I’m doing my blog post a day early this week because today is endangered species day. Now we all know you’ve got the ‘sexy’ endangered species, your tigers and pandas (disclaimer, I am not attracted to pandas) but I think it’s important to remember the endangered species who are a little bit closer to home.
We had bees on our land in Cornwall, this is me with them! It was an amazing feeling being able to handle them. Your body has a reaction to the buzzing, like a primal electricity going over you.
The symbol of Manchester is the bee and in the wake of the arena bombings a lot of people in Manchester got the bee as a tattoo. As I’m sure we all know, bees and other pollinators have had a pretty raw deal recently. Meadowlands are in sharp decline, monocultures dominate the countryside and we use poison to grow our food. There are a huge amount of challenges facing them, and we depend upon them for our own survival. They are rapidly becoming the most important endangered species of all.
Not only are they struggling because of large agricultural practices and destroyed environments, but even individual gardeners are creating a hostile terrain. Immaculately mowed lawns with no flowers and round up on the dandelions are all doing their part to hurt out bee friends. Often we feel like there is nothing we can do to help with large scale problems like this, but to put it into perspective the land taken up by gardens in the UK is bigger than all of our nature reserves. We have the opportunity as gardeners to make life easier for these guys as they are facing huge threats.
It doesn’t take a lot to make somewhere useful for pollinators and I think as a city Manchester should focus on getting bee friendly. This is something I’m going to focus on for this year, and hopefully by next endangered species day I’ll have helped make some spaces in this city better for bees.
As I look across the sprawling sea of skyscrapers that is becoming Manchester’s skyline it is comforting to know that even now under lockdown different groups across the city are still actively working on making the place greener. As one of (if not the first) industrialised cities Manchester is not somewhere that you would normally associate with local produce and allotments. Sow the City are working to change that by working with local people to encourage growing vegetables and urban gardening. To grow your own in Manchester, with our limited space and lack of gardening heritage takes resourcefulness and tenacity – something we have in spades.
Mo and Juliet from Let’s Keep Growing gave us a clear, comprehensive and accessible presentation of how they made their idea a reality. Mo has lived in Longsight for 40 years and met Juliet through a housing co-op. After enrolling in the ‘Making a Difference’ programme through Amity CIC they started working on their plan to turn the alleyways between Slade Lane, Hamilton Road, Hector Road and Palm Street into a community garden. Let’s Keep Growing was born.
Manchester has many alleyways and reclaiming them as a shared community space that incorporates food production, homes for wildlife and socialising is brilliant. There is so much underused space in cities that could be used to grow vegetables and help increase city food security. They were keen to emphasise how much research and hard work is involved in getting this project off the ground.
Mo and Juliet found during their research that there were a lot of gardeners and a lack of green spaces, so the idea to bring people’s backyards out into the alleyways fit with resident’s needs. One of the things I really liked about their presentation was how they kept coming back to speaking to the people in the community, whether it is through knocking on doors or handing out questionnaires. They asked a lot of questions of people who were already there to ensure they were creating something the whole community could feel part of.
Longsight is a diverse area and part of the goal of this project is to promote social cohesion. One piece of advice they gave that really stuck with me was to create as many different ways for people to get involved as possible. Residents came out and shared food with volunteers on the project, shared seeds and plants from their back gardens and helped to spread the word. A lot of the time people want to be more engaged with their communities but they don’t have a channel for it, a reason to communicate it. Let’s Keep Growing helped give participants a shared goal with their neighbours, something to work together on and bond over. To encourage as many local people as they can there is an active effort to make the project as visible and accessible as possible.
Give the webinar a listen if you are interested in setting up your own community gardening project, especially if you are in Manchester because they deliver a really comprehensive plan to help other budding community groups. The webinars are every Friday so do get involved.
Reading the comments in the chat box it looked as if Mo and Juliet had sown the seed for quite a few listeners and I hope we’ll see a flurry of urban gardening projects happening in Manchester soon.
