Worried about climate change and your family’s ecological impact? Want to make a positive contribution to your family’s health, budget and eco-footprint? Maddy Harland, editor of Permaculture Magazine, says one of the simplest, most positive actions is to grow more food.
There are so many compelling reasons for growing even a little of your own food in the garden or allotment, on the patio, or even on the windowsill. Food can contribute up to one third of your family’s carbon footprint – so buying locally produced food and growing your own is one of the greenest things you can do. It is also great fun and children love gardening.
Permaculture – Learning From Nature
Permaculture is based on observing natural systems, understanding how they work and then applying the same principles to design low carbon, green systems. One of the best ways to demonstrate permaculture is in the garden. Here we can make connections, turn our waste into useful resources and create self-sustaining cyclical systems that work together healthily.
In a woodland, nature rarely leaves the soil bare. Leaves form a moist covering to the soil and rot down, making a fertile dark loam full of beneficial micro-organisms to feed saplings, established trees and shrubs and other flora and prevent nutrients being eroded away by wind and rain. In the garden we too can make leafmould and compost, and use cardboard, woodchip and straw to cover and feed the soil, establish rich loamy beds full of worms to turn the soil, and make it fertile. Mulch also suppresses weeds.
Adding compost creates healthy soil as well as being an important way of reducing household waste.
Setting up a Permaculture Garden
The first task is to establish good composting systems as soon as possible. If you have room you can make your own composters from recycled pallets and add a mixture of uncooked kitchen waste, grass cuttings and materials like shredded paper and spoilt straw to get the right mixture of nitrogen and carbon. You can make a composter specifically for leaves and also one for ‘green brew’ – a DIY liquid organic fertiliser often made using comfrey or nettle leaves and water. If you are limited for space proprietary composters (often available at a reduced price from your local council) and a worm bin for cooked food and vegetable scraps are very useful.
If you are starting from scratch select an area near your house for your veggie beds and composting area. We all tend to live busy lives so growing food near the kitchen door ensures that you can more easily pop out, pull a few weeds, sow some seeds and compost our waste. Make sure your beds are wide enough to reach in the middle but not so wide that you have to stand on them to work which will compact the soil and cause water logging.
Define the edges of beds with long planks if you can but not bricks or stones in a damp climate as these are ideal habitats for slugs and snails. Planks clearly mark the paths – useful for the children to know exactly where to tread – and allow you to build up the soil and make raised beds. These will be no-dig once you have removed all the weeds. Soil is a living being with a delicate balance of micro-organisms that interact. Digging damages this living microcosm and destroys soil structure. Much better to leave ‘ploughing’ to the worms which turn the soil and aerate it. Don’t forget to add lots of well-rotted organic matter.
Next, select what to grow and order in your seeds. This is the fun part so be sure to involve the kids and choose vegetables and salads that they actually like to eat. There is no point growing food they don’t like! A strawberry bed is usually a must but remember you can also plant alpine strawberries anywhere in the garden as ground cover and children will enjoy foraging for their small but delicious fruits.
We prefer to buy organic seeds and also mainly choose varieties that are ‘heritage’ or at least not hybrids. F1 hybrid seeds may look nice but they are bred for a mass market and are not self-fertile so you can’t save their seed and germinate them next year. Heritage seeds are usually the older varieties that may not be popular in the supermarket because they lack uniformity of size, shape or colour or don’t store in refrigerated units well, but they are often tastier, store well and produce good seeds for next year. They can be more robust against pests and diseases as well and by growing them you are supporting biodiversity in the garden.
My favourite spring job, besides getting out on crisp days and preparing the beds for sowing, is planting seeds inside. Children enjoy sowing pots and seed trays and watching them germinate in the warm. This is biology at home. My daughters never had any problem understanding hydro-, photo- or geo-tropism at school. They had learnt that plant growth is determined by moisture, light and gravity on the windowsill from an early age. All in all, growing plants is a wonderful way for a family to play and learn together and enjoy being outside.
"Growing what you eat has to be a good thing," says my daughter Gail who is now 13. "You understand where food comes from and want to try new vegetables because you have grown them yourself. Who wouldn’t want to garden with their mum and dad? It’s such fun. You play outside and get your hands dirty!"
Maddy Harland is the editor of Permaculture Magazine –solution for sustainable living. She lives in Hampshire, UK, with her husband, Tim, and two daughters.