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Homegrown n food and a haven from city life e all at the garden.

At 10am on a Friday morning, the best word to describe Pontcanna Permanent Allotment is peaceful. Despite its location in the centre of Cardiff, a stone's throw from a busy A-road, the atmosphere is one of serenity, the gentle drone of cars fading to background noise which is easily ignored.

All around, freshly dug soil is sprouting with the green hints of spring, penned into plots that boast water butts and poly-tunnels, compost bins and sheds.

One or two cars are parked just inside the gate but there are many more bicycles propped against wooden fences. A man with grey dreadlocks and a bushy beard trundles along with a wheelbarrow full of mud.

This is the home of Riverside Community Garden, one of a growing number of urban agricultural areas tended and run by the community, for the community, which are springing up in cities all over the UK.

Jenny Howell is the enthusiastic garden manager, whose passion for all things green and sustainable is matched only by her desire to share the knowledge and skills represented by the group and to encourage others to join in the fun.

"We did a forage stir fry a while ago with a group of kids," she says, pointing out edible plants in the hedgerow as we walk through the allotment towards RCG's group of plots. I can't see anything but a few scraggly weeds but Jenny assures me that this area will be a veritable greengrocer's store in a few weeks, with nettles, cleavers, dandelions, hogweed and jack-in-the-hedge making perfect ingredients for a tasty meal.

"It's really simple, there's nothing clever about it," she assures me. "We like to keep the barriers low so people come and think, 'That's really fun and it's really easy, I want to do that again.'" "Food security and food sovereignty isn't about being clever, it's about doing it in a way that everybody feels they can copy. Fifty years ago, walking along the hedgerow, everybody would know how to eat these plants."

As Jenny walks me past a double plot in the shade of the boundary wall, where the group are planning to set up a forest garden, she chatters happily about permaculture - quite literally 'permanent agriculture', which mimics nature so that growing continues on a cyclical basis - and how cultivating hazelnuts isn't easy with squirrels around.

When we arrive on the main site of the Riverside Community Garden, I am pleasantly surprised by the three-plot expanse, which has clearly been the recipient of much tender loving care.

As well as a large, neatly-structured growing area, there is a poly-tunnel in which a man is sanding planks of wood, and a separate section with a pond, various mechanical objects (including a wooden shave horse and a cob oven) and a gazebo.

This, Jenny tells me, is the social area where we can sit and have a cup of tea. I wander off to explore while she sets an old-fashioned kettle to boil on a gas burner in her office shed.

Community gardens - also known as community farms or city farms - are community-based growing schemes which range from small-scale allotment plots and school growing patches to larger farms and orchards.

While there is usually some sort of management system in place, the central premise is that it is local people who put in the work - and reap the rewards. Certainly there's plenty of edible loot on offer here, with all sorts of tasty-looking greens sprouting from the well-tended beds.

RCG is one of literally hundreds of these groups springing up all over the country.

The Federation of City Farms and Community Gardens, a charity which supports and promotes such ventures, has more than 600 members UK-wide.

They launched in Wales in 2008 with just eight registered projects, and by 2011 there were more than 70 - an increase of 900% - with another 74 being supported in a non-member capacity.

Today the FCFCG in Wales - which goes by the name of Tyfu Pobl (Growing People) - supports 228 projects in total, funded under the Rural Development Programme by the Welsh Government and the European Union.

So what's the attraction of community gardening? I head back to the gazebo, where the man with the dreadlocks is now sitting on one of the log stools next to Jenny, who is pouring the tea. He introduces himself as Lewis Mottram, one of the group's regulars.

"I had taken early retirement and was looking for volunteering opportunities," he explains. "I contacted Riverside Farmer's Market, expecting to work in the shop or at the market, but Jenny phoned me and asked did I want to come up here? "I started off doing one day a week, then two days. In the summer it's all plants and in the winter it's making stuff. I've had a good year for making things."

A willow basket lying near his feet and the roughly hewn shave horse where he rests his tea are, he tells me, his creations. All of the raw materials are supplied by another member, who is involved in coppicing - a traditional method of woodland management that encourages re-growth through chopping back trees in a controlled way - and brings any spare wood here to be turned into useful items. "Even the wood shavings from making things are useful for lighting the fire," Lewis says.

