Rebirth and renewal at Grow Wilder

Rebirth and renewal at Grow Wilder

Our Bristol wildflower site, with its lush food-growing areas and sense of peace in an urban world, is full of special places. One of them is the Sunburst Garden. In the past, this fabulous space has been a jewel in Grow Wilder’s colourful crown. Sadly, during the pandemic, like so many things in our lives, it suffered. Thankfully, due to the efforts of our community food-grower and engagement officer, Ben Hanslip, the last six months have seen it flourish and bloom. Here is his story.

When I took on the Sunburst Garden at Grow Wilder it looked exciting, but also slightly overwhelming. What was once a productive garden had turned into an overgrown field of weeds and long grass.  At the back was the raspberry area - you could just about make it out between the explosion of giant thistles nettles and other overgrown weeds. I was told there had been a path and other raised beds which were no longer visible. The adjacent plots were just about visible amidst the explosion of nature. I found it incredible to see what happens when nature is left to its own devices for over a year: the biodiversity of flora and fauna and the range of insects and pollinators was amazing to see.

The first job was to choose which areas of the garden to leave wild and which areas we wanted to grow on. As we were starting late in the growing season (end of May) I knew it wasn’t realistic to try and cultivate and grow veg in all the areas.

Plan in hand, my volunteers and I frantically sowed lots of things in plug trays and pots. The next job was to establish the garden by making rows of beds interspersed with paths, backfilled with woodchip. After a fantastic effort from weekly volunteers and corporate groups, we created a no-dig bed system in the Sunburst Garden. We then planted our freshly-grown plugs. Ultimately, it became a beautiful space, filled with nutritious veg and adorned with an array of edible flowers.

Next, we re-established the raspberry area, before planting up the raised beds and the plots in amongst the wild areas. The polytunnel proved to be incredibly productive, with a vast array of tomatoes and chilli varieties, as well as cucumbers and different types of basil.

With this abundance of produce, the next question was: what should we do with it?  Volunteers were taking vegetables home in exchange for their efforts in the garden, but we still had a big surplus.  We decided to start a pick your own ‘pay by donation’ scheme, which ran on weekends alongside the onsite café. This scheme was a great way to sell affordable good quality vegetables to people whilst creating a connection to food and nature.

With a consistent stream of corporate volunteers and an ever-growing weekly volunteer group we have also focused our efforts beyond the Sunburst Garden. After being left untouched for nearly a year and a half we have slowly brought the Forest Garden back to life by clearing weeds and uncovering endless amounts of fruit trees and bushes, as well as mulching these areas to add fertility and suppress future weeds.

Nature has been a huge beneficiary of all this activity, but so have people. It’s enabled us to provide training and learning opportunities to many within the wider community. For the last two months a group of mums from Begbrook school has been coming regularly to learn about organic food-growing. A team of students from Briarswood special school have been visiting, too, helping to clear paths and put down woodchip as well as getting to spend time in nature. There’s no doubt, Grow Wilder is a place that inspires loyalty – Freeways, a group of adults with supports needs, have been helping out in the garden for nearly ten years!

For me, the best thing about this wonderful, wild oasis in the city is the range of people of who contribute and benefit from it. The garden is a place that helps improve wellbeing, where people can connect to nature and to one another. Anyone who visits can feel valued and useful and crucially, of course, wildlife can thrive. I passionately believe that spaces like this are not just useful but are also essential to the well-being of individuals and of the planet.

To find out more about how you can support Grow Wilder, check out the website.