A garden for everyone

DAVID GREEN meets a woman whose love of the great outdoors led her to a “green” project aimed at making a community healthier and happier

SUSANNAH Robirosa spent more than a decade at a desk job while wishing she was outdoors pursuing her enthusiasm for horticulture.

Now, in charge of a truly “green” community garden project, she believes she has found her vocation.

Susannah is team development officer for The People’s Community Garden, just a mile from Ipswich town centre but – in spirit – a world away from urban life.

Part of the borough council owned allotment field at Maidenhall, it is a place where people can learn, work or just relax - in the company of others – and get fitter, healthier and, hopefully, happier along the way.

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For the garden, with its vegetable plots, raised flower beds, orchard, wildlife area, “poly tunnel”, willow arches, wind turbine, solar panel and compost loo, is run by the people for the people.

Susannah, originally from Yorkshire and married to Diego, an Argentine (hence her attractive surname), has a degree in English and spent some years in Australia working for financial newspapers and magazines.

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On her return to England, she became assistant editor of the Royal Geographic Society’s magazine and, when she had young children to look after, she freelanced for the Radio Times and other publications.

When she and Diego decided to leave London the family settled at Gestingthorpe, near Braintree, and then across the border in Sudbury. Susannah obtained part-time employment as a sub-editor with the East Anglian Daily Times.

Although she was glad of the job, which involved working at a desk from 5pm until 1am, she yearned to be outdoors, especially during the summer evenings.

“I’ve always loved being outside and gardening – I think I inherited it from my mum – and I thought how could I change things? I was too old and jaded to progress in journalism and I didn’t want to progress up that particular ladder.”

She enrolled for a one day a week horticultural course at Writtle College, near Chelmsford. Then, looking through the EADT’s jobs pages two-and-a-half years ago, she saw an advertisement for the community garden job. She applied and was successful.

“I absolutely love it. It’s not just plants, it is people, and I feel I’m fully using my potential. It is a place where people can get fitter, healthier and happier via the wonderful activity of being in a garden, being outside and learning how to grow their own fresh fruit and vegetables. They work with new people, make new friends and learn new skills.

“Anybody can come here and that’s why we are unique in the world of community gardens,” Susannah said.

“One of the main environmental points of the project is to get people gardening at home, or with us or in an allotment situation.

“It is all about reducing food miles, eating locally produced food, understanding how food is produced and how to care for the land and maximise production. It’s about individuals taking positive action and we’re teaching them how to do it.”

The People’s Community Garden – in every way an organic “growing project” for the whole community – was the idea of Julie Stokes who is manager of the Town & Bridge Project which seeks to help a variety of local groups, many of them involving “disadvantaged” people.

It was set up on a triangular, derelict allotment site with the help of Lottery funding via the People’s Millions – a competitive grant which won backing in the autumn of 2007 thanks to public votes.

I meet Susannah in a small office which is part of a portable cabin donated to the project and which serves as a rest and refreshment room for those working in the garden.

When I arrive she is talking to Derrick Holder, chairman of the Ipswich Allotment Association, which looks after 18 allotment fields around the town and the needs of 2,000 plot holders.

Derrick, a former acquaintance I had not seen for more than 30 years, tells me that food growing is an increasingly popular activity around the town and there are 300 people on the waiting list for an allotment

His meeting with Susannah is to discuss ways of bringing derelict areas of the allotment field back into productive life. Half of the garden site is still under brambles, as are allotments nearby.

Susannah, whose three children are Jack, 18, Ivan, 17 and Lila, 12, tells me that much of the early work on the site was achieved with the help of Unpaid Work in the Community, a Probation Service scheme.

Ric Staines, an Otley College teacher who is still one of the site co-ordinators, and Dan Wheals designed the garden which includes a “welcome area” for accommodating group visits. All paths allow access by disabled people. Teams from local companies and prisoners from Hollesley Bay have all helped to form and shape the garden.

Susannah shows me around the People’s Garden and I talk to Steven Phipps, another site co-ordinator, who has masterminded most of the construction jobs on the site - including a living willow tunnel and activity room and a tool wash which not only recycles water for use in irrigation but collects “washed” soil to be tipped back on the garden.

Steven, who lives in Debenham and works at the garden one day every week, has also devised a way of collecting “grey” water from the cabin’s washing-up sink – also for use in irrigating plants. Future plans include the building of an “insect hotel” – to help visiting school children to better understand the activities and life-cycle of some of nature’s smallest creatures.

School parties already use the site to help bring science and environmental subjects to life and for creative arts activities as well as advice in planning school gardens. Fruit trees include several traditional East Anglia varieties.

Members of the Ipswich Blind Society are among the groups having gardening sessions, some of them tending raised beds which include a “sensory” area.

The small wind turbine on the site powers the lights and electrical appliances in the cabin which is soon to have a “green” sedum roof. Local pig manure is used and compost is made, although the first vault in the celebrated compost loo is not yet full and remains to be emptied and used.

The People’s Garden project offers “bite-sized” allotment squares – particularly aimed at young families who can borrow tools with which to tend their vegetables.

A significant amount of the produce grown on site is now being sold to a local pub restaurant.

Other site co-ordinators at the People’s Garden are Sally Aherne and Maz Rasmussen. A range of volunteers also help out, some of them on a regular basis.

Further information about the garden can be obtained by telephoning Susannah on 01473 261112 or emailing: susannah.robirosa@townandbridge.org.uk

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