Manchester urban diggers sat on allotment

With the cost-of-living crisis driving up food prices and concerns rising about the negative affects of modern agriculture on the climate and environment, more people are considering growing their own food.

Gary Roberts talks to urban gardeners in Manchester about the benefits growing your own food can bring.

For those who can remember the 1970’s sitcom The Good Life, a tale of a suburban couple turning to self-sufficiency following a midlife crisis, the notion of growing your own food may have a hint of nostalgia from simpler times.

With the soaring price of the cost of living, 87% of shoppers across Great Britain reported their food bills had increased in March, there are increasing pragmatic pressures for people to pick up a spade and grow their own food, in whatever space they have available.

Global food chains are also coming under increasing pressure due to the war in Ukraine, which is a top exporter of grain to Europe, Asia and Africa. The war has been described by the World Food Program as a “recipe for catastrophe”. Increasingly common extreme weather events linked to climate change are also devastating crops, with a severe heatwave across India predicted to damage wheat harvests and affect more than a billion people.

These are some of the factors that have led to the World food commodity prices reaching their highest levels ever according to the United Nations Food Price Index.

The need to reduce carbon footprints, food miles and plastic packaging have also been motivating factors for individuals and community groups to re-engage with their own food production and the recent Covid lockdowns only compounded the call from mother nature.

Enjoying a happier healthy relationship with their food has also been a driver for many to start cultivating within the limited spaces available in an urban landscape. With supply chain challenges, increasing costs, and labour shortages all playing a part in increasing the UK’s food prices the incentive to pick up your spade and start digging is only set to increase.

Robin in Seymour Grove Allotments in Manchester. A bird commonly referred to as the “gardeners friend” due to it turning up when soil is turned over.

Manchester Urban Diggers (MUD) was formed in 2019 following an increased demand for educational services to help grow urban fruit, vegetables and herbs and to make growing facilities available to the local community. They always use organic growing methods and aim to improve local biodiversity and soil health wherever they grow.

Mike Hodson, a director of the community interest company (CIC), explained how MUD benefits its volunteers, and society as a whole, with its work and future plans to expand outside of Manchester.

“We take our inspiration from the Wiganer Gerrard Winstanley, a cofounder of the ‘True Levellers’[or Diggers], who in the mid 1600’s started to cultivate land for the common good and those in need.”

The Diggers derived their name from their belief that the land should be available to everyone to cultivate regardless of status and wealth. As Winstanley put it, “The earth was made to be a common treasury for all.”

Sam, 30, from Salford who is a fellow MUD director, along with his sister Jo, said: “We just took over a cultivated patch in Platt Fields from a guy who was leaving the area in 2016. It was a just mixture of knee-high grass and fruit bushes at that stage.”

Sam explains that at first it was a mixture of friends and local people who worked on the land during any free time they had growing food to share. The more the site expanded, it grew to over 250 metres squared, the more people became interested and the number of volunteers grew to over 800.

Mike, who moved to Manchester when he was 18, worked as a youth worker and joined the group  after meeting Jo through a mutual friend, and then started visits to the site in Platt Fields with youth volunteers. The group formalised with the three directors in 2019 as a CIC which now pays them a regular, if modest, salary.

“The Covid lockdown really accelerated things regarding volunteering, which was allowed, when other activities came to an abrupt halt”, says Mike. “But we are now back to offering workshops and the site acts as a network drawing local people from a variety of different back grounds to join us linking us to local chefs and restaurants, the NHS wellbeing initiative and local community charities.”

Mike explains volunteers do not get paid for their work, but they do occasionally get a share of the crops produced, and are generally motivated by being part of the group and sharing knowledge, with the added bonus of keeping fit. “People create their own space here. As part of the community we have a ceramicist and chef who have now set up on the site.”

Volunteers have gained knowledge to use on their own land and some have gone on to find employment within the horticulture sector after gaining experience through MUD courses which are grant funded and offered free to participants. Activities by MUD are not just limited to the Platt Fields Market Garden they have collaborations which include sites in Beswick, Miles Platting, Chorlton, Salford and Stockport. They help groups with advice on design, building, volunteering and seeking grant funding for community gardens.

The Platt Fields Market Garden is part of the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) network, with some produce from the garden being sold to help a free community meal offered on Fridays. There is also have a veg box scheme which can be delivered by bike or collected from the site.

“We hope Manchester City Council can recognise the potential of what we are doing and grant us a long lease to enable us to secure the site for the community and the volunteers” Mike says. “We now involve over 800 people which range across the city’s demographic of age and communities. This has allowed knowledge to be shared and increased our range of produce thanks to the input of culturally different food preferences.”

Sam (left) and Mike Hodson from Manchester Urban Diggers.

