This feature was written for the Guardian
For people who don’t play computer games – myself included – it’s easy to assume all virtual reality has to offer is the dubious opportunity to wield a weapon. Thankfully, that’s only part of the picture.
Enter planet Proteus and you’re invited to wander through a rough-edged landscape that responds to your presence with music. Eufloria blends exploration with a cultivation quest and is more aggressive, involving fighting a diseased strain of seedling that’s hindering your attempts to colonise an asteroid belt with trees. Both games are inspired by the natural world, and both are selling surprisingly well.
The first thing to ask, of course, is why bother gardening via a video game or going for a virtual walk? If these things are possible in the real world, why play a game? Well, you could say the same about books, exhibitions or films. All offer interpretations of the world but none are replacements for the real thing. Plus you’re unlikely to get the chance to cultivate an asteroid any time soon.
“Proteus is a reaction to landscape and the world, and enhances and changes the way you feel about it,” explains Ed Key, one of the game’s creators. “We’re consciously trying to the mirror the feelings of observing something in the natural world. It’s impossible to have the same infinite variety but we hope that people get a sense of it. But the abstract style of graphics and sound means it’s not trying to be realistic, it’s evocative and invites you to fill in the gaps.”
The island in Proteus is user-generated, so it’s different every time, but it’s shaped by Key’s time in Cumbria, Wiltshire, Orkney and the Western Isles. The unusual colour palette is inspired by the paintings of Paul Nash and Art Deco tourism posters, where the New York sky might be yellow and the trees blue.
Proteus is structured into four seasons, the final one being winter. “It’s a carefully crafted sequence through four acts but with no pressure to go onto the next,” says Key. “There are levels and a measurable sense of progress, but it has a user driven pace. There’s no endgame or checklist, which are common in games that cater for a competitive urge.”
You don’t have to be a gamer to understand this is quite an unusual approach. “We have been surprised by its success,” admits Key. “Proteus isn’t an explicit challenge against violence but people have championed it for that. It provokes people to think there can be more to gaming than violence and military style games.”
With its simplistic version of outer space, curling tree roots and swirling seeds, Eufloria may also seem a serene place. Alex May, one of its creators, points out it’s actually “horribly violent… Its veneer is peaceful, and the violence is not explicit, but you are routinely sending hundreds of seedlings to their deaths in this game.”
Violence varies – nature has a brutality that is entirely different to the carnage inflicted by your average shoot ‘em up game. May says players have told him Eufloria is a breath of fresh air in comparison, something he can appreciate.
“I attended E3 in LA a couple of years back and being in the show hall was a remarkable experience – it honestly sounded like a warzone,” he says. “There was no refuge from gunfire or some other kind of violence, and you were never out of sight of some kind of sexist iconography or characterisation. It was absolutely repellent and yes, I feel that Eufloria is a sort of antithesis to that culture.”
In both games, the soundscape is as important as the landscape and Brian Eno an inspiration. Proteus’s creators say “music is a core part of the design: the world sings to you.” Ed Key explains that his co-creator David Kanaga is interested in musical structures as play structures, and in allowing the user to influence what they hear.
“There are lots of musical loops playing simultaneously, you raise the volume of certain loops as you get close to something,” says Key. “It’s like an internal mixing board and it allows a conversation between the player and the game.”
Eufloria also uses ambient music, something suggested by the game’s other creator Rudolf Kremers and composed by Milieu (Brian Grainger). “I think the music goes a long way in evoking the nature of the world we’ve depicted,” says Alex May. “The game would be extremely different without his work.”
So, what next for these nature loving game designers? Are plants the next big thing in gaming? Probably not, but both Ed Key and Alex May plan to continue with the theme. Key, an amateur botanist with a foraging habit, wants to make a hunter-gatherer survival based game next, while May likes the idea of one where you can create your own personalised vivarium.
This article was written for the Guardian
Forget London’s monolithic new Shard, all eyes will surely be on the Bosco Verticale when it opens in Milan at the end of this year. The new skyscraper promises to bring a hectare of forest into the central business district, as well as hundreds of new homes. Rather than cold steel and glass, the surface of this high-rise will ripple with organic life.
