Regenerative Gardening

Extinction Rebellion has proved to be just what I was waiting for. It voices all the concerns that  I was dealing with privately and feeling quite alone about them. Now I know I am not the only one who is scared by the climate change situation.

XR has broken through the wall of silence and denial about the climate emergency. We are starting to hear the truth now, (although not from the BBC or our government).

I am turning my attention to the concept of the ‘climate emergency food garden’. It’s a bit like ‘dig for victory’ in the world war, but this is ‘dig for survival’, or actually ‘no-dig gardening for survival’.

It is not enough to be organic gardeners now, we need to go above and beyond this to be carbon gardeners, or regenerative gardeners. Any piece of land is a precious thing, and any piece can be coaxed into giving us food. It just needs to be loved.

One of the predicted consequences of climate change is that farm yields are likely to be reduced, and crop failures will occur around the world. With this in mind we all need to skill ourselves up and learn how to grow food in our back door patches of earth.

Significantly a  garden is a  place where we can micro-manage what goes on to  a large extent, more so than a farmer can on the field scale. We can make interventions and do protective cosseting to ensure that our garden crops suceed – e.g. watering or protecting from frost.

We can optimise soil conditions in our gardens with a range of resource neutral methods, such as green manures, compost making, liquid feed brewing, mulching etc. We can make our gardens self supporting, without the need for bringing in  inputs. We will create healthy soils which are alive, and produce healthy foods, while locking up carbon in the process. An organic- matter rich soil is a carbon sponge.

My advice is that everyone should learn how to grow food. What we grow ourselves in gardens around the world will make a difference. We can green our cities with food plants.

And you don’t even need a garden – learning about seed sprouting and window sill growing will enable you to make a contribution to your diet.

I run food growing workshops in Whiteshill, Stroud and never before have they seemed to have such a weight of importance about them. I take food growing very seriously. When we have food rationing you will want to have these skills.

Sowing the seeds of love.

Seeds are full of promise and hope. They make me feel excited about spring and getting out for the new growing season.

Where to get seeds and top tips-

1. Don’t buy on impulse. Do an audit of what you left in stock before you purchase, as it is all to easy to over-buy.

2. Make use of local seed swap events and seed banks in your area. You can find interesting and useful local strains all for free, or a donation. And you join the Heritage Seed Library at Garden Organic www.gardenorganic.org.uk

3. For the cheapest seeds avoid F1 varieties. Look at the number of seeds in the packet, which is always stated in small print. Work out how much each seed costs. £2.99 for 5 F1 seeds is 60p each. Or 500 for £1.99 is less than half a pence each.

4. There is nothing wrong with own brand and cheaper seeds in places like Wilko. They will be just as good as big name ones and probably from the same source. The packets may have fewer seeds which makes them cheaper and you won’t find unusual varieties. A garden centre will have more choices.

5. Consider buying on line from one of the smaller catalogues – Chiltern Seedswww.chilternseeds.co.uk, The Seedcoopwww.seedcooperative.org.uk, Organic Gardening Catalogue www.organiccatalogue.com (this now belongs to Dobies)

6. Keep seeds in packets carefully stored in a cool but frost free place like a garage. Fold the inner foil packets into a tight roll to exclude air. They have a ‘sow by end of year’ date on them, but most except parsnips will last for longer. Eventually germination rates decline and then I throw them away.

7. Be ambitious – every year I try two or three new things I haven’t grown before. This year I have some seeds of Mirabellis a gardener gave me, and I have melons and padron peppers to try out.

ECO-ELDER – my younger self?

New Scientist Essay Prize Winner 1974

 Among the lovely Stroud group of environmental activists I now get called an ‘elder’, which is rather sweet. Sometimes people ask me how long I have supported these eco movements and when I reply since the early 1970s they look surprised like as if I am pre-history!

 So here I am going to out my younger self, with a posting of my teenage claim to fame, albeit a very brief one.

 In 1974 I won first prize in a New Scientist essay competition for schoolchildren titled ‘Why Worry About Future Energy Needs?’ I went up to London to receive my prize from Graeme Garden, comedian in the Goodies BBC TV show which was very popular then.

