Category: activism

Gardens Illustrated | nature’s palette

Katelyn Toth Fejel (c) Rachel Warne 01

This feature appears in the June issue of Gardens Illustrated
Photography by Rachel Warne

Dyer and designer Katelyn Toth Fejel hails from America but currently lives in Hackney Wick. As well as acres of urban grit, this part of east London also has a river, the Lee, and a modest tangle of woodland called Wick Woods. In the summer it’s tempting to get a little bit lost in its lushness. Sadly, I meet Katelyn on a day that’s less than perfect.

How many people in the fashion industry aren’t a little bit allergic to rain? Katelyn has excellent couture credentials but constantly craves the outdoors. Persistent drizzle, and the subsequent waterproofs it requires, doesn’t put her off. A walk in Wick Woods with Katelyn, her local dye foraging spot, involves getting down on your hands on knees to peer at things in intimate close up, whatever the weather.

Inspired by permaculture, Katelyn is part of the Permacouture Institute, works for the London College of Fashion’s Centre for Sustainable Fashion and helps run an ethical boutique called Here Today, Here Tomorrow. She’s a nature lover and environmentalist as much as she is a designer, and these passions inform and shape her work. “I approach fashion as if it were an ecology, an ecosystem.”

She began experimenting with mail order natural dyes at art school and hasn’t looked back, quickly graduating to ones she makes herself. “I love the diversity of the experience when you pick the dye yourself. With powders you get the same result each time.” She talks of the beauty of creating a dye palette that reflects her local environment, suggesting the blur of colour you might see through a car or train window is likely a similar spread of shades you would get from dye plants sourced in that area.

Katelyn champions species that are abundant but others may see as a nuisance. “I love plants that do many things like nettle – it can be used to make soup or tea, as a fabric and a dye.” A favourite last summer was a container of cut-and-come-again pot marigolds – the flowers are delicious in salads and can also be used as a dye. She has a huge bag of frozen petals in her freezer, ready for brewing into a dye bath when the right project comes along.

Making natural dyes from plants is a lot like cooking – there’s no one way to do it. Bark likes to be cooked long and hot, whereas something light and leafy needs much gentler treatment. To turn the concoction from colourful stew into dye you may need to add a mordant like alum, which helps fix the dye to the fabric. It’s gentle enough that leftover dye can be used to water acid loving plants like blueberry or rhododendron.

Katelyn’s experiments with plants have produced hues of ombre, chestnut, rust, gold, mustard, terracotta, pink, mink and cream. The colours compliment each other and have unusual depths. “Natural dyes, like a Seurat painting, change in different lights,” she says. “They shimmer. It’s almost like an optical illusion. They have a richness and depth that synthetic colours lack.”

Katelyn Toth Fejel (c) Rachel Warne 02

For Katelyn, dock root is “an unusual blessing”. It may need to be boiled for several hours to release the dye, but the resulting rusty pinks, shimmering golds and autumnal oranges are worth it. In a world dominated by yellows, natural dyers come to prize the reds. Dock works beautifully on silk or wool, and you can achieve many more shades by adding acid or alkali to the dye. A dash of baking soda will bring out a warm terracotta. Dock leaves can be used too – young foliage produces a bright green-yellow, older leaves create more of a mustard.

As someone who loves a challenge and embraces the opportunity to experiment, cherry is a favourite of Katelyn. “It’s such a mystery, still. If I had any tree it would be this.” While some people hate the inconsistency of natural dying, she relishes the unknown. The bark from young, fallen branches can produce a dye that ranges from pinks and oranges to greens and golds. The colour achieved depends on the variety of tree and the environmental conditions where it is found, not to mention the fabric you are dying – wool and silk will turn different colours when dipped in the same dye bath.

The inner bark of the birch tree produces a pretty pink, while the outer bark achieves a paler, subtler shade. The leaves create yellow or olive green. Add iron to the dye bath – Katelyn nurtures rusty nails in jars of water especially for the task – to produce a creamy, purplish grey. A range of special effects are possible with natural dyes and specific techniques can be used to create unusual patterns. For example, Itajime – Japanese wood block clamping – leaves behind un-dyed shapes with haloes around the edge. You can use natural dyes to colour yarn and for screen-printing projects too.

The bark, leaves and berries of the elder tree can all be used as dyes. The bark creates a delicate metallic colour like the palest pink of the inside of a shell, while the leaves produce tans, greens and golds. The berries can be used to create a fugitive purple stain, which changes over time and eventually washes out. Katelyn welcomes the impermanence – “embrace unpredictably and accept change – dye a dress afresh every season.” Her foraging also embraces the edible and she advises you eat some elder berries too. The ideal plant will colour your cloth and make a meal.

Guardian | the woollen line

woollen line from above_credit

This article was written for the Guardian

It has Prince Charles as its patron and a recent show at Somerset House celebrated its sense of style, but could wool have a future as a conservation textile too? Over the last three years, a band of artists and volunteers have been installing healing plasters of wool on the side of a Welsh mountain in a bid to control landscape erosion and protect a valuable swathe of peat.

Back in 1976 a fire on the side of Pen Trumau in the Black Mountains left a 70,000 metre square scar burned into the hillside. A huge section of peat was exposed and has been eroding ever since. It’s estimated that 6,125 tonnes of carbon have escaped so far. Over 30 years later, artist Pip Woolf first witnessed Pen Trumau’s “black hole” on Google Earth. She was shocked by its extent but inspired by its potential to be transformed.

