Tuesday, 5 January 2016

Passing on important gardening skills.

I put up a post on Allotment Growers Facebook page indicating my interest in sharing my skills with novice gardeners.

“ I've been thinking about how to help new allotment holders and introduce them to allotmenteering helping them to avoid giving up their allotments after just a few weeks or months because they have become overwhelmed. I was thinking of putting on a workshop/course where we take over an abandoned allotment high in bindweed, nettles, couch, and mare's tail, and believe me we have several of those, and turning it around with the help of prospective allotmenteers. It would give them a realistic idea about the amount of work that is necessary. It will also give them a realistic idea of how much you can do if you work full time and have a family. Do you think that this is a good idea?”

It's not an original idea.  Lots of people have tried to show people what to expect.

But just reading about allotments does not give people a clear idea of what taking on an allotment involves.  Every new person taking on an allotment and then giving it up after just a few weeks at our site, said that they were experienced gardeners and understood how much work was necessary to turn around an untidy allotment. 

 I have had an allotment for about 33 years now and been gardening for over 50 years. Surely in that time I have gathered enough skills to be able to pass them on to younger more novice gardeners without seeming arrogant?

Skills are so important and they are very hard to learn from books.  You have to perfect them over many years.  Most websites say that it takes about 10,000 hours of practising to learn a skill and become proficient in it.  I am interested in passing on skills not on teaching people things they can learn from books. 

So why have we shied right away from teaching skills and concentrated on more academic teaching?

We have people who can name, talk and write about plants but find maintaining a large allotment very difficult.  The number of times that I have read that a particular technique will be easier and not so strenuous are countless.  If you have experienced using your skills in gardening then you realise that there are no short cuts.  Allotmenteering is skilled hard work. 

I don’t know if it is the only reason, but for gardening it may be the main one, the fear of being held responsible for any injury that a student suffers.  When you are dealing with machinery, sharp tools, knives, secateurs and putting your hands into compost and manure, I can see that there might be a problem.  But why?

Is it because people will not take responsibility for their own safety?  I worked for some time teaching outdoor education and all the activities had to be assessed for safety - what some call risk assessments.  I also had to have an up to date first aid certificate.  Safety instructions were given at the beginning of all activities.  But really it was just about using your intelligence to keep yourself out of danger.  It is the Darwin effect – anyone stupid enough to injure themselves should be removed from the gene pool anyway and not infect the rest of us with genes that lead you to act so recklessly that you kill yourself. 

When I took the RHS practical gardening certificates, one of the main elements was risk assessment and personal protection equipment. 

But do I really want to get into this stifling, quagmire of teaching other people how to remain safe? And what happens if they do injure themselves? 

So am I going to persevere with the workshop idea?  I have no idea what hazards an overgrown allotment may hide.  Broken glass, sharp nails, rusty knives, hidden tools, holes and large boulders are only some that I have come across.  The one that I have to put up with at the moment is urine filled bottles thrown over the hedge from the road that runs alongside the allotment site. 

So I doubt that old blokes, like me, that have spent more than 10000 hours perfecting skills will not be rushing to share their knowledge.  The perception of old people as useless will be further perpetuated and skills will be lost.   

 Sad world.


  1. Tony

    Please dont give up on your idea of teaching good gardening skills.

    We recently took over the management of our site. I noticed that many plotholders drop out after 6months. They just cant keep on top of the weeds and they become dispirited. As chair of the committee I Initially I wanted to have some smaller beds for the complete beginners. Firstly to give them a chance to learn - a small success - can be a big morale booster….but also to help them understand that allotments are time consuming. If they couldn’t manage a small patch - how would they manage a whole plot? Sadly the landlord didn’t want us to divide up one plot into the smaller beds needed.

    …anyway. I’ve decided that another way to approach this is to get a bunch of volunteers from our waiting list to work together. I have given them a half plot and they are going to prepare the plot (couch and bindweed), mark out the beds and design a potager for our open day. They also have to be on the plot on the open day to answer visitors’ questions.

    I’ll be there to mentor them and give help and advice. At the moment they are all keen - it will be interesting to see if any drop out due to work/family commitments or because they realise gardening is such hard work and the weeding is relentless.

    I have only had my own plot for five years - so I’m not as experienced as you. But I feel that if we rent plots to beginners - we should try and ensure they don’t fail. I'm keen to pass on what I have learnt and share my enthusiasm for growing.

    That said - I am amazed that people who have been on a waiting list for up to 4 years - haven’t taken the time to read some gardening books and watch some videos. There is so much info out there - but they get a plot and have no idea where to start.

    As far as health and safety is concerned - well they are all adults - I expect them to act in a sensible manner and not push themselves too hard. Yes these are litigious times and keeping my fingers crossed is not a good defence. But as volunteers who will become plotholders in the next year or so… they should be prepared to take responsibility for their own health and safety.

    Kind regards


    1. Totally agree Christina. Thanks for you thoughts.