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changing our church spaces for good How a humble allotment in leeds is serving the local community

Written by Trish Sandbach

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Looking at the photographs of a neat productive, green, fecund allotment it is hard to imagine the same space 8 years ago as a forest of tall thistles, assorted umbelliferae, rose-bay willow herb and ragworts of interest and use to finches, insects and small creatures looking for shelter and food – wonderfully wild but human intervention changed most of it in favour of cultivation!

It started with a few people from the parish getting together to discuss how the land behind the church, which we owned, could best be used. We had hoped it might be suitable for building sheltered accommodation or similar but access was a problem.  The suggestion of a parish allotment was mooted and taken to the parish priest who was enthusiastic and supportive. Clearing by hand, foot and anything else sturdy and sharp ensued so that eventually a man with a rotovator came and cleared it. From the beginning it was designated as an organic garden and seen as a community good. In the early days it was very simple: mostly cabbages and potatoes, onions with a few beans. It has become more varied with two apple orchards and two pear trees, and celebrating that we are part of the famous Rhubarb Triangle (if you swiggle the line a bit) a wondrous patch of rhubarb. We have food for the soul as well as for the body: as Pope Francis says in Laudato Si, beauty is a great motivator in the delicate summer yellow flowers of cucumbers and courgettes and tomatoes as well the dahlias, gladioli and daffodils in Spring as well as birds and butterflies.

A man putting netting over a vegetable plant on an allotment
Jim securing netting to keep the caterpillars off.

 It is quite democratic: all those who are involved meet to plan for next season’s planting. Everyone’s ideas are listened to and discussed. Decisions are made in the light of what grew well, what the parish likes to eat as well as trying new things –kohlrabi was not a great success (recipes were supplied) but our magnificent onions are!  In the past we have made French onion soup to share after Mass – a winter warmer. We have planted our first somewhat twiggy blackcurrants this year but it is early days. Patience is required.

If we approach nature and the environment without this openness to awe and wonder, if we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on their immediate needs.

Pope Francis, Laudato Si', 11

It is a place to pop in to have a chat and look round and delight in God’s creation especially in its edible forms. A visitor usually signals a time to stop work, sit round in the poly tunnel or in the outdoor sitting area and catch up on the current trials and triumphs. Rounds of quickfire banter at each other’s expense usually ensue but they are rooted in affection. The garden team welcome visitors even if they’re not actually going to help!  It is a place where people are welcome who may be in need of healing hurt or loss or are just vulnerable and  want to be somewhere safe where they are accepted as they are without judgement. If you are in need of warmth and laughter it is the place to go. The chickens Bernadette, Scholastica, Theresa and Benedict, the cock, are a source much interest and humour if not actually eggs.

Mindful of care of our common home we have bird boxes, walkways, sheds, fences and gates, all made from re-used pallets scrounged from building sites, which also provides plastic tubing that would have been scrapped to give protection for fragile plants. Old tools are repaired and re-used. The planning ensures crop rotation and  is detailed on maps with photos for future reference. Monty Don, horticulturalist extraordinaire, is much respected and heeded, particularly by the leader of the group. We are developing more insect life especially bees and butterflies while trying to protect our Purple King cabbages from the ravages of the cabbage white using frames and nets, no sprays!

3 chickens on a lawn
(from left) Benedict, Scholastica and Theresa egg-sploring the allotment.

The allotment has become a bit like an octopus: our produce goes to the parish –donations welcome- and to the Neighbourhood Elders Team, and the SVP who use it to provide meals in their centre in town. Now in Covid times we are supplying a deprived area in Leeds through a charity that distributes the produce to those in need. Networks have formed locally between different allotment holders who share plants and a swap when they have surpluses e.g. our first attempt at cucumbers swapped for courgette plants, local farmers supply manure and compost heaps help to replenish the soil. A friendly local Councillor has given small amounts of money over the years to purchase water butts to collect water from the roof of the Parish Centre, buy poly-tunnels and wheel barrows.

We appreciate that caring for, and celebrating, Creation is a way of thanking God for the wonder of this great gift. As Pope Francis says if we lose our sense of wonder “our attitude towards the Earth will be that of …consumers” and “ruthless exploiters”.  Every living thing reflects something of the Creator so it is a place to praise and pray. We have produced various Liturgies, for example, on Earth Day, April 22nd, for the Season of Creation, St. Francis’ Feast Day. It lends itself well to a “Station” format. We are immensely blessed by the work of the team who have been constant in their labours, unstinting in their time and commitment. Laudato Si!

About the Author

Trish Sandbach is a parishioner at St Benedict’s, Garforth, in the Leeds Diocese. She is also an assessor for the LiveSimply Award and Vice-Chair of the Diocese of Leeds’ Justice and Peace Committee.

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