“There’s a black space,” thought Woolf, “if we covered it in wool it would turn white, and the long term picture would be that it would turn green.” The reality was it would take an awful lot of wool to cover, so her original idea for an absorbent woollen patch turned into ‘The Woollen Line’, an artistic experiment that’s slowly attempting to heal the mountain’s great wound, stitch by stitch.

A bold white streak

Together with some volunteers and a bale of washed wool from the Wool Marketing Board, Woolf spent the cold February of 2010 making felt by hand. Heather seeds were embedded into the fabric. The felt was pegged onto Pen Trumau, leaving a bold white streak on the dark landscape. It’s now faded enough to miss on foot but is still very visible viewed from above – the area’s gliders have taken the most dramatic pictures.

So why put all that wool up there? “The whole reason the site won’t vegetate is because it’s completely mobile,” explains Woolf. “If it’s wet, the peat is washing off, if it’s dry it’s blowing off. Once peat loses its vegetative cover it oxidises and releases carbon in all sorts of ways. You’re losing carbon storage, water storage and grazing land.”

The hope is that the wool will slow things down, making the site more hospitable to plant life and less vulnerable to erosion. Ask Woolf if the experiment is working though and you’ll get short shrift. “The whole reason peat forms on the top of Welsh mountains is that it’s cold and wet, and everything happens very slowly up there,” she says. “Demanding a green result that quickly is foolish, it’s bad science.”

Sausages to save an SSSI

The project has evolved since the first Woollen Line was laid. Hand making felt was time consuming and none of the heather germinated. So the focus has moved onto wool ‘sausages’, first to pack erosion channels and more recently laid in a line along the top edge of the scar. Woolf now pays farmers to stuff nets with wool they can’t use for anything else. “It’s wool that’s absolutely worthless to the farmer but not worthless to this,” she explains. “They get a rid of their rubbish wool, I get my sausages – it’s brilliant.”

The Pen Trumau mountainside is an SSSI, so throughout Woolf has had to convince ecologists to support her experiments. “Nobody’s done anything on this site for 35 years, but as soon as the ecologist touched one of the wool sausages everything changed,” she explains. “The wool is the language people understand.”

Encouraging new growth is the project’s ultimate aim and where the heather failed, grass is proving more successful. Last year volunteers collected seed and cuttings from cotton-grass and wavy hair-grass and propagated them. Out of 600 plugs planted along the Woollen Line last year, 300 plants are now growing well.

Land art on a mountainous scale

As well as a piece of community conservation work, the line is land art that’s leaving a lasting impression. “It’s almost like leaving a dirty great footprint,” admits Woolf.  “I remember coming down early on and thinking I can’t take this back. I do struggle with plonk-it art in the landscape and would hate for it to be a Pip Woolf mark on the hill… but I have to stay there until I can find a really positive way for it to have its own life.”

The project continues and this spring the plan is to create a wool spiral on part of the scar that is yet to be touched. And until the end of the month, an artistic exploration of Woolf and her 750 volunteers’ labours so far is on show in a cold but atmospheric barn in Crickhowell.

Urban Agriculture | Part Eight | Manchester

Part eight of my series for Kitchen Garden about urban agriculture

“There’s a huge amount of food growing going on in Manchester, and demand for allotments is high.  It’s a good way to make communities more resilient, especially at times of high unemployment” says Chris Walsh from the Kindling Trust.

Kindling is the organisation behind various projects designed to ensure the city’s food supply becomes more sustainable.  Urban growing may be increasingly popular, but it would be foolish to assume every urbanite has green fingers, or that all growers have the same goals.

“There’s a new generation of gardeners – they tend to be graduates and public sector workers – who are joining an older generation of allotment holders who continue to grow in the city.  But there’s a gap – lots of people don’t see growing as something they want to do” says Chris.

The Land Army

“It feels like there are two food movements – one focussed on community and health projects, one on organics and environmental issues”, he continues.  “There’s a funny separation between the two and the Greater Manchester Land Army is about trying to bridge that perceived gap.  We’re also creating solidarity between deprived rural and urban communities.”

2011 was the Land Army’s pilot year.  They bus groups of volunteers from Manchester out to farms in Cheshire where they can learn about commercial food production.  Volunteers do everything from weeding leeks to planting garlic and harvesting potatoes. Chris describes them as “a group of people who want to increase food production in the city.  We’re still learning and there’s no guarantee that what we’re doing will work, but there’s a real buzz about it.”

The idea is to provide training and encourage people to think about perhaps becoming commercial food growers themselves.  “Urban growing as a career is in its early stages – it’s still hard work, poorly paid and under-appreciated.  But that is changing.  I think there’ll be 40 to 50 part time growers on the scene in Manchester within the next four to five years” he predicts.

Feeding Manchester

The Land Army was born out of Feeding Manchester – a loose network of groups that bond over food.  “Food is complicated – you can’t focus on issues in isolation.  We’re taking a holistic approach, sharing and swapping ideas, and working out how we can influence policy.  Food is about relationships, trust and getting to know people” says Chris.

Out west is the Unicorn Grocery’s land project, part of the Feeding Manchester network.  They have 21 organic acres in an area of peat land that once was full of salad and vegetable crops. Stuart Jones works in both Unicorn’s shop in the city and at the farm in Glazebury.

“Our soil is great for growing vegetables. We have a six year rotation in place including two years fertility building with red clover, white clover and chicory, followed by brassicas, beets, alliums, umbellifers and lettuce.  We also have a rotation for overwintering green manures like rye and crimson clover, to keep the soil covered between cropping” says Stuart.

“We’re passionate about producing food in a more sustainable way to feed the city. That means working with nature rather than against it, feeding the soil with good compost, boosting organic matter levels and creating healthy, biologically active soil. There’s plenty of good growing land that could be providing Manchester with veg, but at the moment most comes from Lincolnshire or even Spain.”

