Please send me SCA's fortnightly briefing:

July 10, 2009

Share the land – grow some food

It’s good for your health, saves money and makes better use of our natural resources. The urge to cultivate food is finding expression in new ways as it becomes clear that councils are unable to meet demand for allotments.  A new scheme – landshare-  matching those who have spare land with those who want to grow their own, proves that the best ideas are the simple ones

Landshare.  Share the land – grow some food

It might not be Michelle Obama’s new White House kitchen garden, or the Queen’s newly dug allotment at Buckingham Palace, but a sorry-looking Georgian walled garden near Stirling is slowly coming back to life. Thirty years of neglect have decimated its original box hedges, caused its 18th-century walls to crumble and covered its acre of fertile soil in impenetrable turf – while, in the nearby orchard, plum, pear, apple and cherry trees, some 100 years old, are overgrown and fruitless.

Look beyond the decay, though, and it’s just possible to spot the green shoots of recovery. Neat squares of dark brown earth are already bringing forth beans, peas, beetroots, potatoes, carrots and herbs. Plastic bottle tops and netting protect young plants and it’s clear that, at long last, this beautiful old kitchen garden is returning to its glorious past.

“This used to be a wonderful garden full of seasonal produce and tended by a full-time gardener,” says Pippa Maclean.  “When I moved in three years ago it was down at heel and in need of a lot of TLC, but we simply couldn’t find anyone reliable to help us,” continues Maclean. All that changed, however, when a friend steered the Macleans towards Landshare, an online project matching landowners with growers set up by the broadcaster, writer and food campaigner Hu ghFearnley- Whittingstall. Maclean posted an advertisement asking for growers, then sat back and crossed her muddy fingers.

“I got 25 replies in the space of three days,” she recalls. “And within another day I’d met my four new collaborators. Now I can’t imagine life without them. Landshare has given me the impetus to get this garden up and running again. They say it takes 10 years to make a garden, but I reckon we can do it in three.”

Step forward Stenhousemuir postman Kevin Doughty, 45, and his partner Althea Davis, 37, along with Stirling immunology student Kirsty Robb, 26, and her partner, abattoir stocksman John Murie, also 26. They responded to Maclean as potential growers, and are delighted to have been given the opportunity to work the ancient land at Quarter. Aptly, the walled garden has been divided into four and each couple has a plot of around 100 square feet.

“This is beyond our wildest dreams,” says Doughty. He is a vegetarian and Davis, an environmental historian and archaeologist at Stirling University, is vegan, so they are keen to grow all their own vegetables organically. The growing space they have at home is cramped. “When we signed up for Landshare, we thought we’d maybe be lucky to get someone’s council-house back garden to tend. To get 100 square feet is every grower’s dream,” he says.

Robb and Murie also have limited space at home and have been growing potatoes in bags and carrots in wellington boots. “When I saw this place I was absolutely gobsmacked, as it’s much bigger than we anticipated,” says Robb. “It’s great to work alongside another couple because we can buddy each other at this initial stage, when there is so much work to do. Pippa is great, too, because she keeps us motivated.”

Indeed, the six have become firm friends, delighting in the knowledge that they would not have met without Landshare. “We weren’t intimidated by the house or garden, just surprised,” says Doughty. “We never knew the house even existed. The first thing friends asked us was, Is it not a nightmare to work up there?’ but we don’t think so. It’s a fantastic opportunity. Pippa is so enthusiastic but we all manage together.”

They began work on their plots only last month but already they have made significant progress. “Since we started late in the growing season, our plan is not to plant everything this year,” says Doughty. “Once the turf is all dug up, we’ll plant green manure to help recondition the soil.”

Horse, cow and slurry manure is being supplied by Henry Harris from his organic farm at neighbouring Wellsfield, while Ivor Scott, a stonemason, is repairing the wall. Mike Bisset, a professional fencer, will construct fruit cages for the new raspberry and strawberry plants.

