Downpatrick Community Allotments All Set For New Season

With the better weather, members of Downpatrick Community Allotments are preparing for a new season.

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With the better weather, members of Downpatrick Community Allotments are preparing for a new season.

Catherine O’Connor and Shauna Mullan getting the seed trays filled up at the Downpatrick Community Allotments.

There was a buzz at Downpatrick Community Allotments this past few days as the better Spring weather settles in and the members prepare for a new season.

Catherine O’Connor was busy making up aubergine seed trays when Down News caught up with her. She said: “I was involved last season with the group and it is great to see the the plants come on and get planted out into the different beds for the members. We have quite a big selection to get planted up in seed trays in the poly tunnel. They won’t be long in growing.”

And newcomer to the allotments was Shauna Mullan, getting a helping hand from Catherine O’Connor. Shauna said: “This is my first season with the allotments and it is really fascinating the amount of work that goes on in preparing the seed trays and pots etc for the coming season, and watching the planting beds get prepared for planting out when the weather is better into April.”

Stephen Harris, Chairman of the Downpatrick Community Allotments, has spent a lifetime in horticulture having served his time as a plant propogator and ran his own landscaping and plant business for 25 years.

When I arrived at the allotments in Downpatrick, Stephen was busy in his shed studying some early Sharpe’s seed potatoes to ensure they were just right for planting. He said: “Quite simply, gardening is very therapeutic. I heard on a gardening programme once on radio that an hour in a garden, even just relaxing, is like 10 hours of counselling.

“I’ve seen first hand the benefits it has for the many members and volunteers over the ten years I’ve been involved in the project – and some have benefitted from the improved mental health wellbeing. Even those who don’t have plots benefit from it. It’s definitely something that doctors should be socially prescribing.

“Altogether, we probably have more than 30 people involved in the allotments, some only as volunteers, and some with allotments may be couples. There is a good community feel about the project and everyone gets on well with each other. It certainly helps to break down social isolation.

“The Downpatrick Men’s Health Group have two of the beds and 6-7 of their members are quite active growing vegetables which is great. And we received funding help too from Downpatrick Town Committee.

“Members are very busy at the moment. Over the winter they dug up the soil to aerate it and in a week or two we will get a rotavator in to turn over the beds so we can level them ready for planting.”

Stephen added: “Today Catherine and Shauna have been filling up seed beds. We grow a wide range of vegetables and different varieties such as lettuce, potatoes, onions, leeks, Brussels sprouts, cabbages, courgettes and herbs and so on which can be started off in seed trays and pots, and some such as peas, broad beans, parsnips and carrots can be sown out directly over the next couple of weeks. We grow French beans over trellises which add a bit of height to the planting beds.

“It is interesting that some strains may not suit the soil we have so we have to grow a few different strains to see what works best.

Rhubarb pushes up into the Spring light.

“For example, rhubarb can be a problem if the soil is not right for them. They tend to like a damp, clay soil and if they are not happy, they will after a few years start to get diseases and die back. But they do thrive better with a seaweed fertiliser or liquid feeding.”

Surprisingly, the allotments produce a lot of fruit. Stephen said that they have apple, pear, cherry and plum trees which all produce excellent fruit each year. “Our plum harvest two years ago was fantastic and the members were literally filling bags to take away.

“We found that raspberries grow well at the allotments so must like the soil, but the strawberries have struggled, again not liking the soil. So we have to always try and work out the best soil for the plants and try and alter it if possible or plant in pots or boxes.”

Stephen explained that the allotments were very grateful to Byrne’s Nursery on the Newcastle Road for supplying the many plant pots for planting up. He said: “We buy our seeding and planting up compost from Byrne’s Nursery. The compost from the council is more soil-based and less suitable for potting up for seeds and young plants but we use it in the main open beds etc.

“Last year we made up 400 hanging baskets which were sold to the public or were put up in housing estates. We will increase that number this year. And we produced 3500 vegetable bedding plants, and this year we hope to reach 5000 with the improvements we made to our poly tunnel.

“The poly-tunnel was originally built on a slope and a couple of our taller members would have a problem with their heads touching to top bars. So we raised the back end and it has created more internal space and light.

“We have 15 beds altogether at ground level at the allotments and one is a raised bed for anyone who can’t bend down of who has a disability.

“The members plant out a wide range of vegetables and some fruit and it is surprising the yield that we have from such a small area. The members tend to share the produce and often give it away to people who will benefit from the fresh vegetables and fruit.

Michael Gracey and Seamus Gilmore look over a couple of the bee hives at the Downpatrick Community Allotments.

“It is good to see the the beekeepers enjoying their efforts with their hives. They have done their beekeeper training and are enjoying the experience. Bees are important for the environment in that they are key pollinators of our plants.”

Beekeeper Michael Gracey said: “Some of the members have already taken bee-keeping courses with the Ulster Bee Keepers Association and we are making honey while the sun shines, literally.

“We have seven hives which is about enough at the moment. It is really enjoyable to see the bees at their work. Last season we had about 30lbs of honey which was great but we hope for a better summer this year.”

Seamus Gilmore, who has also completed the bee-keeping course added: “With this bit of warm sun you can see the bees starting to forage out and drying their wings in the sun.

“There won’t be a lot for them to feed on just now but as the months progress they’ll soon gather up the nectar for making the honey and we can get our jars filled up.”

The Downpatrick Community Allotments project may be tucked away at the corner of a housing estate in Downpatrick, but it is making a significant impact on the wellbeing of people in the local community who are involved.