Land of the free
Getting access to soil allows you to be self-reliant for food and other needs (and, as we’ll see in this chapter and the next, potentially gives you the chance to create a home that is designed to enable you to be self-reliant, with no bills and needing no external inputs). If you are living in the city, you may think this is impossible for you. The good news: it is much easier than you think. There are possibilities to access land everywhere, surprisingly so in cities, and you do not need to own land to do so. Even if you can only grow a little, it will help you build resilience into your own economy by introducing more diversity, and that can only be a good thing for you and the planet. In this chapter I explore all the options available to you in this respect.
Windowsills and small spaces
Even if you live in an apartment block or a flat that has no back garden, you can still grow many useful plants in small spaces such as windowsills and balconies. From these alone you could become moneyless for your herbs (grown in pots or troughs or old tin cans) at the very least, which you can then pick fresh as you are cooking. Salad leaves will also work well here. Sunny south-facing windowsills are best, or any that get more than five hours of sunshine a day. These are also ideal for germinating seeds, which – if you are lucky enough to have access to an allotment or garden – you can then plant out as the temperature outside increases, remembering to harden them off first by putting them outside during the day and bringing them in at night for about a week or two first. Do make sure that your plants have enough room to grow, make sure they have enough water, and don’t let them get scorched by direct sunlight during the hottest part of the day – this you can easily do by creating a little shade for them.
How we have shared the Earth with each other has changed dramatically over the years, from our time as hunter gatherers when no formal structures existed, to modern society where the concept of private property is ubiquitous. Due to a range of economic mechanisms and social factors, we have ended up in a situation where many people who own land don’t have the time or energy to grow food whilst others, who do have that time and energy and dream of being able to grow their own food, don’t have the financial capability to buy land, especially if they are not allowed to construct a simple, cheap (or free) dwelling on it.
It was to solve this problem that Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall,(110) through River Cottage, set up a UK wide initiative called Landshare(111) in 2009 shortly after he paid a visited to Transition Town Totnes’ Garden Share project the year before. Given the fact that there are at least 86,000 people already on allotment waiting lists in the UK (though the real figure is likely to be somewhere between 100,000 and 150,000), that the grow-your-own movement is becoming increasingly popular, coupled with the obvious reality that there is so much land all over the UK (both in cities and the countryside) going unused or drastically under-utilised, it was a niche waiting to be filled.
Landshare, through River Cottage’s public profile and some great online functionality, has a huge potential to suit people who want to grow their own produce but don’t have anywhere but their windowsill to do it; who have some spare land that they’re prepared to share with others in their local community; or who can help with local food production in some way, from sharing knowledge and skills to lending tools to a particular plot.
The strength of this organisation is that it allows anyone to get involved. According to their website, “Landshare arrangements can range from an individual sharing a patch of their garden to a national body such as the National Trust creating allotments for many people at grand sites across the country. Land is also shared by schools, companies and communities.”
So if you need land in order to be self-reliant and moneyless in terms of food and a range of other needs, or if instead you have land that could be used to help your community localise its economy to some degree (and all the personal and social benefits that can stem from that), then avail of the mutually beneficial relationships that projects such as Landshare facilitate. It also allows for people who can be Landshare food doctors, who can offer advice (both online and in real life) to those who are learning as they go.
WWOOFing (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms)
WWOOFing has a very similar approach to Landshare, in that its main focus is to match up people with different but complementary needs in a mutually beneficial, win-win way. With national organisations in over fifty countries around the world, WWOOF(112) lists all the organic farms, smallholdings and such that have signed up to the scheme in each country (most organic farms are now involved, such is the success of this approach). If you’re looking to spend time on an organic farm (for any of the reasons listed below), you simply join up to the scheme, contact the farms that most appeal to your needs and ideologies, before hopefully coming to an arrangement with them regarding how long you stay for, how many hours you will work whilst there, and any food and dietary needs you have. It is generally accepted that 25 hours of work a week, in return for comfortable accommodation, adequate food for your time there (including your days off) and the opportunity to learn a wide variety of skills (including the language of your host), is a deal that often works for everyone concerned, but it really is up to both parties to come to any agreement they like beforehand.
