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  • Writer's pictureOur Green Warrington

The Inspirational 'Incredible Edible'

Updated: Sep 12, 2021

Incredible Edible is a remarkable grassroots national movement that began around the kitchen table of its founders back in 2008. Created and developed in Todmorden, a market town in West Yorkshire, a group of local residents had come together and noted that communities had become atomised, distant and no longer seemed to have real cohesion. They considered how best to address this and wondered, in the words of co-founder, Pam Warhurst, how we could live life differently - by finding a “unifying language that cuts across age, income and culture that will help people find a new way of living, see spaces around them differently, think about the resources they use differently, interact differently”.

They realised that this “language” was food.

They began informally, putting their ideas to a town public meeting – which was met with mass enthusiasm and support and, with very little bureaucracy and money, they set out to change their town. Their aim was to “create kind, confident and connected communities through the power of food”. They started with “seed swaps” – where local residents could exchange young plants and seeds with each other and expand their growing produce. Then, calling it “Propaganda Gardening”, they sought out forlorn and forgotten spaces and with the appropriate permissions, began to transform them. They took a neglected strip of land on a road and turned it into a herb garden. They took the corner of the car park at the station and made vegetable beds for everybody to help themselves and share. They approached the local health centre, who agreed they could replace the prickly and unattractive planting there with fruit trees and herbs and vegetables. They planted vegetables at a retirement home that residents could pick themselves. They developed an “edible canal towpath” and as word of their work began to spread the town began to attract tourists – so they created “The Incredible Edible Green Route”, taking people through the town past their cafes and small shops and through their market, leading to increased footfall and custom that in turn financially benefitted local businesses.

They also developed a partnership with the local high school, involving pupils direct with the movement. As a result of its popularity the school began to teach agriculture as a subject. Incredible Edible were then given some land – donated by a local garden centre and they turned it into a market garden training centre – to give young people an opportunity to put theory into practice. Subsequently a number of local academics offered to help create a commercial horticulture course to complement existing training.

As they were still a relatively small community group at that stage they deliberated on what they could do to make even more of a difference despite their limitations. They fundraised, bought some blackboards and put “Incredible Edible” on the top and gave one to every market trader selling locally. They used them to advertise their current produce and this “branding” drew in custom – and sales increased. They approached local farmers who, following a quirky campaign around local eggs, in turn increased their own farm bird stock so that they could produce more eggs. And although these were still relatively small steps, Pam Warhurst said that “this increasing local economic confidence resulted in farmers expanding their ranges of local produce, for example cheese, rare breeds of pig, pies – things they would never have done before.”

As news of the success of Todmorden Incredible Edible further raised its profile, so other towns and communities decided to set up their own “Incredible Edible” group and by 2012 there was an impressive network around the UK.

By 2016 there were one hundred Uk groups and 600 groups globally. In 2017 the Big Lottery Fund invested in helping them expand and support their network further still, and it remains an inspiring success.

They see Incredible Edible not just as an opportunity to transform spaces and to grow food, but as a way to bring other community members together – you might not be a gardener but you might be a cook; you might be creative and can help with poster and label designs, you might be a writer or a great communicator who can help promote events and fundraising, or you may be someone who is a little lonely and in need of a good chat – its aim and purpose is to “create kind, confident and connected communities through the power of food”.

This literally is a story of great things growing from small seeds.

And here is the good news – there is now an Incredible Edible in Warrington. Based in Birchwood, they are building their group and would welcome interest from anyone across the area.

We are delighted to have been able to interview Alan Clark of Incredible Edible Birchwood. Here we ask him about his history of growing and planting, the benefits of a group such as Incredible Edible and how he sees the movement developing in the forthcoming months and years.

How do you feel an initiative like Incredible Edible benefits local community? What are the positives one can derive by being involved in such a group and how can it help with sustainability?

We have been able to create a cohesive group with a shared interest in gardening, growing food and in providing a free source of fresh food for the benefit of the local community. It is also a way of improving the local environment through planting up the surrounding area with flowers. We reuse, recycle and repurpose where possible too. We are also able to benefit from the sharing of skills through advice and demonstration – and through this sharing we see the promotion of organic, environmentally friendly and sustainable methods, to the benefit of the local community and local wildlife.

How did you become involved with growing and gardening?

I was not always a gardener; when we bought our first house forty years ago, my attitude was ‘concrete front and back!’. The arrival of children, changes in jobs and house moves changed my focus to having gardens to play in and I began to produce some soft fruits (rhubarb, strawberries, raspberries and gooseberries).

My wife and I moved to Birchwood at the end of 2006, having bought a house with a much larger garden than any we had had previously. Six or seven years later we decided to have the rear garden completely remodelled to include lawns, perennial beds, raised ‘vegetable beds’, a pond, greenhouse, cabin and areas committed to growing our own fruit and vegetables.

