Michael Guerra and Permaculture Food Growing: 10 years on

Michael Guerra
Friday, 1st November 2002

Michael Guerra is probably the best known urban permaculture gardener in Britain. Way back in PM3, he introduced us to his garden. Being our 10 year anniversary issue, we asked him to reflect on the fruits of his labours since then.

On the basis of the Arabic numbering system that we use, 10 years is a good time to reflect on the progress of permaculture (though permaculture has been around in Britain for 20 years, and it's been nearly 30 since its inception in Australia). For me also it is a good time to contemplate, as our small urban patch is now 10 years old. So it was 11 years ago that I spent an emotional two weeks in Devon with a dozen other souls being taught permaculture by Patrick Whitefield and Stephen Nutt. In retrospect the course required the ingestion of too much information in too short a time.

For me, there was simply insufficient time to reflect on the enormity of what was being proposed, and by the end of the first week I was exhausted.

40 Acres & A Mule

It would be impossible to overestimate the impact permaculture has had on my/our life. Taking a few weeks to recover, and after talking endlessly to my wife, Julia, about it (she did her full design course a few years later with Patrick – over several weekends, thank God!), we decided to experiment with growing food. Many people arrive at a perma-culture course with the preconception, and sometimes leave with the same idea, that they need to find 40 acres and a mule, or at least an acre or two to become essentially self-sufficient. It was certainly the case with me.

For a number of years before I had even heard of permaculture I was filled with an unease about the unsustainable ecological economic state of humankind and wished to escape it into some kind of self-sufficient paradise. So I was hoping the course would educate me into the practical niceties of such a gorgeous state. Reading Fukuoka* actually reinforced this state of mind. It wasn't until some months later (after fruitless searching for the promised land) that the veil lifted and we were faced with the reality that most of the world's problems are rooted in the city/urban/suburban human condition (of which the eventual collapse of mainstream agriculture would be a symptom), and that if we are to succeed in resolving the disparity between a modern city's ecological footprint and that of a sustainable one we had to literally begin in our own backyard.

Growing Together

We remember those early (before children!) years as particularly fulfilling from a personal growth point of view. We were able to grow, in one good year, 250kg (550lbs) of raw unprocessed food from our 75sq.m (800sq.ft), the equivalent of 33 tonnes of food per hectare (13.5 tonnes per acre). Most of it was annuals grown with every intercropping, stacking and season-extending method we had to hand. We were importing around a tonne of well-rotted horse manure a year (a lot of that was for building up the poor soil), and making plant feeds from comfrey, nettle and urine. It was a good time. I was mostly unemployed (Julia was working for some of that time – though we were both unemployed for a year). We spent time growing together, enjoying each other's company, reading and having lots of visits from folk from all over the world.

It was a time when most of the perennials were still under-productive (immature), but did not take much room. Then Xavier-Miguel arrived, and two and a half years later Alejandro-Luis and Joaquin-Angel were born on the floor of the living room (planned that way!). From that moment everything changed.

With three small boys the garden has had to adapt. Most of the perennials are mature and productive, there is less room for annuals, but then we have less time to look after them. Perennials are also more robust (particularly the prickly ones) with respect to small boy behaviour. Julia and I rarely get to eat strawberries because they are consumed in the wild by the children. We have made all kinds of mistakes in the garden, usually over the choice of perennial. Our fan-trained greengage on the back fence has been less than successful (4 gorgeous gages in 7 years!) as it does not like root competition (Autumn Bliss raspberry, sorrel, wild strawberry and a pole plum within 50cm/20in) so it will have to go. There is a huge difference between a dwarf plum and a dwarf apple. Apples can be grown as little as 45cm/18in apart, whereas even very dwarfing plums have to be kept metres apart (with precious little under storey) to be productive in our experience.

The garden is full of seasonal joys such as the first purslane, nettles and Egyptian tree onions in the spring, the soft fruit of early summer, the plums of late summer, the apples of early autumn, and the pears of late autumn. Of course there are peppers, tomatoes, chillies, courgettes, chard, etc. (the chard especially, if sown in late July, will weather even the hardest winter), as well as early potatoes, carrots, currants, and many other berries that fill the year.

Full-time work (for me as an engineer) and full-time boy-rearing (for Julia) means that we have relatively less time for the garden – perhaps only an hour a week each – but with good forward planning, especially with perennials, we are still able to produce nearly 75kg (165lbs) of raw unprocessed food each year from our small garden. And when all the boys are at school Julia will have more time to do all those daily sowing and planting jobs that could double our yields.

