DE Gardeners encourages SFA occupants to plant their gardens, improve their amenity spaces and where appropriate develop allotments.
In June 2020 the MOD published a report titled ‘Living in our Shoes’ in which, recommendation 5 was to allow SFA occupants to garden their quarters.
DE Gardeners premise is that by allowing gardening, the mental wellbeing and morale of military families will improve. The scheme has the potential to increase the quality and reduce the cost of estates management and is zero cost to the military. It does require an innovative attitude at senior levels to facilitate the relationship between gardeners and estates management.
A pilot launched at The Defence Academy, Shrivenham in Autumn 2020 gained national interest following a spring wholesale planting initiative. Army HQ, Andover will be the first base to open a community allotment in Autumn 2022.
Identifying the need
Military families regularly feel let down by the quality of their SFA, which includes the morale sapping condition of the gardens and surrounding green spaces. For ease of management, DIO maintenance contracts have had a ‘clear fell’ approach to gardens removing all gardening attempts. However, this does not comply with the commitment by the military to provide good quality accommodation.
It is a vicious circle of reversal of gardening attempts leading to a reduced attempt to garden and so people do not maintain or invest in the space they have, knowing that nothing requiring more growing cycles than their residency is worth attempting and so nothing at all is attempted.
This is a false economy because the extensively researched benefits of gardens and attractively maintained green spaces include improved mental wellbeing, a huge issue amongst military spouses, improved fitness, improvements in healthy eating especially amongst children and wider environmental benefits from more diverse plant life.
The positive impact on mental wellbeing has been so well documented there are multiple veteran rehabilitation projects involving therapeutic horticulture.
The new contract stipulates that flowerbeds can be left in SFA, but many staff on the ground do not appear to have been briefed of this change. See guidelines here where on p12, 10.10 it states ‘Borders and flowerbeds are to be tidy, weeded and cultivated.’
Most SFA have a lawn surrounded by combinations of wooden fence panels, walls and open link fencing. Most have grass, some have hedges, trees, shrubs and climbers showing that it is possible to allow plants to grow given appropriate acknowledgement of their maintenance requirements. Older SFA often have a fruit tree in the front or rear garden, sometimes with different varieties down the street which was policy after the Second World War when self-growing was encouraged and a plan made to share different varieties around the patch. A lucky few have rosemary and rhubarb still hiding in corners too!
Others are also working in this space, sometimes informally and locally, sometimes achieving greater recognition notably during Lockdown army partner Sarah Hulyer launched a podcast ‘Let’s grow girls’ and developed ‘Blooms from the Base’; a cut flower business that rejuvenated a community allotment. There are, and always have been, people interested in gardening in the military.
Why it matters
- Anecdotally a local GP said depression could be as high as 1 in 3 amongst military spouses (civilians are 1 in 5)
- The turbulence faced by military spouses is understood well within military circles
- Military children have reduced outcomes compared to their civilian counterparts
The impact of these issues on serving personnel and, therefore, the capability of the military as an organisation shows through
- Reduced retention
- Increased mental health and family welfare requirements compared to civilians
- Increased requirements for leave for domestic issues
The Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) has conducted extensive research, which alongside research from multiple fields shows gardening improves physical, social and mental health, reducing depression and anxiety as well as cognitive decline. The biophilia hypothesis suggests ‘humans possess an innate tendency to seek connections with nature’ and, therefore, without that are not operating at their full potential.
What can be done: SFA Gardens
The proposal is a simple and zero cost proposal to support the improvement of SFA gardens. It requires a commitment from estates management that gardening efforts will not be removed when the SFA becomes vacant. A network of volunteers willing to help maintain gardens could be developed in particular to maintain void gardens, where they are planted and require maintenance.
In this way, gardening efforts are encouraged with the knowledge that the results will be maintained. Existing estates management retain the role of hedge cutting and mowing when SFA are empty, this proposal does not require a change to existing maintenance contracts.
