Demand for allotments is at an all-time high. Waiting lists around the country top 100,000 people, as would-be gardeners are keen to reap the benefits of outdoor exercise, cheap organic produce and the chance to reconnect with the land and the food supply chain.

With allotments so hard to come by, taking advantage of available space on NHS sites to cultivate fruit and vegetables is incredibly valuable. Grow Your Own initiatives can provide service users, staff and the surrounding community with food plots that would be otherwise inaccessible.

The mental health benefits of gardening are broad and diverse, [with] significant reductions in depression and anxiety, improved social functioning and… opportunities for vocational development.

The King’s Fund

You can grow fruits and vegetables in even the smallest of spaces. Just a few square metres can offer up immense benefits including fresh, organic produce for hospital kitchens; therapeutic gardening sessions; opportunities for learning new skills; and green spaces for staff and service users to relax in.

Tomatoes, strawberries, salad leaves and herbs grow well in containers, so you can have miniature Grow Your Own areas in courtyards or balconies. Get large pots if you can; you’ll fit more in and they’ll also need less frequent watering. You can also train beans to grow up a wall, saving on space. Larger spaces can incorporate raised beds, which can be adapted to suit people with reduced mobility as well as wheelchair users. Fruit trees and bushes generally need less regular maintenance than annual vegetable crops. They can provide shade and add height to your green space, as well as attracting bees and butterflies. The spring blossoms will be a welcome site for staff, patients and visitors.

NHS Forest sites with ‘grow your own’ projects

Guild Lodge, a secure mental health hospital in Preston, launched their ‘grow your own’ project in 2013. As well as providing fresh, organic fruit and veg for the hospital kitchen, it has given dozens of patients the opportunity to gain horticultural and cooking skills. Tending the site is a good way for service users and staff to boost their physical activity, and allows them to spend time in green space. Some service users have been offered regular, paid work on the allotment site, and others have gained qualifications in horticulture, a good preparation for life after leaving hospital. The site also provides a vegetable growing space for community members.

Highbury Community Garden, Nottingham
Highbury Community Garden, Nottingham. Photo: Miriam Dobson / Centre for Sustainable Healthcare 2021. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)
Ranger at Southmead Hospital allotment
Southmead Hospital’s Nature Recovery Ranger.
Photo: Vicki Brown / Centre for Sustainable Healthcare 2021. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

At Southmead Hospital in Bristol, our Nature Recovery Ranger Phoebe Webster has been leading lunchtime Grow Your Own sessions for staff, on the site’s vegetable beds and in the polytunnels. They’ve learned about composting and made a scarecrow, and visiting groups of children have planted their own broad beans. High above, the roof terrace leading out from the staff café has been turned into a thriving herb garden, within easy reach for the hospital chefs.

Growing food on your NHS site can be part of a broader sustainability initiative. PHE’s offices in Colindale, North London have allotment sites which are much appreciated by staff who don’t have their own outdoor space, as they can relax in the green space during breaks and grow their own organic produce. The agency composts all its food waste, which is then used to fertilise the allotment crops, and rainwater butts provide water for the site.

Why grow your own?

The organic produced harvested from such sites is a source of healthy food for service users and can reduce costs for the NHS. When dealing with ‘food metres’ instead of food miles, and with ingredients that are not treated with pesticides and fertilisers or wrapped in plastic, this food actually leaves a positive environmental impact, rather than a heavy carbon footprint.

It can encourage service users to exercise and to socialise with other patients and provide staff with a source of free or low-cost food. A kitchen garden also promotes wider sustainable practices on hospital sites, as kitchen waste can be composted, packaging is reduced, and rainwater can be harvested for watering. Surplus produce can be shared with staff or sold to the wider community. It can also be donated to organisations such as FareShare and certain homeless charities, which, unlike many food banks, are able to accept fresh fruit and vegetables.

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