Lockdowns and restrictions have been a mixed bag as far as our environment is concerned. On the positive side, many of us have found more time and inclination to engage with nature. Humans that had spent much of their lives commuting, just to sit at a desk all day, discovered there was actually more to life. There were green spaces around our homes; fields, woods and parks we had never previously explored. We became aware of just how important these places were to our well-being. Some of us finally had time to venture into our gardens, trowel in hand, and maybe even grew something edible for the first time. Others began to observe the abundance of vegetation growing wild and wondered how much of it was edible.

Foraging, the act of searching for edible food in the wild, has become extremely popular over the period of lockdowns. To our not so distant ancestors it was not so much a hobby as an important, if not essential, part of everyday life. My own parents and grandparents taught me how to find and identify different plants for their use as both food and medicine. In some parts of Scandinavia, the art of foraging is still very much alive, having never become ‘unfashionable’.

Anna Locke on her farm

Hastings community gardener Anna Locke has just published her first book entitled The Forager’s Garden in which she takes a novel approach to the subject. Born in Jakarta and raised in London and New York, Anna’s parents worked with the United Nations Development Programme. She took a circuitous route to the world of gardening, studying History and Philosophy of Science at university before going on to study Herbal Medicine. 

I discovered that the chain of food growing knowledge from our ancestors has clearly become broken. Fortunately, it doesn’t take much to fix it

In 2000 she began working for a diploma from the Royal Horticultural Society. The course focused upon classical rather than sustainable horticulture, but Anna found herself moving in a different direction. For the next few years she was involved in designing community gardens, teaching gardening and food growing, and gradually becoming aware of the potential for gardening as a means of social change. The turning point was perhaps her early introduction to permaculture whilst visiting the forest garden project at The Margaret McMillan Nursery School in Hornsey. Permaculture and organic farming and gardening developed as a response to the ever-increasing use of pesticides in agriculture. These sustainable solutions gained a lot of ground during the 1970s, greatly influenced by biologist Rachel Carson’s ground-breaking book Silent Spring.

FOOD SECURITY

Both organic farming and permaculture involve the growing of food crops in a way that is both sustainable and compatible with a healthy environment. But permaculture takes organic growing to the next level; involving far more than just avoidance of toxic chemicals. In a turbulent world, food security has become even more important. The food in our supermarket aisles comes from annual crops. The seeds are sown, and the crops harvested each year leaving empty fields which then need to be prepared for the next year’s crop. It’s a labour-intensive process often involving toxic chemicals. Permaculture relies more upon perennial plants which produce crops for years on end. And unlike many organic and non-organic farms, permaculture sites always grow a variety of crops, thus avoiding the risk of total crop failure. Techniques including ‘companion planting’ are also used to the benefit of both plants and ecosystem.

Anna and Her Sheep

‘GUILDING’ THE LILLY

With the enticing sub-title ‘Grow an Edible Sanctuary in Your Own Backyard’, Anna Locke introduces the idea of bringing forest gardening and permaculture into our own gardens. This is the antithesis of the orderly English garden with impeccably weeded borders and perfect lawn. It is aesthetically and philosophically more cottage garden meets wild flower meadow. But there is a lot more going on; this is about creating ecosystems. Anna writes: “A forager’s garden is a way of gardening that looks after nature and even restores nature whilst growing lots of food… I discovered that the chain of food growing knowledge from our ancestors has clearly become broken. Fortunately, it doesn’t take much to fix it.” Anna feels that the most important thing readers can take from her book is the technique of planting a ‘guild’. She describes this as “setting up a mini ecosystem around a key plant in order to provide for it in various ways”. A guild will include plants that act as nitrogen fixers to enrich the soil, ground cover plants which not only keep down weeds but can even be edible, like wild strawberries. A guild would include both pollinators and insect repelling plants. This may sound like a dichotomy, but it is actually what happens in nature.

LAZY GARDENING

The joy of this approach to gardening is that ultimately there will be less work to do and more time to enjoy the ‘fruits’ of your labour. By becoming more mindful of the interconnectedness of nature we can give plants what they need. By putting the right plant in the right place with good company it will ultimately be less dependent upon the gardener. 

Having just moved house, leaving behind a much loved, rather wild garden ‘filled to the brim’ with plants, my new project is almost a blank canvas in comparison. The Forager’s Garden is full of original ideas and is already proving useful. It’s also a visual treat with art work by Hastings artist Katherine Reekie. The cover is a joyful illustration of a ‘pollinator’s paradise’ Anna Locke is a self-confessed ‘city girl’, but watching her at work on her Fairlight farm, it’s easy to see where her heart lies.


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