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English Town Digs Up Lots of Space to Grow
Community-Wide Movement Reflects Rising Interest in Guerrilla Gardening

By Karla Adam
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, August 16, 2009

TODMORDEN, England -- Gardening has long been something of a national sport in Britain. But while Britons are spending as much time as ever digging and weeding, many have been choosing lately to plant food -- turnips instead of tulips -- with a gusto not seen since their country's World War II Dig for Victory campaign.

The trend is unusually visible in Todmorden, a market town about 200 miles northwest of London, where residents have planted crops in dozens of public places. Young cherry trees adorn the police station. The entrance to the health center is decorated with raspberry bushes and apple trees. And the local train station's platform is green with mint and rosemary.

"It takes a leap of faith to grow in a graveyard, to be corny," said resident Mary Clear, as she bent over and pinched a weed sprouting between an onion and a strawberry plant in Todmorden's vast Victorian cemetery.

The community-wide effort began about 18 months ago when Clear, 54, an energetic woman who works for the town government, sneakily started planting seeds in her spare time with a few friends. Any nook, cranny and postage-stamp-size bit of land was up for grabs. The campaign blossomed with the plants, and now the movement operates under the name Incredible Edible Todmorden and receives funding and support from the local council and businesses.

"It makes people interact with their town," said Estelle Brown, 65, a local Web designer, as she snapped a pea from a vine growing next to the town's canal and ate it.

Many space-starved Britons who do not live in towns such as Todmorden, where rhubarb-for-free nods outside the local pub, grow food on allotments.

Britain has about 300,000 such community gardens, which are protected under legislation dating to 1887. But demand far exceeds supply, with about 100,000 people on waiting lists -- a number that has jumped nearly 700 percent in the past 12 years, according to Geoff Stokes, secretary of the National Society of Allotment and Leisure Gardeners.

A Confluence of Forces

The budding interest in growing food began about three years ago, Stokes said, citing a collision of factors, including popular cooking and gardening television shows presented by influential chefs such as Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall; a growing interest in the environmental costs of imported food (some food sold here carries labels approximating how much carbon it emits during its lifetime); and the penny-watching that has followed the recession, helping to "tip wavering people over the edge," as Stokes put it.

In a recent report on food security, the British government said the country, which imports almost 40 percent of its food, needs to find ways to produce more food with fewer resources. The report cited concerns over climate change, water supplies, population growth and food prices.

"We need a radical rethink of how we produce and consume our food," said Hilary Benn, the environment secretary.

Under British law, if six people band together and demand an allotment, a local council must try to provide them with one, and for a reasonable fee, usually about $50 to $80 a year. (London is the only area exempt from this rule.) But locating suitable land takes time -- the average allotment is about 300 square yards -- and some councils worry that the renewed interest in allotments is little more than a fad, likely to wither when the economy picks up.

A Buckingham Palace Plot

Such worries have not stopped a swath of initiatives. The mayor of London has pledged to create 2,012 new vegetable patches across the capital by that year. British Waterways, the caretaker of the country's canal network, is offering unused land along canals to community gardening groups and says it will turn old work boats into floating gardens.

In February, the National Trust, a preservation group, pledged to create 1,000 plots over the next three years, many of them on the grounds of stately homes, including Gibside, the ancestral estate of the queen mother's family.

"It's like gardening in the world's grandest garden," said Mark Heath, a 32-year-old volunteer who tends pumpkins and other vegetables at Gibside.

Or why not plant in the back yard of that house across the way, where the residents clearly have no interest in gardening? That is the idea behind http://landshare.channel4.com, a Web site with more than 40,000 users that was launched on the back of a TV gardening program. It acts as a nationwide matchmaker to fix up those with unused land with those who want to garden in it.

In June, Queen Elizabeth II ordered that part of her garden at Buckingham Palace be dug up for vegetables. (Royal officials emphasized at the time that the queen's patch was planned before first lady Michelle Obama launched one in the White House back yard.)

Back in Todmorden, the Incredible Edible scheme is taking root. Maps are posted around town listing the 26 public gardens that residents can visit to collect their dinner ingredients.

It is unclear how many people actually do that, and a handful of residents interviewed expressed doubts about eating food grown so close to exhaust pipes and within reach of drunken teenagers.

But by and large, the idea has been warmly embraced, and at least one nearby town has adopted a similar scheme.

"They are the cheapest artichokes in town," said Steve Martin, 50, an office administrator sitting in a pub in Todmorden that has a vegetable garden next to it.

"I drag hundreds of people down from the pub to show them, 'No, peas don't come from bags in a supermarket!' And then I take some home myself."

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