In terms of the garden, my role has always been the growing and propagating of plants, i.e. raising plants from seeds, taking cuttings, collecting seeds and storing bulbs, tubers and corms over winter for me to plant the next year. My wife selects plants, mows the lawn and does most of the weeding. Hence, I would describe myself as a “propagator” rather than a “gardener”, as I lack the knowledge of plants and their preferred positioning, artistic design skills and any idea about succession flowering.

About six years ago, when talking to an interim colleague about the garden project I mentioned having pink and white Rosa rugosa in the garden and the huge hips they produced. She mentioned making Rosehip wine from these. Needless to say, this awoke another student hobby of mine – home wine making! We are very fortunate living in Birchwood, where there are plenty of hedgerow fruits available including, (bramble) blackberries, elderberries, crab apples and if you’re into gin - Blackthorn Sloes.

Three or four years ago, while picking blackberries from the hedgerow opposite my garden, I heard passersby saying things like, “My granny used to pick blackberries!” and, “I haven’t seen anybody doing that for years.” and even a child asking a parent “What’s that man doing?” Later, I reflected on these overheard remarks and recent things in the news that concerned me:

  • Reports that increasingly, young children do not know where food comes from, or that it is actually grown.

  • Food poverty and an increased reliance on food banks and associated feelings of indignity.

  • Food waste.

  • Food miles, CO2 emissions and pollution from global food imports to beat food seasonality.

It was also around this time that I was thinking about my upcoming retirement and an idea crossed my mind…

‘My garden has a long, fenced border and on the other side is a long verge, which I and the council struggle to keep from obstructing the lane. I could cultivate it and plant fruits and vegetables available for anybody to pick as one would forage blackberries and other wild hers etc. I even thought of a rather corny campaign / project name “Fruit in Verge”.’

Now that I am retired, I am working up this idea, though I am more actively involved in the Incredible Edible Birchwood venture. The issues I mentioned still concern me and both projects have the potential to contribute to tackling them.

Can you give us examples of some of the plants / vegetables you have been able to grow – and where you have been able to swap them?

For a number of years my wife and I have consistently grown in our garden: runner beans, dwarf French beans, carrots, sweetcorn, radish, lettuce, Swiss chard, courgettes, leeks, garlic, Calabrese broccoli and soft fruits, rhubarb, strawberries, raspberries, black, red and white currants, blackberries and gooseberries. In the greenhouse we have also grown tomatoes, aubergines, chillies and peppers and cucumbers. I’m a bit of a hoarder and find it difficult to discard things that ‘could be useful’ this includes excess seed, seedlings and garden prunings, some of which inevitably end up as cuttings, whether I need them or not!

In previous years, I had given some of these ‘extras’ to family, friends, neighbours, and work colleagues, and still do.

How did you get involved with Incredible Edible?

My involvement started with a social media post picked up by my wife. She told me that there was a forthcoming “seed swap” event in the Birchwood Community Centre, organised by someone called Alison, so we popped along with some excess seed packets and some self-collected packs I had packaged. Over subsequent events at the community centre, Birchwood Shopping Centre and Birchwood Park Café, Alison and I talked over various ideas while swapping and distributing seeds and seedlings to both gardening novices and seasoned gardeners.

Separately to this Alison made contact with the Incredible Edible Network and ultimately called an evening meeting in the Town Council’s offices at Parker’s farm. From this and subsequent meetings Incredible Edible Birchwood was born with a constitution agreed on 10th February 2020. Naturally, Alison was the Leader, a resident named Stewart agreed to be Treasurer and I offered to be the third Officer and signatory.

What you feel are the benefits of being part of a project like Incredible Edible for you?

I can give you a list!

  • Restoration of purpose and usefulness after forty years’ NHS service

  • Meeting people in the local community, as moving here so late in life, our house was more of a dormitory between work hours

  • Connecting with the community and with nature

  • ‘Paying back’

  • Excuse for enjoying outdoor activity and exercise that gardening offers

  • Restorative ‘mindful moments’, sowing seeds, taking cuttings and potting up growing plants

  • Networking- my involvement with Incredible Edible is directly responsible for me meeting several members in my neighbourhood and my introduction to the Cheshire Wildlife Trust and the ‘Green Angel’ team and volunteers, not to mention ‘Our Green Warrington

  • As the Facebook page shows we have been able to provide fruit and veg seeds and plants to a young man aged three, who wants to grow fruit and veg like his hero Mr McGregor!

  • Last, but not least, I must highlight that one of our events led to my meeting a long standing Incredible Edible Facebook compatriot who works at Wargrave House School, and we were able to give them a range of plants and fruit bushes for their allotment and polytunnel. I to understand one of their programmes to build independence for their young people is a ‘Plant to Plate’ project.

I am so delighted at these last two on my list as they absolutely link into my original aspirations.

What are your current plans for Incredible Edible?

