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.”
“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.”
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.”
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.
Part nine of my series for Kitchen Garden about urban agriculture
“Our city is second to none, we’re very proud to be Liverpudlians. We have a great culture and heritage.” So says Donna Williamson from the Rotunda Community Garden. “North Liverpool is a traditionally working class area. Third and fourth generations of families still live here. There’s very little work now – Kirkdale is one of the poorest wards in the EU, but not in spirit. There’s energy, warmth and a great sense of humour here.”
The Rotunda garden recently moved to a derelict site donated by the Liverpool Archdiocese. With funding and favours, they’ve put up a polytunnel and raised beds, and planted an assortment of fruit trees. They’ve also created wildflower gardens, a sloped strawberry bed and herb rockery, plus a children’s play area.
Over the last year, Rotunda has worked with the Liverpool Probation Service to create the edible garden. “The hands-on approach works well for most people” explains Donna. “Some offenders have little or no education but they can pass something on to the community they’ve wronged by helping to create a vital garden for all to use. They gain new skills and the community sees them giving instead of taking – it’s a win-win situation.”
Donna believes gardening can act as form of rehabilitation but offers wider benefits too. For instance, growing your own allows “young people to connect with the earth and the seasons, to realise that potatoes and strawberries come from the earth not Asda or Tesco.” All of their produce is shared among the gardeners or used for soups and salads in their community kitchen.
“Projects like ours allow future generations to learn from family, friends and volunteers. This supports our communities, cities and the economy. With global shortages, this could and should be the way forward to be green and sustainable” says Donna.
Economics is a subject close to Peter Rix’s heart. He once worked for Liverpool’s economic development company but has now turned his attention to urban food systems. He’s one of the brains behind the fledging Liverpool Food Alliance, which is made up of stakeholders including the PCT, council and YMCA.
They’ve set up a pilot project on a five acre site in Garston. The YMCA organised corporate work teams to clear the ground, and has put up polytunnels and greenhouses. The ‘Food for Thought’ consortia of primary school kitchens in south Liverpool have agreed to buy their produce.
“We’re interested in creating jobs in the city and creating markets for local produce. We think we can stimulate cottage industries and provide accessible, cheap, fresh food to local people” says Peter. “If we work together we can create an income – lots of little growing projects die because they rely on short term funding. Cooperation is better than competition when it comes to food.
“Our mission is citywide, and we’re currently involved in another bid to create a second hub in Liverpool 8. We want to become an urban farm dispersed across different sites with a range of outputs.”
Access to land is one of the greatest challenges facing urban growers, and Liverpool is no different. “The council holds so much land that sits unused” says Peter. “There’s lots of land that could be used temporarily but the council was advised not to let the community use it in case it’s hard to get back.”
Surely offering land for urban food growing makes sense in a time of recession. Becky Vipond from Squash Nutrition certainly thinks so. “Urban growing is about making use of gaps in the city and enhancing local areas. As food prices go up – but wages and benefits are frozen – food growing is a useful skill to have.”
Squash have worked on numerous food-focused projects in Liverpool for ten years. Based in an old Victorian school in Toxteh, they’ve created an urban allotment around the site and turned the school’s old rooftop playground into a self-seeding wildflower meadow. The roof has views to North Wales and hosts three bee hives. They’re also just starting to develop a new community garden around a disused pub nearby.
“We take a holistic view of food, so growing is part of that. We’ve found the arts approach is a good way of connecting with people, and we’ve done everything from photography projects to sound installations. Visibility is a part of what we do – if we create things that are striking they’ll stop you in your tracks and make you want to know more. We’ve also found that the best way to engage people is to feed them – it starts conversations.”
Squash has just secured funding for the Village Farm Orchard in Stockbridge Village, Knowsley to the east of the city. “There’s loads of green land but mainly mown deserts” says Becky. “The idea is to provide people with free fruit. We did a cooking project with residents two years ago and those involved came up with the idea to plant fruiting trees and bushes all around the village.
“Rather than an orchard in the traditional sense, we’re interested in creating pockets that are part of the estate. We’re going to plant 250 trees and 200 bushes, and organise training on tree care and cooking to help sustain the project long term. We have funding for ten beehives. The bee products can be used to generate an income for the project.”
Hope Street Honey also sees bees as a valuable community resource. Lesley Reith from the project raves about the delicious honey Liverpudlian bees make. “People think city centres are barren places but they’re not. Our car park alone has ten mature trees and there are good parks nearby” she says.
