May 11, 2013 at 6:10 pm #7551
This post is in conjunction with my earlier post “You Can’t Eat Money”.
Growing stuff is all well and good, but then there is the problem of where to grow it. Historically most land was ‘farmed’ as a common concern and even when owned by the Lord, most commoners had free access and usufructory rights. Land tenure is something that has been problematic throughout history, ever since the nomadic hunter gatherer life was relinquished Often even in pre-historic times one had to defend ones little plot form invading marauders – witness the iron age hill fort ‘enclosure’:
But that’s the drawback of being reliant upon gardening, you need a fixed plot of land, and need to invest time and effort to establish plants and fertility.
However since the medieval period a new idea of private land ownership came into being:
“Private ownership of land, and in particular absolute private ownership, is a modern idea, only a few hundred years old. “The idea that one man could possess all rights to one stretch of land to the exclusion of everybody else” was outside the comprehension of most tribespeople, or indeed of medieval peasants. The king, or the Lord of the Manor, might have owned an estate in one sense of the word, but the peasant enjoyed all sorts of so-called “usufructory” rights which enabled him, or her, to graze stock, cut wood or peat, draw water or grow crops, on various plots of land at specified times of year.”
The idea of enclosures, that is the closing off of the common lands, and excluding all others, was primarily driven by a sense of both improvement of the land in terms of generating a profit, primarily from sheep farming for wool and a total lack of compassion for the people who were displaced. Not surprisingly it led to several rebellions that were brutally repressed. The most famous were the Levellers, displaced peasants who promptly levelled the ditches and dug up the fences and hedgerows that had enclosed the land. But their efforts were to no avail, the sheep ruled the land:
“Your shepe that were wont to be so meke and tame, and so smal eaters, now, as I heare saye, be become so great devowerers and so wylde, that they eate up and swallow down the very men them selfes. They consume, destroye, and devoure whole fields, howses and cities . . . Noble man and gentleman, yea and certeyn Abbottes leave no ground for tillage, thei inclose all into pastures; they throw down houses; they pluck down townes, and leave nothing standynge but only the churche to be made a shepehowse.”
It was also somewhat ironic that shortly after the final enclosures of the English countryside in the eighteenth century that the new land owners had to then provide ‘allotted plots’ (the forerunners of allotments normally associated with ‘land deprived’ urban environments – yes they started in the countryside) to allow the peasants who were now their farm [strike]slaves[/strike] ‘workers’ places to grow enough food to stave off starvation. Latter the allotment idea took off in the newly industrialised towns partly to occupy the workers spare time (what there was of it) and also to again feed them to prevent starvation thus slowing the rapidly increasing social aid given out through the poor laws.
To the Victorians allotments were a productive use of time keeping the poor away from the evils of drink and providing wholesome food for a workforce housed in tenements and high density terraced housing without gardens to speak of.
The sad fact is that today enclosures of many things previously considered as ‘commons’ from intellectual property rights to life itself and not just land are now proceeding apace across the globe.
More on the enclosures in the UK can be found here or by clicking the quotes above.
So what are the options? Well there is always the garden if you have one. A lot can be done in quite a small plot (and UK plots are small!) The Back-to-Front project in Leeds for instance has developed a community project to grow food in the tiny yards of the ‘back to back’ terrace houses found in and around the city:
Using various novel ideas from small raised beds to plant stands made from recycled plastic milk bottles, it is possible for people to grow a modicum of fresh fruit and vegetables in a constrained space. They have a useful manual you can download for free that contains all these examples and more. And if your really stuck for space, you could always go vertical with a living wall.
Of course if you have a larger garden you can grow a lot more. Another option is to share a garden; if you know someone who has a large garden and isn’t using it, perhaps they will share the space with you. Celebrity chef and food campaigner Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall’s Landshare project aims to help people do just that:
TV gardening presenter Alys Fowler at the Landshare ‘Big Dig’ event in March 2013.
Another route to access land is to start up a community garden project, where you approach a local authority and beg land off them for use as a community garden. This can be beneficial to both the project and the local authority as they get to have land ‘managed’ for free at a time when they are increasingly cash strapped and having to cut back on maintenance. Such community based projects are springing up everywhere, but one must be prepared to get stuck in as a lot of them can fail if participation flags; it takes quite a lot of work to install and maintain such a thing as a community garden. You can even just take over old parks entirely:
Sunken Garden in old seaside town of Bognor, UK, run by Greener Bognor community group.
A core group of enthusiastic volunteers is key to keep the project going.
Gardening in the city, all over the world.
Another way to ‘encourage’ participation is to offer course such as this ‘Forest Gardening’ course at Old Sleningford – see below.
Allotments have been the formal way of allocating land to wannabe peasants, (in France paysan is considered an honorific rather than a derogatory title) and is popular in many European countries. However the waiting list is often decades long in some places and is often little more than a lottery in the UK. Yet there are derelict allotments in abundance, which leads one to conclude that either the councils just don’t care/have the resources to deal with the demand, or are side-lining the land for other ‘development’. Many plots are on prime urban sites, and the land much sought after by developers commands a premium price.
Which brings us onto the notion of guerilla gardening, that is finding some land and surreptitiously planting edible plants on it. It helps if this land is derelict or abandoned and not someone’s front lawn! – unless you have their permission. This is what Incredible Edible have done in Toddmorden on the Yorkshire/Lancashire border:
[video width=425 height=344 type=vimeo]36838823[/video]
Like ‘Mary’ says, you have to keep at it to keep people involved – its like stony ground and needs a lot of work, but worth it. Forest type forage gardening is perfect for this sort of environment, and depending upon how long you envisage the secret garden lasting, you can grow everything from annual veg, to perennials to even a small orchard by planting out fruit stocks on to which you can graft your desired variety. This can be done at very low cost if you propagate your own root-stocks, and find local trees to get scion material from.
Why not become a serf? Then there’s always the option of asking for those usufructuary rights back. This is what the folks at Old Sleningford Farm did. They wrote around to local land owners and found one who was willing to take on a couple in the traditional manner, they farm the land and live in the cottage in exchange for so many pigs and chickens given as ‘rent’ to the big house, though now I think they pay ‘real’ rent as they have made something of a successful business out of it.
While the peasants, paysans and campesinos struggle to get access to and to retain land, there is a vibrant movement out there struggling to grow. Barring the jackboots of enclosure seen in the corporate guises land grabs and life patents along with GM weapons of mass starvation, there might be hope yet of a truly egalitarian alternative to corporate mono-cultural frankenfood.
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