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Lynette Warren co-runs the Centre for Sustainable Technologies, a social enterprise that helps more people get into growing food. Here she blogs about her RSA Catalyst-funded project to create vertical allotments.

The Big Idea: providing spaces for people to grow their own plants and vegetables in urban spaces.

Ladder and greeneryDuring recent years ‘grow your own’ gardening has increased in popularity, and it has been recognised that it can promote healthy eating, physical activity and social interaction. However, due to the lack of sufficient allotments and the predominance of high density and high rise buildings in urban areas, the opportunities to grow food are limited.

Mike Anstey and myself, both RSA Fellows, have created a vertical allotment system called 'GutterGrow' to address this and provide a versatile and flexible unit to grow vegetables and plants on balconies, small patios or any confined space. We’ve designed it to be accessible to the elderly, people with disabilities and children of all ages.

How RSA Catalyst helped the project

The RSA’s Catalyst seed fund enabled a pilot project to be established in two Cambridge residential homes – Lammas Court, accommodating up to 25 residents, and Kay Hitch Way, supporting up to nine residents with special needs and physical disabilities – both run by Granta/Metropolitan Housing Association. Granta staff welcomed the project, as local authority-funded activities have been reduced through budgetary cuts. They felt it would benefit residents’ health, while also addressing the loneliness often experienced by the elderly.

The Catalyst project funded a variety of vertical allotment systems to enable residents to grow their own vegetables or plants on their balconies, in small patios or in communal garden areas. The project was also supported by Mr. Fothergills, the seed producer, who agreed to provide seeds and plug plants selected by the residents, including beetroot, tomatoes, chilli peppers, kohl rabi and strawberries.

The project so far

The growing programme was set up in March 2012, with Mike and I making weekly visits to ensure everyone was happy with their frames and sowing seeds at appropriate times. A number of residents had their own personal frames on balconies and patios, with one lady adapting hers for growing raspberries and beans. The large communal frame was overseen by the keen gardeners, but all residents were welcome to join in and all the herbs and vegetables were shared.

Through an RSA Fellow, we were introduced to the Cambridge University student volunteering hub. Two students were keen to be involved but unfortunately the growing season clashed with their final year dissertations and exams, so they were unable to continue with the project.

In spite of the very poor spring and summer weather – and random attacks by squirrels, who thought they had a personal snack bar – the residents had good harvests of broad beans, lettuce, runner beans, onions, herbs, and a bountiful crop of tomatoes (a particular favourite). New residents were keen to join in with this initiative, and visiting relatives thought it was a lovely idea. In Kay Hitch Way one resident was delighted to be involved as the frame made it easy for her to garden in her wheelchair. Others were encouraged to join in watering and caring for the plants.

On hearing about the project, Aldwyck, another housing association, asked if we could run an Easter growing event with children from deprived families on an estate in Luton. This was great fun: the children loved building their own frames to fit on their balconies, and chose vegetables and plants they liked, including one of the hottest chillis. The focus was on good healthy food, and hopefully the children encouraged parents to join in too.

The years growing ended in October so the frames were dismantled and put in storage. Various herbs were kept on windowsills and all agreed that it was a success and they wanted to continue the following year. The gardeners really appreciated that there was no digging and few weeds or pests, particularly as a number of them were over 90! They felt it was relatively easy, interesting and a good social interactive experience - and many were surprised what they could grow in containers.

In spite of the poor weather there was enough produce for sharing even with the squirrels. Wednesday, the 'GutterGrow', day provided a focus for discussions and comments about the project. We were always greeted with “here come the gutter-grows!” It was always an enjoyable experience, not only were we regaled with what was growing well or not but also life stories and the odd glass of sherry."

What has become apparent was that for the project to grow, it needs dedicated personnel to co-ordinate building and maintaining the frames, and to give ongoing support to help grow and harvest healthy plants. Our weekly visits provided a focal point and sustained a growing enthusiasm by residents, and this is an area where more volunteers would be welcome.

How can you get involved

We feel that this has a huge potential to ‘grow’ as a social enterprise. Both housing associations are keen to continue to run it across their estates, and see it as a viable social initiative. We're really interested to hear from any RSA Fellows who work with housing associations or schools elsewhere in the UK, as we'd be glad to discuss opportunities to spread what we're doing. Hopefully we'll be recruiting an apprentice soon to help expand the work – if you'd like to find out more about this, or any other aspect of what we're doing, please get in touch via our website.


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