Fertility is a problem. We are still dependent on obtaining horse manure (about 0.75m3 / 1yd3 per year) for heavy winter mulching. We had thought about trying the Emilia Hazelip method of growing vegetables with a continuous field bean under-storey but that needs more time than we have at the moment. Raised beds, while wonderful for a no-dig regime do mean that with heavy rain much of the nutrient that you lay as mulch on the surface is leached, leaving shallow rooted heavy feeders (lettuce et al) with little to grow on. A surface bed would preclude some of this (given it is good loam), but with heavy compacted soil the nutrients would simply run off (as in much of modern agriculture), or if sandy simply disappear into the subsoil. To improve fertility we have a couple of comfrey patches, but that does not make up for the fact that we still have a flush toilet. Rats have also been a problem, which stimulated protracted soul-searching over composting, but this has now been resolved with a complete redesign of the hot-box/composting zone (article soon!).

Huge Potential of Urban Landscapes

Having a small productive garden, and having folk from all over the globe coming to visit us (we've had two bus-loads from Finland alone this autumn!) you would think that urban permaculture was getting to be mainstream. Not yet it seems. While there are several urban permaculture allotment groups going on, and quite a few city community projects running, there are still too few people wishing to grasp the nettle and turn their consumptive personal amenity space (or outdoor room!) into an edible paradise that pays for itself. Is this a mindset problem? Is everyone returning from a permaculture course still determined to turn their back on the huge urban problem and escape to some rural idyll? Is there something missing from permaculture teaching that fails to address the huge potential of urban landscapes? Or is it simply that many people who come to permaculture wish simply to escape modern living?

I know I did (and probably still do if I'm honest!). But the reality is still out there. While it is true that many of the problems with sustainability can be found in modern agriculture, it is still the problem of urban supply and consumption that is driving that loss of soil and nutrients, and that is forcing the farmer to deal solely with the supermarket giants. Where are the local markets in the countryside? People predominantly live in towns and cities, and escaping to rural Wales will not help them or the cause of sustainability as a whole.

It is perhaps a self-delusion that you can somehow save the planet by leaving the city to its Biblical catastrophe and go and live in rural self-reliant splendour, without taking responsibility for your actions. It does not matter how loud you shout from the middle of a Cambrian field, it is unlikely anybody in London will hear you.

Browbeating over. Almost

This juncture is important for permaculture. While it is a numerically convenient moment to pause, we have to think about growing, as a movement, usefully, beyond the smallholder mindset that permaculture can seem to engender. It is not simply an assemblage of farming techniques (as so many non-permies think) – IT IS A LANDSCAPE DESIGN METHOD! It can be applied to any size of land or waterscape. It is a philosophy that changes your point of view of the world. It teaches you to see synergy and holism in natural and human systems and interfaces, and contains within its kernel a pattern for the sustainable transformation of all life on this fragile blue/green sphere.

While I am the last person on the planet to join any kind of group, philosophical, religious or lay (I am one of the least social people I can think of), I am willing to lay aside my precious privacy to show others the germ of a possible sustainable urban future. If we are to be a viable sustainable alternative we need to demonstrate that permaculture works in any situation, and for most people that is urban. Frankly, due to the attention Julia and I get, we would much rather there were lots of other folk out there willing to get pestered by journalists and TV researchers, or even by bus-loads of Finns! We sometimes feel very exposed; possibly because it feels like everyone else has pissed off to Wales!

The Germinating Seeds Of An Urban Vision

The potential for urban permaculture is vast. Consider the multitude of edges, aspects, opportunities for multi-use shared productive spaces, recycling and niche markets. Of course it will take time, but if a small windblown groundsel seed can start the process in its little roadside edge, lifting the tarmac, getting its roots in, shading, making soil from detritus, then we can use that example by starting a little urban garden or shared corner. Use pioneer plants to break up the hard landscape slowly, help a little by channelling rainwater, grow summer shade, promote soil-building, make a little place for someone to sit, plant some scent, plant some fruit, make a haven, make it important, nurture the nature of it, give it a name, bring others to see it, let it grow...

Five years ago we planted a fig tree next to our house in a buried half barrel, and this year it is covered with fruit and looking decidedly healthy (it roots have probably grown out of the barrel!). While it is kept reasonably pruned and trained it will produce fruit and pose no threat to the structure of the house. In many years to come, as our estate house falls inevitably into disrepair due to lack of care (hopefully because the locality will be covered in more attractive eco-housing) the fig tree will outlast the house and provide the focus of an edible wild garden where our house and garden once stood. Now that is forward planning; that is permaculture!

Eat What You Grow, Where You Live

*One Straw Revolution, by Masanobu Fukuoka.