Whilst it has become very trendy to grow your own herbs, vegetables and micro-greens, it is now becoming a necessity; food staples such as bread, corn, eggs, salad ingredients and vegetables could be in short supply again soon.

In this first instalment of two blog posts, guest contributor David Haddad, a small-business owner and qualified horticulturist with over 15 years’ experience particularly focussed on water-wise landscaping, discusses urban farming and its role in domestic and community food security.

What Is Urban Farming?

Urban farming is a broad term which includes all spaces that contribute to the production of fresh produce, either for personal consumption or produced for economic gain. This includes allotments and community gardens, roof-top gardening, and the conversion of domestic spaces to produce fruit and vegetables. Anyone who produces fresh produce (regardless of quantity), can proudly call themselves an ‘urban farmer’. It’s these urban farmers who are playing a direct role in reducing the carbon footprint of the production, packaging, storage and distribution of commercially grown produce.

Why Does It Matter?

We are living through ‘The Green Age’ with a global consensus (in theory!) on the need to preserve our environment and protect biodiversity. This includes the use of more efficient agricultural processes to better ensure a sustainable level of food security.

As populations increase and more land is used up for housing and economic activity, there is a greater demand for food and less space available to grow it on. Throw into the mix increasing transportation costs, a post-COVID economy, international political turmoil, a global cost-of-living crisis, and more frequent severe weather events, it’s no wonder that experts are sounding the alarm of what is to come.

To put this into context, the UK has not been self-sufficient in terms of food production since the turn of the 19th century. The UK currently imports 1.98 million metric tons of fresh produce each year, whilst only producing 45% of vegetables and 15% of fruit domestically. (The UK currently imports a significant portion of its fresh produce from climate-vulnerable developing nations in Africa, Asia, South America and countries like Spain in Europe. In the last 50 years, the UK population has grown from 56 million people in 1973, to 67 million in 2023. With this growing population, the UK could potentially ‘run out’ of land by 2030, and be unable to meet its requirements for housing, economic activity, food production and green-energy supply in the future. In 2011 it was estimated that 2.5% of Britons experience food shortages, and that figure is estimated to be getting closer to 10% in 2023 – cost and supply issues being the main causes.

With these eye-opening figures in mind, there has never been a better time to invest in urban farming!

A History of Enthusiastic UK Gardeners

For decades, the UK and other European countries, have been well known for allotment gardening and small-scale subsistence farming. The rise in demand for allotments in the late 1800s was mainly due to the increase in housing developments, that placed a greater emphasis on individual homes maximising accommodation and building as many homes as possible on limited land. This legacy lives on, with many UK homes having a very small garden, if any.

A New Era of Plant Cultivation

This decreased availability of land has been coupled by a sharp increase in demand for allotments, attributed to the cultural revolution (The Green Age) of a new generation of budding gardeners, and the desire to produce one’s own fruit, herbs and vegetables.

And, in this ‘Information Age’, we make use of online search engines to find answers. We have easy access to knowledge and technological innovations, previously reserved for large-scale agricultural enterprises. We are able to order everything we need online, and have it delivered to our doorstep.

The home-gardener and urban farmer has easy access to agricultural innovation to make their garden farm or allotment land work hard to produce small crops and create the beautiful English country gardens the UK is famous for! You only have to look at any one of the shows run by the Royal Horticultural Society, such as the Chelsea Flower Show, to get an idea of the wide variety of amazing growing being done in the country.

Agriculturists, once destined to work the land on a farm in the countryside, are now on the forefront of innovations such as:

  • Vertical farming (vertical, and/or stacked vs traditional horizontal)
  • Hydroponics (water-based, soilless growth method)
  • Aquaponics (a combination of hydroponics and fish production)
  • Aeroponics (air-suspended, soil-less growing, fed by nutrient-dense mist)
  • Automated plant growth systems

and these approaches enable horticultural success in the most creative of places and spaces. These systems help create optimal growth conditions and protects the crop from harsh environmental conditions that could negatively affect crop yield. Many of these technologies have become more affordable to produce, and are now available to the new generation of urban farmers and plant cultivators.

My Garden Isn’t Big Enough

The notion that the cultivation of crops requires vast amounts of lands is outdated. Similarly, domestic gardens do not need to be large to produce enough fresh produce to help sustain a household.

Modern techniques promote the efficient use of space, working in tandem with the latest technologies. Most promising in the battle for food security is vertical farming which makes use of the vertical space available and produces the same amount of crops, if not more, than the equivalent ‘horizontal’ farm.

Steps To Success

  1. Identify a sunny position in your garden, or indoor / outdoor space. Urban farming requires enough direct sunlight and soil with drainage.
  2. Research what you want to grow. Make sure you choose a crop that you need and will use. Learn about the growth requirements for your desired crop(s). Social media and YouTube is filled with how-to videos and daily gardening tips.
  3. Inform yourself. Take the time to learn about agricultural technologies available.
  4. Visit your local nursery. Scout out the healthiest, best value for money seeds and seedlings that fare well in your local area.
  5. Nutrient rich soil is essential for plant growth. A good general-purpose potting soil will do the trick.
  6. Make a roster. Remind yourself what needs to be done and when.
  7. Share your experience. Join local or online horticultural groups to troubleshoot and pool knowledge.

 Some Useful Resources And Products:

Key Takeaways

Issues with food security are no longer predictions, we are living through them. The solution to the problem is in our hands, literally. Latest agricultural technologies and methods of growing are making it easier to play your part in feeding yourself and your loved ones. However, plant disease and pest-control is one of the biggest obstacles to the success of novice gardeners and urban farmers.

In the second part of this blog series, we take a look at the most common question horticulturists are asked: “What happened to my plant?”

Abingdon Health’s Pocket Diagnostic has developed an affordable, easy-to-use solution to plant disease prevention, in the form of lateral-flow tests which detect the presence of pathogens. The entire range of Pocket Diagnostic tests are available for purchase to everyone – qualified agriculturists, farmers and budding garden enthusiasts alike. The ease-of-use and efficiency of these lateral flow tests, make it the perfect addition to your disease prevention tool kit. Whether you need to diagnose a possible Erwinia amylovora (fire blight) infection on your apple trees, Phytophthora causing root rot on your tomato plant, Ralstonia solanacearum causing brown rot & bacterial wilt, or Potato Virus Y (PVY) causing stunted growth on your spuds. Pocket Diagnostic will accurately diagnose the problem in minutes, so you can begin your treatment regime right away and protect your crop.