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Big Inspiration in Little Old England: Plant Life Abounds


Pond at New Shoots

It was an unexpected phone call that sent my wife Emma and me from Colombia to England this past October. We’d not been in Bogota for a full day when we learned that her father was ill, and it wouldn’t be a bad idea for us to visit sooner rather than later. In the following twenty-four hours, we managed to cancel two volunteer posts at permaculture farms in Colombia, buy one-way tickets to Manchester, and start processing the fact that our next six months would not be backpacking/farm-hopping our way down to Patagonia.

In short, it was not a change of events that inspired thoughts of good things to come.

We’d spent the last year WWOOFing and working in Central America, growing accustomed to a life scheduled around our whims, a wardrobe of flip-flops and shorts, and fresh food at our fingertips. We weren’t exactly sure how that was going to work in England, but not to completely doom the visit before it began, we vowed to find ways to continue along our wave, finding a means for keeping our thumbs green and our hearts full.

Without a doubt, permaculture played a big part in the new world we were enjoying. We’d found hope in the ethics, the striving to find ways in which people and the planet could exist cooperatively. We’d come to love having our hands in the soil, seeing plants spring forth from seeds, learning from others experiences, and sharing in ours. Consequently, we knew in some way permaculture would feature in the weeks to come. We would make sure of that.

A chance meeting

It was in our first weekend that Emma’s father introduced us to a gentlemanly fellow, Steve, from the Lancashire Environmental Fund. At the mention of permaculture, we ended up disappearing into a quiet corner table of the pub (not in a seedy way but perhaps somewhat seed-y) and chatting for at least a couple of pints. It turned out, in this working’s man club in a tiny village England, we’d run into a guy who not only new what permaculture was but actually helped to fund a new project in another village not half-an-hour away.


Bee Hives for the Flowers and Honey

In the following week, Steve agreed to show us around New Shoots Permaculture Project, and the folks implementing the systems congregated for our visit as well, as if the very virtue of knowing what they were up to warranted the warmest of welcomes. For us, all of our experiences with producing food were in the comfortable confines of tropical weather, with no great fluctuations in temperature and relatively predictable rainfall. We were excited to see the difference.

We arrived in a frigid windstorm of epic proportions, with the plastic sheeting roofs of the surrounding allotment being shredded and our noses glowing and growing sniffly. Nevertheless, after cups of tea, they took us out for a tour. The project, less two years old, had focused a lot on adding a natural element into the center of rather “traditionally” hewn garden allotments. In the space of an acre, they’d created some ponds for waterfowl, spots for hedgehogs, and hives for bees. They’d done mixed tree guilds with local apple and pear varieties accompanied by favorites like comfrey and clover.

Perhaps the most exciting part of New Shoots, at least for me, was the community aspect. These guys were doing projects with local school children, showing them the ends and outs of growing their own food responsibly. At that moment, a group was growing their own potatoes for Christmas dinner, as well as to sell to others for Christmas dinner. They were inviting folks to have picnics. They were showing films. They, as was evident with our welcome and the fact that about five participants braved the cold and wind to show Emma and me around, were truly excited by all the possibilities that lie ahead.

The Beginnings of a Food Forest

The Beginnings of a Food Forest at New Shoots

And, they should have been. Offshoots Permaculture Project, just down the road in Burnley and the inspiration for New Shoots, has been around since 1997. It was established on an acre of land that sat derelict for a decade. Now, it has a functioning organic farm (with all crops being sold), training courses, and several examples of eco-construction. The site has been organized entirely by volunteers, mostly locals, and is run by regular staff from the community.

And there’s more…

As my first time in England as a permaculture enthusiast, I was inspired to see interesting projects all over the place. It only took quick Google searches (or even aimless walks) to discover permaculture projects across the country, scans of HelpX and Work Away to find work-trade situations, and inspiration was everywhere, from villages to the streets of London.

Curbside Guerilla Gardening

Curbside Guerilla Gardening in London

Robert Hart, who was featured in some of Bill Mollison videos on my hard drive, as well as the focus of a documentary all his own, was the originator of the concept of the forest garden. He not only inspired permaculturalists the world over but also made a huge impact in his own country. Now, there are several sites to visit with his method put into action, as well as the LAND Project, set up in 2009 to demonstrate and teach permaculture techniques.

The massive Eden Project in Cornwall may not be all-out permaculture declared, but it’s hard to miss some the interesting commonalities in what they are doing. The project is a true tourist attraction, with tickets and tours, and it’s an educational charity, complete with courses in gardening and sustainable living. But, what it is definitely doing is bringing to the forefront many of the ideas and solutions the permaculture has presented.

As a big fan of TedTalks, I also already knew of a really cool thing happening in a small rural town called Todmorden, where a group—Incredible Edible—was elbow deep in guerilla gardening. This group started from a few community herb gardens and managed to plant useful edible landscapes throughout the entire town. Now, there are official schedules to volunteer with the project, and the whole thing seems to just keep growing. It’s an interesting example of what can happen to a settlement that already exists, without having the benefit of preemptive permaculture design.

YouTube! Video: How We Can Eat Our Landscapes

A project of my own

For much of our visit, Emma and I stayed with her Auntie Kath on a beef and dairy cattle farm. Being two vegans, it made for quite a few laughs over the course of our stay, one of which was over my greenhouse project. To my horror (it was barren and treated like an attic) and delight (I was given free reign of the place), there was a small greenhouse that had originally been put up as a shelter to pot plants in the summer. However, that idea seemed ancient history. It took me two days just to clear the space of stowaway chairs, tables, portable pavilions, and long forgotten plastic plant pots.

More than one person snickered at me as I cleaned the space, but what I discovered underneath it all was a great canvas. About half of the floor, hidden under a blue tarp, was the packed, earthy remains of what had once been a great deposit of store-bought compost and topsoil. I even found a few strands of potatoes that had survived along the back wall. Not only that, but there was an amazing, endless source of autumn leaves in parking area, straw and manure from the cow barns, and even quality topsoil that had been cleared away to pour some concrete slabs for horse trailers. I was in business.

So, I sheet mulched, laying out a thick layer of old newspapers that Auntie Kath—a crossword addict—had collected before topping it off with leaves, manure, soil, and straw. All in all, the bed raised about a foot from where it began, this time with added contours, a small pond, and composting spot for kitchen scraps (with the idea that it might help heat the space in winter). Periodically, someone from the farm would peak in on me and look quizzically at what I was doing, reiterating that they’d never seen gardening like that.

Then, I visited a nearby shop for some seeds, various cold year-round mixed greens, and I grabbed a bag of marrowfat peas from the pantry. I sowed. And, when I’d finished, Uncle Johnny laughed at me, sure that the effort was hopeless. He mentioned every morning for the next few days, giggling the same way we did when discussing my veganism, but the following week, sure enough, sprouts began to appear—some kale, some peas, potatoes, and Uncle Johnny was pleasantly surprised. Unfortunately, it was time for me to go.

I can’t wait to visit this spring to see what happened and to add some new edible and perennial layers to my own little project in merry old England. And, beyond the greenhouse, there is already a small apple orchard in place that is begging to become a food forest.

Jonathon Engels

The financially unfortunate combination of travel enthusiast, freelance writer, and vegan gardener, Jonathon Engels whittled and whistled himself into a life that gives him cause to continually scribble about it. He has lived as an expat for over a decade, worked in nearly a dozen countries, and visited dozens of others in the meantime, subjecting the planet to a fiery mix of permaculture, music, and plant-based cooking. More of his work can be found at Jonathon Engels: A Life About.


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