Thursday, 31 May 2012


Not long ago we found ourselves camping in a cool site miles from anything so profane as a Tesco or even a Costcutter. We had some provisions but no fresh veg, and I really can't deal with getting through a whole meal that uses food exclusively out of tins. So we had a little wander and found some little dandelion leaves. Being from the American South, I love greens - collards, kale, chard... super delicious and even better than that stuff Popeye gets out of his cans. Dandelion greens are bitter, but if you cook them in butter they become something of a delicacy. Problem solved!

Ideally, you need small, tender leaves. Once a plant has gone to seed, the leaves become both bitter and enormous. The very best dandelion greens are harvested before the plant produces a flower. By stealthily stalking the little plants in our London garden, I've restocked my supply. And then on I found a surprisingly simple recipe (Wilted Greens with Balsamic Fried Eggs) using these leafy interlopers, which I recommend if you are so inclined to explore the wonderful world of weed eating.

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

How does your garden grow?

Here's another feature with upcycling overtones that I wrote and never shared. Deep apologies for the delay! Food from the Sky is an organisation in north London that upcycled a grocery store's roof into a garden. Here, recycling tubs from the council are planters and CDs on strings keep the predators away. The venture is a great example of using and reusing resources in clever new ways and on a grand scale.

Again you'll need a microscope to read the text as it appears in the pics here, but please don't bother to get yours out of the attic; instead just read the feature below.

Shannon Denny meets Azul-Valerie Thome, the green-fingered activist whose work with Food from the Sky just might turn the world of supermarkets upside down...

While it’s quite a nice part of London, the streets of Crouch End are not paved with gold. On any given weekday, the central crossroads are a logjam of prams, black cabs, bobbies on the beat and Vespas. An Ocado truck lumbers past loudly as I head to the local Budgens store.

Inside on the ground floor, it’s not unlike any other supermarket up and down the Britain. In the neat aisles I can stock up on Alpen, get a can of Heinz beans and purchase whatever fragrant new product promises to get my laundry brighter and whiter.

Up above on the roof though is a scene that is absolutely unique in the country. Here, a bumblebee teeters on a poppy.  A feisty raspberry bush reaches for the sun. Bunting and CDs strung along a length of twine flit in the breeze, warding off the capital’s considerable population of pigeons. And Azul-Valerie Thome reaches out a compost-covered hand to greet me in this unlikely – but visionary – market garden.

Azul is a former silversmith and art consultant with a background in organic gardening, permaculture, design and community projects. When she left her leafy 50-acre smallholding in Devon to relocate to London’s concrete jungle, an image entered the activist’s mind every time she left the house. “I used to walk in the streets of London and literally had the vision of orchards and food growing from the roofs.” She couldn’t glance skyward without imagining strawberries hanging down and tomato plants shooting up.

Then Azul met Andrew Thornton, who owns the Crouch End Budgens franchise. “I shared that vision. And he said, ‘You know, I have a roof. It would be great to grow a bit of salad for the shop.’” They took a look at the space, and Azul immediately saw the possibility of her dream taking root. “I thought, ‘Forget the salad – it’s not just salad. This is about communities, people, education, biodiversity, sustainability, permaculture – a hub.’”

It was a fantastic fusion, and an unusual resolution of opposites. So often the supermarkets are seen as the bad guys who perpetuate intensive farming, contribute to unnecessary food miles and cripple plant species that aren’t economically viable. Andrew’s involvement in the project introduced a new way forward. By collocating the garden with the retailer, carbon emissions could be reduced. Food transport would no longer require expensive airfares and lengthy lorry journeys, while a customer could stock up on everything in one place rather than driving from farmers market to grocery store in a quest to tick everything – from household staples to fresh seasonal produce – in a single shopping list.

“When you have just half of a vision, you don’t have enough,” Azul affirms. “He’s got a foot in the food industry, and my background is in community work and sustainability. So it was like, ‘Cool! We can do this!’”

That determination carried the pair though a round of endless meetings to get the project literally off the ground. A surveyor assessed load-bearing capabilities, and happily discovered that the financial and logistical nightmare of additional structural work would be avoided. Landlords, insurance companies and the planning office meanwhile needed full assurance about a host of regulations and building issues. And several meetings with neighbours addressed concerns about everything from noise to smells.

While Azul and Andrew waded through forests of paperwork on health and safety, risk assessment and insurance, volunteers rallied under the new Food from the Sky banner to dive hands-first into some dirt. In February of 2010, they mustered the cardboard tubes from loo rolls into service as plant pots and sowed seeds in the carpark. When all of the necessary papers had been signed, sealed and delivered less that four months later, a crane lifted the fledgling garden up to its new home up above.

