“We feel at home” at the Calthorpe: Community garden volunteers share their experiences

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“We feel at home here” was a common view of community garden volunteers at an event hosted by the Calthorpe Community Garden, central London. This was the September Spotlight Garden of Urban Harvest 2021, organized by the Capital Growth programme.

Held on Friday 24th September, the event began by screening short films made by participants in various community-gardens (see our project below). The films stimulated a discussion about volunteers’ experiences, especially getting to know different kinds of people, sharing their skills, feeling more healthy, and spreading cultivation more widely. These benefits had special importance during the Covid-19 pandemic, when many people otherwise faced social isolation.

At the Calthorpe diverse people come together and create a group sense of belonging. As a participant said,

It is nice to have people from different backgrounds and ages. And that’s another thing that is really beautiful to see. And people stay very engaged for years. So I feel that you belong here.

‘Home’ has gained many meanings there. As participants said:

We feel this is a second home. We socialise, we really enjoy there and share many things — not only food ideas.

It’s somewhere that you can feel safe. You feel at home when you’re here.

It helps all the locals. We have somewhere green to come. It’s good for our health. And we feel we belong. It has an impact on all the families, all the generations.

Participants watching the films at the Calthorpe event. Photo credit: Manal Massalha

Many volunteers there originally came from Latin America, bring their food cultures and do gardening there especially on Fridays. As one said:

I grew up on a farm in Cuzco, Peru. I love what this project does. Here I feel in Peru, to be honest. And I’m so grateful for me, like all Latin American people here. It’s home for me.

Volunteers make connections between food-growing at home and at the Calthorpe:

It’s an extension of your own garden. And if I want to stick in my hands and dig, I’m quite free to do that. It’s like minded people. Basically, we like the same sort of things, which is very good to socialise with other people as well.

And they connected the Calthorpe’s social activities to their health:

The garden gives them somewhere green for them to come to with fresh air. People can participate in the gardening. There are a few allotments at the back where the locals do some of the planting, which is really very healthy for them.

During the pandemic the Calthorpe distributed fresh food to vulnerable people, especially a weekly box scheme. By growing and packing the food, volunteers gained a sense of a societal contribution:

If I wasn’t here, I would be sitting down at home watching television. Instead I come here and sit down on the table in the polytunnel, propagating plants. At the end of the day it was very important to see all the plants and to see what the food is used for — giving to the community.

When the pandemic lock-down began in early 2020, a staff member encouraged food-growing at people’s homes:

Mila had a wonderful scheme of sending seeds out to people who were isolated in their houses and then had a zoom meeting once a week to encourage people. I was one of those, although I live right local. I also received those seeds, so it was really wonderful to see them on my window-sill sprouting up. It was really important for other people here because they were even more isolated than I was.

The staff member mentioned above, Mila, commented on the discussion:

Listening to everyone, and hearing Hazel talk about her first experience in the garden today, reminds me about when you arrive early to a barbeque. The host might not be ready and it’s busy. But everyone is welcoming and you have a great time and feel very welcomed.

Some participants praised the films shown at this event:

I thought they were really inspiring. I love the idea of the space that was just a piece of empty ground that people just walked past — and now it’s a community garden.

Participants being record by the author. Photo credit: Patrick Campbell

The films come from the ‘Grassroots Visual Storytelling about Community Food-Growing’ project of the Open University, drawing participants especially from London and Reading. See the Cobra Collective’s First Insights page, which has links to the films, freely available; also links to blogs and an article with quotes from the films. For more on the 24th September event, see Capital Growth’s Instagram posting.

Community gardens are invited to hold similar events and so generate more stories which inspire people’s involvement. Speakers from the storytelling project are also available.

Written by Les Levidow, Open University

Contact: [email protected]

The author is a Senior Research Fellow at the Open University. His research on agri-food issues has included public controversies over GM crops, as well as agroecological alternatives linked with short food-supply chains bringing producers closer to consumers.