I mentioned Mikey Tomkins’ Edible Map back in May, as one of my favourite maps of food and food-related things. This week I was fortunate enough to be able to take part in his Guided Walk of Edible Hackney, a project joint-funded by SPACE gallery and the Royal Geographical Society.
The background to the walks is Tomkins’ PhD on urban community food-growing, for which he has spent a huge amount of time not only with urban food-growers but also examining the enormous potential that exists in the multitude of unused green spaces.
The walk begins on Warburton Road, just off Mare Street, where I meet the other participants – a member of the Garden Organic staff, a chef from the People’s Kitchen at Passing Clouds, and a volunteer from the Hackney Marsh Edible Forest Garden – an eclectic mix of people with a shared appreciation of proper food, properly produced and fairly distributed. Next to a car park, Tomkins points out the three beehives he manages on the roof of SPACE gallery. Each hive produces 30kg of honey a year, his bees roaming from London Fields to Victoria Park and Hackney Marshes. I learn that bees are very good at filtering pollution, and not so good at filtering pesticides, so an urban honey may in fact have less nasties than your average rural honey which is very likely to have been obtained from at least some pesticide-treated flowers.
From there we head to Warburton House, where the Warburton and Darcy Community Garden is an incredible example of what can be done with the empty green spaces that sit unused in the middle of every housing estate up and down the country. At first glance it seems like a very lovely ornamental garden, with heavily planted up borders and central beds – but on closer examination I find that the majority of plants here are edible – from the thick beds of tomato plants that line the edges of the garden to the fig and plum trees and the impressive growth of runner beans being tended to by an amiable Turkish gentleman while his wife sorts fresh mint.
The Warburton and Darcy Community Garden’s borders are thickly planted with tomatoes and marigolds, while the island beds are made up of everything from figs to chard, runner beans and mint
Through London Fields and onto Sheep Lane, I learn that until 1890 the park was a grazing pasture, hence the names of the surrounding roads (Lamb Lane is perpendicular to Mare Street, slightly further north, and there used to be a Mutton Lane too). We reach Alden House, the first of many blank canvases on the walk which serves as stark contrast to the productivity of the Warburton and Darcy Community Garden, and then to Orwell Court just off Broadway Market, where one resident has planted a little island of tomatoes on the estate’s vast communal lawn, which only highlights how much more could be made of the space. Sadly, Mikey tells us, many of the residents he interviewed throughout his research have a negative response to the planting up of the green spaces, prefering the tidyness of bare lawns to the happy chaos of scrambling courgettes and tumbling lines of runner beans. If the lawns were being used for other purposes by children or anyone else this would be understandable, but the irony is that the spaces are widely neglected.
Alden House on Duncan Road is a potential growing space of 1,100 square meters
At the bottom of Broadway Market, we reach the real gem of the walk – the triangle of housing estates formed by Whiston Road, Pritchard’s Road, Teale Street and Goldsmith’s Row – where little pockets of productivity line the communal grass areas and a range of crops including grapes, cucumbers, runner beans and squash climb over the metal railings that seperate the estates from the pavement. What baffles me most is the fact that I walk down these streets several times a week and I had never noticed what was going on here. Looking closer, we see amaranth, spinach, coriander, strawberries and several types of squash (various sources have identified these as calabash, sorakaya and dudhi among others) which form an integral part of the south east asian diet. Which brings us to the second most striking part of the whole experience. On the whole, the residents who are appropriating the space are immigrant communties, largely Turkish and Bangladeshi, and I wonder why it is that the British residents don’t utilise the space in the same way. We are perpetually reminded that ball games, dogs and the feeding of pigeons will not be tolerated on these lawns, but nowhere on the signs that adorn each of the buildings does it state “No vegetable growing”. We (and I use the operative pronoun uncertainly) have lost the know-how, and the reflex, I suppose still present in many other global communities to take a degree of responsibility for the production of our food – the utilisation of available resources seemingly second-nature elsewhere.
