Esiah Levy, founder of SeedsShare, was born in South East London to Jamaican parents. His father was a farmer from a young age in Jamaica before he came to the UK in the 1950’s. Esiah studied Edible Gardening at Capel Manor College.
After successfully completing this course, Esiah founded Urban Edible Gardens in 2015, and was hired by Keam George Agency as Head Gardener on the Marks and Spencer ’24 Gardens in 24 Hours’ gardening project.
In 2016, Esiah worked with Joyce Veheary – founder of Lend and Tend – on a rooftop garden in a disused carpark in Croydon, in partnership with the open cinema company Lost Format Society. He began his live ‘no-dig’ gardening workshops the same year, announcing a location on social media, and inviting both novice and experienced gardeners to participate in building raised beds made using recycled materials on disused green space.
Esiah was also hired by Croydon Council to renovate their rooftop garden raised beds. He brought his own twist to this project, sourcing all materials at no cost at all.
Rounding off 2016, Esiah founded SeedsShare, which provides organic seeds which can be sown to produce free food and provide long term food security for individuals or community gardening groups, in areas which organic fresh produce is at a minimum.
Locavore caught up with Esiah, who told us about no-dig, the importance of getting young people into growing food, and gardening as art.
You set up SeedsShare in December 2016. What was the path that brought you to starting this project?
l started SeedsShare to give the right to grow food to everyone, by simply sharing seeds harvested in my own garden. After studying growing food at Capel Manor Regents Park, I wanted to put a twist on gardening. To show that growing food can be done by spending little-to-no money, using recyclable materials instead.
I saw a growing trend of people unable to afford either seeds and plants for their own garden or a growing space. And of course the selection of seeds which is available to buy is often uninspiring and boring. I myself was given my first squash seeds by a fellow gardener, and once I grew the squash – which was a Prince variety – I discovered one seed had multiplied into 250 seeds! I decided right there to make the seeds I harvest in my own garden available to both experienced and novice gardeners, and to community gardening groups.
I want for young people to embrace growing their own food and, in turn, be creative with it. It’s about giving the freedom to discover and to enjoy harvesting their own food, instead of buying it.
How has SeedsShare changed and developed over the first year?
Since its launch SeedsShare has grown from providing seeds to gardeners and community groups in the UK to now providing seeds to over 30 countries. Japan, Brazil, Peru, Germany, Poland, South Africa, for example. My project has even provided seeds to Transport for London staff as well.
So its expansion has been really quick. I expect to only keep growing and reaching more people all over the world, especially those who live in “food deserts”, have no access to fresh fruit and vegetables – which is a fact. And a growing problem, with fast-food outlets overtaking the shops that provide fresh fruit and veg. Not to mention that the food on offer from the fast-food outlets is a lot cheaper than food which is good for you.
In my town of Croydon this is a major issue, especially North Croydon, with a chicken shop on every corner. You see, in the UK, we have the issue of too many liquor stores, we have an issue of way too many fast food outlets – at least where I am, anyway – and it’s down to local councils, like mine, to do better… a lot better. To encourage and to help local farmers markets in areas which don’t have access to this healthy food.
What gave you the idea to send out free seeds to people and community groups?
Community gardening groups, well for me they need all the help they can get! These individuals are often gardening in a local park or a green space just to help improve their area. However, the help they receive in regards of funding is very little to nothing, and to apply for any money requires a lot of paper work! I want to at least give them the opportunity to receive seeds from the SeedsShare project and not have to worry about finding money to purchase seeds to grow food for their local community, and of course to grow unusual coloured food. I hope to see those community groups that my project has already given seeds to, long term, be harvesting their own seeds and teaching novice gardeners how to do it. And to encourage both young and old people to garden and grow their own food in their local community.
What has been the response from people?
Initially the reaction from people was one of complete surprise. I mean, I was offering them seeds with only postage to pay. So I was asked “what’s the catch?”, but when I explain…
You use materials that have been donated or are otherwise waste products. Can you tell us a bit more?
Surprisingly, recycled materials to use when growing food are easy to get your hands on, and plentiful in urban areas like London. Cardboard can be sourced from supermarkets, and makes an excellent weed suppressant, especially good for allotments. Coffee grounds can be sourced from local coffee shops, and helps to attract worms when placed on a soil surface. The worms in turn help add air to the soil and improve drainage, and best of all turn the coffee grounds into worm cast, an excellent free fertiliser.
You practise a ‘no-dig’ method, something that is becoming more and more popular and championed by people such as Charles Dowding. What are the advantages of no-dig?
I decided to do the ‘no-dig’ method because of cost and transport. When I first started to create my own variation on this technique, it was because the garden I wanted to grow food in had overgrown plants and was really bad, and purchasing a fabric membrane, shovel, fork etc. wasn’t an option I was willing to entertain. Also, I live in a city and horse manure is not readily available, so I had to improvise.
So I replaced the fabric membrane with cardboard, spent hops, cocoa shells, which for a city like London are available everywhere – with the businesses which generate these waste materials willing to give them away for free! I also replaced horse manure with coffee grounds and compost, which can be sourced for free from coffee shops and council recycling centres respectively.