Not wanting to step on anyone’s toes and keen to pool knowledge, Unicorn is part of Manchester Veg People – a cooperative with buyer and grower members.  “We meet buyers when we are planning our crops and they let us know the quantities they want” explains Stuart.

“The growers work out their production costs and then set the prices. We get a fair price and the buyers know they’re supporting a more sustainable way of doing business, sourcing food grown no more than 20 miles from Manchester Town Hall.”

Growing to eat

“Everyone eats. We’re all united by food” says Amanda Woodvine from Didsbury Dinners, a group based between Manchester and Stockport.  “An easy, but often overlooked way of reducing our carbon footprints is considering the food on our plates.  We want to make it easy for people so we published a ‘low-carbon’ community cookbook last year.”

As well as sharing recipes, Didsbury Dinners also grow food in various spots around town.  Planting projects include 40 fruit trees on land at the back of local rugby pitches and a landshare-style plot, where four growers share a privately owned garden rent free. A local estate agent has even given them access to space behind a rented property where they’ve planted soft fruit, herbs, salad leaves, various beans and peas.

Growing often leads to a desire to learn how to cook with homegrown produce, as well as an increased understanding of food related issues.  But urban agriculture isn’t just good for the environment – it’s good for people too.  Working the land improves physical and mental wellbeing.

Bite – a partnership project between Mind and the Manchester Mental Health and Social Care Trust – runs five cafes and nine growing projects across the city, as well as an affordable veg bag scheme.  Their growing land ranges from allotments to daycentre grounds.

“Food poverty is a problem here and people might not have the skills or confidence to cook the produce we grow, which is why we also have cafes where people can learn” explains Rowena Pyott from Bite.

“Our project is also part of Fairshare, which is about using up food waste from supermarkets.  So we’re addressing wider issues too, and teaching people about things like food provenance.  We’re bringing the sustainable food message to deprived communities who aren’t usually exposed to it.”

Inner City Forest Gardening

A unique project just outside Manchester city centre has seen part of a public park transformed into a forest garden, with a delicious plethora of edibles including walnut, apple, pear, cherry, plum, damson, gage, nectarine and hazel trees.

Birchfields Park Forest Garden is also home to raspberries, blackcurrants, redcurrants, gooseberries, jostaberry, logan and tay berry, not to mention gojiberry and blueberry.  Species like eleagnus, alder, clover, bird’s foot trefoil, vetch, peas and beans have all been included for their nitrogen fixing properties.

“The project is about permanence – we’re demonstrating the potential of forest gardening, complimentary planting and gardening with nature” says forest gardener Jane Morris.  “We want to show that we can have higher yields than monocultures.  And that there’s potential for forest gardens in even the smallest of public spaces – why do we need so much mown grass?

“Urban growing keeps the activist in me alive” says Jane, who is generally positive about her home town’s food growing credentials.  “Manchester is proactive, and the Food Futures Strategy is moving us towards a more sustainable food system here.”  But there’s work to be done.

“Inner city Manchester is one of the poorest areas in England – there are huge differences in quality of life and life expectancy.  Our project is trying to counteract those inequalities.  It’s about improving nutrition, increasing physical activity and also has a therapeutic aspect.Our garden showcases robust and resilient planting, and hopefully is creating robust and resilient communities too.”

Chelsea Fringe | trend setters

Starting this Saturday and running at venues across London for three weeks, the Chelsea Fringe is a brand new festival of gardens and gardening.  It coincides with the famous Chelsea Flower Show, but is completely independent of it and runs on well after the more traditional show ends.  It aims to attract a much wider audience with an eclectic mix of events, many of which are free.

“The plan was always to encourage as many people as possible to get involved and I’ve been struck by the range that have – from performance artists to community gardeners” says festival director, Tim Richardson.  “There are some visionary individuals on board, people who are pioneers of new thinking about how we should interact with public spaces.”

From Fringe-long planted interventions to virtual projects that exist purely online, the events on offer during London’s first Chelsea Fringe are wide ranging and impressive.  At the same time a floating forest designed by Canadian artists will transform the Grand Union Canal out west, a community garden in Tottenham will throw open its gates to welcome curious visitors up north.

Edible urban landscapes

Over 80 Fringe events will occur between the 19th May and 10th June but, within the growing sprawl, distinct themes are emerging.  An explosion in excitement about urban food growing is reflected in a host of projects, including an Edible High Road in Chiswick that will turn the main shopping street into an orchard of sorts.

Karen Liebreich, one of the brains behind the Edible High Road, has noticed a strong emphasis on food emerging across the festival.  “There’s a desire to create productivity out of little scraps of earth” she says.

“There’s also a desire to use gardens to strengthen communities, and provide a focus for education and communal activities in a tough big town.  All the gardens and gardeners will be aiming towards some kind of beauty and artistic statement, because that’s what gardening is about.”

Other edible projects include pop-up veg gardens in Islington and front garden allotments in Finsbury Park.  Gardening students in Peckham are creating a living salad bowl that will overflow with edible flowers, while Spitalfields City Farm is hosting a family friendly Edible Olympics with sports like vegetable sculpting and orange dribbling.  Down the road, St Leonard’s Church is to be draped with citrus fruit and turned into an Oranges and Lemons Garden.

Herbs feature a lot – including an aromatic herb mobile sculpture at the Geffrye Museum, a medieval herb garden at the Idler Academy and wandering Wild Thyme events run by the Herb Society in South Kensington.

