Cheddar Road Community Garden

Lets set up a community garden!

During the consultation period, and perhaps buoyed on by our new-found community aspirations, we decided to set up a community garden. Or rather, we had developed a blueprint for an ambitious chilli growing project - Balsall Heath Chilli Farm - that required a community garden as it’s base. (1)

We approached a number of organisations across the local area about securing a potential growing space and Balsall Heath Forum suggested a patch on Cheddar Road. As recently as 1992, Cheddar Road was one of the worst roads in Birmingham, if not the UK, for prostitution - women would sit in their front windows creating a micro- Amsterdam quarter in Balsall Heath.

We decided to take on the space and were awarded a small amount of money from Community First to develop the space into a community garden, complete with polytunnel, raised beds, compost area and play area.We were interested in whether the space might bring local residents together and have an impact upon Cheddar Road’s litter problems.The garden we developed formed part of the Balsall Heath in Bloom 2012 judging trail. The judges were impressed, except for the three metre high Giant Hogweed growing in the corner, apparently one of the UK’s most poisonous plants whose sap can cause scarring and permanent blindness. On paper, in the proposal to the funding agency Community First, the garden sounded great:

We aim to transform an unused shared garden on Cheddar Road, Balsall Heath into the hub for a community growing project that will provide flowers and vegetables to for a series of planters sited at street level.The project will identify key residents who will be active in the growing and maintenance of the garden and planters.This will combat problems of litter and fly-tipping on the street by activating community pride in the local environment.

But the reality was very different. Our ambition to make Balsall Heath the chilli growing capital of the UK by 2060 faltered and the community garden evolved into a problem project. Prior to the garden’s development, we spent time door knocking along Cheddar road talking to residents about the garden; we even had a letter translated into Arabic (there is a largeYemini population along Cheddar Road) and delivered to every home inviting local residents to a garden open day. A few residents turned up, mildly interested, but none of them were residents whose houses backed on to the shared garden. Over the course of spring 2012, all bar one of the residents were determinedly uninterested in developing the garden (to the extent that they continued to dump rubbish in the garden) yet we couldn’t open it up to the general public as it technically - and legally – belonged to the seven houses backing onto the garden.

Can you have a community garden without any community? Was this community garden art? We pondered long and hard over both of these questions and eventually decided, that with Cheddar Road Community Garden, the answer was a resounding No. Our one ‘resident engagement success’ - a Muslim women whose house backed onto the garden - nearly ended in jeopardy: the film crew employed by the funding body harangued her into an interview and upset her husband. Other highlights of the project included: acquiring the moniker ‘The Council People’ as other Cheddar Road residents beckoned us to clear their overgrown back gardens, a nasty scuffle (nearly a physical fight) over the right to tie some spring pea shoots and the calamitous ‘runner bean consultation’. Having decided to plant runner beans at the entrance to Cheddar Road in empty planters positioned there, we realised that garden canes must be in short supply in Balsall Heath: the canes holding the beans up were stolen four times. Eventually we stopped replacing them and allowed the runner beans to grow at ground level.

After 18 months of feeling like we were trespassing (technically we were) and general indifference from the residents whose houses backed onto the garden (rubbish and old pieces of furniture were still routinely dumped in the garden) we decided to pass the garden over to more experienced hands, in this instance a local food growing initiative called One Plot Urban Farming. One Plot are managing the garden and also immediately secured funding from The Princes Trust to develop the adjoining - equally neglected and overgrown - shared garden into a play area.

(1) During our initial research into Balsall Heath and Sparkbrook in 2010, we came across a little known, but pioneering community food growing project that was set up in Sparkbrook, Birmingham in the 1980s. The project was called Ashram Acres, and it involved local people, many of them unemployed migrants, reclaiming derelict land to establish a large community growing initiative. Although pioneering as a model of self-organisation, in that it resisted outside financial support (relying upon ‘sweat equity’), we became interested in the projects growing practices: it specialised in producing Asian and West Indian vegetables; their success relying upon the knowledge and expertise brought by migrants from abroad. Fast-forward 30 years, and ‘exotic’ vegetables are a mainstay of the UK’s culinary landscape. The chilli for example, is synonymous with Balsall Heath, in that the area is home to the famous Balti Triangle. We began to develop a project called Balsall Heath Chilli Farm, which was conceived as a mass community growing initiative. Balsall Heath Chilli Farm would have no permanent base; rather it would be the sum of its many parts and based across Balsall Heath in peoples gardens, in kitchens, on windowsills and scraps of wasteland. Alongside the growing side of things, the project would include an ambitious programme of events related to growing, including a Balsall Heath Chilli Festival. We made a small start on the project. Cheddar Road Community Garden hosted a chilli growing space (including 17 different types of chilli) and we worked with 60 primary school students at Nelson Mandela school to grow chillies for Balsall Heath in Bloom.

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