Radical Roots: On Community Food Growing

0 PFT coverThis month a groundbreaking handbook about arts and social change burst onto the bookshelves. Playing for Time – Making Art as if the World Mattered by Lucy Neal was, like Sustainable Bungay, inspired by the world-wide Transition movement. As well as discussing the social and environmental drivers for change and giving detailed ‘Recipes for Action’,  the book charts the practices and projects of 64 contributing artists in 10 chapters, ranging from Land to Rites of Passage. Here to introduce the Food Growing chaper, SB co-founder and local food entrepreneur Josiah Meldrum, discusses the impact community growing (and eating) can have on our collective imaginations, looking at the origins of two SB projects, the  Library Courtyard Garden and Happy Mondays:

Back in the 1990s, when I first began work in community outreach for a small retail co-operative in Nottingham, I quickly learnt the power of food to connect people. I saw how, despite apparently very different backgrounds, people could share a passion and a purpose – whether it was about growing food organically, the social justice issues around fair trade or simply local access to good quality affordable food.

Most people feel powerless to effect the kind of big changes we desperately need to see. But I think that scale of change is within our grasp – it’s just a question of realising it and understanding the many (often very small) steps required to get there. In my experience food is often at the heart of those first steps, not only because it’s fundamental to all our lives but because shared meals, produce and growing spaces bring people together, reintroduce them to each other and, potentially, reconnect them with the way their food is produced and how it gets to their plate – even if it’s just a few radishes in a window box.

MAIN_BEN-TOVIM_PATCH OF GROUND_LONDON_Ruth BTThat feeling of doing something radical the first time you grow, harvest, cook and share something with your friends or family never really goes away. It’s the feeling that you have somehow evaded the corporate supply food chain; that you’re on the path to somewhere else. And from the point of taking control of the radishes in your salad, from securing a supply of food from local producers, you begin to take control of your dinner plate and the social, economic and environmental impact it has. Because taking our food into our own hands is a deeply political and potentially powerful act; it empowers us and makes a positive statement about how we want things to be. From this sense of agency we can exercise a lot more influence within our communities.

In the context of many Transition groups, it gives people a set of very immediate practices and a rationale to underpin what they are doing. In my own initiative of Sustainable Bungay we realised if that if we wanted to see local growers and producers flourish then we needed to demonstrate that by providing a market for their goods: by eating what they were growing. As a first step we set up a monthly community meal, ‘Happy Mondays’, which would highlight seasonal produce that was being grown in and around the town. Happy Mondays serves up 50 meals once a month, we celebrate local producers – from gardeners and allotmenteers to smallholders and farmers. But we also cook together, decorate the room, give talks about food growing and keeping hens, develop ideas, build friendships and strengthen our group.

What we have seen with Happy Mondays is that when people have gained some confidence about working together it also gives them the confidence to ask, ‘What other projects could we tackle?’. One occasional supplier to Happy Mondays is our own community garden. In 2010 the group ran a weekend introduction to permaculture and used as our case-study Bungay Library’s empty brick courtyard. 16 or 17 people came up with a design for a garden and then went about creating it. Now there are fruit trees and beds with flowers, vegetables and herbs, but it’s tiny – it’s not going to feed the town by any measure.

SeedLibrary2311Six months after we’d begun the process of creating the garden Suffolk County Council threatened to close our library if a volunteer group didn’t step up to run it for them. Suddenly there was a passionate group of people who’d organised and achieved something in that space. And they said: No, we’re not going to a) let the council close our library or b) let them assume that just because we’re interested in the library we want to run it. And we began a campaign that linked up with library groups all over the county and ultimately led to Suffolk County Council changing its policy.

Today our library is still open, still staffed by professional librarians and our community garden continues to flourish. All from the desire to grow some radishes. The community garden is a very visible manifestation of what Sustainable Bungay is all about. It’s a statement of intent. It’s saying, ‘We care about this space, we care about what happens in it and around it. And anyone can come in and join in.’

A garden is a physical presence in a community that’s visible to local politicians, community leaders, schoolchildren, everyone from faith groups to non-governmental organisations, many of whom may have no particular interest in food, but are interested in showing people different ways of doing things. It’s a public space where events and workshops can happen, where a child can have a life-changing experience. And there are intangible benefits that come to a place and people with that garden that can’t be measured or monetised, that play out with each growing season, not just over years, but over decades.

Images from Playing for Time: Fruit and veg collectors at Little Patch of Ground, London 2012; photo by Encounters Arts;  Seed Library poster by Transition San Franscisco; Fruit Routes map by Anne-Marie Culhane and Jo Salter, Loughborough University:  The Edible Garden, Tower Hamlets, London, produced by Phakama and Fabio Santos, photo by Caroline Gervay.

