Alexandra Park Food Forest

| Rachel Berry

In the early days of the coronavirus crisis, the UK saw empty shelves at the supermarket for the first time in a generation. It was a wake up call: we can’t take access to good food for granted. 

In many parts of the country, though, it wasn’t a new lesson. In the East End of Glasgow there’s a historic lack of access to good, fresh food, as well as other health and wellbeing markers, such as access to green space. But, in Alexandra Park, a community food growing project is looking to change that. 

A group of local volunteers, including Clem Sandison, one of the project’s directors, saw that Glasgow’s Alexandra Park would be an ideal location for a community garden. They worked through a four-day co-design process to create the Alexandra Park Food Forest. Permaculture specialist Lusi Alderslowe provided training on creating the most sustainable system. And the group engaged with schools and local people to get their support. 

“We spent three or four days planting 74 fruit and nut trees, and about 40 fruit bushes,” says Clem. “That was four years ago. We have pretty much every type of fruit you can grow in Scotland; 20 varieties of apples – including some Scottish heritage varieties, such as bloody ploughman and scotch bridget – pear trees, plums, cherries, quince, blackcurrants and berries. There are also walnut and hazel trees, and even two almond trees, which produced blossoms for the first time in 2019.”

The Food Forest is designed to produce as many yields as possible, while also supporting the community and looking after the site’s biodiversity and wildlife. “It’s all interconnected,” says Clem. “The principles in our constitution are: earth care, caring for our planet and our natural systems; people care, recognising that people have different needs and we need to include everybody; and then fair share, which is about equal access to resources.” 

As the fruit ripens, the group advertise what’s available and local people come to harvest the fruit and take it home. As the trees become more productive, Clem says they intend to redistribute the fruit to schools, care homes and community groups who don’t have access to good quality, local fruit in season. 

Beyond growing

But fresh food is just the baseline of what the Food Forest offers. They also deliver education and training opportunities and an annual programme of seasonal events with a focus on nature and wildlife, like a traditional wassail to encourage the apple harvest and a blossom festival in the springtime. There are opportunities to volunteer, and an after-school club called Wild Weans, which Clem says is all about kids getting reconnected with nature and exploring. 

“We’ve got an amazing forest school leader,” says Clem. “It’s all about play and exploring nature; having a fire, making dens, rope swings. There’s woodland all around our site, so there’s lots of places where kids can climb and explore.” As a result, the group is building strong relationships with local schools.

The forest was set up as a community interest company and a social enterprise, which means that as it develops and starts to make an income, the group can add enterprise strands to support the education work and other community outreach initiatives the group would like to put in place. Alexandra Park is public land managed by Glasgow City Council, who gave the group a permission to use (PTU) agreement, which means they have both the public liability insurance for the land and scope to use the land in the best way for the community. 

Outdoor respite during lockdown

As the coronavirus lockdown came into effect, the Food Forest’s activities were put on hold. But Clem says they’ve seen increased engagement with the local community as more people have used the park and spent more time in the Food Forest. “It became a space where people went to do yoga in the morning, or took their kids to do a bit of out of doors homeschooling,” says Clem. “We’d created a willow dome and put some logs on the ground for people to sit on, and there was a constant stream of children using this quiet outdoor space.” 

Clem says that not only has there been increased engagement with the local community, there’s also been more interest in volunteering. “A lot more people got in touch with us saying they were furloughed or at home, and could they volunteer and help in the space. So we’ve got a bigger list of volunteers now that we can draw on, because people are valuing their green spaces more.” The Food Forest was also able to support the community more widely, by getting involved with a mutual aid group that got food and prescriptions to people who were self isolating.  

“The most important thing that’s come out of the crisis for us is that people are valuing their green spaces, the outdoor public land that they have, a lot more than before,” says Clem. “It’s shown that we need much more public, free green space that’s well looked after and meets the needs of the community.” 

Meanwhile, the fruit has continued to grow. Clem says this year’s harvest has been their best one so far. “We had an abundance of blackcurrants. I did a socially distanced tour of the fruit bushes to show people what they could pick. It’s still a challenge to get people to pick the fruit at the right time, but we’re working on that. We’ve had loads of raspberries, blackcurrants, strawberries, redcurrants and blueberries. The apples and pears are on the trees and will be ready next.”

Clem says they’re hoping to restart their outdoor, socially distanced activities – including the after-school club – in early September. Looking ahead, the group hopes to leverage increased local awareness, and greater appreciation of and need for outdoor space, to fund a learning hub on site. Four years on from the Food Forest’s creation, the team is proud of how far they’ve come. “We’re hoping this could be a model for other groups,” says Clem. “We could be producing free organic food for local people in parks across the country, not to mention offering health and environmental benefits.” 

Find The Alexandra Food Forest on Facebook.

Photo by Clem Sandison of Andrew Lear ‘Apple Tree Man’ running an apple ID

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