Urban Gardening with Edible Bristol

We caught up with Sara Venn, founder of Incredible Edible Bristol, to find out more about the world of urban community gardening.

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How did you get into urban gardening?

I got into urban gardening because I moved to the city in a flat that didn’t have a garden, so it was obvious to look for something that was shared. I found that hard because when I tell people I’m a horticulturalist, they assume I want to take over, and I definitely don’t want to take over, I just want to do some digging! So after about a year, I realised there was room for an Incredible Edible group in Bristol, so Incredible Edible Bristol was born.


Now I run Incredible Edible Bristol, but I am also vice chair of the Incredible Edible network, and a regional facilitator which means I look after all the Incredible Edible groups in the South West and bring them all together, so that we are having a more meaningful conversation that looks at a region rather than just a city.

What were you doing before you moved and started Edible Bristol, and what inspired the move?

Before I moved to Bristol, I was working in mainstream horticulture just outside London, growing plants, managing people and all that goes with working in a large production nursery. I moved to Bristol because I got offered what I thought was going to be an amazing job which was actually hell, so I left that job having absolutely nothing to do but knowing I was going to stay in Bristol, I got involved in some local projects: Windmill Hill City Farm, some private gardening stuff with some friends of mine who do garden design, and I started to look at was available for people to get involved with in Bristol and realised that there wasn’t an Incredible Edible, and that there probably should be. If it’s hard for you to get outside, it’s even more important for you to get outside and connect with nature.

What is urban gardening and what does it mean to you personally?

Urban gardening and rural gardening are the same thing, they’re just in a different place. An urban garden just looks like a garden, but it’s possibly by the side of the road or on a roundabout rather than behind your house.


For me, urban gardening is about gardening in the public realm - on the roadside, on a roundabout, in Millennium Square – but for most people urban gardening just means gardening. 


It benefits everybody that lives in the community because a) it makes a beautiful space, b) it creates food that, certainly in Bristol, is available to everybody, and c) we make sure we are creating spaces that are friendly to nature as well as to people, so it supports more pollination and more wildlife in the city.

What kind of people do you get in your urban gardening sites?

Urban gardening is incredibly inclusive, anybody can come along. Across the sites at Edible Bristol, we have every single person in Bristol represented in one shape or form, from very young people to quite elderly people. Lots of quite diverse communities, people in transition who are trying to find a different type of life or are fed up with what they’re doing: everybody really. We get a microcosm of the communities you see around the garden, and it connects that community.

How do people respond to their first Edible Bristol experience, and what does their journey look like over time?

When people come along to an Edible Bristol event, often they can be quite shy; it’s difficult turning up to something you’ve never been to and where you don’t know anybody. People are often quite apologetic that they haven’t got the knowledge, but that’s the whole point – we have the knowledge, so they don’t need the knowledge, just enthusiasm! So quite quickly, they feel that they can just join in. Most of our volunteers stick with us from 9 months to a year and we’ve had people who’ve become ecologists, done horticulture qualifications, decided that they’re going to do garden design-  a whole load of different things that they’ve come to by being involved with Edible Bristol and finding out what being outside can really do for them.

What sort of things are you doing in the gardens?

Our primary role is that we’re supporting people to learn more, but by doing that, we’re creating beautiful and productive spaces in places that are lost and unloved.

And how often do you meet?

We have a work party at Edible Bristol every Thursday and every Saturday, and then we have other events dotted around the calendar.

What are you planting at this time of year, and will you see in the summer months?

Spring is a crazy seed sowing time of year. We tend to grow an awful lot of perennial plants (plants that come back year after year) so there’ll be more artichokes, there’ll be lots of kales. We’ll be about to start strawberry planting season, so a lot more of what we’ve already got through the summer months.

Do you find that you get enough volunteers from the local community?

Getting volunteers is always a challenge: there’s a million and one things to do in Bristol which is a problem in itself! We do have days where we don’t have anybody turn up and that’s fine too, but our sessions are all drop-in, everybody’s invited to come, you don’t need to come to a whole session if you can only fit a tiny bit into your day. But we always need more people.

Do you have a problem with litter on the gardens?

Litter isn’t a horrific challenge in most of the gardens but there are a couple where it is challenging. We’re lucky in that we have a great relationship with Bristol Waste, who are there within half an hour if we have a problem. When we first took over looking after some sites, we found that there were hundreds of needles; I don’t even want to think about how many we picked up. But as we’ve done more and more there’s less and less, so I do think people respect what is being done. Equally though, we are living in austerity and it’s all part of that as to why we have litter all over the city and why there’s nowhere for people to put litter, so we just deal with it the best we can.

In your experience, what effect does gardening have on people?

I think when you’re gardening, you’re concentrating on what you’re doing. Normally when you’re talking, talking is usually the primary activity whereas if you’re gardening, it’s that which is the primary thing, so your conversation becomes quite subconscious. That allows you to have conversations with people who you possibly wouldn’t normally talk to, and when you’re not actually thinking about what you’re saying but instead thinking about what you’re doing, it’s that subconscious thought that really works through that conversation. We see people who we know would absolutely disagree with each other in any other situation, chatting and agreeing, so it’s quite interesting to see how people are affected. 


There’s also a substance in the soil that is exactly the same as an antidepressant, so with that under your fingertips you’re increasing your serotonin levels and it’s just totally health-giving.

Have there been any stories or people that have inspired you, or made you step back and think this was all worth it?

I met a lady at Windmill Hill City Farm, who I had always known as Mrs Seven-Storeys-Up, because the first thing she said to me was “I don’t know why I’m here, I live seven storeys up”. She’d essentially been sent by her GP; she had five kids, she was living in a two-bedroom flat, it was really really tough for her. She started to garden, she got an allotment and she is now earning her living through growing food on her allotment. Her eldest child has just come out of City of Bristol College where he’s just done two years of Horticulture. Urban gardening changed her life and her entire family’s life.

What’s next for Edible Bristol? What are your long-term goals?

The next big thing for Edible Bristol is continuing to work on the allotment space, which is going to be a learning zone for people to come along for workshops and courses around gardening. We’ll have basic gardening courses and workshops but there’ll also be sessions around things like composting, how to build a pizza oven, how to build compost bins, how to grow your own cut flowers; all of that kind of stuff that people can take back to wherever they live. That’s the next big thing.

So how can urban communities get outside more, and how does gardening help them do that?

I think all communities have the kind of space that Incredible Edible Bristol works in, so those lost, unloved, untidy spaces full of boots and needles and nappies. Any community can sort that out and turn it into a garden.

What does it mean to be able to share your passion for the outdoors with others through the Incredible Edible network?

Being able to share my love of the outdoors and gardening with people who haven’t had the same opportunities as me is really powerful and immensely humbling. We see quite a lot of people who might be in transition, who might be quite challenged and finding different ways to lead their lives, and you see them transition into people who can achieve something in life and I think that’s really powerful. I don’t know how I do it, and I don’t know what it looks like, but people say, “I couldn’t have done that without you”, when I didn’t do anything other than make the tea! But it’s more about just bringing people together I think, so they feel they have a voice.

What would be your ideal wish for where you want this to go?

In a perfect world, in ten years’ time, everybody would be doing this and I would be lying on a beach! 

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