Edible City

Growing Vegetables In Obscure Urban Locations

It has already been suggested that city dwellers have a lower carbon footprint than country folk. A study by the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), in 2004, found that greenhouse emissions per capita, for each average Londoner, were equal to 6.2 tonnes of CO2, in contrast to the UK average of 11.19 tonnes. This could be due to a variety of important factors. One being that urbanites make better use of their public transport. Another being the fact that it is more energy efficient to heat a building block rather than a single house. Finally, the food and waste collection in cities tends to be much more local in comparison to their more rural neighbours. But how else are people reducing their carbon footprint and making their cities greener?

Growing vegetables in cities is becoming ever more popular. People are finding innovative ways to plant in obscure and uncanny places. Keen gardeners have been driven to the streets by allotment waiting lists and a nervous twitch in their green fingers.

Eloise Dey, of the Forgotten Feast, also works for Capital Growth, a charity that offers practical help, grants, support and training to groups who want to establish community food growing projects. On Monday the 27th February, I attended an organised tour of Capital Growth growing spaces. It was here that I witnessed the growth of the guerilla gardening movement and how community interest companies, such as Capital Growth, have truly found their place in today’s urban society.

Capital Growth’s next event is the Big Dig on Saturday the 17th March. The aim of the day is to connect people with their local community food growing spaces so that they can get involved and volunteer for their projects.

Alex's garden flanked by railways and warehouses

Our first stop is Alara Wholefoods depot, Kings cross. Alara’s warehouse is on a grey industrial estate just like any other. Green fingered Alex Smith started Alara back in 1975. Alex’s muesli is packed full of super-foods, as is his garden. First Alex shows us a micro-vineyard that lines the car park. He proudly tells us that last year the grapes produced 200 bottles of wine bottled by the Urban Wine Company. We then follow Alex around the back of his warehouse, which is flanked by a huge railway junction. The garden is long and narrow, making use of the space available. The metal buildings have created a sun trap perfect for growing tropical plants. We pass pomegranate trees, pineapple guava and elaeagnus: a superfood very rich in vitamins A, C and E, flavanoids and other bio-active compounds. Alex has a grander vision for the whole industrial estate. He has successfully infiltrated his neighbour Bookers, a national food wholesaler. Together they have planted an apple orchard which is already producing fruit.

Discussing the effects of wind on the roof top of Wolff Olins

Next stop, Wolff Olins, a brand consultancy in Regents Wharf. The company has created a roof garden that is 10 stories high with a spectacular view over London. Stuart Robertson takes us up onto the roof and, with infectious enthusiasm, introduces us to his project. We are told that the garden is maintained by volunteers and that the project has attracted the interest of international press.

The planting beds on the roof are shallow and spread over a wide area. Wollf informs us that the beds were designed using the principles of a snow shoe, which ensures that the weight is distributed evenly over the roof.  He tells us that each plant is chosen specifically to withstand the high winds found on the roof, with the more hardier plants being most successful. At the moment they have plenty of leeks, kale and alpine strawberries. When I asked Steven about pests he said, “Slugs are still a problem, even at this height.” Like most gardeners, he hates slugs and squashes them on first sight. But he has the added pleasure of throwing them off the roof into the canal. All the vegetables from the garden help supply the restaurant on the ground floor. Recently they have built two bee hives that produce up to 40 litres of honey a year.
Wolff Olins’ garden project has become a key part of their local community, teaching its volunteers the benefits of urban growing.

A skip converted into a mobile garden

Next on the list was the Global Generation skip garden. Global Generation is a charity that is key to the regeneration of Kings Cross whilst also creating change all around London. The heart of their project is based on an industrial wasteland which awaits development.  All around them, new buildings continue to pop up. Knowing that their garden had to be mobile, they used the vernacular of the local environment to create there skip garden. Head gardener Paul Richens who specialises in growing in hard places, uses innovative ways to adapt a garden to the urban landscape. For planters they use old crates, which are then supported by pallets. They even have an adapted bicycle that delivers vegetables to restaurants still in their soil, fresh for the chefs to pick themselves.

The garden is built and maintained through organised workshops. This provides education to local businesses and schools, whilst also creating some revenue. Global Generation were positive about the support from the local developers, and feel that there is a common understanding for the project’s position in developing a greener Kings Cross.

Dalston roof park - their new planter design

Our next stop, Dalston Roof Park, created by the Bootstrap Company, which aims to improve the environment in Dalston through sustainable regeneration. This roof garden is a very popular seasonal event space and bar. The garden is simply planted in grow bags. They are stored on pallets to allow the flat roof to drain properly. Even now in February, their garden is full of delicious edible plants. When Bootstrap advertised they would be starting a roof garden and needed volunteers, they were inundated with requests. It seems that there is a huge thirst for community work and gardening projects in the city. After weeding out the slackers, they now have a solid team of 12 who show great care for the garden.

This Spring, they are planning on rebuilding the garden, this time using simple bespoke planters, which will make the whole thing mobile. I’m looking forward to the bar reopening in the summer, so that I can enjoy the sun and vibrant space. I’m also hoping to do a pop-up so be sure to keep an eye out for further notice.

Our final visit of the day is The Castle Climbing Centre in Manor House. Perhaps the most impressive garden of the day and certainly the most sustainable. The Castle boasts a huge garden of many acres. Once covered in sycamore and brambles, the

garden is now bursting with interesting projects. One of the head gardeners, Nick Quinn, is a medicinal horticulturist. He grows and dries herbs for the kitchen to make herbal teas, has a medicinal herb bed, and makes balms out of bees wax from the garden’s hive.

The Castle have just planted 1000 trees on their land. Half the trees were donated by the Woodland Trusts million tree giveaway. They have an interesting variety of hazel, hawthorn, blackthorn (slow berries), and sea buckthorn. These trees are good windbreakers and protect their garden from the road. The Castle have a huge community of 45,000 climbers and local residents. The climbers can earn the ‘Castle quid’ by shifting barrows of soil, which in turn buys them free climbing sessions. With all this man power, the land has transformed into a hugely productive vegetable garden. In fact, the cafe have not needed to buy greens for 2 years. All the food waste from the centre is fed into their composter, which in turn feeds the plants. I was hugely inspired by my time at The Castle and am looking forward to digging for that ‘Castle quid’.


Looking at all these innovative growing projects, it is clear that the urban growing network is indeed ‘growing’. With more and more support for the green fingered population, it is now easier than ever to transform that extra urban space into a productive food garden. By using space to grow food that would otherwise be wasted, we will be taking another active step into creating greener and healthier cities. So go on and get involved!

A new poly tunnel being made constructed out of gas pipes found in the local area of the skip garden

Kale growing in a wind protected planter at Wolff Olins roof garden

The tour group with Eloise Dey - Capital Growth

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