The Garden of Disorientation will see an empty slaughterhouse in Clerkenwell temporarily transformed into an indoor mint garden, complete with cocktail bar.   Deborah Nagan is the project designer.

“As the festival approaches I think an emerging trend is that, in general, we rather despise supermarkets and would all keep chickens in window boxes and pick lemons from bus stops if we could. The festival is highlighting that gardening is a great social and political leveler – and one of the best ways of being human in the city.”

Mapping and moving

Many of the Fringe projects and events invite visitors to experience the city in new ways.  Travel is a strong theme, ranging from projects that map city green spaces to portable gardens.

Mobile projects include the boozy Bicycling Beer Garden, which will see a collection of planted up beer cans towed around town; and Heavy Plant Crossing, a horticultural happening involving a mechanical plant travelling about the city in a bid to become ‘best in show’ at Chelsea Flower Show.

Walks are also popular – one project seeks to map out all the Pimped Pavements in London in a bid to highlight the strength of London’s Guerilla Gardening movement, while another offers a self-guided tour around some of the capital’s most historical green spaces via an interactive Google map.

The Meadow Up Your Street project has mapped walks around Islington and Kingston’s newly planted street meadows.  While Edible Bus Stop Gardens are engaging local people in an attempt to transform an entire bus route in south London into something productive and beautiful.

London’s wild side

A desire to seek out nature is another trend, with many projects focusing on wildflowers and wildlife.  The Big Buzz and Flutter in Archbishop’s Park will teach people about the role and benefit of birds, bees and butterflies in the urban environment.

Out east, Katelyn Toth-Fejel’s Dinner to Dye For will invite guests to see plant’s hidden depths as both natural dyes and as food stuffs.  “I’m not a city person” she says.  “For me, the Fringe is about being a nature lover in the city.”

The I Love Vanessa project aims to highlight the importance and plight of the Red Admiral and Painted Lady, and the weeds these two butterflies rely on.  During the Fringe, huge images of invertebrate life will be jet-washed onto dirty city walls. What does project coordinator Jackie Herald want people to get from I Love Vanessa?

“Hopefully they’ll be inspired to notice the details of flora and fauna that are everywhere in the city, provided you don’t over-weed or over-pave.  Personally, having been involved with RHS Chelsea Flower Show, I thought it would be fun and interesting to experience the flipside – grassroots up, rather than catwalk down.”

Get involved

Another strong Fringe theme is participation, with various workshops planned throughout the festival.  You could learn how to build a living roof in a two day workshop in Sydenham or help construct a greenhouse out of plastic bottles at Fern Street Community Garden.

The Canning Town Caravanserai is actively inviting people to help them design and build a garden for their site, while the Dock Garden Festival is encouraging people to create their own urban allotments with a series of inspiring talks, menus and markets.

So what else will visitors to Fringe events take away from the experience?  “There are the usual things – seeing interesting plants, successful combinations and new ways of growing things” says Karen Liebreich from the Edible High Road.

“But also that gardening doesn’t need to be a high end, high cost endeavour, and you too can improve your own part of town and maybe next year do a Fringe garden.  People will discover there are some interesting gardens in their part of town that they could get involved in. Or just check out some unfamiliar parts of London.”

Tim Richardson is keen for the Fringe to challenge visitors to rethink gardening, as well as have fun.  “There are some projects that are specifically about teaching people new skills, but overall the Fringe will inspire people by example” says Tim Richardson.  “The festival offers people a day out that will expand their horizons about what gardens can be.  It should be a challenging thing – in a good way.”

The Chelsea Fringe runs from 19th May to 10th June. Find out more at  This feature was written for City Planter.

Mayoral Elections | nature, food, fresh air

Lawns left to grow long and living walls; a productive city that’s pesticide free; and air that it’s a pleasure not poisonous to breathe. Continuing the Londonist’s look at the environment as an election issue, here three London NGOs tell us how the next Mayor can make London a more sustainable city.

Protection needed for the unofficial countryside

Mathew Frith from London Wildlife Trust doesn’t think the natural environment has been given nearly enough attention in the Mayoral debate so far, and argues that green spaces and gardens currently don’t have enough protection.

“London is rich in wildlife and the Mayor needs to safeguard this asset by strongly protecting and conserving London’s 1,500 wildlife sites. By committing to deliver the All London Green Grid, the Mayor could help bring more people into contact with the natural world, contribute to biodiversity conservation targets and improve the capital’s ability to cope with extreme weather events like flash flooding.

“There are significant advances currently taking place in sustainable and biodiversity-friendly design. World cities like London need to keep abreast of these advances to compete on an international level. Design for biodiversity (including things like swift and bat bricks, and living roofs and walls) helps encourage wildlife, reduces surface water run-off and mitigates the urban heat island effect.

“Despite the drought, many local Councils are still cutting the grass short in parks and green spaces. Landscape management contracts should be flexible to account for the need to leave lawns longer during dry periods so that more water can be retained. It’s such a simple measure but would have a positive impact to save water across London.”

London needs to be a more productive place

Ben Reynolds from Sustain (who run Capital Growth, Capital Bee and London Food Link) thinks the new Mayor should make it much easier for people to grow food in the city, as well as clamping down on junk food, pesticides and litter.

“We are looking for support for the next phase of Capital Growth, which will focus on increasing the sustainability of these food growing spaces, primarily through productivity. By increasing the amount produced through these Capital Growth spaces, and by other food growers around London, we hope to meet an insatiable demand for local food.

“More support needs to be given, particularly from London’s landowners, to allow people to grow and sell food. The next Mayor could insist that suitable land that’s been unused for more than two years is made available for food growing, even if just for a temporary lease. The Mayor could also insist that new developments, particularly residential, have provision for food growing built in.

