the great plant giveaway

by Hannah Roberson

Worrying news at ELL this week when the leaseholders, Metropolitan Housing (with whom we share the site), informed us that we need to almost halve the amount of land we are using. The last few days have seen a frenzy of activity as we try to spread the word to other food-growing projects, asking if they can find a use for our soon-to-be-homeless plants, and discuss ways to move forward that both meet the obligations in our lease and allow us to continue growing and thriving as a project.
In September, we were granted Lottery funding that will enable us to run accredited training. We asked Metropolitan for the use of some extra land for our ‘Creating a Forest Garden’ courses. This would allow two groups of students to create a forest garden on-site in 2013, transforming currently unused land into productive, attractive permaculture spaces and equipping at least 40 people with the skills to replicate this elsewhere. As part of the negotiations for the extra land, Metropolitan measured our site (for the first time in over two years) and found that our original agreement with them was based on quite a significant underestimate. They are now insisting that we reduce the area we are using to the 80 square metres specified in the agreement.
We are happy to comply with their request. As the leaseholders, they are entitled to do this – and it has given us the opportunity to give away plants to other food-growing projects, which is, of course, what we are here for! However, we are struggling to understand why, after we have been making use of the same strip of land in this way for so long, with nobody measuring or expressing concerns about how much space we were using, Metropolitan have suddenly decided to enforce the letter of the law, and moreover to change the agreement to include pathways. Since these were not included in the original estimate, we actually have even less space than we thought we did before.
In practice, this means we would need to reduce our growing space by removing one entire raised bed and at least 60 plants in pots. It also means dismantling many of the creative ways we have adapted the site to use natural resources and ‘waste’ sustainably: our compost heap, our outdoor loo (free nitrogen!) and our rainwater harvester. This last was built alongside 20 teenagers from the Challenge and was a great achievement for the project. We had discussed this with Metropolitan before building it and they raised no concerns about the extra space it might take up.
It is disappointing to have to undo work that has been done by volunteers for the benefit of the local community and the environment, and to have it forced upon us so suddenly. Still, since this happened we have been overwhelmed by the outpouring of support from local residents and other food-growing projects. We have been inundated with emails offering to store plants and other materials, and advocating for us with Metropolitan’s management and local councillors. The events have even attracted the attention of the local press. We also have the satisfaction of knowing that our plants are now growing in 8 local food projects so far - mostly school gardens and estates, including "Pensioners’ Paradise" in east London. It is encouraging to see that so many people in the local area and the wider food-growing movement support our aims of growing edible low-maintenance plants and ensuring that public land is used for initiatives that benefit the community.