Growing concern on Heath is food for thought

Food growing is very much in the news these days, either for economic, environmental, health or just simple culinary considerations. Even so, food growing in towns and cities has not always been a very obvious option. Gardens have been seen as more for relaxation than for food production and those who live in flats are particularly disadvantaged.

That said many urban dwellers still harbour a desire to enjoy the delights and satisfactions of growing food and are frustrated by the apparent difficulties in a town.

The City of London Corporation is keen to support food growing. The open Heath is not the place for this any more, but during the last war great stretches were given over to arable farming and to allotments which were mainly concentrated on the lower slopes behind the Lido.

There was also sheep grazing until 1956 and the reintroduction of sheep should certainly be considered at some stage, Indeed this is an aspirational goal in the strategic management plan.

Contrary to popular belief, taking on an allotment or having a large garden are not pre-requisites to indulge in personal food production. A lot can be achieved in a very small area and the Golders Hill Park Food Growing Project seeks to show what can be achieved in a limited space.

There it takes the form of three raised beds, each a metre by 2.6 metres high, set against the wall of the Butterfly House and open for anyone to see in the afternoons. At the bottom these beds have a layer of gravel and stones for drainage and then are filled with peat free compost.

One great advantage of having raised beds is that the crops can be tended without backache! They are so easily reached that they tend to receive far more daily attention and watering than if at ground level. This also makes it very easy to remove or rub off any grubs and pests by hand, making this the ultimate answer to avoiding all pesticides.

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A wide crop range has been planted including french beans, onions, lettuce, chard, carrots, aubergines, tomatoes and strawberries, all fast growing and giving their produce plentifully during the summer. At Golders Hill Park, seeds were sown in trays in mid April, kept under glass until frosts were over towards the end of May, then planted out into the beds with cropping commencing in early July and continuing hopefully through to late September.

If sowing seeds is too much of a bother then the alternative is to buy plant plugs in late May: more expensive but they will still result in summer cropping.

Besides the enjoyment of the produce, these beds give visual pleasure: they are very decorative, with a wide variety of contrasting leaf forms and flower colours, a somewhat surprising and delightful bonus. Vegetable beds need not be eyesores.

The aim of this project is to show what can be done in small spaces. Useful food growing can be achieved in spaces far less than the two square metre raised beds at Golders Hill Park. No space is too small. Containers can be any size or shape and can take any form, from a single tub up to large flower boxes with planting adjusted to suit.

In the tiniest of spaces perhaps just a single tomato plant could be tried or for the more ambitious a couple of rows of salad leaves. For next year the search is on to find a far wider range of possible small food growing spots.

The City of London Corporation’s Heath Life Education Centre over at Parliament Hill is a long way from Golders Hill Park but the park has a strong place in its education programmes. To date this has been very much based on the Zoo and the Butterfly House but from next year it is hoped to incorporate the Food Growing Project as well.

Between March and July some 1,000 schoolchildren come to Golders Hill Park for classes, half of which are orientated towards the Zoo and half towards the Butterfly House.

These programmes explain the ‘yurt’ across the path from the Butterfly House in the nursery yard. It is the classroom, taking about 30 pupils and is very welcome in inclement weather.

Informal summer sessions are also becoming increasingly popular, details of which can be found at

Michael Welbank is the chairman of the Hampstead Heath management committee