Steve Simpson, giving an interview to Barnwood Trust.

The vision was to create a vibrant community garden

We spent some time with Steve Simpson, Chairman of the Saitbridge Allotment and Gardens Association (SAGA) to talk about the Saintbridge Allotment project – the vision, the challenges, discoveries and plans for the future.

Can you tell us a bit about yourself and how you got involved in the Saintbridge Community Allotment?

Ok, well my name is Steve Simpson, Chairman of the Saintbridge Allotment and Gardens Association. The association was formed in 2009 and over the years we’ve cleared various overgrown and abandoned areas. Before we began the project, this community garden was head-high in brambles with an old piggery on it. It was one of the last areas we cleared.

As part of that clearing process we thought maybe we should develop the plots as there is already a carpark, which is easy access for people with disabilities. So, we started putting the plots in, widening the paths and hoping individuals would take them on. That didn’t really go anywhere – people would come, get disillusioned and stop.

Steve Simpson, giving an interview to Barnwood Trust.
Pumpkins in a community garden

What was the vision for the garden in the first place?

The vision was to create a vibrant community garden where people of all ages, of all walks of life, come together in the planting, aftercare and harvesting of crops through the seasons and do it in a communal way.

The reason we wanted to do it in a communal way is because if you’re an individual it’s very easy to become disillusioned and if you have disabilities, or whatever is going on in your life, and you are unable to come to the plots on a regular basis, it deteriorates. It gets neglected and you can get disillusioned and give up. As a group – if you don’t turn up then someone else will come along in the group and carry on, so the garden doesn’t suffer. So, you can come and go as the demands on your life dictates. Some people have good weeks and some people have bad weeks.

It’s like flying geese – they fly in formation. The lead bird takes all the headwinds and the other birds are in the slipstream having an easier time. They don’t keep that up – the lead bird rotates and another bird will take its place. They take turns, so they get where they need to go. That is a concept that people can apply here too. As a group, there is not just one person doing all the work. We can swap around and it makes the whole project work a lot better.

When you talk about the group – who is welcome in the community garden?

Anyone is welcome. If someone has a genuine interest in working in the garden they’re welcome to come along and participate. Even if they just want to come and enjoy the garden, they’re welcome to come along.

Steve – I can see all the wonderful things around in the garden. Can you tell us a bit about the growing that is taking place and the activities that have taken place here?

This summer we’ve planted a whole range of crops – potatoes, cabbages, cauliflowers, Brussel sprouts, pumpkins, sunflowers, tomatoes, cucumbers, aubergines, chillies – the standard range of crops.

In addition to that planting we’ve also put in some infrastructure to make this happen. One of which is the new polytunnel. We dug out the base and used the excavation to build the sides up to create a raised bed. So, the entrance to the polytunnel is a gentle slope or ramp so wheelchairs can have easy access into the polytunnel and the beds are at a height that people can work at easily.

We’ve had two people with wheelchairs – person who used a wheelchair with thick tires and who was able to get around, and another person with a wheelchair with thin tires who was having difficulty. That’s when we realised we needed to improve the surfaces here.

Growing tomatoes in the community garden

There are two new upcoming projects we have got going on; one is a pathway and patio and the second project is a sensory garden. The sensory garden is a similar concept to the polytunnel in that you go down in to the centre of the garden where the excavated soil is raised up around the outside so there will be a circular sunken patio wide enough for wheelchairs to turn around in. That puts people who are in wheelchairs or people who have difficulty bending at a level where they can smell, touch and enjoy the plants in the sensory garden. Hopefully this will be a space for quiet contemplation and reflection and will hopefully be the central jewel in this garden.

At the moment we have a composting toilet – this is very important to provide facilities including a hand-washing sink. We need these facilities for people to be here any length of time. We also have a small shelter we’ve put up for people to shelter during inclement weather.

Can you tell us a little bit about how this was all paid for?

We did a lot of the work ourselves – started clearing this land and setting out the beds and we put in two raised beds with funding from Gloucester City Council at the time. We saw the need for these kinds of facilities to bring people together here and we approached Barnwood Trust who very kindly agreed to provide grant funding, the bulk of which went to the composting toilet and the remainder for the shelter and polytunnel.

We also have plans for a pizza oven (hopefully next year!) a table top planter for people in wheelchairs to use for planting and some adaptive tools for some people who may have difficulty bending, they can use specially adapted tools for gardening.

We also have plans to grow wheat as a demonstration and also as part of an educational activity. We can grow the wheat, grind it down and use the flour to make the pizzas themselves. Then the pizza toppings of course will be from the plots.

Can you tell us about who else has been involved in the project and the skills they brought?

As the project formed we had a group called Grow Up Gloucestershire – a look group with the city farm. They took on a plot and gave us a lot of inspiration and from that the Saga Association understood that we needed more groups to get involved, so we approached Glo-Active – a community group who provide services for young adults with a range of disabilities or learning difficulties and they’re bringing down their group every week during growing season and they’ve been instrumental in letting us know what we need to be accessible here.

If you had one piece of advice for someone in their community who wanted to start a project like this – what would you say to them?

One piece of advice I have is when you are preparing a project budget – include a contingency fund. With this particular project we were hit by large increases in prices with inflation, so we’ve had to overcome that by using recycled & donated materials. We’re on track now, financially, but it was a bit of a hiccup with price increases for some of the major items we had planned.

Do some of the other plot holders here get involved with the planning?

Yes, because some people have been coming here for years and are able to give us some advice and we’re hoping that maybe as people become less able to maintain their plots, then rather than give up their allotments altogether they’re able to find a space here and feel valued, making a contribution and passing on their skills and knowledge to the next generation.

What does it mean to you to run a project like this?

I suppose it gives me a sense of achievement – I like the challenge involved it in. I like to pass my experience on and disseminate it to other people. I really enjoy it myself – to take this area that was abandoned and unused and to bring it into a space which we hope can become a community resource – that gives me a tremendous sense of satisfaction and achievement.

To learn more about the Community Spaces Fund, visit our grants pages here