Friday, 26 May 2017

How to... grow green

A community garden in east London is teaching residents how to grow their own fruit and vegetables and working with social landlords to find land for them to cultivate. Jess McCabe reports

For the price of a supermarket cauliflower, you can buy 200 good quality cauliflower seeds, points out Paula Yassine. With an 80 per cent guaranteed success rate, the gardener calculates, ‘that’s an awful lot of cauliflowers!’

Ms Yassine is the shy senior horticulture therapist at St Mary’s Secret Garden in Hackney. When Sustainable Housing visits on a sun-soaked summer’s day, she is ready to plant, in old shorts and sandals. The garden is just 0.7 acres, but is packed with sweet smelling flowers, along with more functional vegetable beds. Bees buzz around lavender bushes, while St Mary’s birds almost drown out the noises from the main road - the garden is tucked between blocks of housing, only a few minutes’ walk from Hoxton station.

Open daily to the public, the independent garden grows and sells salad and vegetables, and for the past 15 years has run gardening placements for north Londoners with mental health problems and learning disabilities. The garden is a circular design, so visitors with Alzheimer’s can’t get lost.

St Mary’s latest project, Estate to Plate, aims to use the garden as a base to equip Hackney residents with the skills to establish mini-allotments on little-used areas of their estates. It will also make use of community kitchens installed in some tower blocks to set up cooking clubs. The two-year project is managed by charity Shoreditch Trust. St Mary’s role in the £270,000 lottery-funded initiative, explains Ms Yassine, is to run a training course, free for Hackney residents, and mostly aimed at tenants of three nearby high-rise estates. About eight people have signed up to the first course.

The project is one of a wave of community-scale initiatives to grow food in the middle of the city. Capital Growth, a scheme supported by London mayor Boris Johnson, says it is close to achieving its target of 2,012 new community food growing spaces by the end of 2012. It is working on a report about the benefit of such gardens for social landlords, which will be published later this year.

Back at Estate to Plate, residents on the first level of the course will pick up basic gardening skills, like working the soil, ‘success with seeds’, and how to cook your harvest. The second level teaches participants the skills to set up their own growing or cooking club on their estate - and it’s accredited by City & Guilds, so could help tenants secure a gardening job.

Get Growing, a social enterprise which has been growing food on Hackney estates for about four years is Estate to Plate’s other partner. Alex Collins from the organisation has already been whipping up interest through a series of drop-in workshops on three nearby estates: Fellow’s Court, which looks down directly on the garden and King’s Mead, both managed by arm’s-length management organisation Hackney Homes, and Somerford, owned by the housing association Sanctuary.

Ms Collins explains the main benefit is that ‘people are outside, active, enjoying the outside space, which is positive for many estates’. She adds: ‘Growing together brings people together.’

Edouard Guidon from the Shoreditch Trust, explains that the project will also ‘refurbish some community kitchens on estates with a view to encourage residents to make use of them. We knew there were lots of kitchens out there that were of catering grade, and could do with being used.’

However, the whole scheme depends on the co-operation of the social landlords that own the estates. Ms Yassine notes: ‘There are lots of green patches on estates that are just mowed that could be utilised a bit more. Even if it’s just sticking some orchard trees in, that the community can use. [Some are] just weird no-man’s land patches - put a gate in and stick in some fruit trees. Or let people put raised beds in.’

‘If someone goes along and asks, “can I dig up that lawn and plant courgettes on it?”, landlords can worry about issues such as liability,’ explains Rob Hopkins, who runs Transition Network, an organisation which works to make towns more resilient to sustainability challenges. But having an established organisation behind you with a proven track record, like Estate to Plate’s partners, can help soothe those worries.

So far, Estate to Plate, which has a hyper- local focus in this corner of Hackney, has managed this well. Philip Glanville, a councillor at the local authority, says: ‘Hackney Homes continues to support initiatives such as the Estate to Plate scheme… benefiting local residents by allowing them to grow their own healthy food. This is a great example of community cohesion and engagement and demonstrates what can be achieved through working together.’

Ms Yassine explains, however, that the main hurdle is simply getting people gardening. ‘I think people are just a little bit afraid to try.’

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