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Planter and borders filled with new plants being put in by children and adults in a residential area Planter and borders filled with new plants being put in by children and adults in a residential area

How form filling and patience led to an Incredible new growing space

By Sarah Ward

Sometimes finding a suitable growing site is just the start of the journey.  This story from Incredible Edible St Albans shows how shear determination and playing the waiting game can result in an Incredible new community growing space.

FoodSmiles St Albans, a small Community Supported Agriculture scheme, had been going for a couple of years, when the local council offered them a new opportunity: an unloved piece of land in the middle of St Albans town centre, next to an NCP car park, which they thought would be great to create a community garden. Naomi Distill, from FoodSmiles, was keen to connect with the local community so volunteered to be volunteer co-ordinator to start up Incredible Edible St Albans.  Little did Naomi know it would be 2.5 years later before the growing started…

It’s great when Incredible Edible groups get on with growing and then ask permission, however there are some scenarios where you need to seek permission first and as the Council had approached Naomi it was important to follow procedures.  After several months of first waiting for a contract from NCP (the leaseholders), Naomi was told that no, they’d have to have a licence-to-occupy from the council (the landowners).  This needed a garden plan and a risk assessment, which Naomi produced.  More waiting, and then Council decided they needed to do a utility survey on the land first to make sure it was safe.  More waiting and the results came showing that there was actually an electrical cable running right across the middle of the plot, just 20cm under the ground, plus a few other concerns. A new draft licence arrived with instructions never to dig or plant in certain areas (some of them the sunniest areas!) and never ever to use any kind of power tools.  Naomi tried to negotiate on a few things, but safety is important and the Council understandably wouldn’t budge, so finally Naomi joyfully signed the licence… but then the council decided they needed to work out an agreement with NCP too before they would sign it off.

Large triangle of grass next to a concrete car park with some trees and bushes with the start of growing spaces being developed

And that’s how 2.5 years passed getting approval to start growing.  Naomi said, “I must admit that there were times towards the end of the waiting period that I was close to giving up and forgetting all about it, but at those times I always asked my existing and in-waiting volunteers what they thought. Protected from the red-tape and boring emails, they had nothing but enthusiasm of course, and that was all I needed to hear!”  The learning here is that sometimes paperwork takes time which can be frustrating, but by completing all the form filling Naomi now knows that the site is safe and that there’s no risk the group might be asked to move on.

And this story of waiting has a happy ending – and a good middle bit too.  While the paperwork stage was continuing, the Council offered another site for growing which is where Incredible Edible St Albans started, next to the Civic Centre.  This site has allowed the group to build up volunteers, interest and a reputation which made the launch of the new, long awaited, site even more successful.  The new site, at Russell Avenue, is right where the commercial centre of town meets a residential area so there are plenty of people living in the immediate vicinity and schools, shops and churches all very close by; hundreds and hundreds of people walk past it each day – often giving lovely comments. Naomi likes wild foods (foraging) and permaculture planting, so saw how despite the shade they could create an edible forest-type garden with low-maintenance perennial and self-seeding shade-tolerant plants – and there’s just enough sunshine round the edges for some more familiar veg, herbs and flowers too. When the planters arrived and they needed screwing together, it took hours of effort to do it all by hand.  Naomi ensured the group adhered to what they had signed up to with the Council, even though this led to lots of extra effort and sore wrists!

There are several people living on Russell Avenue itself and the surrounding streets who come to help at the garden, and the group are working on forming links with some of the doctors surgeries also on the street (for social prescribing), and the two schools which are just around the corner. They’ve been lucky enough to find support from the Waitrose ‘Community Matters’ scheme, two local nurseries (Aylett Nurseries and Carpenter’s Nursery) and two other local businesses (The Odyssey Cinema and The Hare and Hounds pub) who were keen to donate and get involved, so it really feels like a community effort in so many ways.

Finally, Naomi reflects, “We’re really proud that our Incredible Edible gardens were named winner in the ‘Environmental Champion’ category at our Mayor’s Pride Awards here in St Albans earlier this month – it’s great to know that we are appreciated and I hope that more and more people in the community will hear about us and come and get involved as a result!”   If you’re in St Albans then get in touch with Incredible Edible St Albans to join in.

Thanks to Naomi for sharing this story – if you’d like to share experiences from your group then get in touch.  There’s some great learning from this Incredible journey; how sometimes you need to wait and good things will come; how starting off on a smaller site can generate interest and people to help with a bigger project; how finding a site with lots of people walking past is a great location to start Incredible conversations; how talking to people and local businesses can start off connecting communities even before you’ve started growing, and how you can plan your food growing to meet the (lack of) quality of the soil and sunlight.  To find an Incredible Edible group in your area see our map or If you’d like to start a group in your area then sign up to the website to access our Getting going resources.