop into flowers and bees and butterflies visited. Hopefully this helped them learn that good things sometimes take time to develop.

In 2007 my husband and I were allocated an allotment in Northeast Glasgow. That was another step in our growing journey. My husband is very good with practical DIY skills and built raised beds and I did the growing and planting. We stuck with the allotment when it was far from cool, and I tried growing different fruit and vegetables.

Things developed and in 2013 my grandchildren bought me the Friends of the Earth Bee Cause campaign pack for Christmas, and I checked out beekeeping in my area. It seems like a good option to take the next step to develop my gardening hobby, so I decide to go on a basic beekeeping course.

Seven years later I have four hives on my allotment and my family, friends and plot holders have enjoyed local honey over the years. Gardening is often considered as hard work but chatting to people who have experience can help a lot to make it enjoyable and it gives you the realisation that you do not have to achieve every- thing in a short time span.

I have found that people think that typical allotment holders are retired men pottering about on their own. This is very far from the reality. In 2022 in fact currently more than 50% of plot holders in Scotland are women.

In addition, the waiting lists in both Glasgow and Edinburgh are each in the region of 2,000 people with up to 10 year waits for an allocation of a small plot of land though this traditional route.

There is significant evidence that being outside, and gardening is an excellent boost for people’s physical and mental health. In addition, the traditional growing techniques adopted on allotments have excellent green credentials and can improve and promote environmental standards. Allotments leases are normally renewed annually and rents in Scotland range between £50 and £150 per year.

Recently I visited five allotments in Glasgow as part of an exercise to find out how things were going post-Covid.

The feedback was generally positive, and most site committees had been worried about Covid restrictions when they were introduced but quickly adapted and kept the sites open by introducing hygiene standards and social distancing. Issues raised were wide ranging and included questions around growing within new international environmental regulations.

Issues raised included how to grow in peat free compost and buying high quality imported seeds, which is now a challenge because of Brexit. It is also worth high- lighting that the majority of the sites are integrated into their communities and recognise that growing is beneficial for people who are marginalised.

There are many examples of plots being rented to community groups who offer support to adults with learning disabilities, people with mental health issues and former prison inmates.

One of the developments brought to my attention during this exercise was a Church of Scotland group in Glasgow, Garthamlock and Craigend Community Garden. This group of volunteers has been given permission to use the land owned by their church for growing to support the local community. There are plans to develop another area that is currently used into allotments.

This impressive group of people is highly motivated to maximise the land that they have around their church. These people are putting their faith into action in a way that may not have been obvious as recently as 10 years ago. They are an excellent example of what can be done when a global concept is implemented at a local level.

My recent experience has made me see that many more congregations could take their lead from Garthamlock and Craigend Community Garden and emulate them.

There are many Catholic churches who have land that could be used in a similar way. I would encourage parish councils to contact Eco Congregation Scotland and investigate how they could take the same approach and follow in the footsteps of St Francis of Assisi.

Delia Henry has been the Scottish director of two major UK charities that delivered services to vulnerable adults and children, over a period of 25 years.

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