Urban Growing

Bristol Community Food Gardens: Bridge Farm

By Weien Soh

Weien Soh met with Ade Taylor from Bridge Farm to find out more about this unique project and to discover how you can get involved as a volunteer.

As we watch the leaves transition into rustic colours of orange, red and yellow, nature is signalling that autumn has arrived. With the abundance of harvest marking the start of the season, most crops and plants have now peaked at their maturity as the natural world begins to slow down.

At the same time as signifying the wealth of the land, the autumn season brings with it decay, but also the beauty of impermanence. Now is the perfect time for budding gardeners to connect with this transitional period by getting involved with the joy of late harvesting, along with preparing the land for the darkening of winter.

The urban growing revolution is taking over many cities as people turn back to nature in community gardens, not only for food stability, but also for a sense of community. Often overlooked are the prime parcels of forgotten agricultural land, that still exist throughout cities, which had been cultivated for farming until expanding urban infrastructure rendered the spaces redundant.

With buildings and roads taking precedence over farmland to accommodate a growing population, it became more difficult for people to benefit from local food, green spaces and community spirit. There are, however, growing numbers of people who come together to address environmental and social issues by ensuring that precious growing spaces can be preserved for good food production by community hands.

By visiting Bristol’s wonderful array of community gardens and farms, I profile each organisation and the diverse work they do to help more people celebrate and engage with edible growing. Last month a budding market garden enterprise, Lush Greens, was featured as I delved into the ethos behind the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) scheme that the group belongs to. For this month’s article, I spent time speaking with a group of passionate growers at Bridge Farm to gain insight into their growing work and future plans for the farm.

Bridge Farm

Although bordered by expanses of green from Purdown and Eastville Park, Bridge Farm (BF) is also hedged in by the M32 corridor with its obnoxious cars and busy roads. With the listed farmhouse coupled with its original barns and outbuildings, BF has a rich and long history as tenanted farmland. During the past century, its agricultural legacy gradually dwindled to the 3.5 acres of fields and brambles that exist today with the rest being absorbed into the urban landscape.

Just six years ago, BF was an operating dairy farm that became defunct and was left to be overgrown, but in 2018, Ashley Vale Action Group (AVAG) stepped up to purchase BF to prevent the land from falling into developer hands. Formed in 2000, AVAG is non-profit community action group whose concern about the corporate redevelopment of a former scaffolding yard in St Werburghs led to a group of residents pooling together to purchase the site. With permission to turn the space into a mixed-use development, the project, coined ‘The Yard’, was completed in 2011 after consultations with residents to strengthen the vision for a community hub that would benefit the local people.

With The Yard now housing a thriving community who live in self-built/finished homes, AVAG is planning to commence a similar project for BF with a proposal for a community-led housing development to provide affordable eco-homes, along with plans to generate the surrounding farmland for cooperative food growing and other sustainable projects. With an inclusive community culture at the heart of the organisation, I met with Ade Taylor, Volunteer Coordinator and avid food grower, and spoke with a group of volunteer gardeners, to delve into BF and its urban growing initiatives.

As I walked up the track to BF, I was pleasantly surprised by how much land was tucked away behind the tall wall and trees that separated the farm from the busy roads that surrounded it. Greeting me cheerily, Ade explains that BF is a people-led initiative with ongoing planning for the farm development open and accessible to people who want to get involved. While the site has been under community ownership since 2018, Ade tells me much of the work was reclaiming the land from nature so that the real work to rebuild and grow could begin. A lot is also dependent on AVAG and BF securing funding, he continues, not only to pay back the original lenders, but to also refurb many of the dilapidated buildings on-site.

Throughout the last few years, groups of volunteers have been involved with hand-clearing the site to reclaim parts of the land around the house to use for edible growing. To begin with, Ade tells me that many micro-enterprises formed by small groups would use the land to do their own thing as there was no core vision in place. With these micro-enterprises coming and going, BF wanted people to come together and plan as a group so there would be defining values to hold the community together. Last year in spring, Ade explains, a communal growing group of around eight to nine people who would all contribute to taking care of BF’s edible garden was formed.

In a similar model to Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), the group each put in several hours a week towards the growing rota which includes tasks like watering, weeding and planting. Everyone who contributes gets to reap the benefits as food is shared equally between all and any surplus goes to BF’s canteen to feed volunteers. To join the group, there is a small annual subscription of £30 that is used to form a ‘kitty’ which goes towards growing materials and water costs. Acknowledging that a subscription may not be accessible to everyone, Ade tells me that they are happy to sponsor low-income or underprivileged individuals who want to join the growing community by dissolving the financial boundaries.

