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Social enterprise life for Alan is just 'blooming' marvellous

Chelsea flower show one day, the back garden of a Blackpool based charity the next. Its not every charity that can boast an 'In Bloom' national judge as their 'gardener'!

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Social enterprise life for Alan is just 'blooming' marvellous

"You can be judging Whitby in the morning and hopping on a plane to do Jersey in the afternoon. Youre zig zagging all over the country. Its wonderful."
Alan Hulme of Urban Organic CIC

Chelsea flower show one day, the back garden of a Blackpool based charity the next.

It’s not every charity that can boast a former Kew gardener or a current Britain In Bloom judge as their ‘gardener’.

N-Vision, the Blackpool Fylde and Wyre Society for the Blind, has hosted Urban Organic community interest concern since 2014.

This summer Alan Hulme became the charity’s groundsman too.

What started with a table, compost and pots, progressed to a polytunnel and now a hidden gem of a garden, open to the public from 2pm-4pm on Saturday (June 8) for the charity’s summer fair at the Bosworth Place, Squires Gate, base.

It gives locals the chance to see the stunning birds and bees’ murals created by talented students on exchange trip from across Europe.

Real bees are there too by accident and design, quarters to match, a bespoke bee hotel for some, hives for others.

The social enterprise founder’s hive of industry includes superstore Booths four rooftop hives and Bee Experience days at Poulton. “That’s part of our sustainability.”

The store manager reckoned the 40 jars of honey produced from Alan’s buzzy friends over two years at 15 hives would have sold in two days.

They sold out within three hours.

On site at N-Vision there are hens, so eggs are accordingly on sale in the foyer of the Princess Alexandra Home. Fruit veg and herbs grown on site are used in the charity’s kitchens or to add the scent of summer for those who cannot see.

Residents and visitors harvest fresh ingredients to make pizzas in the communal oven outdoors.  No pollo pizza, though…

Alan’s cutting rosemary – “for remembrance” as Shakespeare put it – and bay leaves dry in a bowl.  There’s a hint of fennel in the air. Alan’s own pop-up shop is one of the pulling features at Saturday’s summer fair here.

 The grounds were largely grassed over out back when he first arrived. His own connection with the society started as a child when he used to come with his mum and dad – who was blind – to a club in Sharples Hall.

Love at first sight?  Years later Alan decided it would make the perfect setting for a community garden. “Whenever I’m in I want to be out or looking out. But you want something to get outside for.”

The lawn now contains compact ground cover crucial to a bee’s early season welfare. Alan’s big on bees.

There’s a barefoot tactile trail too.

It’s a labour of love as many will see for themselves on Saturday when they venture out of Sharples Hall and into the gardens.  The summer fair is organised by the Princess Alexandra Home for the Princess Alexandra Home – all money going to the residents’ amenities fund.

The Urban Organics team led by Alan already do more than their bit to enhance quality of life for residents, staff, volunteers, and regular visitors.

It’s three years since Blackpool’s Urban Organic was awarded Lottery funding for the Growing for Life project using gardening and beekeeping as therapeutic tools to tackle isolation, and act as a sensory stimulation for people who have sight, hearing and mental health problems.

Others have been involved in the construction of paths, raised beds and landscaping.  It’s become a hub for other groups and a base for outreach activities such as the society’s weekly gardening, beekeeping and environmental awareness sessions for pupils from local schools.  Residents from the home and visitors to the Low Vision Centre or social activities on site regularly muck in.

The pop-up shop offers help on bug boxes, hanging baskets, seasonal features - and bees!

With various funding streams nearing an end, Alan is now branching out.

His new YouTube channel Alan Hulme’s Appropriate Footwear – “I wanted a title hard to forget” – features gardening knowhow, travel finds and advice.

It’s winning a following among those who know one man’s weed is another man’s wild flower.

“I like programmes like Shed and Buried work – it’s cool. We’re on number 14 now – you can view via links on Facebook and Instagram. I’ve interviewed three of the garden stand holders at Chelsea Flower Show. I want to connect people.”

Alan’s also advising others as a professional garden coach –encouraging novice and experienced gardeners to get the most out of their gardens, whether it’s a small patch of arid scrubland or vast verdant sprawl. Bespoke visits cost £30 an hour, reduced rates for block bookings, and he can cover a lot of ground in that time!

“It’s something that would really benefit people stuck for ideas, what’s likely to grow, what are the best plants, how to prune things, water – soak things rather than sprinkle.  Given how many spend only limited time in the garden it’s important they really enjoy that time.

“For me, hopefully it will become a regular income. They get my undivided attention and expertise to help any sized project.

“I’ve got my judging experience to draw upon.”

This is his seventh year as a North West regional judge for the RHS-run Britain in Bloom – and he’s just appointed a national judge too.

He joins the elite squad touring the country two weeks every year to meet the finalists.

“The RHS organise it. Dedicated people source travel, accommodation. You visit the nicest places.

You can be judging Whitby in the morning and hopping on a plane to do Jersey in the afternoon. You’re zig zagging all over the country. It’s wonderful.

“It’s been amazing doing the regional judging too.  People know who the judges are, who’s coming, they Google you to find out all about you in advance!

“Britain In Bloom do so much more than just plant a few pretty flowers, it gets people talking, businesses, communities, benefits people who feel powerless, engages all generations. It’s been such a good thing for the RHS too, it’s driving their ethos now.

 “The first Britain in Bloom series was filmed last year, and the BBC immediately commissioned a second series. That’s here to stay, I think.”

Alan was eight when he started gardening. He lived at Marton – near the Moss. “Mum was keen,  so I was out there quite a bit, sorting the planting out, messing around making ponds, moving frogs around, every time I see a pond it takes me back to those days.

“My uncle was a gardener; my great-grandfather was a professional gardener at Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh.

“I started at Blackpool Parks Department, there for four years, then worked in Edinburgh in the Botanical Gardens, then Kew in the early 90s – such an inspiring place.   I did my masters at Reading in botany, moved back up North to work in garden design in Edinburgh, then back to Blackpool, my mum wasn’t well at the time, in 2004. I did other people’s gardens, design and landscaping.

“In 2009 I got involved in my first volunteer session on a project. I looked around and thought how are we going to get all this done in time? Next thing it was finished, and we’d had a great time, chatting, but working together throughout.

“I’d worked on my own until then – and that’s how I got hooked on community gardening.

 “It was like I’d been searching for a really good use for my training and experience and when I discovered the world of social gardening it seemed the perfect fit.”

Meet Alan at N-Vision’s summer fair on Saturday, or follow him  on Twitter https://twitter.com/UrbanOrganicCIC  https://www.facebook.com/urbanorganiccic   Instagram at alanhulme1 and YouTube https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCTSerZ3prtpOwHTHytF5WnA?view_as=subscriber

Jacqui Morley