New Internationalist

No-dig for victory

Issue 402

It’s a short bicycle ride for David Ransom along a railway path to the heart of inner-city Bristol. And there’s no lack of ambition – to make the place into Britain’s first ‘Transition City’. Even in the East End of London, a new forest of networks is flourishing.

Menu for the day, inside the shelter on the Gordon Road Community Allotment. The blackboard rests on a clamp designed for whittling wood.

Most of us don’t have land – nor the time, money, even inclination to work it. We live in towns and cities. And in front of our noses here we find concrete, cars and other people. What might we be able to do to provide for ourselves in such places?

Well, a good deal more than we might care to think. In fact, anything at all we do is many times more valuable than the same thing done in the countryside, simply because cities are where most people feed.

Until quite recently, British towns and cities had some two million allotments. They were essential to the health of the industrial working class, who often brought with them skills from the countryside. During World War Two, ‘digging for victory’ became a weapon of ‘total war’. Now they have been decimated. Barely 200,000 remain.

I can reach my next destination, in the city proper, by bike along the railway path between Bristol and Bath. This path forms a blessedly traffic-free ‘corridor’ for wildlife (as well, to be sure, as the occasional mugger) passing right through the heart of Easton – one of the poorer neighbourhoods of Bristol and, in parts, just about as bleak as an inner city can get.

A short distance from the path on one side lives Mike Feingold. He grew up on a farm in East Africa – his father was among the first to export strawberries to Britain in the 1960s. He lived and worked in India for 10 years and has known Bristol for more than 30 years. From his multiple activities he aims to earn not much more than the equivalent of welfare (perhaps $6,000 a year), which he says gives him his freedom and his sanity. He reckons the most important ‘zone’ of all is ‘Zone Zero Zero’, pointing to his head.

During the course of a couple of hours in his house he sets out for me just about the most compelling case for permaculture I am to hear. He uses it as a coat-hanger, he says, on which to hook a series of related ideas: leaving the world in better shape than you found it; putting in more than you take out; replicating natural processes; valuing knowledge acquired by trial and error; knowing what works. In practice this means a lot of ‘re-s’, some of which come well before you get to ‘recycle’ – ‘reduce’, ‘restore’ and ‘reuse’, for a start. He can think of about 11 in all.

Mike’s intellectual engagement with permaculture is, nonetheless, subject to his personal engagement with the Easton community. The local Council has been selling off allotments very lucratively, claiming that no-one can be bothered with them now.

Raised beds, bad backs

Among them in Easton is Gordon Road Community Allotment, built on the former marshalling yard of an abattoir. It is surrounded by an industrial estate where once there were allotments. It is now a magical place, heavily used by the local community, schools – and by people Mike describes as ‘gently at odds with the world’. There’s a wormery and a water-harvesting system. The handle on the door of the compost toilet comes, unfashioned, straight from an apple tree; Mike says he can spot at least another 40 handles in the tree.

The clay dug out to form a pond has been used to make the walls of a shelter, its frame and roof built with wooden pallets from the industrial estate, which also provides a limitless supply of cardboard for no-dig raised beds, some of them raised even further for Asian women with bad backs. The people who built the shelter have left handprints in the clay, or traced patterns, or pressed in badges and bottle tops. Within it, an ingenious device clamps wood for whittling. Propped on the top of this is a blackboard listing tasks to be completed. We graze from delicious salad plants that elsewhere would be uprooted as weeds or ignored as inedible.

We move on to Royate Hill Allotment. The entire side of a small valley in the middle of Easton, once all but abandoned, has sprung back to productive life, accompanied by birdsong. Near a community orchard a young woman tends to her beehives and asks Mike for advice. A mother, lost to the world, plays with her baby.

This is, says Mike, no mere place for ‘gardening’. He uses his own plot for social gatherings, birthday parties; the children forage for their own fresh strawberries. The enormous plot has about it a rather special, mottled appearance that I’m coming to recognize as super-abundance. There is something exuberant about the way prized asparagus, so tricky to cultivate formally, pops up between soft-fruit bushes; or potatoes are left to do the digging on a bed that is composted with heaps of weeds.

The variety of edible plant species is immense, even now in the ‘dead’ period of early spring. Mike is not unduly concerned about ‘native species’. After all, he says, just a few thousand years ago the entire country lay deep beneath ice, so there are no truly ‘native’ species at all. The preference is for perennial plants, bushes and food-bearing trees. Mike has a sophisticated operation grafting old varieties of apple tree.

Transition towns

Just down the railway path from Mike is Sarah Pugh’s enormous garden. She tells me that hundreds of old-variety apple trees have been planted in back gardens right across Easton after they let it be known that for $10 – a quarter of the ‘market’ price – you could buy one and learn how to plant it.

