East End veg gardeners get help to dig in

I recently had the pleasure of being introduced to Henry Tatum - affectionately known as Sonny - who, at 94, is the oldest London vegetable grower I ve met writes Rosie Boycott. He has lived in the same sixth floor flat on the Cranbrook estate off Roman R

I recently had the pleasure of being introduced to Henry Tatum - affectionately known as Sonny - who, at 94, is the oldest London vegetable grower I've met writes Rosie Boycott. He has lived in the same sixth floor flat on the Cranbrook estate off Roman Road since it was built in 1956.

I recently found myself standing with Sonny in the estate's recently built community vegetable garden launching the Edible Estates competition for London Food Link's Capital Growth project.

The London Food Link initiative was set up to improve Londoners' access to healthy, locally produced affordable food and the Capital Growth project aims to create 2,012 new community growing spaces by the end of 2012. I chair the initiative which was set up with �87,000 from the London Development Agency. It is now funded by the mayor of London who is investing �927,806 between 2009 and 2012 and the Big Lottery Fund's Local Food scheme, which has committed �300,000.

The plot on the Cranbrook estate fell into disuse about seven years ago and became a hang-out for teenagers. 'A drinking, drugging and shouting rude remarks sort of space,' says Sonny, expertly rolling a cigarette.

Eighteen months ago, a group of residents decided to turn it into a garden. Thirty people came to an initial meeting in the local community centre, which sits next to the garden, and a core team emerged. They had heard about the Capital Growth project and decided to apply for a grant. We awarded them �750, to which Tower Hamlets subsequently added �5,000 as part of its healthy borough programme.

'This is a good way to turn neglected bits of land into spaces that benefit the whole community, as well as bringing neighbours together and helping provide more healthy, low-cost food for residents,' says Gavin Cansfield, chief executive of arms-length management organisation, Tower Hamlets Homes.

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Sonny and his fellow residents now have 10 big raised beds, two-foot high with rich deep soil. We dug up dozens of new potatoes, which emitted a wonderful earthy smell. The beds are communal, which means all residents are responsible for them and there's a watering rota which everyone joins in. The produce - and this year's harvest is already yielding plenty - is shared among the group but when there's a surplus it is handed out to visitors. People from the estate have started bringing food scraps to donate to the compost bed: in return, they can fill their own balcony pots from the compost pile.

There are now 500 Capital Growth plots across London in diverse places including schools, on roofs, in skips and even on a canal boat and all are boasting a similarly inspirational story. Anyone can get involved with the scheme, all you need is enthusiasm and an idea for a plot of land. We can then help with planning departments, leases and soil issues if needed, and sometimes with cash.

We believe that food growing can play an important part in regenerating local communities in London and this is true for anywhere across the UK. On estates it can improve the quality of open spaces, encourage residents to care for communal areas and bring life back to a corner which has been neglected or become prone to anti-social behaviour. Gardens also promote social cohesion, providing a focus around which residents engage with the management of their estate.

Many communities want access to land but their social landlord might be reluctant to give permission, often because they are fed up with the long-term management issues of the space. Capital Growth can help by providing professional training and support for residents who want to set up their own projects, as well as resources and volunteers to make it a success.

Since the recession began, many new builds have stalled, leaving chunks of land half developed. Most developers wouldn't countenance letting people grow there, but one of our members, Transport for London, asked its legal team to create a template lease agreement for use between TFL and community groups, allowing would-be-growers to stay for a limited period on TFL land. This lease has been brilliant at getting many new projects moving and is available for others to use for free. We're thrilled that housing associations, in particular, are enthusiastic about joining up. Like the Cranbrook estate where Sonny lives, more and more are seeing that there is no downside to community vegetable growing.

There are 750,000 social housing properties in London and the Capital Growth team is keen to get residents involved in the programme - that is why it has launched the Edible Estates competition to find London's best community food grower. The top three winning housing estates will receive a �250 token from B&Q, a 10-piece tool set from Bulldog, a Wiggly Wigglers 'worm cafe' and places on the Capital Growth training scheme.

Social residents are being asked to get in touch with their landlords to ask for a plot of land to nurture into thriving food gardens. The first ten communities who register for the competition at www.capitalgrowth.org/edibleestates will enter a draw to win help from Mears Group to clear land, prepare soil, to build raised beds, create storage, or build fences or a water source.

It doesn't matter if growing has not yet started because the project aims to celebrate those already growing as well as inspiring others to get started. I know that it is now July and that keen veg growers will already be harvesting their peas, beans, potatoes, spinach, radishes and artichokes, but there is still time to get seeds in the ground or to buy plants at the local market. Tomatoes, for instance, aren't too expensive and will reward with a plentiful crop in just a few weeks' time as will bean plants, cucumbers and courgettes. Salad leaves are tremendously fast growers: get the seeds in the ground now and people could be eating home-grown salad in just three weeks.

Budding growers don't have to have a raised bed ready, built and filled with soil, any container will do. Old buckets, basins, pots, even suitcases make fine plant holders, and they look fun too. I particularly like the sight of lettuce sprouting out of old, leaky wellingtons.

This kind of gardening is a great way to recycle stuff that would otherwise be thrown away while beautifying an area - another great reason to get growing on our urban estates.

The Edible Estates competition is open to all residents of social housing projects in London and runs from now until 20 October 2010.

Entrants to Edible Estates must be a new community food growing space or an expansion of an existing space on a housing estate.

To enter, call 0207 837 1228 or visit www.capitalgrowth.org/edibleestatescompetition