As Bath Organic Group turns 25, LISBETH BURICH catches five with volunteer and local food hero Simi Rezai to discover the appeal of this green-fingered community (spoiler alert: involves pagan rituals and a hefty amount of pizza…)
As you take in the neat rows of allotments, the calm waters in the pond and the lazy humming of bees, it’s hard to believe you’re just minutes away from Bath’s bustling high street. And yet, this is where gardening-gloved locals have gathered regularly since 1991.
Fast forward 25 years, and Bath Organic Group (BOG) is in no way ready to throw in the trowel; in fact it currently boasts 120 volunteers and has recently added features such as an earth oven and a pond to its garden. How on earth (ahem) has this community project kept going for almost three decades?
“First and foremost it’s hard work and dedication. Not because volunteers have to, but because they want to,” says BOG volunteer and founder of cookery school Simi’s Kitchen, Simi Rezai. “Also, it is as much a social organisation as it is a gardening project.”
Simi, who runs Persian cookery classes in Bath, has been volunteering with BOG since 2009. Living in a flat with no garden, she found BOG to be a unique opportunity to grow her own food. But, just as importantly, it was also a chance to meet people in the local community.
“I’ve moved a lot in my life and when I arrive in a new city one of the first things I do is visit the volunteer centre and local library. I’ve made some great friends through volunteering and it’s enabled me to get involved in the community,” she says.
BOG volunteers don’t just pull weeds, you know; in fact, they throw a decent party. In January there was a wassail – an ancient West Country ritual (involving singing, apple brandy and, ahem, chucking toast on trees…) performed in order to to wake apple and pear trees from their winter slumber and ensure a good harvest. Come September, the power of wassailing will be felt when apples are harvested and juiced for members to enjoy. Oh, and did we mention the pizza parties? The doughy delights are baked in a community-built earth oven, and adorned with toppings grown in the garden. There’s a recipe for a good night out, if we ever heard one.
If you thought organic growers were all tie-dye-clad hippies, then think again. The volunteers at BOG are a colourful bunch of passionate individuals, including an ex-Guardian journalist and the manager of Eco-Logic Books.
“Geoff is an ex-Guardian journalist and all round good egg,” Simi confides. “He gardens, writes, takes photos and keeps us all informed through our excellent online newsletters and gives me courgette plants every year.
And then there is my local food hero, Dan Smith. Dan is the kind of gardener I wish I were, but don’t have the energy or capability to be! The year we made our earth oven he grew wheat in BOG, and at our harvest party he ground it by hand to make dough, before baking the bread in the oven. Everyone looks forward to his homemade beverages – except maybe the sprout wine! His sorbets and ice creams don’t get a chance to melt at BOG parties.”
The garden is open to the public Tuesdays and Saturdays, with a tea break at 11am to catch up with fellow volunteers and eat homemade cake. Individual volunteers come weekly, monthly, or just to the seasonal events.
May is a busy time of year for allotment volunteers, the mild weather allowing crop to grow speedily and in abundance. Simi has more than 20 varieties of fruit and veg going on her allotment at the moment, including sweetcorn, melons and agretti (a leafy green, native to Italy). Half the yield from the garden goes on sale at Bath farmer’s market, where BOG has a stall on the first Saturday of each month from April to December.
With a veritable food factory on her hands, Simi has difficulty picking out (so to speak) one crop that she most looks forward to harvesting.
“I’m quite greedy so I look forward to it all! But the edible flowers, agretti, cucumbers, tomatoes and herbs are a real treat,” she says. “I also love preserving. I was late to cooking and only started gardening six years ago, so I have to pinch myself when I see shelves of pickle, chutney, jam and sauces which I’ve grown and made.”
In case you hadn’t gathered already, the BOG volunteers are an adventurous lot. In fact, they’ve ventured where only few British growers have – and with success, we might add – in cultivating the tricky South American grain and sought-after superfood, quinoa. Their three-square-meter plot has yielded plenty for all interested volunteers, Simi informs us. Home grown quinoa? Just another perk of being part of the Bath Organic gang.
Growing organically does not come without the odd curveball, however. Looking back on her six years of trial-and-error, Simi reckons patience is the most valuable lesson learned.
“We grow organically, so we are custodians of the soil. As such, we share the space with lots of critters, some more helpful to our cause than others – yes, I’m talking about the dreaded slugs and snails! So I have to be patient when waiting for seedlings to sprout, and about the attentions of squirrels, badgers and slugs.”
But the challenges pay off when the reward is zero miles and zero chemicals, and an all-natural and flavourful result.
“So much food comes into contact with chemicals and plastic on its way to us. So it’s nice to be able to pick some kale, put it in my bag, cycle home and make a meal,” says Simi. “My mum is keeping tally of the time from plot to plate and sometimes teases me if I’m lazy and have left it for a couple of days.”
So, does this green-fingered guru have any tips for budding gardeners?
“Geoff says if you don’t have dirt under your fingernails from February till October, you either aren’t doing enough for your garden or you have found gardening gloves that really work!”
Want to join the club? Visit BOG in the Lower Common West allotments, next door to the Victoria Park playground and opposite The Hop Pole pub, on Tuesdays and Saturdays from 10.30am-1pm. Membership £10 per year. To find out more about Simi and her Persian cookery classes, click here.