From potatoes to pecans: What will you be growing in your allotment this year?
Why devote all our time and energy into growing the cheapest, most available and most disease-prone crops when you could be filling your beds with something more interesting and costlier to buy in the shops? Three-quarters of our personal food growing land is devoted to growing main-crop spuds, carrots and onions. Is it time to turf out the usual suspects and make space for something new?
This week’s Food Programme is all about finding new ways to grow food that is more resilient in the face of climate change. “Life is too short for unremarkable food”, says Mark Diacono who featured in the programme. When you visit Otter Farm, his 17 intensely planted acres a few minutes drive from Honiton railway station in Devon, you get a glimpse of what he’s on about.
He has hedges of autumn olives (olive-like leaves, but pink, strawberry tasting fruit), stands of Szechuan pepper bushes, old varieties of strawberries as ground cover, Himalayan rhubarb, mulberries, medlars, Carolina allspice (grown for its cinnamon-tasting bark), blue honeysuckle with its blueberry-like fruit, and almond, walnut and pecan trees.
It’s a botanical treasure trove: a mix of what our ancestors used to love (consider the mulberry) and the exotic (Japanese wineberries) that because of climate change can now be grown in at least the southern half of the country. Some people call it “the climate change farm”. It is that, but that doesn’t quite capture its essence: 17 acres dedicated to deliciousness and a test-bed for how we might grow more of our food in the future.
Right now most of our staples come from annual crops: wheat, carrots, potatoes, celery, peas, parsnips, etc. All these crops are highly reliant on lots of water and sun, and, when grown non-organically, just as reliant on artificial fertilisers. It takes massive amounts of energy just to make artificial fertilisers, then when they’re applied year after year they break down the structure of the soil, which means the soil doesn’t hold moisture as well as it did, and lots of it blows away. Soil erosion is one of the major global issues we now face in feeding a growing population.
If you start to produce more of your food from perennials grown at different heights with lots of ground cover so that the soil is never bare, you avoid most of those problems. At the top level you can grow fruit and nut trees, underneath fruit, nut and spice-bearing shrubs, then on the ground the green crops, such as Good King Henry (introduced by the Romans - tastes better than spinach), garden cress, rocket and many others.
It’s an intense form of production that doesn’t cost the earth. But even to think of producing our food in this way requires a huge mind-shift. Monoproduction is what we do well, but the cost of it looks increasingly beyond our means.
So, can we learn from Otter Farm and from the agroforestry research that backs up its effectiveness? Is growing in rows and devoting toil to the resulting weeding and watering to produce what are some of the cheapest and disease-prone veg in the shops mad? You can have inter-planted trees, shrubs, climbers, and ground cover (a rather delicious looking floor of strawberries) that require none of the above, just plucking.
Listen in to Mark, Martin Crawford from the Agroforestry Research Trust and Gerry Hayman from the British Tomato Growers Association on this week’s programme and let us know what you think.
Do you grow food? And what’s your plan for this year? Should we be ditching seed trays and the traditional annuals-based allotments people are used to and growing perennials instead, or making forest gardens?