Light at the end
of the tunnel

From the seed of an idea from local artists a community garden project in Liverpool has put down strong roots, grown several branches and is now reaping its rewards

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When Jason joined the gardening group, he was so shy he could barely speak.

Four years later, he delivers workshops about seed planting and veg growing and barely bats an eyelid.

“Before coming here I lived like a hermit, but this place has helped me a lot with the social side,” he says. “Knowing there’s somewhere to come and socialise twice a week without too much pressure has been great for me. I find it hard to understand people, but I like the simplicity of plants. To understand them you have to see them over the seasons and you have to pay attention.”

The Liverpool community garden he attends belongs to the award-winning community organisation Squash – which for more than a decade has used growing, cooking and the arts to bring people together and promote social engagement.

Its early projects took place across the city but, over the last 10 years, it has put down roots along Windsor Street in Toxteth, the diverse inner city neighbourhood where it opened an office in 2009 – followed by a small growing space.

The Grapes, the garden where Jason volunteers, opened seven years ago on a former pub car park, followed last year by a bold new community-designed building boasting a café and ingredients-based shop. This arrived two years behind schedule following a devastating fire. These spaces and initiatives are all part of Squash’s 100-year street plan, which aims to explore new ways for the neighbourhood to flourish.

Up to 20 regulars work in the garden every Friday, with some also putting in more physical labour on a Wednesday. At the start of each year, the group comes together to plan what they will grow. Volunteers are mixed in age and abilities so while some pitch in with weeding, planting and foraging for ingredients, those who are less mobile can pot up seedlings, save seeds, chop vegetables and help prepare a shared seasonal lunch.

“People are keen to garden here but there is very little allotment space locally – waiting lists can be six or seven years.”

Their reasons for coming are varied: some say it keeps them active and staves off loneliness, some no longer have a garden of their own and others say they want to eat more healthily following a bout of ill health. Most are local, but a few travel from as far away as the Wirral. Some learned about the garden through word of mouth, or through previous Squash projects, while others happened to walk past and see what was happening.

Since discovering the garden, 28-year-old Jason has completed a permaculture course and even taken on an allotment of his own. Squash agricultural lead Jackie Swanson calls him her “champion gardener” because he understands the plants so well, and he now happily steps in when she is unavailable to deliver a workshop or growing course.

“Over the past few years we’ve developed this space from a derelict car park to the garden you see today with members of this group, who feel it’s their garden,” says Swanson. “Everything we do or grow comes from what they’re interested in but ultimately it’s all to do with healthy eating, getting people interested in food, meeting people and reducing isolation. We’ve got people who have been coming to us for years now and friendships have grown.

“A few years ago we started running a monthly café in the garden because the group suggested that since we were growing so much, why not share it with other people? But now we have the community café in our new building. We have certain targets as well – like at the moment we’re growing plants to sell in the shop.”

This month Squash bagged the BBC Food and Farming Award for best shop or market.

Squash members celebrate their BBC Food and Farming Award. Main photo: growing vegetables in Liverpool 8 

“We are so chuffed to have won this award, having been nominated by our customers. It’s testament to the hard work of our staff and volunteer team and all our members who have worked so hard to make Squash what it is today,” says co-director Clare Owens. “It’s brilliant for Liverpool 8 and for the North West – great recognition of the fantastic, flourishing community food culture here.”

Squash was born after Owens and Becky Vipond – both artists – met doing youth work and discovered a shared passion for growing and cooking good food. Early initiatives included cooking workshops that explored participants’ cultural food journeys, developing a community orchard in Stockbridge Village, near Huyton, and launching Food for Real, a four-season arts festival. Both lived close to Windsor Street so they gradually turned their attention towards home.

“Our work is very much about moving at a human pace, going with what people are interested in but also creating space for people to find new things they might be interested in – with food very much at the centre,” explains Owens. “We reached a point where we felt we wanted to put roots down. We’re community members ourselves so we want this area to be as good as it can possibly be. We’re conscious of the multiple indices of need here in Toxteth, which has one of the highest child poverty rates in the country.

“We wanted to develop community-led solutions to the problems of food access and food poverty in this area. People are keen to garden here, but there is very little allotment space locally – waiting lists can be six or seven years. So we decided to try to get some land and develop a community food garden.”