I received a flurry of publicity, including an interview on the BBC World Service, national papers and I was due to appear on BBC1 ‘Tomorrow’s World’, but coverage of the plane crash that week at Paris which killed 346 people knocked me off my slot.

 We had just come through the 1973 oil crisis, prompted by the OPEC(Organisation of Oil Exporting Countries) nations hiking up their prices. This was compounded with the 1974 miner’s strike and the three day week, leaving the nation gripped by fuel scarcity worries and in the dark with candles. So the essay title was very topical. For a brief moment our collective minds were focussed on where our energy comes from.

My essay, posted here in photos below, makes me cringe with embarrassment for it’s general oversimplification, and rather trite arguments about population growth. But it does include a lot of environmental points about sustainability which are now well known. My timescale was wrong, mainly because of new discoveries of oil and gas, and energy efficiency savings.

I have to remind myself that I was only 15 years old, and I lived in small rural town where it was quite hard to get information. I was very lucky that an enlightened school librarian was a closet green, and ordered books for me to read including Silent Spring (Carson), Only One Earth (Ward), Small is Beautiful (Schumacher), and Limits to Growth, a detailed doomsday fantasy. Other than books, it was TV, Radio, newspapers, and magazines as information sources. Sending off a self addressed stamped envelope to organisations like Friends of the Earth and the Conservation Society  were the only other ways to get outside ideas. I used to regularly read my father’s encyclopedia, as a way to discover new topics; there was no Google for browsing back then!

My mood in 1974 was one of fossil fuel anxiety. My research and reading had persueded me that the there were real ecological constraints to continued economic and population growth. I was convinced that by now, or 2020, fossil fuels would have run out and life as we know it would have come to an end. I felt pretty much like a lone voice, no-one else really cared, or believed me; my parents thought I was ridiculously pessimistic. Of course I was wrong in so many ways.

I hadn’t heard of carbon footprints or global warming then, although I now know that the basic scientific facts were known at the time. I was describing what we would now call ‘Peak Oil’ and carbon descent, both of which are real. We had virtually no ‘green vocabulary’ in 1974; the only word in use was ‘alternative’ and the study of environmental science was in its infancy. So I was seen as an alternative technology oddball teenager!

That teenage eco-warrior faded away during the late 1970s and 80s. My degree was Agricultural Science, which was back in the heyday of the CAP(Common Agricultural Policy) when we were producing mountains of grain and lakes of milk. It was a course in full-on chemical farming techniques, driven by a system based on subsidies paid to farmers for their yields. When I graduated in 1980 I would have liked to work in organic farming, but the sector then was so small that it barely existed – pretty much just a few carrot growers in Pembrokeshire.

I found my green voice again in the 1990s, and started teaching organic gardening and Permaculture. And now I’m supporting Extinction Rebellion calling for urgent action on our climate change emergency. It is originated by innovative, brave and enthusiastic organisers and I am so glad they all have the energy and determination to take this on.

In 1974 I could not have anticipated that in 45 years time we would be facing up worldwide to the consequences of global warming, caused by burning fossil fuels. Everyone who has got children should be concerned about it and joining calls for action.

I am not an Extinction Rebellion arrestable person : I am just happy to join in, sit on my camp chair at protests with a Thermos of tea,  and  be one of the ‘elders’!

Helen Johnson receives prize from Graeme Garden

LAND

Tin Bath House has become a LAND centre, part of the Permaculture Association’s network of projects which are opening their doors to visitors. Here we are showcasing a design for a domestic garden plot, demonstrating food growing on a poor soil, and caring for wildlife. The LAND network covers the whole of the country and includes community gardens and farms along with home scale projects. In Gloucestershire we already have Ragmans Lane Farm in the Forest of Dean, and Foxfield House and Garden at Winchcombe.

I have always enjoyed opening my garden to the public and the LAND listing is an ongoing invitation for people to come and visit by appointment.

