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OCTOBER washing up daydreams & European adventures

October 28, 2010

I lunched at home today and spent quite a while over the washing up.  Not even a faintly interesting task most days, or even ever.  But a tree on our street has recently turned the most brilliant of yellows, making one of my least favourite chores a sudden pleasure.

It’s mild today, so one can wash with the window open, watching bright leaves riding on the breeze before painting the pavement with autumn. Warm end-of-October days like this one make the sadness that summer has ended disappear.  Today is blustery and beautiful, decorated with deep shades of yellow, red, orange and brown.

The roof is a bit of mess however.  I admit I haven’t been taking good care of it over the last few weeks.  My excuse is much continental travel, but relieving my itchy feet has left the roof somewhat neglected.  I returned from Berlin in early October to find most of my tomatoes suffering from blight, with many of the plants dead or dying.

The beans and courgettes were in an equally dolorous state.  I did manage to pick a fair few healthy green toms though, before the disease got to them.  They were transformed into a delicious red and green tomato soup, flavoured with home grown chervil and garlic.  Despite my terrible neglect, I have masses of chervil at the moment; it’s running wild in places where I didn’t plant it.

Salad and herbs are the only produce left to pick now, and there is some serious tidying up to be done. I need to disentangle my runner beans from their netting and canes, and spend some time with a sweeping brush.  I urgently need to sow my garlic and spring bulbs for next year.  I must find a day to devote to the aerial, edible garden soon.  The most exciting thing up on the rooftop right now is a giant mushroom that’s growing in the squash pot, while downstairs, as well as the entrancing yellow tree, there is an absolutely enormous spider weaving a magnificent web along our front path.

The reason all is a bit messy and uncared for is that I haven’t been in London much of late.  My adventures began in September when I headed off to Berlin to take part in a series of workshops all about urban gardening and local empowerment.  A group of city growers from across the EU and beyond met to share ideas and discuss the motivations and methods behind various gardening projects we’d become involved with.

Our spiritual home was Prinzessinnengarten by Moritzplatz U Bahn – a nomadic garden of fairly epic proportions, where hundreds of vegetables grow, bees make honey, people are entertained and nature reigns supreme.  Plants grow in crates, sacks and old tetrapaks.  Produce is for sale and for public picking, and a metal container cafe serves home grown and homemade fare.

During our stay I realised ambrosia surely is the purple potato, or perhaps nettle soup on a cold afternoon.  I also began to appreciate much more the political and social importance of urban growing projects, and the pressures growers can face.  In Sarajevo garden projects are helping to heal deep ethnic divides, as well as providing food for people who need it.  In Berlin, Barcelona and Lisbon activists are claiming unused land and doing battle over their right to grow.  In Norway growers contend with limited daylight and temperatures that never get above 10 degrees Celsius.

One space we visited was Templehof in Neukoln.  A working airport until a year ago, it has just opened as a public park.  It’s a vast, flat, empty space, where you can cycle at speed down the runway and taxi around on roller skates.  A competition has selected various groups to do things with the land, though only on a temporary basis.

We met some people who’ve won the right to grow vegetables on a large patch of Templehof airfield for the next six years.  They’ve been told they must grow in containers, that no plants are allowed to physically take root and that they’re expected to pay.  It’s quite a controversial project but it has the potential to be very powerful.  If the vegetable garden is a success perhaps plans to develop the land, and no doubt build many overpriced flats, will get shelved or at least modified to involve some kind of urban growing.  It would be brilliant if the land could remain green and even be allowed to run a little wild.

Chilly Berlin was left behind for sunny Lisbon.  First I visited a small plot on a steep hill in Graca that boasts amazing views south to the river.  In 2007 it was a hostile wasteland, full of rubbish and needles.  A group of people led by Gaia decided to transform it into a shared vegetable garden.  The land was cleared and terraced into hillside beds.  My end of summer visit meant most veg had been harvested and I saw it looking rather parched, but it has been producing lots of crops for local people.

Things haven’t been easy though.  Some locals don’t approve of the project, associating urban growing with a poor past that they’ve left behind.  Vandalism and theft have been real problems.  The water supply hasn’t been consistent and they struggle to find a safe place to keep their tools.  It would be easy to think growing projects were straightforward, purely positive things, but they can be a risk and really hard work.  They often require courage and determination.  Those things make it an even more important and inspiring space, something special to stumble across when climbing one of Lisbon’s long hills.

Sintra is an entirely different kind of place, a rambling and hilly town full of fairytale castles and lush vegetation.  Some young people who’ve lived there all their lives, and know its corners intimately, recently decided to squat one of the palatial farms that had been left to crumble.  They lived there for two years, renovating one of the buildings and farming the land.  It was no secret, the owner knew what they were doing, and people visited from far and wide.

The project was both an exercise in self-sufficiency and something very social.  Suddenly attractive again after being left to rot, the owner was able to sell it and the squatters had to move on.  The fact it is now inhabited and cared for makes their two years feel like success, though it’s a shame such a large place, which could support so many creative people, is now home to only one couple and their small staff.

Recent explorations have really changed my perspective of what’s going on in London in terms of urban agriculture, urban nature and the motives for campaigning for more of these things.  There is much inspiration to be got from travel, whether it is real travel or travel of the armchair kind.  I’ve been doing some of that as well this month, and have written all about the exotic and odd things I’ve discovered.

Back to the London roof, and November will mean getting on with all that winter prep, planting winter crops and generally preparing for harsh weather ahead.  November also means pumpkin carving, bonfires, apples and rosy cheek inducing walks.  Hurrah.

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