The first growing Squash did along Windsor Street was in a small courtyard behind John Archer Hall, the building where it had its first office. Members developed a demonstration garden, where people could learn something and take that knowledge away. They put some beehives on a flat roof there and began a seed library and seed saving facility at Toxteth Library. This all whet their appetite to do more.

The Grapes pub had been derelict for years and its car park was tarmacked. When Squash began developing the land it involved around 30 local people in a community design process to think of ways the space could be used. Fruit trees were planted in the hope their roots would break up the ground, and raised beds were built.

Permaculture principles were followed to make the area as bio-diverse as possible. Because the gardening group wanted to use the garden year-round, they installed a futuristic solar dome – a warm space even in the coldest months.

The discovery that fruit trees have an average lifespan of a century sparked the idea of creating a 100-year plan for the street.

“We thought that at a time of austerity and welfare cuts and all the chaos and upset that communities can face as a result, it would be great if we could focus on building our own legacy. So we have this slow-burning idea of having a 100-years street,” says Owens. “We’re all living here so instead of thinking in short-term funding cycles of one or three years, we just want to get on with making a positive difference.”

In mid 2014, the team held a meeting with the members and decided to try to either refurbish a building or build a new one, with the aim of creating a community asset and making the organisation more sustainable in the long term.

“It’s terrible being lonely. This keeps me busy, it keeps me alive.”

The space they have today boasts an ingredients-based shop, informed by what is on the café menu. Prices are kept as low as possible through bulk buying, and local residents can also sign up for cooking lessons. The kitchen is also available for community use, including a food lab for local business start-ups, and there is a training space. Already, 40 unemployed women have been trained in food skills and helped to take their products to the market, with nine of them going on to volunteer and three of them now employed at Squash.

This new building, also called Squash, was developed through working with architect and local resident Marianne Heaslip to develop a basic plan to submit for grant funding – in collaboration with the gardening group, who talked about what they wanted from a building.

The group identified a council-owned, long-derelict plot of land up the street from the Grapes garden and the idea of a new build was born. They then managed to secure almost £400,000 from the Social Investment Business Fund to design and build a community asset on it – funding which no longer exists.

Heaslip, based at the architectural agency Urbed, then worked more closely with 32 local residents, including the gardeners in a participatory design process. This included field trips to Unicorn Grocery and Hulme Community Garden Centre in Manchester and several public exhibitions.

“Architects don’t always get to work with the future users of a building in the design process,” explains Owens. “They were keen to build out of natural materials and wanted it to be open and welcoming so people could see what was going on inside. They didn’t want it to be drab – they wanted it to lift the street. And the environmental impact was key – we did as much as the budget would allow. We made models and created stories about how the building would be used in the future.

“The funding deadlines were very arbitrary – the funders expected us to spend all the money by March 2015, but we only got planning permission that spring. We had to have contracts signed before we even got planning permission or we couldn’t get the funding – and we knew it was the final round for that pot of money, so the pressure was on. We managed to find a builder who understood what we needed though and he started a few months later.”

Disaster struck 10 weeks before completion, however, when a suspected arson attack led the timber-framed building to burn down. Sorting out the insurance brought huge delays and increased costs. A crowdfunding campaign launched by a volunteer the same day raised £25,000 – and when it looked like the whole project might be in jeopardy the Squash team sent begging letters to several funders, who gave them a further £65,000 in grants.

Crucially, however, the disaster had a huge impact on the community members who were involved in the design process, with several almost dropping out.

Owens says: “It was absolutely devastating for all of us and for some of our volunteers, several of whom have mental health issues, this felt like the end. We had to do a lot of work to get them back and to keep them going, and to keep our own resilience up, but after a very long slog we got there in the end.”

Back at the Grapes, the group are almost ready to sit down for their lunch of plantain and vegetable curry, sheltering from the rain in the polytunnel.

Geoff, 84, has spent the morning putting the finishing touches to a new brick pizza oven, which will be fired up for the first time at a community event the following week. A widower, he travels from Huyton to attend the gardening sessions every Friday.

“It gets me out of the house,” he says. “I’ve been involved with Squash for about eight years now. They were doing all sorts of courses near me but when they ended I started coming down here to fill my time. Where I come from there’s not the same community spirit that there is around here. I’m on my own now, and it’s terrible being lonely. This keeps me busy, it keeps me alive.”

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