Saturday, 27 February 2016

The Parks Conundrum

Last week I attended an RHS Britain in Bloom Seminar where much of what was spoken of was the incredible work being done by the many friends of parks groups across the country and the volunteers who spend huge amounts of their time working in those parks and gardens. Of course often britain in bloom is led by councils, but in one form or another it relies on a huge force of volunteers to do much of the manual labour and create these amazing town centres and neighbourhoods that win awards each year.
So first some facts I picked up....
Britain in Bloom sees over 28,000 volunteers each do an average of 65.9 hours in parks countrywide. Each volunteer hour is worth £13.10.
That's over 915,000 volunteering days.
There are 571 groups working in parks across the UK,-a number which has steadily increased since numbers began in 2006, to now have 30% more active groups across the country.
The economic value of friends of parks group is seen as £45.7million
The average group looks after 18 acres.
last year they planted over 3 million bulbs.
Between them they have raised over £1.5 million for parks across the UK.
Lister Park, Bradford and it's Mughal Water Gardens

So this must be all good?
Well yes of course it is. Parks groups are a vital part of park teams today, and are, without a doubt, the driving force behind changes in parks nationwide. Just here in Bristol we have seen parks address anti-social behaviour through planting, gain village green status, become community assets handed over to communities to run. We even have an Edible Park that I am working on with Incredible Edible Bristol, leased to us for 5 years. There are equivalent places all across the UK, that are seeing people power move the parks movement forwards.
But what seemed slightly sad to me, and looking around the city here I see this in reality, is that the successful parks groups are in a very definite demographic and whilst this is not in itself an issue, I wonder how we make these groups more diverse and bring in our rich minority cultures to the conversation. After all our parks are for all, rich, poor, young and old and historically were there to ensure that there was green space in our cities for all to enjoy. With 70% of our population likely to live in urban and suburban areas by 2050, and in the knowledge that we need nature in our lives to be well both mentally and physically, we need to ensure that parks don't become seen as the home of the middle classes and that they remain truly accessible to all.

My question is how do we achieve this in a way that isn't patronising and top down? How do we engage communities with parks and gardens when they feel disengaged. And more importantly how do we ensure that those spaces are what is needed by all the communities in a city? Where it's great to see anti-social behaviour being dealt with by introducing large swathes of planting to discourage certain elements, how do we engage with the problems to ensure they have a place to go. By doing that are we just squeezing that anti-social behaviour into a park where there is no park group to deal with those issues?

For certain working in parks is not easy. Our Incredible Edible Bristol Edible Park is right in the middle of the city and for sure has been a space that has seen huge issues in it. When we took it over the park was hidden behind a huge swathe of shrubs that had never been pruned and it was impossible to see into the space. We spent the first day we were there collecting needles, tins that had been used to take crack, bottles, cans and rubbish whilst chopping back the undergrowth to make the space feel safer and more inclusive. It would have been easy to chase the addicts and the drinkers from the space, but rather than doing that and alienating people, we have worked around and with some really challenging people, all of whom we are filling the park with food for. We have taken specialist advice, learnt where to signpost people to, have emergency numbers and, I hope, we are completely non judgemental. There have been moments of real fear, but also of quite extraordinary joy as we have gained trust whilst starting to create a space which I hope will be one that is completely unique.
The edible park before....

The Edible Park with work begun..
With parks having lost a total of £59million in cuts and with some cities such as Liverpool, which in 2 years will have a parks budget of zero, our parks are in real danger. Bit it isn't just our parks that are in danger. Horticulture has traditionally been taught by parks teams, taking on apprentices and working with them as they rose through the ranks. Whilst bedding schemes and seaside type planting may not be to all our tastes, this was the place where gardening professionals began their careers, sowing seeds and taking cuttings, planting, weeding, maintaining in all weathersas part of a team that took huge pride in it's work.The loss of these teams is not only sad for horticulture either, but for the towns and cities that no longe have the joy of their parks and gardens being cared for by real horticulturists who knew when and why to carry out tasks based on the seasons, rather than vans full of slash and burn type gardeners who are either on a mower or 'pruning' with a hedge trimmer. With the lack of funds available to parks, who knows where this crisis might lead, but whilst many people's view of amenity horticulture is that of the slash and burn, how can we expect young people to see horticulture as a valid career choice I wonder?
Bedding scheme in Bristol

I digress. What is so great about Britain in Bloom is the way it has increased civic pride and to some extent moved responsibilty for our parks and gardens into the hands of people. These shared spaces, although sadly missing in many places their parkies and park teams, are being pushed forwards in exciting ways by people, proving that in reality people can make real change when given the opportunity, which Bloom has definitely begun to make possible. What I personally would like to see is the RHS ensuring that the parks in our towns and cities more marginalised areas can also have local people working on them with the support of the RHS where needed and bringing in other local organisations to help where appropriate. Wouldn't it be great to see local schools, youth groups and minority groups working alongside what are left of parks teams, to not only make beautiful spaces but also to learn horticultural skills which could lead to employment or an exciting new hobby. If we are serious about reinvigorating horticulture and keeping our public parks and gardens exciting and inclusive spaces, isn't this the way to move forwards?

