Seonad Hoy is Greener Communities Officer for the Wheatley Foundation. The Foundation is part of Wheatley Group and delivers a range of programmes across Central and the South of Scotland, with the aim of supporting vulnerable and disadvantaged people. Seonad leads on the Foundation’s Greener Communities programme, which aims to raise awareness of environmental issues among customers and colleagues.

As soon as I heard that the theme of this year’s SURF conference was community growing, I was keen to attend. Community growing is a topic of real interest to Wheatley Group because of the way it can improve people’s health and wellbeing, whilst simultaneously bringing communities together to produce locally grown food in a way which supports nature and the environment. I have a personal interest in the subject too. I became involved in my local community garden during the Covid pandemic and learned first-hand how community gardens can be spaces that foster a real community spirit and provide essential support to families in times of hardship. Because it was an outdoor space, our community garden was the only place that was able to deliver a playgroup for many months of the pandemic. It offered a much-needed opportunity to socialise outdoors, while enjoying the beauty of nature and learning how to grow vegetables. SURF’s Chief Executive, Euan Leitch, alluded to this when he spoke about how childhood experience is formative to adult experience – I know that my daughter will always value community gardens because of the positive experiences she had there during a difficult period in her life. I would love to see a community garden flourishing in every community so that all children (and adults) are able to benefit from similar experiences, and this was echoed by many of the speakers throughout the day.

I was interested to hear Professor Mary Brennan’s contribution, referring to the role that community growing can play in delivering a Good Food Nation, particularly in relation to its importance in supporting food secure households. This is relevant to Wheatley communities, many of which lack a local supermarket, have low car ownership and poor public transport links, making it difficult for residents to access nutritious, affordable food. Wheatley Group is working in partnership with organisations including Good Food Scotland and the Scottish Pantry Network to support local food pantries and larders which improve access to food. Community gardens can link into pantries, providing locally grown produce at no or low cost to residents. Kennishead Larder and community garden provide a good example of this type of partnership.

Eugenie Aroutcheff from Grow 73 spoke passionately about the Incredible Edible model which involves people using any available local space for growing, ranging from barrels, to raised beds, to larger plots of land. This could be a way for residents living in Wheatley communities to start growing in their local area, even where there is not much space available. Wheatley was involved in the Stalled Spaces initiative with Glasgow City Council, which led to the creation of many community growing spaces throughout the city. Maybe now is the time for a new version of this programme.

Marie-Amelie Viatte’s contribution about the fragility of the global food system and the need for a bottom up approach to food production was thought-provoking. Marie-Amelie also spoke about how those who are struggling most in their daily lives have the most to gain from becoming involved in community growing, and this made me think about the benefits that community gardens could have for Wheatley Care service users, including people who have recently experienced homelessness or who are in recovery.

Susie Stott from Queens Cross Housing Association spoke about how their community gardens are used as hubs which can link residents into wider services. She also highlighted how they have leveraged community benefits to maximise the facilities in their gardens, and this is an approach which Wheatley Group has also taken, using skills, time and materials available from contractors and suppliers to improve growing spaces for the benefit of the local community.

Storyteller Daniel Serridge rounded off the day, concluding his story by describing how sunflowers in the King’s garden turned to face each other, basking in each other’s warmth. For me, this perfectly summarised both the genuine warmth and enthusiasm demonstrated by all the speakers and participants on the day of the conference, and the feeling that you get from becoming involved in your local community garden.

Thanks to SURF for organising such a timely, interesting and thought-provoking conference. Lots to take away and consider how we can further support the development of community growing across Wheatley communities!

This blog is the seventh in a series of follow on blogs from the SURF Annual Conference. Read the next blog from Alex Wilde of the Improvement Service HERE