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.

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