The urban growers who now call this patch of East London home have re-imagined the architecture of the “garden” imposed on them by the local council (who interestingly seem to have no objection to the use of land for food-growing, simply mowing the lawn around the spaces as if they were part of the original 1960s design) and the whole set-up becomes a celebration of ownership, initiative and creativity – an inspiring reminder that we don’t have to wait around for the powers-that-be to set up a “scheme”, a “project” or other form of endorsed initiative in which to contextualise food-growing activities, but rather get on and use the very space that’s under our noses, and is, after all, ours.
squash warming in plastic bags along the Goldsmith’s Row pavement
The spontaneous nature of the garden means that there is no outdoor watering facility in the original design of the space and so this resident must carry water back and forth from her flat
climbing squash on Goldsmith’s Row and masses of tomatoes on a railing on Whiston Road
Calabash (or dudhi) and another unidentified squash on Teale Street
The longer I do this urban food growing thing, the more I find going on. Which makes sense obviously, but I never cease to be amazed by the range and scale of the projects that communities are setting up. The Wilton Estate Orchard (which also includes a sizeable vegetable garden) comprises 7 types of apple, pear and plum trees and is the result of a collaboration between the Wilton Estate Tenants and Residents Association (WETRA), Hackney Homes and the London Orchard Project. This fairly recent charity, founded in 2009, partners up with local authorities and community groups, helping residents set up orchards as well as providing the training they need to maintain and harvest them – their website informs us that in the past London was full of orchards: hospitals, universities, prisons and other institutions each had their own, meeting all their fruit needs.
The orchard is located on an unlikely bit of green space running along the corner of Forest Road and Greenwood Road. What’s nice is that there’s nothing very secret about it at all, it’s right there, opposite the rather good pub and the Costcutter, and yet I bet most people who walk past it daily don’t realise what it is. Heading into the estate you’ll find the slightly more secretive and very lovely vegetable garden which is maintained by the young residents.
The question I get asked the most when working on clients’ gardens is what to do with the shady bit at the back where not much seems to grow. My answer is always the same – there are lots of shade-tolerant herbs that work very well as ground cover, helping to supress weeds, while having the added bonus of contributing something edible to the garden.
When we grow herbs we tend to think first of species such as oregano, mint and rosemary which really thrive in full sun, but many others will do well in partial shade, or even in areas that are in full shade for some of the day.
Angelica archangelica grows as far north as Greenland and Iceland, so clearly the lack of sunlight is not an issue for it. Its vast umbels are attractive and useful for filling space where nothing much grows, the leaves are good in salads and the flowers, which appear in June are tasty brewed into tea. Myrrhis odorata, commonly known as Sweet Cicely, is a very useful herb which can be used in the place of sugar to remove acidity (think stewed apples). Like Angelica, it quickly takes up vertical and horizontal space in shady spots.
Claytonia sibirica is a winter-flowering herb whose succulent leaves are deliciously bitter and make good ground cover. It’s a woodland plant native to North America and Siberia, so again, not a fan of the sun. This species has pink flowers while those of Claytonia perfoliata are white.
Allium ursinum, or wild garlic, is by far one of my favourite plants and I’ve already talked about it here. It carpets British woodland, so ideal for our purposes. Thanks to zebbakes for the picture and the bread-making tips! In the same family, Allium schoenoprasum, or chives, are easy to grow in shady gardens or among leafy vegetables like cabbages and lettuces. The leaves need to be picked regularly during the summer to promote new growth.
A yellow bay tree (Laurus nobilis ‘Aurea’) will do well in partial shade and the leaves add flavour to soups and stews when used fresh or dried, as will the “midwife’s herb”, Motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca), whose pink flowers can be used in cooking or be made into a tea thought to aid treatment for uterine infection.
Three autumns ago, I admitted to myself that what I was doing wasn’t what I wanted to be doing and that if I wanted to start waking up happy and spending my days doing something I loved, a massive U-turn needed to be made.
When I worked in publishing, I dreamt of spending my days with my hands in the earth, surrounded by children, vegetables and compost heaps, instead of in an office, with a stiff back, an uncomfortable chair and grumpy colleagues, agonizing for days over how big the “and” should be on a bit of paper that would only end up in the bin. And then moaning about the whole experience to my less than interested (but very patient) partner.
Three years, one baby, many qualifications and one my-own-company later, it dawned on me quite suddenly over lunch with Naomi this week that I am exactly where I want to be.
With Safi happily in nursery, I am teaching the school groups I’d hoped I’d one day teach, re-designing gardens, getting to know some of London’s most interesting and varied community groups that I barely knew existed three years ago, working with consistently inspiring food-growing projects and getting paid for it. With my post-partum fuzz finally receding I’m not only begininng to see what here is, but also remembering where here used to be – and how very, very grateful I am for the journey.