Four years ago Pam Warhurst and a fellow resident of Todmorden, West Yorkshire, founded Incredible Edible "to help everyone do something positive about their future using the universal medium of food".
So now there are fruit and veg being cultivated in every available patch of earth about the town (from the church, the bus station to local schools). Local residents can pick what they want when they want and local children are learning to grow their own. Gransnetters asked her about what qualities they needed to get started, funding and legal restrictions she faced.
Q: I would love to know how you got other people on board? The community spirit I remember as a child seems to have evaporated in many areas and it would be wonderful to reignite it as a force for good. rosiemus
A: Hi rosiemus, I think people are just ready to hear a positive challenge instead of all the horrible stuff we're hearing every day, so it's not that difficult to proposition a community. We just put an ad in the local paper for a meeting in a cafe. Sixty people turned up, to our surprise, and we just asked a question - are you up for making our town stronger and more self-sufficient? The room exploded and we've never looked back.
The thing that I think really helps this get kicked off is having what we call propaganda sites so people can see what we're talking about. What can grow, where you can grow and how you can grow it. After that, it's all about having a good website, chatting up the local press and keeping what you want to say at the forefront of people's minds. It works.
Q: Hi, I've been over to visit my daughter today in Cragg Vale and visited recently flooded Mytholmroyd and Hebden Bridge and I feel so sad for those who have homes and businesses badly affected. I know Tod was also flooded and wondered how this has affected your project and if you've lost many plants?
Good luck to you all, Cagsy
A: Glad to report veg doing well. It's been turmoil for a lot of people, but even along our edible canal towpath and some of our propaganda sites that were badly flooded, other than a bit of work around pathways, the veg have battled through. A message for us all!
Q: Hello Pam - had a look at your website and it looks like such a brilliant initiative. I was very interested to know how receptive the community was, whether you had any resistance - and who proved the most enthusiastic to embrace the scheme? kittyp
A: Hi kittyp, On the whole, everybody has been really enthusiastic about what we do. That's not to say we haven't made some mistakes. In the early days we took up some flowers and rose bushes to create raised beds of fruit veg and herbs. This upset the "in bloom" group, quite rightly. So now we go for fabulous and functional, mixing fruit trees which blossom in spring with edible flowers, bee-friendly plants, herbs and edibles. They can all live very happily together and make the town not only look better but feel better.
We like to think we're spreading a bit of kindness as all our town centre veg is for sharing.
Q: Given the price of organic fruit and veg we are very keen to start growing our own. What are the best (easiest!) things to get started with? clarice
A: Hi clarice, When we made this up four years ago, we wanted to keep it as simple as possible, to be as inclusive as possible. So, we don't plant organically, nor use permaculture systems, we simply use seasonal fruit, veg and herbs in public places on the assumption that over time, as we shared knowledge, people would want to know how to avoid poisoning their kids with nasty chemicals and it seems to have worked.
At our high school we have now set up permaculture growing regimes for our kids to learn from, at our market garden training centre (slight exaggeration at present, but watch this space), we avoid the sorts of chemicals that you would hate.
What do we grow? We started off with herbs at our railway station. Because we're in the north, we do a lot of soft fruits and fruit trees - we're up to nearly a thousand now. We grow a lot of brassicas and are experimenting with oats on the top. Add to that more courgettes that you could possibly ever need in life and you get the idea that it's a mixed picture.
Q: Presumably it all costs money? How are you funded and do you have to spend a lot of time fundraising? sneetch
A: Hi sneetch, When we started, we wanted to make the point that we don't have to ask other people for money to make our lives better. We swap seeds at our own expense, exchange seedlings on the same principle.
We went to demolition sites for the wood and charmed the local garden centre for some topsoil. All this allowed us to plant us herb beds, turn dog toilets into fabulous pick your own fruit areas and basically create about 25 raised beds in and around the centre of town. After that, of course, you need some money.
So, we went to the local authority and said "we've spent up all our money, can you give us land?". And they searched and put into a asset register all spare land they didn't need for communities to grow on.
We have been successful with two lottery bids - one in partnership with the high school another for a Incredible Edible green route. But, the thing is you don't start from getting money - you start from actions. And people support you in all sorts of ways.
Q: Not sure what the opposite of green fingers is - but it perfectly describes me. I would love to start growing vegetables - but can you tell me what I am least likely to kill? katykat
A: Hi katykat, join the club!
