Healthy Food Production and Biodiversity

Paul Alfrey - The Balkan Ecology Project
Monday, 6th January 2020

Paul Alfrey shares the story behind the Balkan Ecology Project, creating polyculture trials, an abundant market garden and their work with permaculture. One of the 2019 Permaculture Magazine Prize finalists.

The Balkan Ecology Project is a family run project, founded in 2010. The main aim being to develop and promote practices that provide nutritious affordable food while enhancing biodiversity. Running and overseeing the project are Paul and Sophie, a couple originally from the UK and their then two young children Dylan and Archie.

In the beginning…

Having spent some seasons here, charmed by the relaxed pace of life, climate and natural beauty of rural Bulgaria, we eventually decided to stay. The environment seemed ideal for bringing up our two sons at the time aged 5 and 3, and living in Bulgaria provided us with the time to develop our interests without the pressures of running a business seven days a week, meeting mortgage payments, and generally living the life that is somewhat inevitable when trying to make ends meet in a London suburb.

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Shipka, Bulgaria the home of Balkan Ecology Project  

Introducing Permaculture

Coming from a manicured and highly managed part of the UK it was a real pleasure to observe the wildness of a landscape and how this intermingled with residential and commercial areas and the high levels of biodiversity associated with this. It was also very inspiring to see how many of our neighbours produced large quantities of food including fruits, vegetables, meat and diary, and how remarkably tasty the food was. It was around this time that a friend who had recently returned from a Geoff Lawton course gave us The Permaculture Home Garden by Linda Woodrow. Read during a winter when back in the UK, this book changed how we started to view gardening. Returning to Bulgaria the following spring, and fully inspired, we set out to permaculture our gardens!

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The home garden - inspired by Linda Woodrow - The Permaculture Home Garden  

How the Project Evolved

After a few years in Bulgaria, it became clear that as the country integrated into the EU and with EU funded backed agricultural practices, the ecology around us was deteriorating due to the shift in land management. We started to consider the possibilities of how food production could be achieved while enhancing biodiversity and embarked on purchasing land around us to prevent it from being used for industrial agricultural purposes.

Approximately 4.5 hectares of land is now owned by the project, much of which is divided up into scattered plots. This means that effectively a much larger area of 53.5 ha is essentially protected, because these plots break up large areas of land that may otherwise be earmarked for industrial agriculture. The wonderful diversity of wild flora and fauna coupled with an extraordinary quantity of heritage fruit and nut trees on some of these plots are now much more likely to survive for the local community and future generations to enjoy.

Some of these plots, we realised, were perfect to start experimental designs on to really examine how we might achieve food production while enhancing biodiversity. A lot of the plants and trees selected for the design process could not be easily sourced within Bulgaria or Europe at the time and were expensive so we began to grow the plants and trees that we wanted to experiment with ourselves. Excess plants from our nursery formed the foundation of our plant nursery, which has evolved to now include not just individual plants but communities of plants for forest gardens. You can find our list of plants for forest gardens at www.balkep.org/forest-garden-plants We are pleased and proud to have sent our plants to farms and gardens all over Europe.

Research and Trials - The Polyculture Project

To communicate our vision with other growers, specifically farmers and landowners, it became clear that we would need working examples of productive and biodiverse cultures and experimental data to share. Rather surprisingly, it was difficult to find any data to support many of the practices advocated within the main permaculture literature, so we started to gather some ourselves and The Polyculture Project was born.  

Thanks to the regular participation of volunteers, interns and specialists that join us for our polyculture study every year from April – September, we are able to establish and maintain new trial and demonstration gardens where we aim to test various popular permaculture practices and publish our results online, sharing what does and does not work. Our trials include how productive polycultures can be, what are the best plants for biomass and fertility, and we undertake wildlife surveys specifically insect and bird diversity in and around the gardens.  

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We publish all the data that is gathered from the trial gardens on our website and blog in order to provide a broad guide as to what can be expected for other growers and, more crucially, to inspire further amateur and professional research and study in this area. In our opinion, the more people that try out ways of producing food that encourages biodiversity the better. You can find our results at www.thepolycultureproject.com/our-research and more about our six month study at www.balkep.org/the-polyculture-market-garden-study

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The Perennial Polyculture Trial Garden in Year 2

Courses and Education

Since the early days we have invited people to come, learn and take part in our project by attending courses and events. Ranging from the early days of Permablitz weekends to 72 hour PDC courses. We now mainly offer three day Design and Build courses where participants have the opportunity to experience the process of design from the initial survey to actually installing some of the main design features into the landscape. It’s a great opportunity to network and connect with like-minded individuals and groups, share our experiences and develop new gardens for the project. 

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For the Future…

We feel optimistic about the future of the project where we aspire to continue our research and grow our demonstration gardens to become a world class example of a regenerative landscape. We aim to provide information and models for large-scale land management as well as small-scale home and community gardens. We make no claims that our methods can feed the world, but we do claim that anyone can grow polycultures, and by doing so they are taking a small yet likely significant step in reversing at least a small portion of the damage that industrial agriculture creates. We thoroughly enjoy both the design and work in our gardens and highly recommend it to anyone looking for an intellectual pursuit as well as a physical one. It’s a bit like working on a 3D amorphous puzzle, just one that you may eat.

Lastly, we are eternally grateful to friends, family, volunteers, donors and our customers that support us and help us on our mission to develop and promote practices that provide nutritious affordable food while enhancing biodiversity.

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 The Balkan Ecology Project (www.balkep.org) was one of the 20 finalists for the 2019 Permaculture Magazine Prize.

Useful links

Permaculture Magazine Prize 2019

The Balkan Ecology Project regular share blog posts with us. Here are a selection:

Everything you need to know about grapes

The polyculture market garden study - year 4 results at Balkan Ecology Project

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