Companion Planting allotment project

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As Artist in Residence at Speedwell Nursery School and Children’s Centre in Bristol I was asked to lead on an action research project exploring parents’ engagement with their children’s learning, so I took on a council allotment to create a space where families could work alongside each other.

I called the project Companion Planting, which is a way of gardening where different plants are grown together that are of mutual benefit, because we feel that this idea echoes our ethos of bringing people together to share skills and celebrate diversity in order to build stronger and healthier communities.

The idea felt exciting – if a little daunting – as the allotment had loads of rubbish on it and took quite a lot of graft to turn it into a working plot.

However, the project has gone from strength to strength and we now have three adjacent plots and are currently creating a wildflower meadow/orchard as an urban wildlife sanctuary. Our weekly sessions are advertised by word of mouth and through Speedwell Nursery School and Children’s Centre groups. They take place on Thursday mornings and we also run sessions during half terms and holidays, which allows school age children to participate as well.

harvesting-tomatoes

Sessions with our nursery children
Our sessions draw on activities based around organic gardening and creative practice. In addition to the family sessions, we bring small groups of our nursery children here. These sessions have been very successful, with the children enjoying exploring the space and engaging in activities including watering plants, thinking about which plants bees like, talking about how things grow, role playing and making daisy chains and mud pies.

Staff are also passionate about involving parents in their children’s education as well as giving them chances to extend their own learning. A key player in this is the school’s artist in residence. Her tremendous enthusiasm has inspired many children and parents to be very involved in community projects such as making stunning artwork and planting and growing in the school’s allotment.
Ofsted inspection report: Speedwell Nursery School, 13–14 May 2015

To find out more about our work with the nursery children you can go to the Bristol Early Years Research and read a report there.

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We work our allotment organically, using a range of gardening methods that benefit wildlife. We find alternative ways to control pests, for example we plant marigolds to keep away aphids, nematodes to control ants and use vertical planting to keep slugs off our strawberries. We mulch our raised beds with nettles, comfrey, fruit and vegetable peelings, recycled shredded paper and cardboard. This is known as the ‘no dig’ method and is enriching for the earth, better for soil structure than digging, and much better for your back as well.

Watering the vertical strawberries

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Family sessions
The allotment introduces people to new aspects of the community they live in. People have extended their friendships both within the sessions and beyond; 2 participants have taken on their own allotment plots since coming to sessions, and a 3rd person is considering this possibility. By having weekly sessions, people have been able to get to know each other and develop new social bonds and strengthen existing ones.

I like this group. I do enjoy. I very, very enjoy. I’m waiting every Thursday to come. Every Thursday I come here. I so enjoy. My son so enjoy and make friends.
Harjit

I think I’ve spoken to people that I probably wouldn’t have spoken to. At the gate… more than ‘hello, morning, afternoon’ I’ve had conversations with people that I probably wouldn’t have. It gives you a chance to open up and talk, probably a bit more time I suppose. And there’s no pressure. You’re just talking about general stuff.
Ria

Queen of the Willow
One of our first activities was constructing a den from living willow and everyone joined in even though none of us had any experience of making one before. We worked well together and by the end of the morning we had a beautiful structure for people to enjoy.Since then we have harvested willow wands and used them to make woven baskets as well as producing our own charcoal on site. 

‘Thank you for a lovely time on Saturday, learning a new skill and providing lots of families with a sense of achievement and pride as they watch the willow den grow and change over the coming months.’

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Basket making

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Many participants have not done any gardening for some time, if ever. We encourage people to come along to ‘have a look’ rather than putting emphasis on having to work or be good at anything. This informal approach lets people connect at their own pace and in their own way. As well as encouraging people to put forward their own ideas, we work out lists of jobs that needed doing, organised them to suit people’s interests and abilities, and offering support where necessary.

Children are active participants in the projects. They enjoy being outside and taking care of the allotment, and are particularly keen on watering plants and picking fruit and vegetables. The lay out of the allotments means they are able to be quite independent, which leads to excellent problem solving, for example how to turn on the tap, steer a wheelbarrow or carry a full watering can without spilling any.

‘The Speedwell allotment has given me and my son a chance to learn not just about planting and caring for plants but also recipe ideas to make with the produce. We have met lots of people who we would not have had the opportunity to meet without this relaxed and nourishing space. We value our Thursday mornings on the allotment SO MUCH for a breath of fresh air and a place where my son can roam free and feel close to nature.’

wheelbarrow-ride
Coming regularly seems to allow parents and children to develop a sense of ownership and there has been marked progress in the initiative that people are taking as their confidence builds. For example accessing the resources, lighting the stove, gathering mint to make tea, drawing with chalk on the path, netting fruit bushes, reading about gardening and harvesting produce. Doing these things seems to remind people of the possibilities of being outdoors: using parks and other spaces, sharing childcare, working on their own gardens, growing things in pots and going camping. People draw on their own childhood experiences as a resource for their children and when we asked if they felt their children behaved differently when they’re outside they said:

I think they seem calmer. Not quite so hectic, and they can be free. They just explore….
Ria
I think they enjoy it more when they stay outdoors because they have so many things to do.
Alex
And not so many toys so they switch on their imaginations
Irina

Our tea breaks are a crucial part of each session. They are a place where people can enjoy a well-earned rest and share food and their thoughts and ideas about the allotment as well as other aspects of their lives.
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‘I particularly like coming to these allotment sessions because they are relaxed, friendly and yet very productive. It’s lovely to spend time outdoors with like-minded adults and very young budding gardeners.’

‘It has been the strong sense of community spirit and kindness that I have found to be most beneficial. Not to mention the simple reward of tea and a biscuit!’

Amongst other festivals we celebrate Eid, Apple Day and the Spring Equinox and we often share food and work on creative projects together. For example we harvest and package our own seeds, and have made our own raised beds from recycled pallets. We’ve also carved apple heads, made mandalas, Eid decorations and solar bunting, as well as painting our shed.Apple mandala

Carved apple heads

Flowery shed

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I find it really enjoyable working on the allotment project because, like the children, I feel calmer and more energised when outdoors. When I go to the allotment first thing in the morning to check the site, the birds are singing and the world has a fresh, unused feeling. In this peaceful atmosphere – something not always easily found in a city – I anticipate the simple pleasure that the participants are about to enjoy, and I feel very privileged and happy to be working here.

Another of our creative activities is Bad Maman, a project where
we make delicious preserves from foraged fruit which we sell to raise money to support women and children refugees living in Northern France. It has been very successful and we have raised nearly £8,000 to date. To read more click here.

Speedwell Allotment on Points West from Luci Gorell Barnes on Vimeo.