Extract published from Playing for Time – Making Art as if the World Mattered (Oberon Books), £16.99. Copyright Lucy Neal.

The making of Playing for Time will be discussed by the book’s editor Charlotte Du Cann at a talk on Monday 27th April, 2pm at Southwold Library.

On Making Space for Nature in Sustainable Bungay

This post was first published on 24th September 2014 under the title Mark Watson on Making Space for Flowers as part of the “Making Space for Nature” theme on the Transition Network website. It appears here unabridged.

IMG_1158“Did you grow all those yourself?”, a young woman asked me last week at Transition Town Tooting’s 7th Foodival.
She was pointing to a wicker basket filled with the aromatic lemon balm, rosemary, anise hyssop, marjoram and a dozen or so more herbs and flowers I was preparing tea from at the event:
“A lot of them I grew at home in Suffolk, some are wild plants and others are from gardens here in Tooting, including the Community Garden up the road.”
She looked suprised, almost shocked. “My only reference for that kind of thing are the supermarket shelves,” she said.

In that moment I realised many things all at once: that events like the Foodival show how we can come together and regain autonomy over what we eat (and drink); that you never know who will walk in the door and get switched on by something they’ve never considered before; that making space for nature goes beyond the world of nature reserves, wildlife documentaries or even pilgrimages into the wilderness. I also realised that an intrinsic engagement with the living world is what I’ve been showing and teaching in the last six years since I became part of the Transition movement; and that Transition has offered me a role where I can use my knowledge and skills to bring plants and people together in a dynamic and inspiring way.

Bungay is a small rural market town of 5000 people on the river Waveney in north-east Suffolk, surrounded by conventionally farmed agricultural land. The common idea that people in rural areas are automatically more connected with nature can be misleading. Wherever we live now much of the time is spent in artificial spaces: in front of computers, television screens, in our minds and indoors.

When I consider Sustainable Bungay, the Transition group where I’ve been most active since 2008, I see that (re)connection with living systems and considering the planet is implicit in everything we do, from the permaculture inspired Library Community garden, to the Give and Grow plant swap days to a cycle ride down to the pub by the locks of the Waveney at Autumn equinox. The very first Transition event I led was a Spring Tonic Walk introducing people from Bungay and Transition Norwich to dandelions, cleavers and nettles, the medicine plants growing in the neighbourhood.

Voilet-adorned prunes detailOur monthly community kitchen, Happy Mondays is now in its fourth year. A meal for 50 people, most of it locally sourced, is prepared from scratch in under three hours and features everything from nettle pesto and bittercress salad to puddings with foraged sweet violets or blackberries from the common.

Bungay Community Bees was formed in 2009 in response to the global pollinator crisis. There are now more than a dozen beehives in orchards and gardens in and around the town. The group has also created a purpose-built apiary (an observation shed with a hand-crafted glass hive) in association with Anglia Regional Co-operative Society and Featherdown Farms. In the summer schoolchildren from the region come to visit the bees and go on nature walks where they learn about flowers and pollinators.

College farm apiary

Even behind the Give and Take days with their ethos of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Refashion, Re-just-about-everything, there is the sense that the planet needs a major break from all the stuff the industrial system keeps pumping out. Nature needs a breathing space!

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A natural breathing space is among the many things that Bungay Community Library Garden offers. In 2009 a subgroup from Sustainable Bungay teamed up with the town library, organised an Introduction to Permaculture course with Graham Burnett and worked with local builders, gardeners, tree surgeons and group members to transform the unused brick courtyard with one jasmine and a honeysuckle into a flourishing community garden with raised beds, fruit trees, flowers and herbs.

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Each year since its opening in 2010, the garden’s central bed showcases a different theme: plants for bees in 2011, plants as medicine in 2012, an edible bed in 2013 and this year dyes and textiles. This way people can get a feel for just how multi-faceted plants are and just how interwoven they are in our human lives. In many cases the categories change but the plants stay the same. The calendula you made a tea from in 2012, you tossed into a salad in 2013 and dyed a scarf with the following year!

The person curating the garden each year organises events around the theme. In the Plants for Life series I ran in 2012 focusing on health and wellbeing, there were monthly talks, walks and workshops with guest speakers, on everything from biodynamic growing to walking with weeds to the medicinal properties of homemade wine! I also ran ‘plant surgeries’ during the summer where people could come and ask questions about the project and the plants and exchange their knowledge too.