Wednesday, 24 February 2016

Why I've come over all Heirloom!

I hinted in my last post that I was concentrating on heirloom varieties this year and I thought I would write a short post on why.
I am allotmentless which is a bizarre and uncomfortable state of affairs but one I am having to learn to live with for now, but I do have a new garden. Obviously having a new garden is exciting but it is the typical garden of a rented house, with lots of lawn that has never been looked after, and some odd bits and pieces of plants that make little sense and have never been looked after, so all need a blooming good prune to stop them flowering 30ft in the air! They have all had a bit of a remedial prune but until I have seen them through a season, I don't want to do too harsh a prune although I am going to lose a couple of things because they are completely out of control. We have already found one border that we didn't realise was there, and there are a couple of other places where the lawn has obviously had borders begun to be dug out, but that are now just full of weeds. Those will be my next bit to tackle. But the odd, and yet interesting bit about the garden is it is on two levels, with the bottom level and the bottom lawn having a large, semi raised, south facing bed in it which will be perfect for veg. So at the moment the plan is to put veg in the lower part and ornamentals in the top. I am never quite sure where the line between veg and ornamentals is so there will, inevitably, be some cross over, but that, at the moment, is the basic, very simplistic, plan.
Some of last year's harvest.
So I am going from full sized allotment plot to an area that is probably 4/5m sq so my usual habit of buying seeds I like the look of a flinging them in needs to be controlled. There is no point sowing trays and trays of seedlings that just won't get used, and although they could obviously be used for Incredible Edible Bristol beds, there also needs to be a line between that and what I do at home, so limiting myself is really necessary. Knowing that I have been gifted the American heirloom seeds that are #RonsToms and that I am taking part in Rob Smith's seed trials of heirloom varieties, it seems sensible to continue that theme of heirloom varieties in order to limit myself and stick with a plan that can also be a bit of an ongoing project in terms of looking at how they perform and documenting that.
The Lower Terrace!!
What I am most interested in is how long varieties have been in production and what the seed merchants say are the redeeming features that make them worth keeping going, as well as how easy they are to grow and whether or not they taste good, or in any way different from more modern varieties. And I want to know what they look like because what I really want is a beautiful area that is also productive because I am determined this garden will be stunning.
But before I can do this I need to barrow in a ton of soil to the veg beds!! Back soon.....

Sunday, 21 February 2016

Keeping the Black Dog at Bay with #RonsToms

I woke up this morning with a small sense of impending doom. A bit anxious and a bit fidgety. Wanting to get out of bed and yet really wanting to stay under the duvet and hide.
Completely overwhelmed but not sure by what.
I got out of bed and got back in again.
Eventually the need for tea was too much and I got up but ended up under a blanket on the sofa, just with tea in my hand.
I quite often have days like this, but usually have to ride rough shod over them in order to get to something but today there was nowhere to go. Nothing to hide behind.
So I did a load of work. I updated the events section of the Incredible Edible Bristol website, scheduled Facebook posts and Twitter updates, firmed up my diary for the week ahead. After around 3 hours I was still anxious, and had nothing left to do in terms of work, so I forced myself to look at what the problem was........
Sometimes when the black dog is around I really want to do something but I can't. Physically it is as if my body and brain work against me to persuade me that I must do a zillion other things rather than actually do the thing that will make me feel better, more in control.
So I took myself off to a local garden centre, thinking that a bit of plant therapy might help, but however hard I kept thinking about what I might need for the garden it was impossible to make a decision. I bought potatoes for one of the beds we are working on in the city centre and came home.
And then I remembered some seeds that I had. Last summer I was sent some American heirloom tomato seeds from Ron Finley in LA in a package along with a t-shirt. I had kept those seeds safe since then and through our move thinking that they would be grown on the allotment this year, probably in the greenhouse and then it occured to me that actually my issue for the day had mainly been that I was panicking about not having an allotment. Not the kind of earth shattering all consuming panic that can knock you off your feet, but that slow, niggling panic that really makes you have to work out the issue which will often hide behind other things and catch you out.
Of course I have a new garden and I have a greenhouse in it, but having had an allotment for the best part of 20 years I realise now that the plot sized space in my life is huge and gaping right now. Us allotmenteers have the seasons embedded within us and this is the time of year when usually I'd be barrowing large amounts of muck around the plot to keep warm, beginning things off in the greenhouse and making plans for the growing year ahead whilst drinking copious amounts of tea in my shed and the black dog, in it's usual cheeky way, has jumped on the fact that there is a gap in my usual schedule and jumped into it.