“The next Mayor could help London to become the first pesticide free city in the UK, following in the footsteps of Paris and Tokyo. Restricting the application of these chemicals would really benefit London’s wildlife, including bees. We want the next Mayor to back our call to make every borough bee-friendly.

“As well as benefiting people’s health, restrictions on the number of junk food outlets could help to reduce litter. Some boroughs have successfully trialled the use of planning measures to restrict these outlets, particularly in areas around schools. The next Mayor should back all boroughs to use similar powers.

“By promoting environmentally friendly diets – including buying sustainable fish, organic food and eating less meat – the Mayor can also support fish stocks, biodiversity and animal welfare, and reduce climate change. The Mayor should insist that the public sector, including schools and hospitals, adopt the Government’s buying standards (currently only mandatory for 30% of public sector).”

And finally, how about a breath of fresh air?

Siobhan Grimes from Climate Rush thinks the Mayor should prioritise cleaning up the poisonous air we’re all currently forced to breathe.

“Air pollution on London’s busiest roads breaches air pollution laws by a factor of two every day. It means we are breathing in dangerous particles that are making us sick and causing climate change. In London, over 4,000 people die early every year as a result of air pollution, and between 15-30% of childhood asthma is linked to traffic pollution.

“Black soot emissions, including the traffic emissions that we see blackening tunnels and buildings in our city, contribute to up to 30% of global climate change emissions. Instead of being poisoned by the air we breathe we want the next Mayor to prioritise our health by investing in safer cycling infrastructure, by implementing a very low emission zone over the most polluted parts of the capital, by reducing the prohibitive cost of using public transport and by opposing airport expansion.”

Interview | Richard Mabey | shock & awe

A word about the urban wild with naturalist and nature writer Richard Mabey

On London

It’s changed a lot since I lived and worked there in the 1970s, a lot of places have vanished, most notably under the Olympic Park, which back then was an exciting and genuinely wild part of east London.  The other place I meandered, and wrote the Unofficial Countryside about, was in west London, near Uxbridge and Heathrow.  I still walk there about once a year.  It’s a labyrinth that has escaped development, it’s pretty much untouched and still feels exciting.

On urban wildlife

I think that nature’s power is much stronger in the urban rather than the rural context because you get the sense of contrast so sharply.  There’s a tremendous metaphorical power in the improbable ability of nature to come into the city.  When you’re on Charlotte Street and you see a hobby streaking overhead, it feels miraculous.  Urban wildlife is by definition more resilient to human settlement.  It also has an astonishment value that’s much higher than elsewhere because the amount of wildlife per head is so much lower.

On nature’s cure

To think of nature as a kind of Prozac is an injustice to the complex relationship humans have with nature.  Our experiences with it have huge emotional power – we see the exhaustion of a migrating bird or the sacrifice an adult makes for its young, and it’s a lesson in what it means to be reduced down to the elemental level.  Nature should shock you and make you feel pain.  Sometimes I go out and I come back in tears.

On science and romance

I have scientific DNA.  I think the emotional and the scientific are both about intense observation and both get their power from a sense of wonder.  I obsessively track barn owls – at this time of year it is about us being together in the same winter landscape.  I see them as my neighbours and I worry about them when it rains and go and check on them.  That question, ‘where does a barn owl go in the rain’, is both emotional and scientific.

On writing

Once you’ve become a dyed in the wool writer it’s who you are.  When I’m out I’m subconsciously making images and stories in my head.  It’s about the precision of watching.  The framework of observation gives you a framework for your writing. It’s also the discipline of finding the right words.  A nature rwrite should respect the relationship between disciplined observations and emotional response.  You must observe your own responses.  Talk about the two way relationship, go to the very roots of what you feel.  Don’t be vague, be precise.  Don’t deal in generalities.  Be emotional and explorative, but precise.

On green government

I’m as outraged as everyone at the Government reneging on their promise to be the greenest one ever.  The new planning documents no longer see biodiversity as essential.  The fabric of biodiversity underpins all things, without it everything goes down the tube.  NGOs need to stop being so polite, they’ve really sucked up to the government and talked about nature like financiers.  We need to launch a head on attack on these new measures.  There also needs to be a propaganda campaign to show that the essential protection of the environment doesn’t undermine economic goals.  The number of job opportunities created if we adopted a low carbon economy would be enormous.

On the future

The big opportunity now is landscape-scale rebuilding – the joining up of nature reserves and the restoration of flood plains.  I see this happening in my home of East Anglia, where reserves are being created that you can talk about in square miles rather than mere hectares.  This is already having a significant effect on wildlife.

Interview by Helen Babbs for the spring 2012 issue of Wild London magazine

Beer, bread and threads – the growth of urban cottage industries

Micro brewers, bakers and textile makers are setting up in cities all over the country to offer a handcrafted alternative to bland, mass-produced goods. But the backyard business boom isn’t stopping there – some urban projects are also growing their own raw materials in nearby gardens and allotments to create products that are super-local from the ground up.  Take a tour of three London projects and find out how you can get involved.  This feature was originally written for City Planter.

Brockwell Bake

Andy Forbes’ Lambeth home has a rough-round-the-edges kind of charm and a surprising secret. It houses Brockwell Bake, a community project that grows wheat, mills it into flour and bakes it into batches of bread to sell. Andy’s front room is stuffed with sacks, sieves and scythes, his kitchen is dominated by a large dough trough and flour mill, and the garden is home to a wood-burning oven, built to a Latin American design.

