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How to Create an Organic Vegetable Programme that Lasts Beyond September
To mark Organic September, which celebrates the many benefits of organic farming, let me begin this piece by quoting an amazing statistic from the Soil Association. It says that farming organically could be a major contributor in keeping global warming below 2 Degrees Celsius.
However, it's not just farmers who hold the key to driving transformative change. It's all of us. In care services, where I worked for over 15 years before joining QCS, the leading provider of content, guidance and standards for the social care sector, the vast majority of care professionals and service users that I supported were very passionate about organic produce.
In my role as Registered Manager, providing service users and staff with the confidence, the means and the know-how to grow their own organic vegetables was always a top priority. Why? Well, I think that enabling service users to grow their own food is one of the most holistic and empowering activities that there is.
Organic vegetables ensure a healthy and balanced diet. Most importantly, they help to ensure that service users are not malnourished. While growing your own vegetables can go a long way to preventing malnutrition, QCS, the organisation that I work for, has produced a number of resources, including a series of one-page summary documents, templates and resources to help care and support workers carry out risk assessments using the Malnutrition Universal Screening Tool (MUST).
But, at a much deeper level, the collaborative effort of growing organic vegetables can take service users and staff on a rewarding personal journey. I often found that paving the way for them to grow their own produce helped service users to bond with frontline carers. The activity of growing plants, I guess, is a vehicle that nurtures common interests. It takes time, toil and patience to grow vegetables and when they finally end up on the plate weeks or months later, the sense of satisfaction shared by both service user and carer is very evident.
Before moving into social care, I worked briefly for an Environment Education Centre, where I witnessed the palpable benefits of sustainability first-hand. It taught me the value of developing collaborative community partnerships and making these precious opportunities available to everybody.
Often a lack of knowledge and understanding prevents people from doing so. Registered Managers often worry that the space in their care service is not large enough to grow organic vegetables. The truth is that no space is too small. I’ve known several care and support staff, who have worked for London–based services, where the garden space was confined to tiny courtyards, patios and decking, rise to the challenge.
How? The carpenter at the home built large window boxes, which were placed on every sill. The boxes enabled service users to grow a veritable bounty of carrots, lettuce, spinach and beans. Hanging baskets, which created ideal growing conditions for strawberries, tomatoes and peppers, were bracketed to the walls. On the fences, columns of fence baskets, each one enabling service users to cultivate different vegetables including herbs, peas and aubergine, were erected. In the courtyard itself, rows of neatly arranged raised beds were built at a range of different levels, allowing universal access to the garden.
With so much greenery on show, how do you ensure - particularly if the garden is located in a city centre, where insects are less common - that the vegetables are pollinated? If bees, bats and butterflies are in short supply, my advice would be to grow organic produce – such as broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, carrots and potatoes - that doesn’t require pollinators.
Many pioneering care homes have overcome the shortage of bees by introducing a hive. For some care and support staff, however, merely contemplating a beehive, is the stuff of nightmares. What if a service user is stung? What if they end up in hospital and what action would the regulator take?
While I can understand the worries and fears that they might have, I have always worked from the principle that the goals that a person wants to achieve must come first. Therefore, the question to ask is not ‘what barriers are stopping us from introducing a hive’ but instead ‘can we safely install a beehive on care home or supported living grounds?’
The answer may not be immediately obvious, but an innovative and robust risk assessment tool, such as the QCS Risk Assessment Module, can help care and support staff work through the myriad of challenges that they’re presented with. The module is highly effective as it enables risk assessors to proactively and continuously manage hazards in real-time. It also flags a list of potential hazards that the risk assessor might not have thought to consider. This micro-approach to risk assessment enables more nuanced decisions. In terms of beehives, therefore, it might be that having one in the garden would present a health & safety risk to individual service users, but that placing it on a flat roof, which is easily and safely accessible, would not.
If a Registered Manager deems a beehive to be too great a risk, that doesn't mean that an individual cannot live out their dream. Organisations such as the British Beekeepers Association can put care services in touch with over 270 area associations, which in turn may be able to offer training, resources and volunteer opportunities.
Whether it’s bees or organic vegetables, I want to finish by writing a little about the less obvious benefits of participating in either pursuit. Perhaps the greatest one is that the vegetables that a care service grows, or the beehive it nurtures, really anchor it to the community. Organic vegetable share schemes or hives provide an open door to the village or town where the service is located. They enable service users to mix with growers or beekeepers in the community, celebrate each other’s efforts and provide a consistent and constant supply of vegetables and honey all year round.
Most of all, however, these activities bring communities closer together. That, to me at least, is the real power of going organic this September and is perhaps the key message that should resonate with us most.
To find a community garden near you, please visit the Royal Horticultural Society’s website below:
If your service users are passionate about bees, the British Bee Keepers’ Association is a great resource. You can access it by clicking on this link:
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