This article was originally written for The Ecologist
Mushrooms in disused railway tunnels and strawberries in drainpipes – perhaps it’s silly but I find food growing in strange places both bizarre and romantic. Agriculture can be so creative. It can involve melons growing on net curtains and rice growing on sidewalks. Introduce an against-the-odds element – like doing it in Tokyo, that seething, steely metropolis – and it’s somehow all the more exciting.
My love of the bizarre and the romantic – and of vegetables – has led to a journey, albeit it an armchair one. I’ve found people growing food in some unlikely places, for fun and from necessity, and on a personal and a commercial scale.
Rowena and Philip Mansfield farm fruit, herbs and fish in Anglesey, Wales. I was drawn to this Welsh couple, who’ve swapped urban life for something very rural, because they’ve been growing strawberries in some drainpipe.
From sections of humble pipe, and employing less humble hydroponics, they’ve harvested 75lbs of berries. They’re dismissive of my delight. “Nothing original about drainpipes” says Philip. “We look at all pipes and see them sprouting food. Just pass water along the tube and let the plant roots touch the liquid – they’ll take up whatever nutrients they need.”
The couple have branched out into aquaponics and now sell rainbow trout and carp to a small but committed circle of customers. Aquaponics is an integrated system that centres round the natural cycle of a fish. Philip explains. “Fish produce ammonia in their normal breathing, the ammonia is converted by bacteria in grow beds to produce nitrates that feed the plants. The returned water has been cleansed ready for the fish to utilise it again.”
“I think we should all be aware of the need to grow food by whatever means. There are thousands of empty buildings that could be used to grow food to feed the local community.” I ask them whether it would be fair to call their way of life idyllic. “Absolutely. The hours are long, the money scarce but there’s no travelling, no crowds on buses or tubes. You learn to live alongside nature and it rewards you generously. We breathe the growing grass.”
From old Wales to New South Wales then, to talk to an Australian microbiologist who has been growing exotic fungi in disused railway tunnels for over twenty years. I send Dr Noel Arrold some questions by email. He isn’t a fan of typing so sends me photographs of his hand written notes in reply. They’re a joy to decipher.
It turns out Australians have been growing mushrooms this way since the 1930s, when old railway tunnels around Sydney Harbour were used to produce them for canning. Faced with a flood of cheap canned mushrooms from Asia, the industry turned towards fresh market production and the tunnels fell out of use. But in 1987 Dr Arrold realised tunnels would be a perfect place to grow exotic fungi.
“Varieties like shitake, oyster, wood ear and enoki grow naturally in the cool, dim and humid forests of Asia. Cultivators had developed ways of growing these mushrooms on sawdust. I discovered it was possible to grow them on Australian eucalyptus sawdust, while the tunnel environment resembled conditions that occur in the forests” explains Dr Arrold.
“Our farm produces around 1,500kg of mushrooms a week, small compared to white button mushroom farms that produce 20 tonnes a week. But ours is a high value crop. Exotic mushrooms are attractive because the production process is chemical free, low energy and uses waste material.”
From Asian exotica in Australia to Tokyo, which I’m surprised to find is full of plant life. Jared Braiterman, from the Tokyo University of Agriculture, reveals my surprise is misplaced. “In Edo Tokyo (from 1603 to 1868), samurai had large vegetable gardens to feed their families and to supplement their incomes” he says. “The idea that food cannot come from the city is relatively recent and inaccurate. Most foreigners think of Tokyo as a vast concrete jungle. Yet it is small-scale gardening that makes Tokyo such a welcoming place to live.”
Jared tells me about a gardener who’s growing a curtain of bitter melons outside his house. “Bitter melon – a prickly green vegetable that tastes great with ground pork – is easily grown on vertical nets. It’s a way to grow food when you don’t have a yard, and a way to shade sunny windows in the heat of the summer.” He also tells me people grow rice on the sidewalk in old Styrofoam containers.
“In the past, city and nature were considered separate spheres. Now a very urbanized world is looking to erase those boundaries. And Tokyo provides lots of great inspiration. I think growing a single cucumber can change how people relate to nature and food. Self-sufficiency is less a goal than raising awareness.”
To Africa next, where self sufficiency is the primary goal. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation has been collaborating with the Senegalese government to start community gardens in Dakar and neighbouring Pikine. The project encourages people to grow food in yards, on roofs and in other vacant places. They say over 4,000 residents have started micro-gardens that produce 30kg of vegetables per square metre every year – enough to feed a family with some leftover to sell. It’s an example of inventive urban agriculture that’s changing lives, pulling families out of poverty and improving access to healthy food.
Back in London, architect Andre Viljoen worries about my interest in the odd when it comes to urban food growing. “My concern about focussing on the quirky is that the whole concept is dismissed as irrelevant or small projects become tokens, effectively greenwash.” I wanted to talk to Andre because of a book of his called Continuous Productive Urban Landscapes, a design concept that proposes the integration of urban agriculture into cities.
“There are several different types of urban agriculture, and these should be distinguished. In the UK it is too often only associated with allotments. At one end of the scale we have small, individual and perhaps quirky growing. At the other end we have large scale commercially viable market gardens and these will be essential if urban agriculture is to have a significant and measurable impact.”
I appreciate Andre’s concern. We need to take large scale urban agriculture projects seriously if cities are to become sustainable, but I still can’t help being charmed when some fellow Londoners tell me about their recent, minor growing exploits. One has turned a sunny parking bay into a vegetable plot, while another has been sprouting seeds on an old mop head. Surely growing can be serious and fun, and surely both things are important.