Brockwell Bake began as a ‘real bread’ baking competition, but an interest in heritage cereals saw the project expand into growing bread’s main raw ingredient on local allotments, community and school gardens and on farms. Very few types of wheat are grown commercially in the UK – the countryside is dominated by a genetically homogenous crop that relies on chemicals to prosper. Brockwell Bake actively challenges this way of producing food by focusing on rare, heritage varieties and using traditional techniques. “Last year there was more genetic diversity in the wheat in our couple of allotments in Lambeth than in the rest of south-east England. We have one of the biggest collections of wheat DNA in the country,” says Andy.

Brockwell Bake encourages schools and community gardens to grow grains, alongside their two allotment-based wheat fields in Lambeth. Their biggest urban wheat field is on Forty Hall Farm in Enfield, and they also work with biodynamic farms outside the city. All the wheat in their homemade flour is grown and harvested by hand. This year, they’re working with the Madeiran community in Stockwell to grow wheat native to Madeira, which will feature in an installation during London’s annual Feast on the Bridge.

Wheat is one of the UK’s main crops. “It’s important we have an understanding of how it’s grown and the processes involved” says Andy. For Brockwell Bake, small-scale urban wheat growing is mainly an educational tool. By supplementing their urban harvest with grains grown outside London, the project also helps to build direct links between the city and farmers in the surrounding area.

Mass-produced bread is often stuffed with additives and made in a couple of hours, while ‘real bread’ uses only natural ingredients and takes much longer to make. According to Andy, community and backyard baking are both on the increase, in part inspired by the Real Bread Campaign. The tiny bakery’s reputation is growing – Andy has recently been approached to bake bread for a Michelin-starred restaurant in the West End. The hope is to move Brockwell Bake to premises in Bermondsey soon, where there’ll be lots more room to manoeuvre.

Do it yourself?

While wheat is easy to grow, you need lots of room, not to mention equipment to turn it into flour. Andy explains that 1m² of space would produce enough wheat for 3kg of bread, and then that piece of land wouldn’t be able to support another crop of wheat for at least four years. It seems the best way to get involved is probably to help plant, harvest and mill wheat as part of a larger group. Or support local growers and bakers by seeking out their wares. Andy does suggest that wheat varieties have a place in the urban garden though, as striking ornamentals – try Pregana prata, a durum wheat that has big ears and a black beard.

Also inspiring

Sustain’s Bake Your Lawn project is encouraging young people to grow wheat this year. Download their invaluable guide to growing, milling and baking. It explains why ‘real bread’ is important and has some delicious recipes. If you’re from a school or youth group, you could even get some free wheat seeds.


Dyework is a project devoted to traditional textiles, including cultivating dye-producing plants and using them to colour handmade yarns. Their dye garden at Vauxhall City Farm opened in 2000 and, twelve years on, it’s a well-established source of colour for local makers.

Dyework keeps close ties with the Vauxhall City Farm Spinners – wool from the farm’s sheep is spun and dyed with natural pigments grown on site. The threads are used to make clothes that are sold to help pay for the sheep’s upkeep.

The garden is designed as a spiral, which means many of the flowers are at eye-level during the spring and summer. It’s popular with farm visitors, bees and butterflies. “The public and urban setting of the dye garden is important” says Diane Sullock from Dyework. “We grow the dyes for our own practice but also to share our knowledge. We have lots of visits from schools and also from older students studying environmental textiles.”

Plants on site include: dyer’s chamomile, which has flowers that produce a buttercup yellow dye; woad, which grows to a height of 4ft and has leaves that give a gorgeous deep blue and hollyhocks that create a blackish-red dye. The dye is created by simmering the flowers, leaves or roots, depending on the plant, in water. Dyes aren’t stored in liquid form but blooms can be dried and then kept for later use.

Do it yourself?

Growing dye-producing plants in your space, whether it’s a window box or a backyard, is a lovely thing to do, especially as many of the plants have beautiful flowers. Diane says dyer’s chamomile, achillea, African marigold (the flowers produce a bright orange dye) and lady’s bedstraw (the roots produce a red dye) are all ideal for small spaces. If you’re interested in community projects, the London College of Fashion is looking for volunteers to help them turn a site in Hackney into a dye garden for their sustainable fashion students.

Also inspiring

As well as paying a visit to the dye garden at Vauxhall City Farm this spring, you could seek out the small dye garden at the Geffrye Museum too. The Horniman Museum and Gardens is also creating a new dye garden that’s due to open later this spring.

The Brixton Beer Company

Very much in its infancy, the Brixton Beer Company plans to get Londoners growing their own ale this year. From March, they’ll be helping willing individuals and community gardens to grow and harvest hops. They will then take the hops to a local brewer to magic them into beer, which the growers will indulge in at a boozy harvest party.

“Our first year will be very informal and our first harvest very small, but it’s about the love of growing things and for people who are curious” says Helen Steer from the project. She has been inspired by a culture of micro-brewing in the US and a renaissance in craft brewing within London. After a meeting with the London Brewers’ Alliance, six breweries are interested in Brixton Beer, and experts are on board to advise on hop cultivation.

“I think it’ll be a really interesting growing project, and also one that will get more men interested in community gardening!” says Helen. “The urban setting is definitely important – the level of ignorance in the city about where food and drink comes from is staggering. This kind of project is a low pressure way to start conversations about sustainability. It’s also about having fun and drinking beer.”

Helen is part of a wider organisation called City Farmers, and she says that cottage industries are on the increase in London. “Sustainability is becoming more fashionable – and that’s a good thing” she says. More and more people are seeking out delicacies that are both local and unusual, which is something that Brixton Beer hops will certainly be.