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The garden has become a focal point for many of Sustainable Bungay’s activities from steering group meetings in the summer to seed and produce swaps, Abundance exchanges of foraged fruit, and apple pressings. It is also the starting point for the wellbeing walks begun by the Arts, Culture and Wellbeing group last year.

The idea behind the walks was to explore local places together to encourage wellbeing and a sense of belonging. How that might increase personal, and particularly community, resilience, help combat the desire to be somewhere else and so encourage lower use of fossil fuels. Many people reported that simply by taking part in the collective walks brought an experience of wellbeing in itself.

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There is more. Recently a group called NR35 (‘Natural Resources’ 35) based on the local postcode, began to explore “how to use our skills, knowledge and labour to generate an income by sustainably managing/harvesting the resources which are wildly abundant around our rural market town.” The results include the harvesting of fruit and vegetable gluts, some of which are supplied to local restaurants and grocers and a communal firewood store. Last spring a small group of us learned how to make a dead hedge with local tree surgeon Paul Jackson. It took just a morning but I remember practically everything Paul taught us.

So what I’m saying here is that making space for nature can start right outside our doors, and in the places we find ourselves. That it’s not always the big exotic landscapes abroad where Nature is to be encountered. We need to discover the natural world where we are and engage with it, because it’s the natural world that makes sense of everything in the end.

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In 2015 it will be my turn again to curate the theme at Bungay Community Library garden, and the focus will be on ‘Helpful Herbs’ of all kinds. Lavender and rosemary are settling into bed, with thyme, St. Johns Wort, sweet cicely and others already there. And I’m working with a team on some exciting events. I’m also planning to map the project as part of a group helping to shape a new Transition Diploma, a collaboration between Gaia University and the Transition Network. Oh, and to make it into a Transition livelihood!

Meanwhile here is a picture from a plant walk around Bury St Edmunds I led in June this year with Sustainable Bury. The caption would probably go something like this:

“You can’t go anywhere nowadays without people sitting on walls looking at Hoary Willowherb!”

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Mark Watson is co-chair of Sustainable Bungay, a Transition Initiative in Suffolk, UK. Mark teaches groups and individuals to reconnect with nature through plants in the places they live. Details about his talks, walks and workshops can be found on Mark in Flowers.

Images: Talking plants and teas at Tooting Foodival, September 2014 by Chris from NappyValleyNet; Wild sweet violets adorn Happy Monday pudding by Josiah Meldrum; School visit to Bungay Community Bees’ observation hive by Elinor McDowell; Preparing the beds, 2010, Bungay Community Library garden (MW); the garden flourishes, summer 2014; Walking with Weeds, Plants for Life, 2012 (MW); 1st Wellbeing walk by the Waveney, 2013 by Charlotte Du Cann; Throwing our arms up under the cherry trees, April 2014 (CDC); Of walls and hoary willowherb in Bury St Edmunds, 2014 by Karen Cannard

Edible Plant Event Sunday 9th June 3pm

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This Sunday 9th June Build Your Own Vegetable Growing Container at Bungay Library at 3pm.

Plus planting ideas for vegatable pots and containers and friendly gardening chat !

Booking essential please email lesleyhartley16@gmail.com

A free Edible Plant workshop with donations kindly requested

Grow an 'Edible Bouquet' Sunday April 28th 3pm Bungay Library

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Join us on Sunday April 28th at 3pm at Bungay Library for a Garden Workshop ‘Grow an Edible Bouquet’

The garden workshop will involve sowing seeds to grow your own Edible Bouquet, edible plant activities, gardening chat and an edible posy to take home. Please bring some seeds to share, examples: Nasturtium, Sunflower, Bergamot (Monarda Didyma) Sweet Violet, Borage, Primrose (Primula Vulgaris) Calendula (Pot Marigold) and herbs.

All ages welcome, children must accompanied by an adult. A free garden workshop with donations kindly requested.

Kings Seeds of Colchester kindly donated some seeds.

Bungay Co Op kindly donated Basil plants

 

Edible Plants for 2013

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Hasten the Spring along this Sunday March 17th and join in with a Garden Workshop, “Hot Beds and Leafy Greens”, at Bungay Library at 3pm.

A chance to prepare container grown salad leaves to take home and to learn how to make a Hot Bed. There will be a taster session too and gardening chat.  Bring along some salad/veg seeds to mix and share.

2013 is the year for Edible Plants in the central bed at Bungay Library Courtyard Garden. All ages welcome, children must be accompanied by an adult.  This is a free garden workshop with donations kindly requested.