Quarantine 2020 has a lot of us thinking about the future, our planet, and our access to food. This article offers a window into a practice that can positively address all of these things. I must preface though that in the name of rest and a simpler life, this is not another thing to add to your to do list in lockdown, nor is it another skill you’re expected to acquire. It is just a telegram from quarantine: A message about food security and resilience, and how permaculture fits in to that.
This is an era where there’s a massive disconnect between food production and food consumption, and the impact of both on the planet. Virus or no virus, even Tim Lang, the pioneering Professor of Food Policy at City University, says we’re in more than a little bit of trouble, and that “we need to move from a ‘me’ food culture to a ‘we’ food culture”. The solution seems to be right in front of us.
Permaculture is about scientific design, aiming to emulate nature’s no-waste system. It is pertinent even on the smallest scale. You may think it’s a practice only available to land owners, but it is not. We can all participate and take small steps towards greater food security.
Here are three things you might not know about permaculture:
In permaculture the focus is on cultivating soil rather than plants. That may sound like an odd idea, but if the soil is a well balanced mix of all the essentials (carbon, nitrogen, micro-organisms, nutrients, and rock minerals), plants will essentially grow themselves. Permaculture is dedicated to growing and replacing the earth’s rich topsoil, something which can go a long way towards reversing climate change.
Guilds are also a large part of permaculture design, meaning that if we curate groupings of companion plants, we can set up a symbiotic community where parties can exchange with and rely on each other, just as with an artisan guild.
Lastly, the heart of permaculture is about social links – linking people together who can share commodities, or making connections to maximise resources.
Below are ten ideas to get us started. Some are for those of you who have a little space and want to instigate something at home. The rest are for those of you who will, in all likelihood, not grow anything at home for whatever reason, but who want to do something in the community.
If you want to grow at home:
1. Think architecturally to maximise space
Consider growing vertically as much as possible. In a pot or in a bed, if you have one plant going up (peas/beans/cucumber) or sitting on the surface (lettuce, spinach, radish), plan for another one next to it to go down (carrot, beetroot) to maximise on space. When planted in a bed, root vegetables will draw nutrients up from the lower soil horizons that plants with shallow roots can’t access. Boom – you got yourself a guild.
Create other small guilds by planting companion plants together and maximising on space some more – plant basil, parsley, nasturtiums and chives under tomatoes.
You don’t need any special equipment – climbers can ramble up small trees, verandas or fences, or trellises made of branches; courgettes and other squashes are happy trailing along a wall.
Use roof tops or shed roofs. Anything that grows up can also grow down, like cherry tomatoes and nasturtiums.
2. Don’t feel that you need to create a special veg patch
Plant vegetables in amongst the plants you already have. Existing plants can provide shade, structure, even pest resistance. Rainbow chard is a pretty veg to grow alongside perennials and will naturally come back next year in Bristol’s climate.
3. Compost is a key factor in reducing waste and growing healthy plants
For an almost-instant fix, get a worm farm from a local expert such as The Urban Worm. A small worm farm can turn pure kitchen waste into brilliant compost in a mere 6-8 wks. You can also use the worm juice on a daily basis. This is unprecedented compared to the timescale of regular compost. To balance the green & brown, to speed up the process, and to make your worms extra happy, feed them strips of cardboard too. Worms LOVE wet cardboard.
Another quick-fix compost tip is bokashi. Discovered in Japan, bokashi is a compost eating micro-organism that does not produce methane. Add it to your kitchen food bin and it will speed up the process and eliminate the smell.
Buy locally made compost – it’s not only sustainably peat-free, unlike the kind you buy at the garden centre, but it also closes the waste system. Bristol City Council no longer have a community compost site, but South Gloucestershire do. Thornbury community composting site produces good quality compost which you can buy for £2/bag (currently closed due to COVID-19 advice, but check for updates). Or get organic peat-free delivered by local company EarthCycle.
4. Try a selection of seedlings
Seedlings are a much easier starting point than seeds. Garden centres are currently shut due to COVID-19, but lots of them are delivering – try a tray of seedlings in a selection of tastes and colours. Do a call out on social media for spare seedlings. Some supermarkets sell seeds, seedlings and soil that you can add to your essential shop. Wherever you source your baby plants, the month of May is still a good time to plant most things.
If you’re up for seeds, try germinating seeds from last year or older. Request seeds from friends in the post, or save them to send to friends. Seeds are our future, so support seed banks, or community based seed saving associations wherever you can.
5. Grow mushrooms at home
Another way of inviting growing into the home is to grow mushrooms. They’re a fun one, especially in the UK climate and especially for kids. Mail order mycelium from someone like Bristol’s very own Upcycled Mushrooms. There’s nothing technical involved – all you do is grow the mushrooms, which is cheaper and fresher than the shops. The easiest to grow, and most impressive to watch, are oyster mushrooms.
6. Try microgreens
Microgreens require a lot of seeds, but you get a very nutrient dense crop very quickly, and only a very small space is needed. You don’t even need sunlight – they can be grown using lamps, so a basement would work. Try a kit from Grow Bristol who grow salad and microgreens in a shipping container behind Temple Meads.
Healthy woodchip is freely available, and is the queen of mulch. Woodchip will grow soil and return carbon to the ground. It is particularly great for perennials and trees.
Used coffee grounds can be used as a nutrient-rich mulch (or compost ingredient), placed directly on the soil. The key is to not let the grounds clump, so spread them on thinly.
If you want to do something in your community:
8. Buy your food from a CSA
Buying from a Community Supported Agriculture supports positive food production and ethical employment. This is true ‘farm to plate’. One better is purchasing a CSA membership, to be more aware of the ebb and flow of natural farming cycles. One up on that: invest in a CSA. The high demand for food box schemes during the coronavirus pandemic shows not only the need for direct-from-farm food, but also where people turn in a crisis. There are at least eight CSAs to choose from in the Bristol area.
9. Support landsharing
The heart of permaculture is making connections. Linking people together – those who have spare space to those who would like to grow – is key to urban food production. Share a fire escape for a trellis, a basement for hydroponics, a front garden, or anything bigger. If you have a space that would work, let IncrEdible or the Bristol permaculture Facebook page know. Both are inspiring people all over Bristol to take food production back into their own hands.
10. Get involved in local forestry projects
Become a Tree Champion with Bristol Tree Forum, support the Forest of Avon Trust, or help Bristol’s One City Plan double Bristol’s tree canopy by 2046. For a different kind of forest, support the local Food Forest Project, aiming to make regenerative agriculture accessible to local communities.
If you can take one thing away from this list, we’d be happy.
If you want to learn more or take a course when lockdown ends, Bristol has some fabulous organisations in and around the city. Try Shift Bristol, based in St Werberghs, founded by Laura Corfield and Sarah Pugh. Further afield there is Ragmans Lane Farm in the Forest of Dean. For an affordable online course, try the 10 part workshop Lockdown Food Resilience with Rakesh Bhambri, May 9 – June 7, 2020.
We’ll leave you with a quote from Bill Mollison, the father of permaculture: “We must turn all our resources to repairing the natural world, and train all our young people to help. They want to; we need to give them this chance to create forests, soils, clean waters, clean energies, secure communities, stable regions, and to know how to do it from hands-on experience”
Julie & Ras John are siblings from a family of growers. Ras John is from Supernatural Permaculture. Julie is an ecological anthropologist and is customarily Bristol 24/7’s Dance Editor.
Main photo: Squash tunnel, Ras John Cresswell
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