Do it yourself?

The Brixton Beer Company is actively encouraging Londoners to start growing hops, with a plan to pool the harvest so a local brewery can process the shared crop into ale. They say that you don’t need much ground space to grow a hop plant, but you might need a wall as these perennial plants can grow rather tall. Hops like well-drained and fertile soil; they should grow in a pot as long it’s large and deep. One plant can produce up to 1kg of hops each year, and you can eat the shoot trimmings fried in butter in spring. The Brixton Beer Company are making it really easy – they’re putting together a starter pack and organising a planting event for the 17th March. Sign up on their website if you want to get involved.

Also inspiring

The Urban Wine Company is a collective that encourages city growers to turn their outside spaces into vineyards. You grow the grapes, they press them into wine, everyone involved shares the alcohol made from the pooled crop.

Urban Agriculture | Part Two | South West

Over the next year, I’m exploring the UK’s burgeoning urban food growing scene for Kitchen Garden magazine.  Every month I’ll report from a different town or city, as I seek out urban agriculturists and profile projects ranging from the small-scale and personal to the unusual, ambitious and commercial.

“The allotment is my favourite place in Bristol – it’s beautiful because of the shared work that goes into it” says Lucy Mitchell, settling down to tea and cake.  She’s sitting in a shelter made from clay and hazel, sourced from the land on which it stands in the Easton Community Allotment.  A weekly Thursday drop-in session has just finished.

The allotmenteers were given the land eleven years ago by the council.  It was overgrown and bramble filled, with no water supply.  But this allotment is home to some of the most resourceful urban growers in town.  They take a huge amount of pride in the fact they source everything they use cheaply or for free.  “City fly tippers keep us well supplied” laughs Lucy.

“We’re lucky to be close to industry – we’ve reclaimed bricks, pallets and netting from the area.  We keep worm food in an old chest freezer!  We’ve also developed a water harvesting system that means we never need tap water.  Guttering has been attached to the roofs of some neighbouring garages to collect rainwater that’s then piped into a series of twenty barrels.”

Over winter brussel sprouts, kale, purple sprouting broccoli, leeks, savoy cabbages, mooli, winter salads and a forest of Jerusalem artichokes can be found growing.  Lucy is clearly in love with the place.  “It’s about companionship and free, organic, local vegetables” she says.

Bristol is awash with examples of urban agriculture.  The more you dig around, the more active Bristolians seem to be.  “Bristol does feel proactive when it comes to food growing” says Irene Blessit from Fishponds Community Orchard.

“The recession means more people want to grow their own, and people are also more interested in eating organically.  And they’re concerned about fruit waste, orchard loss and disappearing knowledge about local varieties.”

“Our plot is three miles from the city centre and very close to the M32, but it feels wild.  We mainly grow apples, but also some soft fruits.  We encourage members to get keys to the orchard and just come and sit here, have a picnic and bird watch.  We offer a space for people who don’t have a garden of their own.”

Jane Stevenson helps to run the Bristol Food Network, which encourages growers to share knowledge and advice.  She can offer an overview of the city’s growing scene, and is able to reel off numerous interesting examples.  “There’s even a roundabout known locally as the ‘bear pit’ that has vegetables growing on it!” she says.

In 2011 the Network organised the city’s first ‘veg trail’, where groups opened their doors so visitors could see their projects, which are often on closed sites.  The Network has also created an online map showing where all the food growing projects in Bristol are.

Many are in deprived areas, and some are working with hard to reach groups like asylum seekers and homeless people.  “The social aspect is very important – it’s about the group growing experience and shared harvests” explains Jane.

Food is always a political issue.  “Getting access to land in Bristol requires determination and patience.  Ideally in the future there’ll be a ‘land share’ style system where all the available land in the city is listed and can be matched with growers looking for plots” says Jane.

On the city’s outer edges, between Bristol and Bath, the Community Farm is producing food on a grand scale.  22 acres are under cultivation and they sell around 350 veg boxes a week. They also supply wholesale to restaurants, schools and other box schemes.

“It’s both a commercial and community success” says Alison Belshaw, Project Director, “the business has to underpin all the community activity. If that’s not strong we can’t do the other things we want to. 409 people invested in the farm at the first stage, and this is increasing with a new share offer and annual membership scheme.  We’re attracting all sorts of people – young and old, families and individuals, from as far afield as Cumbria, Moscow and New York!”.

Why is their project important?  “How can a city support itself if food has to be distributed hundreds or thousands of miles?” she asks.  “It’s much better to grow fresh vegetables close to where they’re going to be consumed, to ensure they’re eaten at their best and to reduce waste. Land also needs to be protected for growing. There are parts of Bristol that were once used by market gardeners, but the proposal is to have a park and ride scheme built on this excellent growing land.”

The Community Farm has a lot in common with a project just over the border in Cardiff.   The Riverside Market Garden is a much smaller example of urban agriculture, but is equally ambitious.  Project Manager Pete Brooks tells the story.

“We’re all local food freaks basically, and our social enterprise has been running farmers’ markets and community allotments in Cardiff for years.  Cities were once surrounded by market gardens that provided residents with vegetables.  Our project isn’t about nostalgia, but we started to think about how we could revisit this model and also update it completely.”

“We got a start-up grant from the Waterloo Foundation and some money from the Welsh Assembly for a feasibility study.  Our first year, 2009, was all about planning.  We found some land 10 miles from Cardiff City Centre, in the Vale of Glamorgan, where we have five acres, with an option on five more.”