I went to Rodborough Open Gardens last week, and really enjoyed looking around them. Katie Fforde had written an article for one of the national papers on the challenges and rewards of being an open garden. She said of course some people do come to visit because they are nosey, but the majority reflect our British passion for enjoying gardens and relish the chance to see other people’s plots. And I did think Katie Fforde’s garden was absolutely lovely, and she was fully ‘up front’ that she has the talented Sarah Watts as her gardener.

Of course welcoming visitors makes me also feel some sense of personal exposure and requires some courage. What if people don’t like it, or think it isn’t Permacultury enough? What if there isn’t enough to see?

I have overheard people say that because I have some crops in straight lines it isn’t proper Permaculture gardening! But if I want to grow parsnips or carrots, the only manageable and efficient way for me is to grow them in rows. By contrast, looking around I have many other areas of intercropping and polyculture in action to see.

A Permaculture friend once said to me ‘ do you think you might have overweeded that herb bed? Actually that is me just keeping on top of things, but to him it was too neat!

Permaculture gardens are all different, and there is no prescriptive formula in my mind. Overarching all of them is the principle that the methods are organic and designed to use the minimum amount of outside inputs, in other words to be a self sustaining system.

My garden is a ‘real garden’, and it works for me, so I am confident about reaching out and welcoming people to engage with it. I don’t need to struggle with perfectionism, the garden is just good how it is. My garden is ‘good enough’. I practice gratitude in my garden and experience joy through it.

(And by the way, to get on the LAND listings, I had an in depth inspection from the Permaculture Association, which was challenging, a chance to learn and very supportive.)

And finally …I have been reading and can recommend ‘Daring Greatly’ by Brene Brown, about finding the courage to be authentic and show our real selves to the world without shame. It’s a good read, and an eye-opener.

In Larder Land


I have always kept a list called ‘eat now’ magnetically attached to my fridge door. It is a reminder list of what we need to eat that is available in the garden and what is in store and the freezer.

However, I didn’t realise until now that the ‘larder list’ is actually a real thing, known to chefs and foodies alike. (Heck – who has a larder these days)? The larder list is the opposite of a shopping list. It asks the question what have I got? And what could the menu be? This is a concept known to locavores and slow food people who approach eating with seasonal raw materials in mind.

And then I was listening to Dan Barber the American chef on the Food Programme, 27.3.17. ‘The Third Plate’, talking about ‘nose to tail’ cooking for plant foods. This means using everything that farmers produce, and eliminating crop wastes.

At my garden level I fine tune what I grow to suit our eating patterns and preferences. My cooking and eating are closely designed around the garden outputs and so the two are neatly in tune, and there is very little wastage. My ‘larder list’ reminds me on a daily basis what we need to be eating. In April, it still says one squash (although I actually have squash fatigue), and a lot of frozen berries, tomatoes and ratatouille. Along with things ready in the garden, chard, purple sprouting broccoli and perennial kale.

In my garden I have been seduced by the allure of new varieties, and have put in 12 strawberry plants ‘Elegance’ and 12 ‘Malling Centenary’, both billed as the best ever performers, with exceptional flavour. And they claim to crop in their first year, so I will not have to wait long to find out if these descriptions are true.

And who knew that Myrtus ugni had been renamed Ugni molinae,(I didn’t). The Chilean Guava was introduced to England in 1844 by William Lobb and apparently became Queen Victoria’s favourite fruit! I have never eaten one, but I have just put in two plants and am looking forward to the first tasting in 2018 maybe? James Wong has bred a variety called ‘Ka-Pow’. It is a shrubby evergreen, growing up to 3m with pink flowers and red fruits.

Tin Bath House – January 2016

Tin Bath House starts 2016 as a project that is taking shape in a very satisfying way. The initial phase of creating the garden structure is complete and we are settling into a more relaxed way of enjoying and sharing the garden. The work on the project is more of a pleasure than anything arduous and both of us always enjoy being outdoors. To me light gardening work is fun and enjoyable – (The garden is a place where grown ups go to play!).

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So we started with a blank canvas and now it looks like a busy field with things happening all around, feeling a bit mature and productive, definitely with the feel of a Permaculture project.

