Part seven of my series for Kitchen Garden about urban agriculture
Let’s begin with the story of the Swillington Garden Growers, who are found five miles from Leeds city centre. Their two acre walled garden is part of the 160 acre Swillington Organic Farm. “My parents came to the farm in 1959, initially renting but over the years we’ve managed to buy it” explains Jo Cartwright.
“The area is a haven for wildlife with woodland, marsh, lakes and grassland. We produce organic chicken, turkey, beef, lamb and eggs, as well as organic vegetables in the walled community garden.”
In 2005, Kirstin Glendinning arrived at the farm as a volunteer. It was her enthusiasm and hard work that got the idea of community supported agriculture (CSA) off the ground here. She organised an initial meeting with existing customers and 100 people turned up. The Swillington Garden Growers CSA scheme is now six years old and, although part of the farm, any profits stay in the garden.
“Looking back it seems amazing that people were willing to pay in advance, knowing that they wouldn’t receive any veg for at least three months” says Jo. “The support we had from these first members got the project underway and we were able to buy seeds, compost and a rotovator, and to appoint a full time grower.”
“On Fridays and Saturdays we harvest the veg, work out the expected total and divide it by the number of shares. Members then weigh out their share into their own bags. Anything they don’t want is put in the ‘gift box’ so someone else can have it.”
There’s a pick-your-own herb bed, and soft fruit is shared out in the same way. “We’ll have a go at growing anything – if members want a particular variety we’ll try it. Last year a member, Diane grew melons for the first time and we got at least one each.”
Also on the outskirts of the city, Bardon Grange was once a manor house and is now a university hall of residence. Here another vegetable garden sits inside old walls. Students often have a bad reputation when it comes to food, but the University of Leeds’ community growing project here proves that some can get very excited about salad.
“There was lots of interest from students but it was clear that they wanted training and support, not just to be let loose with some land” explains Lizzie Fellows, project coordinator. “We run a few formal workshops a year, plus weekly informal gardening sessions, and we have a paid grower who works two days a week.”
“There’s no commitment required – people can just turn up and be as involved as they like. We do offer £5 annual membership, which builds a sense of ownership. Sometimes it’s quite hard to persuade people to take the produce, but we can rely on our regular volunteers both to work and eat!”
The Bardon Grange Project is neither insular nor completely reliant on funding. “The idea is that the project also benefits the wider community and helps with cohesion between students and non-students” says Lizzie.
“We sell plants and run sessions with schools and community groups, which both bring in an income. There’s a compost pile that people can help themselves to, in exchange for a donation. We also sell bags of salad and herbs at the Student Union and in a shop in Headingley, and we sell loose salad to the student refectory.”
“We had some funding from the University to get the project started, and some extra money from the National Union of Students (NUS). And we’re part of the ‘Fresher Freshers’ scheme, which means we get free stuff from Homebase.”
Lizzie believes the project has numerous benefits, not least offering city-based students the opportunity to spend time outdoors and learn about food production. “There are a surprisingly large number who have never planted a seed before. I notice people’s attitudes start to change after they’ve visited a few times. It’s very hard to access locally grown food in Leeds, so what we’re doing may be small but it is important.”
Moving from the edge-lands into the city proper, some people are determined to make food crops part of the Leeds landscape. Chiara Tonaghi is from the Edible Public Spaces project and also works at the University of Leeds, coordinating research into urban agriculture, social cohesion and environmental justice.
“Leeds is quite green, with good access to the natural environment. However, despite its great potential, food growing is still very marginal. Food is mostly grown in allotments, far from the view of passersby” says Chiara.
“Edible Public Space is an informal group of citizens who started to grow food in public space. It’s not guerrilla gardening, nor is it in a hidden place or fenced area. Our Chapeltown growing site is completely accessible, 24/7.”
“As a group, we have different motivations. I’m personally interested in challenging the way public spaces are experienced. I believe people should be able to intervene in their shape and function. I also think that our environment should provide us with the possibility to feed ourselves.”
Public response to the project has ranged from the curious passing comment to those that have looked to this project for inspiration for their own. Chiara is, however, willing to admit that “somehow the challenge of rebuilding a sense of community is still unmet.” But she believes urban agriculture will one day become mainstream – it’s just “a matter of exposing its beauty.”
Permaculture practitioner Niels Corfield has noticed urban growing is on the increase in Leeds. “When I moved here five years ago and set up a demonstration community allotment, the rest of the site was derelict. There’s now a waiting list for plots. And recently I went to a council meeting about a new ‘Feed Leeds’ project. It’s still quite loose as an idea but they’ve pledged to make land available for community growing.”
“Change in Leeds is slow and incremental, but when I moved here the thought of the council sitting down and offering land was laughable, so that’s a big shift. There are a lot more active groups in Leeds now – it’s not a critical mass but there’s definitely an up-swelling of interest and action.”
For Niels, urban growing is a career. He’s been running Edible Cities for four years and has even turned his garden into a nursery, complete with polytunnel. “It’s possible to make a living as an urban grower, but the main livelihood often comes from running training sessions” he explains.
“I do edible landscaping design, usually for community groups. My most recent project is at Cross-Flatts Park, where we’ve installed community edible planting in a public green space. I also sell plants to organisations like Groundworks and BTCV. I might work with them on a school allotment and suggest good plant varieties, like early fruiting red currant ‘Junifer’ and Elaeagnus multiflora, which is a compact, nitrogen fixing, fruiting shrub.”
“I’m interested in climate change and peak oil, so my work is about eliminating food miles and emissions” says Niels. “It’s also about soil building and small scale carbon sequestration, and learning land management skills. I see urban growing as activism.”
Let’s finish where we started, just outside the city – this time in Pudsey, a village squashed between Leeds and Bradford. It’s home to PuLSE – a project that falls under the umbrella of the Leeds Permaculture Network, and which locals Suzi and Hannah are on hand to explain.
“PuLSE is a small group of friends who work together to improve the resilience of our town. We’ve started with our own spaces and are working outwards. We subscribe to the idea of using small and slow solutions – starting at home is important” says Suzi.
“Once we had our home systems settled in, we developed community projects – one on an allotment site, the other in a neighbours’ garden. When local people visibly start living more ecologically minded lives, and have fun doing it, other people can see what’s happening, ask questions and get involved.”
Current PuLSE projects include edible hedgerow planting, a community food buying group, monthly talks on topics ranging from mushroom growing to seed saving, and the design and build of a forest garden. “Things like climate change sometimes seem too big to tackle, but it’s the choices we each make that influence how society works” says Hannah. “If we have a stronger sense of community by working at a micro level, it will be easier to make big changes in the future.”