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Farming the City and Gardening on the Beach

Originally published 20th Feb 2020

It’s been good to get back onto the Croft this month, and even better to see the friendly and committed group of Thursday volunteers who garden with us most weeks after a long winter break. This is an exciting time of year: the seed order’s done (seed shopping is the best shopping!), the snowdrops are through and the growing season’s so nearly upon us – even if each storm and snow flurry nudges it back a little.

This year holds ambitious plans, including a new market garden space at the back of the Croft, supplying healthy, affordable and super-local produce. As a market gardener I have worked at various rural farms in recent years, but I gained my green fingers and love of growing on urban farms and community gardens. For me, growing food in the city isn’t about making a little oasis that’s separate from what’s around it; it’s about rethinking what a city is and how it works: does it have to be somewhere that endlessly consumes resources to keep running, or can it be a place that sustains life where nothing goes to waste?

Urban farming has become a hot topic in the last few years, sometimes hailed as a movement that will feed the world; sometimes passed off as a mere hobby for a privileged few. I think that the reality is that urban growing complements larger rural farms. From a food point of view, short distances and supply chains make a lot of sense for crops such as salad, which don’t travel particularly well and are best enjoyed really fresh - I can’t wait to try the Croft’s salad leaves this year and develop our own unique mix! Socially, urban farms and market gardens need to strive like all communities to be radically inclusive, but can have real benefits as places to meet people and learn new skills. This stands in stark contrast to the isolation that rural farmers often experience.

Urban farms and gardens grow more than crops; they grow resilience. Access to land means access to food and the possibility of making a living (like the farmers worldwide who graze their livestock on common land, even in cities). It also means access to space to gather, learn, play and organise. Most of us – especially in cities – are landless: some of our ancestors moved to the city after being displaced by clearances or enclosures; others have moved greater distances fleeing war, climate change, economic recession and other legacies of colonialism; others have simply followed jobs, or stayed for family, friends or community. Either way, access to shared, community-owned or common good land in the city can be a lifeline in the face of the precarity and isolation of the city. Crucially, having space to grow food, even if it’s only a bit, means we can be actors in the food system, not merely passive consumers of the least-worst options available.

By growing food and by spending time with nature and each other on urban land, we are making ourselves and our cities more resilient in a time of ecological change and economic uncertainty. Spending time on the Croft, whether sowing seeds, building dens with children in the middle of a blizzard or harvesting veg with volunteers in the sunshine, gives me hope that we’re up to the challenge of building a fairer and more sustainable future.

Last week on the Croft we were digging – again – the idea being that once dug, our new vegetable beds will go over to a permanent, “no dig” system. I don’t know if you’ve stuck a spade in the ground near Leith Links before, but if you have you’ll realise just how close to the sea we are here. It’s sand under there, maybe loamy sand if you’re being generous. This gave me a surprise the first time I turned over a piece of turf on the Croft, and got me thinking about how something as seemingly permanent and enduring as the land this city is built on can actually be as liminal and changing as the coastline – especially in the face of climate change and rising sea levels.

Even the soil isn’t to be taken for granted – billions of tonnes of topsoil are eroded away globally every year, and a fifth of Scotland’s soils are severely degraded*. This is largely down to the “extractivist” tendency of industrial farming, which mines the soil’s organic matter just like we are mining for minerals. To look after the soil we’ve got, it needs to be recognised as the dynamic ecosystem that it is. Working the soil on the Croft in the summer, you can see that it is teeming with life. The light, sandy soil practically eats compost, but if well looked-after can give us a bounty of crops year-on-year.

With two storms in as many weekends, it is clear that climate change is already having an impact on our lives in Scotland. While we owe it to the world – especially the global South – to cut carbon emissions as quickly as possible, cultivating systems, communities and minds that are resilient in the face of upheaval is also really important. I think this is where the Croft and the Carbon College really come into their own: we are demonstrably reducing greenhouse gas emissions through our activities, but these savings can seem like a tiny drop in the ocean compared with the challenges we face. Through teaching new skills, bringing people together and cultivating a space that is as beautiful as it is productive we are making the Croft a place where everyone can find a haven in the middle of Leith, and hopefully building a community that is able to weather some more storms.


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