Category: organic gardening

Guardian | what lies beneath

Gardens: soil
This feature was written for the Guardian

The Worldometers website is compulsive viewing. If you watch this “real time world statistics” site ticking, you will see the world’s soil disappearing before your eyes. The statistic for land lost to soil erosion ticks over slower than some (the one measuring world population, say, or the number of cigarettes smoked), but it’s growing a few hectares a minute.

And it’s not only in impoverished regions of the world; the UK’s soil is in peril too. Erosion, compaction, pollution, development and loss of organic matter are damaging something that’s as vital to life as water and air. It can take up to 500 years to form 1cm of soil, and Defra says soil degradation costs England and Wales between £0.9bn and £1.4bn every year.

Soils vary wildly, from chalk to clay, acid to alkaline; there are more than 1,800 different types in the UK alone. After the deluge this winter, many rivers ran brown as soil washed out to sea. Exposed, damaged soil is vulnerable to being washed away by high rainfall, while reduced organic matter and compaction caused by over-cultivation or over-grazing make it less absorbent. Where water once soaked in, it now runs off, exacerbating flooding and causing further erosion.

Patrick Holden, a British farmer who once ran the Soil Association and now heads up the Sustainable Food Trust, warns that the floods have seen a “catastrophic leaching of goodness from the soil”. He says soil is at the fulcrum of the debate about sustainability: “It is the irreplaceable resource on which the future of civilisation depends. We should be seriously worried. Soils are haemorrhaging across the world.”

Why should we care? Because, as Professor Jane Rickson from the National Soil Resources Institute says, “Soil is amazing, providing us with food, fuel and fodder, storing water and carbon, and supporting habitats and infrastructure. It’s like an engine made up of physical, chemical and biological components. It is their interaction that makes it work.”

Soil may seem simple, benign stuff, but it teems with life. A teaspoon of rich garden soil contains up to a billion bacteria, within a complex and shifting mixture of grains, pores, channels and chambers. The microbes store, transform and release nutrients that plants need: nitrogen for growing leaves, phosphorus for roots and potassium for flowers and fruit.

Soil is also connected to climate. Healthy soil stores and slowly releases water in periods of drought or flood. It’s also a carbon sink – there’s more carbon stored in the soil than in vegetation or the atmosphere. When soil is blown away by wind and rain, it releases carbon into the atmosphere.

The threats soil faces may be great, but there is still hope. Holden says gardeners need to act as “soil stewards” alongside farmers, and encourages us to see soil as a sort of stomach, digesting the food that plants need. That stomach, packed with friendly bacteria, should be fed well and treated with care.

Save our Soils
• Keep off saturated ground – it needs time to drain and dry
• Start mulching – it’s the simplest and easiest way to protect and improve soil
• Compost all you can, so you can feed soil with rich organic matter
• Say no to polluting chemical fertilisers and pesticides
• Keep growing – plants prevent erosion and help soil sequester carbon
• Download a soil and earthworm survey

Guardian | go grass free


The floral lawn at Avondale Park

This feature was written for the Guardian

Lionel Smith isn’t anti-grass, nor is he immune to the smell of it when freshly cut. But he believes it’s high time we rethought the lawn. The concept is more than 900 years old, and our modern take on it apparently lacks creativity. As lovingly well kept as it may be, your home turf has the potential to be so much more than a homogenous expanse of green blades. And let’s be honest: grass is often more patchy than perfect.

Standing by the grass-free lawn he has created for Avondale Park near Notting Hill in London, Smith can barely contain his excitement. It’s the first public outing for an idea he’s been nurturing at the University of Reading for four years. “Why do you need grass in the lawn when it can look as pretty as this?” he asks.

If we decide to take a leap with Smith and agree that grass isn’t its defining feature, what is a lawn? “It’s something very low-cut. Anything beyond here,” he says, pointing halfway up his shin, “is going towards meadow. The other thing is using a mower. It must be low and it must be mown. Do you mow your flowerbeds?”

