We visit the travelling organic vegetable garden in it’s current location in an old bus depot in London Kings Cross and meet the team from Global Generation who run the project. We interview Paul Richens, the skip garden’s creator and head gardener about how it all came about and also talk to Silvia Pedretti, youth programme facilitator about the educational impact of the project and connecting young ‘global generators’ with the food they eat…

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Hi Paul - What inspired you to get into urban growing?

I’m a dyed in the wool Londoner, and I suppose I’ve never bought into the idea of a cottage in Dorset where you need to go to grow good organic vegetables. There’s absolutely no reason why with a bit of craft and skill you can’t do it in London and do just as well. In fact London has lots of advantages. Because of the heat iron effect, we have a temperature increase which is very useful for lots of vegetables. Also we haven’t got the chemical drift that you get in the countryside from agri-farming. There’s a lot of plus about growing in London.

How did the skip garden come about?

The site we’re on now was a bus depot, but actually the skip garden travels and that’s the important thing to understand about it. It was formed for this function, and this function is that it’s portable. When the founder of Global Generation was trying to work with the developers here, they were obviously very worried about having a garden on the site – that we might physically put down roots and claim land. So they were suggesting that we could have some kind of garden on a truck. But I had this idea – I’d seen skips at Kew Gardens full of plants. Actually they use them just to move plants around when they’re weeding and things, but I thought that was a really good idea. So I sat down and I thought about how to convert a rubbish skip into a garden. So I presented the idea to the board, and they said they had six old garbage skips, with rotten bottoms. So they took me to this warehouse where they had these old skips all piled on top of each other, you know, like egg cups, and I said ,“Oh yeah, I’ll have those.” We’ve now got seven, and each one does one function of a garden. So we’ve got three for crops, because I am by inclination and practice an organic gardener, I wanted three for crops to practice crop rotations. This is the simplest of the crop rotation systems – legumes followed by brassicas followed by roots. Then we’ve got a semi-permanent planting skip with five apples, two pears, a grape, lots of herbs and currants in there – things that give you crop year after year. We’ve got a poly-skip, so again for early starting and late finishing in the season. And then we’ve got a herb garden, and I filled that with both culinary and medicinal herbs.

And the final skip I call the green engine, and it’s everything that you need for an organic farm. So rainwater harvesting, composting, there’s some Russian comfrey which makes a wonderful plant food, and five wormeries. So a lot of the food waste from the kitchen goes into the wormeries, and we get really high grade, rich organic soil.

What’s your opinion on the return of heritage varieties as opposed to the perhaps ‘normal’ varieties favoured by supermarkets?

In my garden, in London, I was determined to have a heritage variety of apple. So I chose something – a London variety – from 1760 called Fern’s Pippin. And you can actually see why people don’t grow it any more. It’s not a pleasant apple, it’s very small. It’s monstrous to prune the bloody thing. I’m quite happy that I have a heritage, but actually some of the more modern ones are better. I think there’s a divergence; the supermarkets aren’t choosing for taste, they’re choosing for storage, how well they bruise. My favourite apple was Charles Ross, fantastic colour, very big, but it bruises in a second. So I grow that in my garden, and I probably get about eight apples in a year, and I sit down and I make a meal of it with the best Wensleydale I can find. Supermarkets couldn’t do that. Supermarkets are choosing based on different things from what I’m choosing. I don’t choose to buy supermarket apples.

So the main crops, or the main vegetables you grow here, I guess that changes throughout the year depending on season?

It’s actually quite interesting really, because I think in terms of total growing area we’re probably just below an allotment size, but I manage – by having the extra kick of heat – to keep things going. This year’s been unusual because it’s been so mild, a lot of our winter lettuce have grown strongly right though and are just being changed now.

In my head I divide it into two sorts of vegetables – one is the leaf vegetable we use for lunch in the kitchen, the lovely and fresh vegetables, and the other sort is the crop vegetables that have what I call ‘legs’. We work with a lot of schools, and the children actually take produce from the garden and convert it into chutneys and pestos and what have you. So I grow a lot of longer term vegetables for that use – a lot of tomatoes, a lot of basil for making into these other things, and the other stuff is for eating on a weekly basis.

