Pioneering Social Change with AutoPot

Giving time to support, educate and advance local communities through horticulture is an extraordinary exercise of empathy and dedication. There are some immensely generous people in the community education sector who propel such projects. We, at AutoPot, have the privilege of working with a few of them. Most recently we’ve humbly joined forces with Sandra McNicholls and her horticultural programme in the Greater Manchester area.

Above: Sandra’s project shares the Wythenshawe Horticultural Park Glasshouse with Real Food Wythenshawe

Together with Real Food Wythenshawe (RFW) Sandra has taken up a shared residency at Wythenshawe Park Horticultural Glasshouse to offer workshops on everything from sowing seeds and plant care to nutrient regimes and growing for exhibitions. Sandra is ideally placed to do this, with a dozen years of growing experience, eight years growing for exhibitions and strong links to the National Vegetable Society (NVS). In conjunction with RFW, Sandra aims to “improve the health and happiness of local residents” through practical, exciting and empowering activities that change people’s attitudes to food. No mean feat perhaps, nonetheless, the workshops are proving a roaring success. 

A FlexiTank in use with AutoPots it’s important to raise your reservoir 150mm or 6 inches above your lowest AQUAvalve

Having enjoyed great results and every happiness with AutoPot Watering Systems, Sandra got in touch with us about furthering her aims for the workshops. We were delighted to lend our support to Sandra’s project in the shape of some systems and equipment. These are being incorporated in Sandra’s lessons to allow her to teach every stage of plant development.   

easy2Propagate units teach Sandra’s attendees the importance of generating temperature and humidity, of rooting and intermittent venting and of hardening off. Alongside these units she’s using easy2GO Kits in conjunction with CocoMats in garden trays on metal staging fed by FlexiTanks. These can show how quick-to-harvest plants such as herbs are cultivated. For smaller mature plants there are 1Pot Systems and for the plants ordained to produce exhibition veg (can you ordain a plant?) there is the grammatically-incorrect-but-sounds-good-25-litre ‘immensitude’ of 1Pot XL.

1Pot modules prepared for potting up, Sandra favours a peat vermiculite blend as substrate

Regardless of ecumenical matters pertaining to plants, the focus is presently on cultivating leeks and onions. These are being raised in a peat-based compost blended with vermiculite for water retention. It’s worth remembering that we always recommend a 1-2” / 2.5-5cm deep layer of pH stabilised clay pebbles in the base of the pot to facilitate good drainage, especially when using a peat-based substrate. For Sandra the advantage of her peat/vermiculite mix is that because there are no nutrients present it acts as a blank slate. She can add whatever fertiliser she wants. What Sandra wants, and indeed has, is Ecothrive Charge “Beetle Poo” and Ecothrive Biosys “Worm Poo T”. These do for both the onions and the leeks but” Worm T” you can use on all types of veg. Sandra is also lucky enough to have access to a non-commercial mycorrhiza fungus by the mythic Mick Poultney – ‘Le Capitaine de Composts’. Feeding plants organics with AutoPots is perfectly okay as long as the nutrients are present in the substrate or hand administered and not piped in via the reservoir.

Nascent leeks reach for the skies

Leeks are excellent teaching materials for any of Sandra’s advanced growers keen to learn about cultivating show veg. The plants exemplify the way in which certain veg, properly developed, can crop over a two year cycle and may be used for seed gathering. The original plant is sown, grown, allowed to overwinter and put to seed. In spring it produces a seed head. Once that head is in flower it is despoiled of its treasure (seed pods) by man or woman or non-binary. Understandably shocked by all of this the plant does what one imagines all of us would do under the circumstances and produces leeks on its head. Several months later the leeks will have developed their own root plates and can be removed from the head. By this time they are individual plants which can go into the grow tent under a light until ready to be planted out into the AutoPot Watering Systems.

Covering up the bulb stimulates blanching of the leek root

Whilst this represents quite a traditional method of cultivation Sandra is no querulous quail when it comes to more modern techniques that bend nature to her will. She has embraced grow tents and lighting as a means of providing a source of veg year-round. This is less as an object lesson to her drop-in team and more as a means of supplying the kitchens.

The current output of leeks and onions grown in the glasshouse is divided between displays in Wythenshaw Park’s Tudor Walled Garden and cookery classes which comprise a key element of RFW’s community engagement. The idea here is to help people on benefits learn how to cook fresh food on a limited budget. Vegetarian, one-pot chillies, soups and stews are order of the day. In this instance the reasons are primarily in order to keep costs down but there are strong arguments for all of us to reduce meat intake and embrace sustainably grown veg more often, whether for health or environmental reasons. RFW operate a referral system working with a broad range of community providers including the NHS, drug and alcohol support workers, occupational therapists, employment coaches. They also work with student occupational therapists and community nurses, sharing good practice and providing supervised placements to support their studies.

Tatton Park, venue for the forthcoming RHS show at which Sandra will be exhibiting

The public will get a chance to fully appreciate the work of Real Food Whythenshaw and the NVS at a series of upcoming events – don’t miss out! RFW will be giving it live at the Manchester Flower Show come the weekend of 1st and 2nd June 2019. The event is an absolute gem, “a mosaic of vibrance and colour”, where pocket gardens, green takeovers and table displays run riot in the city centre. Meanwhile Sandra and the NVS will be tweaking their excellence for RHS Tatton Flower Show 17th to 21st July and hoping to add to the 14 gold medals they’ve accumulated there across 20 years. Think they’ve nothing on in August? Think again! They’ll be delighting the crowds amidst the vibrant varied vistas of the Poynton Show on Saturday 24th.

For more information on the NVS visit their site here. The RFW mastermind a veritable hatful of projects tailored to address a complex and interlinked set of social issues, details of their work can be found here.

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