Growing Veg, Communities and Sustainability

Horticultural Course 50What do an ex-banker, a DJ, an historian, an artist, a physical geographer, a musician, a chef, a botanist and an engineer have in common? 

Well, thanks to a common interest in vegetable growing, this eclectic group are all currently enrolled on a diploma course at the School of Horticulture, Kew Gardens. As members of the “Kew Mutual Improvement Society” (KMIS), they have organised an event entitled “Growing Veg, Community and Sustainability” to be held tomorrow (Saturday 1st June). This day of fascinating talks links closely with BGCI’s Communities in Nature programme as it explores how vegetable growing can be used to engage with wider sectors of the community. Last week I met up with Jamie Innes from the Kew Diploma in Horticulture programme to ask him a few questions and find out more about the inspiration behind this event…

How did you get into horticulture?

The main point of access for many of the students on the Kew Diploma was through growing vegetables, and this was certainly the case for Jamie:

“I studied physical geography at Edinburgh University, and began looking at roof space for the prospect of growing vegetables to feed our cities. M first attempts at growing veg was with  grow bags on my balcony – the process got me hooked. I’ve also always had an interest in issues like global warning, hence studying physical geography. The more I studied, the more I understood that ecosystem functions were integral to many of the problems that we are faced with today … As a result of these two converging themes I embarked on the Higher National Diploma course at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.”

Jamie then came to join the Kew Diploma in Horticulture at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

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How did you come to organise the Growing Veg event?

The students wanted to do something that would tie in with Kew’s IncrEdibles festival and the gardens as a whole, so they formulated a plan for veg growing… The concept spiralled, with everyone contributing a wealth of different ideas and perspectives, but eventually they came up with great structure which puts veg growing into the context of sustainability and botanic garden outreach:

“The day is based around the simple belief that veg growing can be utilised to benefit both community and environment. Initially the day will start by uncovering the importance of sustainable food production, and then move on to explore ways in which we can grow veg, especially in a City environment.  We believe, however, that the platform of veg growing can achieve much more with regards to the context of a Botanic garden. We can use it to reach out and involve our work with the community, whilst also engaging a wider proportion of society (two key strategies set out by BGCI). This will be covered in the afternoon lectures.

Furthermore we believe we can use the platform to develop ideas that are integral to modern botanic garden philosophies with regard to public interaction. By this we are referring to education: about plants and their requirements, threats to biodiversity and conservation, and, in particular, sustainability. The day will explore all of these topics in more depth and detail whilst drawing on case study experiences – for example the work Edinburgh Botanic gardens have been doing”…

The Edible Gardening Project at RBGE

The Edible Gardening Project was just starting as Jamie left Edinburgh. As a result, he and his fellow students were keen for either Leigh Morris or Jenny Foulkes to give the culminating talk of the day in order to explain how these kinds of projects can function in a botanic garden.

Whilst it’s predominantly a student-run event, they wanted it to act as somewhat of a think tank to develop ideas for future ways in which Kew and other gardens can engage with a wider cross section of their local communities through veg growing.

“It will be great to see what Edinburgh’s and Jenny’s observations on the topic are as it’s the lecture that will really encapsulate the entire day and make it relevant to us as a botanic gardens.”

What was your inspiration for the community aspect of the event and why do you think this is important?

Veg-growing provides people with a small and tangible way to make changes in their homes and communities for a more sustainable lifestyle. Collectively this can then make a big difference.

Jamie first heard about BGCI’s Communities in Nature programme via Leigh Morris (Associate Director of Horticulture at the Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh), who shared our animation with him. The message of this short film related strongly to Jamie’s existing views on the topics of horticulture, sustainability and how botanic can become more dynamic and inclusive when communicating these topics to a wider audience…

“It’s often very difficult to transfer the interpretation in a garden into actual action by individuals. Often it just gets transferred as knowledge. Veg growing can engage people in a way that encourages them to go further. Even if that just means growing their own veg, it starts them asking question like: what nutrients am I using? Or, how am I going to treat pest attacks? When you start to think about what you’re putting into your own body you also start to think about how that translates to the environment.

It also goes some way to reducing the cause of biodiversity loss. If people produce more of their own food then that eases the demand on food systems – this not only deals with the affects of biodiversity but also addresses the causes of biodiversity loss.”

Are there any opportunities for community engagement via your course?

Every Saturday and Sunday, one student per day is out on the plot giving seed-sowing demonstrations and chatting to the public. This helps them to learn what level to pitch things at when engaging with a new audience.

The KMIS team are also planning on launching a blog covering what’s happening on the plot.

Do you have any plans for future events?

The KMIS have a lecture series that has actually been running for over 100 years, but has now come into diploma students’ hands to continue organising:

“The KMIS provides the opportunity to hear from some of the foremost horticulturalists and plant scientists in the world. We even had an astronaut talking about growing plants in space. The series of lectures runs from September to March. It costs £2 which goes towards the price of the speakers, and is great opportunity to learn more about plants and horticulture.”

As for future events, Jamie and his colleagues are waiting to see how Saturday’s event goes first before they start brewing ideas for another…

“All the students have put in a lot of hard work. Aside from putting the day together we wanted to ensure that the day fulfils its sustainable criteria. There is no point putting forward a message without backing it up. So all the produce provided at lunch will be coming from Sutton Community farm and our own veg plots. Bread from the local bakery, and hopefully UK-produced tea. We hope that this will be a great platform to demonstrate how much tastier locally produced food is, whilst also being much better for the environment. Finally, we understand that in a single day we are representing a lot of the issues stated above, and if it’s an unorganised mess then people will not get a good impression. This event is a start point and the success of the event will be measured by what happens afterwards.“

We wish Jamie and his fellow students all the best with their event and look forward to hearing the results. Keep an eye on this blog for future updates from the KMIS team!

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