I’m currently putting together a proposal for funding to transform a piece of unused land in Lozells to a grow site for local residents to produce their own food. This pilot will be used to learn from before a much larger project linked to a social housing development is implemented.

One project already underway is GEML: Grow It, Eat It, Move It, Live It. Funded by Heart of England PCT and centred on Ladywood, Soho, Aston and Nechells, this brings together voluntary and statutory agencies. It inspires people to grow and cook their own food, live an active lifestyle, and reclaim open spaces.

I recently embarked on a learning exercise and planted out some lettuces, spinach and cabbage in my garden using the builders bags which are normally used to deliver aggregates. You can often salvage these from skips but, I discovered, if they are reused, they are subject to regulations, stipulating they must be inspected and certified.  Consequently, they’re often simply dumped.  They make ideal planters bulked out with polystyrene chips for drainage (made from post consumer waste) and covered with a layer of topsoil or compost.

I’m really inspired after travelling in West Africa and seeing food growing all across urban areas. Pockets of land, large and small, are highly productive. I’ve seen potatoes, carrots, aubergines, tomatoes, salad leaves, spinach, okra, maize, yams, cassava grown in the most unlikely places. These crops will be feeding families, and any surplus sold at markets or informally on the street. Just about every African house will have a mango tree in the compound and there might be papayas, or avocado, as well. I wonder why every garden in Birmingham doesn’t have at least one fruit tree? It seems to me so-called developing countries are way ahead of us when it comes to sustainable, local food economies.

Recently I was in Marseille, couch-surfing in an apartment on a housing estate planted out with fruit trees such as figs and plums, with which my host harvests and makes delicious jam. Why can’t estates in Birmingham be planted with fruit trees?

There are some differences between allotments and grow sites. I gather allotments are a lot more complex in terms of the planning process, while grow sites can be established much more quickly. It’s encouraging to see different agencies working together, there’s a recognition of shared interests. I was at an environmental forum meeting recently where the police gave their support to turning over a piece of land to a grow site, land which has historically been a source of problems.

Through the research I’m doing I’m finding out about lots of inspiring things all over the country. In the London borough of Hackney, for example, Growing Communities adds salad leaves grown in the borough to their box schemes. “Salad production is labour intensive and the end product is nutritious but highly perishable – therefore it makes sense to grow salad as close to where it’s consumed as possible… We think it makes more sense to grow potatoes, carrots etc on larger areas of land on to which you can get large machinery. And then use the smaller pockets of land which may be available in urban areas for growing crops which naturally require a more labour intensive approach.”

After my lunch today, which consisted of a salad made with leaves fresh from my garden, I certainly agree with them!

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