“The first melon of the season always tastes amazing,” says Lucy Mitchell. “I don’t think anyone has ever taken one home – every year, we just cut them into as many slices as there are people in the garden and make sure everyone gets a melon moment.”
After almost a decade of being involved with the Golden Hill community garden in Horfield, Bristol, she never gets complacent about the significance of these simple things. “We remember ‘Big Jim’, the biggest sunflower who ever grew here, or the miracle sunflowers that grew in the gravel and we wait for the frogs to return to the pond. These things all layer into our story and we look forward to them.”
Community gardens are becoming ever more common across the UK, and at the end of September, the Royal Horticultural Society will announce the winners of its first Community Awards.
“Where groups like this existed, communities seemed to be more resilient when it came to a crisis [like Covid] because they had a pre-established network of volunteers and people already knew each other so they could easily offer support,” says Kay Clark, who heads up the RHS community gardening programme. “With wellbeing and nature connection becoming top priority during lockdown, we had this massive surge of interest in gardening and the community groups were there to help people learn how to garden, teach skills, share knowledge, plants, tools and all sorts as well as inspire people and cheer them up.”
Because so many community gardens spring up at such a grassroots level – you just need the landowner’s permission and a small group of willing helpers – it’s hard to gauge exact numbers, but anecdotally, Clark has seen a big uplift in volunteer numbers coming to existing groups over the past 18 months. The RHS will be focusing on supporting new groups with resources and training in the near future in response to growing demand. Some gardens can be run on a shoestring, too, and she advises to start small: “Gardeners are often naturally thrifty – by growing plants from seed and minimising waste, costs can be kept right down. It doesn’t have to be Grand Designs.”
Mitchell is the only paid member of staff at Golden Hill, a 2000m2 sanctuary tucked away between a prison and a primary school. Over the course of three years, from 2011 to 2013, an £88k grant from the national lottery’s local food fund helped transform a boggy site into a multi-functional, wheelchair-accessible garden that is now home to a big pond, two polytunnels, raised beds for growing veg and an edible forest.
The plan was always to become financially viable and self-sustaining and in 2015 Golden Hill registered as a community-interest company, a type of social enterprise. Pilot projects are funded by small fundraising events and occasional grants but day-to-day running is supported by a combination of modest monthly donations from Friends of Golden Hill, and revenue from the educational programmes that they run year-round.
“When we began, we had no idea it would become so child-oriented – it has evolved into what it is today,” says Mitchell who holds weekly toddler groups (which are as much for the parents for the little ones), afterschool clubs for approximately 70 children every week during term time and holiday adventure days for the local primary children and their families. “Giving people’s children an amazing experience in the garden is a much more feasible income for us than selling our produce. All the organic veg and flowers we grow go to our 25 or so volunteers – as soon as you have freshly grown flowers on the kitchen table, your quality of life goes up.”
A sense of fascination runs through Golden Hill, but it is not always guaranteed. When Mitchell takes children into the garden, she never quite knows what their reaction will be: “Sometimes their minds will be blown by something that’s absolutely random, like picking gooseberries, another time kids will just shrug their shoulders and be absolutely nonplussed.” At the moment, the sea buckthorn that is in fruit has really captured their imagination – despite it tasting ‘tart like Haribo sours’ they devour them like sweet berries, Mitchell says.
For the children at Golden Hill, gardening club offers a space in nature where they can be free from organised activities. Mitchell says a lot of them just want to spend the time running round and not being told what to do, so nothing is too prescribed. “When we got to picking potatoes this year, just one person wanted to have a go but by the time we started harvesting, everyone wanted to get involved – I don’t think any city folk can ever not find digging up potatoes wildly exciting because it’s like finding buried treasure, no one’s ever too cool for that.”
She has noticed an increase in phone calls from people asking advice about how to set up their own community garden: “There’s so much potential for growth – every area could have a community garden, I don’t think you could ever reach saturation point.”
Above all, it’s open to everyone, without judgment. “Community gardens are something that nobody is priced out of – anyone can come to this organic garden, pick up a watering can and get involved. You don’t need to buy a bamboo toothbrush or an electric car.” For Mitchell, it feels “revolutionary in a quiet, non-commercial and fairly radical way”.