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May 30, 2018

The surprising world of allotments

Many years ago, I got a call from someone in an organisation called Scottish Allotments and Gardens Society. I’d never heard of SAGS and knew little about allotments other than a vague idea that an allotment should be able to feed a family of four for a year. The person who called wanted to talk to me about allotments as a driver of community development and to explain the multiple benefits that a well-run site could deliver. I was sceptical but agreed to meet. After a two hour induction into the world of allotments, I was a convert.


Robert Armour, TFN

In Glasgow’s southside ex-offenders keep an immaculate row of 12 flower and vegetable plots to keep themselves from returning to prison while in Airdrie the elderly are planting award-winning bonsais in a miniature garden to combat isolation. Up in Dundee, women survivors of domestic abuse get together to grow exotic plants not normally seen on the British mainland. And across Scotland an orchard project is bringing communities together by making pear and apple ciders, of all things.

Welcome to the transformative power of community allotments – a “growing” sector, if you forgive the pun, that is getting to the “root” of people’s problems while simultaneously regenerating communities.

Voluntary groups have long understood the benefits from this type of community involvement. Getting people outdoors, giving them a role and watching the fruits of their labour can literally turn lives around, so much so it’s now widely regarded as the go-to solution for many entrenched societal issues.

Take Jordan Rossiter, who just five years ago had the unenvious nickname of Asbo, and who did three stints in young offenders’ institutions before getting a job with Glasgow Council as a horticulturist. Not only did the job turn his life around, he used the positive experience to turn round the lives of others by creating a lottery-funded project, aptly entitled Roots Out (of Offending), where ex-offenders manage plots and grow organic vegetables.

“You can’t believe the positive way they (ex-offenders) respond,” says Rossitter. “Some just refuse to take part but those who do have changed their outlook. It’s mostly about putting structure into their lives, about becoming part of a team. There’s always resistance initially but if they stick at it they realise the allotments are a place of refuge, of sanctuary. Here they achieve something, they become proud of that. And they also grow lasting friendships, learn to trust again and connect with their community.”

Former offenders mix with volunteers from the local community on the project. No-one asks questions and everyone is taken for who they are not what they are.

In its short existence, Roots Out has built an enviable reputation among community justice services with Police Scotland and the Scottish Prison Service viewing it as a model diversionary project, especially for teen offenders. Rossiter says because the project isn’t heavy on any moral stance, service users take quite readily to it so much so many former clients have gone on to careers in horticulture themselves.

You can’t argue with any of that although the local (nameless) community council did. Fearing a huge crime wave would descend upon the Govanhill area (which according to the same community council already suffers from a similar “huge crime wave”), some residents complained to the council, objecting to what they called a “playground for prisoners.” Fortunately their misguided complaint wasn’t upheld.

In Airdrie one group of alloters, as they tend to refer to themselves, have done just that and created a playground. It’s not for prisoners however; it’s for pensioners.  And planning and designing it wasn’t stress-ridden like most of these projects but instead “an absolute hoot” according to Jenny George who runs the Airdrie Ageless Allotment.

“Older people love gardening for exercise as well as the fact it gets them outdoors in all weathers,” she says. “The problem is many who live in supported accommodation don’t have gardens. Neither can they get hold of a council allotment. So the project gives them that – a garden to tend to themselves.”

Even the less mobile can take part potting plants and contributing to landscaping design. That’s how the playground came about – an initial throwaway comment led to a design brief and a funding award to build it.

“It’s just a couple of fitness machines but they’re fun and the older people loved being involved in the planning,” says George. “All the decisions we make includes the whole group – we don’t decide anything on our own. That ensures everyone is able to get involved – and they do.”

Projects like these are in high demand partly because it’s not easy getting a council allotment. Waiting lists are sizeable as community garden projects thrive; there are believed to be 10,000 allotments in Scotland – up by around 4,000 since 2007.

Figures from the Scottish Allotments and Gardens Society (SAGS), a voluntary organisation that protects and promotes allotment sites and plot holders, show  at the end of the First World War there were 77,000 plots in Scotland and 90,000 by the end of the Second World War.

