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Plans to redevelop ‘redundant’ commercial greenhouses overlook the huge opportunity to redeploy them: the means to renewable ultra-local horticulture is standing right there.

Big greenhouses mean bigger opportunities: I don’t know any gardener who wouldn’t upsize their undercover growing space if they could. In a greenhouse, bigger means more of everything: space, potential, food, flowers, fun, self-reliance, sanctuary, sanity and solitude, plus the joy and delight of dreams growing true.

It also brings us more control; a greenhouse is our own space where we keep bad weather firmly at bay, no matter the season (or at least these shifting, muddled days that now pass for seasons). Our greenhouses are where we conjure our own bit of benign and positive climate change.

Big, sun-powered greenhouses are ecologically priceless assets.

Really big greenhouses – I’m talking large enough to house hundreds of entire gardens – are key players in the supply of many UK-grown vegetable and salad crops, but some of these commercial, high-tech outfits are now in big trouble. Fallout from Brexit, difficulties in securing enough seasonal workers (on mismatched, time-limited work visas), and now massive hikes in energy prices (many out-of-season crops need additional heating, especially early in the year) have hit them hard.

The Lea Valley in Hertfordshire is often coined the ‘cucumber capital’ due to the sheer number of fruits grown there, many ending up on UK shop shelves. This is the land of big greenhouses; in the 1930s, the area had the highest concentration of them in the world.

Today, around 90 percent of the horticulture businesses are family-owned. To try to ride out global shockwaves, some growers are reducing the quantity of crops they’re planting, and/or planting later, to reduce energy costs, while others are calling it a day and selling up, beaten by economic forces.

These businesses won’t be selling on to new growers; planning applications for the land include housing estates, ‘light industry’ and factories. The greenhouses will presumably be demolished and go to landfill. Decades of greenhouse food production, on famously fertile soils, will be lost to dubious ‘development’.

My gut reaction on hearing this news was horror: how could we even be contemplating razing these structures to the ground? Where is the logic in getting rid of big, sunshine-powered greenhouses at the very moment we’re entering a new, uncertain era of climate instability? We need these big spaces where we can grow with certainty, whatever the weather.

Shouldn’t we instead be finding ways to retain and treasure them, to breathe new life into them, while simultaneously bolstering our much-trumpeted desire for more national and local ‘food security’? All that opportunity will be lost under the final, dismal slop of concrete.

Weatherproof sweetcorn in one of Growing with Grace’s greenhouses.

The growers who own these big greenhouses naturally want to sell to the highest bidder; they’ll have new ventures to explore and pension pots to fill. But is ‘demolish and develop’ the only way? Isn’t it time to think inside the greenhouse, and tap into an increasingly elusive faculty: our imagination? Instead of selling out to concrete and short-term profit, why not pass these ecologically priceless assets into the hands of local communities who live but a stone’s throw away?

This wouldn’t be so much levelling up as levelling out, across multiple hectares, an all-weather growing space where fossil fuel use is history, where renewable, cost- and carbon-emissions-free modern sunshine does the heavy warming – a big communal growing space bursting with endless opportunity.

The result would be ultra-local food and flowers, travelling mere footsteps instead of miles, grown in harmony with nature, needing minimal packaging and no heating from fossil fuels. Monocultures of cucumbers and lettuce would be succeeded by rich polycultures of crops of every hue. It would be a chance to reacquaint ourselves with the meaning of seasonality – to savour strawberries in June, not January (or maybe a tad earlier in the weatherproof microclimate). All it would take is some vision, determination and dosh – remember that funding from central government, we keep being told, will lift us all up and improve our everyday lives? It’s time to bring it on.

Some have already grasped the opportunities of gardening and growing in big greenhouses. OrganicLea is a not-for-profit, food-growing workers’ co-operative in Chingford, which grows and sells food (using vegan-organic techniques, which exclude the use of any animal byproducts) and plants, runs courses, offers volunteering opportunities, and works with local schools. Embedded in the Lea Valley itself, it’s a thriving, multicultural exemplar of what can be achieved in a big, pre-loved greenhouse (once part of a local authority plant nursery). It’s a working model, a living green template of future possibilities, fit for our increasingly mercurial natural world.

Taking on an intensively cropped commercial greenhouse isn’t without its challenges; where crops have been grown hydroponically, disconnected from the earth, or where the soil is simply exhausted, it will need reinvigorating, and to be allowed time to recover. But this has been done before.

In the village of Clapham, on the edge of the Yorkshire Dales, Growing with Grace, a co-operative social enterprise, has transformed 0.8 hectares of big greenhouses – a former bedding plant nursery – into a thriving, vegan-organic market garden growing food for the local area. All its crops are grown under cover, with no heating other than that provided courtesy of the sun. When Growing with Grace took the nursery on, the greenhouse soil had been lost for years under plastic membrane; it was unloved, dry and lifeless, overloaded with the chemical residues left by liquid feeding.

Slowly, the growers brought it back to life, firstly by flushing away the residues, and then by adding their own home-made compost (made in one of the big greenhouses) and by growing soil-building green manure cover crops. They now raise a panoply of year-round crops under cover, from asparagus to Swiss chard. Skill and experience abound here; if I were taking on a big pre-loved greenhouse, this would be a must-visit.

We all dream of having more greenhouse space. But if a really big greenhouse – one large enough to nurture the dreams of a band of growers – should become available near you, you might want to let your imagination rip.

Text and images © John Walker. Greenhouse image: Depositphotos

Find John on Twitter @earthFgardener