Braehead

I just found out that a garden I designed has been shortlisted for a national award, so I thought I’d tell you a bit more about it.

Braehead is a suburb of Stirling a few miles from my house. The local Community Council was hoping to build a large community garden there and I was recommended to them as a designer. This is what I saw when I first visited the site in late 2011 –  a large area of rough ground surrounded by a railway line, council houses, football pitch and a fibreglass factory. Beloved by dog walkers but not very inspiring to the majority.

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A local consultancy team was brought in to help survey residents and apply for funding. Together we spent the next three years asking people what they wanted out of the garden and filling in endless paperwork: multiple grant applications, a business plan, the land lease, planning consent, building warrant, road permits and utility connections. Plus a mandatory archaeological dig, since the site is within the Battle of Bannockburn boundary. Fortunately for us, nothing of any interest was found besides deep, soggy clay – which came back to haunt us later.

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This is the final plan: the design seeks to address the community’s requirements for a growing space plus a social hub where people can easily meet new neighbours.

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Finally, a big grant came through and we were able to hire a Quantity Surveyor and Contractor to carry out the build. Work started on site at the beginning of February 2015. The main entrance road went in quickly, followed by the raised bed area. Lots of Type 1 hardcore over Terram geotextile. Excess topsoil was used to form ‘Teletubby’ hills around the growing space to be planted with trees and wildflowers. The hills also help screen the garden from neighbouring houses and the wind that blows across the surrounding flat land.

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A problem we quickly unearthed was a network of old land drains from the surrounding area, all feeding into the garden. This, combined with a very wet spring and no end to thick clay, gave us some drainage issues. We had some emergency site meetings, agreed to change some of the levels and put in a few modern drainage channels. It was good to be able to tackle the worst of it at an early stage even though this ate into the budget and the site still experiences some puddling after heavy rains. I’m very interested to observe how much the new planting and trees will soak up water as they grow. The field had only one tree before we started – a small oak. I was keen to save it and had it moved to near the front gate.

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March brought snow and the first site visit by an excited Community Council. Work also started on the 100 raised beds. Environmental Health had told us to assume the ground was contaminated or pay thousands of pounds for soil tests. My design solution was generously sized raised beds – one large and one small (especially for kids), joined by a bench. Talking to people from other community gardens had encouraged me to try to avoid the raised bed graveyard look and foster social interaction wherever possible. This directly influenced the large bench seats and arranging the beds in interesting groupings.

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It was so exciting to count more and more raised beds each week, lined then filled with a mix of imported topsoil and mushroom compost. Most exciting of all (to me) was to see the lovely fence and gates go up. This meant I could stop explaining to people why I’d specified a black fence (less visibly noticeable) instead of green.

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By April the main Contractor was finishing up, three shipping containers were on site to be used as a small office, tool shed and future workshop space, the petanque court was marked out (and moved several times), and the paths all in. The last bit of the budget went on the car park, required by the Council, though we managed to negotiate the number of spaces down by half based on the logic that most garden users would be walking or cycling there. The car park (reinforced gravel grid) and all paths (whindust) were designed to be wheelchair accessible. It was important that the garden felt welcoming to all instead of designating a specific area for wheelchair users.

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On April weekends we had access to the garden for community work days and other contractors to come in. There were a lot of outstanding tasks not covered by the grant and we had tons of help from many different groups. The Council’s Community Payback team filled the sunken Nectar Beds (designed to attract pollinating insects) with free Council compost, fellow designers from SGD Scotland then planted them up with grasses and perennials they had donated…

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Cemex employees installed guttering on the shipping containers for our IBC rainwater harvesting system, a local wood upcycling project built compost bins, the first of our two First Tunnel polytunnels went up very impressively…

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On the Verge helped us sow wildflowers and we planted native hedges donated by the Woodland Trust.

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After a few months of sowing seeds and planting things, the garden now looks like this. The Nectar Beds are filling in nicely, the wildflowers are blooming. The garden faces south and gets the light all day when the sun appears. The trains entertain us on the railway line. Seventy out of 100 raised beds are already taken, including one by me. We’ve had community picnics and hosted regional events. And, most importantly, we’ve all had bumper harvests – my sleepless nights designing this garden have all been worth it.

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