Floral and grass lawns may have height and close cutting in common, but wildlife sets the floral lawn apart. “Other than the occasional blackbird pulling a worm, there’s not a lot that goes on. [A grass lawn’s] biodiversity value is highly limited,” Smith says. “However, when you have something like this, which is made up of over 65 cultivars and species, each with a different form and shape, there is so much opportunity. It’s a magnet for insect life. And it’s gorgeous! I wanted to create something beautiful.”

The royal borough of Kensington and Chelsea invited Smith to create the floral lawn in a spot that previously hosted a pictorial meadow with varying success. The 200 sq m space is a textural patchwork of ground-hugging burgundy, pink and green foliage and flowers, with flashes of blue, yellow and white. Taller plants form clumps throughout – a sign that the first mow is due.

The mowing is crucial, but slicing away hundreds of flowers feels brutal. “The mower will shock everybody – it always does,” Smith says. “But the taller plants will dominate the smaller ones unless they’re attacked by the mower. If it’s not mown, this will not last – it will turn into a meadow.” This tough love does make sense. Smaller plants get the light and space they need to thrive, and the taller ones will start growing again within a few weeks. And a floral lawn requires far less cutting over a year than a grass one.

The perennial plants are a mixture of UK natives and their cultivars, plus more exotic species that extend the flowering period. Rather than being sown directly into the soil, they are cultivated from seed, plugs or cuttings in seed trays. When the plants have developed decent roots, Smith lays them in a mosaic over ground where the grass has been removed.

The key is that they can multiply with runners or roots, and that they’re allowed time to knit and blend before the first cut. Species include bronze-leaved bugle (Ajuga reptans ‘Chocolate Chip’), unusual pink dandelions (Taraxacum pseudoroseum) and big, blowsy, red daisies. There’s also a smattering of Corsican mint (Mentha requienii), which releases its scent when crushed underfoot.

Walking on the lawn is encouraged, but not in excess. Light footfall is helpful, but the Avondale Park lawn is fenced off because it’s in a busy public space. I’m allowed a quick wander. It feels decidedly odd to walk over the flowers, and my stride is more cautious than confident. Apparently children have a much more animated response. And park users of all ages have welcomed its appearance.

“We’ve had lots of enquiries,” says Leanne Brisland, the borough’s ecology service manager. “Residents want to know if they can buy it, saying they’d like to put one in their own garden.” And that, of course, is the killer question: where can you get one? It’s a question Smith has been fending off with increasing regularity. He’s unwilling to commit to anything definitive until he finishes his PhD research, but he hopes to collaborate with garden centres to create an off‑the‑shelf version.

If you fancy trying your hand at a floral lawn, Smith proposes growing your chosen plants in seed trays on the space where you want the floral lawn to be. The trays will starve the grass of light and you’ll see what the floral version is going to look like in situ. Once your plants have good roots and the grass is dead, turn out the trays and establish your lawn (Smith has suggestions on his website). Then sit back, put that order for a new mower on hold and wait for the wildlife to arrive.

Urban Agriculture | Part Twelve | Glasgow and Edinburgh

Watering the beans at Urban Roots

The final part of my year long series for Kitchen Garden about urban agriculture

“Glasgow, or ‘Glaschu’ in Gaelic, translates as Dear Green Place. Indeed, we have more parks and green space per capita than any other European city” says Abi Mordin from Urban Roots, a project that’s at the forefront of the city’s urban growing scene. “Glasgow also has lots of derelict land although, as it was a former industrial hub, much of it is contaminated. A network of community gardens can be plotted across the city, where local people have taken over vacant land and are transforming it into beautiful, useful spaces.”

Urban Roots is made up of three community gardens that total around one acre, and they’re also currently developing a two acre site as a market garden. 40 volunteers help to grow a wide range of produce – ranging through salads, spinach, chard, peas, beans, carrots, parsnips, potatoes, kale, broccoli and cabbage. They’ve set up an apiary this year, so soon there will be honey too.

“Anyone volunteering on the project gets a bag of veg for free, and the rest we sell to local cafes or fruit and veg shops. We only use organic and permaculture methods in our gardens” explains Abi. “We also help other groups get their own community garden projects up and running, providing advice on community engagement, garden design, site development and ongoing maintenance.”

As well as giving people access to the simple pleasures of fresh food and fresh air, Urban Roots – and the wider Glasgow Local Food Network they are part of – have big ambitions for the city.  “Our mission is to make local, organically grown produce affordable and accessible” explains Abi.

