This article was originally written for Wild London magazine, spring 2010.
“London will never be close to self sufficient but we could grow a lot more. If you grow a bit it changes your eating habits, breeds a new respect for food and reduces waste. A shocking 33% of London’s food is thrown away at the moment. Growing can be very creative. I love serving up my own produce, it simply makes meal times better.”
So says journalist and feminist Rosie Boycott, a woman on a mission to fill London with kitchen gardens, in all manner of shapes and sizes and maintained by all kinds of people. She’s leading London Food Link’s Capital Growth project, which has the ambitious aim of creating 2012 new community growing spaces across our city by the time the Olympics and Paralympics arrive. Launched by Rosie and Boris Johnson in 2008, there are about 200 plots up and running so far, from gardens in skips by King’s Cross station to community allotments on housing estates in Tower Hamlets.
Rosie says it doesn’t matter if some of these growing spaces are temporary, planted in huge builders’ bags rather than beds. In fact, by not demanding long term commitment, more people feel they can get involved. “It’s the ultimate in portable gardening, bags and skips are temporary but also moveable. It feels manageable and that’s important psychologically for both landowners and growers.”
Short, rolling leases are favoured by landowners, although working out leases can be slow going. Rosie says one of the main jobs so far has been developing relationships with big landowning groups in order to get access to derelict and disused land.
She begins to talk about one favourite community garden where 55 tiny triangular plots had a very productive growing season. “It’s surprising how productive a small place can be. Huge allotments can be a daunting prospect if you’re busy.”
“Capital Growth is about groups rather than individuals, it’s about sharing work and responsibility and it’s about binding people together, creating social cohesion in fragmented places. Gardens make people more confident and healthier. It’s about teaching kids where food comes from, it’s about tackling obesity, it’s about climate change. It’s also about having fun and getting your hands dirty.”
She reels off a list of depressing facts and figures, ones we’re all familiar with. There are general feelings of disconnection and a lack of community throughout the capital. 80% of our food comes from supermarkets. Obesity and diabetes are on the rise. One calorie of food can use up to ten calories of oil to produce. While some people start to become concerned about the water footprint of what they eat, 43% of kids apparently think muesli grows on trees.
But all this doom and gloom can be remedied, and Rosie believes Capital Growth has an important role to play in tackling social and environmental issues in London. She quotes National Farmers’ Union evidence that found 93% of children who grew food at school took their new thinking home, where they encouraged their parents to swap ready meals for fresh vegetables.
What does Rosie think about some urban conservationists’ fears that all this food growing means biodiversity concerns are neglected? “We don’t want to lose biodiversity but you can have a biodiverse allotment. Both food growing and biodiversity are important, they’re not mutually exclusive.”
The writer and grow your own enthusiast doesn’t actually tend any urban crops herself. She has taken her love of the home grown one step further and has a farm in Somerset. She’s been a part time farmer for about eight years, sharing the work and the rewards with friends and family. Over winter they’ve been feasting on brassicas, leeks, sprouts and herbs, and come spring they’ll be doing loads of planting. She admits that March is a low point in the grow your own calendar – “you’ve eaten all your winter crops and it’s too early to harvest any spring ones.”
Rosie’s favourites are starchy vegetables like spuds, peas and broad beans. “They taste amazing fresh.” She recommends first time urban growers try carrots and mixed salads this year, plus some basil and coriander too. Leaves are easy to grow, anywhere, and their intense flavours can transform a meal.
In her London garden she tends to focus more on flowers and keeps her food fire aglow by visiting city farms and the herb garden on top of the Hilton in Trafalgar Square. The roof garden is full of potent smelling herbs and anyone can visit, you don’t need to be a hotel guest. “It’s a lovely and smelly place for a drink.” Her favourite walk is along the Regent’s Canal, especially at this time of year when the waterway is swimming with ducklings.
Find out more about Capital Growth on the project’s website: www.capitalgrowth.org
ABOUT ROSIE BOYCOTT
Rosie is a journalist and broadcaster, who made her name in the 1970s as the co-founder of the feminist magazine Spare Rib and the publishing house Virago Press. She’s edited the Independent, the Independent on Sunday, the Daily Express and Esquire magazine, and presented programmes on BBC radio and television. In 2008 she was appointed as the chairman of London Food by the Mayor of London and she’s a columnist and regular contributor to the Evening Standard, writing mainly about food.