It's a brisk Autumnal Monday morning. I'm at Edible Landscapes London, an offshoot of Transition Finsbury Park. This is the cutting edge of no-dig, agroforestry, predominantly perennial and definitely low-maintenance gardening and our practice challenges conventional gardening wisdom. I'm talking about deeply ingrained habits of digging and tidiness. Tell a trad gardener that they're working too hard, that they don't need to dig every year or remove every weed to the compost heap and it's like whipping the (strictly manicured) lawn from under their feet. They wince and clutch onto the spade handle more tightly. Then something shifts ... they pause and blink. The inner re-set button has been pressed. They re-boot and start telling you how many tomatoes, beans and pumpkins they grew this year and how they're excited about the batch of seeds they've ordered, the sexy new cultivars they'll be trying out next spring. I smile bravely and my eyes stray back to our pride and joy: the showcase bed.
It's a bit of a magnet that. People walk around it and point at the signs, their “oohs" and "aahs” of admiration trailing over the foliage. They like reading the little signs that tell them the name of the plant, what parts they can eat, perhaps how tall they grow. There's over 50 different types of plant in this bed but we also have a shady salad bed and an edible hedge. We aspire to have a foodie pond and a structural plants bed as well. The latter would feature those badass pole and twine makers such as bamboo, willow, hazel and New Zealand flax. We grow around 100 different types of plant, about 60 of which we want to promote. These chosen plants range from the slightly unusual (Caucasian Spinach, Siberian Pea Tree, Service Tree) to the familiar (Musk Mallow, Sweet Cicely, Fig) . Our criteria: tough, low maintenance and tasty. For the curious, they are listed here.
But pimping out these lovely plants to Joe public is not all. We also learn about them: how to recognise them, how to propagate them, how to eat them. We can pause there, on the eating, easily our favourite bit of the day. Some volunteers turn up at 1 o'clock just to enjoy the shared meal. Often people bring in a home-made dish: Deanna's legendary bhaba ganoush; Gemma's sunflower (and other bits) pate; Kiraz's cracked bulgar wheat thingies. Always delicious. And to go with them: breads, hummous and a fine array of freshly picked leaves and flowers. It is at this table that bonds are formed, allegiances made, loyalties silently promised to the plants we love to eat. I have a thing going with horseradish leaves but also adore the milder violet leaves and handy tubes of tree onion (great for scooping up hummous). I tend to shun anything lemon balm or nasturtium, though since learning about the nasturtium seeds' impressive protein content (26%) I am trying to overlook its faults. I'm also quite keen on the lemon balm cordial Gemma makes. Which just goes to show.
Actually, Gemma is also well worth pausing on: this project would be almost nothing without her. She came along to an early meeting to dissuade us from proceeding. She felt that we didn't realise how much work would be involved and that our time would be better spent supporting the existing projects in our area. We're very lucky to have kept Gemma's interest and our goals have gradually shifted to reflect her own passions. Originally it was simply going to be a tree nursery, and probably just apples and pears at that. Now we've gone full blown forest garden. Rather than selling householders the odd blackcurrant, we want to sell or give food growing projects the whole kaboodle. Gemma has, rightly, argued that many food growing projects fail after the first year because they're planted with high maintenance plants that need to be replanted each year and then mollycoddled. High maintenance plants and annuals have their place, but it isn't at food growing projects that need to survive beyond that initial burst of enthusiasm.
I'm just going to pick on annual plants (although we do encourage some of them). See, annual plants are nature's opportunistic one-hit wonders. Bit of woodland gets cleared and up they pop for their day in the sun. They know it's only a matter of time before they'll get superseded by their shrubby cousins and the ground cover plants that can handle a bit of shade. And the annual seeds accept that. They lie around 'resting' for years, waiting for their next shot at fame. However, almost the UK's entire current plant production is based on annuals. Like worn out soap opera stars they get rolled out again and again, filling up our fields and flowerbeds. We're living on a diet of Peggy Mitchell and Ken Barlow. It wouldn't be a problem if they weren't so high maintenance.
Look at it like a spectrum. At one end: mature woodland and at the other: annual plants. Picture a massive arrow labelled 'force of nature' pointing towards the mature woodland end. That's what we're fighting against. Annuals take more energy or inputs than any other kind of food growing. And you know the weird thing? There's lots of edible plants that aren't annual. I honestly don't know why we've ended up so hooked on them. It's probably something to do with control, economies of scale and mass production. Course nature doesn't do mass produced monoculture because it's a recipe for disaster – the plants quickly run out of food and and then, because they're stressed (too much exposure, not enough water, competing for the same food etc.) they all end up catching the same illness and die.
Then there's the soil to take into account. It hates being dug up. *Really* hates it. Microbes and minibeasts that were living perfectly happily where they were get killed or re-located willy nilly. Fungus that was doing a great job growing through the soil, redistributing nutrients and feeding plants, get hacked to pieces. Not many people understand that these ubiquitous fungi form symbiotic relationships with plant roots, giving them nutrients in exchange for sugars. Look carefully at well-seasoned soil and you'll see the fine white hairs growing through it. Do gardeners realise that their spade is like a bulldozer hitting a rainforest or like a deep sea trawler scraping the sea bed? Probably not. (And we don't tend to say that to people either because it can sound a little ranty.) In addition, undug soil plays an import part in locking up greenhouse gases. And then there's the whole weeding to bare earth versus mulching thing. Don't get me started.
Let's look at the future, Plants for a Future. Last weekend I visited this hugely important project, which I've written about here. We are in debt to Addy and Ken Fern's pioneering vision to catalogue and raise people's awareness. Pictured here is a day lily, the edible flower they chose to adorn the cover of the seminal work, Plants for a Future: Edible and Useful Plants for a Healthier World. And we wouldn't be without Martin Crawford's truly fabulous book, Creating a Forest Garden or as we like to call it, the bible. We hope that in time we can offer something comparable to the Agroforestry Research Trust project here in London.
It just remains for me to say how much we love our magnificent community of comfortably rooted, well mulched and well lit plants. We want you to come and see them, the little show offs, hear them speak for themselves. They do it with such flourish and with a vocabulary that makes my heart race. They always get the last word.
Pictures: All by Deanna Harrison except for "the ascension of Gemma" and "Primulas", which are the author's.