There are now, she says, some 240 people in the Bristol permaculture group – probably the largest in the country – almost all of whom have taken an extended course. She herself makes a modest living from permacultural activities, including designing and teaching. The group rarely meets, preferring practical workshops and networking of all kinds. But, with others, Sarah has taken on a formidable challenge; to ‘unleash’ Bristol as a ‘Transition City’. A public meeting has been called, and I go along to find out what this might mean.1

There must be two or three hundred of us in the Trinity Centre, a disused church. The meeting begins with Patrick Holden, an organic farmer in Wales and a bigwig in the Soil Association, the most important certifier of organic produce in Britain. He says his life has been changed. He’d never thought much about distribution systems or ‘Peak Oil’ before he met Rob Hopkins.

Hopkins is a convincing speaker. He describes to the meeting our dependence on ‘liquid’ fuels, primarily oil and gas. Their use has skyrocketed since World War Two. At some point soon – and just as sharply – it will have to decline, along with new discoveries of the stuff. Exactly when, how fast and what the consequences might be are now the subject of fevered theorizing, particularly in the US.

For Hopkins this suggests ‘energy descent’: preparing to use less. And that means working from the bottom up, developing more ‘resilience’ in our own communities. This involves not just food but transport, housing, healthcare, tourism, employment, finance, currencies – almost anything that is dependent in some way on liquid fuels (which means virtually everything).

Hopkins began work on this with his students at a college in Kinsale, Ireland. There were pilot projects, workshops, oral history sessions and open discussions; the passion of enthusiasts on particular topics was unleashed. Rather to his surprise, the local Council eventually declared Kinsale a ‘Transition Town’.

He then moved to Totnes in Devon, where much the same thing happened. Transition Towns are now popping up all over Britain. At the end of the meeting in Bristol a woman gets up, identifies herself as the Leader of Bristol City Council and offers a dialogue.

Ultimate test

Large as it is, Bristol is not the ultimate test for permacultural possibilities in Britain. That must be London, and the vast urban sprawl to the east of the city in particular. It would be hard to imagine less fertile soil. On the other hand, whatever can happen here can happen anywhere.

OrganicLea Community Growers are not far away from the main site of the 2012 Olympics – in a place that once produced much of London’s fresh food, where Italians grew tomatoes under hundreds of hectares of glass.2

Clare, Ru, Brian (pictured below) and I sit on straw bales beneath the blossom of an apple tree on a Sunday morning. For the past six years their volunteer co-operative has transformed a large part of this, yet another neglected allotment site. It was overrun with brambles, the clay soil rock-hard with neglect. Now there’s a polytunnel where literally thousands of plants are being propagated. There’s a pond, bristling with reeds and frogs, which eat slugs. There’s a young forest garden. There are dozens of long, terraced, raised beds. There’s a shelter made from living willow. And there’s a compost toilet. Clare recalls a group of Kashmiri women who visited the site and recognized it immediately. I make use of it myself – far more salubrious than your average public toilet, I’d say.

As we talk, we hardly use the term ‘permaculture’. But they must surely think of themselves as revolutionaries of a kind – not so much by talking as by doing, with a sense of purpose and design.

There’s now an elaborate, expanding network of community and organic gardens, allotments, city farms, community centres, farmers’ markets, local orchards, food and farm co-ops and cafés all over the East End – one of the toughest urban environments in Britain. There are events and workshops; composting, ‘scrumping’ for apples in back gardens; even ‘Food for Thought’, a day and evening of ‘discussions, revelations and revels, seasoned with good food and fine drinks’.

For the most part, the work of making this happen remains unpaid, and so is open to anyone. Only now are they beginning to wonder whether having more time might help or hinder them with whatever they aim to do next.

Coffee break

While we’ve been talking, a pile of steaming organic matter has been deposited at the entrance to the site – wood chips from a tree surgeon, normally sent to landfill at a cost of $140 per ton. So it’s come here, where there’s no charge. You can’t use fresh wood chips directly on productive soil because they leach nutrients from it. But you can use them on paths, then move them on to the beds as mulch when decomposition has advanced. And beneath them you can lay sisal coffee-bean sacks; if, that is, you’ve come across a fair trade coffee-roasting company in Canning Town that doesn’t know what to do with them.

And so we set to work: laying down colourful sacks (and a fair number of stray coffee beans) from Guatemala, Mexico and Peru along the paths, covering them with wood chips heaved in barrows from the pile. The sweat begins to pour. Time, I think, to head for home. •

  1. For more information on Transition Towns in Britain, visit their lively WIKI: http://transitiontowns.org/Main/HomePage
  2. You can contact OrganicLea Community Growers c/o Hornbeam Environment Centre, 458 Hoe Street, Walthamstow, London E17 9AH, email: organiclea@yahoo.co.uk

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