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Entries in London (7)


Sunday Garden Tour: LDN Capital Growth

Sticking with a theme...or a city, here's a recently posted clip from London. It's a recently postedvideo tour of the King's Cross Skip Garden, one of the many interesting food gardens that I visited while in London, and which incidentally I have included in my book. (Here's the link to the post I wrote about my visit to this Skip Garden in October 2010.)



According to Seb Mayfield at Capital Growth, London is halfway to Capital Growth's target of 2012 new growing spaces by 2012. Congrats.


London's Capital Bee Campaign

(With thanks to Calgary food activist Paul Hughes for tweeting the link to this campaign.)While many cities in North America (including my own in Edmonton, Alberta) make it illegal for city dwellers to keep beehives in their residential yards, this is what the Mayor of London is doing.

The Capital Bee campaign, sponsored by the Mayor of London, has recently unveiled a new PSA campaign designed by Satchi that encourages Londoners to plant bee-friendly plants and not use chemical pesticides on them, to assist London beekeepers and their bees. It is no wonder that London has such a thriving urban beekeeping community. It is thought that there are over 5000 hives in the city, putting the bee to Londoner ratio at about 30:1.

Related posts: Urban Beehives in London, UK (Feb 18, 2011)

Watch Guardian food writer Tim Hayward interview urban beekeper Steve Benbow in this on-line story with video.


Urban Beehives in London, UK

OK, something lighter than the GMO discussion today...

When I was in London, I tried desperately to get an interview with the beekeeper from Fortnum & Mason, a posh grocer in a posh part of London. Didn't work out, but the reason I was so keen is that London has a thriving urban beekeeping scene. There's even a bit of rivalry between London  and Paris. But if you believe the numbers being reported, London is way ahead with 5000 hives according to a 2009 video report by Guardian food writer, Tim Hayward. Paris has about one-tenth, at 400-plus hives (according to a 2010 BBC news report).

Urban beekeeping in Europe is becoming an important "bee conservation" strategy, as the wild, rural bees of Europe seem to be in steep decline. Even the managed hives in the countryside are struggling, while urban bees are thriving. Urban beekeeping might be an important cornerstone of rebuilding damaged food ecosystems in the future.

Check out the great video of Tim Hayward interviewing F & M's beekeeper, Steve Benbow here.


Vertical Veg: Extreme balcony food gardening in London, UK

In the spring of this year, a north London food gardener, Mark, decides to document just how much food he can grow at home. He sets himself up with a little benchmark: Can he grow at least £500 ($805 CND; $768 USD) in a year. He has no backyard, and no front yard, as he and his family occupy the upper levels of a Victorian townhome. He's only got a 9 foot by 6 foot Northwest-facing balcony, 6 window sills (4 south-facing, 2 north-facing), and a small patch of concrete outside the front door. But he's up for the challenge and creates a blog at to document his harvests month-to-month, itemized and converted into what he'd otherwise have to pay at a greengrocer.

By early September, Mark sails past his £500 goal, so he issues a new target:

I’ve upped this target to try and grow £782 in the year – roughly the amount grown on a London sized allotment. (The National Society of Leisure and Allotment gardeners estimate that a 300 square yard allotment produces £1564 a year. Most London allotments are half this size).



In July, I wrote about My Urban Eden, a community garden project in central Edmonton. Mark commented on this post and told me about his site and that he was helping install a food garden on the top of a grocery store in North London. After taking a quick tour of his site, I shot an email right back at him letting him know that I was planning a trip to London and since he offered...I'd see him soon.

So less than 48 hours after landing in the UK, I'm back on the train from Bristol to London, Paddington, back on my pink line and over to a King's Cross station again by London Underground. From there I head north through Kentish Town, a neighbourhood who's name makes me giggle and up toward's Mark's house. It's pretty easy to's the one Victorian townhome that is literally dripping with herbs and vines along a row of vegetationless brick homes.

Mark is fabulously hospitable, offers me tea, and introduces me to Clare, a student on a gap year whose interest in urban food growing might lead her to Moscow if she can find the right opportunity. I tell Clare about an article I've recently come across on the phenomenon of community gardens springing up in downtown Moscow.

Mark is in charge of keeping the schedule -- he's kindly set up a great interview with Azul-Valerie Thome, a visionary rooftop farmer to see her non-profit organic farm on the top of Budgen's Grocery store in Crouch End, North London after lunch. But first we tour his home gardens.

