FEATURE: Rediscovering the lost sense of community spirit
Hidden away on a south-facing slope in Gleadless Valley, surrounded on all sides by high-rise flats, is a splash of greenery.
As I walk up the footpath to Herdings Community & Heritage Centre, on a drizzly Thursday morning, there’s no obvious clue as to the treasure within.
It isn’t until I make my way through the centre’s corridors, and step out the back door, that I’m greeted by a slice of nature in the city.
The green field slopes out in all directions, featuring a variety of vegetable beds, a little orchard, and a mighty impressive polytunnel. A handful of people are working busily as I arrive, doing garden maintenance, weeding beds, and mowing the grass.
“We’re all hard at work today,” says Kim Hinchliffe as he steps forward to greet me with a grin, togged up in a thick Regatta mac.
Kim is a health practitioner with Reach South Sheffield, the charity that launched this Food Growing Session at the Herdings centre 12 months ago.
“We’re doing our best to get people growing their own fruits and vegetables,” Kim explains, waving an arm at the nearby vegetable beds.
“This time of year, we’re planting seeds, so there’s not lots in our beds, but we have a fantastic little herb area, and an orchard of about 15 or 16 trees - apple, pear, plum and cherry - which are two years old this time, so we’ll be able to start harvesting the fruit from those this year.
“The polytunnel was one of the first things we bought when we got the £10,000 grant from Awards For All, to launch this project last year, and it’s been a great investment. It works in the same way as a greenhouse, allowing us to grow all kinds of things that need the heat to survive. We do have some issues with kids poking holes in it, but luckily, being made of polythene, we can patch the holes up quite easily, whereas if the windows of a greenhouse get smashed, it’s much more difficult and expensive to sort.
“We already have a good mixture of people who come along each Thursday morning. Some volunteers have gardening knowledge already, and are happy to just crack on, while others are quite new to gardening and are interested in learning whatever we can teach them - possibly with a view to everntually growing things in their own gardens.”
And Kim, who has worked for Reach for the past six years, knows a thing or two about gardening. He previously worked on an allotment project in Firth Park, and now has his own allotment too.
“I’ve seen firsthand the benefits of working on a site like this, and how it can bring people on,” he says.
“There’s something utterly therapeutic about working the land and growing produce, and it’s also great for people to get outdoors in the fresh air, and do something productive with their time. We’ve had some brilliant weather in recent weeks.
“It’s also good for people to be able to meet and socialise with other people while they’re here.”
Marc Smith, aged 42, lives in one of the nearby blocks of flats, and has been volunteering for the past month.
“I don’t mind a bit of hard work,” he says.
“I did a bit of gardening back when I was at school, and always really enjoyed it, so it’s really nice to be able to revisit that now. I’ve already taken some bits home to cook with - like sprouts and rocket.”
And Kim is keen to attract more volunteers like Marc to the weekly session.
“I don’t think enough people know we’re here,” he adds.
“We’re surrounded on all sides by high-rise flats, people without gardens of their own, and I think if people knew we were here, they’d come and check it out.
“People are welcome to take the produce they’ve helped to grow home, which is a wonderful thing to have access to. Any food we don’t use is either donated to local foodbanks, or lunch clubs, or we sell it cheap, to help encourage people to eat fresh and eat healthy.
“If we get enough interest, I hope we’ll expand, so that we’re doing more sessions throughout the week.”
The community garden currently grows potatoes, runner beans, broad beans, spinach, kale, lettuce and sprouts outside, while its polytunnel produces things like tomatoes, chillies, and aubergines.
“Everything you can get at the supermarket!” smiles Kim, aged 42.
“We’re also helping to bring back that sense of community that seems to have disappeared in so many places - a real feel of people from the same area working together for a common goal, and reaping the rewards.
“We have a lovely patio area, which is great for people to come and sit out on, so we’re hoping to get some more flowers beds, and some benches out here. The garden is south facing, so when it’s sunny, it gets the sun all day long.
“We also have access to a great kitchen here in the hall, so would be great to start doing some cooking in there using our produce - making soups and things - so that people can join in with us, learn another skill, and have a bite of dinner when they’re finished volunteering.
“The main thing I would say to anyone considering growing their own fruit and vegetables, is that it’s easier than you think, and you don’t need a huge garden to get started. If you’ve got some little boxes, compost, and somes seeds, you’ve got enough to make a good start.”
Visit reachsouthsheffield.org.uk for details on the Food Growing sessions.