Community Gardening - From City Farms to Respite from Covid

I discovered community food growing back in the late 70s. Fresh out of Uni, needing to find a job, I starting working with unemployed school leavers from some of the more deprived areas of Bristol. Their youthful energy was diverted into 'socially useful' land reclamation projects: felling dead elms for a Steiner community for kids with learning difficulties and using the timber to make a timber-frame barn, clearing inner city rubble to create a city farm at Windmill Hill, turning 100 acres of rank horse pasture on the urban fringe into Hartcliffe Community Park Farm, complete with a 18th century oak frame barn translocated from Salisbury Plain, rare breed cattle, sheep and pigs.Building a barn

Not only did I have a great time in the big outdoors, learning and passing on practical skills – mortice and tenon joinery, organic veg growing, how to castrate a pig – but ten years of city farming also created a thread that has woven its way through life as hair receded and joints seized up. I realised that giving townies the opportunity to come together to grow their own food has the power to transform lives; that tilling the soil, nurturing plants, harvesting, cooking and sharing food in a social setting can help recreate a sense of community eroded by the loss of traditional industries and urban regeneration.

Joining Reading International Solidarity Centre (RISC) in 1989 added a new dimension – opportunities to work with grassroots NGOs in Nepal, India and the Philippines defending themselves against the predations of global corporations. I had the opportunity to see how many of the ideas and techniques that mark the evolution of the sustainable agriculture movement in the past 50 years – comfrey, permaculture, herb spirals, forest gardens, green manure, polycultures, hügulkultur, rewilding – have their roots in the wisdom of traditional agricultural systems, forced to work with nature, rather than subjugating it.

In 2001, a leaking flat roof over our conference hall became the catalyst for a whole new area of RISC's work. Apply the permaculture principles of turning problems into solutions and obtaining a yield, we planted a food forest in 30cm of substrate – a green roof that not only demonstrated practical approaches to climate change mitigation and adaptation but also provided sound insulation, a laboratory for outdoor learning and ingredients for a wide range of unusual chutneys, jams and infused alcohol. A procession of journalists, TV crews, researchers and writers came to see Reading's incredible, edible hanging gardens.

In 2010 the Big Lottery funded our new Food4families project that aimed to reduce food poverty and enhance health and wellbeing. I could apply my new-found permaculture design skills and over the last 10 years we have created over 25 community gardens in schools, churches, community centres and pieces of council-owned land blighted by fly-tipping.

For me, 2020 was pretty well mapped out: lots of physio to recover from a replacement hip op, recruiting some corporate volunteers to help create a new community garden at Aisha Mosque and a trip to France to supervise renovation of our stone farmhouse. Come March all that changed… Our family was lucky, kids returned home from Uni and discovered digital learning, my wife & I could work from home, we had a good-sized garden that needed sorting out and spring was lovely. By the time lockdown eased, the stress was beginning to kick in, especially weekly shopping trips that, in my head, became the possible pathway for the virus into our otherwise isolated home. Sanitising my hands & shopping basket, diligently wearing my mask I inwardly cursed fellow shoppers who didn't wear masks or wouldn't observe the 2m rule. The outside world beame a threat. It was like living in an authoritarian state – when might the virus knock on the door?

Luckily, the government decided visiting an allotment constituted healthy exercise. For a couple of hours a week I could work with a team of volunteers that tentatively began to come together at the Mosque and start clearing the overgrown site to accomodate veg beds. Although social distancing meant we could not blitz the site with large corporate teams, by the end of the summer the scrubby sycamore and forests of ivy and alkanet were on the retreat and the concept design began to take shape.

It was great to get out of the house, focus on creating edible order out of weedy chaos, use the chain saw to work out my frustrations, get to know a completely new bunch of people through shared activity come rain or shine–too much Zooming was beginning to wreak havoc with my senses. In fact, I was experiencing first hand all the well-documented benefits of community food growing on health and well being that I'd referenced in countless funding applications. Here was proof of the pudding.Making a lasagne bed

It has been an amazing reminder of the power of positive green thinking. The worst of circumstances–the mosque community was mourning many deaths–provided the motivation for people to take back some control, to help create a greener future for the wider community. Among the volunteers were many homeschoolers, mostly non-gardeners, who discovered how food growing is the perfect resource for enriching the learning experience. Combining practical growing skills based on permaculture principles with online sessions, we were able to explore the riches of the outdoor classroom… tracing the journey of the sunflower from central America via van Gogh to oven-ready chips or ways that plants make babies! Families discovered how they could make lifestyle changes to address the climate crisis and how sustainability and faith can combine to grow back better.

The Digital Storytelling project has been the perfect tool for us to reflect on our Covid experience. Quite apart from learning a new visual language and skills, we realised we were part of a much wider movement of people around the country/world facing similar challenges, discovering the power of the soil and plants to create fresh connections and open new possibilities. Sharing our stories of creating our own paradise gardens has been life affirming–just what the doctor (socially) prescribed… and a social dimension added to the community food growers manual, alongside biochar, keyhole beds and no-dig!

Dave RichardsDave helped to set up Food4families in 2010 and designs community gardens. He has been involved the Digital Storytelling project - both with the coordinating group and as a guinea pig video maker.


View Dave's video and all the videos on Vimeo