In meetings in 2020 the committee and attendant members agreed the group’s aims for the initial 12 months were to:

  • Create a Community Garden

  • Establish 2 raised beds on the mound to the rear of the community centre

  • Establish a wheelchair accessible raised bed on the paved area of the centre

  • (The raised beds will be used to grow fruit, vegetables and flowers)

  • Install a water butt

  • Set up a composter

  • Establish a collective outdoor ‘To do’ list and notice board for volunteers

  • Plant up the slope of the mound either side of the steps with wildflowers and bulbs and including a fragrantly planted ‘sensory garden’ area to enrich the environment for all

  • Hold monthly seed / seedling swap events (February-October)

  • Hold two seed-planting events. (One at the community garden once the raised beds are built and established and one in the Community. Suggested venues being Birchwood Park Café and/or Birchwood Centre

  • Produce and circulate a monthly newsletter via e-mail to those signing up for the option

Of course, given the pandemic, our work has been slowed, but we have grown, swapped and shared plants. We have kept the Facebook page active and through that we have grown the membership, offered advice and created a little community.

In June 2020, I determined that I would set up small stalls on my front drive and lay out seedlings and cuttings for people to pick up and take away as they liked. I printed out information on Incredible Edible, our Facebook page and mentioned our aim to establish a Community Garden. I highlighted that the seedlings were being offered for free, with no obligation, but added that donations towards the Community Garden would be gratefully received.

I left the ‘stalls’ largely unattended but popped out occasionally to re-stock as needed. Sometimes I did get to speak to people to offer advice when asked. I did this for two days over the weekend and to my astonishment, when I tallied the donations, the generous folks had left a total of £65.00.

One of the aims of Incredible Edible to is better connect and work with local businesses. Have you been able to establish any connections with local businesses?

We discussed at our early Incredible Edible meetings the possibility of approaching local businesses for support. In Autumn 2020, my wife and I noted on our usual ‘exercise walk’, which passed through Birchwood Park, that one of the business units had a pile of broken pallets outside. So, the following day I walked over to the park and called into the unit, asking if I could have some of the unwanted, broken pallets, explaining that my intention was to make planters as part of our project. The manager I spoke to said it was fine and when I asked confirmed that this could be an ongoing arrangement, Since then I have built a number of planters and constructed three much bigger ‘stalls’ to accommodate our May 2021 Incredible Edible Birchwood seedling distribution event. We’ll continue to look at ways of further increasing our links to local businesses as we grow.

How would you like Incredible Edible to develop in the future and what you think would be needed?

Along with the Community Garden it would be great to further engage with other local Incredible Edible groups and others with similar interests and goals. I would like to see us establish links with schools, youth organisations and food banks. We would also like to identify and commission or provide skills training to support new gardeners. We will continue to investigate the possibility of planting up other public spaces to enhance the environment and widen access to free fresh produce.

We also plan to secure local authority grants to promote and support our work and, as above, establish further links with relevant local businesses who may be willing to support our efforts either financially or materially.

Finally, can you give us some tips on growing?!

During a phase of my gardening journey I frequently visited specialist fuchsia growers on trips with my father and father-in-law who shared the interest. Most significantly visiting the Nursery of Mr Stuart Lockyer a commercial grower near Bristol. During one visit he demonstrated taking cuttings and potting on young fuchsia plants. His advice was:

1. Be gentle with the stem, do not pull the plant out of its pot: place two fingers either side of the stem, turn the pot over, tap the rim of the pot on the bench / table to make the root ball fall into the hand holding the stem. Lay it aside.

2. Put sufficient fresh compost into the new pot to match the difference in depth between the old and new pot. Take the plant and root ball and gently use your fingers to spread the roots at the bottom, which may have been forming a ring in the old pot.

3. Sit the plant on top of the fresh compost in the new pot and while supporting the stem between two fingers of one hand gently add further compost from different sides around the pot until the stem is buried to the same point as it was in the original pot.

4. Hold the new pot from the rim and gently shake from side to side and tap the pot on the bench/ table in turn until the compost is evenly spread and level. Gently water to the rim and let drain twice.

As Mr Lockyer explained: “Do not press down the compost. This compacts the compost and makes it harder for new roots to grow and push through it, and without good root stock your plant can’t grow well!”

This has stayed with me for nearly forty years and to this day, I concentrate on being gentle with the roots whenever I am handling my plants. In doing so I forget all other distractions, concerns, and worries, which is why I strongly believe that gardening and the associated linking with nature has a positive impact on mental health and well-being.

With sincere thanks to Alan Clark.

If you want to learn more about the Incredible Edible story or even set up your own group, visit their national website

The Incredible Edible website’s ‘Start a group’ page has a 10-point plan with advice on forming a group and develop your collective aims and ambitions. This section also invites you to sign-up to the web site. On doing so you will have access to their full ‘Get going guide’ and resources, with everything you need to get started.

And if you want to get involved with Incredible Edible Birchwood, go to their Facebook page to find out more.

To access and join look for ‘Incredible Edible Birchwood’ in the “Groups” section on Facebook.

Existing Groups around the Warrington area include:

• Birchwood

• Astley

• Newton-le-Willows

• Knowsley

• Runcorn

• Stretford

• Wigan

• Salford

• Middleton

• Gately

• Wilmslow

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