Urban Growing

Bristol Community Food Gardens: Sea Mills Community Garden 

By Liz Muirhead

Our latest Bristol Good Food 2030 story is a homage to Sea Mills Community Garden (SMCG). Blog author Liz moved to Bristol this month having switched a career in music technology for a masters degree in regenerative food and farming at Schumacher College in Totnes.

Liz volunteers at various community gardens around the city while enjoying a share of the fresh harvest. SMCG is the garden closest to Liz’s first home in the city, in Shirehampton. She met with Maria Stuart, Project Coordinator, to discuss the project and share how others can get involved.

Sea Mills was one of the original garden suburbs. Housing estates such as Sea Mills Estate were built for soldiers returning from World War One and designed to have big gardens as well as individual gardens within the development to serve as allotments for each household. SMCG is one of those allotment sites. 

In 2014 the Sea Mills Community Initiative took on the lease of the garden. The charity also runs the Café on the Square, five minutes from the garden, in a former Edwardian toilet. One half of the plot was planned to be a community garden, while the other half would become allotments again. At that time, a few residents were gardening in their plots, but much of it was up to eight feet under brambles. 

Belonging to the community

In 2017, Sea Mills Community Garden employed Maria for a few hours each month to apply for grants and coordinate the project. Money came in for the gazebo, wide wheelchair-friendly paths and the polytunnel. The group began regular weekly sessions and, as Maria told me“it really started to become something belonging to the community.”  

The main area is now mostly community growing with raised beds, which can also be rented, as well as a big patch with some no-dig areas. They have installed a wildlife pond in a recently-taken-on allotment and the rest will soon become a wildflower meadow to ensure it’s a wild but usable space.  

The children love the fairy garden tucked under a beautiful pine tree that started out a bonsai! At the opposite end, past the bee hives, a copse of mature trees creates shade for a future seating circle. At the far end, Community Payback takes care of one section, while the wildlife garden is teaming with creatures. 

“The wildlife said no”

The wildlife garden was due to become allotments again but, Maria tells me “the wildlife said no very clearly to us.” Mature badger setts live there, as well as foxes and masses of bird life. Under the brambles, the overgrown hedging is a really important roost for overwintering starlings and it gets so noisy. The starlings are Maria’s favourite wildlife. It’s a real pleasure for her to know that they’ve got somewhere safe to be. 

Instead of disturbing the wildlife with allotments, the group decided to plant a forage garden using edible soft fruits and native hedge trees like Rowan and Hazel along the paths among the mature trees. Maria is really excited that this project is now growing useful materials, having done their first coppicing this year. This included taking out the more mature cherry saplings to make a dead hedge fence. Maria and the others are hoping it will stay a nice shared area. The camera traps, showing the badgers are thriving indicate that their strategy is paying off. 

During the first pandemic lockdown, the government allowed allotments to stay open, so SMCG organised for families who had their own raised bed or garden area to visit on their own on a rota basis. Entering the second lockdown, they facilitated sessions for critically vulnerable people – those with parents going through hospital treatments who really needed to keep away from other people. 

A space for kindness, then and now 

The gardens within the housing developments, originally intended for soldiers to grow their own food, are being cultivated by the community to grow food to eat and enjoy once again. You can really see how the kindness extended to soldiers returning from the war lives on through the garden today to support both the wildlife and the community – maybe some are descendants of those soldiers.  

Mental health groups and other projects also use the space as a venue for meetings, enjoying chatting under the gazebo overlooking the beds. Community Payback organise for offenders to visit fortnightly to serve community sentences: “they seem to get a lot from it, which is really good.” 

Wednesday and Thursday afternoons the garden is open for visits and anyone can use the space. If you want to get involved, Maria finds tasks to suit everyone’s needs. It’s easy to avoid kneeling or digging jobs. “Muddy Mondays” is free play when the kids go wild, though they also get involved with activities like erecting bean tunnels. 

Whatever the day, if you turn up and help, you take home whatever is harvested. The day I interviewed Maria, I took home lots of tomatoes, cucumber, courgette, mint and parsley. Voluntary yearly donations from visitors help cover the insurance and a bit of maintenance too. 

Other benefits for wellbeing, health and community

Maria sees a big movement nationally, “people are turning back to gardening and wanting to be closer to nature to improve their wellbeing.” She sees people visit to help and go away with a whole range of foods, herbs and greens that supplement their diet in a really positive way. Though not certified, the project respects organic practices, so the food’s nutritional benefits are likely to be huge.  

She says that she certainly feels that personally in her and her family’s diet since they’ve started going there. She loves taking home all the fresh produce to cook up and hopes that, “as some of the trees become more mature (in the wildlife garden), that it really will be a larder for the future… a legacy of providing food, if not for us, certainly for the wildlife.” 

Maria says that the community connections and the friendships, are as important as the work that they do. It’s another community space where people can come and just be. The children also seem a lot more connected with nature, perhaps more than her own children were when they were that age. She says, “it’s pretty special watching the children crawl along the raspberries munching as they go”, as is the moment at the end of each day at this time of year. “I’m always very thankful when I shut the gate and look over the fence and think, it’s been a good day.” 

Sea Mills Community Garden’s Apple Day is on Saturday 23 September 11am-2pm at the Café on the Square, five minutes down the road from the garden. It’s the big charity event of the year for the project with music and crafts, jams for sale, and the apple press comes out. Everyone in the community including SMCG brings their apples for pressing and produce is shared around. If you’ve already eaten at the café, then you’ve already tried the garden’s produce, as they share their produce with the café weekly as well.  

Take a look at the Sea Mills Community Garden Facebook page for all the latest events and details about how to get involved with volunteering. Get in touch via email at smciallotmentproject@gmail.com.

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.

* Required field

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Our Sponsors