On a warm July day, a smiling scarecrow in scrubs stands guard over a strawberry patch, warning off birds on the lookout for a mid-morning snack. Behind her, netting is draped over a raised vegetable bed, where beetroot, cabbages and cucumbers are thriving.

The veg, fruit and even the scarecrow are the result of the hard work of Southmead Hospital’s staff, who have volunteered at the on-site allotment on their lunchbreaks and around their shifts, to plant, water, weed and harvest the abundant crops.

Southmead Hospital staff allotment
Southmead Hospital staff allotment. Photo: Asia Pryjda / Centre for Sustainable Healthcare 2021. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).
A scarecrow watches over Southmead Hospital's staff allotment
A scarecrow watches over Southmead Hospital’s staff allotment. Photo: Vicki Brown / Centre for Sustainable Healthcare 2021. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).

The allotment was created in 2019 as a space for staff to relax on this North Bristol site, and to learn about growing fruits and vegetables. Pottering about on the plot offers gentle exercise and the chance to socialise, and the site has been a real boost to biodiversity, as it is flanked by a small orchard, an insect hotel and pollen-rich, wildflower meadows.

“It’s just really nice to get away from the screen for half an hour. When I go back to work, I feel more focused because I’ve had that time as a way to settle rather than staying super stressed. Coming out here and having a bit of a chill and getting my hands dirty – it’s something a bit more proactive to do in a break rather than just going for a walk. My brain is engaged, but it’s engaged in a different way than when I’m sat at a computer.”

– Steph Williamson, Southmead staff member and lunchtime allotment volunteer

A wide variety of produce is cultivated here, thanks to both sunny and shaded spots beneath mature trees, as well as a greenhouse, where tomatoes and basil thrive in the heat and are protected from caterpillars and other hungry bugs.

Staff are welcome to harvest the produce as it ripens, encouraging a healthy diet, reducing food costs, and shrinking food miles to metres. Southmead’s Vu Restaurant, the rooftop staff canteen, has begun to use some of the produce in its kitchen, including chard and tomatoes; in return, it supplies eggshells and coffee grounds to enrich the compost.

Beside the allotment there is an outdoor gym, where staff and patients – including those in wheelchairs – can exercise surrounded by lush vegetation and the sound of birds.

Southmead’s Nature Recovery Ranger

The NHS Forest employs a Nature Recovery Ranger, Phoebe Webster, who has been based full time at Southmead Hospital since spring 2021. She runs lunchtime allotment volunteering sessions for staff, as well as workshops on building bug hotels, and has led small seed and bulb planting events. Sometimes there are sessions for external groups, such as Rainbows (a Girl Guides group aged from five to seven) who have learned about food growing and native wildlife, and planted their own broad beans to take home.

Nature Recovery Ranger Phoebe Webster at Southmead Hospital's staff allotment
Nature Recovery Ranger Phoebe Webster at Southmead Hospital’s staff allotment. Photo: Vicki Brown / Centre for Sustainable Healthcare 2021. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).
Tomatoes grown at Southmead Hospital staff allotment
Tomatoes grown at Southmead Hospital staff allotment. Photo: Vicki Brown / Centre for Sustainable Healthcare 2021. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).

Southmead’s Sustainability Projects Officer Grace Kelsey explains that the allotment programme wouldn’t have been possible without Phoebe’s horticultural knowledge, and the time she is able to dedicate to the site: “The amount of people we have volunteering has gone up by about 20, 25 people, and the volunteers at the allotment are so much more committed and consistent. We’ve been able to produce so much more food this year that we actually had an event where we had the executive chef come and take food from the allotment and cook it, and we gave it to clinical staff for free during lunch time. That was great.”

“When it’s right on your doorstep, like it is here, it’s almost a wasted opportunity not to make the most of it, in my view. I think more people should probably give it a go because I think they would find it beneficial. I have.”

– John Coldicott, Southmead staff member and lunchtime allotment volunteer

Phoebe has organised accessible allotment sessions for neurodiverse hospital staff, and those with learning and physical disabilities. The raised beds are at different heights, allowing them to be tended to by wheelchair users or by those who cannot stand for long periods. Assistive tools with specially adapted handles help with grip and reach.

While the volunteer sessions are currently attended by hospital staff, a small group of whom also sit on the allotment committee, there are plans to extend the sessions to patients in future.

”Someone said to me, ‘it’s really nice to come to the allotment before going home because it breaks up your work from your home.’ Maybe you’ve had a hard day on the wards, you’re very stressed, you don’t want to take that stress home with you. By being able to come to the allotment and just have a breather and some space to separate everything out in her mind, she was able to go home and not take work with her.”

– Nature Recovery Ranger Phoebe Webster

A green event space

The allotment is also used to host events, open to hospital staff and the wider community, to raise the profile of the hospital, raise funds and encourage awareness of healthy eating and biodiversity. The hospital’s Executive Chef Mike Sharp staged a staff lunch in summer 2021 using as many of the ingredients as he could from the allotment, from chillies to potatoes and chard. He demonstrated how these ingredients could be used in creative ways, while raising awareness of the allotment itself and showing how easy it was to produce and prepare your own ingredients.

A member of staff volunteers at Southmead Hospital allotment during a lunch break
A member of staff volunteers at Southmead Hospital allotment during a lunch break. Photo: Vicki Brown / Centre for Sustainable Healthcare 2021. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).
A member of staff volunteers at Southmead Hospital allotment during a lunch break
A member of staff volunteers at Southmead Hospital allotment during a lunch break. Photo: Vicki Brown / Centre for Sustainable Healthcare 2021. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).

Once the orchard trees produce enough fruit, Southmead hopes to hold an apple harvest day to create deeper ties between the hospital and the wider community. Apples and pears grown in the orchard, as well as those donated by staff, patients and local residents, can be pressed into fresh juice, and visitors will be invited to learn about community food production and the allotment.

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The green space work at Southmead Hospital has been carried out with funding and support from Southmead Hospital Charity, GKN Aerospace, D and R Garden Buildings, The Hospital Company, Capstan Contractors, PETA [UK] Ltd., Woodland Trust, Plastic Pollution, Riverside Garden Centre, University of Bristol.

The Nature Recovery Ranger post is funded via the The Green Recovery Challenge Fund, which was developed by Defra and its Arm’s-Length Bodies. It is being delivered by The National Lottery Heritage Fund in partnership with Natural England, the Environment Agency and Forestry Commission.