Feelgood Gardens

28th June 2024

With the welcome arrival of mid-summer, our feature in Essex Life this month looks at how local charities and community allotments are helping to boost wellbeing.

The summer months bring the season of plenty, and allotment holders across Essex will be reaping the benefits of their hard work.

Individual allotment plots have been part of the county’s landscape for decades and now community allotments are also regaining popularity.

Growing fruit and vegetables is hugely satisfying, but for some people, especially those who have disabilities, access to an allotment and all the benefits this brings can be very difficult. Local charities and communities are tackling these obstacles and finding innovative ways to make it possible for people of all abilities to enjoy the open air and grow healthy produce.

Through our grantmaking, we have funded many horticulturally based projects that are making a huge difference to the lives of local people.

Dig It Community Allotment

The Dig It Community Allotment in Saffron Walden is a place where people of all abilities and from all kinds of backgrounds can benefit from being outdoors and learn how to propagate seeds, nurture what is planted and harvest what is grown.

The allotment buzzes with activity and has been given a £3,000 boost by ECF through two of the funds it manages, The Diana Tinson Fund and Saffron Community Fund.

Laura Thompson-Harper is the project manager for Dig It Community Allotment.  She said: “We were absolutely delighted to receive this support and are so grateful to ECF and their funders for enabling us to deliver much needed outdoor projects at our site. The grant will help us to fund staff to provide activities through our Big Bed project, increasing raised planters and accessible planting areas at our allotment site for service users with limited mobility and physical disabilities.

“Our work includes teaching skills on growing your own food, cooking it, reducing food waste, companion planting to reduce chemicals, power of soil, and composting. We have received overwhelmingly positive feedback on our work at Dig It Community Allotment and have seen the tangible impact it has had on service users and the local community as a whole.

“We have seen many new referrals at our Open to All, Monday & Thursday sessions from older and younger individuals with limited mobility, who need additional support due to physical disabilities. We have strong links with many local organisations, including Café Cornell and Saffron Walden Mencap Society, who currently run weekly sessions with their service users at our site.

“Saffron Walden Mencap Society and their volunteers have collaborated with us to create a large summer house to accommodate indoor sessions and given us expert advice in planning and ways to improve accessibility on site. We have been extending access collaboratively throughout the plot to develop a wheelchair accessible greenhouse and pathways.

“Dig It provide specialist support from our staff and lead volunteers, offering ergonomic and disability-friendly equipment. This alongside the design of our allotment makes the project accessible for all.”

Plant Pots and Wellies

A large Harlow Council allotment site used by the Plant Pots and Wellies initiative has been transformed into a place of fun and positive activity. An initial grant from ECF helped launch the project in 2018 and its good work will expand and grow, thanks to further funding of £4,000 from the Harlow Recreation Trust, run by ECF.

“We are an exciting and inclusive community initiative, supporting children and adults with additional needs,” said Rowen Saunders at Plant Pots and Wellies.

“Our project provides opportunities in a safe space for horticultural and outdoor therapy.

The grants mean that activity sessions will be open for an extra day each week for a year. The sessions will be for children, young adults, and adults with additional needs and for carers.

“In the children’s section of the allotment each area is based on a children’s book or character.

“It is helpful for children with additional needs to have access to outdoor learning through play. They take part in activities that increase confidence, address sensory issues, learn about the environment and engage in creative outside play.  Sessions are varied each week to coincide with the different seasons and involve utilising different skills, learning to grow food from seed and sensory activities such as using our mud kitchen.

“Adults take part in gardening, carpentry, painting, craft and other activities. We have chickens and rabbits that are great for illustrating how to look after animals and part of the activities include feeding, caring for and spending time with them.

“Those involved in our activities learn new skills whilst increasing their confidence.  Socialising and working with a team of great people has created a close knit community that we are all proud to be part of.”

The Wilderness Foundation

The Wilderness Foundation received £2,846 from the Alan and Fay Cherry Fund, Chelmsford Star Co-op Community Fund and the Saffron Community Fund for their Down to Earth Allotment Project.  Community allotments help build connections to nature through therapeutic horticulture and volunteering, where people learn and develop new skills to benefit their mental and physical wellbeing.

The thriving project has a total of six plots at the Melbourne Community Allotments site in Chelmsford.

Jo Roberts, CEO of the Wilderness Foundation said: “Through our allotments, we work with members of the community who are vulnerable and socially isolated as well as those with special educational needs, NHS patients and other community groups. Those taking part benefit from working together, helping reduce social isolation, anxiety and other issues affecting their mental wellbeing whilst also learning new skills in gardening and conservation.

“Our weekly allotment workshops help people to spend more time outdoors in nature, learning about the importance of sustainability and environmental responsibility, gaining confidence and communication skills.  The allotment programme is open for all and gives residents and groups an improved sense of community, whilst supporting their mental health by being in nature.

“Our project educates local people about the benefits of healthy living, healthy eating and the positive impact to the environment when we work in collaboration with each other and nature. The scheme also directly contributes to community health and well-being, with organic food grown on site. Any excess produce is donated to the local food bank, spreading the benefit of the project even further within the community.”

Market Field Farm

Market Field Farm near Colchester, whilst not an allotment, is establishing a project on a five-and-a-half-acre site to give young people with disabilities the chance to develop skills and receive training in a real working environment and create paid employment as well as volunteering opportunities.

It is an innovative project that has received support from ECF with a grant of £5,471 given from the Alan and Fay Cherry Fund and Austin Hicks Charitable Fund.  The project is being developed by Market Field School which is based in Elmstead Market and helps young people with special educational needs and learning difficulties gain valuable skills experience so they can secure paid employment in the future.

Whilst the creation of the farm takes shape, the organisation provides a conservation enterprise, Market Field Grows (MFG), which collaborates with the Tree Council, Colchester City Council, Essex County Council and the Big Green Internet to provide teams dedicated to planting trees on a massive scale across north east Essex.  They also work with local farmers on rewilding projects, which focus on encouraging a diverse range of wildlife.

Chloe Jennings, Director of Operations for Hope Learning Community and Market Field Farm said: “Currently only 5.1% people with learning disabilities will secure paid employment during their lifetime. We are committed and determined to challenge and change this and believe that Market Field Farm and Market Field Grows both have the potential to do it.

“The team looked at what was required in the region and the vision for Market Field Farm and Market Field Grows were developed. As we head into our third year, we now employ 10 young people and two team leaders and plans for Market Field Farm are fully formed.

“The young people we support enjoy being outdoors, whatever the weather, going to work and feeling independent.  It helps them further build their confidence to gain valuable experience of the workplace and develop as individuals, learning to socialise and interact with other people.  All of this will support them positively for the future.”

The grant from ECF will enable Market Field Farm to buy more equipment and continue providing more consistent work for the young people involved.

Allotment Facts

  • There are an estimated 330,000 allotments across the UK.
  • The average waiting time for an allotment is six to 18 months and there are around 90,000 on waiting lists for an allotment.
  • Allotments can vary in size but the most common is ten rods or poles, which is an old Anglo-Saxon measurement roughly equal to 250 square metres.
  • The traditional date when rent is due on an allotment is St Michaelmas day, 29 September.
  • Under the 1950 Allotment Act, the keeping of hens and rabbits is permitted so long as they are for the tenant’s own use and not for business or profit.
  • There’s a national society dedicated to allotments. Find out more at The National Allotment Society: nsalg.org.uk
  • National Allotments Week 2024 runs August 12-18.