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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 movements and when I reply since the early 1970s they kind of glaze over, like I’m pre-historic!

 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, leaving us in the dark with candles. This was compounded with the 1974 miner’s strike and the three day week, leaving the nation gripped by fuel scarcity worries. 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. However, it must have been the best one, otherwise I would not have won the prize!

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. I’d seen the film the ‘War Game’ about nuclear Armageddon and we were living in a Cold War climate of fear. 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! So really I had read too many books. And when my friends at school were reading Jackie, I was reading New Scientist.

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, and 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.

The teenage eco-warrior faded away in 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 subsidies to farmers paid on 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 young, brave and enthusiastic organisers and I am so glad they all have the energy and determination to take this on. I am not an arrestable: 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
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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Stroud is so much fun and full of totally wholesome people. Among my crafty circles we have been knitting for the Wool Against Weapons protest this Saturday – my friend Roma has done 12 metres of pink, I did 1 metre and contributions have been arriving from all around the world. It is making a seven mile long pink scarf for the protest and then we are turning it into blankets for refugees.

pink scarf

The hot topic among the meadow aficionado ladies is Yellow Rattle, and little packets of seed are getting passed around among those of us who ‘do’ grass. Why do we all want yellow rattle in our handbags? Well, it is the ultimate ‘must have’ for the scythwoman’s wildflower meadow – it suppresses coarse grasses and lets the wild flowers flourish. It’s my best friend plant. Yellow Rattle is an annual and I will be sowing it over my wildflower meadow after scything. I mentioned in May that this is the first year I have had the plants in my field, seed having been gifted to me by Sheila last year. The plants have grown well in isolated patches and I have carefully collected a good quantity of seed from these new plants which I can now distribute around. A great result.

I have also been out collecting seeds of cow parsley, greater knapweed, quaking grass and cowslips. This way I can spread round the local seed bank population, rather than bringing in an imported gene pool with commercial seeds. Fine tuned local adaptations/variants are really common in flowering plants. Also fresh seeds are much easier to get to ‘take’ – sprinkled freshly collected from their dispersing pods is what nature intended after all, and this leads to ideal conditions for germination. It reminds me of being a child, collecting little packets of nasturtium and marigold seeds – I have always loved it. I never leave home without a freezer bag in my handbag – I might see some collectable seeds!

Seeds saved wild

It is not illegal to collect wild flower seeds as far as I know, but I never would take them all from a particular place, or from a rare plant. Usually I find I have to wait longer than I expect for seeds to be really mature and ripe. It is no good collecting while they are soft and green, they must be hard and dry. Hence the Yellow ‘Rattle’ when the seeds are ripe they do indeed rattle! It is also known as ‘hay rattle’ and traditionally would have been spread around in hay bales.

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If you want to get in touch with where your food comes from then pick up a handful of soil. Although it looks brown it’s alive and living. A whole micro- ecosystem of its own. How could anyone call such a remarkable resource ‘dirt’?

Soils have been a bit of a Cinderella topic, but are currently getting an airing for all sorts of reasons. One is evidence of catastrophic damage to our soils from intensive arable farming, (flooding and runoff leading to soil erosion), and then increasingly the realisation that soils are massive storage systems for carbon on the earth. We need to look after our soils carefully so that they store water and carbon while giving us abundant crops.

Gardeners mostly bat along quite happily without knowing too much about soil. Gardening books usually have sections on soils, but they look dull, complicated, ‘sciency’ and best to flit over!

Soil rain drops

It’s my mission to make this fascinating

One great joy of the Stroud Permaculture Course is that I get the chance to teach the soils topic. It is about understanding something of what makes up a soil, what type it is, how to look after it and more. We learn about soil types, fertility, nutrient sources and feeding crops by organic methods. Applying Permaculture design principles to making food growing systems, caring for the earth and looking after the soil are central to the process.

I have been cajoled (nicely) into leading a walk at Stroud Summer Street Allotments on Sunday July13TH  at 3.00pm., entitled ‘Caring for our Living Soil’. We will be looking at the soil, feeling it, peering into a hole or two hopefully, walking up and down the slope and discussing what’s going on in the soil there. We will find out how fertile the soil is and what the challenges are. I know that in general allotment site soils are always well cared for, and I know how much love Summer Street gets. I’m really looking forward to my afternoon there. (And I hope to see the Silk Weaver’s Plot).

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