When houses are empty such as during periods of refurbishment as well as between tenants, gardens can fall quickly into disrepair especially over the summer months of growth. The void grass cuts barely maintains the lawn and cannot maintain the flowerbeds. The pre-move preparation to bring an empty garden up to scratch for a new tenant does not include a proper weed or prune of the existing plants and is limited to a strim and weed of the terrace. Therefore, a volunteer gardener could help estate managers maintain and prepare for tenants by pruning and weeding.
What can be done: Allotments
Open DIO land
Another opportunity denied to military families is allotments. Many SFA are not big enough to grow food and the work required is seldom rewarding in the one or two growing cycles available between moves. Add to that the cost of living crisis and yet again, military families find themselves disadvantaged to civilian counterparts.
DIO has large amounts of open grassland which in settled regimental communities could allow allotments to be created for military families. This reduces the cost of maintenance because the land will not need to be mowed by estates management and will be maintained by the volunteers.
As with general gardening, there is huge evidence supporting the enormous personal and communal benefit of allotments and for the military, the knock on benefit of reducing the cost of food as well as family and community bonding providing additional support in difficult times.
Following national interest in the proposal in Spring 2021, senior MOD and DIO support has been obtained and discussions are underway as to how to implement locally. There is no requirement for funds or manpower input from the MOD, this is simply a requirement to lean in and show a ‘wilco’ attitude to their commitment to military families.
The DIO lead on sustainability is personally developing the DE Gardeners community allotment in Andover and has said he will fund any community allotment under this scheme. He also supports the gardening of SFA and improvement of amenity space, though contractors are currently grappling with the concept of volunteer access to void properties.
As is so often the case, this top level support has not cascaded down to ground level so if you are reading this and struggling to get engagement in your community with local contractors and personnel, email email@example.com who can help you with experience from different scenarios.
COs and Welfare
The concept is national but the delivery is local and so individual COs and welfare teams will be able to support local attempts to engage with estate mangers and facilitate local agreements to implement this proposal.
The serving personnel and spouses who want to garden their own SFA and / or help maintain other gardens will only do so if they are confident that their efforts will not be in vain in the short and long term. This is why senior stakeholder engagement is so important to ensure initial enthusiasm does not fizzle out if rumours of destroyed gardens or collapsed local gardening groups get out.
How it works
Facebook groups create local hubs where people share gardening advice and discuss developing local schemes. This website serves as a portal to explain the concept and plot the sites of these gardening groups. The ‘News’ page provides a central hub of information and guidance. The concept is designed to grow organically, be locally led and non-hierarchical.
The aim is to facilitate local groups to set up and run themselves forming a relationship with their local contractors and welfare teams. Having established a local group, it is hoped the concept is self-perpetuating and does not require a leader, so operating successfully in a mobile military environment.
In the Serco pilot, volunteers held their own liability; it was down to the individual to act safely and required nothing on the part of local officials. Volunteers used their own gardening equipment and operate at their own risk. I am told the new contractors are grappling with the liability of entering void properties. However, it is not required for people to install flowerbeds in their SFA, which is now written into march-out permission, so of no consequence to the development of DE Gardeners.
Where allotments are established DIO will cover the liability, treating the group as a ‘society’. This requires a committee to take responsibility and provide accountability. Templates for this are available, having been set up at Army HQ, Andover.
The proposal to garden SFA is zero cost to the military and estate managers. DIO have said they will fully fund community allotments.
However, in the process of several projects it has been identified that some welfare seed funding would be useful particularly around printing flyers (yes, this is generally still required as well as digital advertising!). There are also secondary requirements for community allotments that fit more comfortably under welfare funding than DIO, such as children’s play equipment.
As community groups grow, volunteers may choose to raise funds to buy plants or equipment. This may be particularly useful in allotments which could offer a community experience even for those without gardening knowledge or equipment. In this scenario regiments may choose to invest some funds, however this is not a pre-requisite as cake sales, sales of home grown produce or local sponsorship are some of the quick and easy avenues open to military spouses looking for basic starter funds.