The advantages I find with using no-dig is the top soil isn’t disturbed, and this results in beneficial micro-organisms multiplying and improving the soil structure. Using the no-dig method on even clay soil helps with the soil becoming dark and crumbly. Also, using a no-dig mulch means the soil will be moist during the summer months and greatly reduces freezing during the winter months. I am basically mimicking the natural process of decomposition which occurs in rainforest, and you’ll never see a rainforest lacking in nutrients.
There has been much debate over the last decade about the decline of pollinating insects, and the impact of big agriculture. Have you noticed a difference in insect populations or pollination rates in recent times?
I always have to hand pollinate, and find having mastered the skill to be of a great benefit. The weather is just not easy to predict anymore, either, being really wet during the summer or really hot during the winter, and it’s not getting any better. The bees are struggling, and to not see many – even in my garden which has over 15 dwarf fruit trees – is not a surprise.
I see big agriculture as feeding a demand for a lot of edible plants which really should be eaten according to the seasons. They should be grown not to satisfy peoples’ “I must have it 24/7” attitude. I mean should strawberries be available in December? Of course, the amount of money made from those who choose to buy fruits – like strawberries – out of season is just too much to simply revert to making fruit and veg available according to the seasons Mother Nature intended.
And it’s sad, because those who suffer from big agriculture are the small farmers. Swallowed up by major companies and their machines, offering to harvest much more produce. Bees and other beneficial insects are killed by the chemicals used by these companies to grow the amount of food they do, and lastly the climate is affected by the amount of green house gasses released by these big farms – the amount of deforestation happening too. I mean, look at the Amazon being carved up like a piece of meat to grow palm oil.
Do you think that projects such as yours can be a way of feeding an ever-growing population?
I do believe my project, and others like it, can help long term, because it’s about sharing seeds and encouraging the process of hybridisation through open pollination. I want people to encourage nature, to create and discover new colours and shapes of fruit and veg. I would use squash as a good example. There are hundreds of heirloom varieties, created through cross-pollination by Mother Nature herself, and – trust me – these are the best flavoured squash there are!
People need to realise that growing their own food, and being good at it, is a reality which is fast approaching. I don’t want growing food to be expensive, but instead a form of art to fully showcase Mother Nature at her best. So a project like mine, offering seeds for free with only postage to pay, is a good first step.
You specialise in heirloom varieties of vegetables such as squashes and sweetcorn. What defines an heirloom variety? And what are the reasons for choosing to grow them over some of the more modern varieties that have been selected for disease or pest resistance, for instance?
An heirloom variety is simply an open-pollinated fruit or vegetable who’s seeds have been saved, and passed down through multiple generations of families. Take the tomato – because it is open-pollinated, the taste is not sacrificed. And you know it looks like it’s meant to, deep red or black -yes, you get tomatoes which are black, too.
But hybrid seeds, which are created mainly to satisfy a demand either to be picked early and not spoil and last a very long time, have no taste at all. Or major seed companies sell seeds which are disease or pest resistant, but the resulting harvested seeds do not do as well as those bought originally.
I prefer flavour above all, hence why I always have grown heirloom and always will. My favourite is corn, and right now I am growing a red variety and a multi-coloured variety. For me, corn is fascinating – it can be sweet, or used as a flour substitute, and of course popcorn! The colours which you can grow besides the commercial yellow are many, and of course stunning too. So, being a creative person, corn – which is actually a fruit – is, right now, my favourite to grow.
SeedsShare is one of a number of emerging urban projects designed to grow food in a city setting. What impact do you think these projects can bring to the UK’s cities?
The future is bright for projects like mine, encouraging people to grow food in a city like London. I like to think more green spaces will be made available. Possibly rooftop gardens will be the norm with fruit and veg being grown on them. This will result in spaces of a real importance, both economically and ecologically. The New York High Line is a good example of this.
Projects like mine ensure green spaces, or the lack of them, is highlighted, and the local councils will be pressured to provide these spaces for people. Because, after all, once people have the seeds they need the space to grow their food.
What are your hopes and fears for the future of food security in the UK?
My hope as always is for food to be made available according to season and, of course, for it to be cheaper – a lot cheaper! For local urban farms to spring up and start to sell produce they have grown on local sites. Produce grown in a local green space for the people. My fear is we the people demand more and more of the same boring fruit and veg, and it results in [organic] only being available in certain gentrified areas in cities like London. And of course the price of fruit and veg rising as well.
What do you hope for the future of SeedsShare?
The future of SeedsShare? For it to be embraced by the people. I mean to know of, and see, examples of people growing their own food and enjoying it too. Long term, myself, being able to acquire a large site to grow more fruit and veg, and also have a recognised seeds bank too. Not just where I am, but for others to do similar projects all over the world, making seeds available for everyone to grow their own healthy clean food.
Finally, why do you do what you do?
I do what I do because I know how hard it can be to afford a healthy meal in today’s world. And I simply know that growing food is everyone’s right. But there needs to be someone who makes it cool and current, especially for our young people. Because if they enjoy it and embrace it can you imagine how creative they will make the gardening world? The possibilities are endless. I do what I do for the youth, to inspire people to grow food and know it’s their human right.
For the SeedsShare website, click here.
Follow Esiah on Twitter here.