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I enjoy gardening – but I’m not green-fingered.
Everything I plant seems to either die or grow totally out of time with plants in other people’s gardens. My neighbours’ sunflowers came out weeks ago – mine have yet to flower. My husband planted sweet peas which are flourishing, whereas mine are ragged and sad-looking, and a crop of lettuces I planted didn’t even raise their heads above the soil.
Steeped in failure, I jumped at the chance to join a group of women gardeners who have learned their skills from scratch and are now cooking with their own produce.
Every week members of Grow Organic, a community growing group for women, meet at Scotchman Road Allotments in Manningham. They spend their time sowing seeds, planting out, tending crops and harvesting produce – skills they previously lacked. “I couldn’t grow anything at all before – I hadn’t a clue,” says. Farida Jan. “Now I grow plants from seed and I’m using my skills at home – last year my garden was a disaster, now it’s lovely. I’m trying to grow a cherry tree.”
Farida is passionate about gardening. “I love it – it is amazing to see how one potato can produce 25 potatoes and one artichoke can give you more than 20,” she says.
Standing close to her on the neat plots, Zahida Iqbal has also caught the gardening bug. “I’ve been coming here for almost five months. I didn’t know a thing before, and now I’m growing flowers at home.”
And Azmad Bibi is putting the produce she takes home to good use. “I’ve got five children, so I’ve been using the vegetables to cook meals.”
The project began two years ago as Scotchman Road Community Women’s Gardening Group, involving parents and grandparents of children at the nearby Lilycroft Primary School. In April, 2008, it became part of Bradford Community Environment Project’s (BCEP) Grow Organic scheme, funded mainly by Bradford and Airedale Health Authority.
It is clearly benefiting the women and their families. They have gained so much knowledge in a relatively short time, so I hope they can pass some on to me.
They set me to work tackling weeds between plants – something I rarely do in the garden at home. “You need to keep on top of the weeds,” Farida tells me, “Or they will compete for space and water.”
The soil is rich and crumbly, making the job easy. Soon, we have half a bucket of weeds. “In summer they can take over in no time,” says Christine Edmonds, community environment worker with BCEP, who oversees the project.
It is then time to hoe, and we turn over the soil to aerate it and produce a fine mix, ready for fresh planting. It’s satisfying work, seeing the beds ready for a new crop. Weeds with shallow root systems can easily be removed using a hoe.
The women grow flowers as well as vegetables, and I help to harvest marigold seeds, removing them from the pods within the dried-up flower and sealing them in small envelopes. This is one thing I should do more of in my garden. Seeds are costly, and great savings can be made by removing them from the flowers. I promise to send some hollyhocks – the only seeds I harvest – to the group. The women tend cultivated and wild flower beds. They pass on some great tips, such as the advantages of growing the herb comfrey, which is a great fertiliser and compost activator. “When you’re planting potatoes, wrap each in a comfrey leaf for an instant feed,” says Christine.
The women, who are aged 18 upwards, also grow fruit in a small orchard adjacent to the plots.
Shabnam Bhatti is completely hooked on gardening. “Our vegetables are like our babies – my daughter says I like it more than her!” She uses produce for family meals. “I have a very big family, and when I bring vegetables home, my husband tells all our friends so I feed even more people.”
The main aims of the group are to learn more about growing food, take more exercise, and learn more about healthy eating and cooking.
“It is also great socially – the women see it as a social event where they get to meet others who have the same interest,” says Christine. “One member of the group suffers from arthritis and didn’t go out much, but her family say she’s really perked up since she started to garden.”
The project suffered a blow recently when vandals wrecked a shelter on the plots used by the women. The well-used hut was pushed over into a pile of broken wood. And last weekend the garage was broken into and tools, including children's tools, were bent and twisted.
As well as the gardening sessions, the women, who are mainly of Pakistani origin, take part in other health-related events including cook-and-eat activities – held jointly with the Treehouse Cafe, and trips to destinations like the Yorkshire Dales. They recently visited Malham, where they walked and ate a picnic lunch.
In winter, different tasks are carried out, such as creating decorations from dried flower heads.
I enjoy my morning with this friendly group, and leave feeling more confident about tending my own garden. They say plants benefit from a good talking to, so if I tell them I know what I’m doing, I may get a bumper crop of vegetables and flowers next year.
l For more information, contact BCEP on (01274) 223236, or visit bcep.org.uk. Anyone who can help with a replacement shelter or tools should call the project on the same number.