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The Gardening Group and Permaculture

We have come a long way since the heady days of the Green Revolution of the 1970s when huge inputs of fertilisers and pesticides, with their embedded energy costs, resulted in high yields and food mountains. At the time ignorance prevented the realisation of the cost to the environment that such a system would produce, and the unsustainable nature of needing an ever-increasing supply of, for example, pesticides and fertilisers. Gradually the organic movement grew to now being a major player in the production of our food and this, together with Permaculture, forms our approach.

We have recently held a visioning and planning meeting in preparation for the coming year and perhaps this is a good time to reflect on what we have done over the last 8 months. One of the questions that is frequently asked is why have we chosen a Permaculture approach to the Community garden? So a bit about our background.

As you know the Transition movement has, at its heart, the challenges of global warming and oil running out and so the need to move towards a more sustainable way of life is paramount. With the current news of rising fuel prices, we can predict that food prices will also continue to rise, thus hastening the need to produce as much local food as possible. But with reference to gardening, producing more and more food, although excellent, is only part of the Permaculture story.

The Permaculture approach to growing is one that uses the natural ecosystem as its model. The central principle is the recognition that humans, rather than being objective masters who control the environment, are, in fact, subjective living beings and are part of the ecology and systems that surround them. As such, the soil has a wealth of its own life and we mess with it at our peril! Our role is to enhance its inherent fertility and work with it so that all living elements gain and food production results from this.

From this basis, organic gardening is essential and the soil will become increasingly healthy through good management of rotation, increased biomass, growing ‘positive’ rather than having to try and rectify harm caused by pests and diseases. There will be minimal use of synthetic chemicals. By interfering with the soil as little as possible so that its natural goodness is enhanced, we increase the soil fertility and good crop yield and will not be dependent on expensive oil based aids. This even rules out digging or standing on the soil and we only use forks or trowels and make use of multiple paths.

The quality of the produce will be improved and, essentially, will taste better and contain more vitamins and essential elements. Also, the crops will not have traces of fertilisers or pesticides. Organic gardening is also good for the wildlife and increases biodiversity.

As our understanding of the various natural cycles grows, so we can work in harmony with the ecology of the whole planet that stretches from the planet to shopping locally. A recognition of being stewards of the land for future generations is also important.

The words permanent and culture suggest the ideal of perennial crops providing the bulk of the crops. It originated in Australia in the 1970s by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren who believed that the beneficial relationships between the various elements (for example fruit trees, compost bin, greenhouse) of a growing system were essential and thus formed a system based on ‘zones’. This was further modified in England in the 1990s by Patrick Whitefield who recognised that the design system was an ideal blueprint for any design, be it a town, a business or a small household garden. The word culture is now used to mean the culture of a group of people rather than just crop.

In this system there is a strong ethical base that was labelled:

  • Earthcare – recognising that the stewardship of the planet is essential
  • Peoplecare – every individual will be nurtured
  • Fairshare – every person on the planet has equal rights to what the earth provides

This last element, Fairshare, again expands this particular system beyond horticulture and points the way to the need to only take what you feel you have earned and eat what your body requires, and be paid what we need. Given the current problems of obesity and the challenges of the financial market, Permaculture seems highly relevant for 2011. This system emphasises the need to use less energy to produce a crop than the energy that results from eating the crop.

These ideals echo those of the Transition movement and so is the obvious model to follow in our quest to have a sustainable Teignmouth.

During this first year we have needed to concentrate on building compost bins, forming the paths, and planting crops that help to break up the soil. As in any garden, it has been a year of learning – both about gardening in this manner and working as a group with the one common denominator of a passion for gardening in this very special place.

Words by Fran Hamilton


  1. John Lintell says:

    Great stuff Phil. You have an admirable way of painting your argument with clear, bold brushstrokes. There are wonderful examples to be found at Martin Crawford’s forest garden just by Schumacher College – wouldn’t it be good to have a little something similar at Eastcliff. Good luck with all your projects and thanks to you and your colleagues for being … you!

  2. Phil Cross says:

    Thanks John – but must point out that the words are by Fran – the dedicated permaculturalist of the group!

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