In early 2010 a horticultural consultant did soil and microclimate analysis and came up with an action plan.  In spring they started planting.  “We decided to focus on direct sale to individuals and restaurants, rather than wholesale, and to grow high margin crops like aubergines, peppers, chillies and tomatoes, rather than muddy veg” says Pete.

Riverside Market Garden is an exposed open field, with one acre cultivated.  In winter cavolo nero, Russian kale, spinach and amaranth grow out in the open, and winter salads in the polytunnel.  They produce £2,000 worth of crops every month, but want that to treble in 2012 as they cultivate more land.  The aim is to be fully commercial in the next four years, with outreach, education and training aspects to their work.

“Our project is addressing issues like urban food poverty and obesity head on” says Pete.  “There’s a tide of under-nutrition sweeping across the country – it’s overwhelming to think about how to tackle it as a whole, but you’ve got to do your bit in your parish.”

Useful websites

Wild London winter 2011 issue

The winter issue of the magazine I edit, Wild London, has just arrived on my doorstep.  It looks good!  On the cover – an urban fox skating on thick ice with a reed bed backdrop, the camera work of the brilliant Jules Cox.  Articles this issue about London’s reptiles, greening housing estates and a new nature reserve slap bang next to Heathrow Airport.

The Master Gardeners

A neighbourly mentoring scheme is encouraging local vegetable growers to spread the organic gardening bug.  Turns out green fingers can be very infectious.  This feature appears in the Dec 2011 issue of Kitchen Garden magazine.

The Islington Master Gardeners gradually gather over mugs of tea and fig rolls, a somewhat retro biscuit choice that’s going down well with the troops.  Their first training session of the year begins with an exercise in when to plant what vegetables, and where.  There’s much impassioned discussion already, despite it still being early on a Sunday morning.  Within minutes I’ve learned an awful lot about being productive in an urban environment.  And this is just the warm-up.

Kate Fenhalls is the brains behind the fig rolls.  She’s also the Islington group’s co-ordinator and explains what the scheme is all about.  “The idea is to create communities of volunteer Master Gardeners, who encourage others to start and continue growing fruit and vegetables organically.  Master Gardeners are enthusiasts with some food growing experience.  You don’t have to be an expert, just willing to share your knowledge. It’s not a gardening service but rather a source of information and support for new growers.”

The idea is that, after completing a short foundation course, a Master Gardener will seek out ten households that they can mentor through a growing year.  One grower magics into ten, in just twelve months.  It’s about dispersing wisdom and sounds almost viral in its intentions.  It also sounds like quite a commitment, but Kate insists it’s a project that’s flexible around volunteers’ busy lives.

“The way the programme has been set up means that gardeners can adapt the way they do their volunteering to suit them.  Each Master Gardener commits to 30 hours volunteering a year, which is about half an hour a week, and is supported by a volunteer coordinator, like me, who offers resources and advice.  Our intention is that volunteers get as much as possible out of the programme in terms of training and support, so that they can continue to share their knowledge.”

Islington has the least green space of any London borough, making it one of the most under vegetated places in the country.  Despite this, there’s a huge amount of enthusiasm for growing among a special few who are determined to spread their gardening love locally.  Today’s session offers some mentoring to the mentors, and next on the day’s packed agenda is an informal talk from one of their number.

Master Gardener Mark Ridsdill-Smith manages to grow huge amounts of vegetables despite not actually having a garden.  He grows on the balcony, walls and windowsills of his north London home, and documents his impressive work on  He tells the group about a self watering container that he’s invented, using old recycling boxes and bits of drainpipe.  He hands out instructions so the group can go off and make their own.  It’s easy to see how he must be an inspiration to the households he’s connected with.

The nine mentors here are a mixed bunch – men and women, young and old, and from really different backgrounds.  They’re united by a passion for urban cultivation.  The scheme started in 2010, so this is their second growing season together.  Not limited to Islington, there are groups of Master Gardeners in south London, Norfolk and Warwick too, and the intention is to expand further.

The group is joined today by Philip Turvill from Garden Organic, the charity that runs the Master Gardener project.  The organisation offers volunteers, and their households, a wealth of experience, research and materials.  This particular training session is of the indoor variety but I can tell I’m amongst people of the earth when Phil does a masterclass involving compost and potting on some asparagus kale.  The delight is immense as he, and the other gardeners, run their fingers through the silky soil that’s been spread across a couple of tables.

As Kate worries about the amount of soil flying onto the carpet, the group starts discussing pooh.  The capital’s various city farms are a recommended source of manure for Londoners, but one gardener’s creative tip is to clear up after police horses have passed by.  Wormeries and bokashi bins are also pondered as ways to create compost in small spaces, and everyone is offered a little piece of comfrey root from Ryton Gardens (Garden Organic’s home) to nurture. The conversation ends with lunch for everyone but Phil, who goes off to find a hoover.

After lunch the discussion focuses on how to be a good mentor, and is a chance for people to raise the frustrations and concerns they might have.  Role playing allows people to practice their teaching techniques.  Being part of a household’s life for a year is a big deal and the group thinks about the importance of managing people’s expectations, and their own.  They spend some time researching the answers to tough questions that might get thrown at them by their tutees.

The day ends with arts and crafts.  Phil teaches us how to make a device that will get just sprouted plants to grow straight.  Old cardboard boxes, plastic bags and kitchen foil are combined to create a windowsill sun lounge for seedlings.  We also make newspaper pots.  Both activities are ideas for the Masters to try out with their households.  Everyone seems excited about another year spreading the organic gardening message.  The Masters of the gardening universe go their separate ways, each brimming with masses of new ideas, and clutching shiny sun lounger creations, a tiny kale plant, four packets of seeds and three seed potatoes.