The Market Gardens of Hackney

May 11, 2012

 Growing City had a chat with Paul Bradbury, grower at Growing Communities about the joys of the city growing scheme…


As the grower at Growing Communities, I have the enviable job of running two of our three market gardens.  The gardens are on Hackney park land (Springfield, Allens and Clissold) and between them produce a ton of salad leaves each year for our community-led box scheme. 

soft Fruit amidst wildflowers at Allens Gardens

It is a wonderful thing to be living in London and yet still be leading the life of a peasant (and I mean to reclaim the word peasant to it’s rightful noble position – ie the one that grows the food).  Cycling to work along the canal and spending all day working the land with a wonderful group of apprentice growers and volunteers it is easy for me to forget that I am even living in London.  It is certainly very different to the daily horror of the tube, which used to be my lot.  I have had thoughts of moving to the countryside to pursue food growing on a larger scale, but to be honest, I consider growing food in the capital to be the frontline in sustainable agriculture.   Our produce is all organic and we transport it from the gardens to our packing area with bicycle trailers, meaning our salad is a zero food miles, zero pollution crop.  As well as supplying the Growing Communities box scheme we also produce salad for local shops and restaurants, so it is available to a wide spectrum of Hackney citizens.

 Our gardens run on a five year rotation.  We begin this cycle with a year of green manures.  Clover fixes nitrogen in the soil and rye absorbs some of this nitrogen and because it is slower to rot down than clover, can help keep the nitrogen in the soil for longer.  We also plant phacelia which gives a quick burst of nitrogen when it is chopped into the soil.  Phacelia produces beautiful flowers for beneficial insects such as bees and hoverflies and has an extensive root system which improves soil structure.  After this first year, the soil is at its best and so ready for our greediest crops, the brassicas.  We plant a variety of brassicas, rocket, mizuna, kale, mustard… all suited to weekly harvesting.  The third year of the rotation is lettuce family.  

Our Annual Plant Swap at Springfield on a cold May bank holiday

 In summer this will include frisee endives and lettuce and in winter, cold loving endives, chicories and a few autumn lettuces.  In the fourth year we grow plants from the beet family.  This includes plants that grow all year round such as chard and perpetual spinach as well as summer specialists such as orach.   The fifth and final year is set aside for all the plants that don’t belong to either brassica, lettuce or beet family.  The best croppers in this year are French sorrel and leaf celery, but we also grow summer and winter purslane and herbs such as coriander, parsley and basil.  Following the organic maxim “feed the soil not the plant”, we work hard to keep the soil healthy though applying compost twice a year – once for the spring planting and once for the autumn/winter planting.  We have a firm “no dig” policy, so apply the compost as a topdressing and let the worms do the job of incorporating it into the soil.  We have raised beds which helps make sure that no-one walks on the growing space.  This means that there is no soil compaction and therefore no need to dig.  As well as saving a lot of time (and our backs), the no dig policy prevents earthworms from being cut in half by spades and microorganisms being unduly disturbed from their important work.

Harvesting at Allens

 Each year we train four apprentice growers.  Over a six month period, through practical work, tutorials and research projects, our apprentices acquire all the skills they need to run their own market garden.  With the help of the Big Lottery and Capital Growth, we are then able to set them up with their own growing space.  Importantly, we also provide them with a reliable market by buying their produce for our box scheme.  There are now five micro-site which together make up our Patchwork Farm  run by ex apprentices.  Our patchwork farm coordinator, Stephanie, searches for new sites and through the support of our funders, makes sure the patchwork farmers have all the tools and equipment they need to run their site.  We keep very accurate records of everything the patchwork farmers produce.  The hope is that once the project has  been running for a few years, we will be able to see how much land one needs to provide a day’s income from a day’s work.  This sort of research will hopefully become part of a blueprint for urban growing.