This post is written in response to a post on the Transition Social Reporters blog entitled “The trouble with permaculture”. The post overall is appreciative of permaculture and what it has achieved whilst raising the following issues that I have distilled from it. These are that permaculture is typified by:
- “A desire for more food with less effort”
- “Persistent myth of uber-productivity of forest gardens, perennial plants and polycultures amongst other sacred cows”
- “Lack of controlled trials and measured experiments”
- “Over emphasis on salad leaves, berries, “beneficial plants” and lack of calorie crops”
In no particular order here is my response to these issues:
I am all for collecting data and have made a start on this by measuring the inputs (time) and outputs (kgs of produce) of my perennial vegetable garden. Along with the methods and the whys and wherefores these are included in my book ‘Edible Perennial Gardening’ due to be published in March 2014.
I wonder if someone can point me to published data about the productivity of traditional vegetable crops grown in back gardens, on allotments and market gardens? A quick Google search has not produced any answers and it would be interesting to see any data that there is on the ‘tried and tested’ methods. After all, if we are to compare the outcomes of established practices and crops with unusual crops and permacultural methods, then we need data for both.
We also need to be clear about the calorific value of different foods and how this measures up in relation to the work required to produce them. McCance and Widdowson (The Composition of Foods) list the following:
||Kcals / 100g
By comparison, oca – one of the replant perennial roots I grown has, (by my calculation from a value given in kilojoules) 61 kcals / 100g. It is also interesting to note that apples and blackcurrants, which take very little work, are more calorific than carrots.
One of my main contentions is that if it more calories are expended in the work of growing a food than it will yield when eaten – then that is not a sustainable way of doing things. There needs to be careful thought given to the potential components of our food that can be raised in the small scale of garden or allotment or market garden if we are to be able to find truly calorific crops with which to sustain ourselves. Again, I am not aware of any data by which established practices can be measured. I have made a start on calculating, as best I can, the calorific yield from my garden alongside the weight of produce and will continue to work on this aspect.
On the other hand there is this consideration as well: whatever the crop grown, even the permaculture staples of salad leaves and berries etc – if it saves food being purchased from a shop it saves a whole host of other inputs to the process. Commercially farmed salad leaves are part of a massive agricultural machine and the total carbon footprint of a purchased lettuce may be very high. Given that in respect of their calorific value they are hardly worth carrying down the garden path if they are going to provide any net yield of energy I think they should be grown as close to home as possible. I grow salad leaves using perennials like wild rocket alongside annuals like corn salad and land cress. The annuals are allowed to set seed and self sow and this means that all I need to do is to go and pick the salad leaves when they are there.
I have been giving a lot of thought over recent years to the question of how to grow, in a sustainable fashion, as much of the food that is required for a varied and healthy diet. It arose as a secondary question as I experimented with perennial vegetables, polycultures and low input methods as it became clear that ideally I would wish to grow more components of my diet. I am currently expanding my ongoing experiments to include grains and seed crops, but am a long way off any conclusions yet.
As well as looking at the output in weight from an area I think it is vital to consider the overall carbon footprint of a growing method. Does it remove carbon from the wider environment or does have a hidden carbon cost? Use of additional tools and supporting technologies (eg polytunnels, watering systems, compost / manure imported from external sources, purchased seeds) must to some extent escalate the carbon footprint in comparison to a system, which does not need these inputs; what might that additional carbon cost be?
I am convinced that we need as much work done as possible on as diverse an array of dietary ingredients as possible. Yes we do need data, but we need it in respect of everything – the accepted, tried and tested methods and crops as well as the innovative, less accepted and less tested ones. Let there be no sacred cows or even ‘sacred carrots’ in the endeavour of working out how to feed ourselves within the limits of reduced carbon consumption.
As well as permacultural techniques there are specialist interpretations of conventional vegetables and techniques such as John Jeavons’ Bio-Intensive system, Carol Deppe’s take on resilient vegetables and Bob Flowerdew’s contribution in his book ‘The No Work Garden’ (apologies that my original post incorrectly called this the Lazy Gardener) could be considered.
Comparing the manifold inputs and outputs of various ‘systems’ will undoubtedly be complex. Perhaps too complex to do in a very systematic way, let alone something that will convince a hard headed scientist of its veracity.
My own results are, I believe, very encouraging and I would certainly not discount the ‘dream’ of a low input / high output system being possible. For my own circumstances – not having lots of time or physical strength and energy, a garden that is damp, shady and unsuited to annual vegetables – perennial vegetables have proved a revelation, a delight, and a source of year round produce. I have grown closer to nature through observing her cycles and interactions and cannot conceive of a better way of gardening / producing food – for me.
All comments very welcome!