Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Suburban Permaculture Project: Origins

Polyculture in 2013: nasturtiums, runner beans, cherry tree, rose bush, dahlias, tomatoes

When I moved to England as a newlywed, I had little experience with gardening, other than (unwillingly) assisting my dad in his vegetable garden as a teenager--mainly weeding and harvesting.  I knew how to deadhead flowers, and how to mow a lawn.  My dad was an organic gardener, either by design or (more likely) lack of finances, so I grew up unaccustomed to pesticides and fertilizers, something that would influence my own gardening style as an adult.

My husband was not an avid or experienced gardener, though he also grew up with  organic (mainly) gardeners, in his case, his mother and grandmother.  He had been living in his house in a small village in the countryside for a few years before we married, and his mother had irregularly helped him maintain the ornamental garden, and had planted some bulbs and a few other things for him.  When I moved in, he gave me free rein to redesign the existing beds and borders, and to allocate a veg patch.  I took over the bulk of the gardening, though I really had no idea what I was doing. 

In my first few years, I tried to grow the plants my dad grew in his high desert vegetable garden, such as tomatoes and peppers.  I soon discovered that the climate I had moved to was far different from the one I had left, and those heat loving crops did not thrive.  Although it's possible to grow food year round in England, I was not used to growing--or eating for that matter--the kind of foods that flourish, like cabbage, kale, leeks, and chard.  But trained as a chef, I was willing to learn to grow and eat these vegetables in order to produce something, anything.

My husband bought a gardening year book for Britain, so we could find out what, how, where, and when to sow, plant, prune, divide, harvest, and everything.  I began following its advice;  I built a compost pile and tried to improve my soil with it.  I planted the vegetables it mentioned:  lots of brassicas, lots of leafy greens, lots of roots and tubers.  My yields increased a bit.  I spent a lot of time weeding, but overall I enjoyed my garden.


In 2008 I was casually flicking through our meager five channels and settled on a BBC2 documentary called A Farm for the Future.  I had seen a few interesting documentaries on the BBC since my move here, so I thought I'd give it a shot, as nothing better was on.  I can say with certainty, that documentary changed my life.  I was astounded.  I was especially intrigued about the section about the loss of soil life and fertility, and in discussing it, the journalist said to the young farmer (and I paraphrase): "We've been plowing for thousands of years, and you're saying we should just stop?" and the farmer simply said "Yes."

A Farm for the Future mentioned permaculture, a word and concept I had never heard of before, but it was something that just resonated with me.  I knew it was important:  phenomenally important, and I knew I had to learn about it.  I wanted to learn permaculture, and start practising it.  The very next day I searched for "permaculture" on the internet.  I came across, which was one of the only worthwhile results, but at that time I felt it was frustratingly low on information on how to do permaculture.  I didn't really know where to turn.  The documentary didn't mention any books or publications on permaculture, or its history.  It had mentioned the names of the people interviewed, but I hadn't taken notes and didn't remember them.  I felt defeated.  I wanted to learn but didn't know how.  For the next few years I would occasionally find something interesting about permaculture, but on the whole, did not really gain any knowledge on the subject.


In 2012 I was concerned about food security.  We'd had two very harsh winters in a row, where we had little or no access to the shops for up to two weeks at a time because of heavy snow, and our proximity to said shops.  Our very small local shop was unable to get deliveries, and we were unable to drive or walk to the larger shops located several miles away.  We also had a terrible summer that year for growing:  crops failed all over the country because of the excessive rain and lack of sun;  my own vegetable patch was a washout.  I wanted to ensure we could eat if disaster struck.  I resolved to start storing food for an emergency, and I also began researching permaculture again in earnest.  Once more I searched it online, and to my surprise, there was now so much information!  I discovered Geoff Lawton's work, and Sepp Holzer's.  I joined, as it had substantially grown in those four years into a valuable resource.  I began listening to permaculture podcasts.  I bought books.  I watched videos.  I found A Farm for the Future on youtube and rewatched it, making notes this time.  Things were falling into place.  I knew what permaculture was!  I could start practising it!

I reread the books, particularly Toby Hemenway's Gaia's Garden.  I rewatched the videos.  The first thing I implemented was chop and drop;  I was sick of weeding anyway.  I adopted my first four hens from the British Hen Welfare trust, and planted my vegetables in a polyculture.  I planted my first fruit tree:  a mini dwarf morello cherry.  I began planting for biodiversity and habitat, rather than just for food and beauty.  I focused on improving my soil.  Through trial and error (mostly error), I observed and learned.  I was doing permaculture!

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