How Sweet It Is: Carshalton Lavender

The shortlist for the Observer Ethical Awards is out, and there are some interesting contenders for the prizes. Both Al Gore and George Monbiot are nominated by Observer readers for Campaigner of the Year, the Do It Yourself Award includes a community-based recycling initiative but the Conservation Projects really capture the essence of what ethical, sustainable living is all about: in this case bringing back the organic agricultural and industrial heritage of an area. The story of Carshalton Lavender starts with the decline of the local lavender industry in Surrey which had been the lavender capital of the world in the 1900's. Even the French had admitted that Carshalton / Mitcham Lavender was the finest. Competition from abroad, demands for war-time metal combined with the post-war London housing boom finished off the industry. Towards the end of the 1990's, a local sustainable charity organisation, Bioregional (nominated this year for a different Invention of the Year) started a project to revive lavender growing; claiming unused pieces of land for its production. That idea grew into a campaign which inspired residents to rummage around in their gardens for varieties of the almost forgotten bushes which were probably remnants of the past agricultural heritage. Volunteers collected cuttings from these finds which were then grown and raised by prisoners from the horticultural unit of the local prison. Some eight thousand tiny lavender bushes were cultivated and planted in the disused allotments made available by the local government.

Just to make things even more interesting, a small harvester was custom-built from recycled materials and second-hand agricultural machines by a team from the university. It was specially designed to harvest narrow rows of lavender without damaging the plants. It only harvests the flowers thus saving energy. Now the project is managed by community groups. Volunteers, prisoners on day release and people with learning disabilities from a neighbouring day centre join to host open days and pick your own weekends. The lavender is sold in a variety of forms: oil, cream, cologne and handwash. :: Carshalton Lavender via :: The Observer

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