Mike advises anyone who wants to start to reconnect with their food to seek advice and MUD are always happy for people to call in for a chat. It’s not about being self-sustaining just for the sake of economics it’s about reducing food miles and setting up similar urban market gardens within Manchester on ground that is neglected and unused including roof top gardens. The benefits of growing your own food and reconnecting with nature are manifold Sam says:

“We aim to educate and inspire those in the Urban and peri-urban areas of Manchester and beyond to reconnect with their food production. People can reduce their food costs but its more about the taste, quality and environmental impact. You just cant compare mass farmed produce with something you have grown yourself.

“Certain produce such as garlic, chillies, soft fruits and fruits trees can be real money savers. However, the reduction of the carbon footprint of production, storage and transportation is crucial for the environment. The main thing is for people to get involved.”

As well as the difference in achievement and taste between homegrown and shop bought food, there is also evidence that farming methods have affected food over time. Researchers from Coventry University while examining the nutritional contents of shop bought fruit and vegetables found that since 2019 there had been a fall of over 40% in micronutrient content of shop bought produce since 1940.

Current large scale mechanised agricultural methods are increasingly seen as unsustainable in the long term, due to its negative affects on climate and the environment, with soil degradation being of major concern. A research report presented to parliament raised concerns that “intensive agricultural practices” had depleted nutrient status and increased erosion, compaction and contamination in farmland soil across the UK, affecting food production.

The UN’s designation of degraded land takes into account soil degradation but also includes other measures such as water availability and biodiversity. In April they reported that 40% of the worlds land is classed as degraded, with much of the damage coming from food production. Both the research report to the Parliament in the UK, and the UN point out that this degradation damage is reversible, and the UN is calling for reformed land governance to enable that reversal.

The UN also raises concerns about large scale commercial holdings increasingly dominating agricultural land use in poor and rich countries. Part of the answer in the UK maybe a social change towards some urban and peri-urban food production offering shorter supply chains and less intensive farming. This would not seem alien to those home gardeners in the post war years who tended urban garden vegetable plots or allotments.

Andy Warmen who has turned his garden over to food production with one of his free range hens.

Some Mancunians have taken this less incorporated approach to urban food production, repurposing their gardens and drawing on family experience from years gone by coupled with research via the internet.

Andy Warmen, 58, who has lived in Fallowfield for the last 16 years is one such individual. Andy divorced, with a teenage son, wandered into his back garden during the Covid lockdown and thought why not put the land to some practical use? With the help of a few neglected garden tools he started planting vegetables in rows which now transect his previously mowed lawn.

“The first year was a bit hit and miss” says Andy. “But I managed potatoes, tomatoes, various herbs, beans, peas, spinach and courgettes. The courgettes were almost too successful I was struggling to give then away in the end. Overall though it was a great experience and this year I have expanded the size of the plot to double its size and added fruit bushes and trees.” 

Along with his free-range chickens, another new addition he keeps in a fenced off section, he hopes to increase production which he shares with neighbours and friends who in return have supplied him with homemade food and soaps from their own activities.

“It really kept me busy in lockdown but now with the price of food going up so much and the friendly exchanges with neighbours and friends why stop?”

Of course urban food production is nothing new with traditional allotments and garden vegetable patches being vital in the war and post war rationing years. Manchesters Seymour Grove allotments in Old Trafford have origins dating back even further.

Michelle Lanaway secretary of Seymour Grove allotments.

As Michelle Lanaway, the secretary of Seymour Grove Allotments, explains these plots have their origins dating back hundreds of years. However, despite a waiting list of three years, Michelle says the cost savings of home grown fruit and vegetables, particularly at outset, are negated by the costs of seeds, compost, tools and the plot rental (currently £52 for a half plot, £104 for a full plot, per year).

Fellow allotment holders agree cost of production offsets most of the savings made but the taste of the home grown produce together with the wellbeing and exercise involved in cultivating your own fruit and veg are the major benefits.

“It probably balances out cost wise over the longer term,” says Julie Fletcher, 62, a plot holder and landscape gardener. Plot holder and Bee Keeper Rob Athorn, 46, who works as a production and events manager adds:

“You can pick things to grow which will save you money if they are expensive in the shop. However, you must compare the cost of growing with the shop price of organic produce to make a true judgement. Physalis [Cape gooseberries], garlic, chillies and blueberries can offer the biggest savings.”

Rob Athorn and Julie Fletcher from Seymour Grove allotments with the fruit trees and apiary.

Again the taste benefits plus the opportunity to grow produce that is rarely available in the supermarkets is an added attraction. The allotments have a range of nationalities and ethnic backgrounds represented and this has led to a sharing of ideas and knowledge of how to grow different varieties of produce. Seymour Grove Allotments also has its own apiary, which is now self-supporting with its honey sales, another one has been set up in nearby Hullard park, and they are presently looking for more sites. The increased pollination rate by the bees has also resulted in greater produce yields, which has been appreciated by the plot holders. 

Michelle also notes that additional benefits from the enhanced environment is the close relationship between the allotments and the urban wildlife. She is regularly visited by a Robin which takes the opportunity to feed on insects and worms disturbed by her gardening activities and last year a fox was a regular visitor to the site.

