There are aspects of what I do that really aren't pretty, certainly not for the faint hearted! And some that require steely determination and inordinate amounts of optimism. This is one of those projects that I feel in my bones will work. World meet Gresham, Gresham meet world...
This is the bit of my town that is always shown when the media want to make a point about poverty, deprivation, mental health issues and anti social behaviour. Some time ago, the perfectly sturdy but tiny back to back terraces in this area were demolished to make way for housing that was more modern and dynamic, more fit for purpose. But that didn't happen. Instead the community was left with piles of rubble and boarded up buildings - broken promises. Close to the town centre, it is now mainly used for free car parking, fly tipping and dog walking - more specifically, dog toileting.
Asides from the normal but stereotypical assumptions about the population of an area like this, Gresham is actually home to many very wonderful and creative people that I am lucky enough to know well - artists, poets, musicians, craftspeople; the cultural mix of the streets that surround this unpromising patch of land is rich and diverse and there is a good and solid core of committed gardeners - the ever popular 'Gresham in Bloom' competition testifies to this fact. To suggest that it might be the site of a community allotment might seem pretty outlandish, but in a neighbourhood with few opportunities for food growing, but all the skills and imagination to try, to my mind there is every reason to give it a go.
We picked our way through this patch this morning to examine our starting point. The 'soil' layer is pitifully thin and stony - even the most tenacious weeds are reluctant. It is not secure, with only a low fence surrounding the southern edge, and there's an obvious 'preference path' crossing from one corner diagonally. There is no water and there is no power. With the limited budget available however, we need to work with what we have.
There will be no structures added to this site - no greenhouses or sheds - because they are too risky, too liable to be damaged. An alternative will need to be found, but we think that might be in hand. Planting direct into the ground will be impossible, so instead we will be adopting a 'no dig' approach. This will involve layering thick brown cardboard and covering it with at least 15cm good compost. Beds, around 1m wide, will run roughly north-south, and these will be planted in the spring with leafy crops or those not requiring a deep root system. We will make use of the gravelly ground as paths between the beds and we will not edge the beds as this could encourage theft. (Timber, locally, is actively collected for firewood as so many live without the means to heat their homes adequately). Soil rich in organic matter will minimise the need for watering, maybe even eliminate it altogether. A small paved area will be surrounded by herbs and will be the gathering point for gardeners and a fortuitous south facing wall will be decorated by mosaic artwork and will support fan-trained fruit trees. The preference path will remain and the area, where not bounded by fence, will have edible hedge planting. There will be a wildflower area (wildflowers prefer poor quality soil) to attract bees and butterflies and provide colour and scent.
There is a real possibility that this project will be shortlived, but there is a deeper motivation. Growing food brings communities together. We are united in the need to feed ourselves and there is something intrinsically restorative about the act of nurturing plants. Networks form, friends are made, and mutual support emerges. There is a space for everyone - squabbles are forgotten and commonalities instead come to the fore. Judgements are left behind; we become equals with a shared purpose.
The beginning maybe but the start of something very exciting. I can't wait to get started!
Treading Lightly is simple living, within your means and the means of the planet, and making a minimal impact on the Earth. Find out more here about Catherine, of Barefoot Solutions, does this from day to day.