How do you make a house a home? It was a question that I mulled over for quite a while when I was appointed Registered Manager for a learning disability service in South Yorkshire. The memo I’d given was to transform a council house into a fully functioning, multi-purpose home for six young people with learning disabilities.
The answer, of course, always lies not in the brickwork but in establishing an open and enabling culture throughout the service. That said, a strong culture shapes environments – both inside and out. Perhaps, it is fitting then that on National Allotments Week, that I tell you about the allotments created by service users and staff that have proved to be a unifying, driving force in cementing the culture at the home.
Allotments are more than just green spaces
Allotments help service users and staff form a close working bond. But much more than that, they provide a link to interact with the local community. Wherever I have gone, I have been in awe of the staff. Their understanding of those that they are supporting has never failed to amaze me. They seem to instantly know how to make service users feel happy. That isn’t by doing things for them, but by encouraging them to set their own personal goals and then supporting them to reach them.
In one home, the staff and service user’s primary objectives was to work together to create an allotment that would supply the home with fresh fruit and vegetables. The problem was that the garden was tiny. It seemed far too small to house an allotment. At least that was what I thought. However, many of my staff knew the benefits and cost savings that could be achieved from growing their own produce. It was a tradition that spanned generations that they wanted to pass on. Extraordinarily, working alongside the service users, they re-modelled the lawn into a mini-working farm.
How? Well, they divided the garden into three parts, created two allotments in the process. In one, they planted staples like potatoes, onions and cabbage. In the other, they erected polytunnels, which enabled them to grow strawberries, tomatoes, beans, courgettes, aubergines, peppers and even squash. At the back of the garden, they taught service users to build a chicken coop from wood and to erect a fox-proof fence. It filled my heart with joy to watch staff pass on their knowledge of the land to the service users.
When planning an allotment, it’s incredibly important that everyone has the opportunity to participate, to learn and to enjoy it. Accessibility is key. In the services that I have managed, I have always insisted on timber raised beds, which gave service users easy access to the vegetable and fruit, while planting, weeding or picking. With budgets tight, the staff often get by on ingenuity alone. One day, for example, one of my staff saw a disused cooking oil tub, which was going to be recycled. He asked the rubbish collection team if he could keep it. Working with service users, after cleaning it, he put wheels on the bottom, made holes in the side and filled it with earth, compost, and seeds. The result? A mobile garden for service users who wanted to be involved in the growing process but weren’t mobile enough to walk to the garden.
In services that I’ve headed, our collective philosophy was always to eat what we grew, and as service users and staff are involved at every stage in nurturing the produce from field to fork, the bond between them often becomes unbreakable. That, for me, is the litmus test when assessing whether or not a culture of engagement and enablement had been embedded.
A second acid test, which determines whether a culture has taken root, lies in collaboration and co-production. Does the allotment draw in the local community? Allotments should be magnets for interaction. Locals often donate seeds, cuttings, poly-tunnels and, most importantly, their skillset and strong community ties were forged – all thanks to the allotment. Secondly, not only did allotments in the services that I ran make us largely self-sufficient, they presented us with a solid platform to sell and donate vegetables and fruit locally. That proved to be a great experience and life-skill for the service users.
While the allotment is a hub of activity for service users and staff, designating a set space where service users can relax and wind down has always resonated with me. Therefore, wherever I have gone, I have always tried to accommodate a garden which promotes a multi-sensory environment. The allotment is of course part of that rich sensory environment. Service users and staff would always a make a point of growing rosemary, thyme, basil, cloves and mint, which stimulated smell, while lamb’s-ear, a plant with silvery, fuzzy leaves, stimulated touch. Often we’d cultivate lemongrass for its healing properties. Not only is it good for the digestive tract, its zingy aroma captivates the senses, as does the sight and sound of lemongrass being blown by the wind. It is almost hypnotic to watch it as it sings and dances in tune with the elements.
In many ways, this age-old interaction between plant and nature symbolises the harmonious relationship forged between the service users and support workers, which is the lifeblood of any home. None of it can be achieved unless there’s trust and collaboration on both sides.
Managers need guidance too. QCS, the leading provider of content, standards and policies for the social care sector, provides a suite of care plans and risk assessments, which are built on the guiding principles of person-centred support.
With access to these key resources, an allotment presents an opportunity not just to harvest food but to also grow and nurture the bonds between staff and service users.
The article was first published in The Career, Issue #64