Calabash and amaranth in Hackney’s very public (private) gardens

by growingpeople

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


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