“We want to reduce dependency on imported fruit and vegetables, reduce our collective ‘food footprint’ and ‘field to fork’ miles, and create an environment that is sustainable for people and planet. We are looking at how to upscale current production, and put in supply chains to work towards local food justice and self reliance.”

Woodlands_transformation in progress

“Being down the garden, just mucking in, slows me down and makes me appreciate the simple things of life – elemental and organic camaraderie, cuppas, digging with good cheer and dwelling in possibility.” So says one of the growers from the Woodlands Community Garden in Glasgow.  The garden sits on a site that was derelict for a long time, after the tenement block it housed burned down in the 1970s. In the last couple of years it’s been transformed by forty raised beds, swathes of wildflowers and a band of dedicated gardeners.

Woodlands Community Garden sits between the city centre and the west end, in a residential area. The land was owned by a community development trust and a group of locals approached them in 2009 about turning it into a garden. As well as raised beds and plenty of veg, it also boasts a stage built from palletes and hosts lots of arts events.

“The raised beds are looked after by clusters of individuals – we encourage collective growing” explains Tim Cowen from the project. “They mainly grow veg and herbs. Half the garden is communal and we grow things to encourage wildlife. Produce is shared and swapped, and volunteers who help maintain the garden take a share of the produce even if they don’t have a raised bed. Over winter, the popular crops to grow are things like broad beans, garlic and winter salads.”

What is perhaps most unusual about the garden is the fact it is completely open, with no locked gates. “This presents some challenges but it also means we’ve become more of a community asset” says Tim. “There are massive social benefits from working outside alongside people you would never normally speak to.”


East of Glasgow is, of course, Edinburgh, which Chris Macefield from Bridgend Growing Communities describes, with a whiff of romance, as a place “where the mountains meet the sea”. The city settles between the hill ranges of the Pentlands and the estuary of the Firth of Forth.

The Bridgend project is based in an allotment and supports people living in areas of high health deprivation to grow food. Not only is the allotment a training hub, it’s also where their wood fuelled outdoor kitchen resides. A pizza oven and a rocket stove allow them to create delights using home grown produce, ranging from hearty soups and healthy veg stews, to quiches and pizzas.

“The people who volunteer and garden here not only have the opportunity to cook the food in the outdoor kitchen, they also take away the produce” explains Chris. “Bridgend is open to all, and one of our real strengths is that we bring people from all backgrounds together. We look to support people with chaotic lifestyles, or varied health problems, and also provide opportunities to individuals who have a general interest in community gardening.”

As autumn edges into winter, the garden remains a hive of activity. “During the colder months we still have a dedicated band of volunteers who are keen to grow. We have two polytunnels, which helps to extend the growing season. There are always things to do, such as landscaping the plots and building raised beds, along with more artistic and craft based endeavours.”

seedlings growing at the botanic garden

The Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh is not the obvious next place you would go to if you wanted to witness more community food growing, but this traditional space has taken an unusually edible turn. “For years we have focused almost entirely on growing the rare and exotic” says Dr Ian Edwards, who is Head of Exhibitions and Events. “We feel we can do both successfully, and our experience and expertise in growing plants is something we can offer to other groups through training and informal tours and visits.”

Turns out, Edinburgh has history when it comes to community gardening, as Ian explains. “The first children’s gardens (the original kindergarten) were in Edinburgh’s Old Town, inspired by the town planner, botanist and environmentalist Patrick Geddes at the beginning of the twentieth century. I like to think our Edible Gardening Project is part of our Patrick Geddes heritage.”

The project includes a polytunnel, fruit garden and vegetable plots that are all open to the public. They grow winter salads and tender summer vegetables in the polytunnel, and a range of heritage and more modern varieties in the outside beds. The fruit garden has pears, apples, cherries, plums and common soft fruits, plus more exotic strawberry tree, honeyberries and even an Oregon grape.

“There are huge waiting lists in Edinburgh for allotments – up to nine years in places” says Jenny Foulkes, who manages the Edible Gardening Project. “There has been a peak in interest in edible gardening over the last few years. This can be attributed to themany and varied benefits of gardening and growing your own. The Edible Gardening Project aims to provide help and support for people who want to grow their own food but don’t know how or where to begin. We help people get over the initial barriers.”

