Here in the United States of Immaculately Manicured Lawns, it can be hard enough as is to grow a small, neatly kept patch of veggies in your front yard without provoking the ire of your neighbors, the local HOA, and/or city officials. So can you imagine an entire town of more than 10,000 people where edible landscaping is the norm? A town that not only encourages front yard gardening but gardening in highly trafficked public spaces like the supermarket parking lot, the doctor’s office, and the railway station? A town where wandering into your neighbor’s yard without permission to grab a couple sprigs of fresh mint, a head of lettuce, and a few tomatoes is totally kosher?
This all might sound like some far-fetched, fever dream utopia conjured up by Michael Pollan, but this place does indeed exist. And it’s called Todmorden.
Todmorden, an ethnically and economically diverse mill town of about 15,000 residents located about 20 miles from Manchester in West Yorkshire, U.K., is home to Incredible Edible, an ambitious, agrarian-minded scheme that’s brought together an entire community under one common goal: to become completely self-sufficient in food by the year 2018. And so far, things are going swimmingly.
Thanks to the work of Incredible Edible, Todmorden is home to around 70 official “take what you like free of charge, no questions asked” raised vegetable beds scattered around town in public areas and tended to by a group of dedicated volunteers. Plus, there are a few renegade gardens in addition to the town's (legal) herb gardens, orchards, and numerous residential plots tended to by inspired residents. The Daily Mail takes inventory: “So there are (or were) raspberries, apricots and apples on the canal towpath; blackcurrants, redcurrants and strawberries beside the doctor’s surgery; beans and peas outside the college; cherries in the supermarket car park; and mint, rosemary, thyme and fennel by the health centre.”
And again, this local business-boosting scheme which also entails various campaigns, events, and educational courses in topics like pickling and preserving, is a first-come-first-served type of deal. So what’s stopping someone from swooping in and snatching up the town’s entire bounty overnight? Well, in Todmorden it simply doesn’t happen. Explains Mary Clear, a 56-year-old grandmother of 10 (!) who co-founded Incredible Edible three years ago along with Pam Warhurst: “We trust people. We truly believe — we are witness to it — that people are decent.” She adds: “This is a revolution. But we are gentle revolutionaries. Everything we do is underpinned by kindness.”
During the early days of Incredible Edible, Clear lowered the walls of her own home vegetable garden in an effort to encourage random passersby to come on in and help themselves. And even though she erected signs inviting them to do so, it took at least six months for them to act on it without any reservations. Now, Todmorden residents aren't only swinging by Clear’s garden to pick up ingredients for the evening’s salad but to numerous locations including the police station where, depending on the season, they'll find carrots, potatoes, kale, spring onions, and much more growing in not one but three beds.
And on the topic of police activity, a somewhat unexpected result of Incredible Edible has been a reduction in vandalism around town. Warhurst takes a gander as to why: “If you take a grass verge that was used as a litter bin and a dog toilet and turn it into a place full of herbs and fruit trees, people won’t vandalise it. I think we are hard-wired not to damage food.”
Head on over to The Daily Mail to read more about Incredible Edible and how it has transformed otherwise ordinary Todmorden into what The Independent has dubbed as "Britain's greenest town." The Incredible Edible website itself is also chock-full of information including details on how the whole thing is organized and funded. And I suppose I should mention that Prince Charles himself is a big fan of Clear and Warhurst's "gentle revolution."
Sure, it may be easy to dismiss Todmorden as a stereotypically quaint British market town with an eco-minded twist. The whole set-up is almost asking for a BBC comedy spin-off staring Julie Walters as the rosemary-growing innkeeper, Brenda Blethyn as the down-on-her-luck divorcee/apiarist, Mark Addy as the parsley-tending chief constable, and Jim Broadbent as the bumbling mayor who can't quite wrap his head around aquaponics. Still, this is seriously inspiring stuff worthy of replication. On that note, have any similar, smaller-scale community vegetable growing (and taking) efforts sprung up in your area?
Also on MNN: How to grow herbs indoors this winter
Via [The Daily Mail]