Norfolk Master Gardeners hope to cultivate a home-grown revolution
A growing army of Master Gardeners is looking for recruits to inspire a new generation of households to cultivate their own food. Rural affairs correspondent CHRIS HILL reports.
Back in the 1970s, the Good Life represented an alternative way of living – and a much-loved sitcom which gently poked fun at the ideals of suburban self-sufficiency.
And the programme’s well-meaning protagonists Tom and Barbara, played by the late Richard Briers and the evergreen Felicity Kendal, were hardly seen as visionaries by their snooty neighbour Margo.
But these days, the economic and environmental landscapes have changed immeasurably – and a new generation of DIY gardeners are beginning to reap the benefits of producing their own food.
The Norfolk Master Gardener programme aims to equip households, families and schools with the skills and enthusiasm to grow fruit and vegetables in their own back yards.
Since its launch in September 2010, the programme has trained 75 volunteers to support 770 growers in more than 440 mentored households.
And the benefits reported by its members go far beyond the organic joys of feeding their family from the land they live on – they include cheaper food bills, natural education, healthy eating, exercise and social inclusion.
Now, having secured funding for another year, the organisation is looking for more volunteers to train as Master Gardeners and spread the green-fingered gospel to more households and communities.
Gabbie Joyce is the co-ordinator for Norfolk Master Gardener programme – a Big Lottery-funded partnership between Garden Organic and Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse museum, near Dereham.
She said: “What is wonderful about this is that, because it is such a lovely network of community-based volunteers, if we didn’t get any more funding to continue with co-ordinated support after February 2014, I think the message and the commitment from people currently volunteering would continue.
“It is not an elitist environment. That is one of the great things about growing. It crosses all ages and societies and postcodes.
“It gives us an understanding of where we sit in the world and where out food is coming from, and our impact within it. It is getting people asking questions. The awareness of mentored households has increased so they are making more informed decisions about buying local, buying organic and buying seasonal produce. Attitudes to waste and composting have changed because it is all part of that same cycle.
“People are getting involved with getting to know their communities better. We have had a lot of households asking for help and support and that’s an avenue into getting connected with the community through their master gardener. We are an instant society, but food growing is about having patience and also a level of philosophical thought, because not everything is going to grow. It has all these extra aspects.
“It used to be the alternative lifestyle. There were more Margos than there were Tom and Barbaras. Now it is becoming much more commonplace and there are more Tom and Barbara. Even the Margos are digging up a corner of their garden these days – although they might do it in a more sophisticated way.”
One family which has embraced the Master Gardener mentality is Alaine and Michael Roberts and their 11-year-old son Ian, who live on Admirals Walk in Hingham, between Dereham and Attleborough.
Apparently, learning to grow his own food has had a profound impact on young enthusiast Ian who has convinced his parents to plough up part of their front lawn as a vegetable plot.
The family has been growing for just over a year, producing tomatoes, carrots, potatoes, raspberries, strawberries, pea shoots and broad beans – although they confessed their first attempt to grow Brussels sprouts was “a bit of a disaster”.
In 2011, their crop included 120g of carrots and 150g of potatoes, while in 2012 there were 536g of potatoes and about 70 tomatoes, saving an estimated £10 a week from their grocery bills during the harvest season.
Mrs Roberts said: “It is just so nice to go out into the garden and pick it all rather than going to the supermarket. Ian gets to learn as well and gets the exercise as well as the good food. His carrots were gorgeous.
“I think it teaches him responsibility as he has to weed the plants and he talks to them, because you have to look after them. He loves doing that. He definitely prefers gardening to school.
“I find it amazing that you see children on TV being asked where their milk comes from and they say: ‘Tesco’. I think it is scary that they think vegetables come in packets.”
Ian said: “For me, because I’m a child and I’m not used to gardening, it is so entertaining. Instead of having nothing to do on a sunny day I can just put plants in and be happy every day of the year.”
After an initial assessment of their growing space, soil type, and what the limitations are, mentored families are given a garden planner showing optimum planting and harvesting times, a pack of mixed seeds, and all the advice they can absorb.
Master Gardener Dawn Jessett works with two households in Hingham, another near Wymondham, and with the children at Hingham Primary School.
She said: “It makes it much easier for people who are interested in it and want to learn more. But we are also trying to encourage people to take up gardening in the simplest ways possible. Even if you only have a window sill you can still grow pea shoots. It is enough to get people started.
“It is nice to be able to show children where their food comes from, and how it grows. Like Ian says, you are looking after it, so you are responsible for it, and it gives them a sense of responsibility while they are still young and still wanting to learn. It is important to catch them early and keep them keen.”
The Master Gardener network commissioned Coventry University to research the impact of the programme on both volunteers and mentored households.
According to the study, after one year of volunteering, 69pc of Master Gardeners felt a “greater sense of community” and 84pc were “more satisfied with life”. 95pc increased growing knowledge with 75pc growing wider range of food.
Meanwhile, with the benefit of 12 months of support, 80pc of mentored households said they were growing more food and 25pc said they were spending less. Of the households surveyed, 33pc now spend 3-5 hours per week growing food, and 50pc spend 1-2 hours per week.
Potential volunteers hoping to become Norfolk Master Gardeners should have at least two years food-growing experience. Organic growing techniques are part of the induction training, so applicants don’t need to be experts.
Volunteers are asked to devote 30 hours per year, at time and place to suit.
Trained mentors will offer regular advice and encouragement for individuals, families, households or groups for a 12-month growing season. They could also promote food growing within their community through events, talks, school visits and communal projects.
For more information on becoming a Master Gardener, contact www.norfolk.mastergardeners.org.uk.