The local council contributed 10 tons of compost and more than 250 retired street-side recycling bins to serve as planters, while Azul’s team adhered to organic standards and biodynamic rhythms in planting an orchard, veggies, fruits and edible flowers.

As predicted, this 450-square-metre aerial allotment became home to much more than salad. What’s flourished? You name it. Pak choi, carrots, beans, peas, spinach, herbs, radishes, courgettes, squash, chickory, spring onions, cauliflower, loganberries, globe artichokes, kale, broccoli, tomatoes, beetroot, pumpkins, raspberries, rocket, mushrooms and melon. Grape vines and fig trees are growing too.

Meanwhile, a rich cultural diversity inside the store has led to adventures into off-the-beaten-path produce too. The Thornton’s Budgens team speaks no fewer than 31 languages and originates from a variety of lands across the globe. Thanks to the suggestion of store employees, a Garden of Bangladesh has been planted with lau, amaranth, puishack and coriander, and Sri Lanken employees are lobbying for a patch of earth for their native produce too.

Sustainability informs everything in the space, with pallets and other upcycled materials providing planting spots. Rain is harvested in water butts, while waste from the store goes into wormeries and compost tumblers on the roof. When the polytunnel fell victim to exposure in the first winter, Azul hatched a new plan. “The wind ripped the plastic to shreds,” she says. “So we’re going to make a plastic bottle greenhouse. We need about 3,000 bottles.” The lightweight, transparent vessels will be skewered lengthwise on poles, and these will form vertical building blocks for the walls of the structure.

A team of pioneering volunteers – who age from three to 74 – have utterly transformed the flat expanse of concrete, but even locals who don’t climb the steps to the lofty green space are benefitting from the dynamic initiative. Five weeks after the garden landed on the roof, the first produce and live plants entered the store for sale. These days, the Food from the Sky stall appears every Friday. So forget food miles – these meal makers travel only a distance of a few metres before alighting in prime retail position in the Budgens produce department.

The roof has proved an ideal growing ground. It’s about five degrees hotter than the earth down below, and the store’s heating and lighting systems contribute warmth to fight off frost. Predator numbers are lower too – foxes, slugs and snails so far haven’t figured out how to conquer the staircase that leads from the carpark.

On the other hand, pollinators have flocked to the urban plantation almost since day one. There have been over 30 insect species observed by volunteers, including red-tailed bumblebees, honeybees, wasps, moths, butterflies and ladybirds. “Pollinators are so responsive,” Azul observes. “Let things go to seed, especially the brassicas. They love it.” This attitude has led to a partnership with Buglife, the charity dedicated to maintaining sustainable populations of insects, spiders and earthworms.

“There is a responsibility to bring back our endangered species, heritage seeds and biodiversity,” Azul says. “We need to create environments for them to come to.” In another symbiotic relationship, Food from the Sky is also joining forces with the Heritage Seed Library. “Supermarkets were originally part of the cause why those species of vegetables and fruits are disappearing. Reintroducing them in the supermarkets is really exciting. It gives me shivers, so I know I’m on the right track.”

With a landscape full of flat roofs in the capital, the Food from the Sky outlook is catching on. The vision – “To grow life, food and communities on our most cemented places and to plant seeds in people’s heart” – resonates with all kinds of individuals and groups seeking an alternative to the tyranny of the big food chains. Azul  has acted as consultant on a flat roof garden at the London School of Economics, where produce is now used in the canteen. She also advised the South Bank Centre on their urban garden which blossomed among the concrete of London’s most famous brutalist structure. In addition to frequent garden open days, she gives one or more talks a week, and recently spoke at an architecture school about incorporating ideas for green roof growing into planning from the outset.

High profile supporters are throwing their weight behind the work too. One day last summer, Boris Johnson cycled from Islington to climb the Food from the Sky stairs and celebrate the thousandth Capital Growth site opening. Along with his food czar Rosie Boycott, he chatted with students from Highgate Wood School about their mushroom growing enterprise project, helped volunteers to pot some seedlings, picked and dined on yellow raspberries, and even sold a bag of roof-raised mixed salad, herbs and edible flowers to a store customer.