“Our bees honey is the colour of Baltic amber and tastes beautiful. 2011 was a strange year for bees – they kept swarming and we didn’t harvest that much, but what we did won prizes. I want us to become a city centre urban beekeeping hub and to make beekeeping more accessible and socially inclusive.”
The project is based at Blackburne House and the hives are managed by four members of the local WI. They run basic beekeeping courses and plan to set up an informal monthly bee club for people who want to be beekeepers or who are interested in helping bees.
“There are lots of elderly beekeepers – we need younger beekeepers to come onboard and become experienced” says Lesley. “I want to mentor people who can then become mentors themselves.”
Urban growing does more than put food (or honey) on people’s plates. Projects can offer people in need of support a safe haven. Jennie Geddes explains how Family Refugee Support is quietly using gardening as a way to help families in Liverpool find their feet.
“Our clients are refugee and asylum seeking families who live in the worst quality housing in the city. Few have any outside space they can use. They have the lowest income of any population, often existing below benefit levels, which impacts on their ability to access fresh and healthy food. We’re able to offer them space to grow fruit, vegetables and flowers on three different sites. All the produce is used by the families.”
“We’re privileged to be able to engage with families who’ve survived tough situations and who bring us a richer understanding of the issues facing people in the world today. Projects like ours provide people who are often excluded from society with a chance to engage with nature and benefit from a sense of empowerment and ownership. We’re quite quiet about what we do, as our clients often experience judgement and racism” says Jennie.
One asylum seeker explains how important the project is to her. “I feel very lucky to have my own garden because it makes you feel like you are normal. You feel like a useful person – not like a burden to other people but that you can also produce something.”
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.
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.”
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.”
Part six of my series for Kitchen Garden about urban agriculture
Sheffield nestles around seven hills and is said to have more trees than any other city in Europe. With greenery weaving through and around it, it’s no surprise that it’s also home to an active urban food growing community. “There’s a feeling that there are less barriers to food growing here than there might be elsewhere” says Coralie Hopwood from Grow Sheffield.
Grow Sheffield was born out the UK’s first ever ‘Abundance’ fruit harvesting project. It now acts as an umbrella over that and two other projects – community growing and a local food network. Art is a big part of what they do and ‘Allotment Soup’ is a series of events they run every year, as Coralie explains.
“We bring artists onto allotments and invite them to make installations. We then hold gallery style open days, where there’s always soup and a fire. It’s about showing allotments in a new light. We don’t want to just preach to the converted. We need to give people new ways in. I come from an environmental background and I know some people can be switched off by green hectoring. Grow Sheffield was attractive to me because its approach felt different and fresh.”
Their community growing project has six hubs, with six more planned for 2013. They’re all very different. “Our St Mary’s hub offers ‘speak and grow’ sessions, where people can practise their English while growing fruit and vegetables” says Coralie.
“Another hub is found on the notorious Lansdowne Estate, which was unfortunately used as the set for ‘Prisoners’ Wives’. They have an enormous kale patch in the middle of the estate. Another hub is part of a youth project in an area known as the ‘Townships’, where we’re trying to give young people something to do. All of the hubs are born out of ideas local people have themselves.”
Why does Coralie think Grow Sheffield is important? “What we’re doing is bigger than wanting everyone to be able to grow an organic lettuce. Food growing is necessary in an urban context because it’s where we’re most disconnected from our food. We have no idea how reliant we are on the soil.”
Heeley City Farm is going some way to highlight that reliance. It runs over 20 local food growing sites throughout Sheffield. “We’re producing and distributing increasing amounts of fruit and vegetables each year – about five tonnes in 2011 – with the potential to go on increasing production” says Jo Townshend, the farm’s food growing project worker. “The food is sold to raise money for the projects, used in our Farm Kitchen café and shared among volunteers.”
John LeCorney, the farm’s Chief Executive, thinks food growing should be part of the fabric of every city. “When we started growing vegetables, keeping animals and composting waste we were seen as rather strange. We have come a long way, but there is a lot more to do. Every school should have a vegetable garden. Doctors should be able to prescribe a day at Heeley City Farm rather than Prozac. Supermarkets should set aside part of their car parks for weekly farmers markets.”
Tucked away in the north east of the city, LEAF Sheffield is a community space within the existing Norwood Allotments. “Our project is about growing, sharing and eating” says Diane Cocker from LEAF. “Sometimes food harvested at the end of one session will reappear at the next in the form of a pie or crumble. We’re encouraging people to have new experiences and gain confidence.”
