The city-dwellers who are becoming front garden farmers

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From windswept balconies to the tiniest of backyards, a new generation of city-dwellers are growing their own vegetables wherever they can. Meg Carter digs in

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It all started with a failed attempt to secure a plot on a local allotment. "After four years, I was still only 22nd on the waiting list," says Sebastian Mayfield, co-founder of Food Up Front. "So I began looking for an alternative closer to home. And then it dawned on me while lying in the bath one day, why don't we make better use of the space we already have?"

Mayfield's Eureka moment led him to petition a small group of locals living in the streets neighbouring his home in Balham, south London, to join him growing vegetables in front gardens or on their window sills, balconies and roofs. The idea was simple: by pooling resources and sharing expertise, participants could eat local by growing their own.

Twelve months on and Food Up Front is now signing up people for year two. It has a network of more than 30 street rep co-ordinators, and has attracted the interest of would-be urban farmers from neighbouring boroughs and beyond.

For a contribution of just £20 towards running costs, each will receive a starter pack including growing containers, locally-produced organic compost, a selection of seeds and a basic planting and harvesting guide.

"We wanted to reconnect people living in cities with food," explains Mayfield, a support worker for disabled and dyslexic children. "You don't have to own acres of countryside in Essex like Jamie Oliver to grow your own vegetables – anyone can do it using pretty much any old space."

Food Up Front co-founder Zoe Lujic, an admin worker who met Mayfield on a course on permaculture – an approach to agriculture that works with, rather than against, the natural environment – goes further. She believes front gardens can be a force for good as a defence against the worst effects of climactic extremes.

"It's about protecting the urban environment," Lujic explains. "All too often front gardens are concreted over for convenience with no thought for the important role they play. Ealing, for example, suffered flooding a few years back because so few homes had gardens which would have helped the water to drain away. Then, not long after, with limited open ground for water to be naturally stored, the hose pipe ban that followed hit hard."

Confidence rather than skill is the key for any would-be urban farmer. "The seeds we recommend people start with are simple salads – rocket, spinach – and herbs," Mayfield says. "The important thing is not to try too much too quickly. That way even the least experienced and busiest worker can get themselves up and running before graduating on to larger city-grown produce like broccoli or runner beans."

Mayfield himself did just that – from growing spinach, rocket and coriander on his balcony to tomatoes, carrots and potatoes. Lujic, meanwhile, says she successfully harvested large quantities of chillies throughout last year, despite having just one sunny window sill. In the future she hopes to encourage Food Up Front participants to find space for planting a selection of dwarf varieties of traditional English fruit.

"It's shocking how many wonderful, traditional local varieties of apples, for example, are under threat because of lack of interest from Britain's supermarkets," she observes.

The grass-roots movement Mayfield and Lujic are part of is not limited to south London. Throughout the country, a variety of local community initiatives are now being launched to encourage urban farming. Meanwhile, a range of financial support is now available to get them off the ground, including a new £50m National Lottery local food fund which opened for applications last month.

In Bristol, for example, a project called GroFun turns local gardens into growing spaces by providing expertise and volunteers. "A group of us go from garden to garden preparing beds for growing, sharing labour and tools," GroFun founder Nadia Hillman explains. "Some of the spaces we work in have been used as dumping grounds, others are forgotten urban jungles. We get owners set up and provide on-going support, including watering crops while people are on holiday."

When harvested, produce grown in this way is equally shared between all GroFun participants – garden owners and volunteers alike. A plan for the longer term, Hillman says, is setting up a local urban-grown vegetable box scheme.

Middlesbrough, meanwhile, is backing inner-city food production on a larger scale following the success of an urban farming project launched last year. The scheme is part of Designs of the Time 2007, a regional programme of sustainability-themed community projects and events.

Throughout last summer at least 1,000 people grew produce in window boxes, balconies, roundabouts and even skips. Crops were planted in June then harvested in September and cooked for a "Meal for Middlesbrough" which was eaten by 2,500 local residents. And the project looks set to go from strength to strength this year with full backing from Middlesbrough's local council and 280 growing sites across the city already confirmed.

"European funding has been secured to launch an NVQ1 level training course in urban growing," regeneration consultant Ian Collingwood explains. "Money has also been secured to set up a restaurant inspired by Jamie Oliver's Fifteen that will cook with local produce. A local food policy is being introduced with local businesses being invited to commit to using only food produced within a radius of 50 miles. And a campaign to free land locked in the middle of council estates for community growing clubs has also been approved."

Council support is one thing, but only commercial viability will secure urban farming's future, says Julie Brown, co-ordinator of north London project Growing Communities. "We grow salad leaves on our own sites because they make the best use of the small, urban spaces available in Hackney and because green salad is worth quite a lot," she explains. "The economics of urban growing are very important. Once you cultivate plots in the suburbs, it becomes viable to grow crops such as potatoes and onions on a field scale."

As well as co-ordinating and training volunteers to grow crops on three small sites in the borough, Growing Communities also runs a local farmers market and organic vegetable box scheme selling both its own produce and crops from farms on the outskirts of London. For the past two years, this has generated enough money to cover the cost of 17 part-time employees and the launch last year of an urban farm apprentice scheme. Now it is exploring ways to increase its own production and extend the model into other parts of the UK.

"Urban farming has to be seen not just as something warm and friendly but an activity that is viable within the economy to meet our ultimate aim of bringing about economic change," says Brown.

The return of the community food growers

URBAN FOOD PRODUCTION

Communities growing food together is nothing new, but the practice declined from the late Fifties onwards – in built up areas, especially – with the spread of urban development and the rise of the supermarket. Despite this, city farms, community gardens and allotments have remained popular and provide the basis on which today's grassroots urban growing schemes are being built.

CITY FARMS

The first city farm was established in London's Kentish Town in 1972. Today, city farms are well-established in many parts of the UK, offering people living in built up areas – school children, especially – invaluable access, understanding and hands-on experience of farm animals and indigenous crops. There are more than 60 city farms and a further 60 school farms in the UK.

COMMUNITY GARDENS

Like city farms, community gardens are projects created in built-up areas in response to a lack of access to green space. Most involve food-growing activities, training, school visits and some form of community business. There are now about 1,000 community gardens in Britain and a further 200 city farms and community gardens currently in development. (For more information visit: www.farmgarden.org.uk)

ALLOTMENTS

Growing interest in allotments has been fuelled in recent years by rising interest in healthy eating, organic food and exercise as well as environmental concerns ( www.nsalg.org.uk)

LOCAL GROWING SCHEMES

Community-based Urban growing schemes are being set up in towns and cities across the UK. Recent additions include south London's urban food growing network Food Up Front network ( www.foodupfront.org); GroFun in Bristol, which stands for GROwing Food in Urban Neighbourhoods (contact: nadiahillman@yahoo.ca). More established schemes include north London's Growing Communities ( www.growingcommunities.org.uk).

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