Around midday on Wednesdays a bell rings at the Royal Edinburgh Hospital Growing Space, it’s not time to go home but it does mean downing tools and swapping garden forks for kitchen ones. The welcomed sound announces that food is ready. There is usually a big pot of soupy broth, homemade bread, oven-baked potatoes, salads, and a seasonal fruit pudding.

Sustainable, shared and tasty

Wednesdays are all about bringing people together to share food. Volunteers, visitors and members of the hospital community are invited along to the garden to prepare, share and enjoy a delicious lunch. Everyone digs in, and often there’s enough for second helpings. The popular garden is in the grounds of the hospital and run in partnership with NHS Lothian, it is open at all times and three days a week it has focussed volunteer sessions. Over time it has progressed to being a garden with therapeutic aims at heart.

Mid-week the first job for the Garden Co-ordinator and staff trainees is to get the Cob oven lit, and from around 10am volunteers start to arrive, and pile into the outdoor kitchen to get things going. So what’s a cob oven you wonder, well cob building uses hands and feet to form lumps of earth mixed with sand and straw. It’s easy to learn and inexpensive to build and a cob oven is usually made with a round base of bricks or stone topped by the domed cob for baking in. 

A team of cooks (with food hygiene training!) gather to prep the veg that people are busy harvesting, and to make it into something delicious - there has to be enough to feed a whole group of hungry people. Sometimes that could be as many as 30 people all hungry and waiting at the sound of the bell.

Lucy Holroyd, Cyrenians, NHS Community Gardens Manager said:

“Not a whole lot of gardening gets done on a Wednesday, but a lot of fun is had, and there are plenty of full bellies. It’s a great way to introduce new people to the garden, a super sustainable way to eat and make the most of the produce.” 

Food and therapy

Things don’t stop after pudding. The fire gets re-stoked, in preparation for the cooking group run by Cyrenians staff members. The group runs every week and is a new project funded in part by the Green Infrastructure Community Engagement fund.

In collaboration with occupational therapists from the mental health rehab wards, they invite patients to join them in an outdoor cookery lesson, learning key skills, and tasty recipes to enjoy together - whatever the weather! So far the group have made pizza, apple crumble, bread, scones and in December festive mince pies.

A participant commented ‘The preparation is therapeutic and at the end when you have a meal it’s so delicious because we all cook it together’.

Preparing, cooking and eating food together is a brilliant social activity but often a neglected skill. The cooking projects allow the Cyrenians garden team to connect with people through outdoor activities, improve participants wellbeing and act as an additional step in people’s recovery.

Looking forward

Future plans for the garden include offering further training for NHS staff, nursing and occupational therapy students and also looking at ways to enhance NHS staff wellbeing. They also want to develop referrals from Link workers through social prescribing to bring more people the benefits associated with working together outside in a greenspace.

Cyrenians Community Gardens are funded primarily by Scottish Natural Heritage, NHS, and the Green Exercise Partnership, and receive grants from TESCO, Edinburgh & Lothians Greenspace Trust and Edinburgh and Lothians Health Foundation through jointly funded NHS ventures.