Community growing projects in Kent

Celebrating the Deal Hop Farm harvest in 2018

Celebrating the Deal Hop Farm harvest in 2018 - Credit: Archant

Community growing projects, from orchards to allotments and even hops for beer making are cropping up all over Kent

Lorna Kane (left) team leader Windmill Community Gardens Margate with Martina Knight, veg bag co-ord

Lorna Kane (left) team leader Windmill Community Gardens Margate with Martina Knight, veg bag co-ordinator (photo: Manu Palomeque) - Credit: Archant

They improve community spirit significantly, help the environment and protect Kent's agricultural heritage, so it's little wonder there are so many community growing projects cropping up.

Whether it be orchards, allotments or even hops for beer making, local groups are getting their hands dirty.

Windmill Community Gardens

In Margate there is a community growing project that has gone from strength to strength over the last 15 years.

The Windmill Community Gardens (WCG) started out as a small group using a couple of unloved allotments to grow vegetables with their children, an idea developed in partnership between Surestart, the NHS and the local council.

Now it's so big it covers two large sites, runs a local veg box subscription scheme, offers volunteering opportunities and even supplies local restaurants with organic produce.

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"Over the years WCG has delivered food growing, gardening, wildlife, environmental crafts, green wood working and beekeeping activities to numerous groups and individuals," says Martina Knight from the project.

"We also run a range of different groups; the gardening club is open to the public to enjoy the gardens and is attended by people on work experience, volunteers and others referred to us by local organisations.

Press picking at Walmer Castle for Deal Hop Farm

Press picking at Walmer Castle for Deal Hop Farm - Credit: Archant

"On Tuesdays we run a chemical-free market stall, a plant stall and nursery, selling a range of home-grown fruits and vegetables, cut flowers and plants, honey from our own beehives and home-made preserves.

"We also run our Cabbage Patch Outdoor Play and Learn group for pre-school children throughout the year, with a range of growing, cooking and outdoor crafts and activities."

Deal Hop Farm

Keen to get involved in the micro-brewing boom and wanting to start from scratch by growing their own hops, a group of real ale fans from Deal decided to pool their resources.

Lacking the hop fields that were once commonplace across the county, members offered to each grow a few hop plants in whatever space they had available - private gardens, allotments and outside community buildings.

It's known as a 'patchwork hop farm' and, two years on, Deal is now covered with it.

The idea for the Deal Hop Farm project came from Deal With It, the town's green community group. Their research revealed there were around 20 such projects across the UK but none in Kent, the spiritual home of hop growing.

Lizzie Spilman and Bob Baxter at Community Park Farm, Lynsted (photo: Manu Palomeque)

Lizzie Spilman and Bob Baxter at Community Park Farm, Lynsted (photo: Manu Palomeque) - Credit: Archant

"We started with very limited knowledge about hops, their management and how exactly brewers use them," says Stephen Wakeford of Deal Hop Farm.

"One of our key objectives was to reconnect people both to the understanding of where our food comes from and the history of hop growing in Kent.

"We unleashed the idea at public meeting in February 2017 at the Lighthouse Pub in Walmer, expecting a dozen or so people to turn up, but we packed the pub and soon had an amazing 130 sites in the town signed up."

Members simply buy a hop or two, plant them out in spring and then harvest them all together in September. The group donates the hops to a local brewery which produces a commercial beer, in return for a free bottle for each of the growers.

The hops are dotted all over the town and at the height of summer you're even likely to spot them growing in some of the area's most visited attractions.

Look out for them at Deal Station, Walmer Castle, The Pines Calyx, outside pubs, cafés, bed and breakfasts and even a local pre-school. There are now more than 250 sites, involving nearly 380 people in and around Deal.

The growth has meant that from the first year's 74 kilo harvest, it more than doubled in 2018 to 178 kilos.

Community Park Farm in Lynsted is one of Kent's first community orchard groups (photo: Manu Palomequ

Community Park Farm in Lynsted is one of Kent's first community orchard groups (photo: Manu Palomeque) - Credit: Archant

Whereas they were used 'green' in the first year, some of the hops are now dried, meaning they can be used in different beers. So far the project has produced more than 20,000 pints of beer for the community.

"The community aspects of the project are extremely important to us," says Stephen. "It really brings people together in the town in a joyous joint venture.

"It's always a talking point as you wander up the High Street and bump into people. There is a lot of local enthusiasm for the beer, and it sells out very quickly. Not only is it great beer but people love the story behind it."

In previous years, the group has worked with Ripple Steam Brewery, but this time around the harvest will be going to Time & Tide Brewing.

Last year the locally grown, locally produced beer was available in more than 30 local pubs, including The Lighthouse and The Just Reproach. Time & Tide have already used the remaining dried 2018 hops to make two beers - a 4.1 per cent pale ale and a 5.8 per cent extra special bitter - and are looking forward to the next harvest.

Park Farm Community Cherry Orchard

But projects don't have to be this grand, or involve anywhere near as much work. One of Kent's first community orchard groups, Park Farm Community Cherry Orchard in Lynsted, near Sittingbourne, has been paving the way for similar small projects for the last 14 years.

The 2.5-hectare orchard, filled with 14 varieties of cherry tree, is owned by a local farmer but had become commercially unviable. Not wanting to see this important part of Kent's fruit-growing heritage scrubbed, the farmer suggested a group use the land for community gatherings and education.

The traditionally managed orchard is now a community resource which aims to raise local interest in its heritage.

Involved in this group from the very beginning, Bob Baxter knows all there is to know about the area once so rich in orchards it was known as the 'North Kent Fruit Belt'.

"Up until the 1960s orchards were growing everywhere in north Kent," says Bob.

"And the local people would help maintain them and harvest the crop throughout the summer. It was a major source of employment."

Not far from Lynsted is Teynham, the village where the first mother orchard was planted in 1533 by Henry VIII's head fruiterer. It was the beginning of commercial fruit production in Kent and led to its nickname the 'Garden of England'.

The community orchard group consider themselves the protectors of this important history and, with the help of local schools and other groups, they have studied the management of the orchard and the ecology of the wildlife that lives there.

A key feature is that the orchard is opened up to the public at several times throughout the year. A safe place for children to run free and for picnickers to sit under the pretty trees, it's a popular community space.

"We have three main events a year," says Bob. "One when the blossom is out in the spring and in July we have our main event which is our Cherry Day - when the fruit is ripe and people come along to celebrate and pick their own. And in the autumn we have a Halloween event which is very spooky and popular with the local families."

Over the years Park Farm Community Cherry Orchard has also joined up with 14 similar projects, under the Kent Downs AONB Orchards For Everyone project.

With groups everywhere from Gillingham to Yalding, there is a growing movement to conserve and celebrate the heritage of our Kentish orchards.

And just like our other growing projects, the fruits of their labours are there for the community to enjoy year after year.

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