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.”
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.
This feature was originally written for the Ecologist.
Above, a lady in Sarajevo tends to her land.
For over a decade a pioneering project in Bosnia and Herzegovina has been transforming war torn lives through the power of plants. But their money has run out. I meet the gardeners as they face up to an insecure future.
Jovica lives in a safe house in Doboj. It was established after the 1990s war as a refuge for people discharged from hospital with nowhere else to go. Until recently Jovica would spend his days alone in his room, unable to talk to anyone and enveloped by the noise of over 50 radios, all playing at once.
Encouraged by the Community Gardens Association (CGA), who were hoping to establish healing outside spaces across Bosnia, the safe house doctor agreed that residents might benefit from a therapeutic garden. And so building began. Jovica would watch progress from afar, gradually being tempted out of his radio filled room to watch, but never speaking or joining in. He sat in the garden throughout the first growing season and silently watched others get their hands dirty.
The next season arrived and the CGA announced they were going to construct a greenhouse in the safe house garden. Something clicked in Jovica. Suddenly he was excited and the day the greenhouse arrived he found his voice, something that had been lost for a long time. When CGA staff visited a few months later they found Jovica in charge of greenhouse growing.
“He’s been completely transformed”, says Vesna Malenica from the CGA, “the greenhouse is his escape and plants have replaced radios. He’s even started cooking for other residents. I think the psychological effects of the war are actually stronger now than they were immediately after it ended. Then people had to think about getting bread onto their table and repairing their homes. Now psychological problems have room to surface.”
The public nature of the healing garden is an important way of challenging out-dated beliefs about mental illness according to Vesna. “Projects that are dealing with this are really important in Bosnia because traditionally such things are kept secret. You’re not supposed to see a therapist or admit you have mental problems. People are ashamed, it’s not considered normal. In rural areas it’s seen as a punishment from God. Stigma and discrimination are things we have to fight.”
Vesna speaks about her work with joy and steely determination. The CGA was established in the wake of the 1990s war by one of the many international organisations that flooded into the region to offer aid. Set-up by the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), the plan was to encourage people to help themselves, rather than relying on handouts.
Not just focused on creating healing gardens, they’ve established a network of community growing projects in a region where food poverty is a problem. The idea of growing crops in urban areas wasn’t new but the language used was, plus the act had uncomfortable connotations.
“During the war my family participated in community gardening in Sarajevo but we didn’t know it could be defined as that. It was just a spontaneous act because we needed food” says Vesna. “When the war was over the authorities didn’t want people to garden in the city anymore. People here believe that work related to the soil belongs in the countryside. What you should have in the city is manicured parks with fenced off lawns.”
Bosnia remains a divided country and Vesna argues that the political structure imposed by the Dayton Accords supports ethnic separation. The Federation, western and southern Herzegovina is predominantly Croat; Sarajevo and central Bosnia is Bosniak; and the Republika Srpska is Serb. Neighbourhoods and workplaces remain segregated, and the administrative structure of the country has institutionalised division to a degree.
In the face of this, the CGA creates multi-ethnic gardens, with each garden split into 50m² plots distributed randomly. Vesna works in the Stup Community Garden in central Sarajevo. Here a Croat will have a Bosniak Muslim neighbour on one side and a Serb on the other. In the beginning people were unhappy but now nobody is anything but a gardener. Last year they grew two tonnes of cucumbers in their 400m² greenhouse. Understandably Vesna’s pretty proud.
“It’s because people commit a lot of time and energy. The project isn’t just about food – reconciliation and the regaining of trust are equally important. We’re working with people who suffered a lot during the war and our main goal is to bring conflicting sides together. We’ve tried to make a secure space where thoughts and opinions can be exchanged freely; somewhere people can be useful to both the community and their families.”
Nazif Smajić is from Rogatica, which was ethnically cleansed during the war. He was forced off his 100 acre farm and finally settled in Sarajevo in 1995. Known as grandpa, he’s one of Stup’s oldest growers and a mean chess player. “Originally I joined because of food” explains Nazif.
“The garden means I don’t need to go to the market and buy vegetables. It’s the only income my wife and I have. I grow everything – carrot, okra, beet, tomato, cucumber, pepper, spinach, garlic, herbs, all kinds of greens, and even flowers like marigolds because the petals make good tea. Potato, onion and cabbage are important because we live on them during winter.
“The garden is proof that I can still provide for us, and it gives us the feeling that we do, after all, belong somewhere. Over the years I’ve made friends and I find fellow chess-player here. As well as offering me food security, the garden is a place for relaxation and learning.”
Fellow gardener Nikola Korać says money persuaded him here but other things make him stay. “I really needed the produce to support my family. The reason I’m still participating is the same but over time I’ve come to understand that I eat food that’s organic and free from chemicals. My grandchildren love to visit and spend an entire day in nature. They’re in contact with the soil and the environment is safe. We live in the city and so this is very important to us.”
Dobrila Čolaković runs the garden’s kitchen and is known to make Sarajevo’s best cup of coffee. “The garden is a source of joy and happiness. Unfortunately, the CGA is left without funding and I’m afraid it will be a very tough start to the season. I just hope that they find a way to keep the garden open, as many people depend on it.”
AFSC budgets have been slashed, the economic crisis has been blamed and the CGA is left with no money whatsoever. Recently established as an NGO independent of their American founders, they must find some cash soon if they’re going to survive. Vesna’s work is now all about fundraising.
“At the moment we don’t have any support from government, local authorities or international organisations. It’s difficult to work without any resources and hard explaining to people that things are going to have to change. I’m currently trying to find people internationally who might support the therapeutic work we do.
“I can’t stop our programme – we have 500 people depending on it. I’ll work voluntarily, I can earn money with translation, but for most of them the only income they have is the harvest. They just can’t accept that they won’t have that possibility anymore. I’m still positive but I’ve had a lot of rejections. But I won’t to give up, I have no option.”