Community growing: Five hidden gems of London

By Tierney Smith

As you walk around London– or any other city across the country – it is easy to miss some of the great work that is being done within some local communities.

While a growing trend has been witnessed for individuals wanting allotment space, with waiting lists a mile long, and with disused space scattered across the city, there is an increasing number of groups finding creative ways to use this space, however big or small.

As RTCC celebrated the work happening in cities for London Week, I decided to find out a little more about the projects on offer right on my doorstep.

Rhodes community garden project aims to get children to change the way they think about food

1) Rhodes Community Growing project

The project uses creative materials to create their plots

Growing fresh produce, educating children and bringing a community together, the Rhodes Estate growing project has many aims.

Beginning earlier this year, the project has begun with just two plots on the estate, which it has turned into both communal and individual growing areas.

Making use of what they had to hand, the plots include raised wooden beds, potatoes growing inside old car tyres and a water system that collects rainwater from the adjacent properties.

As she showed me around the estate, Amy Cooper explained her vision for the project – one day to have every disused space, from the various yards dotted around the place, to people’s front gardens, existing unkempt flower beds, and lane areas all owned and managed by the residents of the estate.

When not on the estate, Cooper helps run the Secret Seed Society which she co-founded to help teach children about vegetables in a fun, exciting way; something she aims to bring to the children on the estate. She explained how they are attempting to change their attitudes towards the food they are growing.

Already seeing the first signs of life on the Rhodes Estate

“It is about changing the way they think about what they are growing,” she says. “Both in terms of them thinking, I am growing something which I can then eat, but also that I can then maybe even sell or swap for something I want.”

With around 20 children currently involved in the scheme – “popping up every time a volunteer is around and asking to help in the garden,” says Cooper – they aim to create relationships with local shops and markets. Those involved in the scheme can then either sell produce they do not eat, or swap it for other food.

For Cooper it is exciting to see the children take to the idea of gardening, even if they can sometimes be a little too ambitious.

The gardens use rainwater collected from the roofs of the estate houses

“I was sat with one kid the other day and I was giving him the choices of what to grow out of all of the seeds we have, but I also wanted to ask him what he wanted to plant and he said cucumbers. So now I am running around trying to find some cucumbers.

“Sometimes their choices are a little more difficult to find. I used to ask them what they wanted to grow and they would ask for things like pineapples.”

While the scheme is in it’s early days – much of what is being grown is currently being grown in paper cups on houses’ windowsills waiting to be planted – Cooper believes the project will soon start to engage the wider estate.

The group have started with two plots but already have ideas for expansion

“In the first year, things will go wrong and things will get broken,” she explains. “But soon enough people will start to see what we are doing, and see all this great fruit and veg and then they won’t want to break things anymore and they too will want to be involved.”

2) Out of my Shed, Islington

Based across multiple gardens and sites across Islington, the Out of my Shed project has similar aims to those I saw being implemented on the Rhodes Estate.

Founded in 2009 by two Islington neighbours, the aim of the project is not only to brighten up the streets of the local neighbourhood but to create friendships and bring a community together.

What started with a give-away of wild seeds from Islington Council to plant in the tree pits of the borough soon turned into a strong community movement, not only taking ownership of tree pits, and continuing to plant and manage plants along the streets, but with many households growing vegetables in their gardens.

3) FARM:Shop, Hackney

The FARM:Shop is hidden away along a row of shops

Created by eco-social design practice Something and Son, FARM:Shop is exactly that, a farm squeezed into a derelict shop in Hackney.

Opened last March, the shop hosts everything from ‘aquaponic’ micro fish farming, indoor allotments, a polytunnel and a roof top chicken coop – as well as offering work space and a coffee shop.

The almost shabby exterior of the FARM:Shop deceives. As you walk around the building’s many floors, and multiple rooms, it is hard not to feel a little inspired by what the shop is trying to do.

The FARM:Shop has everything from salad to fish and chickens

From the light airy feel as you walk in, with walls lined with growing salad and huge fish tanks, the shop takes you through a maze of different colours and sounds, each room being used for a different – and sometimes multiple purpose – even the outdoor yard and the roof are being used, making sure every last bit of space is filled with some variety of living, breathing food.

4) Cultivate London, West London

With multiple sites across West London, Cultivate London, is an urban farm that aims to generate training opportunities for unemployed young people, transform vacant land into productive growing space and to increase the amount of locally grown food consumed in London.

Operating since March 2011, Cultivate London produces a range of vegetables and herbs, which it sells to London businesses and restaurants.

With two sites currently operating – one on disused land by Brentford Lock and the other National Trust land in Isleworth – Cultivate London say they want to change the way people think about fresh food and where it comes from.

5) Growing Communities Patchwork Farms

The Patchwork farms are small areas of land 10m to 15m across the Hackney area (© Growing Communities)

Urban gardeners and vegetable box producers Growing Communities latest scheme, Patchwork Farms, aims to create urban farms on small areas of disused land.

With several sites currently operating in and around Hackney, including at St Paul’s Church on Stoke Newington High Street and the Castle Climbing Centre on Green Lanes, the scheme not only supplies the Growing Communities’ box scheme with salad, but also sells salad and herbs to local restaurants and cafes.

Always on the look out for new areas for Patchwork Farms including back gardens, estates or church yards – areas of disused land 10 metres by 15 metres – the scheme has recently recruited four new apprentices to start work on the farms next month.

The patchwork farms help support apprentices interested in growing projects (© Growing Communities)

Running alongside the growing projects, the Growing Communities vegetable box scheme aims to support farmers – mainly in Kent and Essex – by harnessing collective buying power in the area, at the same time providing Londoners with fresh, local organic fruit and veg.

Richenda Wilson from Growing Communities explained: “Our box scheme is pick-up only. We deliver bags to pick-up points around Hackney (using our electric milk float) and people come and collect them mainly on foot or bicycle – cutting food miles.

“The members of the scheme also get to meet each other when they pick-up, and many have made connection with like-minded people working in similar areas.”

Contact the author on [email protected] or @rtcc_tierney.

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