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Nature bringing people together: Meet the community gardeners from Walsall

By Heather Large | Walsall | Features | Published:

From potatoes dug out of the ground to tomatoes picked from the vine – it doesn’t get any fresher than home-grown produce.

Manager and ecologist Paul Mason enjoys helping people 'get back to nature'

But at Goscote Greenacres community garden in Walsall, they not only grow a wide variety of fruit, vegetables and herbs but they also aim to bring people together through gardening.

The project was originally set up as a partnership between the local community and Walsall Council Social Care and Inclusion to improve the natural environment and help break down barriers.

“It’s been very successful. It’s about bringing people back to nature. I think we’ve lost that connection with where our food comes from and with the natural environment,” says manager and ecologist Paul Mason.

There are 50 allotment plots on the site with 42 tended to by local residents and the rest by a team of volunteers including many with learning disabilities.

There are 50 allotment plots on the site with 42 tended to by local residents

The garden, which is now run as an independent charity with the help of lottery funding, is open to the community including users of the adjacent Goscote day centre who can wander among the vegetables and flowers or along the woodland path.

Produce grown in the site’s market garden is sold in the farm shop along with other locally-sourced fruit, vegetables and eggs.

“It is picked to order so if someone wants a kilo of broad beans, I will come down and pick the beans for them – you can’t get any fresher,” says Paul, who also delivers produce to customers.

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There are also two polytunnels where tomatoes, aubergines, sweet peppers, green chillis and jalapenos are among the crops being tended to by the team.

For the first time this year they are also growing heritage black tomatoes to expand their range for customers.

“Every year we like to try different things. The salad crops are always very popular because they are picked fresh,” says Paul.

There is a fully accessible fishing platform

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The garden is also open to school groups and he believes it’s a vital way of teaching youngsters about how their food is grown.

“We’ve lost the concept of seasons. I remember looking forward to the first strawberries of the year in May or June but now you can get them all year round in the supermarket.

“I like interacting with people about the natural environment and talking to them about what we are growing during the year,” he adds.

While January and February tend to be quieter months, the rest of the year is filled with important jobs including sowing seeds, weeding, watering and later harvesting produce.

He says the volunteers enjoy working in the garden and get a lot out of the experience. “They get to be part of their local community. Many only mix with their peers but here they get to see people of all ages and from all backgrounds.

“It’s good to see the volunteers with learning disabilities interacting with the public and everybody gets to learn skills and feel they are contributing to something they are part of and they feel proud of it,” adds Paul, who is supported by a team of trustees including plot holders.

A heritage tomato variety being grown for the first time at the site

In the future he hopes to set up a garden maintenance business at the site that would offer services such as lawn mowing, hedge cutting and weeding.

He has also worked with training organisations including Nova Training and the site has also benefitted from gardening carried out by people completing Community Payback.

The team also look after a nearby community orchard which has fruit trees and bee hives.

The garden also features artwork including scarecrow sculptures made from willow and a willow tunnel.

It regularly hosts arts and crafts activities with local artists and there is a performance area used for concerts and open-air theatre.

“There is a growing interest in arts and crafts and we have our own art group,” says Paul.

Community art is an important part of the garden

There will be a free music and art event in the garden on August 25 from 1pm until 4pm. An array of local artists will take to the stage and there will a range of craft activities along with a barbecue and freshly-made pizza.

“We get a lot of people from the local community coming to the events and everybody has a good time,” says Paul.

Away from the vegetable plots is the woodland path which winds its way through the trees and there is also access to a canalside fishing platform, which is suitable for wheelchairs.

It was built after Paul, who runs a fishing club, successfully applied for a £1,000 grant from a police fund made up of money seized from criminals under the Proceeds of Crime Act.

Wild brambles on the bank of The Wyrley & Essington Canal provide a vital habitat for nesting ducks and water voles while dragonflies and damselflies are regularly spotted.

The woodland area has been kept as natural as possible including the nettles which are a valuable source of food for red admiral and peacock caterpillars, while bat and bird boxes are dotted about to provide homes for wildlife.

For Paul, the garden provides a peaceful haven away from the hustle and bustle of daily life.

“It’s a nice spot to work in. We’re a mile and a half from the centre of Walsall but you can’t see a house,” he says.

Heather Large

By Heather Large
Special projects reporter - @HeatherL_star

Senior reporter and part of the Express & Star special projects team specialising in education and human interest features.

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