Urban Community Gardening

Ed Tyler
Friday, 16th October 2015

Scotswood Natural Community Garden in the West End of Newcastle is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. Over the years, the garden has been a place for local people and wildlife to enjoy and learn about sustainable living and the environment. Founder Ed Tyler explains.

I designed the garden back in 1994-5 as my first project after completing a Permaculture Design Course (PDC). For the first five years of the project’s life I was intimately involved in its development. In 2001, I moved away but kept in touch and made the occasional visit to see how things were progressing, and this year I have been invited back as part of the anniversary celebrations.

The project has proved successful in the long term, surviving various funding challenges and today providing a multitude of opportunities for local people in a disadvantaged area of the North East of England. Recently I spoke to project manager, Harriet Menter, about what they were up to, and she mentioned how the project had grown:

“During the past few years we have developed a full programme of visits for children from local schools and youth groups, providing a safe place for local children to meet and spend time in nature. These programmes have continued to grow and morph in response to local need. We recently ran a music project which the local young people requested. We run a Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme offering important opportunities for local young people. We run a programme of Forest Schools and Forest School Training. We work with Surestart providing outdoor parent and toddler sessions.”

I like to think that my initial design was robust and resilient and has continued to work 20 years on. How did I go about designing it in the first place?

Starting From Scratch

After completing my PDC at Middlewood under Rod Everett, I was fired up with enthusiasm and inspiration to set up a permaculture project in Newcastle where I had recently moved. I had lived previously in Wakefield and I had had some experience of urban designing there. I had acquired a couple of allotments and turned my small back garden into keyhole beds.

Setting up a community project was different however. I needed to visit an existing project but in those days there was no LAND network1. Fortunately, I knew Jamie Saunders and he had been working on a project on the outskirts of Bradford called Springfield. I visited Jamie and the project on a number of occasions and this gave me important insights into how I might set up a project in Newcastle.

Jamie worked in the Chief Executive’s office of Bradford City Council. He was – and still is – a passionate permaculturist, and had managed to set up a number of initiatives including BEAT, Bradford Environmental Action Team. 

I learned from this that the council was such a key player in urban regeneration, and had access to so many resources, that I should engage with Newcastle City Council right at the beginning. This led to a successful presentation to the Allotments Sub-Committee in 1994, which in turn had me working with the Allotments officer who came up with three possible sites. One really stood out: the Drift, a wee garden centre operated by the community in Scotswood.

Why did it stand out? As well as being more accessible than the others in terms of public transport, it was the only one to be associated with an existing community project. The garden centre itself was tiny, being on the site of an old ‘drift’ or adit clay (aka ‘inclined tunnel’) mine which was actually sandwiched between two properties on a housing estate! Volunteers had constructed a brick building (which acted as their shop), polytunnels and raised beds onto the existing concrete slab. One got the impression that they were under siege. The shop was regularly broken into and the man in charge, Ronnie, was not in good health and wanting to retire. He loved the project, which provided splendid hanging baskets to local residents and horticultural materials to local schools, but was finding the constant threat of theft a source of great stress.

I worked closely with local ward council officers (including the Greenspace officer) to get to know Ronnie and his team of volunteers, and to help out there. During this time I was able to build links with the staff in the adjacent annex of Newcastle College.

The Drift happened to back onto a substantial area of greenspace. The college annex was in an old Secondary School which had closed a number of years before. It still had reasonably sized grounds, and it was these grounds that the Drift backed onto.

Doing the Design

My idea – worked up in collaboration with the council greenspace officers – was to develop a permaculture garden in the college grounds. This would be physically linked to the Drift by making an entrance in the brick wall that separated the two areas.

I gave a presentation to the college and received a warm reception, so went ahead and did a design. The Greenspace office helped me out with maps that included the position of services. The centre head agreed I could have about an acre of ground, semi-circular in shape, that would allow the entrance to the Drift.

I came up with a mandala-based design which I took from Bill Mollison’s Permaculture: A Designers Manual. Bill had a solar shower in the middle; I opted for a raised bed with a medlar! 

In the Mollison design a path network was surrounded by raised beds. However, the Drift actually lay below the school grounds, so to make the entrance level I opted for a sunken path network instead, which would mean that the ‘raised’ beds were actually at existing soil level.

This meant an important design issue: the walls on either side of the paths needed to be strong, as they would have to support a heavy weight of damp soil.


This is where Newcastle College came in. As it happened, the construction department was based at the annex, and I was able to persuade the lecturer to use my project as part of the bricklayers’ training. So it came about that the whole path network was constructed with brick walls that have been maintenance-free for the past 20 years! 

The Council provided me with chippings topped off with type 1 limestone rock dust and a roller to crush the rock dust to make a durable path surface suitable for wheelchairs.

The mandala design, with radial paths emanating from a central hub, enabled me to connect the garden with both the college and the Drift.

