I enjoy having the opportunity of visiting urban community gardens, especially as we live in a very small town surrounded by countryside. There are two allotment sites here and a community orchard (planted by Charles, myself and some friends) but not much that combines community and growing. Most people in Bruton have some sort of garden, there are a lot of local growers and farms, so I think there is less need in the countryside. (However most of the new houses being built in Bruton unfortunately have tiny gardens so perhaps this need will change.)
Community gardens have fascinated me since my student days living in Bristol, when we would walk past allotments and St Weburgh’s City Farm to reach The Farm pub, a popular place to congregate on a summer evening. Living in shared garden-less flats, my growing was restricted to dreaming and a couple of pots of herbs on the windowsill so the City Farm and allotments enchanted me; the rich variety of plants reflecting the diversity of the community in that part of Bristol.
On May 4th, one of the first really sunny and warm days of the spring, warm enough to sit outside and eat lunch, my daughter and I visited the Riverside Community Garden Project in Cardiff. Walking there we got lost quite a bit thanks to eccentric instructions on our smartphone map apps. Eventually I spotted the community gardens across the lawns of a nearby park. You can just see it through the trees.
Riverside consists of many really good sized allotments and the shared Permaculture community garden. Entering through the gate, the first thing you see is a shed with a table where people can share surplus plants, seedlings etc. It was fascinating seeing the different ways people used their allotments. There had been a very hard frost on the previous Saturday: beans planted out far too early had suffered and there was evidence of frost damage on potatoes. Some of the up-cycled sheds are very impressive, real labours of love – some had cosy tea drinking nooks for wet weather and lean-to greenhouses.
A short walk through the allotments leads to the community garden. The gardens have been here for over ten years and were set up as a place where people could come to learn gardening and other self reliant, sustainable skills, socialise and share in the harvests. The gardens combine growing spaces with handmade structures, made from donated, recycled timber etc. The ethos is explained here by Jenny Howell in this article (pub. 2011 in The Guardian.)
“We have people up here from a really wide range of groups, we have people who are long term unemployed, asylum seekers, parents with young children, retired people, people with mental health difficulties or special needs. People come here because it’s got a very positive atmosphere. Not only can they take away the produce, but we also do a lot of cooking on site so a lot of it is about lowering the barriers to cooking so people will grow things. People will ask what something is and we’ll say, who knows – lets cook it and find out!”
After introducing myself, I enjoyed a cup of tea in a beautiful handbuilt shed, designed as a space where people can get together in all weathers. It included a wood fired pizza oven. This, combined with some of the huts on the allotments, definitely gave me shed envy and a yearning to gain some woodworking skills!
This friendly robin joined us at the table, searching for scraps of sandwiches. The men there said he visits every day.
Lewis, one of the volunteer workers kindly showed us around the garden.
Lewis explained that there are about 5 part time volunteers at the moment, with as many as 50 people (or more!) taking part in some of the activities. There are not enough volunteers to keep on top of everything – for example, the chicken coop in now empty because there are not enough people to share the twice-daily commitment to chicken welfare.
Just outside the socialising shed, a beautiful pond surrounded by wildlife habitats is widely used by children for pond dipping activities. A three tiered natural filtering system using plants allows waste water from the sink to safely flow into the pond.
Here there is a compost loo surrounded by a woven screen, areas to sit, a rocket stove (used to warm soups etc), composting areas, a living green roof and the old chicken coop. Here too they are constructing a new woodworking shed, where people can come and learn new skills using free donated wood.
Next to this area are bee hives (behind some protective screening) and a beautifully organised tool shed. I loved the handmade tool handles, a good practical example of recycling, skill sharing and reducing waste.
The growing part of the community garden is accessed through the gateway that Lewis is photographed standing in. Fencing made from pallets is transformed into vertical growing spaces with strawberries, herbs and flowers.
The community garden is mostly run using Hugelkultur beds. I had not seen working Hugels in the UK before: mostly when people talk about them on social media, they explain them with drawings but rarely actual photos. Lewis explained that they use this method to create no dig beds which help conserve moisture. Fortunately they have a huge supply of free wood in order to make them. It was interesting seeing all of the different shapes of the beds! They are happy to let the wildflowers self seed and grow, removing them when they want to plant. (In sluggy Somerset, I would be concerned about creating a cosy habitat on the beds for these slimy pests, I forgot to ask whether there was much of a slug problem in Cardiff.)
Inside the polytunnel, a hotbed is used to hopefully raise the temperature a little and new seedlings are raised on shelves suspended from the bars. They don’t raise plants directly on top of the hotbed, as Charles Dowding does, because of mice! Some tunnel planted overwintered broadbeans were almost ready to pick, but sadly the new runner bean plants in their pots had been hit by the unexpected very hard frost a few days before. Lettuce and other plants were bolting and needed clearing, but there are not enough volunteers yet for all of the jobs, so things get done when they can.
There are also fruit trees and special areas for children to play. Behind the sieving device in the photographs here they are constructing a Compost Cottage – a place for the compost made on site to be stored before using it in the gardens! So many interesting uses of resources here at Riverside Community Gardens! I really enjoyed my visit.