How a Paisley community garden is tackling loneliness and food poverty

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Main image: The perimeter fence to the West End Growing Grounds Association (WEGGA) on Underwood Road. Photo: Tareq Selim

In Paisley, in a little enclave on the edges of Ferguslie Park, lies a fenced-off garden filled with raised beds and tents.

With tenements and industrial estates all around it, and a raised rail track as one of its boundaries, the garden sticks out as a bright patch of green in a sea of grey and black. Inside, there are people digging through the soils in their raised beds, as cars, vans and trucks whizz by on the road outside.

Raised beds where members grow their food in the community garden. Photo: Tareq Selim

This is the West End Growing Grounds Association (WEGGA), one of several community gardens that have sprung up in Renfrewshire over the years.

Photo: Tareq Selim

It was founded over 10 years ago at a site just on the other side of the rail track.

“The West End Growing Grounds was established in 2011 as a sub-committee of the Paisley West and Central Community Council,” says John Wilby, 84, who is the secretary of both the community council and the growing grounds.

John Wilby tending to administrative work for the growing grounds. Photo: Tareq Selim

It was a spin-off of a WISH (Westend is Safer and Healthier) project which was launched with the community council by the director of public health for Greater Glasgow and Clyde, partly assisted by the Drugs and Alcohol fund.

One of the main purposes of WEGGA is to promote growing healthy food and helping people understand and appreciate the benefits of horticulture.

One of the other purposes of the allotment was “to reduce social isolation and loneliness. That was … a high priority for the health and social care partnership in Renfrewshire,” Wilby says.

“We’re surrounded by a large number of tenements with mainly single occupants.”

In 2017, they moved to the current site on Underwood Road, which used to be a row of tenements. “We wanted to have a sight close by because the whole concept is that it’s growing your own locally and we didn’t want to lose membership as a result of moving further afield.”

The grounds lie within the ward of Paisley Northwest, which is among the 5% most deprived areas in Scotland according to the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation.

A tend that acts as a kind of greehouse to help seeds start growing. Once the plans have grown enough, they are moved to the raised beds outside. Photo: Tareq Selim
Inside one of the tents where seeds are first planted to help them sprout. Photo: Tareq Selim

Currently, WEGGA has 30 individual members and six group members. The groups include a young carers and older adults, among others.

Many of the individual members are a mix of nationalities, including Indian, Syrian, and various African countries. One of the group members is Pachedu, a charity based in Paisley that represents local ethnic minorities.

One of Pachedu’s members showing off their produce. Photo: Pachedu

Johannes Gonani, 49, operations manager at Pachedu says that during the Covid-19 pandemic “it was a good place for mental health and wellbeing.”

Gonani, originally from Zimbabwe, says their raised bed gave members the chance to grow vegetables from their home countries that aren’t available to buy anywhere in Scotland. “An opportunity to grow those was really positive for most of our minority ethnic communities.”

One of the foreign vegetables Pachedu members managed to grow at the grounds. Photo: Pachedu

He adds members were able to forge new relationships and develop friendships over food by organising cookouts and sharing recipes, which he believes has been crucial to tackling loneliness and isolation among ethnic minority groups. “I think it’s even a worse killer than cancer or other diseases,” he says.

“Getting an opportunity to connect and go out and do things that give you hope, that’s very, very important.”

The grounds are a peaceful place to come to, Wilby says, and have helped relationships develop between the people who use it, greatly helping people suffering from social isolation.

Membership has steadily grown over the years as well as demand for raised beds. Photo: Tareq Selim

He reveals that one of their members living with mental illness has now taken on maintenance roles for the growing grounds and gets a great deal of enjoyment out of it.

The association recently held an internal survey and had no complaints in the feedback. However, many wanted to see more social events. Every last Sunday of the month, they have a working party day they call Friends Day.

The grounds notice board. Photo: Tareq Selim

Among its other group members is a Paisley branch of what are called men’s sheds, local non-profit organisations found across the world set up to help with the wellbeing of older men.

Spinners Gate, a resource centre of the Renfrewshire Health and Social Care Partnership that helps people on the autism spectrum and with learning disabilities, also has a bed in the allotment.

“We’ve been fortunate to obtain grants,” Wilby says. “The whole development of the site was funded partly by Renfrewshire Council. They gave us £20,000 and then the Sanctuary Housing Association contributed £30,000 in kind.”

Since then, the grounds has had grants for a disabled compost toilet, a range of electric battery-operated machines, and individual tool kits for each member so that they didn’t have to bring their own tools.

One member, Fay Potts, 76, says the growing grounds have been a haven for her, especially after the pandemic.

“It’s a sanctuary,” she says. “Last year, I had the worst year of my life. I lost eight people and including my brother. I took a really serious dip.

“Coming back to it now has given me a purpose as well as something I enjoy doing and the people who come here are really nice and it’s nice to meet a wide variety of people with different backgrounds and ages.

“You carry on with your life as if things are always going to be the same and of course they aren’t. And especially the age I’m coming to now, you do lose people, but it was just there was so many and some people who were dearly close to me. You have to live with that. Be glad that they were in your life and be glad that you’re alive.”

Potts adds: “I’m glad to be 76 and alive! It’s a blessing.”

There are now several growing grounds and community gardens and numbers are only growing. “It’s really taken off in Renfrewshire,” says Wilby.

“I believe with the growing cost of food, it’s going to be almost an essential that people do wherever possible grow their own food. Not only is it more economical but it’s healthier.”

With a wry smile, he adds: “The taste is so different from what you buy in the supermarket.”

Robert Thompson, 75, has had a bed at the growing grounds for the last eight years at least. “I just wanted a wee hobby to do, you know? Just to pass the time,” he says. “Gets me movig … Gets me out the house and that, you know?”

Robert tending to his bed. Photo: Tareq Selim

Thompson became a member shortly after retiring at the age of 66, volunteering with maintenance work and cutting the grass, and believes the growing grounds have become “really important for [the community].”

Thompson thinks the grounds should be getting more investment. “I’d like to see a lot more funds come into it.”

Over his time at the allotment, he has seen numbers grow substantially, especially as food prices have gone up in recent times.

“You see with the inflation and all that? More people are coming in ad … growing their own stuff now. It’s eye opening to see how many people [have come] into it now. There’s a lot more people in now than there’s ever been.”

“The food banks … I don’t know how they keep them going, to tell you the truth, you know?”

Gonani is hoping that there will be more opportunities for communities to grow their own and says Pachedu already have plans to expand. “We’re also going on to start a new gardening project from scratch because the demand has been high. It’s been quite overwhelming.”

Janis McDonald, a local Labour councillor for the Paisley Northwest ward (where the grounds lie), says she has noticed an increased interest recently in people connecting with their local communities. She also believes initiatives such as WEGGA have major benefits for both individuals and communities.

“There is an increasing need to ensure that people are a bit more self-sufficient, and we can all do our bit in various ways to support that reconnection”, McDonald says, adding that community gardens and growing grounds can also be part of the solution for the cost-of-living crisis and food poverty.

However, she maintains that there is a need to collect data on such projects to provide the basis for evidence-based development in the future.

“I do think when going forward that these sorts of initiatives need to be part of keeping people healthier and happier in the community.”

Photo: Tareq Selim

Renfrewshire Council did not respond when asked for any data and monitoring progress regarding their Food Growing Strategy 2020-2025.

McDonald also says that residents of disadvantaged areas (such as the nearby Ferguslie community that borders WEGGA) don’t like the official term “deprivation” to describe their circumstances.

“People there are people that want to be treated as human and they want to be a part of an evidence-based and community-led set of solutions in the future.”

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