It feels a bit like Azul is rolling a green carpet across the skies. Hot on the heels of winning the Co-operative Bank’s People and Environment Achievement (PEA) Award for Community, she’s busy developing a program that will share lessons learned at the Crouch End farm so others don’t have to suffer through insurmountable challenges in implementing their own community ventures of this kind. What’s next? “Creating the model,” Azul answers, “a 12-step template, and then consulting and training in how to set it up.”

For individuals who aren’t quite ready to launch anything quite as ambitious as Food from the Sky, there is also a programme called Seed2Seed that takes place in the Budgens site. The course provides the basic knowledge and practical experience to grow food successfully in containers. It also introduces lots of different ways to increase your yields – from attracting pollinating insects and self watering containers, to using the powerful design tools of permaculture and biodynamics.

The twin tasks of maintaining the project and spreading it to others would be daunting to most people, but Azul relishes the chance to be a groundbreaker. “I love pioneering. I love that place on the edge, not knowing what’s the next step.” As a gentle wind stirs, I’m reminded that we’re several storeys up. Hopefully her adventures don’t take her too near the edge – I have a feeling we will continue to need her inspiration in years to come.

Speaking of which, I want to know what her dream is for the project. Not surprisingly, she’s more or less shooting for the stars. “Well, there are 3 million square metres of flat roof in London. I’d love to see them all covered in flowers and food and people learning about food, using what’s already there and not using any new stuff, meeting, being together, sharing skills, planting heritage seeds, having bumblebees and hoverflies everywhere.” Azul, it seems, likes to dream big. But dreams can come true, and I for one hope hers does.

No cane, no gain

I'm not going to go on and on about it, but how cool is the Goodlife Centre? This place is close to where I live and offers classes and workshops on fixing and making things. While some similar outfits focus on crafting and sewing, this place is more about hammering and drilling. Their latest newsletter arrived today, and tells me we can all get busy learning:

how to make a wood stool
how to make tassels
how to do carpentry
how to upholster a footstool
how to make a lampshade AND
how to cane a chair seat

In particular I like the idea of caning because, judging from the picture above, it offers an innovative use for golf tees. I am not really a fan of golf myself, and this to me looks like a very sensible application for equipment associated with one of the world's most frustrating sports!

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Join the revolution

As discussed, I have spent the last year living my life and not blogging. So naughty of me. But I've still been thinking about upcycling, I promise. Here's a feature I wrote for SurfGirl magazine's January issue on new year revolutions, little things you can commit to doing for the benefit of the planet.

Unless you have very good eyesight, chances are you can't read the text in the image above, so being a kind soul I have pasted it here...

New year revolutions: Four resolutions to focus your efforts on protecting the earth, one day at a time

Some new years resolutions are easy (“Eat fewer than five Kit Kats per day”) while some are not (“Learn to play the ukulele to professional standard”). But most resolutions exist around a quest for personal improvement. This year, why not focus some resolve on planet improvement? To help, we’ve fashioned four earth-friendly resolutions that are fun, achievable and pretty well painless.


Upcycling requires a little shift in thinking and a measure of creativity: rather than throwing things out, bypass the landfill and come up with new uses for old stuff. The benefit is that your bit of trash won’t be transported halfway round the world and it won’t be heated back down into its core material – two processes that require tons of energy and therefore make a big impact on the planet.

Every item of garbage from your household might not be a candidate for upcycling, but with an open mind it’s possible to reinvent old rubbish to serve new uses. In the surf world, there’s no greater proponent of this than Cyrus Sutton, creator of Korduroy TV and director of the film Stoked & Broke. Tune into Cyrus’ website and soon you’ll be converting soup tins into hobo stoves, resurrecting shipping pallets as sun loungers and making wetsuit changing bags from redundant tarpaulins.

Crafty girls are at an advantage, because if you’ve got sewing skills you can whip up a bag from old curtains; if you’re more of the cut-and-paste persuasion, lift lovely surf shots from mags and create driftwood frames. For a practical project, hit up your shaper for foam dust, pour into an offcut of tights, tie the ends to seal, and say hello to your new wax remover. 


It’s a complete mystery: why are items that are inherently disposable now being made from materials that will never, ever break down? A cotton bud only ever gets used once – at the most – so why on earth is the shaft made of plastic?

There are earth-friendly disposables out there, and it’s essential to swap nasties for biodegradable options. You buy cotton buds, tampons and cotton makeup pads pretty much every month, so train yourself to look for ones that come in cardboard and paper wrapping, contain no plastic components and are made from organic cotton. Exchange your disposable razors for one where only the blade is disposable.