Made of two towers – one 80 metres high, the other 112 metres – Bosco Verticale is currently being planted with 730 specially cultivated trees, 11,000 groundcover plants and 5,000 shrubs. One of the principal architects, Stefano Boeri calls it both “radical” and an “experiment”; a reaction against the “high parallelepipeds, clad by glass, steel or ceramic” he’s witnessed in Dubai.
Jill Fehrenbacher, editor of Inhabitat and a follower of architecture trends, says proposals for buildings featuring copious vegetation are increasingly common. “I have yet to see very many of these ‘living building’ designs become reality, which is why the Bosco Verticale is such a big deal,” she says.
The interdisciplinary team working on the project includes botanists as well as engineers. Their research has ventured into testing the wind resistance of certain species of tree in wind tunnels, as well as finding a suitably lightweight substrate able to meet plants’ nutritional demands. The residents’ needs are also important – trees will be trimmed so foliage doesn’t interrupt their views.
Boeri explains that the Bosco Verticale “hands over to vegetation itself the task of absorbing the dust in the air and of creating an adequate micro-climate in order to filter out the sunlight. This is a kind of biological architecture, which refuses to adopt a strictly technological and mechanical approach to environmental sustainability.”
Already open, the Park Royal on Pickering hotel in Singapore is another example of a towering building-cum-garden in a dense urban area. WOHA, the architects, say it was inspired by headlands, promontories and planted terraces. Richard Hassell, the firm’s founding director, enjoys blurring the distinction between hard architecture and soft landscapes but admits that working with plants is a challenge.“For architects, it is quite a change in mindset to deal with living things,” he says.
“Normally an architect is trying to make things that are as static as possible, and resist wear and tear. But plants grow, and change, and drop leaves, and wilt and die if you forget about them.”
A ‘living building’ is never really finished. It will change over time and will require much more maintenance than one without plants. For both the Park Royal on Pickering and the Bosco Verticale, the upkeep will be centralised and carried out by specialist staff. Could such projects be called too labour and energy intensive? Jill Fehrenbacher doesn’t think so.
“Living plants…clean the air and produce oxygen, they help humidify indoor air, they reduce storm water runoff and the urban heat island effect, and they help insulate a building,” she argues. “Even though skyscrapers like the Bosco Verticale inherently use a tonne of resources and energy – simply by virtue of being a high-rise building – all of those trees and plants are going to be beneficial to the building occupants, neighbours and local environment.”
And perhaps ‘living buildings’ have worth based on aesthetics alone. “At the very worst, a garden is a delight to the users, so even if there is minimum environmental value, there is still immense value in having more green spaces in dense cities,” says Richard Hassell.
The visual impact of buildings like these certainly can’t be underestimated. Apparently Singapore’s taxi drivers now make detours to drive past the planted hotel, while Stefano Boeri talks about his structures being ‘ecology billboards’. Jill Fehrenbacher says such buildings will be everywhere in twenty years, as we “try to recreate some sort of primeval garden of paradise in our homes and workplaces.”More than mere gardens, planted high-rises have the potential to change our cityscapes.
“For sure this is an experiment but to have a sequence of Bosco Verticales, to reach a critical mass, this could be quite interesting,” says Boeri. “To deurbanise the urban environment is a radical alternative to expensive technology.”The proof of a building’s appeal is surely when the architect himself decides to move-in. And yes, Boeri has reserved himself a small apartment in Bosco Verticale, explaining he’s “extremely attracted” to the idea of living high up in these soon-to-be leafy towers of trees.
This feature was written for the Guardian
“My projects are never done, they send out ripples that continue, which can’t be anticipated or controlled. That’s how I like it,” says Fritz Haeg, who has made community gardening an art form that galleries find hard to resist. His Edible Estates series has taken him around America and Europe, including a commission to make an Edible Estate for Tate Modern back in 2007.
This year he created a ‘Foraging Spiral and Base Camp’ in a bowl shaped hollow of Everton Park for the Liverpool Biennial. The spiral is a wild and winding bed of tall native plants, many of which are edible or medicinal. The lawn of the hollow has been allowed to grow long. Throughout the art festival, a temporary encampment hosted conversations about the park’s future and its complicated past – it grows over an area where terraced homes and then tower blocks were levelled in the 1960s and 80s respectively.
