The Leeds garden which is good for mind, body and soil

Next week is National Gardening Week. Mark Johnson visits an innovative project in Leeds that is far more than just a garden

“You don’t grow plants, you grow the soil. You build the soil, and as a bonus you get good plants,” says Ben Lawson as he bends down to pull up some edible greens. In front of him is a large, curious green space. It’s clearly not wild growth, but nor does it have the ordered rows you’d expect to see in a commercial growing space or allotment. Behind him is Woodhouse, one of the most built-up parts of Leeds.

Bedford Fields is a surprising space – a community forest garden, serving as a demonstration space for permaculture design principles. It’s also a place where the public can come, if they know about it, to learn, harvest and occasionally sit around a fire with a cup of tea.

Forest gardening is so little known about that such demo plots are needed to model how it works, but it’s an idea that’s gaining traction. In a nutshell, it’s a technique that emulates woodland growth but everything has been planted to produce an edible harvest and/or contribute something to the ecosystem. If you visit Bedford Fields you’ll see a host of plants that you might recognise – pear trees, wild strawberries, wild garlic – and plenty that you probably won’t, all planted in a pattern that doesn’t appear regimented but, on closer examination, has an underlying order.

“It’s a very particular, designed space to fulfil human needs,” says Ben. He points to a white-leaved tree at one end of the garden. “This is a blue bean tree. It comes from south-east Asia and it produces edible blue beans. They look totally bizarre and taste like melon, but it’s a perfect example of forest gardening.

“It puts nitrogen into the ground, it provides food, it looks beautiful. If you saw it in a Royal Horticultural Society book it would be there for its aesthetic purposes, but if you took the time to breed them they would be very productive.”

Bedford Fields is tended by a team of volunteers and it hosts or contributes to a range of community activities, including meditation and sessions for Outdoors, Active and Well, an initiative run by Hyde Park Source in partnership with Leeds Mind and The Conservation Volunteers at Hollybush. The council owns the land, but the garden is run and stewarded by its committee, with Ben acting as a coordinator and manager.

Ben’s role isn’t an accident. He’s an authority on forest gardening, giving talks and working with permaculture courses in the garden to unpack some of his knowledge.

Bedford Fields occupies a two acre plot not far from Woodhouse Ridge and the emphasis among those involved with the project is on the ‘community’ part first and ‘garden’ part second, although that comes with its own set of challenges.

The collaboration with Outdoors, Active and Well is an example of the people side being done well. Project worker Marianna Riddle. says: “While it’s designed to help increase access to peer support groups for mental health, in practice people from all walks of life join the garden – with or without a history of poor mental health – and benefit from it in many ways – whether or not they choose to engage with the Leeds Mind opportunities offered through the project.”

The scheme creates structure and, where it’s relevant, an opportunity for people to discuss mental health issues in an informal space with an opportunity to move on to a more formal setting if and when they see fit. With an increasing body of research pointing towards a connection between interacting with nature and improved mental (and general) health, Bedford Fields provides an ideal environment for the project.

“Putting your hands in the soil reduces your blood pressure, apparently,” says Marianna. “And green is a colour that’s supposed to release hormones and make you feel relaxed. I think more than anything you have to get out of your house to come here, though, and that’s the first step for a lot of people. And then being outside here, in particular, is really nice. The birdsong’s really amazing here, probably because it’s on the edge of Woodhouse Ridge. I think that’s really special.”

Felix, an MA student from Malawi, has been coming Bedford Fields to escape the pressures of university. “It takes me away from my studies,” he says. “I really like doing something that’s more physical, which I find here in the soil, being exposed to different ways of doing things. I find a space to talk to people, to hear their stories and also share my stories.”

Similarly Ben, for all his permaculture and botanical background, comes back to the garden’s community aspect when he talks about the space’s importance. “It’s always the people. Being here, and working with other people, sharing it with them. The garden definitely gives some more general benefits that you can’t measure, like a sense of identity, a sense of belonging, wanting to make a place that you live in beautiful, that’s really important to me.”

For Ben, the soil at Bedford Fields yields more than just plants. “I feel like I have a project that I can really grow from, and I know a lot of the other people involved feel the same way too.

“One of the volunteers came here fresh from heavily using mental health services and now he’s part of the committee. He stays, makes decisions about the garden and seems to be a different person from when I first knew him. Being able to love the place that you work, and enjoy the people who you’re around... for most people it’s that.”

National Gardening Week runs from April 30-May 6.