Purple Patch: An ode to farming in the city

Ordering a local veg box is an easy-win Buying Better action – and what about buying veg that’s grown right in the heart of Bristol? In 2014 Mary Conway and her partner Jona founded Purple Patch, a small-holding between St Werburghs and Lockleaze. In this blog post, Mary writes about the joys of urban growing and nature-friendly farming.

Wednesday morning at Purple Patch is harvest time and is the most wonderful time of the week. This week we picked salad leaves, sweetcorn, leeks, beetroot, onions, squash and rainbow chard for our veg boxes

            As we carry crates of brightly coloured, impressive-sized vegetables out of the field, it’s easy to forget the toil of growing them. Memories of planning rotations and sowing dates, propagation, nurturing green manures, adding compost to our no-dig beds, weeding and watering are now superseded by the pure joy of abundance. 

            And every now and again, the vegetables give us wonderful surprises. Carrots in the shape of entwined lovers, or kernels of sweetcorn that have erupted into ‘Mexican Truffles’-a spectacular parasitic fungus, which is a delicacy. These surprises remind us that despite feeling in control of the garden when we grow our domesticated plants in neat rows, we are still very much working with nature, unpredictable and awesome, diverse, beautiful, and incredibly generous. I feel so honoured to be a part of this system, this dance, to bare witness to the abundance and beauty of nature and share her fruits.

            Purple Patch sprouted in 2014 after its seed landed in the fertile valley of Boiling Wells Lane. Wedged between St Werburghs and Lockleaze, hemmed in by train tracks, houses and games fields, lies a forgotten green oasis, left behind by the modernisations of the city all around. Wildlife abounds, from owls to foxes, emperor dragonflies to bats. Our wildlife pond has brought in countless invertebrates, newts and frogs, which have now become firm residents in our polytunnel, feasting on slugs. 

            Prior to setting up Purple Patch I gained most of my experience WWOOFing on permaculture projects around the world, and completed a Permaculture Design Certificate (PDC). My love of food and plants led me to vegetable growing, along with a desire to create a sustainable livelihood. Volunteering weekly on a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) project in Norwich gave me the confidence to set up my own project.

            On the same smallholding we also look after a small herd of Dexter cattle and rare-breed pigs. We subsidise the animals’ grazing with locally produced hay, waste fruit and veg, and grain from local shops and breweries, with the intention of moving away from bought-in animal feed altogether. 

            Now Purple Patch runs an internship programme, giving new entrants hands-on experience of growing, plus loads of veggies in return for a few hours’ work on the farm each week. As well as our mission to produce loads of high-quality food, we also set out to empower, inspire and skill-up others to start growing food – either in their own gardens or allotments, or to set up more projects around the city. It’s amazing what can be produced from a small area (on just a half-acre under cultivation, we are currently supplying up to 30 veg boxes a week). Growing our own food is a key activity in making an impact in sustainability and regeneration, both city-wide and on a personal scale. Exciting plans are underway here to transform an old farrowing shed into a classroom and community space with a kitchen, which will be a food-growing educational hub. We will soon be launching a crowdfunding campaign for this, so watch this space!

Mary Conway (and her partner Jona) are the founders of Purple Patch. They live in a converted shed on the site and sell veg boxes, bagged salad and meat.

Do you want to buy better to improve food in Bristol for good? One action to do this could be getting a Purple Patch veg box. You can find more ideas for getting involved in urban growing here. Or if you are involved in a Bristol organisation or business and wish to support local agriculture, one of your Going for Gold actions could be helping to improve the access that your staff have to local food and food retailers. Read about another Community Supported Agriculture project in Bristol, Sims Hill.

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