Despite his love of working with plants, Haeg insists he is an artist not a landscape designer. “I have gradually become bored with things that are not alive – like paintings, buildings and sculptures. I like working with things that are always changing, that I am not always in complete control of,” he says.
“A landscape designer might be focused on solving problems. As an artist I might actually be looking for the problems, focusing on them, presenting them and not avoiding them… The work can be performance, political and activist, and many other things too, all at the same time.”
A hint of performance can also be found in the work of French artist Mathilde Roussel. Her ‘Lives of Grass’ sculptures are dynamic human forms – stuffed with soil and wheat seeds – that constantly change. When they are installed, the host gallery must become a plant nursery of sorts, complete with botanical lights. The living sculptures need watering daily. Their presence invites drama and ritual.
Choosing living plants over more reliable materials means opting for results that are not just unpredictable but that will ultimately die. The artwork – or its longevity – becomes less important than the process of creating it. Both Haeg and Roussel’s work has a special quality made possible by the use of plants, an ephemeral one that has something in common with performance art.
“Wheat grows very fast so you can really see the forms metamorphose through the exhibition,” explains Roussel. “After a few weeks, the wheat grass starts getting yellow and then slowly dries and dies. In this way the sculptures encapsulate the entire human and plant life cycle.” She describes time as “sculpting the forms.”
Roussel grew up on a farm in Normandy, where her family grow cereals, mainly wheat. Using wheat plants as a medium is a way of reflecting her heritage and also showing that “food has an impact on us beyond its taste.” But working with living things has huge implications for the final results.
“Because I work with organic materials, I can’t have a complete control… And this is precisely what I am interested in. Plants are a fascinating material to work with. There is something magical about the way they transform through time just like we do,” says Roussel.
Both continue to work with plants. Haeg will be planting the 13th and final of his Edible Estates for the Walker Art Center in 2013, in the suburbs of Minneapolis; while Roussel is currently working on an installation using mud and plants.
The final part of my year long series for Kitchen Garden about urban agriculture
“Glasgow, or ‘Glaschu’ in Gaelic, translates as Dear Green Place. Indeed, we have more parks and green space per capita than any other European city” says Abi Mordin from Urban Roots, a project that’s at the forefront of the city’s urban growing scene. “Glasgow also has lots of derelict land although, as it was a former industrial hub, much of it is contaminated. A network of community gardens can be plotted across the city, where local people have taken over vacant land and are transforming it into beautiful, useful spaces.”
Urban Roots is made up of three community gardens that total around one acre, and they’re also currently developing a two acre site as a market garden. 40 volunteers help to grow a wide range of produce – ranging through salads, spinach, chard, peas, beans, carrots, parsnips, potatoes, kale, broccoli and cabbage. They’ve set up an apiary this year, so soon there will be honey too.
“Anyone volunteering on the project gets a bag of veg for free, and the rest we sell to local cafes or fruit and veg shops. We only use organic and permaculture methods in our gardens” explains Abi. “We also help other groups get their own community garden projects up and running, providing advice on community engagement, garden design, site development and ongoing maintenance.”
As well as giving people access to the simple pleasures of fresh food and fresh air, Urban Roots – and the wider Glasgow Local Food Network they are part of – have big ambitions for the city. “Our mission is to make local, organically grown produce affordable and accessible” explains Abi.
“We want to reduce dependency on imported fruit and vegetables, reduce our collective ‘food footprint’ and ‘field to fork’ miles, and create an environment that is sustainable for people and planet. We are looking at how to upscale current production, and put in supply chains to work towards local food justice and self reliance.”
“Being down the garden, just mucking in, slows me down and makes me appreciate the simple things of life – elemental and organic camaraderie, cuppas, digging with good cheer and dwelling in possibility.” So says one of the growers from the Woodlands Community Garden in Glasgow. The garden sits on a site that was derelict for a long time, after the tenement block it housed burned down in the 1970s. In the last couple of years it’s been transformed by forty raised beds, swathes of wildflowers and a band of dedicated gardeners.
Woodlands Community Garden sits between the city centre and the west end, in a residential area. The land was owned by a community development trust and a group of locals approached them in 2009 about turning it into a garden. As well as raised beds and plenty of veg, it also boasts a stage built from palletes and hosts lots of arts events.