The entrance with the Drift, however, was never to be constructed. I succeeded (in partnership with the council and the Health Service), in finding an organisation to take it on, a local mental health organisation, which allowed Ronnie to retire. Unfortunately, continued theft and the poor state of the building proved to be too much and the garden centre was forced to close down.


The Drift Permaculture Project

On the other side of the wall however, the garden was coming along. We won a British Telecom Partnership Award, which involved taking Ronnie and his fellow volunteers down to London for the awards ceremony. This was a substantial cash award that enabled me to buy apple, pear and plum trees from Rogers Nursery, a North East coast nursery that matched our growing conditions. These formed the basis of the three forest gardens that, to this day, occupy the space between the path ‘spokes’ radiating from the central hub. The trees were well-fed with manure obtained as a result of my growing network: some from police stables, some from racing stables (Ronnie was a bookie and knew several stable owners), some from Byker City Farm.

I got a committee together to run the project. I had become a part-time lecturer at Newcastle College and this enabled me to run gardening courses based at the annex for local people as part of the college’s community education programme. That way I connected with local gardeners, who became the backbone of the committee. Soon we persuaded a local councillor to be the chair, and we called ourselves The Drift Permaculture Project.

It started to grow arms and legs. One of the local gardeners turned out to be a self-taught expert in wildlife conservation. His passion was ponds, and his knowledge of native amphibians and dragonflies was second to none. Together we developed a plan for what came to be called Scotswood Waterways, featuring ponds and wetlands linked by a flowing stream, supplied by rainwater captured from the extensive former secondary school roof. This meant doubling the original area of school grounds originally allocated to us, which in turn meant more presentations to Newcastle College. We were given permission to expand, and ultimately received a major grant to develop the Waterways project, which was featured in PM in an article entitled ‘A Drift down the Tyne’, see PM26.


Scotswood Natural Community Garden

We sat down as a committee and did some deep thinking about the project. Our chair – the local councillor – asked us to consider changing the name. We had joined the National Federation of City Farms and Community Gardens, partly because of our links with the two existing farms in the area: Byker in the east of the city and Gateshead across the river. We agreed that we were, in effect, a community garden and that this should be reflected in our name. Our conservation volunteer was passionate about the wildlife side to our project and we agreed to include the word ‘natural’. We set up a competition with the college graphic design department to come up with a logo. The winner – based around a butterfly – survives to this day, as does the original name. The garden is still the ‘home of the Drift Permaculture Project’.

We started an after-school gardening club run by a local mother. She enthusiastically took up my idea to grow wheat from old varieties. I had a stock of this from my contacts with The Harmonious Wheatsmith, a fascinating early permaculture project to regrow old varieties using clover as a nitrogen-fixing ground cover. We succeeded in growing, harvesting the wheat in the garden and milling it at a Northumberland watermill, all of which gained us a slot on the TV, much to the enjoyment of the children involved.

This helped lead to the building of a wood-fired outdoor bread oven, which has proved to be a fantastic resource for festivals and events, including an Apple Day which we have held each year since 1998.

Also, from the outset, I was fortunate to get the assistance of the local Beekeeping Association, who needed a public demonstration area. They took up residence in one of the four courtyards of the annex, which came to be planted up with bee-attracting plants by the college’s horticultural department. (They had moved to the annex and started running courses there.)


Twenty Years On

Now, 20 years on, we are a registered charity and limited company employing local people to deliver a whole range of opportunities

Inspired permaculturists have started up successful community gardens in the heart of many cities, towns and villages across the UK. We were one of the first.

What advice would I give to aspiring urban community garden designers? Below are my top tips.

Top Tips

- Work together

- Engage with your local government: find support both from local councillors and council officers.

- Build strong and solid links with the local community by supporting local volunteers and engaging with local organisations. Grow locally, slowly and organically.

- Use food growing and cooking as a way to help and involve those currently feeling marginalised in our society e.g. those suffering from poor health (both physical and mental), minority ethnic communities and asylum seekers.

- Develop a strong committed team around a long-term vision which holds the project together and is not determined by any one tranche of grant funding, however big.

- Design for long term success.

- Before doing anything, go on a permaculture design course and visit various existing permaculture projects in the LAND network.

- Look at a number of different potential sites and do a PMI/SWOT analysis. Don’t rush into it. Try and find a site that offers the chance to work with partner organisations such as a school or college.

- Have a mix of formal areas with wheelchair-accessible paths and informal areas with desire lines.

- If space allows, integrate forest garden areas into a mosaic of habitats including spring/summer flowering meadows, water features (ponds, bogs, streams), hedges, shelter belts and focal points for sculptures.

- Keep bees and have an outdoor bread/pizza oven.

- Build in Education and Training.

- Become a LAND centre.

- Hold summer work camps, cookery classes, horticulture sessions, nature clubs etc.

Ed Tyler lives on the south west coast of Scotland, co-creating his local bioregion. He blogs at http://bioregioning.com/

For more information on Scotswood visit http://sncg.org.uk/

1 www.permaculture.org.uk/land