And if you’re guilty of flushing cotton buds, sanitary products, condoms and razors down the loo rather than the bin, then Surfers Against Sewage has a message for you. Think Before You Flush is a new campaign discouraging people from using their toilet as a tip, because this causes huge problems both in the sewage works and later on in the marine environment.


When you feel the urge to shop till you drop or jettison your junk to a skip, remember – bartering can be beautiful. This is the year to initiate cash-free trade among your gang, because one girl’s trash is another’s treasure. That super tiny thruster I accidentally bought on a whim could be just what you need to take your surfing to the next level, and a board you’ve outgrown could be my ticket to ride.

“Swapping is particularly good for surfboards because as you improve you generally want to go shorter and smaller,” says Finola O’Neill, who’s exchanged everything from a coffin bag to an epoxy fish with friends. “It’s a karma thing; everyone gets what they want and you don’t have to bin it all, which is a waste of materials.”

You can take the redistribution of resources a step further too. When I retired a winter wetsuit, a friend put me in touch with his flatmate. She was getting into surfing but wasn’t sure she was ready to buy a box-fresh wettie. She took mine off my hands; then, rather than giving me money for the tatty old thing, we agreed she’d make a donation to a surf charity. Truly – everyone’s a winner.


Foraging is much more fun and cheaper than going five-star. It’s also easier than gardening because you only have to show up for the harvest. Surfers are lucky because we spend more time traversing fields and country lanes than most, providing access to the ripest blackberries and the juiciest apples. With a freezer, this equals good eating all year long. The sea offers a bounty too of course, for those willing to take a closer look.

If you’re really keen on reducing food miles, resisting intensive farming and disrupting supermarket tyranny, outfits like Safari Britain and the Wild Food School offer courses in the foraging arts. Meanwhile Food for Free, the paperback Collins Gem by Richard Mabey, is a tiny compendium that fits in a backpack and shows all you need to know to rustle up tasty winkles, samphire, laver and goosegrass that you’d otherwise overlook. 

Working flat out

Amaze! Please view this video, brought to my attention by the lovely Emma.

Monday, 28 May 2012

This might give you a charge

Some people are Guardian Readers. Some people are Daily Mail Readers. Some are Telegraph Readers. But I can't define myself by any of these newspapers, and increasingly like so many others I seem to get most of my news online. However, there is one exception. I am totally devoted to the North Devon Journal. I read it with fascination. People get into fights in Barnstaple, charities devoted to saving battery chickens hold fundraisers, sporting heroes from Instow bring home trophies from faraway Exeter. Without the North Devon Journal, all of this would happen... and I would not even know about it!

Anyway, I digress. What does this have to do with creative reuse of resources, you may ask? The advertisement pictured here appeared in the last issue, and it sums up what upcycling is all about.

If you happen to live in London, there's a brilliant charity run by Islington Council called Bright Sparks that helps young and unemployed people gain skills in electronics. You can take your broken fan / DVD player / kettle / clock radio to them and for a fiver they'll diagnose the problem. If they can fix your item easily, you don't pay anything more. If more time and materials are required, you cover that cost. Or if you just want to be rid of old electrical stuff, you can donate it to them to refurbish and sell in their shop. They fixed a switch on a metal lamp I inherited from my grandmother, and I feel it was well worth it to give them £5 in exchange for a future free from electric currents running through my body each time I switch the thing on and off.

Friday, 25 May 2012

Back me up here

After not riding my bike for about a hundred years, I was suddenly reminded of how much I love cycling. This realisation coincided with what must have been the longest stretch of flat conditions the British coastlines have ever seen. With the surf still not cooperating, I feel I need to garb myself for the possibility of more pedalling adventures. But in the century or so since I last donned a bike helmet, it seems that times have changed. It's no longer possible, as far as I can tell, to get cycle-friendly gear that doesn't come with an excess of zips and compression panels and velcro and reflective bits. Most everything is either black or pink, and it is all completely overdesigned. It's seems sort of ridiculous that companies tack on all the bells, whistles and gratuitous logos that an Olympian might require, but I guess brands just can't help themselves.

