From soil health to gut health, connecting with nature has proven benefits for mind, body and the environments around us. Poppy Okotcha tells us more, and shares her tips on cultivating a thriving green space.
Gardens in Britain cover an estimated 10 million acres; an area greater than all of our nature reserves combined and just under half the utilised agricultural land. As isolated islands, our gardens may be small, but when viewed en mass they become a patchwork quilt of opportunity.
Gardens create corridors for wildlife, their soils offer potential for carbon sequestration, they can become thriving, beautiful habitats for wildlife and humans! They offer a safe space for us to reconnect with nature, harvesting the social, emotional and physical benefits of cultivating the land, and maybe most importantly, our gardens offer us the chance to build community. Growing, harvesting, preparing and eating food, when done together, has an uncanny tendency to spark powerful, supportive communities.
Science is increasingly reporting that spending time in nature is good for us mentally; it boosts our moods, reduces stress and anxiety as well as the obvious physical benefits of outdoor activity. Mycobacterium vaccae is a harmless bacterium commonly found in earth, which can act like an antidepressant. It increases the release and metabolism of serotonin in parts of the brain responsible for mood and cognitive function. So, when people say they feel great after a day in the garden with their hands in the soil, empirically speaking, they may well do.
Getting our hands in the mud is also beneficial for our gut health. The soil inoculates us with a vast array of bacteria, which improves the diversity of our microbiome, connected with a healthy gut. This affects heart health, brain health, sleep quality, digestion… our guts actually house 70% of the cells that make up our immune systems. It even affects our mood through the gut-brain axis!
With nature deficit disorder on the rise, engaging with our gardens by growing our own could create powerful grass roots movements, healing for the individual, the community, the land. But the failings of industrial agriculture (degradation of soil, loss of biodiversity, dissolution of communities, production of poor-quality foods, the devolution of foods into commodities rather than resources) have taught us that the way we engage with landscape matters. When we act as responsible land stewards, care for and give to the earth, the earth gives back in return. It gives fertile, living soils, diverse crops, wildlife like birds and insects who help us manage pests and diseases. The efforts of the peasant food web (hunters, gatherers, fishers, pastoralists, urban producers and farmers working on 4 acres or less) demonstrate this with 70% of the world’s population dependent on it for most or all of their food while simultaneously acting as custodians of huge biodiversity and wilderness.
Our garden spaces are free classrooms. The natural world teaches us of cyclical living, it teaches us that in nature waste does not exist, it teaches us that diversity is key. When we approach a landscape as a teacher, it’s not ‘my way or the highway,’ it’s ‘stop, listen and learn.’ By watching and understanding the patterns of diverse, wild landscapes we can bring them into our domestic growing spaces. We can learn to harness the momentum of nature rather than working against it. Watch how the elements move through your space, how insects and animals interact with it, mimic the wild natural world. The act of slowing down and really observing can be incredibly calming too.
Having moved from London to the countryside I am now working with a new growing space. The garden, which has been abandoned for the last four years, is wild and full of life! This first year is for observation over disruption. If you can’t give a whole year over to observation and planning, just watch for as long as you can. As you engage with the space listen hard to the feedback the land and its inhabitants are giving you.
So how do we engage with natural landscapes, with our gardens? How do we, as humans, become beneficial for landscapes, improving biodiversity and increasing life? Regenerative growing practices seek to better any given environment, with a focus on soil and biodiversity.
Care for the soil
Soil care is required in order for a growing space to truly thrive. Often when we think of a garden what comes to mind is all the life we see above ground, fruits, flowers, trees. But below ground is teaming with life too, or at least should be. Soil can be overlooked, it’s not glamorous or showy, it’s even seen as dirty! But it is truly the star of the show, it’s the crucial foundations. When it’s healthy everything else seems easier, plants will grow stronger and so have better resistance to pests and disease. Before we do anything in a garden, we want to make sure the soil is happy. Here are a few methods of maintaining healthy soils.
Firstly, keep your soil covered at all times. Keeping soil covered protects it from the weather, which preserves its structure, reduces erosion and supports the life within it. Organic ground cover will feed the soil life as it is broken down. Cover the soil surface with plants. For example, alpine strawberries, mints, wild garlic, and winter purslane are all edible ground cover plants. Sow buckwheat, oats or clover on a veggie patch in autumn to feed the soil and protect it over winter, chop it at the base, compost it or lay it on the soil to rot down come spring. Alternatively, cover any bare ground with mulch such as manure, compost, straw, garden clippings or even fabric or card.
Composting (aka black gold!) is supporting nature to do what it does best; waste nothing. The soil feeds the plants which feed us, any scraps can rot down as compost and feed the soil, again the soil will feed the plants, and on and on! Compost teaches us cyclical living like nothing else! When food rots on landfill it produces methane (a greenhouse gas which contributes to climate change) and pollutes our waters, composting creates life out of this potentially toxic “waste”. No matter your living space or garden size there is a compost method for you, from Korean Bokashi fermentation to Vermiculture. I cover how to compost and its uses in detail in my ebook, The Earth Food Handbook, a simple guide to composting in all spaces.