The site boasts a child friendly plot, a demonstration allotment, a greenhouse and cold frames, a friendly cat called Mitzi and an orchard, with bee hives, soft fruits and herbs as well as fruit trees. Sheffield allotments are often separated by hedges rather than fences, and LEAF’s are full of wild fruits like elderberries, blackberries and rose hips. They have a woodland boundary too, so there’s lots of wildlife including owls and sparrow hawks.
“We’re hoping to create an edible hedge this year to demonstrate the kinds of creative things people can do. We’re growing carrots in builders’ bags and have a huge beetroot bed, packed with six different varieties. We’re trying interesting tubers like oca, yacon and ulloco. Our project is addressing a need for fresh food in the area and it’s taking away some of the mystique around gardening” says Diane.
Ambitions run high in Sheffield, but how about down the M1 in Nottingham? Sandwiched between the motorway and the city is the Grow and Grow Broxtowe project. I speak to Alan Withington as he winds up a session with three childminders and their kids.
“Broxtowe is a varied area, quite rural to the north where the old coalfields are, and urban and ethnically diverse in the south. Our project is going to people who aren’t growing anything but want to. We focus on training staff at community groups so they can cascade knowledge down. We start with things that are easy to have success with, before upping the ante” says Alan.
“I’ve been involved with food growing for 14 years and every year the interest grows and grows. We’ve been inundated with people wanting to be part of this project. What we do is very practical. We’ll take raised bed kits into a primary school and the children will help us assemble them. Our hallmark is working with people, not for them.”
Further into the city proper are the unique St Ann’s Allotments – 75 acres of land with over 500 individual gardeners and various community projects, including a community orchard. The gardens were established in the early 19th century, but by the 1990s they were half empty and in serious disrepair. A group of tenants campaigned to save them and secured major investment to repair the infrastructure of the site.
“Some of the gardeners have been up here since the 1960s. Most are local to St Ann’s” says Mo Cooper from the allotments. “But it’s not all cloth caps and pipes, though some people do have racing pigeons! We’ve had more women and families taking plots over the last few years. An 18 year old tenant featured on Radio 4 Gardener’s Question Time recently, giving advice to people twice his age.
“The site is often described as a bit of country in the middle of the city. It’s a great resource for the local community who live in Victorian terraced houses or big council estates. As a grade 2* listed site with English Heritage it challenges the poor image St Ann’s often has in the media” says Mo.
Are the St Ann’s allotments tackling issues like food poverty or environmental justice? “Our gardeners are predominately local with low incomes, but with this green space on their doorsteps. This helps them source fresh food – there are no greengrocers or major supermarkets in St Ann’s. We provide access to nature for local young people. But we don’t use the jargon – we just get on with it!”
Birmingham is a huge conurbation but, within the urban sprawl, pockets of productive growth can be found. In fact there are more allotments in this city than in any other UK local authority – 115 sites and almost 7,000 plots. Alongside the allotment scene are scattered a few projects that are using urban food growing as a way of connecting with communities, ranging from kitchen gardens in school grounds to brand new veg plots in the city’s art quarter.
Let’s begin our journey on the city’s outer edges, three miles north of the centre in Perry Bar, where the Walsall Road Allotments can be found set within in a park. It’s a large and sociable site, complete with its own stores, a shared pavilion and some well loved allotment cats that keep mice to a minimum.
“Allotments are very popular in Birmingham and we have a never-ending waiting list for plots. I’ve split many of the larger ones up in order to give more people a space” says Betty Farruggia, Site Secretary. “Birmingham has a diverse population, which is reflected in the nationalities of our plot holders – 14 different nationalities at the last count. Our youngest plot holders are probably in their early thirties, the oldest is over ninety! I look on our members as part of my extended family.”
“Many people tell me that if they didn’t come to the allotments every day they would never go out of the house or speak to anyone. Having a common interest in gardening means it’s easier to make friends. Many people like to try to grow something ‘from home’. If you walked around the site in summer you would see things like cardoon, callaloo, uri, squash, cadu, artichokes, chilies and many other unusual crops” says Betty.
Food growing is a great way to get to know people who you might not otherwise meet, and the Walsall Road Allotments has a tangible sense of community. It’s a spirit other projects want to harness, not least a brand new one that’s being set up in the city this year. The Refugee Council’s Sowing Seeds Birmingham project will draw on the success of its parent project in London, where refugees and asylum seekers have been tending a shared allotment in Hounslow for a few years now.