How did Maclean choose who to work with? “I just got the vibes,” she replies cheerfully. “I felt they wouldn’t have been serious if they hadn’t registered on the Landshare website.” A detailed contract was signed by all parties, which states that no money can be exchanged between growers and landowners. The Macleans will receive 25% of the produce grown, and it will be used to feed family, friends and guests in the B&B business Pippa runs from the house. “It’s a win-win situation for us all.”

Up the road in Inverness-shire, Tim and Wendy Dearman’s rural cottage garden near Alness has three neglected vegetable plots being tended by computer engineer Tom Busza, who lives in a flat above a pub in the centre of Inverness. Once again, they found each other through Landshare.

“The beds have been redundant for ages because we’re so busy running our coach company,” explains Wendy. “We are on old, original croft-sized land situated near a river with woodland, so it’s a mild climate for growing. Having Tom has motivated me to repair and maintain the greenhouse. He’s already got one of the plots up and running, and has started clearing the docks and weeds on the others. Brassicas and aubergines growing in the greenhouse are almost ready for him to plant out.”

Busza, 59, is also growing broad and runner beans, leeks, onions, courgettes and sweetcorn, and plans potatoes for one of the plots. “I spend all day driving around the country and sitting in front of computers, and gardening really gets me away from it all,” he says. “I only have windowsills to grow on at the flat and it’s great to have this space. There’s no mobile-phone signal here, which is an added bonus.”

Wendy is delighted with the progress so far. “More and more people are growing their own vegetables, as we all did during the war,” she says. “People are gradually coming back to real food and cooking nice things with fresh produce, but we still know some young people who don’t know that peas are grown in gardens, not tins.”

Landshare was launched by Fearnley-Whittingstall as a solution to the problem of Britain’s lack of allotments, on a rising tide of enthusiasm for growing vegetables. Almost 38,000 people have registered online already, and comments posted on the website testify to the increasing desperation of would-be growers, who outnumber landowners by approximately two to one.

Living in Stenhousemuir, Kevin Doughty falls under the Falkirk Council area – which is unique in Scotland for having no allotments. Two years ago, he formed the Falkirk Allotment Society with the aim of changing that, but has had little success. “We have 70 people signed up and another 100 notes of interest, and we hoped to put pressure on the council, but nothing has happened yet,” he says. “I’ve spent the past two years on committees trying to persuade the council to release land, and yet within hours with Landshare we got our fantastic site just up the road.”

In Glasgow, only 27% of the population has access to a garden, yet in some areas of the city there is a nine-year waiting list for an allotment, and the situation is similar in Edinburgh. Glasgow has 24 allotment sites, translating into 1320 plots; the most recent survey, in 2007, showed 652 people on waiting lists.

Glasgow City Council’s Allotment Strategy and Action Plan, approved on June 12, states a commitment to improving allotment sites and increasing their availability, but it also concedes that new funding will have to be found. “We know how important allotments are in Glasgow and the contribution they make to the health and wellbeing of the local community.” says James McNally, executive member of Land and Environmental Services.

In the Gorbals area of the city, though, there is just one allotment site: Oatlands Leisure Gardens, which has been working successfully since the late 1980s. The council has given a property-development company a 99-year lease on the surrounding land, for regeneration and the construction of luxury apartments. As part of the agreement, the allotments are to be moved to a smaller site, and the number of plots reduced from 20 to 14.

When surrounding buildings were demolished last year, the plots were exposed to the elements – and to vandalism. Greenhouses were smashed, sheds were razed to the ground, the storage area and clubhouse were burned out, tools were stolen and the polytunnel was ripped apart. Meanwhile, the move to the new site has been postponed, because of a slow-down in the regeneration process caused by the downturn in the housing market. “Allotment holders feel disheartened,” says Judy Wilkinson, secretary of the Glasgow Allotments Forum. “They feel that with the downturn in the housing market and the increase in demand for allotments, they should not accept a smaller, new site but instead should get a new site in addition to the original site. The evidence is all around us that people are desperate for land to grow on.”

Scottish Allotments and Gardens Society

Federation of City Farms and Community Gardens