Right across the borough of Hackney in north east London there is a ‘patchwork’ of sites which produce salad and related crops on what otherwise would be derelict disused land. The crops are then sold within the borough. The scheme is one of the outputs of Growing Communities, whose offices are located in the heart of the borough in Stoke Newington’s Old Fire Station.
Growing Communities started out in 1996 by setting up a veg box scheme to provide a practical, viable and sustainable alternative to the damaging, supermarket-led food system. It wanted to enhance awareness and understanding of the need for a sustainable and resilient food system to meet the challenges posed by climate change and resource depletion and to prove that such a system could work and thrive. A number of key principles were articulated such as food farmed and produced ‘ecologically’, food sourced locally, seasonally and directly, food production which is both economically viable and independent of corporate interests, and food production which fosters community. With these principles enshrined in Growing Communities, the result is a project which is a resounding demonstration of how community-led trading projects can create real change.
Not only was interest generated in local food, but that interest was at a level which enabled Growing Communities to set up new growing activities within Hackney. The Growing Communities office now not only manages a weekly fruit and veg bag scheme with almost 1000 members alongside a weekly, highly successful Farmers’ Market – both of which are sourced from its own farms or local organic and sustainable growers – but also directly oversees salad and vegetable production from its own Patchwork Farm across Hackney and its newer Dagenham Farm.
The Patchwork Farm which produces a enormously wide range of salad leaves currently consists of two market gardens and ten smaller ‘patches’. The market gardens not only provide a base to the scheme in terms of production resource, but also act as a training facility for young people wanting to become growers. When I was there market garden heads, Paul Bradbury and Sophie Verhagen, had some half dozen apprentices under their supervision in the Hackney Urban Growing Training Scheme. Each site also has a team volunteer helpers.
Once qualified, the aim is to be able to offer the new grower one of the patchwork sites on which to start salad growing. All the sites and the market gardens work in unison with an agreed overall planting scheme so that each one has a unique and sustainable input into the salad packs distributed through the veg box scheme and local outlets. Out of this has been born, Hackney Salad – a sought after, award winning brand!
The programme started off with a small food-growing demonstration plot in Clissold Park in 1997, where it occupied – as it still does – the old nursery area which in the past serviced the floral gardens of the park. In 2010, the scheme also inherited the old butterfly tunnel which was re-skinned and turned into a productive polytunnel. It is now one of the two market garden learning sits and in summer, produce is for sale at the gate of the garden in Clissold Park. Just stop and buy direct from the ground as you walk the dog, push the pram, go to work or just amble by.
Allens Gardens, the other patchwork plot that is a learning garden – and also home to school visits and food-growing tutorials – is in a borough park area of mature yew trees and woodland interspersed with grass and play features. Here there is a self-guided tour to allow visitors to find out more about what is going on while allowing the growers, trainees and volunteer team to carry on working. Growing Communities took over the site in 2004 when it replaced a previous nearby site which was sold by the borough council for housing. The move entailed shifting the entire site, including most of the raised beds, the fruit trees, herbs and over seven tonnes of lovingly cultivated organic topsoil! The site had previously been home to burnt-out litter bins and derelict containers.
I visited both garden learning sites along with two of the smaller network patches, Kynaston and the Castle Climbing Centre. The latter was one of the first patches to be set up. Its location is awesome. The Castle is literally a large castle sat upon a mound of earth which raises it above the Hackney streets. You don’t need a map to find it – you can see it and just head for it. When you enter, its now an indoor climbing centre, so as you walk through to the garden area you walk around and under people hanging from the walls and ceiling! The sight of the south facing slope of the base mound covered in green vegetation as to leave the building then almost feels bizarre. The Climbing Centre themselves have extended the original patch to cover a large area of the mound slopes, and this is run by Ida Fabrizio who shares the original patch alongside with Sonia Cropper.
Kynaston is a small walled garden directly behind the shops and banks of Stoke Newington High Street. Here Sarah Alun-Jones, Farook Bhabha and Hannah Mackie ply their trade and produce fresh green salad leaves on land which was cleared of more than 30 tonnes of brambles, rubble and concrete before importing 30 tonnes of organic compost and, building raised beds and planting fruit trees in spring 2014.
Other sites include an area at Hackney Marshes Tree Nursery, the church house gardens at St Michael’s & All Angels, St Matthew’s and St Paul’s West Hackney, space on Hackney Housing land in Stellman Close, and two sites at numbers 24 and 25 Clapton Square. All have been set up on previously underused spaces on estates, private gardens and church land across Hackney. None provide full time employment to the growers but enable a foot hold to be gained in creating their own businesses growing and gardening around Hackney. Such is the interplay now between the sites that everyone shares their site and its maintenance with at least one other member of the growing squad so that between them they can manage the multitude opportunities involved in running self employed businesses as young growers.
Development of community resilience, business and job creation, growing local food within a city, enhancing the environment…….whichever way you look at it, Growing Communities is a wonderful example of what can be done by combining community education, business and training. Brilliant stuff!!
For more information on Growing Communities and the Patchwork Farm see Growing Communities website