So I found those seeds, along with a few others and sowed them. Popped them into pots of soft, seived seed sowing compost, popped their labels in and watered them whilst whispering "grow you buggers, grow," as taught to me by Alan Titchmarsh whilst watching him plant a tree on one of his shows. I never plant or sow anything without that phrase.
And immediately I felt that black dog start to disappear. So I sowed some crimson flowered broad beans too and popped a mashua root into some compost too whilst I was outside and playing with soil. And then, in a way I have never done before, I popped my seed potatoes into egg boxes and put them on the kitchen windowsill to chit so that they are ready for the potato sacks I am going to grow them in. I sorted out my seeds and looked at what I can grow in the garden, and what I could grow in containers and had a long think about what and why I was going to grow if I don't get an allotment this year, which is very definitely possible. I haven't quite made a strategy but I have decided I am going to look at growing mainly heirloom varieties and there will be a blog about that at some point in the fairly near future.
And then I felt better and again it occured to me how fortunate I am to have gardening in my life. not just professionally, but as a human being who needs that connection with soil, with the earth and with nature. If there is one thing I am determined to do this year it is work with others who have yet to be able to access the therapy that growing plants, be they edible or ornamental, is. There will be more on that soon too, but in the meantime I'm glad I made myself have an honest conversation with myself today because I have sent that black dog packing and that makes today a good day!!

If anyone might like to know, the tomato seeds are all cherry varieties from a selection of US nurseries. They are T. Red Pear, T. Isis Candy and T. Black Cherry and if you want to follow how they grow I will be documenting here and also on Twitter with the hashtag #RonsToms which was coined by Alison Levey of The Blackberry Garden blog fame!!

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

The Stapleton Floods.......

The Stapleton floods I hear you ask? What are you going on about? Let me explain....
Yesterday Jamie Milton, the allotment rep at Stapleton Allotments, (the plot I have left), tweeted me with some really shocking photos of the site. Now it has to be said that historically some of the land on site on the opposite site to Jamie's plot has always had a bit of a flooding issue, with my plot being one that regularly struggled a bit when we have had a lot of rain, but none of us on site, and remember some have been there since 1967, have ever seen anything like this on this side of the land. Huge puddles of water just sitting there in that stubborn way that flood water does. Crops looking as if they were rotting in the ground surrounded by water.
So I asked for the photos to be emailed to me and looking at the picture below it suddenly occured to me that what we see in front of us is inevitably I should think, a part of the problem.
If you look closely at the photo the area of land to the back is Sims Hill, part of the city of Bristol's Blue Finger land, that rich, fertile and precious land we fought for last year. The land at Sims Hill has been devasted in order to make a bus only junction and bridge across the M32, and in being prepared has had huge amounts of trees and shrubs removed, so any water coming down the hill will undoubtedly now rush rather than being caught and held by vegetation.
My understanding of road building and engineering is limited but having listened to others and read lots about how rewilding is necessary to help stop flooding in the north of the UK it seems to me that the ecological devastion of this hillside has to have something to do with these flooded allotments.
Sims Hill previously. Photo by Harry Phillips

