Saturday, 11 March 2017

Here we go around the Mulberry Bush.....#greeninggreybritain

Well that was a somewhat chaotic, exciting and life affirming week, mostly spent working in and on Incredible Edible Bristol gardens across the city. I'm going to tell you a bit about one of our biggest, ongoing projects and how we're powering forwards. 
There is a huge amount of work going on in our Bearpit garden. This garden is in a sunken roundabout in the centre of the centre of Bristol. For several years a group of great folk have been working to change the space from lost to loved, introducing cafes, artwork and play spaces to the space, and we are now creating a garden. 
As if being in a sunken roundabout isn't enough, the space also has some severe social issues. Historically it has been a place where addiction and homelessness have been apparent with large groups often coming together down there. At no point is the aim to alienate this community from the Bearpit, but more to make it feel like a safer, more inclusive space for the rest of the city's population. Introducing cafes, spaces for events, table tennis and skate boarding facilities to the area has made it more of a destination than a thoroughfare. It's become a great place to meet, drink tea and relax.
The aim of the garden is to create an oasis of calm in the city centre, regardless of the fact there are buses, cars and ambulances travelling around the roundabout at eye level in the garden! Rosemary and Lavender make low lying hedges, artichokes wave gently in the breeze, whilst subtlety edible herbaceous borders surround 3 large fruit trees including Bristol's newest Mulberry. Rather than going round the Bearpit, we're now going round the mulberry bush!!
There has been a whole lot of controversy around this garden. Many have asked why bother? Many have said what a waste of money it is, as it's inevitable that it will be trashed. There has been some substantial social media abuse. 
Gut reaction has always driven me in these city centre designs, and  the Bearpit has been no different. Whilst all the doubters and haters have been busy we, with our amazing volunteers, have quietly planted the trees, shrubs, perennials and 1500 bulbs. We've put in beautiful seats with planters attached. We've stripped walls of ivy and replaced them with beautiful climbers, and we've created a small nursery area where we are growing for all 37 gardens that we support. We've made a central composting area and one of our great supporters is managing it and introducing a wormery to the space. And slowly an area that a year ago was sad, covered in black plastic and derelict, is beginning to bloom. And all the time the original community, those with hideous issues that have been brought about by family breakdown, mental health issues, addiction, and abuse, are becoming fierce protectors of the garden.
When we first began I was asked, "are you making us a garden?" to which the reply was yes, we're making a garden for everyone. Since that first day I have wondered regularly at the facts that whilst all around the garden gets tagged, the garden itself is never touched. There has been no vandalism, no plant loss, however convinced people were that it "wouldn't last a day". And we find the entire community in the garden, sitting on the seats, relaxing as the world goes by.
For me this is just another example of how powerful people are when they just get on with it. Everyone, including me, who has worked on this garden has done so voluntarily, including some great groups of corporate volunteers who always make a huge impact in a day. We've worked in pouring rain, in blistering heat and everything in between, and a community of community gardeners has joined the community of users of the Bearpit. 
Often people ask me why I do this. What would make me work voluntarily for probably 80% of the week? And this is the answer. Working with people, individuals or communities, supporting them to make physical change in their own areas, supporting them to create beautiful, productive gardens in lost and unloved spaces, is an honour. And seeing those people bloom as they make that change is beyond an honour. Supporting good horticulture and upskilling people to learn more about gardens and plants is an honour. And creating change in a city centre, with gardens popping up all over, ensuring good design, appropriate planting and good horticultural practice is not just an honour but also an insight into how the city could look if horticulture was taken seriously. An honour.
The way the Bearpit garden is moving forwards shows it becoming a micro park. A calming area. Somewhere that will soak up water when it rains, buffer noise in the space in which it sits, works to cool the city. But most importantly it's a space for people, made by people, in order to make change, both social and physical. 
This is what I see as 'Greening Grey Britain'. People getting up and doing it!! People making the change they want to see......
Why not join the revolution? 