Most people seem to use this scheme when they are on their travels, and therefore it tends to often be a short term endeavour. There is also no reason why it can’t be used as a long-term, ongoing option that benefits all involved. I spent three years working on an organic farm, and whilst it was not a normal WWOOFing relationship, it worked on the same principle of being mutually beneficial to all.
I’d highly recommend WWOOFing to anyone who wants to dip their toes into moneyless living for a period of time, short or long, as it is possible to hitch or cycle from farm to farm, and no money is needed once you are there. Living on an organic farm has an amazing ability to cease any previous cravings you had to go out and buy needless stuff. Some of the skills – both practical and non-practical – that I subsequently needed in order to live moneylessly were learnt during my time WWOOFing. But most importantly, it enabled me to get a sense of how it feels to not use money for long periods of time, along with the understanding that there is little in life you need to be happy and fulfilled.
Turning urban wastelands into growing spaces
Due to a variety of personal and external factors, there is a huge movement of people who want to reduce their dependency on money and fossil fuels in relation to their food. To put it into context, in 1986 there were 13,000 people on waiting lists for allotments in the UK. Compare that with the figures I mentioned earlier, and add all those people who want an allotment but don’t put their name on the waiting list because they believe it to be a waste of time (and with good reason – waiting lists vary from three years to a decade), and you get a sense of the scale of the public plea for more growing space.
But there is hope, and as long as this hope is acted on, there are solutions. Everywhere you look in cities there are brownfield sites and wastelands waiting to be transformed. According to a report published in 2009 by a think tank called the New Local Government Network (NLGN),(113) Britain has an estimated 12,710 hectares of vacant brownfield land, 85% of which is within five hundred metres of an urban area.(114) That’s 31,407 acres of land that could be used to help British people become more localised for food. For those of you who want to grow your own, it would be a damn fine place to start.
In order to get your local council to investigate a particular piece of wasteland, with a view to it being turned into allotments or other growing spaces, you don’t need to do much. Section 23 of the Small Holdings and Allotments Act 1908 states that “on a representation in writing to the council of any borough, urban district, or parish, by any six registered parliamentary electors or … resident in the borough, urban district or parish, that the circumstances of the borough, urban district or parish are such that it is the duty of the council to take proceedings under this Part of this Act therein, the council shall take such representation into consideration” (the law is slightly more complex than this so please read the full briefing(115)). In plain English, you need six people, as long as one of them isn’t a Irishman who refuses to go on the electoral register (so don’t ask me). If you have trouble finding six people, contact a nearby allotment group and you should find that some of those waiting on their lists would be more than happy to join you.
Note that after you make the request, the council are only obliged to investigate it, and they don’t necessarily have to provide you with these allotments. However, councils are now tending to be very supportive in this respect, partially in response to The Localism Act, and you may be surprised by how much time and assistance they give you in transforming such wastelands into areas that would benefit residents in the surrounding areas in a plethora of ways.
If the unlocked potential highlighted here isn’t enough to jolt you into getting a community run allotment group together, then take some inspiration from four pensioners in Preston who, with a combined age of over 300, “transformed a run-down patch of wasteland into a tranquil [wildlife] haven for the community”.(116) If they can achieve that, then what’s stopping the rest of us doing something similar for food production, in a way that hopefully builds community resilience, interdependence and bonds of friendship, along with creating habitat for wildlife?
You don’t need an allotment to grow food in the city, however. There is space everywhere. So much so that the Capital Growth project(117) was set up with the aim of creating 2,012 new community growing spaces across London in 2012. In Bristol, Eastside Roots(118) set up a community food growing project in a piece of unused land by the side of a railway station, and has become a hub of social activity for the surrounding suburb of Easton in the process. You can grow crops in the communal area of a block of flats. If it is covered in concrete, use whatever containers you can get your hands on to plant in. Or why not do like the folk of Hollingdean and grow food on the roof of your community centre? These are just examples – you and your friends and neighbours can come up with your own inspiring ways. The key is to look at your local area differently, and see the potential for growing food and other useful crops in every unused space.