My work as an outreach officer for Birmingham Friends of the Earth has involved spending a fair bit of time helping local communities to set up places where they can grow food – known as Grow Sites. To help others who are interested in doing the same thing, I’ve drawn up a short guide on what you need to consider when going about it:

1. Suitability. Which direction is the land facing? Is it exposed or sheltered? Are there trees nearby? Irrigation – how? Is there a water main close by? Could you harvest rain water? Security – many brownfield sites are already fenced off but if not secured, how will you pay for this? History. Is the land previously industrial? If there’s contamination you will need to use raised beds. If the site is tarmacced drainage may be an issue. Does the land need to be cleared of overgrown weeds? Who might do this? 

2. What’s the level of interest from the local community? How will you engage and stimulate interest? People may raise objections and you’ll need to consider how to overcome these. Typical ones include: ‘People round here are too busy to do gardening, the kids will vandalise it, the produce will get stolen…’

3. Forming a constituted group or other entity to manage the site. You’ll need a Chair, Treasurer and Secretary to oversee and administer. You’ll need to be a constituted group with a bank account in order to apply for funding.

4. Who owns the land? They need to be approached and permissions given. 

5. How long can you have the land for? This will affect your level of expenditure. 

6. Planning permission – you’ll need to discuss this with the planning department and possibly submit an application.

7. Funding. Grants are available to community groups through both statutory and voluntary agencies. This can be very time consuming! Neighbourhood Managers, Housing Officers or people working in the regeneration sector are good sources of information.One option if you have the land for long enough is to fund the project yourselves. There’s the set up and the ongoing costs. Will people pay a subscription each month? Could produce harvested from the site be sold and the profits ploughed back into the site? Is there a nearby farmers market, for example? Grants…a grow site can meet several criteria for funding bids:

Healthy eating, getting people more active, tackling obesity. Youth crime / engaging young people at risk. Can a local school get involved? Tackling climate change by reducing food miles. Community Cohesion. Increasing resources for people with special needs… 

8. Design and Implementation. This will be dictated by the amount of money you have and how long you have the site for. A very cheap and quick way of getting a grow site up and running is to use builders bags, the kind used for delivering sand and gravel. Pierce a few holes in the bottom, put each one on an old pallet for drainage. You can fill them 2/3 with polystyrene chippings, then top up 1/3 with soil or compost. These are subject to a Health and Safety legislation in that, if reused, they are meant to be inspected, which is why most builders merchants throw them away after a single use. While not the prettiest, they have the advantage of being portable. Raised beds can be built from anything…old bricks, scaffolding planks or you can buy them ready to assemble from garden suppliers. Storage – will you need secure space for tools?

9. Getting started. How will you allocate plots? Experience in Ladywood, Birmingham indicates once the grow sites are up and running, interest suddenly picks up and sites are over subscribed. Who will build the raised beds, or can you dig up the ground? Are there any training needs or do you have people who can share their skills and experience

10. Organise a launch event. Think of an activity to stimulate interest which is gardening related such as planting. This will be dictated by the time of year but there’s plenty which can be done even in the middle of winter.   Finally…ENJOY!

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