From the first seedling idea to harvest, a vast number of stories and knowledge grew out of Drought Risk and You (DRY). Supported by the National Allotment Society (NAS), this important and innovative aspect of the research project was led by the University of the West of England, Bristol.
The community of allotment holders and gardeners proved to
be an even more plentiful source of information and fertile ideas than expected.
Many of their stories of past water scarcity, their anecdotal evidence of
effective ways to manage drought and to build resilience into the soil have
been curated into DRY Utility, a rich
source of stories, film, narratives and guidance notes about different groups’
and communities’ memories of, and responses to, drought.
Prof Lindsey McEwen, Principal Investigator of DRY, says: “Gardeners and allotment holders emerged in DRY as a group of people who were thinking creatively about the issues around water scarcity and drought, and were passionate about the way they grow produce and manage the soil” .
“Those we spoke to also had a strong culture of sharing and exchanging – everything from seeds and produce to knowledge about growing; more experienced growers on an allotment site readily share their advice on what to grow, what not to grow and how, with newcomers” .
Harbingers of drought
“Allotment holders and gardeners can be among the first to
notice the signs of local water scarcity in their soil and in growing patterns,
with the potential to be early harbingers of possible drought in their
DRY formed local connections with different allotment
groups, workshops were held around the UK and NAS representatives attended
events including DRY’s final conference in July 2019. It quickly became a
co-productive relationship and a genuine knowledge exchange – a process that
DRY has embedded in all its stakeholder relationships.
“It’s one of our success stories,” says Lindsey. “Allotment
holders and gardeners are effective ‘messengers’ about water in our
communities, they have hyper-local knowledge of the geography of their
allotment sites, which plots are most affected and which less so; they share
their memories of dry periods and how the ground and crops behaved; they are
attuned to water within catchment areas and have a less hierarchical
communication structure than many sectors.”
Allotment mentors spread message
That commitment to co-production extended to collaborating
on materials and resources and Lindsey was invited to speak to the NAS national
group of mentors who operate regionally, visiting allotment sites to share
advice and offer support so they can spread the messages about drought even
Lindsey explains: “It’s a really good way of cascading
knowledge, to embed in their culture an awareness of drought, combining
specialist science and their experiential knowledge. I spoke to the mentors
about the role of growers in thinking about drought, how they might consider
themselves as messengers, and as the eyes and ears on the ground for monitoring
soil moisture and soil health.”
Some mentors like Allan Cavill, NAS mentor and long-term
contributor to DRY, promote natural soil management through long-term
strategies such as no-dig cultivation, mulching, rainwater harvesting and
growing drought-resistant crops. For
example, in the Fowey allotment, we heard stories of growing yacon, a root
vegetable that tastes like a combination of apple and pear and can be eaten raw
or cooked. DRY team members were also
given samples to take home. In addition, growers develop an awareness of their
personal water use and can spread a spirit of water stewardship into their
families and wider networks in horticultural societies, produce shows and
neighbourhood communities, for example, thinking about water as a valuable
resource and highlighting examples of good practice.
Lindsey says: “In a sense we have worked with some allotment holders’ habit of sharing and swopping seeds and produce in a different context – sharing knowledge about drought.” Read more about DRY, including a blog on working with allotmenteers and gardeners, at www.dryproject.co.uk