“The raised beds are looked after by clusters of individuals – we encourage collective growing” explains Tim Cowen from the project. “They mainly grow veg and herbs. Half the garden is communal and we grow things to encourage wildlife. Produce is shared and swapped, and volunteers who help maintain the garden take a share of the produce even if they don’t have a raised bed. Over winter, the popular crops to grow are things like broad beans, garlic and winter salads.”
What is perhaps most unusual about the garden is the fact it is completely open, with no locked gates. “This presents some challenges but it also means we’ve become more of a community asset” says Tim. “There are massive social benefits from working outside alongside people you would never normally speak to.”
East of Glasgow is, of course, Edinburgh, which Chris Macefield from Bridgend Growing Communities describes, with a whiff of romance, as a place “where the mountains meet the sea”. The city settles between the hill ranges of the Pentlands and the estuary of the Firth of Forth.
The Bridgend project is based in an allotment and supports people living in areas of high health deprivation to grow food. Not only is the allotment a training hub, it’s also where their wood fuelled outdoor kitchen resides. A pizza oven and a rocket stove allow them to create delights using home grown produce, ranging from hearty soups and healthy veg stews, to quiches and pizzas.
“The people who volunteer and garden here not only have the opportunity to cook the food in the outdoor kitchen, they also take away the produce” explains Chris. “Bridgend is open to all, and one of our real strengths is that we bring people from all backgrounds together. We look to support people with chaotic lifestyles, or varied health problems, and also provide opportunities to individuals who have a general interest in community gardening.”
As autumn edges into winter, the garden remains a hive of activity. “During the colder months we still have a dedicated band of volunteers who are keen to grow. We have two polytunnels, which helps to extend the growing season. There are always things to do, such as landscaping the plots and building raised beds, along with more artistic and craft based endeavours.”
The Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh is not the obvious next place you would go to if you wanted to witness more community food growing, but this traditional space has taken an unusually edible turn. “For years we have focused almost entirely on growing the rare and exotic” says Dr Ian Edwards, who is Head of Exhibitions and Events. “We feel we can do both successfully, and our experience and expertise in growing plants is something we can offer to other groups through training and informal tours and visits.”
Turns out, Edinburgh has history when it comes to community gardening, as Ian explains. “The first children’s gardens (the original kindergarten) were in Edinburgh’s Old Town, inspired by the town planner, botanist and environmentalist Patrick Geddes at the beginning of the twentieth century. I like to think our Edible Gardening Project is part of our Patrick Geddes heritage.”
The project includes a polytunnel, fruit garden and vegetable plots that are all open to the public. They grow winter salads and tender summer vegetables in the polytunnel, and a range of heritage and more modern varieties in the outside beds. The fruit garden has pears, apples, cherries, plums and common soft fruits, plus more exotic strawberry tree, honeyberries and even an Oregon grape.
“There are huge waiting lists in Edinburgh for allotments – up to nine years in places” says Jenny Foulkes, who manages the Edible Gardening Project. “There has been a peak in interest in edible gardening over the last few years. This can be attributed to themany and varied benefits of gardening and growing your own. The Edible Gardening Project aims to provide help and support for people who want to grow their own food but don’t know how or where to begin. We help people get over the initial barriers.”
This feature was written for the Guardian
“Every garden should include some plants that die beautifully.” An odd sounding assertion perhaps, but landscape designer Tom Stuart Smith believes death should be designed into our gardens – plant deaths that are graceful and heroic. Gardeners’ idea of what is good looking varies wildly but one thing on which they likely can agree is that a growing space should feel alive. But the dead and the dying have a lot to offer – both aesthetically and practically.
As summer shifts to autumn, and autumn withers to winter, green spaces bleach into metallic pale straw colours while also deepening into rich tawny coppers and rusts. Amid this complex palette of browns, sculptural features stand out. That star burst of a seed head studded with dew balls. The skeletal tree silhouetted against a bright grey sky. Fading sweeps of long grass stiffened by frost.
It’s not all charming – a gathering slush pile of leaves on your patio or lawn is no thing of beauty. Rot and ruin has a purpose though. Gathered into black bags and left to break down, fallen leaves will slowly transform into a rich, soil enhancing mulch. The dead and dying also provide food and shelter for wildlife. A pile of old wood can be a palace for small mammals and seed heads offer substantial meals to birds. Put simply, wildlife relies on decaying matter and it’s an essential part of the lifecycle of any healthy garden.