We are joined by the man I saw earlier, sanding planks in the poly-tunnel. His name is Gordon Clark and he came to the group through the St Mary's Street volunteer bureau. "I just wanted to try something different because I've been unemployed for years," he says.

So community gardens are reaching the retired and the unemployed, but that's not all; next to arrive are Edith England-Elbrow and her eight-year-old son Toby. Edith home-schools Toby while studying for an OU degree, and the garden forms a regular part of his outdoor education.

"I like it, especially in spring when you can help do the gardening and plant all the plants," Toby tells me. "And I like lighting fires in the winter. I've learned things like how to plant particular types of plants and I've learned names of plants which I didn't know before. I think it's a very good activity and more people should come and do it."

Edith agrees. Although she helps her partner in his allotment, the atmosphere in the community garden, where everyone works together, is very different. "We learn so much more, there's potential to try things out," she says.

"Things happen here, whereas on your own allotment you might think about something for a few years and not get around to it. Everyone here has a very can-do attitude, which is very inspiring."

"It's about basic skills," Jenny joins in.

"When you think about basic skills, people say reading, writing, numeracy, which are all really important. But the basic skills that we learn and teach each other informally down here are important too - how to plant and identify plants, how to use tools, how to maintain tools. It's a good way of increasing self-reliance."

The sharing of skills is an integral part not only of RCG's ethos but that of the entire community garden movement. The Welsh branch of the FCFCG has 10 field workers - including two allotment mentors - who are on call to provide help to member projects.

Networking events, workshops and training all help facilitate knowledge transfer and the spread of best practice, and groups can even apply for travel bursaries of up to pounds 150 to allow them to visit another project, to see how they run their work.

The Federation's Wales development manager, Katie Jones, explains that it's all part of their "seeing is believing" ethos. "The best way to learn is to go and see a project and learn from the members and their experiences," she says.

"If there's a community group looking to set up an allotment or an orchard, for example, we'll use knowledge that exists in our team or link them up to a group that has already set one up. The aim is to improve and share the knowledge that already exists in the community garden sector to give people the skills they need to manage those schemes effectively and sustainably.

"That's a big focus in these projects, the sustainable side of it and encouraging communities to be resourceful," she adds. "We want to see more people involved in the production and growing of food and the consumption of that food. There are more people who are including cooking events into the groups. It's increasing the amount of food that is produced in Wales and the amount of communities who are producing their own food.

"It's about engaging people and raising awareness; reconnecting people with where food comes from, with the land, with the soil and nature, and most importantly, reconnecting them to each other. At a time when we've seen village shops closing, local schools closing, these places provide a space for people of all ages, all backgrounds to come together and share knowledge, share experiences."

That's something Jenny sees every day at RCG, where their outreach work brings in diverse groups, from schools to homeless charities and mental health organisations. "Last summer I noticed that there was a Muslim woman in a hijab gardening next to a person who was transgender, and I thought, 'Where else would there be an opportunity for this?'" she remembers.

"We overtly don't delve into people's backgrounds; we tend to talk about the garden and what we're doing, so it's a very level playing field. There may be people here who can't read or write, people from all sorts of background, and it's irrelevant.

"For me that's the real key. Our society is very based on academic fields of work. Here we value people who are practical, people who will have a go. That's about attitude; it's not about background or even skill level."

At one time, she goes on, a woman came along with her 20-year-old son, who displayed a number of autistic traits yet played a valuable part in the team. "He was amazing at picking blackcurrants and redcurrants because he was very pedantic about it. He would pick them all one by one rather than in great handfuls like the rest of us. And then he'd happily divide them equally into little containers so everyone would have some to take home at the end of the day."

Sadly, it's the end of my day at Riverside Community Garden, and I find myself reluctant to leave Lewis and Gordon, Edith and Toby, and of course Jenny. As I drive off the allotment site and back onto the A48, I am thrust once more into busy city life. All around me are cars and buildings and scurrying people intent on their own important business.

It's good to know that there is an escape from all this, one that combines learning and sharing, growing and eating, hard work, friendship and fun, all in a way that supports the community and the environment. I'll definitely be back. * For information about joining or starting a community garden or city farm, contact Federation of City Farms and Community Gardens: * Riverside Community Garden:


Jenny Howell, general manager at Riverside Community Garden Riverside Community Garden Lewis Mottram at Riverside Community Garden
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Apr 25, 2012
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