Features / Community Garden

The rise of grassroots growing projects in Bristol

By ellie pipe, Friday Jul 31, 2020

In the three years since it first opened on a disused bowling green, Redcatch Community Garden has become a haven for many in the heart of Knowle.

A contrasting blend of vibrant colours, fresh earth, simplicity, solitude and a sense of community, the site already holds a special place in the hearts of volunteers, visitors and residents alike.

The significance of community gardens and the benefits they offer has perhaps never been more keenly felt than during lockdown, which brought with it a dramatic shift in the way we live, from the sudden lack of freedom to concerns about sourcing food.

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Kate Swain, the project manager for Redcatch Community Garden, says volunteers – some of whom are among the most vulnerable in society – felt a real sense of loss when they were unable to work on the garden due to the restrictions, with many saying their mental health suffered.

Redcatch Community Garden saw a surge in support and volunteers following lockdown – photo courtesy of Redcatch Community Garden

This was followed with a surge in support and requests to volunteer as soon as the garden was able to reopen – a shift that is showing no sign of abating.

“From around May, we saw a huge increase in people wanting to volunteer,” Kate tells Bristol24/7.

“I think there was also something around helping the community and wanting to give back and also a sense of responsibility. We have had a lot of people say they now realise where their food comes from because they couldn’t get it anymore.”

She says there has also been a shift in people’s spending habits, with consumers wanting to support local enterprises that were there when times were difficult.

Redcatch Community Garden has already become a haven for many in the community – photo of a previous pop up event, courtesy of Redcatch Community Garden

Whether it’s a windowsill planter, vegetable patch or urban smallholding, the rise in grassroots growing projects is something that has taken hold since the coronavirus outbreak, with the Royal Horticultural Society reporting a sudden increase of as much as 500 per cent in visitors to its online advice pages.

Shawn Sobers says he was never particularly green-fingered in the past but has always wanted to try gardening. His allotment on Dubbers Lane has been a saviour during lockdown and given him the chance to get to grips with growing for the first time.

“It’s definitely about the headspace,” says the photography and filmmaking associate professor at UWE Bristol, who waited a year for an allotment to come available.

“I work a lot and I’m always on a computer and I wanted something that took me out of that space. It’s been really rewarding, I’m not really a big chef but I’ve learned new recipes because I’ve had to cook the things I’ve been growing.”

Shawn says he is learning as he goes along and has found a real sense of community on the allotment, with growers more than willing to offer advice and share produce.

Shawn says the allotment has been a saviour during lockdown – photo courtesy of Shawn Sobers

There is a sense of community on allotments – photo courtesy of Shawn Sobers

A pioneer of the city’s growing revolution, Sara Venn of Incredible Edible Bristol sees opportunities in unlikely places and, along with her team of volunteers, has planted edible produce in everything from kerbside raised beds to planters on station platforms.

Sara believes the surge in gardening during the pandemic was partly prompted by necessity and the fear of food suddenly being less accessible. It is a trend she hopes will continue and is working hard to ensure people can access the skills and information they might need.

“Gardening is, of course, brilliant for wellbeing, especially at a time when there is huge trauma across the globe,” says Sara.

“Learning about growing is also important in understanding where food comes from and how it is grown. This can’t just be about growing a few spuds but needs to be a part of how we respond as citizens to the climate and ecological crises, growing food in nature-rich habitats, looking after our soils and connecting as communities.”

Tara Miran with daughters, Arianna and Ashti, and friend Kate Jordan in the St Paul’s Community Garden – photo by Ellie Pipe

One hidden away haven in the heart of St Paul’s is living proof of the positive impact of grassroots growing.

The vision of Tara Miran, who spotted the potential in a once-derelict, overgrown site near St Paul’s Nursery, the community garden is a vibrant haven for people of all ages and a place where the community can come together to grow, eat and play.

St Paul’s Community Garden has been a place of serenity for Tara and her family during lockdown – photo courtesy of Tara Miran

Speaking about what the place has meant to her during lockdown, Tara says: “St Paul’s community garden has provided my family and I a space that has served our minds, bodies and souls with serenity, and has enabled us to slow down, appreciate and enjoy the process of growing and enjoying goodness the garden gifts to us.”

Now, even big business is starting to come on board to boost the scope of gardening in the city.

First Base, the London-based company set to redevelop the former Gardiner Haskins site, has committed to planting 100 new plant species on the site, in partnership with Gillespie’s.

Speaking about the project, Lucinda Mitchell, project director at First Base, says: “We want to give Bristol’s wildlife a place to call home in the centre of the city. Planting fruit, vegetables and flowers where we can is the perfect way to do this.”

Gardening helped Julie and now she works to support others through Putting Down Roots – photo courtesy of St Mungo’s

Julie, a gardener trainer with St Mungo’s Putting Down Roots project, credits gardening with helping her through some of her own mental health struggles. She now dedicates her time to helping others recover from homelessness through gardening.

The Putting Down Roots project reopened to clients in early July and thanks to £500,000 in funding from Barratt Homes, has been able to expand significantly, with plans to launch an innovative new enterprise programme.

Speaking about the programme, Julie says: “This is a life-enhancing opportunity to our clients, where they can gain horticultural skills and benefit from the therapeutic nature of gardening. It has and will continue to help us achieve our ambition to support more people across the country to rebuild their lives.”

St Mungo’s has plans to expand its Putting Down Roots project – photo courtesy of St Mungo’s

Innovation is key to ensuring the sustainability of fresh food and the disruption caused the start of the coronavirus outbreak shone a spotlight on the fragility of the UK’s food chain, which remains heavily reliant on import crops.

India Langley, communications lead at St Philip’s-based aeroponic technology company LettUs Grow, believes diversified food supply chains, whereby a lot of small and medium-sized food businesses and projects supply their local area, add resilience and insulate communities from issues in the global chain.

In addition, such organisations help stimulate the economy and help people reconnect with food and each other.

India believes vertical farming is one solution to the lack of land space available for traditional farming – photo courtesy of LettUs Grow

India believes vertical farming is one solution to the lack of land space available for traditional farming.

She explains: “Like any other piece of agritech, vertical farms are a tool to help growers.

“They’re not meant to, nor ever will, replace farming. Vertical farms allow you to grow in tight spaces, with no fertile land, very little water and zero pesticides. Because they’re not affected by the weather, they can deliver crops 365 days a year, offering a reliable stream of produce for the community and a stable income for the grower.”

Main photo by Tara Miran

Read more: The secret St Paul’s garden that’s uniting a community 

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