So how does one do death well in the garden, and is it ever acceptable not to deadhead and cut back? “We used to have a very tidy attitude to gardens but that’s gradually changed” says Stuart Smith. He singles out Piet Oudolf as the person who has made people look at dead plants afresh, and suggests a more elegiac approach to planting is an inevitable part of a shift from completely controlled gardens to something more natural. “People always ask me when they should cut things back. You should trust your instincts and just do it when you don’t like the look of something anymore.”
The key to making death becoming is to combine attractive foliage, seed heads and colour. Blend grasses like rich brown Hakonechloa macra, straw coloured Miscanthus and pale Pennisetums with the striking seed heads of teasel, Phlomis russeliana, monarda, cardoon and sedums. Stuart Smith has a special mention for tall growing Inula magnifica. He revels in its death, explaining that it ends up like a charred thing with a look of bent metal. Dramatic deaths should feature, as well as elegant ones.
“It’s about a shift in perception of what is and isn’t valuable and beautiful in the garden,” says Elaine Hughes, a wildlife garden designer who openly appreciates the decline and fall of plants. Thinking about death is a way of broaching wider questions about the point of gardens. Far from macabre, for her the vegetal die-back is actually a life affirming process and certainly doesn’t have to be ugly.
Hughes celebrates the explosive form of the alium seed head and the gobstopper like seedpods of the opium poppy, which provide a framework for spiders to weave their webs. She delights in the fact she recently found a caterpillar curled up inside a red campion seed capsule. And Hughes argues that a dead hedge – a barrier built from cut branches and foliage – is architecturally interesting as well as a useful habitat. “Wood, as it decays, can also take on all kinds of chestnut tones,” she says.
Upright trees – dormant, not dead – dominate winter landscapes and can look magnificent in their undressed states. An oak might look like a big brain, while birch can be gentle and feathery. Coppiced street trees look like huge knuckles, and deciduous shrubs and climbers can take on sinuous forms. Old bird nests stand out in bare trees like giant punctuation marks.
One thing to consider when planning your planting is how long something will look good dead for. Molinia moor grass looks lovely in winter but starts to fall apart in January, while spiky Echinacea seed heads often break apart after the first frost. Large gardens can get away with lots of death but such blankets of decay could feel oppressive in a small space. Browning highlights amid an evergreen base would work better.
Designing death into your garden is a subject often neglected by how-to books, although Piet Oudolf is the writer to seek out on such matters. Places to visit for inspiration include Pensthorpe Gardens in north Norfolk and Trentham Gardens in Staffordshire – both boast prairie style landscapes that look stunning in winter.
Spectacular seed heads
Allium Cristophii and Hollandicum ‘Purple Sensation’ and ‘Globemaster’
Part eleven of my series for Kitchen Garden about urban agriculture
Slap bang in the middle of Newcastle, the Byker Bridge rushes over a valley where a slice of secret countryside thrives. Tucked beneath this ever busy bridge is also Ouseburn Farm, which sits at the mouth of a tributary to the River Tyne. There are more species of butterfly concentrated in this spot than in any other similar area in the UK.
There’s been a farm here since 1976, although the original Byker Farm closed ten years ago and has since reopened as Ouseburn Farm, run as an independent subsidiary of Tyne Housing. It offers day services for adults with mental health problems and learning disabilities, educational visits for schools and volunteer opportunities for local people. Food growing is a key part of what they do.
“We have several allotment spaces on the farm site, a further allotment nearby in the valley and two allotments in large garden spaces on Tyne Housing Association properties” explains Rob Bailey from the farm. The produce is sold on the farm, in the café and eaten by the housing association residents that help grow it.
“We grow a variety of vegetables and soft fruit” says Rob. “Some of our animals will go to slaughter in the autumn and the produce will be available for sale to the public. We continue to grow vegetables during the winter months. Maintenance of the growing spaces takes place during January, as well as preparing the soil for planting at the start of the next season.”
