December 14, 2020
Community growing – the new cool
Whenever a new list of the most-this-or-that place on the planet is published, it’s wise to treat it with a healthy dose of scepticism. These lists are also, irritatingly, a little compulsive. But when a neighbourhood in Glasgow’s East End appears at number eight in TimeOut’s List of the world’s 40 coolest neighbourhoods, all doubts about its veracity disappear out the window. And one factor that has contributed to the emergence of Dennistoun as the place to hang out is Alexandra Park Food Forest – just one more example of Scotland’s ever expanding community food growing movement.
When Dennistoun, in Glasgow’s East End, appeared at number 8 in TimeOut’s 2020 list of ‘Coolest Neighbourhoods in the World Right Now’, the Alexandra Park Food Forest received a special mention as an example of this cool-ness. Many Voices Many Kitchens had the pleasure of chatting to founder and director Clem Sandison about how the Food Forest has continued to engage their local community, their permaculture principles, and a delicious recipe for french apple pudding!
SWK: Could you describe the Alexandra Park Food Forest for me?
Clem: Alexandra Park itself is a green space in the East End of Glasgow, and we started planting the Food Forest there in 2016, with the idea being to create the most regenerative possible way of producing food while also benefiting biodiversity and wildlife. Which is different from a community garden with raised beds, because it’s in a public park and is therefore fully accessible at all times. Instead it’s more like a community orchard, although we’re also integrating different food plants beyond just fruit trees. It’s all still a work in progress, but the main thing is that it’s all designed using permaculture principles, which includes things like preserving soil quality and protecting biodiversity while also building good community relationships and allowing for equitable distribution of resources between people.
SWK: What does this mean in practical, day-to-day terms?
C: It means that people can come and harvest things for free! Which itself means that there’s also an education process where we look to teach people about the right time to harvest things, as well as what’s available and how it can be used. We’re also developing more perennial beds for edible and medicinal plants, which once again ties back to the education side of things as well. So really, the Food Forest is only partly about food production, with the rest of it being about creating and maintaining a biodiverse green space while also building up local community knowledge and spirit.
SWK: What made you want to do something a bit different from a community garden?
C: I’m really interested in how public parks can be used for more productive growing purposes, but the thing about community gardens and allotments is that it’s harder to do them in a completely publicly accessible space. We didn’t want to have as many structures as a traditional community garden, instead we wanted it to be as naturalised to the local environment as possible and to require very little maintenance. So that means that instead of raised beds, for example, we just try to integrate edible plants, trees and bushes into the pre-existing landscape.
SWK: Could you tell me more about that pre-existing landscape?
C: It’s a big open grassy area, about an acre in size and surrounded by mature trees – which makes it a real sun trap! People walk through it at all times of the day, kids play there, and there are always loads of things going on, so we wanted to keep that full accessibility in place. It also means that planting new trees for the Food Forest just suits the site in a very natural way.
I do think that it would be really nice to see more community orchard style planting in other parks, because it doesn’t infringe on public access, whereas with things like community gardens and allotments you need to consider fences and boundaries a bit more. Which is important as well, of course, but it’s just not what we were looking for. At Alexandra Park we had wildflower meadows and trees here already, so our job was just to integrate plants around that.
SWK: How did you go about designing the Food Forest and how have you found the educational side of community engagement?
C: Before we planted anything we did a four-day design course, which involved twelve people from the community over four weekends and included things like a visit to another food forest and permaculture demonstration site, as well as different observational activities around Alexandra Park as well. All of that really helped to make the project feel really collaborative, while also giving us practical advice on how to actually use permaculture as a framework. We worked with Lusi Alderslowe on that, who’s an amazing permaculture teacher.
Since then, we’ve tried to organise our own activities to encourage people to think about food and parks in a different way as well. For instance, we try not to have any bare soil at any point, so we do a lot of things like mulching to keep the soil healthy, which is a bit different from how a lot of people see gardening. So in order to do that we first had to set up volunteer days to teach people about no-dig, low-input soil-care methods. We’re at the stage now where most of our board members have knowledge of permaculture, so we do just put ourselves in that position to organise volunteers, so in that sense what we’re doing isn’t really formal training, it’s more just sharing events with people and being open about what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.
SWK: Would you say that there’s a heritage aspect to the Food Forest as well?
C: In a way, definitely. We have a variety of heritage apples and pears and we’re always very careful to source them from Scottish nurseries – particularly Andrew Lear in Perthshire, who’s done loads of work on heritage fruits and reviving historical apples.
In terms of the actual park itself, it’s interesting because it’s never been built on. So it’s always been a park, and before then it would’ve just been part of the countryside. We’ve looked at maps from the 1800’s that show sheepfolds on the site so it looks like it’s likely to have been farmland at some point too. Because of that, it’s quite unique in Glasgow, as a lot of the land used for communal growing here often has to be raised up above the ground because the soil has been contaminated from industrial use. We’re lucky we don’t have to do that, so our job is more just to preserve and rebuild the soil that’s taken a hammering from being mowed for decades and hasn’t had much put back into it in terms of nutrients. Before we began the Food Forest the park was really just a short grass monoculture with very little plant diversity.
