Of all the things you might reasonably expect to be doing on a blustery March day, standing on the roof of a supermarket and dragging a rake through a bag of decaying vegetables is probably not one of them. I am on top of Thornton’s Budgens supermarket in Crouch End, north London, which volunteers have transformed from a flat expanse of concrete into a flourishing potted garden and vegetable patch.
The project, called Food from the Sky, is an unusual exercise in the principles of permaculture and sustainable gardening, and is the brainchild of former silversmith and art consultant Azul-Valerie Thome. It opened last May, when a crane lifted 10 tonnes of compost and 300 green recycling boxes donated by Haringey Council on to the roof. Now the garden is producing enough vegetables to sell in the aisles downstairs every Friday, and has just won a community prize at the Co-operative’s annual People and Environment Achievement Awards.
On a quick tour of the garden, Thome and several volunteers show me an impressive array of vegetables – from peas and potatoes to kale and purple sprouting broccoli – alongside flowers, tiny strawberry and raspberry plants, and a composting area. Here, fruit and vegetables left unsold each day in Budgens are mulched, along with woody branches and soil, by the 20 local people who volunteer in the garden.
Volunteer Peter Budge tells me the conditions are perfect for the plants: the warmth from the supermarket’s heating and lighting systems comes up through the roof, sparing the seeds the worst of the frosts – and there are no slugs or snails, while marauding pigeons are deterred by CDs hanging from the perimeter fence. “It might seem mad that we’re growing things up here,” Budge says, “and it is. But it really works.”
The idea came to fruition when Thome returned to London after living in Devon. “I looked up at the roofs and had a vision of them covered with gardens and orchards.” She met Andrew Thornton, who manages two north London Budgens stores. “He showed me the roof of the store as a potential space,” Thome says.
As well as producing fruit and vegetables to sell, Food from the Sky is, from this weekend, running a course in permaculture, as well as visits for local primary schools. And in one corner of the garden, a group of nondescript lidded boxes contains a project for the future: the Garden of Bangladesh, an exercise in growing the ingredients used in Bangladeshi cooking, such as gourds and coriander, suggested by some of the Bangladeshis who work in the store. “Next up is Sri Lanka,” Thome says, “and central Europe is getting jealous.”
Thome’s ultimate aim is “to create a template to show that produce can be grown in cities, and sold locally. One day, I want to see supermarket roof-gardens all over the country.”