SAINT-NAZAIRE- “Business is slow these days, too slow…” says 34-year-old restaurant employee from Saint-Nazaire in western France, Cedric Derouin.
As he dries drinking glasses, he talks about the consecutive closings of dozens of local businesses, the laying off of his only coworker a few months ago. He shares his uncertain future with the workers from the Chantiers de l’Atlantique shipyard, the city’s main employer. “No one is placing orders anymore –what’s going to happen when the last two ships are delivered?” he wonders.
Where is the man behind the enthusiastic and Facebook messages? The man full of hope who we talked to on the phone? Just give him time to close shop. We follow him home and watch him present – with great pleasure, despite the rain – the leeks and cabbage growing in front of his house with a friendly sign saying “Food to Share,” that brings a little soul to this brand-new housing estate.
Growing a vegetable garden in the front of your house (and not in your backyard) for everyone to take – a simple idea imported from England, called “Incredible Edibles” that is taking over France.
“It all started in 2008 in Todmorden, an industrial town in northern England that was severely struck by the crisis,” recalls François Rouillay, the man who discovered and imported the concept in France, starting with his eastern region of Alsace.
“To recreate a social bond, locals had the idea of turning a floral garden into a vegetable garden and to put up a “food to share” sign. Consequently, vegetable patches started to flourish around town, from schoolyards to police stations. It not only brought the community back together but it also motivated everyone start eating locally-grown produce again.”
In May, François Rouillay planted vegetables in front of his house, and was soon followed by a neighbor. After that, he put down his spade and turned on his computer. Instead of confining the movement to his region, he created the “Incredible Edibles France” Facebook page to encourage others to join the movement.
And then, one “like” after another, the movement spread across France in less than six months.
Replacing city trees with fruit trees
This is how Cedric Derouin heard about the first French Incredible Edible gardens. “I invited people to help themselves to my leeks, and people did,” he says, showing us the empty rows.
It’s a first step but he hopes it will spread to the rest of his town. There is this vacant lot that he thinks would make a great communal vegetable garden: “It would be next to the youth worker hostel, which would be practical.” The flowerbeds in front of the housing projects could be planted with carrots and potatoes. And those palm trees, looking poorly on the main avenue? “We want to convince the mayor to replace every dead tree with a fruit tree. It would not only be decorative but useful too. People who can’t afford to buy fruit could help themselves to pears and apples.”
He also created a Facebook page that has helped him become the spearhead of the movement in western France. “What people like is that it’s easy to join. No need to fill out any papers. All you need to do is plant a vegetable patch.”
This is how people from all walks of life, all kinds of ages, social and political backgrounds have rallied the movement. They are getting into contact through Facebook to discuss how to protect their vegetable gardens from the effects of winter, how to prepare for spring planting. “Here in Saint-Nazaire, we see people from the housing projects, but also those who have the big properties, in the residential neighborhoods,” says Derouin. “Some work, others are unemployed.”
On this rainy evening, they are about ten, meeting around a glass of wine to discuss the project. They all introduce themselves – they are “friends” on Facebook but have never met. Among them some old ecologists and activists, but also newcomers, like Sandra Bacot, a 32-year-old primary school teacher. She says she likes to see her garden as something useful, not something restricted to her own personal enjoyment.
She’s listening carefully to the older, more qualified group members, who are giving tips and techniques for growing vegetables in the cheapest and most ecological way. She had never heard about permaculture and seed trading. The conversation turns into a discussion on the state of the world. “Compost, seed trading, vegetable gardens –when you talk about those things with your grandmother, she’ll tell you that it’s nothing new, her generation did it first, ages ago. Why did they stop?” asks Christina Brulavoine, a 42-year-old executive assistant.