So why do cities like Newcastle need operations like Ouseburn? “We provide an opportunity for local people to buy ethically sourced produce, such as free range eggs and meat, as well as being able to see the animals kept in good conditions prior to them being slaughtered. Consumers have developed a detachment to the source of their food. Projects like ours provide children with an understanding of the relationship between the animal and the food on their plate” says Rob.
The farm is also providing a valuable haven for urban wildlife. “We have an abundance of rare plants in our meadows that support a large variety of insects, which in turn attract a large variety of birds. We also have a hive of honey bees at the farm, which aid pollination in the local area.”
There are some significant green spaces in Newcastle. There’s the town moor, mere yards from the city centre and still observing its common land grazing rights. At the other end of the Ouseburn Valley is Jesmond Dene, which was landscaped in the 19th Century by Lord Armstrong. Not far from there, and just a 15 minute walk from the city centre, is the Jesmond Community Orchard.
“We’ve only been going for three years but it is a lovely little site, located in a secluded and previously derelict corner of a cemetery” explains Bobbie Harding from the orchard. “The cemetery is just behind the Great North Road and is a walking and cycling route into town. We wanted to create an orchard because so many have disappeared.
“It’s a pretty plot with a very old wall on one side, with a fruit espalier all the way down it. We’ve sought out unusual varieties that grow in the north. We can’t shoehorn any more trees in so we’ve started encroaching on the cemetery proper! It’s early days apple wise but the raspberries and herbs are doing very well. It’s lovely to have a new, well-used open space.”
One of the orchard’s most exciting features is a Jesmond Dingle apple tree, which was grown from a pip by one of their members and is named after their dog. Every autumn the orchard holds an old fashioned feeling apple day, with bobbing and peeling the longest apple peel competitions. There’s also plenty of juicing to be done. People donate apples and bring cartons so they can take the juice home.
Joanna Lacey loves Newcastle and food in equal measure. “It’s such a fantastic city to live in, with everything so accessible and easy to get to, and always a friendly Geordie happy to help anyone. Being able to work on North East Food Discovery every day is my perfect job, as food is something that I believe everyone should understand and enjoy.”
North East Food Discovery is an initiative that’s working in primary schools in the more disadvantaged areas of the city. It aims to inspire children, their families and teachers to understand the importance of local, seasonal food and get them excited and enthusiastic about it. A key part of the project is the Wor Lotty Food Growing Academy.
“Children from the first ever schools we worked with entered our competition to name the allotment site” explains Joanna. “True Geordie influence and dialect came shining through and the site was officially named ‘Wor Lotty’, which means ‘Our Allotment’. It’s an amazing space, gifted to us by Newcastle University. We have two large growing plots where the children and other community groups sow, care for and harvest crops.”
There’s a range of fruit trees and bushes, including apples, pears, blackcurrants and gooseberries; plus a large area for herbs, three compost heaps and plenty of room for growing strawberries. “We use organic principles and teach everyone who comes to the site about this too” says Joanna. “As well as help from the Newcastle University Maintenance Team, we have two people working part time, and constantly welcome volunteers to help maintain the garden.”
Joanna believes projects like hers are an important way to connect urban people with the food they eat. “There isn’t a lot of visible food growing happening within cities. We need to make sure that everyone has an opportunity to understand where food comes from, and knows how to prepare, cook and appreciate all the fantastic local food producers in their area.”
Part ten of my series for Kitchen Garden about urban agriculture
The Suffolk Community Garden is found in a Protestant housing estate within greater nationalist Belfast. Health is poor and unemployment high; hope can be in short supply. Yet this estate also boasts views of the Belfast hills, has a river running through it and there’s a resident rooster, which all combine to give this urban area an incongruously lush edge. The garden itself stands in over an acre of green space, sandwiched between the waterway and a community centre.
The focus here is on food, with a wide range of produce growing in raised beds and a 60ft polytunnel. There’s broccoli, cabbage, carrots, leeks and onions, plus tomatoes, courgettes and chillies. As well as raspberry, white currant and blueberry bushes – and cherry, fig, peach and plum trees – there’s also exotic loquat, orange and lemon. The produce is distributed at a community market, where residents can get hold of it for a small donation. An area with few food options – other than the junk kind – now has a steady supply of fresh fruit and veg.