Urban Agriculture | Part Eleven | Newcastle

Part eleven of my series for Kitchen Garden about urban agriculture

Slap bang in the middle of Newcastle, the Byker Bridge rushes over a valley where a slice of secret countryside thrives. Tucked beneath this ever busy bridge is also Ouseburn Farm, which sits at the mouth of a tributary to the River Tyne. There are more species of butterfly concentrated in this spot than in any other similar area in the UK.

There’s been a farm here since 1976, although the original Byker Farm closed ten years ago and has since reopened as Ouseburn Farm, run as an independent subsidiary of Tyne Housing. It offers day services for adults with mental health problems and learning disabilities, educational visits for schools and volunteer opportunities for local people. Food growing is a key part of what they do.

“We have several allotment spaces on the farm site, a further allotment nearby in the valley and two allotments in large garden spaces on Tyne Housing Association properties” explains Rob Bailey from the farm. The produce is sold on the farm, in the café and eaten by the housing association residents that help grow it.

“We grow a variety of vegetables and soft fruit” says Rob. “Some of our animals will go to slaughter in the autumn and the produce will be available for sale to the public. We continue to grow vegetables during the winter months. Maintenance of the growing spaces takes place during January, as well as preparing the soil for planting at the start of the next season.”

So why do cities like Newcastle need operations like Ouseburn? “We provide an opportunity for local people to buy ethically sourced produce, such as free range eggs and meat, as well as being able to see the animals kept in good conditions prior to them being slaughtered. Consumers have developed a detachment to the source of their food. Projects like ours provide children with an understanding of the relationship between the animal and the food on their plate” says Rob.

The farm is also providing a valuable haven for urban wildlife. “We have an abundance of rare plants in our meadows that support a large variety of insects, which in turn attract a large variety of birds. We also have a hive of honey bees at the farm, which aid pollination in the local area.”

There are some significant green spaces in Newcastle. There’s the town moor, mere yards from the city centre and still observing its common land grazing rights. At the other end of the Ouseburn Valley is Jesmond Dene, which was landscaped in the 19th Century by Lord Armstrong. Not far from there, and just a 15 minute walk from the city centre, is the Jesmond Community Orchard.

“We’ve only been going for three years but it is a lovely little site, located in a secluded and previously derelict corner of a cemetery” explains Bobbie Harding from the orchard. “The cemetery is just behind the Great North Road and is a walking and cycling route into town. We wanted to create an orchard because so many have disappeared.

“It’s a pretty plot with a very old wall on one side, with a fruit espalier all the way down it. We’ve sought out unusual varieties that grow in the north.  We can’t shoehorn any more trees in so we’ve started encroaching on the cemetery proper! It’s early days apple wise but the raspberries and herbs are doing very well. It’s lovely to have a new, well-used open space.”

One of the orchard’s most exciting features is a Jesmond Dingle apple tree, which was grown from a pip by one of their members and is named after their dog. Every autumn the orchard holds an old fashioned feeling apple day, with bobbing and peeling the longest apple peel competitions. There’s also plenty of juicing to be done.  People donate apples and bring cartons so they can take the juice home.

Joanna Lacey loves Newcastle and food in equal measure. “It’s such a fantastic city to live in, with everything so accessible and easy to get to, and always a friendly Geordie happy to help anyone. Being able to work on North East Food Discovery every day is my perfect job, as food is something that I believe everyone should understand and enjoy.”

North East Food Discovery is an initiative that’s working in primary schools in the more disadvantaged areas of the city. It aims to inspire children, their families and teachers to understand the importance of local, seasonal food and get them excited and enthusiastic about it. A key part of the project is the Wor Lotty Food Growing Academy.

“Children from the first ever schools we worked with entered our competition to name the allotment site” explains Joanna. “True Geordie influence and dialect came shining through and the site was officially named ‘Wor Lotty’, which means ‘Our Allotment’. It’s an amazing space, gifted to us by Newcastle University. We have two large growing plots where the children and other community groups sow, care for and harvest crops.”

