‘Our allotment vegetables are delicious! That’s with a capital ‘D’! There are no chemicals, no rubbish, they just taste so different.....so delicious,” Louisa, one of the volunteers in the Mitzvahs and Marrows project, insists. Enthusiasm is certainly one ingredient that is not lacking in this innovative Leeds “grow, cook and sell” enterprise that has brought therapy and creativity, challenge and satisfaction to individuals in the community who struggle with a wide range of mental health issues.
It has also brought an unexpected bonanza of excellent preserves, chutneys, pickles and relishes to those lucky enough in the city to snap up the artisan jars of this tiny but thriving cottage industry almost as soon as they are produced. Jars that also carry, uniquely in Britain, a hechsher (from the Leeds Beth Din).
The scheme operates under the aegis of the Neshama division of the Leeds Jewish Welfare Board, and was initiated four years ago by social worker Clare Sanderson, herself an allotment owner. As she explains: “There has been a lot of research about the therapeutic nature of growing and gardening and I thought some of the residents at the mental health supported housing project, Stone Court, might benefit from involvement.”
Even she, though, was surprised at the result: volunteers promptly set to and created an allotment out of a bare, patchy corner of the garden, making the raised beds and digging the barren ground themselves.
Today, the small team grow an astonishing range of produce from kale and pumpkins to tomatoes, marrows, chillies, chard, strawberries, plums and more, overseen by the rickety Mr Scarecrowovitch.
An initial glut of green tomatoes prompted a bout of chutney-making in the supervised kitchen of the Marjorie and Arnold Ziff Community Centre. They soon realised they could sell jars to fund-raise and support the allotment. Generous donations from groups such as Women 4 Welfare have also helped buy tools, a water butt, composter, shed and greenhouse.
Involvement in the group is not just limited to garden and kitchen: another Stone Court resident proudly came up with the name and inspired logo design, a Magen David composed of fruit and vegetables.
It’s been trial and error — this year was the first they managed to get the pumpkins to germinate, although they finally admitted defeat on melons — the North Yorkshire climate was never going to be in their favour.
Another group member, Darren, has tried growing a lemon tree from a pip, “It survived for a few years though I never got any fruit,” he recalls, “but I did use the lemon leaves in cooking for their fragrance.”
Decisions about seed buying, saving and planting are made collectively. There are always potatoes (several varieties) and onions for the use of Stone Court residents, but propelled particularly by Darren’s adventurous culinary tastes and inquiring scientific mind, there might also be, at any one time, rocket, pak choi, courgettes, Jerusalem artichokes, chocolate mint, purslane, Alpine strawberries and yellow raspberries. They are also growing horseradish and beetroot.
Darren and Naomi are stirrers-in-chief in the kitchen where the preserves are chopped, cooked and potted according to recipes supplied by Clare, and tweaked to general approval. The hugely popular chilli jam with red chillies, tomatoes, vinegar, garlic and sugar is based on a recipe by grow-to-eat guru Sarah Raven; and the pumpkin chutney contains apples, sultanas, ginger and garlic.
Growing and cooking is calming and offers a sense of achievement and self-confidence. For Darren it helps his awareness of the passage of the seasons and offers an understanding of the food chain. “The allotment is a good place to sit,” he adds, “Every day it’s a little bit different, there’s something new to see.” He studies halachic horticultural strictures, companion planting and other organic principles, and the problems of slug control are considered with quasi-talmudic precision.
Mitzvahs and Marrows also reflects particular Jewish concepts such as tikkun olam. As Naomi says, “It helps everyone in the group to look after each other, it brings out a sense of family, gives a structure to the day and helps social confidence.”
Neshama means soul, and the scheme underscores the fact that the world often fails to see the true person behind a mask of anxieties and fears. Naomi compares it to gardening, “When you sow a seed, it becomes a plant, then it flowers. Then you see something real there, but it’s something that has been there all along.”
Read more about the project at mitzvahsandmarrows.wordpress.com