Mark's veggies, herbs, etc are on this patio above the neighbour's backyard below.Clare, Mark and I barely can turn around on the second floor balcony. It's home to an amazing selection of food: scarlett runner beans, lemongrass stalks, various types of tomatoes, a bay leaf tree, rosemary, salad crops, kales, blueberries and even a mallow. No space is wasted. There's a wooden windowbox with a new crop of sunflower and bean sprouts, and pots, two and three deep arranged in a ring around the outside perimeter of the balcony. He's even got a small plywood box that's his wormery to keep the plants in a steady supply of ultra-rich compost. Above the patio, there's a cantilevered shelf with several buckets of lettuces.

The Worm Bin...making good dirt for happy plants.

Inside, his living room faces into the street and the window sills are crammed with windowboxes of herbs, tumbler tomatoes, herbs, kale, peppers and newly planted cilantro, just past the two-leaf stage. A baby change table is now a multi-tiered lettuce nursery inside the living room near the window.

Mark's son is old enough so his diaper-changing table has become a lettuce garden.

new crop of cilantro just leafing outThe same is true for his bedroom windowsills: courgettes (zucchini), radish sprouts, tomatoes and peppers. I only half-jokingly mention that the window boxes look heavy. Falling window boxes, toppled by a bumper crop of heirloom tomatoes, were a real possibility, replies Mark and shows me his extra staking and ties to prevent any disasters. He's also experimenting with a "Canadian invention," one I've never heard of. But basically it's a "double-boiler" style window box, where the water in the bottom is drawn up into the soil via osmosis, rather than watered from above which risks washing away valuable nutrients. (I'll do more investigation on this system soon and report back on it.)

A small kitchen window has culinary herbs: curly parsley, tarragon and chives.

Mark makes it all look so easy. He then cuts me a bag of incredible salad greens to take back to Bristol. He puts some Thai coriander in it as well, and my shoulder bag smells like heaven as a result.

We then ring up the neighbours to ask if I can climb into their tree house in their back garden. From here, I take a number of photos of Mark and his back patio garden and window sills. It's all the more marvellous when seen from a distance. Now, really, there can be no more excuses about not having a yard or room to grow even in a condo or apartment!

I manage to convince Mark to turn TOWARD the camera!


Notes from the Road: A visit to an urban vineyard in King's Cross, London, UK

Alex Smith, urban vintner, King's Cross, London, UKA newsclipping about an urban vineyard that had just been planted in King's Cross -- an inner-city, somewhat industrial or let's just say "well used" part of central London -- came across my newsfeed several months ago. It was hardly mainstream news, but it piqued my interest. Read the article here.

After some rooting around, I found a consulting company devoted to helping urban vintners in the London area. I became intensely intrigued in the fact that backyard grape growers were producing bottles of "Chateau Tooting - Furzedown Blush" and wondered what the terroir of the Furzedown neighbourhood of Tooting, in South London might yield. Could be absolutely horrible, but who am I to say without trying it.  I also do have an affinity for the underdog, especially since I grew Pinot Gris grapes for a number of years in a miraculously hot part of my garden in Edmonton (Northern Canada; 53 degrees North and about 113 degrees West). They were obviously planted close enough to the house's concrete foundation that they could survive even a few weeks of -35 C with some creative mulching and coddling.

I started firing off emails to see if I could get a peek at one of these urban vineyards. I emailed Alara Foods' general "info@" email address explaining who I was and what my book was about, with the prospective dates that I'd be in the UK. Was I able to perhaps come by, see the vineyard, and interview the person crazy enough to plant grapevines in central London?

I got a speedy reply from Alex Smith, the owner of Alara Wholefoods, predominantly a muesli company in an industrial park area of London. He said he'd be happy to show me his vineyard.

This was actually the catalyst for my UK-Paris-Toronto trip.

My recording setup and a ripe tomato from King's Cross

Day One> Urban Vineyard's in King's Cross, London: Loaded down with a friend's fantastic, but heavy, professional SLR camera, my usual load of notetaking equipment and other essentials, I get a mid-morning train from Bristol to London's Paddington Station. From there I take the "pink" City Line train out to King's Cross station, just a bit north of the Thames in the centre of London. As I walk past the very shiny-and-new St. Pancras Eurostar station, next to King's Cross Tube station, I'm having serious second-thoughts about the real possibility of finding a food garden, let alone a vineyard, in this busy, dense, construction-equipment strewn area, that is about as beautiful as most railway yards tend to be. 