Vegetable and salad output is high – getting this yield was my main objective when we started in 2011. We are almost self sufficient in vegetables and this is achieved with no external inputs – all the grass we cut from the wildflower area is composted and used to provide the fertility. This is along with having got comfrey well established for making liquid feed. I have been surprised by how productive I have found this soil already – it is not as bad as I had feared. I am adding heaps of organic matter and soil building practice is at the forefront of everything I do in Zone 1. Mulching with compost, cardboard and grass clippings is order of the day everywhere, also green manures – I like broad beans and winter tares best for this .

Currant bushes are well established. So are cherry trees and plums, although all their lovely fruit was taken by pesky birds and squirrels last year.

In the meadow we have established yellow rattle and cowslips – insect numbers seem to be as high as ever, and hunting for Great Green Bush crickets is a visitor entertainment pastime in late summer and we find whoppers. Nigel has honed his scything skills and got the field cut in record time.

Tree establishment in the field is tricky and disappointingly slow. I have never had a plot where it is so difficult to get trees and shrubs going. The poor, dry soil is one factor, but the other principle difficulty is deer grazing damage. Now we realise that to be sure of any tree establishing it needs a wire netting guard. Alders turn out to be the fastest establishers and I wish I had planted more. Our hedgerow at the bottom is just about starting to look hedgy – it is struggling to bulk up, but it will get there eventually I hope.

Our side boundary hedge where we thinned trees out for fuel is regrowing well in the gaps. It looks lovely with standards of holly, beech, birch and hawthorn growing out at the top. Birds, mistletoe, wild honeysuckle and bats are features of it.

We have had constant visitors, and this is important because I like people to share the pleasure of this land. We have had retreaters, campers, parties, Stroud Permaculture group, the Permaculture Design Course students, HelpXers and a hundred visitors came for Edible Open Gardens last July.

NEW FOR 2016 –

We need to look at how we can get the garden off mains water. The vegetable garden dries out quickly and needs a lot of water in summer. I want to see how we can make a plan to harvest winter rainwater off the house and store it for this purpose.

I am continuing to develop the forest garden types of plantings, although they are linear rather than clumps. I want to increase our food resilience beyond abundant vegetables and make our diet as potentially varied as possible. I had my first few home grown gogi berries this year.

I had a small surplus of salad last year and I experimented with selling some through Stroud Food Hub – I hope this is something I can develop further. They welcome small suppliers and for a miniholding like ours it is an easy way to enter the local food market.

Lettuce bag

I have applied Biochar to one of my vegetable beds. I have read mixed reports about it, so I will be interested to see what effect it has on plant growth.

So far this is the warmest and wettest first three days of a January we ever remember. I am thinking about climate change and how ours lives will be affected here in the coming years – the hot dry summers and warm wet winters seem to be the trend.

THE SCYTHES ARE OUT!

While every uber-shed in the countryside contains a ride-on mower, in contrast our equipment of choice is the sycthe.

Edward Budding invented the lawnmower in Stroud just a mile from here, a machine that would put gangs of skilled scythemen out of work the world over. And so scything today is a relic craft. One we are slowly re-discovering, through skill sharing, self teaching and YouTube videos.

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Sharpening stones are out for honing the blades. Fingers are feeling the burr and gingerly checking for ‘keenness’. It has been sunshine and heavy showers but Nigel has managed to get the job done with some helping hands.

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Why do we scythe? – to avoid chopping up the insect population, huge numbers of crickets and grasshoppers here. Our petrol mower cannot manage waist high grass. The key to good wildflowers is annual cutting and removal of hay to leave low fertility conditions.

When? – from early August onwards having given the wildflowers, especially the orchids time to set seed.

With what? – a Simon Fairlie standard Austrian scythe with wooden handle and 60 cm steel blade. (he is Mr Scythe in the UK).

The hay? – gets placed 15cms deep in wide circles around the bases of trees and hedge plants as a feeding mulch mat.

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Then? – once the hay is off we use the mower to run over the meadow and these grass clippings are picked up and used as mulch in the garden.

And then I need a cup of tea and a long lie down!