Molly Aldam, our Local Food Project Intern, writes about her experience visiting one of the community food-growing gardens established this year by Women’s Environmental Network. Molly’s conversation with the wonderful Mr and Mrs Islam, who have a small plot in the garden at Oban House in Tower Hamlets, illustrates perfectly how much of a difference the ability to grow one’s own food can make to the lives of East Londoners.

As a relatively new volunteer, this is the first time I’ve visited Oban House. It’s a block of flats in Aberfeldy, East London, where Women’s Environmental Network has enabled residents to grow food right under their windows. It’s part of the Tower Hamlets’ Gardens for Life project, through which WEN is helping to create and support 15 community food-growing spaces across the borough.

The house was surrounding by raised beds, with plants growing up impressive structures that the residents had made themselves from recycled wood. The garden was thriving; I could hardly believe that it had been started from scratch in June. Before, Oban House would have been pretty much indistinguishable from any other housing estate, but thanks to the garden the residents have now made it their own.

I met the lovely Mr and Mrs Islam, both dedicated food growers, who eagerly showed me round their plot. They’ve been able to grow lots of Bengali varieties of vegetables from back home, which are expensive to buy in shops here in London. One of these was an interesting variety of aubergine with bizarre spiky leaves, shown here to the right.

A popular plant among the resident growers is kodu, which is similar to courgette but rounder and massive. Curiously, they all hung from the plants wrapped up in plastic bags, and Mr Islam explained that this was partly to deter thieves, but also crucially because looking at growing kodu is said to diminish its taste. Keeping kodu hidden is the secret to excellent flavour.

To give an idea of the great size of these kodu, Mr Islam proudly shows off his impressive crop.

Mrs Islam kindly asked us in for tea and to try some of their delicious kodu flowers fried in flax flour and spices, over which she told us that she goes out gardening twice a day, which has been brilliant for her health. It was clear how happy both Mr and Mrs Islam are to finally have a space to grow their own food, after 14 years of living here without one.

“Since I moved here, I have been dreaming about using this space for gardening”, Mr Islam told us. “Originally there was nothing. Now I have a beautiful garden – and in the future, even more improvement!”

Mr and Mrs Islam have invited us back soon to try a meal with the apparently fiery naga chillies – the first chillies I’ve ever seen that grow straight upwards – that they are so pleased to finally be growing themselves. As of September, Mr and Mrs Islam haven’t bought any vegetables for the last 3 months- apart from 1 cabbage!