The Master Gardeners

A neighbourly mentoring scheme is encouraging local vegetable growers to spread the organic gardening bug.  Turns out green fingers can be very infectious.  This feature appears in the Dec 2011 issue of Kitchen Garden magazine.

The Islington Master Gardeners gradually gather over mugs of tea and fig rolls, a somewhat retro biscuit choice that’s going down well with the troops.  Their first training session of the year begins with an exercise in when to plant what vegetables, and where.  There’s much impassioned discussion already, despite it still being early on a Sunday morning.  Within minutes I’ve learned an awful lot about being productive in an urban environment.  And this is just the warm-up.

Kate Fenhalls is the brains behind the fig rolls.  She’s also the Islington group’s co-ordinator and explains what the scheme is all about.  “The idea is to create communities of volunteer Master Gardeners, who encourage others to start and continue growing fruit and vegetables organically.  Master Gardeners are enthusiasts with some food growing experience.  You don’t have to be an expert, just willing to share your knowledge. It’s not a gardening service but rather a source of information and support for new growers.”

The idea is that, after completing a short foundation course, a Master Gardener will seek out ten households that they can mentor through a growing year.  One grower magics into ten, in just twelve months.  It’s about dispersing wisdom and sounds almost viral in its intentions.  It also sounds like quite a commitment, but Kate insists it’s a project that’s flexible around volunteers’ busy lives.

“The way the programme has been set up means that gardeners can adapt the way they do their volunteering to suit them.  Each Master Gardener commits to 30 hours volunteering a year, which is about half an hour a week, and is supported by a volunteer coordinator, like me, who offers resources and advice.  Our intention is that volunteers get as much as possible out of the programme in terms of training and support, so that they can continue to share their knowledge.”

Islington has the least green space of any London borough, making it one of the most under vegetated places in the country.  Despite this, there’s a huge amount of enthusiasm for growing among a special few who are determined to spread their gardening love locally.  Today’s session offers some mentoring to the mentors, and next on the day’s packed agenda is an informal talk from one of their number.

Master Gardener Mark Ridsdill-Smith manages to grow huge amounts of vegetables despite not actually having a garden.  He grows on the balcony, walls and windowsills of his north London home, and documents his impressive work on www.verticalveg.org.uk.  He tells the group about a self watering container that he’s invented, using old recycling boxes and bits of drainpipe.  He hands out instructions so the group can go off and make their own.  It’s easy to see how he must be an inspiration to the households he’s connected with.

The nine mentors here are a mixed bunch – men and women, young and old, and from really different backgrounds.  They’re united by a passion for urban cultivation.  The scheme started in 2010, so this is their second growing season together.  Not limited to Islington, there are groups of Master Gardeners in south London, Norfolk and Warwick too, and the intention is to expand further.

The group is joined today by Philip Turvill from Garden Organic, the charity that runs the Master Gardener project.  The organisation offers volunteers, and their households, a wealth of experience, research and materials.  This particular training session is of the indoor variety but I can tell I’m amongst people of the earth when Phil does a masterclass involving compost and potting on some asparagus kale.  The delight is immense as he, and the other gardeners, run their fingers through the silky soil that’s been spread across a couple of tables.

As Kate worries about the amount of soil flying onto the carpet, the group starts discussing pooh.  The capital’s various city farms are a recommended source of manure for Londoners, but one gardener’s creative tip is to clear up after police horses have passed by.  Wormeries and bokashi bins are also pondered as ways to create compost in small spaces, and everyone is offered a little piece of comfrey root from Ryton Gardens (Garden Organic’s home) to nurture. The conversation ends with lunch for everyone but Phil, who goes off to find a hoover.

After lunch the discussion focuses on how to be a good mentor, and is a chance for people to raise the frustrations and concerns they might have.  Role playing allows people to practice their teaching techniques.  Being part of a household’s life for a year is a big deal and the group thinks about the importance of managing people’s expectations, and their own.  They spend some time researching the answers to tough questions that might get thrown at them by their tutees.

The day ends with arts and crafts.  Phil teaches us how to make a device that will get just sprouted plants to grow straight.  Old cardboard boxes, plastic bags and kitchen foil are combined to create a windowsill sun lounge for seedlings.  We also make newspaper pots.  Both activities are ideas for the Masters to try out with their households.  Everyone seems excited about another year spreading the organic gardening message.  The Masters of the gardening universe go their separate ways, each brimming with masses of new ideas, and clutching shiny sun lounger creations, a tiny kale plant, four packets of seeds and three seed potatoes.

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