I am a rubbish grower, but a good cook! It takes all skills to be part of the big edible picture. Most of the people growing now are self-taught. Start with herbs, maybe the odd fruit bush. Avoid carrots! But green things grow really quite well. Have a look at our website, there'll be loads of people to give you a pointer.
Q: Are there some types of produce that everyone wants to pick and some types that no one is interested in? - Have you had to change your growing plans much to reflect your market? cheeriblegran
A: Hi cheerible,
Rhubarb, to you, people in Todmorden love rhubarb. We've planted lots of things in our time, and most of them require a little photograph and words telling folks what it is and what you do with it. At the railway station we planted a bed full of potatoes and that went in one fell swoop. But that's ok, we just replanted. We're not building the Eiffel Tower.
Our experience was that for the first two years, no one picked anything from the propaganda sites, because they thought they'd be told off. After that, a few brave souls picked salad leaves or herbs or the odd cabbage, and so it grew.
Few people take too much, most people take what they need and leave the rest and that seems to work. But it would be great to know what went down really well in different parts of the country, so that we can celebrate what different folks like.
Q: Has this been tried in any inner city areas? How do you deal with the security aspect? How do you make the local communities sufficiently aware that the gardens don't become trampled by teens or end up as receptacles for drug paraphrenalia? ljny
A: Although this is a growing project, the truth is, this is an experiment about how we change people's behaviour to where they live and each other by using the language of food. It's what we call a forever project. We're never going to stop this. By working in a Market Town like Todmorden and now 33 other towns in the UK, we're learning what works, what doesn't, what people relate to what they don't, and we're trying to share our experiences.
I think it works where people have a sense of place. I know that communities that have schools and shops and streets can do this, wherever that might be. So yes, it could work in a city. We've talked to folks who are rebuilding ChristChurch in NZ, I'm in Leytonstone this weekend, talking to a group there.
There are many neighbourhoods and boroughs interested in this and although some people continue to vandalise some areas of the town, our experience is they don't vandalise food.
Q: Have you found that kids are more interested in eating their greens after watching them grow? I have a theory that learning to grow your own could be a crucial educational tool to help youngsters eat better. bakergran
A: It's still early days and because we're all volunteers, we're not top-heavy on evidence. But I can give you a great example of how I think this influnces what kids eat.
Mary, a friend who turned her front garden into a pick your own veg plot, lives at the bottom of the a road that leads up to one of our estates. Families pass the house on the way to one of the local schools. One day a mother and two young kids passing the garden stopped and picked veg and herbs. That was fine. Then a little later the child came back with the outer leaves of the cabbage and put it in Mary's compost bin, even better. But the following morning in a bowl on Mary's doorstep was a soup made from the vegetables from Mary's garden. And these people don't know each other. That seems to me to be a step in the right direction.
Q: I was a big fan of The Good Life and rather fancied myself as a Felicity Kendal (wishful thinking). But I do like the idea of self sufficiency and would welcome your advice on the best way to achieve this, flink
A: Hi flink, if I had the answer to that I would be a very rich woman. What I do know is that the power of small actions can make a community stronger, kinder and more ready for a troubled future.
It seems to me that we don't need to ask for permission to make our world better for our children. It seems to me that if we create landscapes, high streets, public places, where edibles are growing and can be picked and if we inspire our parents and teachers to help our kids to become the growers of the future and if with those shared interests we support local producers with the pound in our pockets, over time we will become more self-sufficient, and we will create local jobs that are really meaningful.
Q: What was your starting point? Was it a desire to get the local community all pulling together, or to source more food locally or wanting to make the town look better? (It seems to me you're probably doing all these things, but I'm interested in what the driving force is behind it all). Thanks! skydiver
A: Hi skydiver, It all happened when I was at a landscape institute conference four years ago now. Prof Tim Lang stood on the stage and said "we're using too many resources, our children are going to have problems", or words to that effect. And that was it - Damascene moment. No more thinking, time to act.
So, got on a train in London, made the whole thing up by Todmorden, sat round Mary's kitchen table and said "Are you up for this?". And we've never looked back.
We use the language of food to unite us. We say we spin three plates to make us stronger. Community, growing in public places, and in our own front gardens, learning in schools and skill sharing, and business, supporting local producers and new jobs. That's it.