But as I walk north along Camley Street, I hear a few birds and the industrial mood of the street lightens. Less than a five minute walk from the stations, there is the entrace to a 2-acre wildlife nature preserve clawed back from a coal yard in 1984. The Camley Street Natural Park is wildspace along a portion of Regent's Canal. I walked in just to satisfy my curiosity, but also to make sure I was heading in the right direction to the "vineyard." The guy in the cottage "office" knows exactly where I am heading and assures me that I'm on the correct route.

Sure enough, after about 15 minutes walking north on Camley Road, past smallish factory buildings and a few residential developments, I find Alara Wholefoods Ltd. My first clue is the huge mound of compost and the raised gardening boxes along the sidewalk side of the otherwise nondescript two-storey warehouse.

Alex Smith, wearing a suit!, meets me and immediately takes me over to his vineyard, just steps from the warehouse office. I have to admit, this is most micro-vineyard I've seen next to my two Pinot Gris vines at home, but I'm not sure why I expecting a half-acre of grapes in central London. This vineyard is 30 vines on a narrow south-facing slope against a chainlink fence.

closeup of the vines and the rondo grapes that escaped harvestThe grapes are a Rondo grape, an early ripening / frost and downy mildew-resistant grape, which seems like a wise choice. The vines looked rather tall and leggy for two-year olds, as it's probably a little difficult to restrict the water they get, and he had already harvested by the time I got there. They harvested 35 kg of grapes which will yield about "25 bottles of wine" when the time comes to bottle says Alex. But for now, the juice, he tells me, is happily fermenting away at his house. It will be his first vintage.

Alex then shows me around the gardens, which wtih a first stop at his shipping container that he's using as a garden shed in the shade of an old elderberry tree. He offers me a glass of Elderflower "Champagne" that he's made from a tree. It sounds like a hell of an idea, actually, as navigating through a completely foreign (to me) city, has taken a little bit of a toll. The first bottle lacks the fizz that he is looking for, so he cracks another bottle and pours two flutes of pale straw-coloured bubbly. It's sharp and citrusy (grapefruit), but completely palatable.

Elderflower "Champagne" ... not bad...

To prepare the area for the gardens and to provide seating and outdoor areas for the staff, Alex, staff and volunteers cleared 50 tonnes of rubbish, "the sort of detritus that you'd get in a dark corner within walking distance of a train station," he quips. Insalubrious is the other word he elegantly uses to describe the state of this yard before the clean up. There efforts were not without their rewards. They found two large Roman-era flat stones (limestone?), a pre-Roman stone plus another Georgian stone, which they made into a throne-like outdoor seat.

Food gardens at Alara Wholefoods, King's CrossAround the other side of the warehouse. Productive, edible landscape in action.The sheer number of fruit trees, veggies and vines (asian pears, apples, blackberries, kiwi, table grapes, mulberry, asparagus, tomatoes, Chinese pears, gooseberries, pineapple guava, pomegranate, goji berries, blueberries, raspberries, Japanese wine berries, plus a number of food plants I've never-ever heard of, etc.) and the herb gardens are lovely. Plus that sweetness from happy earth was a nice change from the diesel-coated air I had been breathing in just moments ago.

Blue perennial bean tree. Has anyone ever seen one of these? It was a new one on me.

Asian Pears; behind the tree old tires used for "potato condos"

Beehives in the gardenThere are also four beehives right in the garden, and a future fish pond for aquaculture is being prepared. The gardens have been a work in progress since moving to the site five years ago.

The food from the gardens becomes lunch in the employee lunchroom at Alara. Schools kids also come to the garden for food education and to graze and eat food from the garden.

Alex then walks me over to Booker Wholesale, a bulk grocer next door, where he's planted about 30 fruit trees as a community orchard with the blessing of the owners of the cash & carry grocer. Maybe by next year, the Camden neighbourhood residents will be toasting the harvest with a neighbourhood wine while gleaning plums, peaches, pears and cherries from the community orchard as the Eurostar train screeches by whisking travellers off to Paris in 2 hours and 15 minutes.