We have also found that local councils often have someone tasked to support their military community and if they are not a fund holder, they know someone who is!
DE Gardeners suggests the following parameters as a starting point, which were developed in discussion with Serco for the Shrivenham pilot.
- Guidelines for what not to plant
- Guidelines for suggested plants
- Parameters for permissible development i.e. no infrastructure such as raised beds or sheds with a ‘through life cost’
- Gardening advice to these circumstances such as
- what should / should not be planted in small gardens
- planting styles considering the likely householders such as children / dogs etc.
- comments on local ground conditions and links to sources of gardening information such as the Royal Horticultural Society, Gardeners Question Time etc.
The Allotments Pilot: Northwood
Northwood has had a community allotment scheme since the spring of 2015. Established by enthusiast Phil Newman with a welfare grant of approx. £500 and permission to utilise some fenced off DIO scrub land outside the wire at Northwood. With this money Phil brought planking to make raised beds, top soil to fill the beds and some basic equipment. The grounds contractor agreed to give shredded wood for the paths and pallets to make compost bins. Over time they got some more money for a bench and dug ponds to encourage wildlife.
They started with some basic written guidelines and a charge of £20 to rent a raised bed for the year. The 15 beds bring in £300 pa which funds insurance of £150 pa and fund more tools and an onsite lock-up. They bought a strimmer and rotivator to help with the annual job of keeping the weeds and ground around the raised beds in check. They have added fruit trees and donated a couple of plots to the camp nursery.
If people are just posted for 6 months they are only charged £10 and if someone leaves early it is passed on to the next person on the waiting list for free because the annual fee has already been paid.
Their challenges have been getting people to turn up to the necessary 2-3 annual work days clearing the site and preparing it for planting in the spring, and ‘putting it to bed’ in the autumn. Phil suggests a family friendly BBQ to attract people and write it in as a requirement to the guidelines! Phil also suggests it is a no dog area as their experience is that dogs run amok damaging the plants.
Finding someone to oversee the project when Phil was posted was also a task not to be underestimated. (It was the Padre!)
The SFA Pilot: Shrivenham
In the autumn of 2020 Marina Colville launched a pilot at The Defence Academy, Shrivenham with Serco to test and develop all the ideas discussed in this proposal and the many practical points that were expected to arise in order to establish guidelines that work for a grounds contractor and volunteers. Serco invested some funds for initial flyers as well as helping make local contacts and generally being supportive and enthusiastic.
Front gardens could be easily accessed and empty houses identified so volunteers were encouraged to garden where they saw a need. Serco got in touch with any special requirements, commonly before an occupant moved in after a prolonged void so the flower beds could have a tidy up.
A local Facebook group and email address was set up and initial flyers delivered on the patch. In the spring of 2021 DA Gardeners teamed up with local events committee Daffys to sell boxes of plants. ‘The Big Spring Plant’ had flyers printed explaining the concept and promoting 3 styles of boxes at £10, £15 and £25 of wholesale priced plants. These boxes were low level, perennials selected for colour and smell to give year-round structure and form. Designed to mature in 2-5 years, a packet of wildflower seeds was included to provide interest in the first year.
Larger orders were placed by organisations such as the church and language school on site which will help improve the overall look of the patch and community facilities.
This event was also run as a fundraiser for a local charity and has proved extremely successful at all levels for everyone concerned.
Engagement with groundsmen
Support was gained from local Serco contractors who agreed initiatives such as collecting garden waste a couple of times a year on specific ‘green weekends’. This encouraged those without a council ‘brown bin’ to garden and was designed to stop people being overwhelmed by a summer clear up task, thus encouraging an annual tidy if the garden wasn’t being regularly maintained.
Once the ‘Big Spring Plant’ was launched, local landscape contractor John O’Connor agreed to deliver free wood chip to be used as mulch on new flowerbeds and supply compost bags at cost.
“I’m a really keen gardener so was very excited to see this project advertised” CE
“Such a great idea!” JE