The Concept

Photo by Gelgas Airlangga on

DE Gardeners:

A Proposal to

improve and

maintain SFA



This is a proposal to form a voluntary network of SFA occupants interested in gardening to help maintain and improve SFA gardens and develop allotments on DIO land. 

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 proposal is that by allowing gardening, the mental wellbeing and morale of military families will improve and reduce the cost of estates management. This proposal is zero cost to the military, simply requiring 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 has gained national interest following a spring wholesale planting initiative. 

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.

Historical Legacies

All SFA have a lawn surrounded by combinations of wooden fence panels, walls and open link fencing.  All 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!

Modern Ideas

Others are also working in this space, sometimes informally and locally, sometimes achieving greater recognition notably army wife Sarah Hulyer with her podcast ‘Let’s grow girls’ and cut flower garden ‘blooms from the base’.  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 (as against 1 in 5 in the civilian population)
  • 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 and 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

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 will be encouraged across the UK and permitted to enter empty SFA gardens that need work as well as encouraging people to develop where they are currently living. 

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 monthly grass cut 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 would 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 have vegetable growing areas and the work required is seldom rewarding in the one or two growing cycles available between moves.

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 to DIO 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.

See pilot example.



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.

DIO / Amey / Serco

Serco, the PFI contractor for some SFA at The Defence Academy, Shrivenham has supported the pilot both notionally and financially.  As at spring 2021 efforts continue to get local DIO engagement.  It is hoped that senior military support for the proposal will be shared with estates managers soon so that when they are approached by local volunteers to establish a ‘branch’ in a given area, the concept is already known to them.

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 will be used to communicate wherever a new group is established (and an email address for those not on Facebook).  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. 


As volunteers the liability is down to the individual to act safely and requires nothing on the part of local officials.  Volunteers use their own gardening equipment and operate at their own risk.

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.  Where allotments are established a co-ordinator will be required and so this is the most likely area where a lack of leadership could be an issue.

Should this proposal prove an efficient way of maintaining and improving SFA gardens, welfare may take an interest in supporting groups and where there are allotments, consider taking an interim leadership role when a void occurs.  The chaplain is another option (see allotment pilot case study). 


This proposal is zero cost to the military and estate managers.  However, should welfare funds be available to support this project, individual group requirements might include printing flyers to sell plants to get the gardens going or buying equipment and infrastructure for an allotment.

As area teams 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.


The pilot will test and develop guidelines such as:

  • Lists of banned or not recommended plants
  • Lists of suggested plants that suit this style of gardening
  • 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 military 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 will 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 can be easily accessed and empty houses identified so volunteers are encouraged to garden where they see a need.  Serco gets in touch with any special requirements, commonly before an occupant moves in after a prolonged void so the flower beds need 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’ encouraging those without a council ‘brown bin’ to garden.

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