Friday, 19 September 2014

Mrs Seven Storeys Up

Recently their was a conversation on Anne Wareham's ThinkinGardens site, about community gardens and why we do or don't get involved with them etc If you'd like to read the thread it is here and it's worth a look at. In my comment I mention a lady who I call Mrs Seven Storeys Up, mainly because that was my overriding memory of my first meeting with her.
Me "hello"
Mrs SSU "No point me being here I live seven storeys up"
Me "Well I'm glad to see you. Shall we see what we might get doing today?"
Mrs SSU "We can but there's no point, I live seven storeys up"
And so the morning went on. Tea was drunk, cake was consumed, overwintered crops removed and the soil prepared and if I'm honest, I never expected to see that lady at a gardening group again.

So the following week when Mrs Seven Storeys Up arrived again I decided to see how I could engage and find out a bit more about her, other than the fact she lived seven storeys up. So we disappeared into the potting shed whilst the rest of the community group did other tasks and we talked about what she might like to grow.
"Potatoes?" I asked
"Yes please-it's a pain having to drag them to the seventh floor when you need enough for 6 people. At least the garden is closer than the supermarket"

6 people? So out the reality came. 5 kids, seven storeys up, from the age of 3 to 14. 4 boys, 1 girl. No outdoor space for any of them to run around in and no Dad to be seen for miles around. Little or no chance of moving without uprooting all the kids from schools and no money to move and do up a property anyway. Seemingly no way that life could change.

And yet every week Mrs Seven Storeys Up arrived at our little community group and got really stuck in. She bought a notebook and recorded everything we did. She asked pertinent questions about all sorrts of stuff that made me realise there was a lot of homework going on.
"I've got a teeny balcony I never use as I'm terrified the kids might fall off it but I could grow pots of blueberries-where do I get ericaceous soil from?"
"Those patio nectarines-do they really stay that small?"
"How do I get an allotment?"

The last one definitely got my attention in a way that made me start to wonder just how much this was actually life changing. So I took Mrs Seven Storeys Up through getting an allotment. And we got her one. And the community group went along and helped her clear it whilst we cleaned out her shed and collected a second hand polytunnel for her that was free on Gumtree.

And Mrs Seven Storeys Up started to grow. And not only started but just didn't stop. Constant texts asking if it was ok to sow this now, would it be wise to wait to sow that, could this go straight in the ground....... It was incredible. And not only that but her entire family started to work on the plot, from the tinies to the older kids, and her parents, all growing food and spending time together productively and more importantly happily as a cohesive unit.

Now some might say this all sounds a tad patronising and a bit oh my hasn't she done well. In reality what has actually happened is that the empowerment of growing food has changed this family's life in a way that is outstanding. When Mrs Seven Storeys Up first arrived at our community group she had been asked to come along by her GP who was treating her for depression following the horrors of post natal depression, and she was at the point of not being able to cope. For weeks the children went to grandparents at the weekend to give her a break from what must have been the monotony of every day life, coping alone in a city with 5 kids and very little support. In her mind there was no way out and this was just how it was going to be for ever.

When I wrote the piece on ThinkinGardens I rang Mrs Seven Storeys Up and said what I had written and asked if it was ok. To which the answer was "Yes, of course. It might make someone else do the same. You should write summat on that blog thing you do. You should do that more." And more general nagging.....
"So what," I asked, "has gardening done that has changed your life?"
"It's made me realise if I can grow a carrot in this bleedin' clay, I can rule the world if I want to"
"Really?" I asked, slightly tearfully
"Yes. If I can feed my kids without having to buy rubbish veg and fruit from the supermarket, and look after chickens and have a part share in a pig( of which I knew nothing until this conversation so we may have veered off point for a moment) I can do anything. Oh and by the way I've taken on the allotment next door that was empty and I'm having a jam and chutney stand next week at the school-I bet I can make some money out of this you know"
Little known to me until recently but there is also an RHS course being taken, ("can I borrow your RHS 2 notes?") and a food hygiene certificate been taken in order that chutney and jam begin to be a viable option.

So to all the doubters about community gardens and their worth, remember Mrs Seven Storeys Up. She and many like her, up and down the country, are changing their lives by growing food and empowering themselves to change their lives.  Community gardens are extraordinary places where extraordinary things happen.