There’s a range of fruit trees and bushes, including apples, pears, blackcurrants and gooseberries; plus a large area for herbs, three compost heaps and plenty of room for growing strawberries. “We use organic principles and teach everyone who comes to the site about this too” says Joanna. “As well as help from the Newcastle University Maintenance Team, we have two people working part time, and constantly welcome volunteers to help maintain the garden.”

Joanna believes projects like hers are an important way to connect urban people with the food they eat.  “There isn’t a lot of visible food growing happening within cities. We need to make sure that everyone has an opportunity to understand where food comes from, and knows how to prepare, cook and appreciate all the fantastic local food producers in their area.”

Urban Agriculture | Part Ten | Belfast

Part ten of my series for Kitchen Garden about urban agriculture

The Suffolk Community Garden is found in a Protestant housing estate within greater nationalist Belfast.  Health is poor and unemployment high; hope can be in short supply.  Yet this estate also boasts views of the Belfast hills, has a river running through it and there’s a resident rooster, which all combine to give this urban area an incongruously lush edge.  The garden itself stands in over an acre of green space, sandwiched between the waterway and a community centre.

The focus here is on food, with a wide range of produce growing in raised beds and a 60ft polytunnel.  There’s broccoli, cabbage, carrots, leeks and onions, plus tomatoes, courgettes and chillies.  As well as raspberry, white currant and blueberry bushes – and cherry, fig, peach and plum trees – there’s also exotic loquat, orange and lemon.  The produce is distributed at a community market, where residents can get hold of it for a small donation.  An area with few food options – other than the junk kind – now has a steady supply of fresh fruit and veg.

“The garden was built by a group of young unemployed men, who continue to help tend the site” explains Caroline Murphy who coordinates the project.  “They’ve also built one across the divide on the Lenadoon Estate.  It was absolutely unknown for young men to venture into that estate before. People don’t care whether something’s a Catholic or a Protestant vegetable. The gardens give people a shared interest and a little bit of hope for the future. We’re tackling social injustice through urban gardening.”

The growing and harvesting have expanded beyond the garden boundary, with foraging trips for wild garlic and rowan berries down the river path and tyres distributed throughout the community so people can grow potatoes at home.  “People are mad for potatoes – we wouldn’t be Northern Ireland if they weren’t” says Caroline. They’re even raising 25 turkeys this year for Christmas.

Growing has become a tool for promoting peace in Belfast.  The Grow Waterworks Community Garden is built on a contested piece of ground that was once a no-man’s land between the loyalist Westland estate and Catholic communities on the other side. The garden was funded through the Peace III programme, which focuses on peace building and promoting good relations.

“Here, among the peas, beans, potatoes and herbs, it’s hard to imagine that not long ago petrol bombs were being thrown over the 20ft high metal peace wall that directly adjoins our plot” says Justin Nicholl from Grow, a small charity working with communities to create gardens.

Visit Waterworks and you’ll find salads, spuds, swede, sprouts, red cabbage, artichokes, pumpkins, peppers, aubergine and lots more growing.  The produce is divvied up among regular gardeners, with surplus shared with locals and park users. They also cook at the garden in a ‘camp kitchen’, often using foraged as well as homegrown ingredients.

“All of what Grow does has community building and eco-therapy at its heart” explains Justin.  “Whether that’s working with a community to reclaim some land and create an edible organic garden; working with older people in a residential setting; or developing projects to tackle food poverty.”

15 minutes drive out of town is Helen’s Bay Organic Gardens, apparently in an area where Northern Ireland’s rich and famous live.  Despite being on the main commuting route between Bangor and Belfast, the space is a tranquil one.  “We’re on the doorstep of the city but it doesn’t feel like it because we’re also on the shore of Belfast loch and surrounded by big old trees” says Ben Craig from Root and Branch Organic, the organisation that runs the gardens.

The site consists of several polytunnels, two big fields and two packing sheds – there’s no electricity.  They grow things like broad beans, chard, spring onions, basil and edible flowers, which are packed into veg boxes or sold at farmers’ markets.  Those boxes could be picked up by customers from collection points as diverse as hairdressers, newsagents and community centres.

