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Jen Anderson managed to grow five “small but tasty” melons in Glasgow this summer, and she is not alone in finding her allotment a godsend during the pandemic. For the four years she has owned it, she says, it has “absolutely 100%” made her happier.
Her experience tallies with a study by academics at the University of Sheffield, published last week, which outlines the wellbeing benefits of allotment gardening. The 163 volunteers recorded “high levels of social and community activities, including the sharing of surplus food produce, knowledge exchange, awareness and interaction with wildlife, emotional connection to their allotment, appreciation of time spent outside and aesthetic delight in the natural world”.
According to Miriam Dobson, a post-doctoral research associate and one of the report’s authors, there was “quite a wide spectrum of mental health benefits”. People “were talking about community events, the nice feeling of sharing food, knowledge and skills”, as well as a “connection to seasons and a joy in weather”.
Anderson, a 35-year-old lecturer, attests to benefiting from watching her plants grow – carrots, parsnips and cabbage; “we tend to stick to what’s used in Scottish cooking”. But also in sharing the fruits of her labour, either literally or via Instagram.
With loneliness a growing issue in the UK, allotments can provide a valuable community. For Anderson, coming together with fellow allotmenteers isn’t “necessarily about connecting with people who are similar to me – it’s about connecting with people you have nothing in common with apart from growing”.
Another allotmenteer, Steve Lewis, says there are always people passing through his green spot in Sheffield. “It’s nice to have a chat; see how the asparagus is or isn’t doing,” says the 61-year-old retired maths teacher on his hillside plot.
The proven mental health benefits of spending time outdoors are increasingly being heeded. As Dobson’s report notes, in Scotland doctors have piloted “prescribing” outdoor activities. Lewis, speaking against a backdrop of artichokes, says: “It’s relaxing, a nice way to get away from Covid, Brexit and Trump.” It is Thursday afternoon and he is weeding with his son, James, who has learning difficulties and likes to chop down the nettles. “He really benefits from it,” says Lewis.
Dobson’s study found many people talked “about feeling connected to nature … [and] having repeated encounters with the same wildlife, which, especially for people in urban areas, is really important”.
This is something many allotment holders can corroborate. The Hodgsons, who grow rainbow chard, purple-sprouting broccoli and lots of garlic on their Sheffield plot, see plenty of bird life: “There are long-tailed tits nesting in the hollybush, you get…