‘Grow it’ Magazine! Nice article, thank you Shannon!
Shannon Denny meets Azul-Valerie Thome, the green-fingered activist whose work with Food from the Sky may well turn the world of supermarkets upside down
ALL IMAGES: FOOD from the SKY
Sustainability informs everything in the space, with pallets and other up-cycled materials providing planting spots. Rain is harvested in •
Grow it! November/ December 2011 15
Recycled recycling tubs make perfect vessels for this rooftop haven “When you have half of a vision, you don’t have enough”. While it’s a pleasant enough area of London, the streets of Crouch End are hardly paved with gold. On any given weekday the central crossroads are a logjam of prams, black cabs, Bobbies on the beat and mopeds. A delivery lorry lumbers loudly past as I head to the local Budgens store.
Inside, on the ground floor, it’s not unlike any other supermarket up and down the country. In the neat aisles I can stock up on muesli, get a can of baked beans and purchase whatever fragrant new product promises to get my laundry brighter and whiter. Up above on the roof, however, is something that’s absolutely unique. Here, a bumblebee teeters on a poppy. A feisty raspberry bush reaches for the sun. Bunting and CDs strung along a length of twine flit in the breeze, warding off the capital’s considerable population of pigeons. And Azul-Valerie Thome reaches out a compost-covered hand to greet me in this unlikely – but visionary – market garden.
Azul is a former silversmith and art consultant with a background in organic gardening, permaculture, design and community projects. When she left her leafy 50-acre smallholding in
Devon to relocate to London’s concrete jungle, an image entered the activist’s mind every time she left the house. “I used to walk in the streets of London and literally had the vision of orchards and food growing from the roofs.” She couldn’t glance skyward without imagining strawberries hanging down and tomato plants shooting up.
Then Azul met Andrew Thornton, who owns the Crouch End Budgens franchise. “He shared that vision. And he said, ‘You know, I have a roof. It would be great to grow a bit of salad
for the shop’.” They took a look at the space and Azul immediately saw the possibility of her dream taking root. “I thought ‘Forget the salad – it’s not just salad. This is about communities, people, education, biodiversity, sustainability, permaculture – a hub’.”
It was a fantastic fusion, and an unusual resolution of opposites. So often the supermarkets are seen as the bad guys who perpetuate intensive farming, contribute to unnecessary food miles and cripple plant species that aren’t economically viable. Andrew’s involvement in the project introduced a new way forward. By colocating the garden with the retailer, carbon emissions could be reduced. Food transport would no longer require expensive airfares and lengthy Lorry journeys, while a customer could stock up on everything in one place rather than driving from farmers market to grocery store in a quest to tick everything off the shopping list.
“When you have just half of a vision, you don’t have enough,” Azul affirms. “He’s got a foot in the food industry and my background is in community work and sustainability. So it was like, ‘Cool! We can do this!’.”
Getting it off the ground
The pair’s determination carried them though a round of endless meetings to get the project literally off the ground. A surveyor assessed load-bearing capabilities, happily discovering that the financial and logistical nightmare of additional structural work would be avoided. Landlords, insurance companies and the planning office meanwhile needed full assurance about a host of regulations and building issues. Several meetings with neighbours addressed concerns about everything from noise to smells. While Azul and Andrew waded through
forests of paperwork on health and safety, risk assessment and insurance, volunteers rallied under the new ‘Food from the Sky’ banner to dive hands-first into some compost. In February of 2010 they mustered the cardboard tubes from loo rolls into service as plant pots and sowed seeds in the car park. When all of the necessary papers had been signed, sealed and delivered less than four
The local council contributed 10 tonnes of months later, a crane lifted the fledgling garden compost and more than 250 retired street-up to its new home above. side recycling bins to serve as planters, while Azul’s team adhered to organic standards and biodynamic rhythms in planting an orchard, veggies, fruits and edible flowers.
As predicted, this 450m2 (4844 sq ft) aerial allotment became home to much more than salad. What’s flourished? You name it! Pak choi, carrots, beans, peas, spinach, herbs, radishes,
courgettes, squash, chicory, spring onions, cauliflower, loganberries, globe artichokes, kale, broccoli, tomatoes, beetroot, pumpkins, raspberries, rocket, mushrooms and melons to
name a few. Even grape vines and fig trees are thriving here.
Meanwhile, a rich cultural diversity inside the store has led to adventures into off-the-beatenpath produce too. The Thornton’s Budgens team speaks no fewer than 31 languages and originates from a variety of lands across the globe. Thanks to the suggestion of store employees, a Garden of Bangladesh has been planted with lau, amaranth, puishack and coriander, while Sri Lankan employees are now lobbying for a patch of earth for their native produce.
14 November/ December 2011 Grow it!