If one of your resolutions this year is to go green (or just to keep your plants alive) then you’ll wanna see what Claire Ratinon has got going on. She’s an organic grower who teaches gardening workshops and knows a thing or two about growing your own food, and yes she’s got some tips for how to do right here in the city.
Where do you live in London and what do you like about the area?
I’ve lived all over London, but I’ve lived in Hackney the longest. It’s the area I love the most in the city. I’m right by Victoria Park so given the fact that I don’t have a garden, it’s a relief to have such a gorgeous green space on my doorstep. I also spend a lot of time in Stoke Newington, which is where I took my first steps towards becoming an organic grower, and it is full of delicious places to eat as well as parks and gardens to enjoy.
I especially love Esters, which is a cafe on Kynaston Road as their menu is changes regularly and their dishes are so unique and always delicious. When I was growing on a small organic site down the road from them, they were always interested in what we had going on and were always looking for ways to use our more interesting, locally grown ingredients in their dishes.
You’re an organic grower, how did that become your career?
While I was living in New York and working as a producer, I came across a rooftop farm called Brooklyn Grange while I was out walking with a friend. Eight stories above a busy street in Queens, there’s over an acre of vegetables growing overlooking the NYC skyline. I started spending more and more time there, volunteering to be involved however it ignited a love for growing that had, until then, been limited to a handful of houseplants in my apartment. Realising that I wanted to make growing a bigger part of my life, I decided to come back to London and see whether I could make that happen. I started volunteering on urban farms and eventually took on a traineeship with Growing Communities. Slowly but surely, I started to phase out the production work and phase in more growing work. In the last three years, I’ve done a variety of jobs – from growing organic salad for a local veg box scheme, to running gardening workshops in primary schools, to installing planters filled with pollinator friendly plants on above ground Tube stations – but it’s growing food organically that I’m really passionate about.
You’ve held a Mindful Gardening workshops before, including one at Nova Food in Victoria. Talk us through what mindful gardening is.
For me, mindful gardening is using the tasks we’re doing in the garden as a way of bringing our attention to the present moment. The practice of mindfulness involves bringing a moment-to-moment awareness to what we’re doing, experiencing and feeling and I’ve found that so much of what we do in our growing spaces can serve as a gateway to cultivating this quality of mind. As I said at the workshop, I think if you were to explain mindfulness to a gardener who had never heard of it before they would recognise it as something they already do all the time when they’re working with their plants.
Having a mindfulness practice can feel very challenging while living in a busy city so it was great to hold the workshop at Nova Food, which is a place that is bustling with noise from workers, residents and people dining and enjoying themselves. During the workshop, we talked about how powerful it can be to try and bring a mindful quality to the activities we were doing together without getting too distracted by the hustle and bustle nearby. It was amazing to see everyone so engaged!
What are some easy ways that people can start to grow their own food?
If, like me, you live in one a bedroom flat on the second floor and don’t have any outside space to grow, then the first thing I’d suggest is to start volunteering. There are amazing community gardens and urban farms to be found throughout London and you can learn so much about food growing from these amazing spaces and the people who run them. If you’d rather get started at home then there’s plenty of annual herbs (parsley, coriander, basil) and salad plants that will live a happy and delicious life in your home. As long as you’ve got somewhere bright to put them and keep them watered, growing these plants has a pretty high success rate. When it comes to growing plants to eat indoors, they’re not supposed to last forever so enjoy them when they’re delicious and when they start to fade – just start over!
If you’re lucky enough to have a sunny balcony then even more is possible depending on how much space you’re willing to give up. There are some varieties of tomatoes that will produce an impressive amount of fruit even though they’re grown in a pot or hanging basket as long as they get plenty of sunlight and a regular feed. And if I was lucky enough to have a little bit of outside space, I’d plant some perennial herbs like rosemary, mint, sage or marjoram and I’d find some room for a few raspberry canes. Once these plants are established, they are simple to take care of (some well-timed annual pruning and mulching) and are so generous in their abundance.
Describe your perfect day in London.
My perfect day in London would start with a coffee and a pastry at a sweet little cafe in my neighbourhood called Balcone. Then I’d drag my endlessly patient boyfriend onto the overground to Kew Gardens – with a good book as the journey takes over an hour. There I’d spend far too long exploring the greenhouses before finding somewhere quiet, preferably next to some water, to sit down and have a picnic. Once I’ve exhausted us both getting lost amongst the plants and trees, I’d head back to Hackney and get dinner at House of MoMo which is a little South Asian restaurant that I’m completely obsessed with. Although I do tend to do the same things in London over and over again, I do love to discover new places. I really enjoyed holding the workshop at Nova Food in Victoria as it’s a quiet space in the middle of a really busy part of London – plus there’s a new branch of Bone Daddies there and I love their ramen!