Walking me around the growing garden, Ade explains that initially there was mostly patchwork planting, growing a random assortment of vegetables without much planning. This year, however, Ade continues, the group has worked out a more meticulous proposal for the growing season based on what they like to eat, what is expensive to buy and how best to use the growing space. As I looked around at the vegetables arranged in neat rows, Ade says that they especially like growing perennial food, like spinach, herbs and fruit, so that they don’t have to buy annuals each year. The group also attend Bristol Seed Swap to source seeds for edible crops and make their own compost to further save on costs, Ade told me as he showed me the greenhouse where many varieties of tomatoes, peppers and even achochas (a relative of squash and cucumber) grew abundantly.

With all the plants grown without fertilisers or chemical pesticides, BF adheres to organic and regenerative principles for the food garden and surrounding fields. Wanting to clear more of the land to use for growing food, including the installation of a medicinal herb patch and an edible tree forest, Ade is calling out for volunteers who are interested in joining as a major challenge for BF is finding enough people to commit to volunteering on the farm. The capacity to grow more is entirely limited by the number of people in the group and as a result, large swathes of land are uncultivated and unwittingly left to grow over with brambles and weeds.

To address this challenge, Ade urges people to check out BF’s regular volunteer days every other Sunday to experience the community-growing work they do. Volunteers can gain confidence in growing food by skill sharing and sharing knowledge, alongside enjoying the social aspect of volunteering (which for Ade is the best part!) The organisation would love to hear from people who are interested in joining the growing group or those who may want to take on a bigger patch as part of an existing group/organisation.

Any folks with shared values who are interested in running a micro-enterprise on the land can also get in touch, Ade tells me, as within the BF site there are organisations that are thriving, like Bristol Tree Craft and the Forest Garden project. Showing me around the respective projects, Ade acknowledges that due to climate change, we need more diverse growing structures, like the Forest Garden which mimics a natural woodland ecosystem with its own pond and accompanying wildlife. The farm even has a pair of Iron Age Cross pigs who help not only to clear the land but also provide good company for the volunteers who tend to them.

Before Ade wandered off to do some work, he was keen for me to speak with the rest of the group who could talk me through the growing work they were doing that day. As I meandered through the growing patch, Nils Agger was busying himself with preparing sections of the growing space for winter. Originally from Sweden, Nils says he got involved with the growing group at the end of last year and has been regularly volunteering since. Dressed in gardening overalls, he very much looked like a seasoned farmer as he weeded a bare patch that had just been harvested so that the group could cover it with cardboard ready to overwinter.

Telling me a story about how their crops are sometimes raided by resident wildlife, like badgers and deer, Nils light-heartedly notes that the harvest is not more important than spending time working outside in nature, alongside like-minded people who share similar values that foster a great sense of community spirit. Mary Downing and Rhiannon who are also part of the group shared similar stories about the farm as time spent with the growing group enables a certain ‘time-out’ from the busy schedules of everyday life. While it can be difficult to come every week, they always appreciate the time that they spend at BF as even small-scale gardening can have a big impact on the lives of individuals.

Looking around at the abundant crops, it’s easy for me to see that the growing patch has been a labour of love. Though bordered by ever-advancing brambles and pesky weeds, the brassicas, courgettes, squashes, leeks, legumes, various leafy greens, beetroot and strawberries growing triumphantly side-by-side (and carrots being harvested when I was there) were a testament to what can be achieved by a small group of people who come together with a shared vision to grow together.

Even for those who don’t see themselves as growers, but wish to help build a community for everyone to enjoy, there are opportunities. Ade says that the farm is looking for people who can contribute in other ways, like fundraising, newsletter writing and events support. While cooperative growing is an integral part of the ecological work at BF, it is also important that the farm is socially accessible, and that people are encouraged to join in aspects of the project that they’d like to contribute towards.

Volunteers can get involved with Bridge Farm’s community growing work every other Sunday from 11am to 4pm – the next session is Sunday 5 November. Please just turn up as there is no need to register in advance. For those interested in other ways of helping the organisation, please get in touch via email info@bridgefarmbristol.org.uk.

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 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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