“We’re connecting people with the seasons and encouraging them to cook by ingredient rather than recipe” says Ben.  “From the business point of view, this is the best deal for the farmer.  We know a local farmer that supplies a big supermarket who gets less for his produce today than he did 15 years ago.  We’re also connecting rural and urban environments.  We’re able to say ‘this was grown for you, by John’.  Supermarket food is more anonymous.”

Ben’s background is in youth work and he’s developing an educational side to Root and Branch.  He’s currently running an intergenerational peace building project in north Belfast, linking a Catholic area – New Lodge – with a Protestant area across the street called Tiger Bay.  “We’re working towards a joint festival event at the Metropolitan Arts Centre, as well as designing gardens for both communities.  At New Lodge, we’ve done some vertical gardening using palettes.  Traditionally these were burned in bonfires during the conflict, so we’re reclaiming them and turning them into planters.”

Also just outside Belfast, in the seaside town of Bangor, Growing Connections is pioneering the concept of ‘care’ or ‘social farming’ in Northern Ireland.  This type of project involves a partnership between a farmer, health and social care providers, and participants – particularly those who have mental health concerns or feel socially isolated.  Their recent public health authority projects have focused on suicide prevention and how to stop smoking.

“We create a safe and stimulating environment where people can connect with nature and others to promote their physical health and mental well-being” explains Joan Woods from the project.   “We’re developing a smallholding demonstration site and running workshops on woodland management, building out of sustainable materials, growing vegetables and herbs, and farm animal management.”

They have 14 acres of mature and newly planted woodland, and four acres of community socialising and growing space.  They grow vegetables, fruit, herbs and flowers as a group, which they harvest and eat together.  Group members can also take produce home.  “Our project is a means for people to rediscover that the best things in life are free – fresh air, water, the natural environment, laughing with others and sharing a common purpose” says Joan.

Urban Agriculture | Part Seven | Leeds

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.”

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.”

Urban Agriculture | Part Four | London

Welcome to the English capital – a beautiful, hulking behemoth filled with would-be farmers.  Research suggests half of the UK’s urban agriculture projects are found here and that demand for food growing land is as high as ever.  It is in London that a single borough can grow and sell 28 tonnes of salad, and land in the wake of Heathrow Airport can be squatted and made productive again.

Growing communities

“Talk of the ‘good life’ drives us insane!” says Kerry Rankine from Growing Communities, the social enterprise that’s responsible for all that salad.  “Very often the food gets forgotten about, but we grow to sell.  Our sites are lovely to look at but it’s not an exercise in making scenic lines of cabbages.   Our visibility is a side effect rather than an aim.”

Based in Hackney, east London, Growing Communities runs three market gardens, a veg box scheme and a farmers’ market.  “We’re serious about changing the food system, about providing an alternative that involves supporting small farmers in the surrounding area and bringing food as close as possible to the people who eat it.  There are 18,000 people in the square kilometre around our office – it makes sense to grow here, for them.”

Growing Communities runs apprenticeships and offers people paid work.  Their Patchwork Farm is a collection of micro-sites that are given to graduates of the apprentice scheme.  “It’s an experiment to see if people can generate an income from urban growing.  They’re selling their produce to us and to cafes” explains Kerry.  “In 2012 we’re also planning a much bigger scale project in Dagenham, with 1.89 hectares.”

Kerry is realistic about what can be achieved within a city’s walls.  “It’s not possible to feed London from inside it, but the Hackney grown produce has significance beyond simply being food.  We have a big volunteer programme and our sites are open to visitors, so people can see what we’re doing.  We serve 700 households, and so are feeding about 3,000 people.”

“We’ve been going since 1997, but still haven’t quite cracked making urban growing pay for itself.  We have to cross subsidise from other projects to pay the grower’s salary.  It highlights how difficult the life of a small farmer is. The current food system is deeply flawed.  Food is really under-priced, and those prices are distorted by agribusinesses and supermarkets.  The urban farmer’s role is to both produce and to act as an advocate.”

Scaling up

Clare Joy from Organiclea would surely agree.  “In the future I hope that London will have more productive green spaces, but this is only viable if people are willing to pay more for food”, she says.  “It’s the urban grower’s job to teach people about the real value of food every day and the hard work that goes into producing it.”

