Routes and shoots: The Edible Bus Stop community garden
by Rhiannon James
credit: Mak Gilchrist
If you fancied a wander through the capital’s green and pleasant places, a stroll along the route of south London’s number 322 bus probably wouldn’t be the first excursion to spring to mind.
That could all be set to change though, as an enterprising group of community gardeners are quite literally bringing growing to the streets and turning the pavements along their local bus route into a green corridor of gardens.
The gardeners have already transformed the barren piece of ground next to the bus stop in their Stockwell neighbourhood into a thriving community vegetable plot and are on a mission to do the same for neglected pavement patches all along the bus route that runs from Clapham Common, through Stockwell and Brixton, and out to Crystal Palace.
“Our vision is to spread along the path of the 322 to create an edible bus route. A route of roots, that connects communities and draws on local resources and skills to make it happen,” says Mak Gilchrist, a fashion model, who came up with the idea for the Stockwell garden and is now chair of the project’s committee.
The idea for the first garden in Stockwell, snappily known as The Edible Bus Stop, was conceived when residents faced the prospect of losing the space altogether. The community initially banded together to oppose a plan by the local council to sell the site for development. They successfully fought off the proposed scheme and in the process, realised that they had a much better plan for the strip of land – creating a roadside community garden. “I organised a meeting in the local pub to alert the neighbourhood to the planning proposal” Mak says. “During the meeting, I asked if anyone had seen a wee guerrilla garden that had popped up by the bus stop. Everyone there said yes and they all said it with a smile on their faces. It was one of those eureka moments. So I said why don’t we turn the whole space into our own community garden?” In March last year, Mak put 400 leaflets through doors in the area, asking for help with digging and planting. More than 40 people turned up to the inaugural dig day and the first seeds of the Edible Bus Stop started to sprout.
Over the course of the spring and summer, the desolate piece of ground was transformed into a buzzing garden, filled with vegetables, flowers and fruit. “It was all very ad hoc and we just planted whatever we were given,” says Mak. “But without ever sitting down and sketching out a plan, we ended up with a herb garden area, a vegetable patch, a fruit bush section and then bits where it was all mixed up in between.” The south-facing site produced bumper harvests of everything from carrots and kales to potatoes and peppers, as well as some champion-sized sunflowers that towered over the back of the plot.
Even though the garden is on the street and unfenced, Mak says there has been no vandalism, probably because people see and respect the fact that it’s a community garden. Some of the produce does disappear but the gardeners are happy to share. “People help themselves,” says Mak. “But it belongs to them as much as to those of us who do the gardening. If they’re not greedy in what they take, then that’s fine with me.”
The Edible Bus Stop has given those residents in the area who don’t have access to their own outdoor space, somewhere to garden and share their skills. Marco Windham, a cameraman, got involved in the Edible Bus Stop after receiving one of Mak’s leaflets. “I really enjoy gardening but I got a bit too busy to keep the allotment I had and windowsills are all I’ve got at home, so that’s why I got involved. I really enjoy being outside and planting and it’s a bonus if you get some greens to eat as well. Meeting the local community has also been a real benefit. I’ve lived on this road for over 20 years now and I hardly knew any of the neighbours before.”
The social benefits of the garden have proved to be just as important as the opportunity to get growing and to take home freshly-picked fruit and veg, according to Simon Goldsmith, a sustainability consultant and vice-chair of the Edible Bus Stop committee. “It’s not just a garden, it’s also a social hub where people share ideas and create friendships,” he says. Even if neighbours haven’t joined in with the digging, planting and harvesting they’ve got involved with the garden in other ways, perhaps by supplying tea and biscuits to tired workers, making trips to the tip, donating seeds and compost or just stopping for a chat. “Unlike many community gardens, which are a bit hidden away, ours is very visible because it’s on a road and lots of conversations start with people who are just walking by or waiting at the bus stop,” Simon explains.
Even for those who are not directly involved, the garden has created a cheerful splash of colour in an area that’s short on greenery. Christo McCracken, a musician who lives close-by, says “I occasionally go past the garden on my way to work and it looks very, very different now – there’s a lot more greenery breaking up the grey. I’ve never actually been past when anyone has been working there so it’s as if someone has come along at midnight and sprinkled magic dust on the ground!”
A new departure
The Edible Bus Stop has been such a success that the local council has agreed to provide funding for a re-design of the site that will complete its transformation. The community ran their own process for selecting a new design and a plan by Simon Goldsmith was picked. It includes fruit trees and a mini meadow for lolling and daydreaming as well as new beds for fruit bushes, vegetables, flowers and herbs. It is envisaged that curving paths in a double-figure-of-eight shape will create different routes through the garden to make the small, narrow space feel bigger while tiered raised beds will add extra growing room and visual depth. The committee is hoping that a version of this design will be approved by the council and building work will start in the summer.
The garden’s committee is now keen to turn a stop into a route and are working with other community groups to set up more streetside gardens connected by the 322 bus. At one end of the route, they’re working with the organisers of the West Norwood Feast, a very successful community-run market, to set up a garden. “We’ve earmarked six potential sites and, with the agreement of the council, we’re probably going to go for a really grim plot that’s just a piece of pavement. We’ll create what we call a parkment – a mini park on a pavement using purpose-built planters,” Mak explains. At the other end of the 322’s route, the committee are hatching plans with Clapham community groups to create another garden next to a tube station. The involvement of local residents in each garden will be vital to the success of the scheme. “Our ethos dictates that the community themselves, where possible, provide a lot of the manpower and resources to make each garden happen. That way, people have a personal investment and can take pride in helping to make their neighbourhood a better place to live. They get to grow a garden and a community,” she says. Although each garden will be a local project, being part of the Edible Bus Route will mean that the gardeners will not only share in the collective gardening skills, knowledge and resources of everyone involved, but will also be connected into a whole community of people that are keen to make a difference to their city environment. “The Edible Bus Route is also an amazing way to connect people from different ethnic, social and economic backgrounds,” explains Will Sandy, a landscape architect and another member of the garden’s committee. “A garden doesn’t care where you’re from; you just get down there and get involved.”
If you’d like to find out more about the Edible Bus Stop, you can visit their website, www.theediblebusstop.org or go along to the next gardening day which is on Sunday 29th January from 1pm until 3pm.