An organisation that supports communities to grow food in spaces that are lost and unloved within their locality in Bristol..
Key words: Edible garden, Community garden, Fruit
Name of the initiative? Incredible Edible Bristol
Country United Kingdom
What kind of initiative Farming/production, education/training, biodiversity, environmental, community
The Incredible Edible movement started in West Yorkshire in 2008. There are around 140 groups in the UK, and 600 worldwide. I’d been watching it begin and spread and when I moved to Bristol seven or eight years ago, I had expected Incredible Edible to have already arrived. I must have googled it a million times and it wasn’t here. That surprised me: it’s a Bristol-type thing. When people think about Bristol, they think about the green capital of the UK, but when you drive into Bristol, it very much isn’t like that. It was time Bristol looked like it said it looked.
“When people think about Bristol, they think about the green capital of the UK, but when you drive into Bristol, it very much isn’t like that. It was time Bristol looked like it said it looked.“
I’m a horticulturalist by trade. I’ve run nurseries. I’m a grower and I’m also really keen we make gardening and growing properly inclusive, because I don’t think it always is. I could see there was a space for an Incredible Edible project. I connected with a few people who were on the same page as me, so I knew there would be some interest.
“…I wonder what would happen if I asked out on Twitter, if anybody would be interested in a community garden.“
I was really bored one Sunday, and I’d been mulling the idea over and I thought I wonder what would happen if I asked out on Twitter, if anybody would be interested in a community garden. I’m glad I did it on Twitter because I think if I’d done it in real life, I’d have been bowled over by the number of people who responded ‘Yes! Do it now!’.
Incredible Edible has a pattern to follow for new startups. We held a big meeting. I thought no one would come, but it ended up manic: they had to shut the doors because the room was full. Very quickly a steering group came together. This group has always been fluid: the people in the group back then are not the same we see on the steering group today. Not for any other reason than people ebb and flow. What they have in common is they care about system change. Incredible Edible is about growing, and we are gardeners primarily, but there is definitely an aspect of looking at the bigger picture and asking what things could look like compared to what they do.
“What they have in common is they care about system change. Incredible Edible is about growing, and we are gardeners primarily, but there is definitely an aspect of looking at the bigger picture and asking what things could look like compared to what they do.“
We made our first garden with a community in Kingsdown. They lived in high-rise flats and had never had an opportunity to garden, but they had found a tiny space next to the flats which was being used as a dumping ground. They reached out to us via Facebook for help. We had six pounds (about $7.50) so we thought we’ll make a garden with that! It seemed ridiculous but loads of people came to us with offers of help, offers of seeds and plants and compost, so I say we made that garden for six pounds, but it was six pounds and a lot of love. It has been a really successful project. They continue to garden it today.
We have always been reliant on Social Media to get messages out. We have almost four thousand people on our Facebook group and page. And we wait for people to come to us. What happens generally is they whisper in our ears ‘we have an idea’ and they are a little bit apologetic and a little bit worried they are mad, but we encourage them. We don’t do it for them, we support them to do it for themselves.
“The biggest challenge is, has, and I think always will be, working with the Local Authority.“
The biggest challenge is, has, and I think always will be, working with the Local Authority. Over the last five or six years our local authority has lost about two thirds of its workforce through cuts and austerity. The people left behind are doing three people’s jobs and a lot of them are on a default setting of ‘no, we can’t do that,’ because they are worried about taking on more. It has been challenging to work our way through that and discover who are the people to talk to and who are the people not to talk to! Politically there is a big will in Bristol for these projects to happen, but when it goes down to officer level, it can be very different.
“…they [The Local Authority] are now starting to realise that if we are supporting something, we will be committed. It will be a long-term solution, and we’re not going to just disappear.”
It’s a trust thing. Over the years we’ve built up trust, and they are now starting to realise that if we are supporting something, we will be committed. It will be a long-term solution, and we’re not going to just disappear. This is true for businesses too: working with the local Community Rail Partnership and the Business Improvement District in the city centre, they know now that if we say are going to do something, it will get done.
Another challenge is people’s perception of food growing. We have to manage expectations: often people want to grow allotment type produce, but we have to take into account time constraints, experience and appropriateness of space, and we might have to explain that although we are producing a harvest, we are not farmers. We tend to grow a lot of perennial crops, lots of fruit trees and shrubs, that take minimal amounts of input. It’s so important that a community’s first season is successful. If they can start off with something you know is going to grow, they might try something more ambitious the following year, once they’ve got a little more experience.
“Collaboration works when there is a willingness to understand that there are always different opinions.”
Collaboration works when there is a willingness to understand that there are always different opinions. We make it really clear that we are there to support and we are not taking over. The level of community consultation that we do and insist upon is ridiculously thorough. It’s not just about putting up a poster, it’s about knocking on people’s doors and creating meetings and bringing people together to talk about plans and understanding that sometimes you might have a plan but another group might have another plan that is a lot further forward than yours. Sometimes the community may want a playground area more than they want a community garden and that’s fine.
“A community garden must be driven by the community. Community gardens that are built by local authorities or outside groups get trashed.”
Whenever I’m approached by another council or large organisation outside of Bristol wanting to set up an Incredible Edible, I always say ‘How? How can you be the community and set that group up?’ A community garden must be driven by the community. Community gardens that are built by local authorities or outside groups get trashed. I’ve seen it over and over again. If the community hasn’t been part of it from the beginning, doesn’t feel any engagement with it, doesn’t feel like it’s theirs, they won’t look after it. It can only be a community garden if the community have had the idea and have got it going themselves.
We’ve supported over fifty gardens and had about a thousand people through community garden sessions which has given us a massive opportunity to share skills. We often see people who are in a transitional phase of their lives. There are a few volunteers for whom it’s been lifechanging. One guy came to us when he was homeless and started volunteering with one of our projects in the city centre. He’s recently completed his ecology master’s degree and is now working as an ecologist!
“It’s given me a voice and I’m conscious that I use that voice well.”
Personally, it’s an amazing position to find yourself at the forefront of something like this. I never expected this six years ago. It’s given me a voice and I’m conscious that I use that voice well. We are at a point where inclusivity has never been more important, and I think that gardening and growing often isn’t inclusive. Anybody can do this. All you need is a bit of ground and some seeds.
Repository compiled in August 2020 by: Sara Venn
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