Those of us who are regular gardeners were in for a bit of a surprise a couple of months back.
Seed companies throughout the UK reported they were having such a high amount of orders they couldn’t cope with them. Either the company was so large that they struggled getting stock out because of social distancing, or they had such a mass of orders that they couldn’t meet demand. It seems Covid19 can leave no area of regular life untouched, growing tomatoes has never been so fraught! I saw a bit of backlash online against fairweather growers but I think it is more important than ever before that we release some of the pressure on our food supply chains. The more people gardening the better no matter what the initial cause. Hopefully it will lead to people being more environmentally conscious as well as getting more flowers out there for our struggling pollinators. Once you start to grow your own vegetables you realise how worthwhile it is.
One of the things the great seed grab of 2020 highlights to me is the importance of saving seeds and growing varieties of plants that enable us to do this. Should we only be relying on companies to provide our seeds for us when we have now seen first hand how fragile the supply chain is?
A lot of people grow food to become self sufficient but don’t realise that by relying upon businesses for their seeds, their self sufficiency is at the mercy of market forces. You can gain some security from this by doing the following:
Research what varieties of plants you can grow again
At some point I will write about the fascinating world of seed law and biology (no sarcasm) but this isn’t the space. It’s enough to say that for many common varieties of vegetables and fruits you will struggle to produce healthy plants from the saved seed. If this is news to you, I recommend looking at this. When you’re planning your garden try to think long term and get varieties that will create strong offspring.
Save your seeds
This is definitely easier for some plants than others! But like with anything you can start small, you don’t need to go from gardening noob to carrot essence siphoning magician overnight. The journey between those two points is going to be full of trial and error. Start with the easier plants, like peas, beans and peppers. Seed saving is one of those things you can start doing immediately and you can always do better. Have a look here for a little guide. Once you have your seed, make sure store them safely so your hard work doesn’t go to waste!
Set up community seed swaps
Have a look around and see what seed swaps are happening locally to you, if there aren’t any – start one. Swapping seeds with local growers is a great way of meeting people with similar interests and a free way of diversifying your own seed supply. It also means that the seeds that you will be acquiring have had a trial run in similar conditions to the ones you’ll be growing in. Community gardening is a wicked concept and can grow from such meetings. If you want to start a seed swap but don’t know how to start going about it feel free to get in touch, my day job is events and I’d be really happy to give any advice.
Buy from independent companies
Smaller companies have less staff and a less lengthy supply chain so are able to react quickly to changing environments. Vitalseeds had a system during the mad seed rush where they would accept orders until a certain time and then stop accepting them once they got to a certain limit. Supporting these companies is important for the landscape of our seed sources, many of them with higher ethical standards than larger companies, but also they have the added benefit of being able to react quickly to rapidly changing situations.
Social media is a tool, a lot of the time wielded by powerful people with different interests to myself, that most of us have access to. In that medium we don’t just consume media, we also create it. Which gives us a good opportunity not only to put out onto the platform more of what we see in the world, but also use it to serve our interests. Follow other gardeners. You will get a lot of advice and support as well as the opportunity for online seed swaps. You might find other people in your area and be able to trade vegetables when you have a glut. It will help you build an online community of other growers as well as helping you connect to growers local to you that you otherwise wouldn’t have discovered. Then if something like this happens again you can put a shout out for excess seeds, or cuttings and maybe find yourself in the position where you can support someone else.
In the wake of coronavirus there has been a large increase in mutual aid groups and communities reaching out to each other. This is brilliant, and hopefully some of this increased community connection and gardening interest will result in more planned community growing.
I’m not saying stop buying from companies altogether, but we can use this as an opportunity to spread awareness about the merits of seed saving and swapping. Not just for the benefit of our individual gardens, but also those of our local and online communities. By diversifying our seed sources we will strengthen food security with the added bonus of saving ourselves some money.