“The garden was built by a group of young unemployed men, who continue to help tend the site” explains Caroline Murphy who coordinates the project. “They’ve also built one across the divide on the Lenadoon Estate. It was absolutely unknown for young men to venture into that estate before. People don’t care whether something’s a Catholic or a Protestant vegetable. The gardens give people a shared interest and a little bit of hope for the future. We’re tackling social injustice through urban gardening.”
The growing and harvesting have expanded beyond the garden boundary, with foraging trips for wild garlic and rowan berries down the river path and tyres distributed throughout the community so people can grow potatoes at home. “People are mad for potatoes – we wouldn’t be Northern Ireland if they weren’t” says Caroline. They’re even raising 25 turkeys this year for Christmas.
Growing has become a tool for promoting peace in Belfast. The Grow Waterworks Community Garden is built on a contested piece of ground that was once a no-man’s land between the loyalist Westland estate and Catholic communities on the other side. The garden was funded through the Peace III programme, which focuses on peace building and promoting good relations.
“Here, among the peas, beans, potatoes and herbs, it’s hard to imagine that not long ago petrol bombs were being thrown over the 20ft high metal peace wall that directly adjoins our plot” says Justin Nicholl from Grow, a small charity working with communities to create gardens.
Visit Waterworks and you’ll find salads, spuds, swede, sprouts, red cabbage, artichokes, pumpkins, peppers, aubergine and lots more growing. The produce is divvied up among regular gardeners, with surplus shared with locals and park users. They also cook at the garden in a ‘camp kitchen’, often using foraged as well as homegrown ingredients.
“All of what Grow does has community building and eco-therapy at its heart” explains Justin. “Whether that’s working with a community to reclaim some land and create an edible organic garden; working with older people in a residential setting; or developing projects to tackle food poverty.”
15 minutes drive out of town is Helen’s Bay Organic Gardens, apparently in an area where Northern Ireland’s rich and famous live. Despite being on the main commuting route between Bangor and Belfast, the space is a tranquil one. “We’re on the doorstep of the city but it doesn’t feel like it because we’re also on the shore of Belfast loch and surrounded by big old trees” says Ben Craig from Root and Branch Organic, the organisation that runs the gardens.
The site consists of several polytunnels, two big fields and two packing sheds – there’s no electricity. They grow things like broad beans, chard, spring onions, basil and edible flowers, which are packed into veg boxes or sold at farmers’ markets. Those boxes could be picked up by customers from collection points as diverse as hairdressers, newsagents and community centres.
“We’re connecting people with the seasons and encouraging them to cook by ingredient rather than recipe” says Ben. “From the business point of view, this is the best deal for the farmer. We know a local farmer that supplies a big supermarket who gets less for his produce today than he did 15 years ago. We’re also connecting rural and urban environments. We’re able to say ‘this was grown for you, by John’. Supermarket food is more anonymous.”
Ben’s background is in youth work and he’s developing an educational side to Root and Branch. He’s currently running an intergenerational peace building project in north Belfast, linking a Catholic area – New Lodge – with a Protestant area across the street called Tiger Bay. “We’re working towards a joint festival event at the Metropolitan Arts Centre, as well as designing gardens for both communities. At New Lodge, we’ve done some vertical gardening using palettes. Traditionally these were burned in bonfires during the conflict, so we’re reclaiming them and turning them into planters.”
Also just outside Belfast, in the seaside town of Bangor, Growing Connections is pioneering the concept of ‘care’ or ‘social farming’ in Northern Ireland. This type of project involves a partnership between a farmer, health and social care providers, and participants – particularly those who have mental health concerns or feel socially isolated. Their recent public health authority projects have focused on suicide prevention and how to stop smoking.
“We create a safe and stimulating environment where people can connect with nature and others to promote their physical health and mental well-being” explains Joan Woods from the project. “We’re developing a smallholding demonstration site and running workshops on woodland management, building out of sustainable materials, growing vegetables and herbs, and farm animal management.”
They have 14 acres of mature and newly planted woodland, and four acres of community socialising and growing space. They grow vegetables, fruit, herbs and flowers as a group, which they harvest and eat together. Group members can also take produce home. “Our project is a means for people to rediscover that the best things in life are free – fresh air, water, the natural environment, laughing with others and sharing a common purpose” says Joan.