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Allotment Junkie - author and publisher of the book series 'Lost the Plot' supports the #HeyAreYouOK? campaign by STORM skills training CIC.

In 2013, Allotment Junkie published the first book in the series, ‘Lost the Plot’ – which has now sold worldwide, received countless awesome reviews and has a social following of thousands. The brand continues to grow from strength to strength; with a new book release due soon. Paul King, AKA Allotment Junkie and co-founder of Twistedgifted – a creative agency based in Manchester, shares an insight into his love for ‘growing your own’, allotmenteering and why he supports the #HeyAreYouOK? message.

Were you always a keen gardener?

No – I don’t know the botanical names of any flowers to this day. As a youngster growing up, my dad had an allotment but I always frowned upon this – picking up stones and weeding rows of onions – I just wanted to ride my bike or play football like most kids my age. I did have a part-time job in a garden centre at weekends for a few years to help me get through college, but I just enjoyed driving the tractor (as on private land with no licence), plus getting a sun tan in the summer months watering acres of potted plants.

What has your allotment given you?

Friendship and a sense of community. A commitment to get out doors and manage the site – come rain or shine, down-time from the computer and office environment. Green therapy – however, at the time of taking on the allotment I didn’t really understand the meaning of this term. These days green therapy must be near the top of my ‘10 things to do’ – such is the importance and life- changing balance it has made to me. And getting my 5-a-day, of course. Growing your own food is intoxicating, you get a real sense of achievement and satisfaction knowing you have invested the time to grow something that in terms of taste will be unparalleled by any supermarket bought produce.
How long did you have to wait for an allotment?

Too long – not enough land is given over to communities for food production these days and the result now means that most allotment sites have long waiting lists. However, focus groups and other community organisations do run their own projects which you can volunteer to get involved in. The charity ‘Mind’, for example, is one organisation leading the way with its ecotherapy and places are nearly always open to anyone interested and in need of some green/horticultural therapy.

Green Therapy – explain what this means to you.

Getting outdoors, fresh air and being active. When I’m not playing at being Allotment Junkie my work as Creative Director at Twistedgifted means I spend more hours in the day than should be humanly possible designing and creating for clients – sat in front of the computer screen often to very tight, stressful deadlines. My years have taught me that a fresh perspective, open horizons, blue sky – even grey overcast skies – help to clear the head of noise and retain clarity. It even helps with creativity.

How does having an allotment affect family life?

As parents, you want your children to grow up with a healthy balanced diet, so it’s a great way of getting them outdoors into the fresh air, teaching them about food and where it comes from. It’s subliminal education but in a fun way. They sow the seed – nurture the plant, pick the strawberries and make the ice-cream. It’s a commitment but that’s family life.

Why did you do it?

Back in 2006 we ran a successful creative agency in Manchester and employed five staff. My position as creative director saw me working on projects for all kinds of clients – government, corporates, SME’s – working 15 hour days fuelled with coffee and adrenaline. Real exciting times. We moved into larger offices in the affluent West Didsbury area of Manchester, winning new clients, increased turnover and I became a father at the same time. All the years of hard work and seven years creative education was starting to pay off. Life was good.

Then the 2008 recession hit… Our creative industry as a whole took a major downturn and many companies who we had traded with found themselves going into administration and liquidation, whole marketing and PR departments dissolved literally overnight as did our contracts. We felt the pinch, having to make redundancies and cut our cloth accordingly. It hurt, it hurt a lot.
So taking on our allotment was initially a project where I could escape from the stress of trying to keep our business afloat during those dark times – to just turn off the phone and hide for a few hours. Recharge with some green therapy.

What have you learned from the allotment?

Patience and tolerance. Be at one with nature it cannot be tamed nor forced. I’ve learned to become more hardy in life as I am on the allotment. Never to lose hope, trust that the seasons will change, it will more than likely rain when it’s overcast – and to be thankful for the rain so I can enjoy the fruits in the summer sun.

What do you grow?

A feel good factor and occasionally some fruit and veg.

How do you choose what to grow and why?

Grow what you eat or what you purchase in the grocery shop – if our climate allows. Over the past few years I’ve invested time into growing fruit trees and bushes, mainly because of the girls. It’s lovely to see them just picking warm strawberries off the plant, apples off the tree and stuffing themselves on raspberries. It’s a joy for me and motivates me to do more. We now have a polytunnel and I’m growing grapes, figs, kiwi, melon, tomatoes – you name it.

Is it really cheaper?

Having an allotment and growing your own is not about cost savings, it’s a misconception, this is the question that most people will relate to when it comes to managing an allotment, especially folk who have never grown their own before. You should be asking ‘what are the benefits of having an allotment?’. If the weather allows, some years you’re ahead because of the abundance of the crop, other years you’re not. But the investment in your mental health and emotional wellbeing is the real benefit here. The produce grown is the plus side, a bonus if you like – it’s a win win.

So what are the benefits?

Apart from all the fresh fruit and veg you’ll grow, the friendships you’ll make, your physical and mental health will improve. My allotment is two miles from my house and most of the time I walk or cycle along the river to and from the plot – and I’m lucky I can do this. Fresh air and exercise – we all know the benefits of this, but having an allotment is also about achieving small goals, almost on a weekly basis, in the summer months.