Sims Hill after the work. Photo by Harry Phillips

The sight of the land is devastating, but these floods now pose their own questions. What might this flood water be contaminated with and how will the land be repaired if there are contaminants? And more vitally how will this be stopped from happening in future years as we see the UK, and particularly the south west, having ever warmer and wetter winters. Fortunately the allotments are on best and most versatile soil, and as such should withstand the floods and not lose fertility, but for how long can land withstand this sort of treatment? This is supposed to be progress, moving the city forward, but in reality it is a mess and there appears to have been little thought about how the work might alter or change the land surrounding the road. It seems to me this could have been predicted and safeguarded from happening with a little forethought and environmental care.
But I think this sight also poses another question. Whilst there is no doubt that there is a huge interest in allotments and growing food generally from people countrywide, over and again we see councils and large unelected organisations looking at taking allotment land and building on it. The fight to save Farm Terrace allotments in Watford is ongoing whilst the plot holders at Coombe continue in their fight to keep hold of allotments that are of true historical significance. Plots in Isleworth at Park Road are newly threatened and it appears weekly that there are new sites coming under threat. It's as if the significance of food growing is lost on those who have the power to change things.
Recently I had a very interesting and insightful conversation with someone of significance here in Bristol, who said it was hard to look at food as it fails to come under an umbrella group. I fear my face gave me away as I looked at this person and commented that surely food umbrellas everything, as it is the one thing that we all need 3 times a day. But my guess is that as we have given our food system away to large corporate organisations, the importance of locally grown, let along home grown food, is somewhat lost at these levels, so allotment land, even if it has historical significance or is best and most versatile, grade 1 soil, just becomes land that is ripe for development.
I fear for this land as I fear for the food system. Our food culture is slipping away along with the general populace having the skills to both grow and cook. The mere thought that this land might flood was never considered because those in power fail over and over to see the significance of food growing or the issues within the food system because they do not even consider that to be within their remit. The reality is that these people are happy to say food comes from one of the big 4 supermarkets because they can hand that responsibilty over to them in the hope that they will do the right thing.
Jamie Milton's plot-one of the most beautiful in the city, devastated by flooding.
So what can we do?
At moments like this it's important, I think, to understand the power of tiny steps along with the knowledge that we all have a voice that can be heard. Support your local allotment site, if not by taking on a plot, then by going to open days and talking to the plot holders. Be aware of your local food producers and the land on which they grow. Be aware of the significance of urban and peri-urban soils in the UK and their significantly high levels of fertility and be prepared to fight for that. Sign petitions, lobby councillors and politicians, demand that food is grown in your children's schools and that food is an important part of the curriculum. Cooment on plans for new development and ask where the food growing land is for that development. Talk to other people about why this is so significant for the future food security of our land.
A wise man (Ron Finley) once said "kids that grow kale, eat kale". Let's make sure our future generations still have healthy allotment land to grow that kale on..........

Jamie Milton's plot last summer-just feet from the M32 but an ecological and food growing paradise.

Monday, 8 February 2016

Pete Lawrence's 'The Allotment Cookbook'

It's always lovely to be sent a book for review and I was chuffed to bits to be sent Pete Lawrence's new book, not just because I know that we share a love of food growing, but because I was genuinely fascinated to see how the growing and the recipes might be knitted together to make a whole growing and cooking experience. I often find this a bit stilted in many plot to plate cook books and find that one outweighs the other uncomfortably, so I wanted to know how it was how the author was going to tackle this as someone who does both so successfully. 

What I find fascinating and yet somewhat sad to say the least, is that often folk who happily call themselves 'foodies' very often aren't at all engaged with where their food is grown or how. Having again and again been involved in food festivals talking about Incredible Edible Bristol and growing, it never fails to leave me saddened when parents hurry children past the grow your own table where you can sow a seed or make a self watering container, and yet reappear an hour or so later laden with goodies to take home, and I hope cook with. They seem completely disengaged from that powerful moment when seed, soil and water meet and the utter magic of growing something to eat begins.
Pete Lawrence is, of course, submerged daily in this foodie world, having worked with giants of the TV chef world including Nigella Lawson, The Hairy Bikers and the great, I think, Nigel Slater. So, I wondered, as an allotmenteer how would he make the foodie and the grower meet? 
What I think he does is sprinkle magic on both growing and cooking by making them merge seamlessly into one thing. The book is gentle and lilting and explains why the author feels the connection between the earth, growing and seasonal cooking of what has been grown is so vital. "When you hum the same tune as nature-get into its rhythm-then you will learn to savour produce at its very best", he says and all of us involved in food growing will nod and agree to those sage like words. 
The book begins with a great introduction to Pete, seasonality and his allotment, and then leads the reader through the seasons, with what to plant and harvest sections. Within each season is a section about that season, great articles about individual vegetables, herbs edible flowers and some wonderful recipes that really speak of the season in which they are placed. In the summer section, for example, there's a piece about the tomatoes the author loves to grow, alongside a range of tomato recipes that will take you from your first pickings through to using up any glut at the end with a great chutney 

Turning page after page there are refreshingly simple recipes that the reader knows will taste rich and fulfilling as they make the best of great, British ingredients that allotments are full of all year around. Great titles such as Autumn En Croute, a pastry parcel filled with squash, peppers,mushrooms and goats cheese, and Frighteningly Good Pumpkin Stew make the reader delve into the recipe and get involved. 
It's probably also worth commenting that you could buy this book for a newbie allotment holder, inspiring them to grow delicious crops whilst they dream of the recipes they are destined for. I often get asked by new growers what they should grow, and this book gives inspiration and aspiration to that new allotment holder or gardener.
So would I buy this book? 
The answer without doubt is yes, and not only would I buy it for me but also for others who I know would revel in its honesty and gentleness, it's authors appreciation of the seasons and the individual seasons produce. It's a refreshing look at seasonality, that sadly oft lost thing that supermarkets ignore, but that those of us who grow, or aspire  to grow, find not just fascinating but grounding and focusing.