Across the city, unloved or disused plots of land are being reclaimed to grow food. Almost overnight, raised beds and containers, now ripe for harvesting have appeared in a variety of locations. In actual fact, it has been fifteen months of planning, preparation and the hard work predominantly of volunteers to create this transformation. Timed to coincide with Bristol becoming European Green Capital; the project highlights the issues of food resilience, food poverty and simply the joy of growing your own.
I caught up with Sara Venn, the woman driving this project (at their Millennium Square beds), to ask her a few questions about turning Bristol into a truly edible city.
WM: When did your interest in horticulture begin?
SV: I began growing at the age of three with my next door neighbour. We grew peas and sweet peas, he was very clever, because the sweet peas were just beginning to flower when my mum brought my new brother back from being born, and I was able to give her the first bunch. I was hooked from then on.
WM: Where did guerrilla gardening and the urban food growing movement begin?
SV: Guerrilla gardening officially began in the States during the Seventies. In reality, people have been using bits of land for crops for far longer than that, with gardening often being used as an antidote to political oppression and disempowerment. The urban gardening movement that we see today, did begin in the Seventies in the States, but the recent boom in the movement definitely came through during the last recession. In the States in particular its power has come not from it being lovely, but from there being a real need for food in cities such as Detroit that have seen historic changes since the crash in 2008. There is no doubt in my mind that the success of the urban growing movement, and the Incredible Edible movement, are down to people ‘s genuine concern about the state of the world economy and their wish to regain a sense of power over big corporations who have overtaken our food system.
WM: How and why did you get involved with Incredible Edible Bristol?
SV: I founded Incredible Edible Bristol because I saw the need for an outward looking organisation that would grow food, whilst re-skilling people within their own communities. There are many great food growing projects in the city, but I want to ensure that we work with those who are not converted and, by using those unloved and uncared for spaces, we can do that.
WM: Where are your current sites and do you plan to have any more?
SV: We have over twenty five sites across the city ranging from old and unloved beds in places like Millennium Square, to park spaces in Dame Emily Park and, an orchard next to Concord Way in Lockleaze -as well as others across the city. We are talking about more with several communities and they will be announced forthwith.
WM: Is there a particular plot you are most proud of?
SV: I’m proud of all the plots as they have all taken a huge effort to get going, but the one that makes me smile the most is our Dove Street garden. A tiny space that was covered in litter; it now has plums, sunflowers, tomatoes, herbs and soft fruit and is tended by the residents of a next door high rise, who care for it beautifully.
WM: What sort of reactions have you been getting to the project?
SV: We rarely get any negative comments and everyone is always surprised when we tell them the food is there for everyone. There are always people who ask about vandalism, but we have been lucky so far. Very little has been tampered with, but even if it is, we just replant.
WM: How can people get involved?
SV: People can get involved in a variety of ways. Look out for the garden nearest to you and get involved with that, or join in with our regular work parties in our city centre beds that are increasing in number almost weekly at the moment. Or look around at the land in the area in which you live and see if you can find a space to start an Incredible Edible Garden, get in touch with us and we will provide support in whatever way is needed.
WM: There are still parts of the city that don’t have as much choice or access to fresh produce as others. Is it important to change this and if so, how?
SV: Changing those food deserts in the city is a big part of what Incredible Edible Bristol is about, and to start with, we believe putting some growing out there can only help. In the long term we need to look at these areas, which usually are our most socioeconomically deprived and look at how policy can help change this, whilst also looking at those micro-economies and seeing how we can support more enterprise in these areas to ensure that the local pound stays there. At the moment we are looking at several models of how that might work and, we will announce anything exciting as soon we have worked out how we can facilitate this vital change.
WM: What advice would you give to someone who hasn’t grown anything before and may have limited outdoor space -where do they start?
SV: To anyone with limited space or just beginning, I would say find your local community garden and get involved. You’ll learn how to grow, but more than that, you’ll also become part of the community that will nurture you. There are loads of groups in the city and they are all mapped on the Bristol Food Network site, so that is where to begin.
WM: You’re involved with many projects, a lot of them community based. What else do you have on the horizon?
SV: The most exciting thing on the horizon is that we have leased the Quakers Burial Ground, next to Redcliffe Wharf, to turn into an edible space. That is going to take some considerable time and effort to get going and turn into an amazing space where we can hold events, as well as a space that is both beautiful and productive. There are lots of other things peeking over the horizon, but as yet, they are unconfirmed or in discussions, so watch the website for more news.