Urban Growing

Bristol Community Food Gardens: Sustainable Westbury-on-Trym

By Weien Soh

Weien Soh

This month Weien Soh meets with Alex Dunn, Chair of Sustainable Westbury-on-Trym (SusWoT). Alex and Weien visit Westbury Library Garden and Stoke Lane Community Garden to see plots managed by SusWoT volunteers. You can visit Stoke Lane Community Garden as part of the Get Growing Trail on Saturday 3 June, 2-4pm.

As we reach the midway point to summer solstice, spring is in full swing with bright swathes of tulips and daffodils emerging everywhere. To the delight of many foragers, wild garlic and herbs grow abundantly as nature’s pantry supplies spring goods for everyone. To many city-dwellers, the idea of free food may seem out of reach, however with small-scale urban growing it has become easier than ever.

With many community groups in the city crafting out growing spaces, from patches of disused lands to patio planters, edible planting has grown into an urban movement that underpins grassroot solutions to pivotal issues surrounding the climate crisis and food insecurity.

Stoke Lane Community Garden sign

Many of these edible gardens produce foods that are available for everyone to harvest and enjoy, like Malago Berry Maze, which was featured as the first article in this series. As an annual event, Bristol Food Network organise the Get Growing Trail, which gives local residents the opportunity to explore the secret food gardens around city, alongside discovering different ways to get involved with food growing. This month I’m covering Sustainable Westbury-on-Trym (SusWoT) to hear more about their growing work at Westbury Library Garden (WLG) and Stoke Lane Community Garden (SLCG). You can find them at this year’s Get Growing Trail: visit 47 Abbey Road, BS9 3QN, 11am-4pm to buy tomato and other vegetable plants to grow. There will be people on hand to advise you about growing vegetables. Visit Stoke Lane Community Garden, 2pm-4pm, to relax!

Sustainable Westbury-on-Trym

When walking around the city, it can be hard to spot the edible plants that may be growing just around the corner from your local spots. Despite the slim ratio of green space to city infrastructure, resident gardeners and activists are collaborating to transform these pockets of nature into miniature food gardens. Among its many sustainable initiatives, community group SusWoT has connected hundreds of volunteer gardeners over the years to partake in urban food growing and foraging. With its mission to use less and live more, SusWoT supports the community in adapting the ways that they eat by growing produce locally, not only in homes, allotments and gardens, but also inspiring people to see the urban growing potential that can be captured in small community spaces.

Stoke Lane Community Garden sign

To learn more about SusWoT’s work, I met with Alex Dunn (Chair of SusWoT), who sheds light on the sustainable ethos that underpins their ongoing community projects as local people address environmental issues by coming together to create change.

Situated just off the main road, I met Alex at Westbury Library Garden to see the urban plot that is maintained by SusWoT and members of Westbury Library Group for edible growing. As my visit was during wintertime, Alex pointed out the rows of tiny plants as the bedding had been prepped with many varieties of overwintering vegetables, such as onions, leeks, garlic, broad beans (that were planted by children) and lettuce, which are all likely thriving now it’s spring! By summertime, these crops will be harvested before a later crop of summer vegetables, like tomatoes and brassicas, are planted in. By transforming a patch of ornamental lawn into a vegetable bedding, SusWoT shows that small-scale food production can happen in small unassuming spaces.

Tucked away behind Co-op, Stoke Lane Community Garden is another edible garden managed by SusWoT volunteers. It was once deemed a ‘lost plot’ by locals, Alex explains as he walks us to the garden, but the disused land was recovered by residents so that a welcoming green space could be created to benefit the community. With the intention of having flexible planting areas, a team of volunteers cleared and prepared the overgrown plot, changing it into a cohesive and calming growing space that incorporates productive edible crops, like raspberry canes, ornamental plants, and a seating area made from sustainable materials.

As we sat appreciating the garden, Alex notes that much of the funding for SLCG was generated by SusWoT from their ‘Get Growing’ project, which has since ripened into a budding enterprise. It’s inspiring to hear that revenue that is generated from the project is funneled back into developing SusWoT’s vision for a more conscious and sustainable community – the Get Growing project, had humble beginnings, however. As Alex tells me, the group initially decided to start a homegrown tomato plug plant business where volunteers collaborated across the germinating and growing process to gain experience growing tomatoes, then the established plants were sold locally at low prices to encourage wider growing in the community. As the business grew, SusWoT expanded to include other varieties of vegetables, alongside setting up an ordering service through its website. Due to its higher survival rate, Alex believes that using plug plants provides a painless introduction to growing vegetables as it bypasses the time and effort that goes into nurturing plants during the early delicate stages. Young seedlings also are more susceptible to pests and diseases than a more mature plant, as well as to stresses arising from common gardening mistakes, like over/underwatering.

Highlighting that sustainability is embedded in all aspects of their growing work, Alex points out that they only use homemade compost for planting, not commercial compost, due to its richer nutritional profile and organic content stimulating stronger growth that is necessary for young plants. During winter months, around two to three people are responsible for sowing seeds to germinate the plants under cover (producing around 120-130 plugs per tray). Once spring is underway in April, local volunteers, including young children, come together to pot on the 5cm tall plants as a community gardening activity. Some 1000 plants are given a little time to accustom to their new pots, Alex tells me, before they are sold throughout May and June at local events and fairs.

By ensuring that the plug plants they sell are healthy and well-established, SusWoT inspires ordinary people to try edible growing as the process becomes not only more accessible, but as Alex emphasises, success is also more likely. For all budding gardeners, SusWoT will have a stall selling courgettes, tomatoes, cucumbers, and herb plug plants (availability depends on how well the plants grow) at Westbury Fair, Westbury Parish Church on 13 May. The following month, SusWoT is participating in the Get Growing Trail on 3 June where they will also be selling plants at dual locations – 47 Abbey Road and the Community Garden – while also offering the opportunity to speak with experienced growers. With not only many happy customers, but more people getting involved with growing activities too, SusWoT’s goal to help ordinary people start small-scale food production is flourishing alongside its own enterprise.

As sustainability drives the core mission of SusWoT, the group hosts weekly meet-ups for projects that address issues surrounding climate change to encourage locals to engage in activities that promote positive action, like Get Growing (March to July), River Cleaning (every Friday 10am-12pm and Sunday 11am-1pm – weather permitting) and Litter Picking (last Sunday of each month 11am-1pm). Please get in touch with SuSWot on suswot2050@gmail.com to register your interest in activities. For those who would like to buy plug plants and/or seeds, you can contact SuSWoT directly to enquire about availability.

The Get Growing Garden Trail is an opportunity to explore the city’s secret fruit and veg gardens: Bristol’s community allotments and orchards, smallholdings and mini-plots, city farms and productive parks. For 2023, the Get Growing Trail will run over the weekend of 3–4 June, allowing visitors who get inspired, enough time to get growing themselves this year.

Together we can transform the future of food. If you want to be part of the urban growing revolution, check out Bristol Food Network’s Get Growing Map to connect and grow with your local community group.

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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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