October 2, 2010 (7 years, 6 months ago)

How to Grow Food in Strange Places

© The Ecologist

Mushrooms in disused railway tunnels and strawberries in drainpipes… perhaps it’s silly but I find food growing in strange places both bizarre and romantic. Horticulture can be so creative. It can involve melons growing on net curtains and rice growing on pavements. Introduce an against-the-odds element – like doing it in Tokyo, that seething, steely metropolis – and it’s somehow all the more exciting.

My love of the bizarre and the romantic – and of vegetables – has led me on a journey, albeit it an armchair one. I’ve found people growing food in some unlikely places, for fun and from necessity, and on a personal and a commercial scale.

Rowena and Philip Mansfield farm fruit, herbs and fish in Anglesey, North Wales. I was drawn to this Welsh couple, who have swapped urban life for something very rural, because they’ve been growing strawberries in a drainpipe.

From sections of humble pipe, and employing less humble hydroponics, they’ve harvested 75lb of berries. They’re dismissive of my delight. ‘Nothing original about drainpipes,’ says Philip. ‘We look at all pipes and see them sprouting food. Just pass water along the tube and let the plant roots touch the liquid – they’ll take up whatever nutrients they need.’

The couple have branched out into aquaponics and now sell rainbow trout and carp to a small but committed circle of customers. Aquaponics is an integrated system that centres around the natural life cycle of a fish. Philip explains: ‘Fish produce ammonia in their normal breathing, the ammonia is converted by bacteria in growbeds to produce nitrates that feed the plants. The returned water has been cleansed ready for the fish to utilise it again.

‘I think we should all be aware of the need to grow food by whatever means. There are thousands of empty buildings that could be used to grow food to feed the local community.’

I ask them whether it would be fair to call their way of life idyllic. ‘Absolutely. The hours are long, the money scarce, but there’s no travelling, no crowds on buses or Tube. You learn to live alongside nature and it rewards you generously. We breathe the growing grass.’

Grown in darkness

From old Wales to New South Wales then, to talk to an Australian microbiologist who has been growing exotic fungi in disused railway tunnels for more than 20 years. I send Dr Noel Arrold some questions by email. He isn’t a fan of typing so sends me photographs of his handwritten notes in reply. They’re a joy to decipher.

It turns out that Australians have been growing mushrooms in this way since the 1930s, when old railway tunnels around Sydney Harbour were used to produce them for canning. Faced with a flood of cheap canned mushrooms from Asia, the industry turned towards fresh market production and the tunnels fell out of use. But in 1987 Dr Arrold realised tunnels would be a perfect place to grow exotic fungi.

‘Varieties like shiitake, oyster, wood ear and enoki grow naturally in the cool, dim and humid forests of Asia. Cultivators had developed ways of growing these mushrooms on sawdust. I discovered it was possible to grow them on Australian eucalyptus sawdust, while the tunnel environment resembled conditions that occur in the forests,’ explains Dr Arrold.

‘Our farm produces approximately 1,500kg of mushrooms a week, small compared to white button mushroom farms, which produce 20 tonnes a week. But ours is a high-value crop. Exotic mushrooms are attractive because the production process is chemical-free, low-energy and uses waste material.’