Urban Growing

“When I look at our community garden, I feel so relieved, so happy and stress-free and anyone can do that”

By Faruk Choudhury

Without having any prior gardening experience, café-owners Faruk and Shilpi Choudhury started an edible garden in the grounds of their flat at Carrick House, Hotwells in the lockdown of spring 2020. This encouraged others in the local community to get involved and “Joy Hill” was formed.

Faruk and Shilpi have been photographed by Chris Hoare, who is documenting growing spaces in the city for the Bristol Photo Festival. Faruk, who was previously Bristol Lord Mayor, writes our latest blog post.

We are normally busy working in our café (Chai Shai Kitchen), but just before the lockdown was announced we dealt with the pandemic the best way we knew how: getting straight back into the kitchen. We announced that Chai Shai was going to give back to its community, our home, our friends. A funding page was set up by our neighbour and associate, funded mostly by the community of Hotwells. Invested we worked tirelessly with no staff, supported by the children as one household.

Four weeks and 4,000 meals later – providing for every department in the BRI, frontline workers and care workers – for the first time in 23 years we had the pleasure of time, allowing us to connect with our community during lockdown. My wife, Shilpi, and I thought how precious space and our environment was living in a flat. The road leading into Joy Hill was bleaker than ever. Knowing that we would be confined to this space momentarily we had to do something for our own wellbeing. Adding colour to the grey concreate boards instantly warmed this dreary sight, then we thought let’s grow some flowers and vegetables with our four children.

Photo © Chris Hoare / Bristol Photo Festival 2020

Initially I started digging, then gradually it developed and we started making more of the land around Carrick House – where usually the council cuts the grass twice or three times a year and which normally lays empty. There had been a few flowers before, started by a previous resident who sadly passed away. Because there were some flowers here already which he couldn’t tend to when he became ill, we started to take care of those plants and had the idea to do more new plants. Then another resident was very encouraging, and offered to make some beds. We knew that there was going to be some work done on the flats and so there were some wood pieces that we could use. I then brought a drill machine and began measuring and cutting wood ready for the beds. Then another neighbour’s daughter and my children all began painting the pillars that surround the space.

Most of the plants came from seed. The children helped plant them – my son planted the sweetcorn. We did all the seeding and then we brought it to the garden. This first year we’ve harvested a few cauliflowers, a few courgettes, some tomatoes and more. We’ve been picking up tips from YouTube videos!

We are also growing lal shagh, which is the red spinach type of vegetable native to Bangladesh and used a lot in Bengali cuisines. My mother-in-law usually grows this. During lockdown when I went to visit her, I took some top soil for her garden, and when it was Eid during lockdown and I was dropping off items for relatives, I would find out how they were doing with their gardens and if they need anything. Now they ask me questions about gardening.

Photo © Chris Hoare / Bristol Photo Festival 2020

Our community have very limited space – the majority of us live in flats so we don’t all have our own garden. I used to think, I don’t have my own garden, I can’t grow, but there is space available in Bristol and I hope for the council to be a bit lenient, allowing people to grow – as long as it is safe.

The food that Shilpi and I cook in our café is home-cooked Indian-style, exactly the way we cook at home. Some of our courgettes, coriander and cauliflower have gone to the café. Next year if we have space, we want to grow even more vegetables for the restaurant.

Shilpi is particularly good with the garden. She looked after the seed and learnt how to grow the vegetables. And then, when the plants had to come out into the garden, that’s when my job started. As soon as I wake up I come to the garden and at night before I go to sleep, I visit the garden. It is really nice to see the plants grow and I like to say good night to them!

I was a councillor for 10 years in Easton ward and I always used to admire and encourage people in Easton who would grow their own vegetables. I think that we should have vegetable growing-friendly policies to encourage people to use land near them. If you can eat your own vegetables, you can save some money, you know exactly what you’re eating and it is a beautiful feeling when you cook your own. The benefits of eating vegetables are huge, especially to your immunity, which is vital during this pandemic. Wellbeing is so important. When I look at our community garden, I feel so relieved, so happy and stress-free and anyone can do that.

Photo © Chris Hoare / Bristol Photo Festival 2020

All the neighbours who are part of this feel ownership over it. We’ve been sharing the food when it is ready, which is bringing everyone together. We have 20 maisonette flats in this building and the majority come out and talk to us. They can enjoy it and help look after the garden – we all look after it.

As part of the Bristol Photo Festival (BPF), photographer Chris Hoare has been commissioned to document allotments and their communities around the city. All photos © Chris Hoare / Bristol Photo Festival 2020. Please get in touch at engagement@bristolphotofestival.org if you have any suggestions about spaces to be photographed. View the Growing Spaces Map here.

BPF have invited allotment holders, photographers and the general public to participate in their digital archive by submitting images via the Instagram hashtag #bpfallotment or by email at engagement@bristolphotofestival.org.

‘Grow for Wellbeing’ is a key theme of the new Bristol Bites Back Better campaign. #BiteBackBetter empowers Bristolians to create a food system that will nourish our city far into the future.

Since the initial period of national lockdown began in March 2020, more people are finding the time and passion for growing food on windowsills, in back gardens, and in shared community spaces and allotments. It’s great for our mental and physical health, it can transform the world around us, and gives each and every one of us the power to create our own source of affordable, delicious and nutritious food, right on our own doorsteps. Get involved in Bristol Bites Back Better and find out how you can be part of Bristol’s growing community of food growers!

Join the conversation

So, what change do you want to see happen that will transform food in Bristol by 2030? Do you already have an idea for how Bristol can make this happen? Join the conversation now.

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