I needed a backpack. Not a Camelpak, nor a bag suitable for mountain guides of the Himalayas. Just something to stick a waterbottle in and not be embarrassed about. Tatty Devine is an excellent jewellery designer, often imitated but never duplicated. I liked the simplicity of the carrier bag that contained their press pack at their recent seasonal preview, but it came with shoulder straps in a tote format. I unpicked these with a seam ripper, and also ripped about 2cm of the side seam at the very top on both sides. Down in the bottom corners, I ripped about 2cm of the seam on each side. Then I took two lengths of cord. I threaded one into the hole on the left at top and guided it all around the top hem of the bag. Each end of this cord was then poking out the left side of the bag. I repeated this for the right side, so now I had four ends of cord emerging - two per side. I tied the left two ends into a knot, and did the same for the right two ends. The knot on the left got poked into the hole I'd created at the bottom left corner of the bag. The knot on the right went into the hole on the bottom right. I turned the bag inside out and restitched all the seams that I'd ripped out. I then had a drawstring backpack.

(And by subsequently cycling into a mud puddle, I now have a muddy drawstring backpack. But at least it doesn't have compression panels.)

Here's a link to a tutorial on making a drawstring backback from scratch which was useful in my sewing hackery.

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Rubble to riches story

Here's what's so appealing about foraging: No air miles. No pesticides. No packaging. These are all good things. One other thing that foraging does though is more personal. I think it makes you more aware of your surroundings and more alive to the possibilities of resources that we largely seem to have forgotten.

Now, being alive to the possibilities is a skill, and you don't even need to be on a country lane riddled with wild strawberries to put it to use. Here's proof: a while back I was commissioned to do an interview with Jenny Dawson, the founder of Rubies in the Rubble, for the customer magazine published on behalf of the trustees of Borough Market. Jenny's epiphany came when she couldn't bear to see good produce being abandoned at New Covent Garden Market. Today she and the Rubies in the Rubble team collect fruit that's past its sell-by date and revitalise it in the form of chutney. Read the interview here.

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Oddly satisfying

My first exposure to the Bude surf brand Oddsocks was while researching a feature for Huck magazine on the DIY aesthetic inherent to surf culture. Back then, the two-person band specialised in board bags made from reclaimed fabric. Nowadays they've expanded to a new product line called Planeodd, making handplanes for committed wave sliders of the bodysurfing persuasion. How does it work? "Get a broken board, strip off the old glass, re-shape the blank and rebuild it as a perfect pocket rocket," answers Mr Planeodd himself.

To see a handplane in action, watch this cool (and by that I might mean cold) video shot in British Columbia.

Presto for pesto

Although we milked an unexpected surf out of last Saturday, on the Sunday we weren't so lucky. Fortunately we had our bikes and jumped onto the Plym Valley cycle route which follows an old railway line and is flat flat flat, just how I like it. It's such a cushy ride that when you get a bit past halfway between the start and finish, there's a coffee van. As we strolled around with our cappuccinos I realised we were sitting on a goldmine. Or rather a garlic mine... There was wild garlic all over the place. So I took out a plastic bag and scored a few handfuls. This is the recipe for wild garlic pesto that I just made, found on the River Cottage website. For some reason I have begun stockpiling glass jars - clearly I am turning into my grandmother - and have sterilised one for my booming pesto production empire!

If you have managed to make some wild garlic pesto of your own, then you could do much worse than to use it in this recipe for penne with chicken and pesto that I found at I modified it to serve two people using UK measurements (200g chicken, 1 tbsp butter, 150g pasta, 125g single cream, 1 tbsp milk and 2 or 3 tbsp wild garlic pesto).

Monday, 21 May 2012

Alexanders the great

Ok so it's been over a year since my last post, so clearly I need to make up for lost time. In the last 12 months a lot has happened. A highlight was visiting the Irish village of Strandhill to lend some editorial assistance to Shells, truly the best cafe in the world. It also happens to be in a very surfy stretch of Ireland, so the owners Myles and Jane are loving life. When it comes to fresh, local produce County Sligo is seriously spoiled for choice. Even the areas not under cultivation are abundant with victuals - you can eat the seaweed right out of the sea, harvest mussels from the shore and source all kinds of edible savage greenery from the woodlands and fields. Myles and Jane's influence must have rubbed off on me because this weekend I put my little guidebook Food for Free to use and did some food foraging of my own.

On Saturday there was a little wave working at Bantham in Devon, a really lovely spot. It's also blessed with a bumper crop of Alexanders, which grow in the dunes, in the hedgerows and next to the carpark at nearby Bigbury-on-Sea. Apparently this was a herb that the Romans grew for use in their kitchens and brought with them to England. I harvested some and cooked it in a shrimp and pasta dish. Nice and salty, it tastes somewhere in between celery and asparagus, and it compliments seafood very well.

Eat Weeds is a blog I discovered which has a ton of good info on these leafy Roman escapees.