Self-reliant Gardening, Will Bonsall's Guide

Simon Hurthouse & Will Bonsall
Thursday, 13th April 2017

Will Bonsall, author of the 'Essential Guide to Radical, Self-Reliant Gardening', shares his story to Simon Hursthouse.

In your Essential Guide you write that extreme self-reliance leaves little free time to contribute to our collective life, and adds nothing to the coffers that keep society running and on which we all, like it or not, depend. Do I sense a trace of regret in that statement, and what advice would you give to any aspiring subsistence farmers?

Whether to regret it or not is moot; it’s a fact: human beings have always relied upon each other for success. We are social creatures and any lifestyle that is based on denying that is perverse and doomed. I think self-reliance is most appropriate at various levels; for example, why should everyone try to make their own metal tools or cloth, when it can be done so much more effectively by cooperation? I believe that staple food and domestic energy are so basic they should be produced at a local level, even though that security may come with a loss of some efficiency. Both are important and different factors may determine which have priority; certainly in modern times we have gone to the extreme of abdicating responsibility for virtually every essential of our lives. Merely sourcing essential things from within our region would be a vast improvement.

If someone does aspire to be personally self-reliant in those aspects (food and energy), they had better also have some ‘outside’ source of income, however modest, which is adequate for their market-based needs. That, I feel, is the primary challenge for back-to-landers: how to meet those other needs without compromising the land connexion.

I’ve known so many folks who got distracted from their land-base by the nine-to-five world they were trying to escape. Everything’s a compromise; find a good one. I write and speak for much of my income, my wife works at a local whole-foods store. Not everyone can do that.

Do you still run apprentice programs at your home on Khadighar Farm?

Lately we have not had apprentices, due partly to my being preoccupied with writing and other outreach. That’s ironic, since apprentices, at least in theory, should help reduce my workload to make those things more possible, however it requires more input from me to make it work and to be fair to the apprentice. We will quite likely resume accepting apprentices in the future.

To address the problem of losing minerals in food to the marketplace and thence down the flush toilet, only to remedy this lost fertility via fossil fuel-enabled exotic inputs, you encourage people to grow their own food sustainably and use a compost toilet. What percentage of the land do you think would be required for this solution, and if realised, how would it avoid propogating urban sprawl in the countryside, necessitating further development that would, initially at least, only exacerbate environmental problems?

To completely avoid any erosion to the marketplace, one would of course have to be completely food self-reliant and completely conserving wastes through composting, etc. A great idea, but I realize that is not going to happen, certainly not while the current system – the flush toilet and its accoutrements – are available. We cannot do everything but we certainly can do something; for example, as I describe in my latest book, when we base our fertility system on forest  residues like leaves and ramial chipped wood, then our minerals are coming up from great depths, which were it not for those giant tree roots would never become part of the biosphere, the World of the Living. In fact, neither the marketplace nor the flush toilet per se is the problem. Rather our system of collecting those wastes which makes it impossible to separate bodily wastes (the best part) from antibiotics, cleansers, parking lot runoff, etc., etc.

However I have to challenge an assumption implicit in your question: that everyone living in ‘the country’ and being self-reliant would lead to unacceptable sprawl, and that there isn’t enough land for everyone to ‘grow their own’. If we accept that there is enough land under the present (industrial agriculture) system, it could not be worse by simply redistributing that same population on the landscape. And while there are some efficiencies in urban life (especially housing and transportation within those urbs), there is also colossal waste in having to bring everything to them and haul everything away.

If we’re seriously looking at supplying human needs from a smaller footprint, we must begin by examining our animal-based diets. Land and resource efficiency can certainly be augmented with permaculture systems, but if those are predicated on livestock (as opposed to direct use of permacrop foods), then they are self-defeating.

You have also written Book 1 in a series in which you portray humans adopting sustainable behaviour following the collapse of a civilization like today’s. Has the process of imagining what viable sustainability might look like helped keep you aligned with that ideal?

The process of writing the Yaro Tales (only Book I, Through the Eyes of a Stranger, is on the market yet; the sequel, In the Larger House, is still in the works) has been very much a two-way street, in that what I do and how I live is a model for the fictional land of Esperia, but conversely Esperia serves as a paradigm for things I do and plan to do. For example, a big project which I may never live or have the resources to initiate is the inspiration for similar efforts of my alter-ego Yaro in Book II.

Finally, as an esteemed seed-saver, what are your thoughts on the recent Bayer-Monsanto merger?

The merger of Monsanto and Bayer is a calamity whose implications we can only imagine at this point; it is a challenge to the very foundations of liberty, an assault on the so-called ‘free market’. That being said, we must acknowledge that it is not something totally new, but rather the latest cutting-edge event in the centuries-old process of abdicating responsibility for our own basic needs. It is a great paradox that greater self-reliance, especially for staples, makes for a truly free marketplace. The marketplace must either serve us or we must serve it.

Will Bonsall is a subsistence farmer, as well as a prospector, draftsman, gravedigger, hobo, musician, logger, and artist. He is the director of the Scatterseed Project, which he founded to help preserve our endangered crop-plant diversity. His book, Essential Guide to Radical, Self-Reliant Gardening, is available from our eCommerce site:

Simon Hursthouse runs in rural Hungary, where he has lived since 2005 to lean as closely as possible to modern day peasantry.

Useful links

Will Bonsall's Essential Guide to Self-Reliant Gardening

Saving seed: Check our Charles Dowding & Steph Hafferty's article in PM92

How to make a vermicomposting flush toilet


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