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A herbal remedy for disused city space

by Rhiannon James

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Managing Director, Leah McPherson and trainee, Justin Pearson at Cultivate London’s first site in Brentford

Most people are drawn to farming by the thought of lush, green fields rolling away into the distance, rich soil and fresh country air, but not Leah McPherson. For her, there’s nothing like an empty bit of London tarmac to whet her appetite for cultivation.

But then, McPherson is no ordinary farmer. She’s the Managing Director of Cultivate London, a new social enterprise which is on a mission to convert vacant city land into flourishing urban herb farms, which will supply Londoners with locally-grown produce whilst also giving unemployed young people the opportunity to build a career in gardening.

Standing in the first Cultivate London site, a small plot in Brentford, with arms deep in compost, McPherson says, “I find it quite personally offensive that in a city like London, where land is at such a premium, there are massive bits of it that sit disused. And so I come very much from the point of view of wanting to maximise the use of urban space, as and when it becomes available.”

She’s got a point. According to the National Land Use Database of Previously Developed Land, there’s over 600 hectares of vacant brownfield land in London, equivalent to around 750 football pitches, and that’s not even including derelict land which would need clearing or other work before it could be used. McPherson’s plan is to use this space to grow herbs such as flat-leaf parsley, mint, basil, oregano and dill on a commercial scale, which will then be sold to London shops, cafes, and wholesalers.

Having started work in Brentford in early March, Cultivate London’s first harvest will be ready by the end of this month. A whole range of local shops and chefs are lined up to make orders including The People’s Supermarket in Bloomsbury, the food box scheme Farm Direct in North London and chef Oliver Rowe who is also a Director at Cultivate London. “It’s great news because it means we’re producing a product people want and they see value in it being grown locally and providing jobs for young people in the area,” says McPherson. The team will also start working on a second site, an overgrown garden in Isleworth, owned by The National Trust later this month and will add a third site in Southall next year.

McPherson is keen to show that, with a little ingenuity, it’s possible to grow food on a commercial scale in London and you don’t need to own acres of land to do it. “It would be really great for everyone to start thinking a bit creatively about our food and where it comes from. We’ll hopefully show people that you don’t have to import everything from overseas and you can grow things really close to home. We’re also being a bit entrepreneurial about using empty spaces and showing that you don’t have to be able to purchase land or have it indefinitely to be able to use it productively,” she says.

Farming in this way is not without its challenges. In Brentford, where Isis, the waterside regeneration company, have given Cultivate London use of the plot for three years for free while they finalise plans for development of the site, there is no soil to grow in, only tarmac. Plus once construction begins, the herb farm will have to move around the site to accommodate the building work. The Cultivate London team have adapted by growing all the herbs in pots and moveable raised beds so the farm is perfectly productive, but also eminently portable. The Isleworth site will be easier because it’s a garden and Cultivate London has a ten year lease but there’s still a mountain of clearing work to be done before growing can begin.

Everything has to be portable at Cultivate London’s Brentford site

The decision to grow herbs was key to making the project workable, says McPherson. “The real challenge was deciding what we could grow in an urban space, that would be high value enough to cover our costs and would provide multiple harvests,” she says. “Herbs were the perfect answer to that. People are already used to paying a premium for these little babies and herbs work really well in confined spaces.”

At a time of record youth unemployment, another important strand to Cultivate London’s work is providing local unemployed young people with the opportunity to gain new gardening skills and to build a career in the horticulture industry. McPherson is aiming to recruit ten 16-25 year old trainees this year, who, with help from McPherson and Head Grower, Ben Simpkins, will construct the sites and grow the herbs. Justin Pearson is one of the first to join the scheme. The eighteen year old was working as a labourer but lost his job last September and since then, has not been able to find work. “Since September, I’ve basically been sitting at home,” he says. “So it’s good to get out of the house and do something that I’m actually surprisingly enjoying. I’ve never been a plant person before – the closest I’d come to gardening was watering the flowers and helping to build a pond, but I’m enjoying it.” After completing sixty hours of volunteering, Mr Pearson and the other trainees will be considered for a paid apprenticeship, either with Cultivate London or with another local employer in the horticulture industry.

The impetus for the creation of Cultivate London came from a local organisation, the Ealing and Brentford Consolidated Charity who asked McPherson to come up with a scheme which would help younger people in the area. After three months of brainstorming, she came up with the idea that is now Cultivate London. “It was the most exciting option for me personally, it seemed to be a project that was different from anything else out there and some of the resources and partners fell into place quite quickly, all of which made me think that maybe this was the right thing and we just sort of ran with it,” says McPherson. After a year of planning, work started in Brentford in March.

The goals for the first year are ambitious. McPherson is aiming to sell twenty to forty thousand pots and bags of herbs as well as helping ten young people into employment.

Longer term, McPherson has even bigger plans.  She says, “I want to spread out over London. Once we’ve got these sites up and running and we’re happy that our business model is good and scalable, then we’ll look to expand.”

McPherson also wants to give Cultivate London’s apprentices the opportunity to be entrepreneurial, but with the support of a larger organisation. “I want to have a business where we have a few key sites which we use for training, but as we take on more land, we give that to our young apprentices who’ve come up through our ranks, so they almost run their own businesses. I think that would be brilliant and it allows Cultivate London to grow quite nicely whilst giving everyone the chance to share in the responsibility for how it grows. It would be great to eventually have a city of smallholders.”

So, next time you see an empty bit of land in London, don’t get too frustrated, it’ll soon be turned into just one of many bustling herb farms across the city if McPherson gets her way.

To learn more about Cultivate London, have a look at their website www.cultivatelondon.org or visit their stand at Jamie Oliver’s The Big Feastival, a three-day food and music festival on Clapham Common in July, where they’ll have a show garden and will be holding workshops as well as selling herbs (www.jamieoliver.com/thebigfeastival).

If you would like to contribute to the project, there is a volunteering day to help build two more polytunnels at the Brentford site this Saturday (14th May). Contact Leah McPherson at leah@cultivatelondon.org for more details.

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One Response to “A herbal remedy for disused city space”

  1. Daniel Fangmann

    On a 70′ by 25′ lot, what volume (density) of herbs could be grown and what would be the commercial value?
    Also, how much of this scale farming of herbs, could be utilized for educational purposes?(Unsubsidized, voluntary and free use to schools and community.)

    df

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