‘Agroforestry’ is a buzzword for environmentalists, ecowarriors and Earth-friendly food producers, so, being Earth-friendly to the muddy soles of our wellies, we want to claim it for Black Close. Strictly speaking though, our plan for that eleven-acre patch of grass and rushes, is neither agriculture nor forestry in their usual senses. I doubt if it will catch on, but I think ‘hortipomology’ might be a more appropriate label. Too many syllables? Perhaps, but it trips off the tongue more easily than ‘the science and practice of integrating fruit production with a wider range of horticultural activities’, so I intend to give the word its first outing in this blog.
Our hortipomology project will combine apple-growing with so many other horticultural adventures that we haven’t even thought of them all yet, and unlike agroforestry which can mean no more than planting rows of pesticide-treated apple trees in fields of pesticide-treated wheat, hortipomology is uber-organic. It not only eschews poisonous sprays and artificial fertilisers, it sets out to manage fertility using botanical methods, for example, growing certain plants, shrubs and trees for the minerals such as phosphate and potash that their roots deliver to the surface from deep underground. By careful use of composts, mulch and green manure, we can improve soil structure, build fertility, manage soil moisture and lock up carbon. Hortipomology also aims to develop complex ecosystems in the soil and in all possible above-ground microhabitats. Here, burgeoning biodiversity means that carbon accumulates in living and once-living organic matter instead of floating off to thicken the atmosphere with yet more greenhouse gas. Doesn’t that sound good? Healthy food, home-grown in ways that – as primary aims, not bolt-on extras – benefit wildlife, conserve fertility and tackle climate change head-on.
Perhaps you can tell already that we intend to develop Black Close as an organic market Garden of Eden but, in the process, we don’t want to disrupt the existing habitat too badly. Soggy turf and rush tussocks are home to an extended family of brown hares, and from time to time, three itinerant roe deer amble by to poke their shiny noses into the grass. As for rabbits, badgers, foxes, birds, bats, rodents, amphibians and insects, well we see a lot of them too, and of course we like to see them. But the natural behaviour of several species – I mean the ones with the longest incisor teeth – can seem like downright devilment; and as explained in one of the earliest books on the subject, devilment in the Garden of Eden is not likely to end well for gardeners.
Deer especially, like to browse on young apple trees. This illustrates an eternal dilemma for the hortipomologist and a problem that confronts any grower, organic or conventional: what to do about pests – and, while you’re at it, weeds and crop diseases. Where possible, we prefer to use redirection rather than extermination and, in this instance, that probably means a new fence. We can ease our guilt at applying such a restraint by striving to make the area outside the fence even more attractive to wildlife, for example by creating a series of small ponds where animals can drink and aquatic plants can find new territory. Strategically positioned wetland trees such as alders and willows can help to diversify the landscape and provide cover for those species that appreciate a little privacy. Trees in general and hedgerows are always worthwhile additions to our kind of project, for the carbon-capture they provide, as well as new habitats and potentially valuable sources of garden fertility in the form of chipped twigs and leaves. There would be another major benefit of a new hedge traversing Black Close and that’s to provide shelter from westerly winds to the more exposed bottom end of the field.
Protected by a fence and sheltered from storm and tempest, the apple trees – seven hundred one-year-old grafted trees are coming into leaf in a nearby polytunnel – will be planted out in parallel rows that follow the pattern of less-wet soil formed by the field drains. Installed eighty years ago when the nation was digging for victory, these orange clay tile drains are probably half choked with silt and not coping with as much rainfall as they once did – hence the rushes. Also, climate change means that this wet county is even wetter than it was when the drains went in – hence even more rushes. But the lines of relative dryness indicated by their absence gives us some hope that apple trees and other horticultural crops can thrive in an unpromising wet pasture.
In agroforestry parlance, the areas between lines of trees are called alleys, and innovative growers the world over are practising alley-farming. We need to work out exactly what to do with our alleys, especially in terms of a crop rotation that enables careful management of fertility. For example, in some alleys we could grow green manure or compost crops and transfer the resultant organic matter to neighbouring alleys thus building fertility for crop production. Green manure could even come in the form of hay managed as traditional wildflower meadows. Gradually declining fertility in the hay alleys would favour wildflowers and all their glorious associated biodiversity while increasing fertility would benefit the garden crops.
Most of the details remain to be worked out, especially in terms of which crops to grow in our garden alleys, and there’s little by way of precedents to copy. It seems that hortipomology as described here is almost as new as the word. Alley farming hasn’t really caught on in the UK despite several pioneering examples, probably because the up-front costs are daunting and the existing system of farm subsidies doesn’t persuade many to risk such a dramatic change to their farming enterprise. The same factors are less important to the likes of us because, as horticulturalists, we are used to working without much in the way of subsidies.
That economic reality makes it even more important that the system we devise for Black Close and Eva’s Organics as a whole, is financially sustainable. Especially since the business now provides incomes for six local families as well as four Simpsons. For as long as capitalism prevails in its current neoliberal form – in which the natural world is more likely to be priced than valued – or until we win the lottery, our future depends on our customers. In particular, the future of Black Close depends on the kind of customer who appreciates that when they buy a box of Eva’s Organics fruit and veg, or a bottle of Organic Apple juice, they are sustaining more than a local business. For the sake of an eleven-acre patch of complex ecosystems and certain carbon-negative nutrient cycles, we appreciate that their insight runs much deeper than that.
In the next blog, I would like to explore in more detail how the potential tensions in our brand of economic and environmental sustainability might be resolved into sweet harmony. I’m fairly sure this will involve adding a whole new strand to our philosophy. One that comes under the heading of ‘community’.