Organiclea inspires many of London’s urban growers, especially its Hawkwood site in Chingford.   It’s a handsome slice of land on the edge of Epping Forest that’s producing unusually large quantities of food.  Clare confesses they are able to grow on a scale they sometimes have to pinch themselves to believe.

“The Lea Valley used to be the bread basket of London, and local people saw food production as meaningful employment” explains Clare.  “Our aim is to see more London grown food that’s produced with integrity.   Our project is about people as much as it is plants – they’re the muscle of our production.”

The professional grower

Sustain, the alliance for better food and farming, coordinates the high profile Capital Growth project, which aims to have kick started 2,012 new growing projects across London before the year is out, by providing small amounts of funding and lots of advice.  Ben Reynolds from the project is thinking about its legacy. 

“We’ve seen 50,000 people getting their hands dirty through Capital Growth to date.  Groups’ main driver has turned out to be transforming spaces and the main benefit has been a community one.  How do we motivate and mobilise those people to think more widely about food issues, and to grow more food?” asks Ben.

“A small number of people involved with Capital Growth will take steps to become professional urban growers, but their path isn’t clear.  The next aim for us is to help create a meaningful amount of social enterprises that employ people.  There is land but it’s complicated to access it.  It’s time consuming, hard work, and we need to make it easier.”

‘Roots to Work’, published by the City & Guilds’ Centre for Skills Development, explores how employable urban growing can make you.  “Food growers can play a very supportive role in their communities and the food itself is only half of what they achieve” says Olivia Varley-Winter, who wrote the report.

“Most jobs in urban horticulture seem to be part-time or entrepreneurial and, while opportunities have been growing, there are still not that many jobs. But it’s important to recognise the transferable skills that people gain in the process of food growing, and that the experience can be a real asset when going into employment.”

Growing as activism

For some, urban growing is a form of activism as much as it is a chance to learn new skills. “It’s a political act to reject unsustainable food systems” says William Ronan from Grow Heathrow.  He is one of six ‘Plane Stupid’ campaigners who moved to Sipson in 2010.  They’d been working with residents since 2006, after a proposed third runway threatened to flatten the village.

“In March 2010 we swooped on some derelict land that sits a mile and a half from the airport – half an acre with three, 100 foot glasshouses on it.  It used to be a market garden and we wanted to reinvigorate it.  Heathrow Airport was built on farmland and the land around here is very fertile” explains William.

“Our growing is largely an experiment – we have limited experience and have been learning as we go.  We’re using permaculture methods and working with the environment to get the highest yields.  We had an abundance of black chillies last year, but our most successful crop was salad – we had it coming out of our ears!”

Ten people live in the garden, and their intention is to become self-sufficient and also to share their produce with local people.  The site welcomes visitors and the growers see themselves as educators as well as producers.  They have a weekly gardening club, organise special events and run projects out in the community.

“There are misconceptions about what squatting is – the transformation of this land challenges media stereotypes.  On our first day residents were representing our case to the local police. We’d built good relationships with them before we arrived” says William.

“We were negotiating to buy the land but the landowner pulled out.  We are due back in court in spring 2012 and are currently working on a community campaign – we have lots of statements of support including from the local MP.  We’d like to have a long term future here.”

This feature appears in the April issue of Kitchen Garden magazine

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

Urban Agriculture | Part One | Down South

Over the next year, I’ll be 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.

Photo by Anne-Marie Culhane, Grow Efford

“The architecture, the people, the seafront, the history – all make Plymouth fascinating” enthuses Darran Mclane, who’s fallen hard and fast for the city since moving here last spring.  Plymouth is also the only city with a Food Charter, set-up and run by the Soil Association, which makes it as good a place as any to begin a quest to document, in part, the food growing projects that are changing the urban landscape across the UK.

“It’s very diverse and affluent, but there are pockets of deprivation” continues Darran, who runs a project called Diggin’ It.  It was crowned the ‘Best Producer of 2011’ at Plymouth’s recent Food Charter awards.

