RHS Community Outreach Advisor Anne Gunning makes the case for edible public spaces, gleaning some top tips from those growing for others
Growing for the community in Todmorden, West Yorkshire
I first came across the idea of public food growing in Todmorden, West Yorkshire in 2008. Back then it was so forward-thinking that it featured on the news. The town’s Incredible Edible project, which also supports Todmorden in Bloom, has since blossomed to a network of 120 groups around the UK and has inspired 700 similar efforts around the world.
But for the hardworking gardeners of Todmorden, tasty local crops aren’t the only fruit of their labour. They also pride themselves on having helped transform the wider community, with research showing crime rates in the area are down and growing and eating local produce are up.
There are even eco tours in the town, with their famous greens taking centre stage. Inspired by the innovative gardeners of Todmorden, more and more gardening groups and enterprising individuals around the UK are decorating our public spaces with edibles. Concerns about affordable food (last year food banks gave out 1.2 million food parcels to families in need), healthy eating, food miles and pesticides are just some of the motivations.
As well as these key benefits, growing food in urban spaces is a great way to bring people together. Those from different backgrounds can share a range of cultural cuisines and practices, while children can be enticed by the promise of tiny berries or tomatoes, new scents, and the thrill of a tended seed becoming a meal.
'Many of the volunteers didn’t know each other initially, but through sharing knowledge and learning together they formed strong friendships and found a common purpose' said RHS Community Outreach Advisor, Anne Gunning.
Growing in public places can have a wide range of benefits
It was a joy to work with Cheetham Hill’s Church of England Community Academy School in Manchester and local residents on their herb garden. Many of the volunteers didn’t know each other initially, but through sharing knowledge and learning together they formed strong friendships and found a common purpose. One of the local residents shared her home-grown tea recipe made with sage, lemon verbena and mint, which she used as healthy a pick-me-up.
Another Its Your Neighbourhood group, Heald Place Primary School, also in Manchester, connected parents that had recently arrived in the UK, helping them share English language skills while tending to their crops outside the school.
Meanwhile, practised community growers and former national finalists at Chorley In Bloom, inspired by the gardeners of nearby Todmorden, sought to demonstrate the appeal of fresh, home-grown produce against the backdrop of ever-more available fast food. Fruit, vegetables and herbs replaced daffodils and bedding plants in their pavement displays, annotated with labels such as ‘pick me’, or ‘leave me a few weeks’, encouraging passers-by to help themselves and learn new recipes. The group has since set up a whole new edible garden on disused land behind a retail outlet, with funding from Tesco’s Bags of Help, creating a mini sanctuary for people to enjoy a quiet moment while picking fresh produce or maybe doing a little weeding.
Growing food in public spaces can have a wide range of benefits even to those who simply walk by the plot, and see something unexpected!