Struggling to grow food in a small urban space? Connected Roots helps people to set up their growing spaces. Matt Franks explains how the company works and his dream to bring London together over home-grown veg:
How did Connected Roots come about?
I’ve grown veg at home for quite a few years and my father’s a gardener so it was kind of from when I was young. When I moved to London I also wanted to keep growing. I was restricted by space but I used whatever space I had and I lived in shared housing and other housemates wanted to get involved so I started to show them what to do more with hints and tips and they had their own planters and so on. Friends and neighbours started to ask me what I was doing and whether I could show them what to do and whether I could set that up in their balcony or garden and so on. I started growing myself about five years ago in London and then it’s just kind of evolved from there. Then last year I thought I’m going to give this a go and see if I can take this a bit further and maybe see if I can get more people in London to grow food for themselves generally. I’ve been doing Connected Roots since early 2012. Last year I started working with people that I didn’t really know and then this year I’ve tried to take it even further and broader and work with a collection of people.
What’s stopping Londoners from growing food?
A lot of people either think that they don’t have enough space or they don’t have the inclination or they don’t have the knowledge to start growing themselves so what I have provided through Connected Roots is the ability to give them everything they need from soil if they haven’t got any ground to sow seeds into straight through to planters and supports and the seeds themselves so I give them everything to get growing. Ideally meaning that anyone who has any kind of space even just a windowsill can grow something.
Do you think people care about where their food comes from?
I think hugely so. A lot of people have, I suppose so many different global factors that have made people consider food and local food much more generally. I did quite a lot of market research before I started Connected Roots to greet this idealised audience that I thought would be the right people and they would be relatively young, relatively well-educated and then potentially have a young family but what I’ve found through running Connected Roots is that it’s pretty much most people who want to grow something so I’ve had older customers; a woman who’s 62, I’ve had 23 year old that are house sharers four girls who’ve started growing some stuff so it’s a real broad spectrum of people who want clean, fresh produce that they know what’s gone into it, they know where it’s come from. It’s free essentially.
Is growing your own food a good way to get fresh produce cheaply?
My competition I suppose is the home delivery veg box schemes. I used to get a Riverford veg box and if you look at the price per year it comes in around £600-£700 for an average box whereas I could create a six metre square growing plot with considerably produce coming out of that for maybe £200-£250. I think that would start you off and then the following year you’d have all the initial things that you needed; the soil, the planters so you could then start to buy some seeds yourself and then the cost comes down incredibly so it’s almost free food then.
Can growing food bring communities together?
What I started with Connected Roots initially was the idea that I wanted people, in London you can’t grow almost an entire meal so the idea would be if you focus on one crop you could grow that in abundance and then you could share that with your neighbours and then if they all did the same growing different crops you’d in theory be sharing meals between neighbours and I still. The idea is that when Connected Roots becomes big enough there’ll be a forum element added to it that would allow that local sharing facility to come to fruition.
You’ve begun taking on apprentices, why is this an important part of Connected Roots?
There’s this term called NEETs which the Government has which refers to young people who are Not in Education, Employment or Training and there are a million of them in the UK. I volunteer with a young fostered child which I’ve been doing for eight years and I’ve seen that young people in the UK don’t have much opportunity. I think if I can do something just to start pecking away at that giving people vocational skills in a growing industry also providing skill sets like team work and leadership then I think I’ll be doing something that’s of benefit. The way it will work is whenever I have installations the apprentices that I find from the Job Centre they will work with me throughout to do the installation.
They’ll get paid and then they get trained as they’re doing that. Eventually they become qualified so that they can start doing jobs independently and they can do the management of the sites independently too. Then hopefully they’ll tell more people and it’ll just grow from there. I did some work last year with some apprentices. The seasonality means that people come on board work with me throughout the growing season and then go and do more work that the Job Centre finds them. This year we’re just seeing what’s possible; I’m having conversations with the Job Centre about people that would be up for doing some work. They learnt loads. I mean some of them didn’t know where certain things came from like lettuce they didn’t really know what it was or where it grew. They looked at me strangely when you start eating something that’s growing. They were very receptive and it’s definitely had a positive impact on those people that we’ve worked with so I think it can only get better. We’re going to learn from last year and see what we need to do differently to help them get more out of it and make them want to stay on.
Have you been surprised by how much of an online community there is for growing food?
The online audience for growing is so vibrant I think because it’s such a rewarding thing. People who get into it become a little bit obsessed with it and the twitter audience is just mad for it; they post at all bizarre times of the day and night about seedlings and crops that are coming up. They’re such a proactive, interesting audience that’s why I think that the forum thing would work quite well because people just want to help other people who have questions or who are interested in the topic.
Are the space constraints part of the challenge, do you have to be quite creative?
We’ve done quite a few balcony spaces and they don’t want the balcony just to be used for growing. You have to be considerate of what they want and they’re amazed often you can achieve what you proposed and it comes up and they’re just amazed that they’re growing something that’s growing out on their window. What I normally do is use vertical stuff considerably so that we don’t take as much space as they perceive I’m going to but they get more out of it than they intend to.
Are there any advantages to growing in an urban environment?
There are two, If you have an allotment or somewhere away from where you live the pests aren’t really tended to that much and the plants don’t get the care that they would if they were on your balcony or in your backgarden. The second is that the growing season is normally longer because the concrete of the city normally means that the frosts finish sooner and come later.
What’s the next stage?
We just need to expand so get more people telling other people about, more people considering growing food at home—just make it a bit of a thing rather than a few people here and there I suppose seize on that movement and get people to start doing it more frequently.
How have you publicised Connected Roots?
The word of mouth thing is incredible. I think because I’m not trying to sell anything essentially, it’s not a product it’s something quite nice I think whenever people tell people I suddenly get about three or four people get in touch saying “I’m really interested in this can you tell me a bit more information?” Word of mouth is hugely influential and then I’ve done press some advertising, I do quite a lot of social stuff to try and get people involved and engaged in that space as well. Giving content, giving hints and tips so if anyone has any questions I get quite a lot of questions about what can I grow here, what can we do here, what would you recommend in this space and and I’ll try and help out that way and then someone will say “I spoke to so-and-so and they said you’re a really good person to talk to about this” and then it goes from there.