Volunteer writer, Gabrielle Donnelly, shares her experience of being a parent and allotment owner, discovering the healing and calming effect nature has on her family. Find out how you can support us in Growing Healthy Minds during Children's Mental Health Week and beyond.
An early introduction
The old timers at the allotment were somewhat alarmed by the sight of a 39-week pregnant woman down on her hands and knees planting onions, so I guess you could say Finn’s introduction to green spaces literally started in the womb, and we’ve encouraged it ever since. Whether that has been walking my mum’s dogs in the nearby woods, scrambling up a mountain in one of our favourite holiday destinations, or enjoying one of the many National Trust properties we are fortunate enough to have nearby.
Finn is 12 now, and it hasn’t always been easy. When we’re cooped up together at home, tempers flare and sparks fly, but we found many years ago that going for a walk as a family and spending some time in the outdoors brings instant calm and relief to us all.
Any nature is good nature
We are fortunate to live in the leafy suburbs of south Manchester. Our big, tree-lined local park is a frequent haunt, and Finn’s primary school has a big playing field and lots of outdoor play equipment. Other families aren’t as lucky as us, but I would encourage all to seek out green spaces and reap the benefits they bring. It doesn’t have to be wide green pastures and towering oaks, even the smallest bit of plantlife can help improve your mental and physical health.
For those without access to outdoor green space, houseplants, window boxes, pots and planters can bring joy and brightness into your life. To experience how rewarding growing your own edibles can be, why not try some salad leaves in a window box—they’re so easy and will save you money—or elevate your flavours by adding some homegrown herbs to your mealtimes?
The health benefits of gardening for all ages are widely acknowledged, but for youngsters who are still developing, gardening has a little secret, it has the power to make your little ones open to trying new foods. When children participate in the process of growing and nurturing veggies, they are more likely to give them a try. Who knew a garden could expand palettes, too?
Less screen time, more green time
Finn loves technology—he’s an absolute whizz kid—and gaming is his favourite pastime. My husband and I are usually baffled by what he’s up to; it seems so technical and alien to us. So I’m always amazed how the simple pleasures of the outdoors; be that skimming stones, climbing trees or seeking out weird and wonderful fungi, still seem to quieten his mind. Mine too for that matter.
Our walks give us some much needed time together as a family. Our conversation topics are diverse and give us some interesting insight into Finn’s little mind. I’m usually awed by the depth of his knowledge on some Greek god or the engineering of a 19th century bridge, but as we stroll side by side we put the world to rights, and it gives us all chance to voice our worries and fears. Somehow that environment puts everything into perspective and, while our problems don’t disappear, they definitely seem less scary.
The challenges of the pandemic
Like many others, one of the most difficult times for my family was of course lockdown. I honestly think Finn was depressed in his own little way. He missed his friends, he missed the social aspect of going to school, and getting him out of bed in the mornings soon became a struggle. Blazing rows were the daily norm as we all became more frustrated and isolated, and of course we weren’t supposed to be outside at all.
That’s when I realised the value of having our allotment, and while Finn was missing out on his schooling, learning continued as we sowed, planted, tended and harvested our own crops. I will never forget the look of delight on his face as he dug through the earth for homegrown potatoes with his bare hands, his awe at this golden treasure clear to see. That year we were blessed with beautiful weather, and of course had more time on our hands to work our plot, so it was one of our most successful years of growing our own.
Plot your next steps
Of course, most council run allotment sites have a waiting list, so if you’re interested, check your local council's website for details and get your name down. You might even be partnered with someone older or who’s struggling to look after their own plot; that really would be win-win!
I still get Finn down to the plot as often as I can; the benefits are many and varied. No matter how experienced you are, allotments come with successes and failures - all are lessons learnt and ‘do better next years’. And when all else fails, a bamboo cane comes in very handy for some impromptu lightsabre training!