SWK: How did you go about changing that monoculture?
C: We got wood-chip mulch from local tree surgeons for free, which is nice. So whenever they brought a load to us we just topped up all the trees in order to build up a thick layer of compost which then fed the soil organisms and improved the water filtration. This then created a much healthier environment for all the trees, where the soil resembled natural woodland rather than the compacted, clay-like, depleted soil that had been there for years previous.
SWK: How has COVID and lockdown affected the Food Forest?
C: On the negative side it means we haven’t been able to do any of the activities or events we would normally do. But then on the positive side, from what I’ve seen, the whole park has been used a lot more, which is great! I think especially during Summer there was just a higher amount of people looking to make use of green spaces across the city, so we would get things like people doing yoga and kids playing in the willow dome and it was all just visibly a lot busier!
We also had a lot more requests from people to volunteer, once again probably because so many people are stuck at home and looking to reconnect with nature and their local community in some way. Which was frustrating because at the height of it all we weren’t able to do much volunteering anyway! But it’s also good because it shows that we’ve managed to continue to engage with the community through the year.
SWK: It must help that you’re in such a publicly accessible space as well?!
C: Definitely! We have open areas for picnics and instead of benches we have mobile wooden logs, and what we found was that while we normally place them all in one specific area, during the first lockdown people started to organically move them to different spots without any intervention at all! So you could really see all these small groupings of logs in different areas, all spaced out to adhere to social distancing!
Small things like that made me happy, because it was due to how we designed the space and our decision to make use of those wooden logs that meant people were able to safely get together in groups.
SWK: On the food side of things, do you specifically produce anything for yourself? Or is it more just offering out the raw food to the local community so that they can use it however they wish?
C: To be honest, the trees aren’t old enough yet to have a huge amount of surplus. And we’re also finding that people tend to harvest things a bit too early, which is an ongoing dilemma for us. On the one hand it’s understandable, as people will see an apple that looks ripe so they’ll pick it without knowing that it’s still quite sour and not ready yet! So we try to put signs on the trees advising on the best picking times, which works for a while. But people are just really excited to be able to have apples for free, so even then they tend to get picked early. None of this will be a problem when the trees get a bit older, but for now it means that we just don’t have enough to make our own products. We will get to that stage eventually, and because we have seventy-four trees, by the time they’ve all matured we’ll end up with so much surplus that we can hopefully do loads of other things with them. We will definitely always let people pick their own to do whatever they want with, but I’m excited to be able to use the leftovers to make juice or chutneys, or even just to donate to local schools!
SWK: Outside of lockdown, how has overall community engagement been, especially during the early days of the project?
C: Well whenever we’ve had an event or workshop organised we’ve always had great attendance and engagement, but where it has been more difficult is getting people to take on the organisational and admin roles. People really want to do the physical work and mulch and prune, so stuff like that we have no problems filling in, but getting someone to take up a longer-term, behind-the-scenes position, where they would actually facilitate the events and deal with things like health-and-safety and fundraising, is a bit more difficult. I think that’s common with a lot of community projects, where people really want to do the fun bits, but then who’s going to do all the voluntary admin stuff!?
SWK: How do you see the future for the Food Forest?
C: We’re at a crucial point at the moment where we have to decide if we keep the project small, light-touch and volunteer-led, or if we try to get some kind of longer term funding in place to get paid staff who can take over some of the admin duties and really upscale what we’re doing. Because it will take a while for the fruit trees to mature and there’s so much stuff we could be doing in the park in the meantime!
We also have the Alexandra Park Golf Course really close to us, which has now closed, and is its own massive site where I think there could be real potential if we gained access to some of that space as well. I’d love to have areas set aside for a fenced community garden or to use for potential livestock, which would be so useful for us! If we could get some hens then we’d just have so many more nutrients going back into the soil! I’d love it if we could integrate animals more!
SWK: Any other animals beside the hens you would like?!
C: Goats! It seems crazy to me that with the ethos we have about low-input, low-carbon footprint, food production, we still have to have the Council come and mow our grass in certain areas! We do have long grass for the meadows, but there’s still other parts which are currently using a lot of fuel to maintain and so I would love to be able to see more grazing going on, and goats would be perfect for that.
SWK: Lastly, it must have been amazing to see the Food Forest grow over the years – how do you feel, looking back?
C: Yeah! When I first started, I took loads of observation photos of the park, just to try and figure out the best spaces for fruit trees, so I have all this documentation of how it used to look before we planted anything, and it really has been such a transformation! It can be hard at times not to be a bit impatient with fruit trees because you do want them to be super-abundant straight away and of course that’s not how it works, but when I step back and think about what we’ve done I’m so happy with it.