Finally, instead of digging the soil to prepare it for planting we pile organic matter (like compost or manure) on top of it, just as we observe in nature and plant into the undisturbed soil. By not digging we preserve a healthy soil structure, keep carbon in the soil (every time we dig carbon is released) and respect the inhabitants of the soil, who aren’t keen on being dug over… it also means a lot less digging for you and me!
Save your seeds
Until recently, anyone who grew also saved seed. This meant there was huge genetic diversity in crops, plants became incredibly well adapted to local climate, many plant varieties were associated with a particular region, or even village! This diversity built resilience into our environments and our diets. Now many of us purchase seed from large seed sellers. Most of the big companies selling seed in the UK, have their seed cultivated in North Africa, the Middle East, the Americas and Southern Europe by chemical, industrial agriculture with poor human rights observation. A limited number of varieties are available to purchase, seed for gardeners is often bred for yield and display rather than nutrient density, flavour or resilience. In the last 100 years 90% of UK veg varieties have been lost.
Seed saving is the cheapest way to propagate a garden! It safeguards diversity and it ensures accountability through the plant’s whole life cycle! It is also incredibly easy and super empowering! There is nothing quite like growing the descendants of a particular plant year after year… it’s like you form a familiar, long term relationship! You also get to experience the plant run through its full life cycle (which we don’t commonly do), starting as a seed and ending once again as a seed… nature teaching us cyclical living yet again!
Alternatively purchase seed from reputable sellers such as Vital seeds, Real Seeds and The Seed Co-Operative (all UK based). Try out a seed swap! Go for heritage varieties of seed and avoid F1 seed. F1 seed is the result of breeding two seed lines to create progeny with particular traits. The seed saved from F1 plants will give a plant that does not bear semblance to the parent plant and is generally very poor quality.
Our water is our life
Water is a valuable resource. In the UK a huge amount of energy is used to clean the water that flows from our taps. Climate change is putting increasing pressure on our water resources. In the words of Peruvian Indigenous Farmer and activist, Maxima Acuña- “Our water is our life”, if you want to grow plants, you will need water.
By keeping the soil covered with mulches and living plants we create a humid microclimate at the soil surface, reducing evaporation. Maintaining healthy soil, rich in organic matter improves its capacity to hold onto water. If your site lacks water, don’t fight that. Observe which plants are thriving and choose plants with similar water requirements. Mediterranean herbs are brilliantly drought tolerant. Generally, perennials (plants which grow for more than 3 years) need less irrigation and bounce back from dry spells well.
We can also direct and capture water on our growing spaces using water butts, creating ponds, digging trenches or mini canals.
When we look at nature, diversity is the key to a healthy ecosystem. When growing food, diversity is beneficial for our health!
Companion planting or a polyculture is when a range of plants that get along well are grown in close proximity. The plants develop mutually supportive relationships, resulting in improved flavour, increased fruit yield by attracting pollinators. Some plants entice predators of particular pests, while others deter pests with their smell, they can provide shade, support, even act as a sacrificial crop. Polycultures have been designed and grown by indigenous farmers across the world, there’s the Native American’s 3 sisters, corn, beans and squash and there’s Ghanaian farmer’s cabbage, peppers and onions! Try growing your tomatoes with basil, borage, garlic, nasturtium and yarrow.
Mix leguminous crops through your garden to fix nitrogen into the soil. Legumes belong to the plant family Fabaceae. Beans, peas, clover, lupin and vetch are some brilliant options. Lupins and vetch have the bonus of a beautiful flower display! While beans and peas are obviously delicious!
Step back and allow your garden, or pockets of it to revert to wilderness, wildlife will pour in! You can support this process by sowing meadow mixes, and removing domineering invasive such as bindweed. Read Wilding be Isabella Tree and Rewild Your Garden by Frances Tophill.
Grow your community
With 88% of British 18-24 year olds experiencing loneliness “to some degree”, gardens are wonderful places to grow communities. Regenerating communities is as important as regenerating growing space. Community means work, resources (and feelings!) can be shared across a supportive web. Seed swaps are possible, tool sharing, processing gluts of produce is more fun with friends! Growing a community with a garden creates human diversity and sharing of ideas, just like in our gardens this builds resilience. Community means more people can harvest the benefits of interacting with a garden.
Accessing growing space in the UK is no mean feat! With the average wait time for an allotment 6-18 months, garden sharing is a great alternative! Sharing garden space means the owner benefits from a beautiful garden, full of food and wildlife, while the grower gets to interact with nature in a very real and meaningful way! Lend and Tend is an organisation who match want to be gardeners with garden owners. Local community gardens are also a wonderful space to connect with others and interact with nature. Often a few hours in the mud can be traded for fresh produce, a cup of tea and a good natter. Incredible Edible is a network of community gardens across the UK.
Engaging with a garden is entering a cycle of exchange, we support the land and the land supports us. A garden can give us harvests of nutrient dense food, healing herbs, lessons on living more gently on the Earth and a place to build community while stepping towards greater food sovereignty and a more equitable food system.
When we grow plants, we grow ourselves too.
Dare to get a bit muddy, it’s good for you!