The refugee agency has found food growing to be a great way to connect with their clients – it allows them to explore important issues around healthy eating but also gets people out in a social space, where they can grow confidence as a well as vegetables. In the allotment, people can practice their English and socialise with non-refugees. It’s an important way of busting negative media myths and showing that refugees and asylum seekers are people not aliens, with a contribution to make.
“Before the allotment project I was depressed for a long time. Now I’m meeting new people and feel I’m part of a community”, says Bakri Hassan Alnajeeb, a journalist and torture victim from Sudan. “The allotment is where we can see the sky and feel the air. At our garden I step back into life.” These simple pleasures can’t be underestimated, especially in the urban environment.
In Digbeth, on the edge of Birmingham’s city centre, Edible Eastside can be found. It covers a quarter of an acre of canal-side land on the site of a former distribution depot. It’s being converted into a ‘pop-up’ edible park using temporary containers and raised beds. It’s the delicious and ambitious invention of Jayne Bradley, from the social enterprise Urban Grain.
“I started developing food projects in 2008, when I could see how great London was at challenging food hegemony. I wanted to bring those ideas to Birmingham” says Jayne. “Things only really started getting interesting here in 2010, but I’m now able to do things without being seen as a bit of a crank. The recession has helped – people are starting to do things in the absence of paid jobs!”
“The idea with Edible Eastside is to make it the headquarters for a city-centre growing scheme, and to make growing food a city issue and a cultural issue. I want to show that food is important to all of us. One of my aims is to use the site to explore how we might create more resilient communities via a stronger food system.”
Edible Eastside is found in the heart of the arts quarter and so working closely with the arts community is important to Jayne. “Many artists are interested in urban agriculture. Artists are brilliant communicators – making sense of life’s issues and discord. I hope they can help us to transform food culture in cities and move us on from our current fast food model.”
It turns out Jayne is currently paying for everything herself – unsurprisingly she’s keen to find some funding. “I intend to raise grants through the development of a cultural programme, running alongside the growing. I will also be renting beds to individuals and restaurants. If we have a good harvest we will sell food. It isn’t going to make me rich but I hope it will be rewarding in other ways.”
Run by CSV Environment, Growing Gains has been getting kids growing and eating vegetables across Birmingham since 2003. “We’ve worked with over 80 schools in that time” says Rob Tilling from the project.
“Primarily we deliver a classroom-based, curriculum-time project with fortnightly visits to the school throughout the year. These sessions teach children not just about the value of growing and eating healthy food, but also about the practicalities of carrying out this work. Children are taught broadly about soil formation and fertility, diet and exercise, invertebrates, plant life cycles and compost making, among other things.”
The school gardens they create range from a scrap of land alongside a car park in a school with no other green space, to a large playing field converted into a mixed food and wildlife garden. “All the gardens come to be loved by the children” says Rob. “We’re committed to enabling as many as possible to access the outdoors, to learn outside and to find joy and inspiration from surrounding oneself with living things. This project can open children up to a new world.”
Giving people access to a new world seems especially valuable in a city where poverty and food deserts can be a problem. “Large swathes of Birmingham are classed as under-privileged and it has some of the worst national unemployment rates, poor health indicators and other markers of poverty and class division” says Rob. “Some areas are barren deserts for fresh ingredients. The prevalence of fast food outlets is a concern and even where fresh produce is easily accessed, chicken and chips are often even more easily found.” In this context, urban growing projects and allotments seem more important than ever.
“Norwich is like the spider in the middle of a web. It may be small but it’s a focal point for Norfolk and north Suffolk. It’s always been a radical place with a vibrant alternative movement” says Josiah Meldrum, a founding member of Norwich FarmShare.
“We’re surrounded by agriculture here but most of the production is of commodity crops. We started to think about what interventions we could make to show that producing our own food was possible. FarmShare was born out of Transition Norwich’s Food Group and is part of a larger Norwich Resilient Food Project, which is basically a big experiment” he explains.
They found a seven acre site on the edge of the city with a sympathetic landowner. The Norfolk Broads are on one side and a flyover, rail track and business park on the other. The plan is to acquire another acre in 2012, by which time they hope to be growing enough food to feed 150 households.
“2011 was our first growing season and it was a difficult year because of the dry spring. We’re still learning! We ask members to commit for at least a year. It’s about being part of the running of a market garden and sharing a joint harvest” says Josiah.