In 2007, SAGS counted the allotment plots and it was down to between 6,000 and 7,000, but it’s creeping back up with the current figure close to 10,000.

A women’s project in Dundee holds regular vegetarian feasts on the site of their allotments. It’s a great way to connect with people and families. The project was created by three women survivors of domestic abuse who had lost their gardens when they fled abusive partners. The allotments soon became a central focus for them rebuilding their lives. Started 12 months ago, in a very quick year, they’ve grown potatoes, carrots, suedes, beets and leeks as well as a range of herbs. And they’ve started growing apples and pears from newly planted trees donated by a local garden centre. 

“The best way to describe this project is that it is invaluable,” says Sam Bradwell, the group’s co-ordinator. She works alongside Dundee’s criminal justice services to create safe spaces for domestic abuse survivors and hails this response as the “best idea yet.”

“Rebuilding trust into the lives of domestic abuse survivors is the biggest challenge,” she says. “Often the indirect method works best. So relying on others here in the allotments and being involved reconnects them. Remember these women have been let down by those they love the most. And, most likely, the social justice system. They can then go on to believe life is worthless. We need to make them realise the opposite. This project supports them to do that.”

The biggest cost in any allotment is tools. Because they tend to get stolen, secure tool sheds are needed but these can cost thousands. Luckily the resourcefulness of the project meant it secured a tool shed free after one of the group – who works in sales – did a hard sell with a local supplier.

“She was suffering anxiety, bad depression and hadn’t worked for two years after fleeing her violent husband,” said Bradwell. “Negotiating that deal confirmed to herself she was still capable, that she still had it. It boosted her confidence so when it comes to funding and negotiating for the group, she’s an asset. And we make that known to her.”

However if you really want to bring communities what better way than sharing a drink that you’ve not only brewed yourself but grown on trees managed in the community.

Fergus Walker is Glasgow project manager for the Orchard Project a project which supports community orchards across the UK.

In addition to Alexandra Park, he supports orchards in Glasgow Green, the Gorbals, North Kelvin, Aberfoyle, Springburn and Ruchazie.

He says: “We have apple pressing days and masterclasses on cider making – something that’s very popular these days. This way we encourage communities to get involved.”

The project runs pruning and planting days as well as action days in which local volunteers help out in the general maintenance and upkeep of the local orchard. 

“Urban orchards are hugely transformational from a community perspective. Previously disused areas, unkempt woodland, can be totally transformed with local people taking an interest and ownership,” says Fergus. 

“It’s about growing community in all senses of the term. As the orchard grows, so does the local area. Urban areas can be totally transformed through this type of engagement. It’s a fabulous way to regenerate.”   

There you have it – the third sector is sowing the seeds of change across Scotland building stronger communities as well as tackling social problems. As Jordan Rossiter points out: “No-one is going to care if we don’t but we’ve got a responsibility as a society to take part to help others. By sitting idly by, we become part of the problem. So be the solution instead.”  

Why I love being an alloter

Jimmy Wilson from Glenmavis, North Lanarkshire, retired as a police sergeant and quickly found himself at a loss for things to do. He’d never gardened in his life but thought he’d give it a go because retirement for him was “taking on new hobbies and facing new challenges.” Joining  the Airdrie Ageless Allotment transformed his retirement and says he’s never been busier.

“Seeing things grow is a marvellous experience,” says Jimmy. “It becomes yours, a little project. I’ll wake in the morning thinking, how are my spuds doing today? Or think what I’m going to plant. It really keeps me occupied.”

Aside from the actual gardening, Jimmy is involved in managing aspects of the group and arranging nights out and day trips to other gardens. “Last  month we hired a coach and visited two gardens in Galloway. They were glorious.They benefit from the warmth of the gulfstream so there’s some fabulous varieties of trees we couldn’t grow in wet and windy Airdrie. We returned with clippings and had a ceremonial planting day.”

Jimmy has also met many new friends through the project. “People here are great,” he says. “We’ve all got our own stories and it’s just nice to interact with people. There’s no arguing or bad behaviour – it’s a real sanctuary. It’s a place you can come to where it’s guaranteed you’ll be welcome.”