“There’s nowhere else in the UK,” says Foodscape founder Michael Thorp, “where you can join a farm, are given your own plot, and get guided through that process. You’re part of the whole journey.”
We’re standing in the hot April sun by a Mediterranean-style outdoor dining table that will be home to alfresco feasts as summer rolls in. Beyond are vertical rows of planters overflowing with green leaves – currently the last of the season’s chard, curly kale, cabbage and spinach.
“Our vision is to provide Londoners with an opportunity to grow fresh organic vegetables, reduce food miles and improve local environmental sustainability,” he says.
In fact, it’s hard to believe we’re actually in Rochester Square, in the noisy heart of NW1: the only clue is the Victorian terrace overlooking the square on one side, low-rise 1960s council housing on the other. Two minutes’ walk away is bumper-to-bumper Camden Road, five minutes’ south and you’re at the murky Regent’s Canal. It’s the epitome of urban juxtaposition – and yet it feels pretty blissful.
Long-term Kentish Town resident Michael launched his pilot Foodscape urban farm here exactly a year ago. “My background’s tech but I’ve always been an avid hobbyist gardener,” he says. “Like most Londoners I’ve struggled for outside space, that classic London mix of space-poor and time-poor – the two main barriers to engaging with nature, and being able to grow.”
Michael and his partner Genn hit upon the idea in lockdown, when the pair finally were allocated an allotment patch after six years’ wait. “Everyone was taking a lot more interest in nature, outside space and that was feeding through into organic growing and sustainability. And we realised we can’t be the only young professionals that feel this way: we did some research on allotment waiting lists – there’s 22,000 people in London alone.”
They considered how can they could conceptualise something “new, invigorating and different for London,” which taps into this demand, but also makes a positive contribution not only to locals’ own personal well being, but also to inner-city environments.
The challenge traditionally with urban farms is, of course, land. “So we had to think of a way where we could still create a large yield from really tight spaces.” Having lived nearby in the noughties, Michael remembered Rochester Square when it was still a functioning plant nursery; since 2016 it’s been a socially engaged ceramics studio in leafy grounds. “So we quickly identified this patch, and how many planters we could get in, and whether it would make the pilot scheme viable.”
Michael and his small team started seeding in March 2021 in an office on Highgate Road while they waited for “the keys”, which came through in April. “We started building in May, and built the whole farm in twelve weeks, with over 30 tonnes of soil on the site. We’ve got 32 planters in total, each being one square metre of land – but vertically – so we get three square metres’ equivalent grow space. Vertical vegetable plots maximise yields.’
What can members expect to grow – and then munch on? “We have a curated option of seeds to create your own mix salads. The harvest runs all through the often the summer with salad leaves, cucumbers, beans, peas, mange tout, tomatoes, potatoes and nasturtiums.”
He’s even thought of what to do if there’s an abundance: “Members get priority, or we ask them to suggest where we should donate, a particular food bank or charity. There’s also an ‘insurance policy’ where 20% of the farm goes into a communal harvest as a back-up against issues of tomato blight, for example.”
So how do the fees work? “You become a community member by paying a monthly subscription (see box below),” he says. “For that you get one irrigated plot, the seeds, and the farm is fully managed by head gardener Clare. Then you choose how involved you want to be on the engagement and learning. Depending on your time, you can come down once a week or more. You hear from us through WhatsApp alerts, to say hey, next week, your tomatoes are really popping. Every two weeks you get updates and photos of your plants to see how they’re proceeding – and then when your harvest will be ready.”
They also run an average two member events a month, a combination of “doing and making”, he says. “So we’ve made radish leaf pesto, cauliflower leaf kimchi, and linguine (see box below), and this season we’re doing farm-to-table pizzas using the wood-fired pizza oven. This Saturday for example, we’re also doing beeswax food wrap making to remove dependency on cling film. We’ve had sessions on how bug hotels improve biodiversity, and had ‘sow-outs’, as well as the chance to adopt a Foodscape baby, where those brave enough get to take some plugs home and nurture them, with full advice provided by us.”
As you will gather, it’s not just about growing, it’s about social engagement, a place to learn about horticulture and growing in bite-sized chunks. With the success of the pilot, Michael hopes to launch a further ten more farms across the capital. But this is your chance to be involved in the first ever one of its kind.
“Don’t forget,” he adds as I leave, “it’s also just a great place to relax. Rochester Square is a natural oasis of calm in buzzy Camden. Bring a coffee, your kids, a friend or a book and enjoy a break from the frenzy of city life.”
Here’s how to do it: to become a member, email Michael with your name, phone number, email address, and number of planters you want. They will then get in touch. Call: 07751 438593, email: firstname.lastname@example.org or see the website here. Follow @foodscape_grow on Instagram.
This is a sponsored post in association with Foodscape. If you’re a business wanting to reach thousands of North and East Londoners, please email email@example.com
Main image: SE