One day we might all be able to grow our own vegetables, whether we have a garden or not. MATT CLARK reports on York’s urban garden project.

CHLOE Smee and Noah are making the most of the spring-like weather. The two-year-old is riding his scooter, but he’s not off to play; instead he’s going to help his mum with a spot of gardening – just by the bus stop on Peasholme Green.

An unusual place for a garden, you might think. But this is one of a number of urban vegetable plots springing up across the city as part of Edible York’s campaign to get us thinking about the benefit of growing our own.

If Chloe, who chairs Edible York, had her way, we would all have a veg plot at the end of the street.

“We want to make it possible for everyone in York to grow, cook and eat their own food,” she says. “Any piece of land or wall, no matter how small, can be used to generate edible crops for the city’s residents.”

She also makes a good point: we import 70 per cent of our apples and with the rocketing cost of fuel, that has to be madness, especially as we produce the world’s best – and often in public places.

“We’re working with schools and thinking about a time when we’re going to have to be more self-sufficient. Fossil fuels will get scarcer and we need to start using energy in a different way. So it’s about looking at the way we use the land and assets we have.

“And you only have to look in newspapers to see stories of rising fuel prices or obesity to realise how relevant community growing is.”

Edible York has been running for two years as a community organisation led by volunteers and managed by an advisory group. It acts as an umbrella organisation, with many projects happening under its banner.

The first public bed is next to the Barbican Centre and was donated by City of York Council in 2010. This experimental bed was such a success that five more are being created this year, all funded by the Big Lottery.

One understandable concern about growing edible crops in a city has to be pollution. Having spoken to Sustain, a leading urban food group in London, Chloe is satisfied there is little or no risk.

“That’s especially true now that petrol is lead free and we are working to create a healthy, sustainable city with a vibrant local food economy at its heart,” she says. “I think it’s also about bringing back skills that a generation has lost.

“Everyone is busy, that’s why we like supermarkets. But if you have vegetables growing at the end of your road, that’s even more convenient. It’s fast food, isn’t it?”

Chloe coins the phrase ‘propaganda beds’ because their primary function is to raise awareness of the potential for other growing sites in York.

“They allow people to be green in their own neighbourhood. And by helping with the weeding and watering, they can play their part in the project and turn unloved parts into what York could be.”

Peasholme Green is an area of resurgence, with the Hungate development and the revival of St Anthony’s Hall. So where better to put the latest city-centre bed? Interestingly, it is a stone’s throw from the sensory garden, another novel horticultural idea in York. So it’s fitting to find an urban vegetable patch next door.

At the moment, the bed still looks like bare soil, but last weekend it was seeded and now Noah is helping his mum to water and tend the patch. Give it a few weeks and the summer’s produce will be bursting forth. And even better, Chloe says we can help ourselves.

But isn’t a public vegetable plot going to be a target for drink-fuelled yobs?

“Of course some had fears of vandalism, but that hasn’t happened and I think the reason is people have an innate sense of respect for food growing. This is about communities working together.”

Chloe thinks the Edible York scheme would go hand in glove with Professor Alan Simpson’s City Beautiful vision for York. He says the city is woefully short on trees and while Chloe agrees, she goes one step further. Saying many should bear fruit or nuts.

“Imagine local chestnuts being ground into flour at the newly restored Holgate windmill. Food grown and milled right here on our doorstep, just like it used to be.”

Edible York was inspired by Incredible Edible Todmorden, which has for a number of years grown and campaigned for local food through community growers’ groups.

There every school is involved and even public bodies such as the fire station and the railway station have come on board. York may be far bigger, but Chloe doesn’t see that as an issue. We now have an edible schools scheme, based on an idea from students at Bootham School, which brings together schools and growing specialists to share skills and techniques that will sure the schemes sustainable.

A good example is the community allotment created by Dringhouses School, where families have got together to share the workload.

Then there are the virtual orchards. We may not have room to plant new orchards, but by collating individual trees on a website, we can do it online. It’s a novel idea that should appeal to children.

“We’d like to see a change in the way public places are planted. At the moment you think of flowers like primroses, but why shouldn’t there be vegetable plots and fruit trees throughout the city and in the parks?”

It’s started already, with pear trees along the city walls on Paragon Street. There’s a saying, “pears for your heirs”, so by the time Noah grows up, perhaps he may be able to pick one. And who knows, give it a few years and the supermarkets in York could be in for a shock.

Another Edible York scheme is Abundance, York’s urban harvesting group, which wants all of us to share the city’s free fruit harvest. Last autumn, the group delivered local fruit to seven York charities, and if you click on the Edible York website you will find a food map showing all the city’s public growing spaces, including community gardens, fruit trees and good places for foraging.

It looks like the Edible York project is really beginning to take off, and with the price of diesel and concern over carbon footprints, maybe that comes as no surprise. But to really make it work, the city needs to get behind it.

“We’d love more people to get involved, maybe as volunteer bed stewards, or volunteer abundance coordinators. Then there could be businesses that want to provide staff with a vegetable garden to enjoy during their lunchtimes.

“Whoever you are, we are there for you.”

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NOAH’S watering exploits attracted Ian Milsted, who asked Chloe how he could get involved. Ian works a few metres away at York Archaeological Trust and wants to know what he can do to help.

“I think it’s a great idea, getting people more interested in growing fruit and vegetables for themselves,” said Ian. “And it’s a good use of our public spaces. I walk past this bed two or three times a day and it will be nice to be a small part of that of such a great community project.”

Chloe has received a lot of support from other businesses in Peasholme Green.

Staff at Yorvik Medical Centre have volunteered to do a spot of weeding, while Fiona Draper at the Quilt Museum told Chloe: “I think this is a great idea, I’m very interested in the regeneration of this area and the vegetable bed is a good example of that. Once a week I’m going to spend my lunch hour watering it.”

In return, Edible York is going to supply the hose-pipe.

Edible York schemes

• Public beds
More public beds will be located at St Clement’s Church; Tang Hall; New Earswick and Haxby Road, while two housing estates are being supported to become Edible Estates at Sovereign Park on and Holmefield in Heslington.

• Abundance
Edible York runs an urban harvesting project which maps fruit trees across the city. At harvest time, a volunteer force harvests the fruit and redistributes it to local organisations. Last year more than three tonnes of fruit was redistributed.

• Community orchards
The existing Fulford Community Orchard was complemented this year by Scarcroft Community Orchard. St Nicholas Fields has also received funding to create a community orchard over the next two years.

• York Edible Schools
This project was designed by students at Bootham School. It brings together representatives from schools, growing specialists and others to co-ordinate and encourage growing.

• Edible York Scrutiny Committee
This cross-party group explores how City of York Council can better support community growing.

York Press: The Press - Comment

Growing closer

WE didn’t just win the last war in the air, on the sea, and on land. Ordinary people played their part in the Dig For Victory campaign – and now we are faced with battles against the price of fuel and a seemingly endless recession.

So we like Edible York’s mission to get everyone in York to grow, cook and eat their own food. Chloe Smee, its chair, says we need to think about becoming more self-sufficient as fossil fuels grow more scarce, and we need to look at the way we use our land, too.

That even includes a pile of soil near the bus stop in Peasholme Green where York residents are being encouraged to till, weed and water a community vegetable patch.

It’s a great idea and one Mr Cameron would doubtless love to commandeer as another example of his Big Society. Well, it helped us dig for victory in the war and maybe it will help us survive these days of austerity.

York Press: What do you think? - Click to comment