The Seymour Grove Allotments has open days to raise funds with any excess produce being given to local charities. During lockdown a donation box was set up for excess produce to be distributed and this has continued post lockdown to supply a local food bank and the neighbouring community. With food prices rising in the shops more people will be effected and will benefit from these initiatives be it just via neighbourly exchange or by a more structured route. They have had issues with proposed property developments close to the site, with one large multi-story proposal threatening shade and rain shadows across plots. Michelle says that MP Kate Green and Trafford council have been sympathetic and supportive.

The Manchester based  Gaskell Garden project (GGP) has taken community urban food production to its logical extension with produce going from soil to the plate at the Spiral Garden Café via the organisation, while adhering to its belief in permaculture, a system that promotes an agricultural ecosystem that aims to be sustainable and self-sufficient, and is effective in preventing soil degradation.

Their garden sites , one at Platt Fields plus numerous collaborative at home private plots  supplies a “pay as you feel” cafe based at the Niamos centre in Hulme using a combination of organically grown produce, from GGP’s permaculture gardens, and surplus food from supermarkets that would otherwise go to landfill, to create vegan-friendly, meals for all to share. The organisation is completely run on a volunteer basis as a non-profit with those that can’t afford to pay for meals helping out, if they can, with their time.

Urban gardening at the Gaskell Garden Project in Manchester
Robyn Ellis at the Gaskell Garden Project permaculture garden.

The project also supplies food for the “Taphouse TV diners” a project that started in lockdown that supplies “pay as you feel dinners” for residents in the M15 postcode region and the surrounding areas. Robyn Ellis, a director, explains the ethos of the GPP:

“We are made up of six directors with around forty other members. It all started around 7 years ago with an aim to connect the community through gardening and growing. It’s since evolved into a community interest company which aids the distribution of waste food from supermarkets to the community. This became invaluable during the covid lockdown as many conventional food distribution agencies were forced to close their doors. We ended up feeding over 800 people per week during this period. We also supplemented the food supply from our community garden which is based in Platt Fields Park.”

“We are a permaculture project which focuses not just on production but methods of growing and how the environment is effected. Due to our location we obviously have to consider this within an urban environment and take into account potential pollution issues from traffic and any other contamination. We have planters at the cafe for chard, salad and runner beans as well as members who grow produce at home to donate to the project.”

“We are always looking for new green spaces within the city which is an ongoing issue. The local Hulme council approached us about a strip of land near Princess parkway, 1.2 acres of an old slip road which currently is redundant apart from a cycle way. We are in the process of formalising the lease but it won’t be ‘our land’ we will manage it on behalf of the community.”

The abandoned slip road may be familiar to those who have viewed the hundreds of green parakeets, while crossing the Hulme Arch bridge, who roost in the trees opposite the site at dusk. The GGP aims to enhance the area with community fruit trees, an improved cycle way, with native fruit bushes for production and a bamboo hedge to reduce noise and pollution from the nearby road. 

Robyn Ellis on the abandoned slip road soon to be enhanced by planting fruit trees and bushes.

“We have tested the soil and it is good,” Robyn said.” Research has shown that most air pollutants can be removed with simple washing but we will be monitoring the results. People have lived next to this road for forty years so anything which can improve the environment for them must be a good thing. The plan is for this to be a blue print for similar sites so that people can have equal access to food. We want to create an edible forest for all with an enhanced cycle way.”

Robyn urges the council to consider other areas which could be similarly utilised before it’s too late. “We need the council to consider these areas before developments take them all. However, we need to be inventive even in those built on urban areas of the city centre. Living walls, vertical gardens and roof top areas can all contribute. We have members who are involved raising seedlings on windowsills and balconies.”

All of these urban gardeners have taken different approaches however the commonality of community involvement and a reconnect of individuals with food production permeates them all.

With the chance to make new friends and meet those in your community along with enhanced physical exercise and improved well-being as well as saving money on healthy food whilst also lowering your carbon footprint why not get digging?

To get involved in growing your own food, purchase local grown produce, or attend events and workshops within Greater Manchester contact these organisations.

For MUD open days, events and courses – click here 

For Seymour Grove allotments – click here  

For the Gaskell Garden project, workshops, events, cafe and advice – click here  

Sign up to The Meteor mailing list – click here

This story is part of the Creating Radical Change series

Featured image and all in article photos: Gary Roberts

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  • Gary Roberts

    A photojournalist and writer who covers conservation and social issues worldwide. Founder of Education background includes BSc Zoology at Leeds University and an MSc at The University of Manchester in International development poverty, conflict and reconstruction. Gary studied and later taught photojournalism at Speos Photographic institute. His work has involved numerous conservation and social justice groups including The Fairtrade foundation, Oxfam, ABRU Animal Behaviour Research Unit, SOS Lynx, Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, TANAPA, and APOPO. Publications include UK National and International Press.

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