Outside the library in Machynlleth is a set of raised beds with herbs and salads growing in them, plus hazel arches which in summer bear beans and squashes. In the carpark of the nearby Coop supermarket, there are redcurrant bushes, rhubarb and more herbs. Round the back of the Plas, there are picnic tables with apple trees growing up through holes in the middle and troughs planted up with thyme and rosemary.
This is all thanks to a project called Edible Mach, which engages teams of volunteers to maintain eleven plots around the town, growing food for the public to pick and adding an unexpected twist to public spaces – flowerbeds with a difference. It’s inspired by the original Incredible Edible project in Todmorden, the Yorkshire town celebrated for its dedication to public vegetable growing, where the police station is famous for the sweetcorn in its front yard and the concept of ‘vegetable tourism’ was born.
We were there for a course on how to ‘Fill the streets with food’, which included a guided tour of the Machynlleth project and tips on how to get started. Growing vegetables in public spaces is sometimes known as ‘guerrilla gardening’ but it’s better done with the full consent of the local authorities, who see much to gain from the unlikely vegetable beds: less litter, more neighbourliness, local colour. Councils are often willing to make land available, and local businesses to sponsor materials and plants. Volunteers are of course vital to the enterprise, and in turn gain from the social interaction and sense of contribution, while paid staff are invaluable in holding a project together and looking for new opportunities.
People had come from all over mid Wales to find out more, and there were enthusiastic discussions about what we could do in our home towns: a raised bed here, an apple tree there. The big question though seemed to be: where do the volunteers come from and what keeps them going? Who are these people who are happy to give up their free time to grow food that for the most part they won’t even get to eat? Will the initial enthusiasm last?
This led on to a discussion about selfish and compassionate values, and tied in nicely with research from the Common Cause Foundation which says in essence that people are more altruistic than they are given credit for. Most of us have a strong allegiance to values such as kindness and justice, and really want other people to be happy, even if we are fickle and easily panicked into looking after Number One. However, we tend to think that it’s just us that wants to contribute to a better world, and that everyone else is driven by the profit motive. We always put money into honesty boxes, but we are pretty sure most other people don’t. And so we go along with the general assumption that other people are selfish and have to be bribed and coerced into doing the right thing, and because that is a soul-destroying way to relate to each other, we give up.
Interestingly that gap between holding compassionate values ourselves, but thinking that other people don’t, is particularly marked in Wales and leads to a general pessimism about our neighbours which holds us back from positive action. If we only realized how much other people care, we might not feel so much embarrassment about asking them to contribute to community projects, and we might create a positive spiral of good actions, building higher and higher levels of trust and cohesion.
Growing vegetables in public spaces is powerful because it makes altruism visible, in exactly the same way that giant advertising hoardings promote the profit motive. Visitors to the library at Machynlleth see that their fellow citizens have gone to the trouble of creating a pleasant experience for them, providing both beauty and food, and that challenges their assumptions about selfishness. It creates trust and shows that people are valued as humans and citizens for once, not for their spending power and their achievements. It reminds us that we are all equal in our need to eat, and that providing food for each other is one of the most basic human obligations. And that is maybe why people want to help keep the vegetable beds attractive and productive.