Q: Sounds a great scheme, Pam. Human nature being what it is, how do you deal with those who do very little to help with the planting, cultivation, weeding etc but then help themselves to a rather bigger share of the produce than those who have put in a great deal of gardening effort?
And can you suggest why after three successful years my peas have not even sprouted this season? I'm a bit further north than you. DavidH22
A: We never expected everyone to understand why we were doing what we were doing and want to help straight away. We are divorced from care of the environment and a sense of 'We Can Do It' and to change that takes years. So, am I downhearted, no. We have 350 people on our mucking in list. We have skill sets offered for free from web design to creation of qualifications to making raised beds, to making sausages. Everyone's a bit of the picture.
And as for your peas, I've not the foggiest idea!
Q: You say you went to the local authority for land. Did you find that local politicians needed to be involved sooner or later? And were they sympathetic - do you have any tips for getting them onside? politigeek
A: The first thing to say is making it in any way a party political issue is the kiss of death. The second thing is that ordinary people are so ahead of politicians on this agenda, they need to show them the way. The third thing is if you're going to ask a politician or an officer to help, make sure they can say yes to it. Don't ask them for help with something they have to say no to. My view is, everyone wants to help if they can.
Have a look at our site for the community growing license, which isn't perfect, but it's a start.
Q: I read somewhere that Incredible Edible has spread to other parts of the country. Does it have as much success in other places? Are there differences in what people grow and who gets involved? Katalogue
A: It seems to. We have 33 communities who want to call themselves Incredible Edible in the UK. If you look at our website, you'll see on the world map lots of others who are trying to do the same. Question: are they all spinning all three plates? I don't know. What I do know is that every one of them is a bottom up group of volunteers who want to take action around local food to make their neighbourhood better and give something back to their children.
Q: Do you need a really charismatic person in charge of something like Incredible Edible? - you have had a lot of publicity and I imagine this must take someone who is really quite pushy (in the nicest possible way!) phishphood
A: I think you need four elements to really kick it off. I think you need a really good local networker, someone strong on comms who can look after the website, a good grower for the propaganda gardens and someone who can tell the story and think a bit strategically, but not hierarchically.
What I found as I've been all over the country is that every community has got these and they're not always the usual suspects.
I suppose in Tormorden we are pushing so hard because we want to challenge those that can make big changes to help us create a more supportive framework in which this becomes second nature. And you need actions not words to make that happen.
A: JosieGransnet has just asked me what I did before I did Incredible Edible:
I've done lots of jobs in the public and in the private sector: run a cafe, worked in marketing, been a leader of a local authority, health trust, development agency you name it. And I'm currently chair of the Forestry commission. All of this has been really important background for me to spend the rest of my life doing Incredible Edible.
Q: What is the legal position with regard to bits of land that are lying idle around the town? Have you had to get legal advice or do you guerilla-garden and see what happens? bigknitter
A: Bit of a mixed economy, here, bigknitter. Some spaces, like unloved bits of land used for dogs and litter we just improved by cleaning up and planting. We most certainly did not ask permission for that, why would you?
Others like the grounds around our brand new health centre covered in prickly plants, we did ask the doctors about. They said yes, if it didn't cost them a penny and now patients wander past fruit trees, strawberries and herbs on the way to the doctors, rather than prickly bushes. Bit of a no-brainer.
Every local authority could create an asset register of community growing land at very little cost, which means the end to endless allotment waiting lists. They should be encouraged to do so.
Q: What would you say has been the main impact of your scheme? - has it really made a difference to Todmorden and if so, how? jackofalltrades
A: Can I answer this in two parts. In Todmorden it has certainly made a difference. The town not only looks different, but with the endless visitors we get to look at our propaganda sites, it feels different. We've invented vegetable tourism. More people visit cafes for local food, walk around our Incredible Edible green route, which takes them through our market hall, as well as along edible canal corridor and most small shops. People are moving to Todmorden because they've heard of what we're doing, so for me that's a good thing.
The second answer is this is an experiment to help people reconnect with the land and each other. I have met many people whose lives have really changed because of their involvement with this movement, they've gained confidence, they've made friends, they've done something positive, which is such a good feeling. And that's happening all over the place. And for me, what this is all really about.
I've had such a great time answering your questions - there's so much to talk about. Would be great to find a way of continuing our chats - watch this space! PamWarhurst