“We have funding from the Lottery Food Fund until 2013, by which time we want to be established as a social enterprise. We’re a commercial operation with a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) business model. CSA means a food, fuel or fibre producing initiative, where the community shares the risks and rewards of production” he explains.
FarmShare currently has 70 members and relies on team effort. They don’t deliver but instead hand out produce at a weekly collection day in the city centre. People weigh out their own share and bag it up themselves. Members are also encouraged to help out on the farm itself. On a morning when 5,000 onion plug plants arrived and needed to be planted within hours, volunteer effort saw they were in the ground almost as fast as if they’d used a mechanical planter.
“Members’ motivations are all different, but it tends to be about taking control of food production and being part of a vibrant community enterprise. Some have given up allotments in order to focus their attentions on a more collective way of growing. For the founders, it’s all about demonstrating a new and different approach of co-production. We’re blurring the boundary between consumer and producer” says Josiah.
Seven years ago, Mahesh Pant set up the Grow Our Own project, also in Norwich. For a small subscription fee, people get a slice of land, tools, seeds, plants and advice. They also become part of a community, working on a shared allotment site with a communal and well-stocked garden shed and regular events. The project has become Mahesh’s full-time job.
“I was an academic and in my spare time was reading lots about food production and organics. One day I got home from work and told my wife that I wanted to give up my job and provide for my family in a different way. I had an allotment, asked for more land to set up Grow Our Own and got it” he says.
“We’re half an hour’s walk from the city centre. We have 20 allotments on a site made up of 150 plots. Ours are subdivided into strips and we now have 200 growers signed up. There are more of us here than on the rest of the entire site!”
The shared allotment boasts a chamomile lawn, picnic area, greenhouse and compost loo. The site is always open, but twice a week volunteers are on hand to offer advice, seeds and plants. In 2011, 120 different varieties of vegetable, herb and flower were on the project plant list and handed out to members.
“Urban food growing is important for many reasons, but the credit crunch is not one of them” says Mahesh. “Food in certain supermarkets is incredibly cheap. In the 1970s, the average person spent 30% of their income on food, today that has fallen to 10%.”
“Our project is about bringing people together. Growing food and being in nature is important for people’s mental and physical well-being. Allotments also used to be about providing land for the poor but today they are very middle-class. We’ve recently acquired a new site in a more deprived area of Norwich, where we will engage with different types of people.”
43 miles south is the town of Ipswich, where, similar to Grow Our Own, several allotments have been fused into one. The People’s Community Garden was born out of a belief that the town needed strategies to improve health and well-being. A bid was made to the ‘People’s Millions’ for funding to build a garden – they won £80,000 in a public vote.
“Ipswich is a melting pot, with some of the most disadvantaged wards in the country. It feels like the town is taking a breath at the moment, but it’s on the up” says project development officer, Susannah Robirosa. “Ipswich’s first university has just opened and the area around the docks is being developed. The People’s Community Garden is within an existing allotment site and is made up of 13 plots. We’re close to the docks with views of enormous ships.”
“There was opposition to the project at first but people here respect us now, and we have lots of support. Many allotments were still under bramble when we arrived in 2008 but that’s changing. More are occupied now – it’s great to see that we’re reviving an interest in growing and inspiring people to take on that land.”
The garden features a permaculture herb spiral, ‘cut flower alley’, a sensory garden, three composting bays, several big veg plots, a wildlife area (with a meadow and a lizard bank) and a heritage orchard. They grow famous Ipswich melons in their polytunnel and the local Bangladeshi women’s group keeps one corner for exotic veg. The tunnel also hosts horticultural courses for people who are unemployed.
“What’s fantastic about the garden is that it’s not a closed resource, we’re open to everyone. The more people enjoy the space, the more confident they become. The garden gives our volunteers a sense of local pride, belonging and neighbourliness. We operate a ‘food for labour’ system, and also encourage community harvesting” says Susannah.
The £80,000 had to be spent within the first year and has long run out. How does the project survive without long term funding? “We apply for grant funding year on year” explains Susannah. “The council tend to fund us to do education, training and health work. We send produce to the local pub – they love our melons – and to lunch clubs, for donations.”
“We generate a very small amount of income this way. We’re not allowed to sell it because we’re based on an allotment. I think allotment laws need re-looking at, as it seems ridiculous that community projects are constrained in this area. If we could sell our produce we could plough the money back into our project.”
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.”