Susan Lynn is the Northern Ireland development manager for the Federation of City Farms and Community Gardens and is based in east Belfast. She is very much a champion for all things gardening and outdoors.
“I loved nature from an early age, my mum says she couldn’t keep me in the house but I guess I really got into gardening when I had my first real garden and made a few forays into vegetable growing,” recalls Susan.
Remembering her childhood growing up in Ballycastle she says that she had a connection with homegrown food from an early age.
She says: “Back home we had a great garden and I spent a lot of time among our apple trees. We called it the orchard, although that would probably be stretching it. I remember climbing the trees and then mum making apple pie – I think this is the first connection of homegrown food and for a kid apple tart is much more appealing than a plate of broad beans.”
Susan’s allotment is located at Knockbracken Community Allotments in south Belfast.
She comments: “Allotments are absolutely fantastic, you can grow so much on a small space. Apart from that the social side of having an allotment is really great. We have regular work days where people try to come and do communal work around the site and these are brilliant craic.
Back home we had a great garden and I spent a lot of time among our apple trees. We called it the orchard, although that would probably be stretching it. I remember climbing the trees and then mum making apple pie – I think this is the first connection of homegrown food and for a kid apple tart is much more appealing than a plate of broad beans.Susan Lynn
“The allotment is a place where people can work together on a peaceful, positive and productive activity and get away from it all.”
Susan believes that having an allotment has helped reduce her food bill.
She remarks: “There are a few studies out there that prove you can save up to £1000 from your annual food bill by growing your own, but clearly this depends on the extent of your growing.
“There are many more benefits to community growing than financial, but obviously financial counts too.
“The nutritional value of the food you grow yourself is much higher too, as the food is so fresh, and organic if you garden this way. And I would recommend it.”
Owning an allotment has meant that Susan has found that she is “nipping” into the supermarket more and thus spending less.
She explains: “For me the benefits come by avoiding going into a supermarket for maybe one or two items, so if I bring home potatoes from the plot, it means I don’t nip in to the shop. As it is well documented that there’s no such thing as nipping in to a supermarket for one item.”
Susan continues: “The health benefits of getting outside into green space are amazing, and research is growing all the time on the therapeutic benefits of working with the soil.
“People working on community gardens report feeling an increased sense of value within their community, confidence, connections to other people, increased mental and physical health.
“Also soil releases chemicals which actually work to increase serotonin in the brain, which is the science behind the knowledge that gardening makes you happy.”
Susan believes strongly that while there is a growing demand for allotments/green spaces for growing where and how they are located needs to be carefully planned, the need to be “organic” and be part of the community.
Susan says: “Green spaces are vital in all their forms for every community, and spaces for people to come together and grow food are exceptionally good, but it’s important to work closely with communities and respond to their needs. It’s very detrimental to put in a community garden site where the community don’t feel they need it or want it.”
Susan continues: “There are a huge variety of options available for growing food, I would encourage anyone interested to contact me and I can put them in touch with their local allotment or community garden, which are dotted around everywhere, from really well developed sites like Incredible Edible up in Cloughmills in Co Antrim, to very small places with just a few raised beds.”
Susan does believe that local councils could do more to open up more sites for green spaces and allotments.
She says: “Councils could work to open more sites, and work with organisations like ours to encourage more people out onto community gardens.
“However, often the Federation of City Farms and Community Gardens are community-managed projects working with people, animals and plants. They are often developed by local people in a voluntary capacity, and commonly retain a strong degree of volunteer involvement, and in many cases these work best.
“However, it’s important that groups trying to start up have access to organisations to FCFCG who can help them along the way.”
Co-operation is a keyword when it comes to owning an allotment and Susan stresses that she appreciates the support and help that she gets from friends and fellow allotment owners at Knockbracken Community Allotments.
Susan says: “People love to work together and enjoy each other’s company and share produce.
“At the minute FCFCG are working with a number of different community gardens and growing projects to help them to build a brand and sell their produce to restaurants and on market stalls.
“We are working with an organisation called Cooperative Alternatives to help form a structure within the various groups and are developing a brand for them all to trade under. In the first success of this project, Kaffe O in Belfast has recently started buying produce from L’Arche, a Belfast based organisation working with people with learning disabilities.”
Read more at more about the Federation of City Farms and Community Gardens at www.farmgarden.org.uk.