“Certain people have a very poor grasp of nutrition.  Local and organic food often comes with an expensive sting – or people assume it does.  Diggin’ It is about exciting and educating people about food, mainly school children.  It’s about finding the right language.”

But Diggin’ It isn’t just about teaching people the value of local, fresh food and five-a-day, it’s also about growing that produce and selling it.  If urban agriculture projects with short-term funding want to be sustainable and self sufficient – and practise what they preach to an extent – they have to find ways to make money.

Darran used to work for Riverford (the veg box giants) and has ambitions for Diggin’ It to grow a lot more crops.  He subtly suggests that the project needs more land but that things are set to change, and Plymouth can expect them to have more of a presence in the city in the near future.  For now, they have a shop in Stoke on the edges of the city, where produce can be picked to order.  In November they began supplying Hugh Fernley-Whittingstall’s high profile new eatery in the Royal William Dockyard.

This more commercial venture feels like a feather in the project’s hat.  “We’ve become well-known and have developed into the place for locals to buy fresh veg.  People get very excited when they discover us.  Yesterday I was at the Job Centre in town, delivering a presentation to the advisors there.  Everyone said they wanted to come and volunteer.  We’re about growing people as well as vegetables.”

John Dixon from Plymouth City Council tells me more about commercial opportunities in the town.  “There’s a history of food growing in this area, and we want to acknowledge this – the famous Tamar Valley, for example, once supplied all Covent Garden Market’s strawberries.”

“The Tamar Grow Local project is promoting community growing and cooperative working, and also markets existing growers and helps them to sell their food locally.  The project has commercial as well as community aims.  We’re a well-placed city, and food has to be part of a sustainable city plan.”

And what about allotments?  “Politically allotments are very well supported here, and people want more.  We recently split some larger allotments into smaller, more manageable plots and also introduced shared, group allotments.”

Next stop is Traci Lewis, who works for the Soil Association and coordinates the Plymouth Food Charter.  It’s a city-wide partnership of businesses, organisations and community groups, all with an interest in food and how it can be used to drive positive social, environmental and economic change.

“We’ve been looking at how to create and support a local food system. We started work in April 2010, when we carried out a city-wide consultation and then developed a three year business plan.  We’re motivated by a desire to create a thriving local food economy for Plymouth.”

I ask Traci whether there is food inequality in Plymouth, as in other British cities, and whether urban food growing projects have any value in addressing issues like this.  “There’s a 12 year difference in life expectancy from one side of the city to the other. There are ‘food deserts’, where people have limited access to fresh, healthy and affordable produce.”

“This access should be a basic human right, but our food system is increasingly controlled by very powerful global agri-businesses who have a lot of political power. The Plymouth Food Charter is here to help people make positive changes for themselves and their communities through food.  Urban food growing projects engage people with food production and increase access to fresh local produce. They can also play a valuable role in building and supporting community networks.”

It feels like time to move on and see what a different Devon city is like.   Exeter is about 30 miles north, on the opposite side of Dartmoor, and it is there that Exeter Harvest is encouraging people to get growing in their own gardens, however meagre they are in size.

“Our main project is our Incredible Edible Mini Gardens” explains Andi Tobe from Exeter Harvest.  “We took a road-show around certain neighbourhoods, where we handed out containers, compost and seeds to get people started.  People have been growing everything from herbs and salads on window ledges, to beans and tomatoes on patios.”

“We’re also working with a small number of groups around the city who are nurturing community growing spaces.  One is in a pub!  They have a courtyard and a flat roof, and have been growing salads and tomatoes to serve up to customers.  They’ve held seed swaps there and have really sparked new interest in urban food growing.”

Exeter Harvest is half way through its funded period and leaving a legacy is on their minds.  “We’re thinking about potential social enterprises that could develop, perhaps selling preserves and juices made from the city’s fruit.  This would redistribute local food and reduce waste.  So far we’ve harvested over 200 kilos of fruit from private gardens.”

“Exeter doesn’t have a food plan, but there is talk about one.  We’re blessed with farmland around the city and there’s a growing desire to get local producers’ food into town.  Urban growing here isn’t about self-sufficiency.  It’s about a few little treats.  It’s about recognising that it can be so much better if we have control over what we eat, and it’s about celebrating the value of fresh food.”