Saturday, 4 March 2017


There are moments when a reality check is needed and often that's quite hard to find, so when Michelle came up with the idea of a new tag, for one weekend only, that showed an honest sight of garden bloggers gardens in March, I thought it would be a great idea!!
The last year has been really difficult for my garden journey, not just because I'm constantly running around like a headless chicken, but because Mr V's back injury has meant he has been unable to help since last spring. Just cutting the lawn saw him having to lie down for the rest of the day. The last cut just never happened. 
Usually over Christmas I have a good catch up in the garden, but this year I was in full nursing mode, and there was no time for anything other than pain management.
Of course I'm not the only one who feels like they are behind in getting their garden sorted, their allotment mulched, but pop over to social media and there are pictures a plenty of gardens bursting with buds, tidy and prepared for the onset of spring. And 90% of the time that's what we all want to see. However, just occasionally it's good to see a more reality based picture isn't it?
The final straw for me was that I came home from a great RHS conference yesterday to find my little greenhouse had fallen over in the wind, leaving plants all over the place, many trashed, and compost everywhere. Mr V had tried to manage it but his back had prevented him so a chunk of yesterday was spent dealing with that whilst growling and shedding the occasional quite angry tear. 
So this is a very honest photo of me in my garden, warts and all.....

Friday, 24 February 2017

Paying it back......working with Ross!!

Last winter I read a blog that was to profoundly affect my working year. It wasn't a blog about gardens or gardening but a blog about what it's like to find yourself homeless and to work the way through that homelessness, finally finding a home. 
It touched me in a way I was quite surprised by, as it was real and yet there was humour in the darkness. By the time I'd begun to read it Ross, the blogger, was in a new home and we began a conversation on Twitter, with Ross being really keen to firstly get an allotment and then come down to some Incredible Edible Bristol work parties. 
At the first work party in the Bearpit last year Ross came and said hi, and told me he'd applied to be on Big Dreams Small Spaces with his newly taken on plot!! I may have said something along the lines of 'oh brilliant' but as with anything like that, it's such a tiny chance of being chosen I didn't expect to hear it mentioned again......
So imagine my surprise when I got a message to say that Ross had been selected! And then my added surprise when he told me he'd put me down as being his mentor on the project, hoping that I didn't mind. 
So I took a deep breath, rearranged some stuff and the project began, which you hopefully have seen on Friday evening.
I could go on here about what we did on the plot, what grew and what didn't. I could go on to talk about working with Monty, what it's like to work on TV gardens and how nervous I've been about this one coming out.
But none of that is important. What's important is that Ross, a funny, intelligent guy who's life went a bit wrong, is now back on track. Of course that has nothing to do with me, but what I hope is that the support I gave him in the garden helped to make his life a little calmer throughout what I know was a difficult year as everything settled and he came to terms with a really difficult period in his life. A time which I think may have changed him forever. I hope the few hours spent weeding, the quiet time spent on the allotment, the texts and conversations helped.
Working with Ross has made me realise Incredible Edible and working on the land, can create stability in lives where there is little or where change has destabilised. It's made me realise the power of our inclusive policies, not asking too much and just allowing folk to join in on their terms. And it's made me realise that in the same way as my life changed when I stepped into horticulture, others change too as they change their priorities and start becoming a part of something they believe in.
And even more importantly I've made what I hope will be a friendship for life.....
Recently I said to Ross, in a throw away comment, 'welcome to my life'. His response was, 'I only meant to pop in but I think I'm staying for good'.
Another example of how just a bit of kindness can change people's lives, inspiring change through communities from a real grassroots perspective. 
Never underestimate the power of a garden.....

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

The Gangster Garden Needs Your Help!!

