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The permaculture approach to grow-your-own

April 5, 2013

Not far from Tolworth Tower, just off the busy A3 road in Surrey, is the green oasis of Kingston Permaculture Reserve (KPR). When I arrived there last December I thought it looked like a typical allotment, but then I realised the entrance to KPR is through a gate within the regular allotments.  The difference between the two sites was immediately obvious – one side is all straight lines and neat plots and the other side looks like a nature reserve. But the site’s wild appearance hides a sophisticated gardening philosophy known as permaculture.

Entrance to the Kingston Permaculture Reserve

Entrance to the Kingston Permaculture Reserve

Permaculture was developed in the 1970s in response to the oil crisis and aims to get maximum productivity out of an area of land with the least amount of energy expelled. It aims to do this without compromising wildlife habitats and to work in harmony with nature rather than against it.  In fact, it allows nature to do as much of the work as possible, including replacing pesticides with natural predators and using a no-dig system to avoid releasing carbon into the atmosphere and to encourage the build-up of beneficial fungi on plant roots.

Home-made seats in the Reserve

Home-made seats in the Reserve

Permaculture is as much about people as it is about crops. Each month a group of volunteers meet up at KPR to socialise and carry out maintenance tasks.

One of the other volunteers, John Fellowes, showed me around. The largest area is the forest garden, where fruit trees are planted in a naturalistic way (unlike the straight lines of orchards).

A volunteer clearing an area on the monthly work day

A volunteer clearing an area on the monthly work day

Here layers of different plants work together. Under the canopy of trees there is a shrub layer of soft fruit and then a layer of perennial herbs. Even the ornamental trees here have a purpose – the alders and Siberian Pea Tree release nitrogen into the soil to aid fertility.

The most unusual tree at KPR is the Wild Service Tree, with fruits that are edible once over-ripened (or ‘bletted’) in the autumn. Children ate these as sweets and an alcoholic drink was made from them, once served in pubs (hence the pub name Chequers, as the tree’s other name is the Chequer Tree).

Cutting willow to use as woven fences

Cutting willow to use as woven fences

The raised vegetable bed here is an unconventional affair too, using the German mound system, where the decay of buried sticks and turves provides slow-release nitrogen to feed the vegetables.

Looking through the KPR record book, it’s amazing to see a huge abundance of produce harvested each year – apples, pears, plums, greengages, almonds, walnuts, medlars, quinces, sloes, rosehips, blackberries, raspberries, gooseberries, herbs and vegetables. This produce is shared amongst the volunteers and some of the apples are made into juice at Kingston Market’s Apple Day.

Seed head of a cardoon.

Dried seed head of a cardoon.

The lists of wildlife spotted here is impressive too – jays, bluetits, frogs, fieldmice, herons, lizards, dunnock, robins, voles, woodpeckers, slow worms and butterflies.

Permaculture seems a win-win method of gardening: creating an abundance of produce and wildlife too and all without back-breaking digging. Perhaps John Fellowes sums up the permaculture gardening approach best when he said “we’re not afraid of weeds.”

Compost toilet on site

Compost toilet on site

Interested visitors and potential volunteers are welcome to visit the site, but you need an allotment key to get in. It is best to contact Simone Kay, the group secretary, first:

See my KPR video, featuring John Fellowes, here:

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