The opportunity to physically connect with nature, to manually work with soil and sow and grow plants is rarely on the agenda for students at university. The indoor environments of academia do not usually lend themselves to going down the allotment for a couple of hours. Fresh air and the glow of healthy exercise when digging in manure is not, for students, generally where you would connect them to. Perhaps a work out at the gym, some yoga, a Pilates class is what provides the physical challenge. Certainly not a session of digging.
That is unless you happen to be a student at the University of East Anglia.
This year has seen the creation of PhDiggers at the university, part of the Courage Project, a joint initiative with the university, the Students’ Union, Norwich Bioscience Institutes and The University of Suffolk. PhDiggers is one of the projects set up by the Courage Project to provide mental health support to PhD students . It is an allotment and gardening group with over 50 members, students and staff and around 10 regular attendees. The university has provided 5 allotments and since the end of May the ground has been manually cleared and crops sown, harvesting already potatoes, squash, tomatoes, beetroot, carrots.
Dr. Bryony Porter, who is the lead on the project, has described a lot of hard physical work to clear the ground, interestingly digging in coffee grounds which come from the caterers on the campus, being delivered to them in a wheely bin each week.
In the coming Halloween they have declared a pumpkin amnesty where all the left overs will go in to their compost heap. They have innovative plans for a greenhouse made out of plastic bottles, and also to use ecobricks to build raised beds.
Already the project has shown benefits for those involved. It has provided an alternative to being outside, to be physically engaged and connected with nature and importantly an opportunity to share an activity in a non competitive environment. Bryony describes how the space allows shoulder to shoulder connection with the people you are working with. Something that makes sharing the personal joys and challenges of life and work and study easier.
It is this kind of opening a door and exploring behind it that will lead to a richness and insight the will be life-long. The pleasure of eating your own grown food cannot be beaten and although this gardening group is in its infancy once they get going seriously a certain competitive edge is sure to develop and who knows the Vice Chancellors Cup for the best display of vegetables might be part of the annual awards at the university.
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