In the spring you’ll find most of us toiling away clearing our plots with a little digging and weeding. Then comes the sowing of seeds and the excitement this brings as we raise young plants ready to be planted out.

The summer months are all about harvesting the crops and enjoying lazy days in the sunshine. You’ll never forget homemade apple pie or rhubarb crumble with produce you’ve grown down the lottie or how tomatoes really taste… like I’ve said, it’s intoxicating. All these benefits seem to get banked into your subconsciousness and you’ll look forward to the following year with hope and enthusiasm, you’re constantly learning from just doing stuff and you’ll find you’ll be wishing that this next year will be the best yet.

Do the kids like it?

Maya my eldest daughter loves digging up the treasure (potatoes) and little Yasmin eats the strawberries until she has belly ache. Maya is not so fond of the creepy crawlies but Yasmin is the complete opposite and won’t think twice about picking all manner of bugs and insects to inspect. It’s a pull now for Maya (aged 10) on cold days to be enthused were as Yasmin is my allotment work buddy and chief seed sower.

And Claire ?

I’m the farmer and Claire is a wonderful cook – it’s a great combination.

Describe the community element?

Allotment politics, workdays, weekend teashop, barbecues the annual allotment show – who has grown the longest runner bean or the funniest veg etc. Some of the friends we make are real characters – me included, we can natter for hours on almost any subject and most folk are warm, genuine people from all walks of life with different life skills and experiences to share.

How has your life altered?

I feel integrated back into the community these days, proud again of who I am. I’ve found that the solitude that an allotment can offer has helped to heal and rebuild my mental health and emotional wellbeing. It gave me the head-space I needed to reflect and focus. I’ve come a long way from those days back in 2008. I’ve found my trust in society, in business, and in people again. I’ve also found a passion for allotmenteering and growing your own.

How would you like other’s lives to be enhanced?

Disconnect from technology, step off the merry-go-round once in a while. Having an allotment and growing your own is a great antidote for this!

What does the book(s) mean to you?

Creative therapy. The books cover most of that spectrum – photography, writing, graphics, illustration and design. It fuses together my passions into a format I hope people will enjoy as much as I do. But more importantly they have been a healing process – a rebalance towards my own positive mental health and emotional wellbeing.

I never set out to write a book or to create a brand – at the time I was cash-poor and time-rich, filled with stress, anxiety and fear for the future. As a creative person I constantly need to feed my creative desire and the combinations of both creative therapy and green therapy was my way of getting through some really tough years without any real outside help. The result, which I’m now immensely proud of, is the book series ‘Lost the Plot’ – and the clue is in the title.

Your pet hates?

I never use ‘that’ word. It will make you ill or change your perspective on life.

Your fears?

Rain at the weekends and heights – terrified of heights.

Your joys?

My girls, my decks and vinyl, trance music, retro push bikes, having positive mental health, sunshine and the fact I’ve just lost a stone in weight. And my allotment, of course.

Your aims?

Complete book two in the ‘Lost the Plot’ series, grow in confidence, learn to spell correctly and continue to invest in my mental health and emotional wellbeing.

Tips on self-publishing?

Make the product equally as good as a publishing house production – whatever that takes.

The hardest task?

Saving up for my VW spilt screen crew cab.

Why the #HeyAreYouOK? campaign.

Most of my friends and family didn’t know I was finding it difficult to cope at the time – even I didn’t admit to it until years after. Sometimes you have to look hard to see the clues. Claire was my rock. Someone who I could talk to about all the chaos at the time – and this is key really. Just asking the question ‘Hey, are you OK?’ can make all the difference to someone – as it did for me. In terms that I understand, it was a marketing mix of green therapy, creative therapy and physical human intervention – on Claire’s part – that made all the difference to me and my family. This is why I support the campaign.

The people behind this campaign are ‘Storm Skills Training’ who are a Community Interest Company. They are an organisation who are taking this message out to the business community, to employers and schools to help create a responsive strategy for suicide prevention and self-harm. Their evidence-based training focuses on developing the skills needed by staff and teachers to help a person at risk of suicide or self-harm to stay safe.

The #HeyAreYouOK? campaign’s mission is to promote a culture that teaches us to recognise distress and to talk about it openly and honestly; a culture that teaches us to ask for help without fear of being stigmatised; and a culture that teaches us to see that sometimes we need to reach out to those we think may be finding life difficult to cope with. It doesn’t take much.

Simply just asking #HeyAreYouOK? can make all the difference.

When will you ask…

Allotment Junkie holding a sign '#HeyAreYouOK' down the allotment plot showing support for the campaign

"Please don’t be afraid to ask for help, life circumstances can at times overcome all of us – it happened to me – I now know you don’t have to face these difficult times alone. Please reach out to family and friends – pick up the phone and talk to the support charities, it may be difficult for you to even do this – but there is support and people who care and can help… Don’t ever give up!

Rock bottom if you’ve been there is a great place to start over, grow and build from".

#positivementalhealth #positiveattitude #mentalhealth #mentalhealthmatters #greentherapy #heyareyouOK? #allotmentjunkie #allotmentjunkies

Big Love ; ) AJ Xx