So have you seen an increase in urban food growing and people who want to connect with their food?

I think I’ve seen a big increase in the interest in growing in London. I think now, people are seeing the value in better food, in organically grown food. I think they can see that the food that they’re getting from the supermarket isn’t as high value as once thought. Also, I think a lot of them are having children. And there’s nothing better than spending time in the garden with your children, teaching them about life and how things grow. So there have been a lot of very keen people who know absolutely nothing at all.

How big is the skip garden team, and what is a typical day at the skip garden?

I think the answer to that is that there is no typical day at the skip garden! It’s a wonderfully varied job really, there’s always something different happening. In my working life I work two days a week, and have time outside my working day thinking about here and planning ahead. I often say that I do very little gardening here, because most of my time is spent doing maintenance. The garden is run by volunteers, we have a twilight garden where office workers come here every fortnight, and then in a couple of hours they do an enormous amount of gardening – sowing seeds, clearing beds. We’ve got a local company called Zone who send people to spend days with us. Jane always says it’s a garden of a thousand hands and I think that’s about right, lots of people have put a lot of time and effort into this garden. Overall there’s a pattern of sowing the seed, germinating and potting on.

I get a tour most Tuesdays, so a big audience to explain what we’re doing here. Over the years I think we’ve touched a lot of people.

So will this be the last year at this site?

Hard to know, they’ve been warning that we wont get as big a space. The problem is they have to provide sports facilities as they build residences. So they’ll probably build a sports hall here instead. Land’s extremely hard to find in London. So we’ll see. Our second birthday was last October, so we’ve had a good run here. On the whole site we started in 2006, so overall we’ve done very well for London.

What advice would you give to urban food growers? What plants, how much space?

I think the best advice is just do it. Don’t be frightened by the idea that you might kill something. Just keep on trying until you don’t! Mostly it’s because people over love plants, and they keep over-watering them until they die. There’s a wonderful book called ‘Square Foot Gardening’, that says that people get a packet of seeds and plant all the seeds, and then you have half a million courgettes and don’t know what to do with them. So just tone it down, take it carefully. And go talk to other gardeners! The thing about gardening is that it’s so human. It’s about craft, its about science, practicality, spirituality, humour. And community. You get to meet people and talk. You can’t have a garden without humans, and I think you can’t be fully human without a garden. It does wonderful things. I see so many people come in, stressed after a day on a computer or on a phone, and I plug them into a planter and I just hear them relax. And that’s wonderful! It’s about linking with the world again, looking at the seasons, looking at the weather. I despise people who think that the weather is either nice or not nice. Look at the clouds, look at the rain, there is so much more than nice or not nice. If you’re a grower, you understand that. If you’re not, weather just gets in the way, seasons just get in the way.

Hi Silvia - What do you find interesting about working with the younger people?

If we had only young people who came to us and wanted to get involved with global generation and they say ‘I love the environment’, that would be amazing. But what I find even more interesting is when we have young people who are at the beginning of the journey with us, and they’re just like ‘I don’t really care about the environment’ and they’re used to eating fast food… That’s what I find even more interesting.

I find lots of enthusiasm when I see potential that is not manifesting – so, young people that you can work with, and see how they start and then see how they end. It’s nice to see how they grow. We’re not just here to teach young people, but to actually help them unlock or develop what they already have, but maybe they don’t know where to direct it. That’s what I find more interesting.

How old are most of them?

The age is between 13 to 19, but most of them are around 15/16 years old, so they come from local schools or youth clubs, so we try to keep it local. Of course it’s depending on the funding that we have. But it’s global generation in terms of the values that we try to make them think about when they garden or when they cook or design or build.

What aspect of the projects are they involved in?