On 22nd January 2014 I watched Ron Finley's famous Ted talk and within an hour Incredible Edible Bristol was born!! I'll always say, for as long as I live, that Incredible Edible was the deep inspiration but Ron gave me the kick up the arse to make it happen, and following meeting him at Sheffield's Festival of the Mind later that year a friendship of respect and support through social media and occasional emails has begun.
One of the beliefs Ron and I share is that when we do what we do, creating those gardens out of sad, lost spaces, that as much as being productive these spaces need to be beautiful and if you look up Ron's garden it's certainly that. A garden on a parkway, that strip of nasty lawn that's the sandwich between the road and the path, it's full of exotics, bananas, papaya, mangoes, sunflowers all year round as well as veg like sweet potatoes, corn, courgettes and more. As a designer Ron sees the need for beauty and good design. After all bad design is what led to the garden being planted in the first place, with Ron just wanting to be able to access fresh produce in his neighbourhood.
From a horticultural view I would say this adds something important to Ron's garden. Not only does it speak of the need for neighbourhoods, worldwide, to take back control of their design, it also speaks to the world of garden design and looks at making production a thing of beauty. It makes community gardening stand up and fight for it's place within the garden world. It inspires others to take control of the design of their areas. It says good garden design can change policy. 
And yet Ron's garden and the headquarters of the Ron Finley Project are at risk of being lost. Down to financial mismanagement by the previous landlord, the land now belongs to an organisation that has clearly stated the only way to secure the land is to buy it, for a cool half a million dollars......
Ron runs a community organisation and let me tell you, community organisations rarely have a spare ten pence let alone half a million dollars.
I'd like to think that if Ron's garden was in the U.K, someone might have seen the importance of the garden and worked to save it. And the reason for my thinking is that Ron's garden is a garden that is of historic importance, maybe not now, but in years to come. It's a garden that changed the law, that supported a worldwide movement and allowed Ron, the gangster gardener, to spread his extraordinary message across the globe. Ron is a doer. He is action led. A true activist who's mission is to make us all see that our world can be made so much better by using design to give us what we need. Rather than succumbing to a poor diet due to where he lives, he planted a garden, brought health to the neighbourhood by design and changed the thinking of a generation. If he was in the U.K. he'd be the ultimate ambassador for the RHS Greening Grey Britain campaign, because he's both designing urban areas and changing both the place and the people's lives in a positive and action led way.
But there is no Greening Grey South Central.
So what can we do to save this historic garden of the future? Well I'm assuming no one has a spare half a million dollars but if you do, speak up!! But what we can do is make people aware. Share Ron's stories, his Ted talks and support him. You can sign this....

But most of all you can share the importance of this garden. It talks of what millions are involved with across the globe from Incredible Edible groups, to the public realm work undergone by La Campesina, to Slow Food, to the education of children around food and growing and the growing urban farming revolution that's taking place around us all!!
Below are a couple of links to things Ron has done-watch the Ted talk-it's a life changer!!
Let's save the Gangster Garden!!


Thursday, 16 February 2017

The power of kindness.....or #gdnbloggers

Today I toodled into London to the Garden Press Event, a yearly event aimed at people who write about gardens. I had never been before but several people had said what a great event it was so I decided to go along.
And there were some fabulous exhibitors who were there to talk about their products and who were extremely generous with both their time and their gifts, and I'll be talking about those at a later date, but something else came to mind that needs expressing first.....
Now it's no secret that I am a big fan of social media. I've been tweeting, facebooking and Instagramming for years now and it's always been, for me, a positive thing that has truly enhanced my life and given me the confidence I have to do what I do. But today really brought that home, in quite a moving way. 
 Me and the lovely Charles who I first chatted with via Twitter, having a right old laugh!! Photo by the lovely Steph Hafferty who I also met on Twitter!!

Today a community came together. An extraordinary community of garden bloggers, all different but joined together by a love of gardens and growing. A community which is supportive, generous and kind. A community that usually chats on Facebook and Twitter but that today came together and made a statement. Not a spoken or written statement but a silent one that said we are a community that will support each other. A community that has, when needed, one voice, albeit made of multiple voices. 
These were such good fun and as you can see were shared as an Instagram story-a new and fun way to share your day!

And then I looked around and realised that it was more than that. There were people on stands, exhibitors and journalists who are all friends that have been made through the joys of social media. Through sharing posts, through sharing successes  and failures and through a combined love for what we all do, this community is growing, gaining traction and creating a slightly alternative voice within mainstream garden media.
Since the garden bloggers community became a more structured entity through organised Twitter chats and Facebook groups I think, probably unbeknowingly, a force has been unleashed. With more people using social media, exploring different platforms and enjoying conversations with each other and joining in with conversations, using hashtags and generally getting on no matter where in the world they physically are, it feels, to me at least, that there's somewhere to go for help, advice and most importantly for support.
And I think this can only become more exciting as we go forwards. For years many of us have said we'd like to see an alternative to the traditional garden press, and perhaps here it is, all around us without us actually realising!!
So if you want to join in then do!! You don't even need to be a blogger to join in the conversation really. Just get online and look out for posts with the tag #gdnbloggers and get involved!

Monday, 13 February 2017

Give a bird a home.....

The 14th to the 21st of February is National Nest Box Week, an important week in the year if, like me, you want wildlife to come and use your garden, making it as diverse a space as possible. Of course it's important to look after the birds all year round but National Nest Box Week always reminds me of a few things!!
Firstly, as I sit writing this on February 13th at 4.45, looking occasionally out of the window at the blue sky, I'm reminded of the returning light and the oncoming of the season ahead. It's just now worth sowing seeds in warm greenhouses or on windowsills as the light levels are just long enough to stop the terrible legginess of seeds sown earlier in the year. A month ago it was pitch dark at this time , and the light returning makes us all brighter, gives a Spring to the step and purpose to our actions.
And then I remember that bird nesting season will be upon us any minute!! Birds will be gathering nesting material, making their nests and inhabiting nest boxes prior to getting down to the serious matter of mating and laying of eggs. Particularly in urban and peri-urban spaces where trees and hedging are often not available for nesting, bird boxes are vital to ensure successful families of a range of birds can mate and raise their chicks to a point where they can successfully fledge.
So this weekend get out into the garden and clean out your bird boxes, or add a new bird box to your garden. Remember when siting them that they need to be faced away from direct sun, and far enough up the tree or wall that they can't be got at by next doors cat! 
And while you're looking at where to put some bird boxes, don't forget to clean out your bird feeders to stop diseases spreading and fill them up with new food.
A great way to begin a year of supporting wildlife in the garden, and a brilliant thing to do with the children on half term. And you could even get them bird boxes that can be painted to really get them involved. Then just sit back and watch those small feathered friends arrive. 

Sunday, 12 February 2017

Bristol Jam Plan-food waste warriors!!

On Monday last week, after a crazy day of garden consultations, I popped along to meet up with my lovely pal Danielle, who runs Bishopston Supper Club. I adore visiting her home as she has turned a beautiful Victorian ground floor flat into a complete food hub. Her kitchen is her workspace so a professional kitchen but also a beautiful space that is always wonderful to be in, and as I arrived it was full of the evocative scent of plum chutney on the hob. Next to the kitchen is the space the supper club is held in, with wooden floors and high ceilings it's a glorious space to meet with friends both old and new!!
Sadly by the time I arrived it was dark but the other quite extraordinary thing about this home is that both front and back gardens are filled with raised beds full of fruit and vegetables that are used for the supper club meals. The beds are beautiful and always full of delicious looking and tasting goodies.
Bishopston Supper Club is also famed for the preserves they make and sell in various independent shops across the city. From rhubarb ketchup to medlar jelly, these jams and preserves use the seasonal harvest to create wonderful preserves that talk of the seasons with creativity and love.
But I was there to talk about Bristol Jam Plan, a new venture with a great community slant! Using surplus fruit and veg, Danielle will create great preserves, jams and jellies which will be used in two ways. Firstly using her cargo bike to deliver them, the jams and preserves will be given to homeless shelters for breakfast spreads and additions to meals later in the day. Relying on surplus means that often there's a lack of preserves for toast, to add to porridge etc, and so this is something that really matters in supporting people through homelessness and we already know is making a huge difference in severa shelters across the city.
The rest of the preserves will be sold at markets, food festivals and in independent food shops across the city, so you'll be able to buy them all over, including in the Bearpit and several other places where people are working hard to support the homelessness issue in Bristol. Any profit will go back into community projects that are supporting homelessness or food surplus issues across the city. 
So if we have any surplus at Incredible Edible Bristol you can guess where it will go!!
I think this whole project is awesome, but not just because it's using up surplus. It's also proof that by having a brilliant idea and getting on with it, everyone can support change to happen, just by talking to people and taking action. Often it's a scary proposition to begin with, but once there's support from the community, which there always is for great ideas, these projects fly and expand!! I'm so excited to see this happen at Bristol Jam Plan.
At the moment volunteers are coming together on Mondays to prep and make the preserves at Bishopston Supper Club HQ, and what's great here is that you need no experience to join in as Danielle takes you through everything you need to do, so not only is she supporting homelessness and food waste, but is also teaching folk how to preserve their harvests!! If you'd like to get involved just email!!
I'll be there as often as my crazy diary allows.