The young people are involved in basically all the aspects of the projects. We are actually thinking about involving them in literally every aspect. At the moment they are involved in the café, in the kitchen, so they cook the food and they also sell it through markets and different opportunities. They are involved in the garden as well. Of course we have a garden manager and different gardeners during the day, but in the afternoons they learn about seedings, growings and they learn about harvesting. Its nice that they see it from the seed to the food, the whole life of the crop. They took part in our beekeeping classes last year, and hopefully it will happen again this year now that we have four hives.

If you start from this point of view, which is an understanding of why everything is connected, then the young people understand why we have hives on site, why we have crops, why we have a kitchen, why the business people are involved. I think one of my favourite aspects of the projects that the young people are involved in is the workshops like Lunch and Learning, where the young person comes in with an adult from a company – so Caravan or the Grain Store, or Zone or the Guardian. It’s nice to say there is always a double learning. It’s not just the young person who learns the skill from the adult, but also the adult tries to understand the view of young person in Kings Cross, and how to build something together – that’s the combination that’s really magical.

So where do you recruit from?

So we go to schools, we do assemblies. Also we go to sports clubs and youth centres, always locally. Now we are at the point where it is word of mouth, so young people tell their friends, and it’s almost like a waiting list of people saying ‘I want to be a generator’.

Who are these young people?

In this area, there is not very much structure or things to do for young people. These are people who are interested in green things, or the environment, or growing or cooking food, but a lot of them are also interested in the business aspect of growing food – you know, how I can use the skip garden as a way to sell things, to test ideas. Develop their own ideas and future career path.

How do they take their experience forward?

In every project or every workshop, we try to underline the aspect of the legacy. So everything they do, they cook, they build, has a legacy afterwards that connects them with the next generation of young people. From a table or a planter, or even just looking after the bees – it’s all an aspect of your legacy. But in terms of the future for their own individual journey – for work experience or jobs, they will have skills and confidence in an interview, they will have things to talk about. They’ve been a volunteer for nine months, they express commitment, they meet every other week, so they are involved in cooking and serving and encounters with the public. Even just being able to talk about themselves and what they believe in, and what they have to share. They take all this forward. Plus all the experience they have with local companies – there might be job opportunities. So when they meet people they don’t meet everyday, they are weaved already into the fabric of Kings Cross.

What are the main challenges you face as a programme with working with these people?

It’s a nine month programme, so you need commitment. They do an application form and we see how motivated they are. The challenge is trying to keep their enthusiasm going, and creating workshops where they learn but at the same time feel interested. We do a range of activities. We have lots of girls who at the beginning of their journey with us will scream at a little spider, but that’s part of the challenge – making them understand that that little thing is all part of the ecosystem, that it’s all interdependent.

When we start the generator programme, we take them for a weekend in Dorset, to  Purwood organic farm. We have a campsite there, so we take them from Friday afternoon to Sunday afternoon – a weekend of full immersion in nature. So what we try to do is bring that spirit of connection to nature. The challenge is that its more easy to connect with nature there, and then to keep that feeling when we come to this old bus depot is a challenge.

From a youth worker point of view, as well, understanding your authority in some ways – because its not school, so what’s the line between explaining and telling. We give them choices. I remember when I was young I identified enemies – so let’s say, the corporations are wrong or things like that. But what we are trying to do is show them that big companies are not wrong, necessarily. Its not environment vs. corporation, or community vs. big company. Through these workshops hopefully they get the sense that we can work together, and build something together.

How many people roughly a year do you work with?

So this year is ending. We had three groups of new generators, two mixed groups and one group of only girls which was a shorter programme but was very interesting to see. Plus we have senior generators, who are young people who have been with us and then become role models for the young people. We involve them, they lead workshops, they visit from university and talk about their experiences and encourage the young people. So they stay involved. They do a training programme and we call them when we need them to be the voice of global generation.

And how are you funded?

It’s a mix of funding. From Camden and Islington councils, from lottery funding, or again for example the London Honey Club is made up of different corporate members, so they pay an annual fee, and that helps run programmes. There are other private donations for when we have to buy a new composter or something.