Today’s post is by Rob Milne who has worked as an artist and then a gardener, mostly in walled gardens growing vegetables and fruit. He has worked with schools on gardening projects and long campaigned for food gardening to be brought into the school curriculum. Rob has a BSc in Habitat and Soil Management and is currently finishing his book: Organic Vegetable Gardening in a Changing Climate. As ever with our blogs, the views expressed are not necessarily those of the Association.

While I wholeheartedly agree with the commendable aims of the NAEE, is there an inherent contradiction, a built-in conflict of interests involved? 

We all appreciate the physical and mental benefits of walking, running, or just sitting in quiet, green surroundings, and we all appreciate the importance of observing and learning about the flora and fauna of our urban green spaces as well as rural surroundings. Surely the more knowledge we have the better placed we are to do the right thing, whatever is necessary to protect those green environments. Nature, however, can get along perfectly well if left entirely alone by people. In Britain, everywhere except tiny pockets of land scattered over the country has been modified, to a greater or lesser degree, to suit the needs of agriculture. The wild flora and fauna we see, therefore, are only what are able to survive in the modified environment. This needs to be borne in mind when we think about, talk about, and visit any non-urban places. 

I tentatively suggest that the presence/intrusion of people into non-urban land is usually detrimental to wild flora and fauna. The exceptions are when work is being done that replaces that which would have been done by now absent species: culling of deer in the absence of wolves; coppicing in the absence of beavers; planting trees to restore a previously over-grazed landscape. 

Throughout the world, human damage and disturbance to natural habitats and to farmed land is so great, the time has come, I suggest, drastically to reduce our impact by limiting our visits to the countryside and even to wild places next to urban areas. Doubtless, this suggestion will be anathema to NAEE members, and to teachers and parents everywhere, but bear with me.

Humans have already modified for their use half the land area on the planet; most of the rest is ice cap, tundra, taiga, desert, mountain, and what remains of tropical rain forest, all of which should be left unmodified. People and their domestic animals now comprise 99%, by mass, of all land vertebrates. The current rate of species extinction is 1000 to 10,000 times what would naturally be expected. 

As the human population continues to increase and the area of natural habitat, and the wildlife in it, continue to decrease, the per capita area of natural habitat also decreases. If people wish to maintain the same frequency and length of time spent visiting wild places, it means there is an ever-increasing frequency and duration of disturbance of those wild places, resulting in ever decreasing numbers of wild creatures and species. To put it another way: the more people there are, the more crowded and stressful our lives become, and therefore, the more need we have to visit wild places, but the less area of wild or semi-wild space there is per person, so, the greater the impact we have in trampling plant life and small ground surface creatures, and disturbing all non plant life, making it impossible for some species to survive. This can start a spiral of decline as the balance of biodiversity is severely disrupted. Do we still have the right to continue enjoying the same frequency and duration of visits to wild places? The very survival of some/many species depends upon undisturbed (by people) landscape, whether entirely natural or modified. We can survive without entering that landscape, and there are other ways to experience the benefits the landscape provides.

One way is to look at green spaces from the periphery, from where, if we are quiet, we will see and hear more wildlife, especially birds, than we would if we actually walk through the wild area. This is because wildlife will increase where areas are left undisturbed by people. In Britain the numbers of many bird species have declined by 50–90% since the 1970s. Ground-nesting species are particularly affected by disturbance not only by people but by free range dogs and, in urban fringe areas, by cats as well. Would the sight and sound of meadow pipits, skylarks, lapwings, and curlews compensate for not walking over what is really the birds’ territory? 

Where there is a sharp juxtaposition of a residential urban area and a wild area there is an opportunity for a wildlife experiment. Just how diverse and abundant can wildlife become, right next to a city, if people, dogs and cats keep off the open land? 

Another way of enjoying wild places is simply to think about them. This might sound too abstract a concept to expect children to put into practice and a poor substitute for the real thing. When I was a child there were wild places where I liked to play, with friends or on my own. (Although within a couple of miles of home they were wild to a child’s imagination.) When I got bored in class I could cheer myself up with a day dream about being in those places. We should never underestimate the power of children’s imaginations. Of course, in order to imagine being in a place we have to have been there. 

Since I was a child in the 1950s and ‘60s the human population has more than doubled and the number of wild animals has more than halved. One class of children visiting a wild place once a year might seem to them not much of a disturbance but if a hundred other classes also visit, the site becomes an impoverished habitat for wildlife. It becomes a shifting baseline for each year’s increased cohort of children.

My friends and I were fortunate; at the end of our road was a wonderful wild place. Years later I realised it was just an abandoned pasture, the rest of the farm having disappeared under housing. English elms (remember them?) had suckered inwards from what had been hedges, providing a range of tree sizes to climb, and we climbed them all. We dug a big hole which remained for years and taught us about the soil profile. We made small fires and cooked things – dough wrapped round a stick, and potatoes in the embers. Our scout troop met there whenever the weather was fine. We became expert at lighting small cooking fires and always knew where, in a landscape, to find dry wood. Our scoutmaster showed us how you could heat water in a paper bag! All these experiences are not open to children in that area now, as that field long ago disappeared under housing. 

Is there another way to benefit from what nature has to offer but without intruding upon the natural, semi natural or farmed landscape? I suggest that gardening, specifically growing vegetables and fruit, can go a long way as a substitute for contact with a properly natural environment.

To be a successful gardener requires much knowledge of natural processes – germination, growth, pollination, decay and recycling – you also need to know about the life cycles of many pests and diseases and how to prevent or deal with those problems. While in the garden you see and hear birds and bees. If you have that sort of imagination, in your mind the garden can be transformed into a vast landscape or farm. What might only be ten, twenty or thirty metres away is, instead, a distant, mysterious land where, as if by magic, every spring rhubarb emerges from dark, damp depths of soil, 

Food gardening is quite time-consuming, depending on the size of your garden. It is, I hasten to add, a very enjoyable and satisfying time-consuming activity. After 40 years of gardening I enjoy it as much as I ever did. Spending time gardening means there is less time for other activities, visiting wild places for example, which you might have to use a car, bus or train to get to. Also, spending time gardening leaves less time to indulge in the plethora of goods and services available in our consumerist society, each of which have embedded environmental costs. The keen gardener will not want to fly abroad and miss out on all the interesting things going on in the garden – at any time of year. 

It will not surprise anyone to know that I think food gardening should be in the school curriculum as an academic as well as practical subject from Year 1 onwards, and with GCSE and A levels. I have worked with schools on gardening projects. With two primary schools I spent a day a week at each for a year and then half a day for another year. The children loved it, and they were so enthusiastic. Teachers reported improvements in concentration on class work after being in the garden, and they were always keen to take produce home, presumably to eat it. We could all think of a number of benefits that food gardening would bring to children. I believe one is that enjoying and learning how to get good results in a garden increases the likelihood that children will continue with gardening at home and/or take it up years later when they have their own gardens or access to allotments, with all the personal physical and mental benefits, and the reduction in imports, transport, packaging and waste. 

My conclusions about the benefits of food gardening in schools concur closely with a report commissioned by the Royal Horticultural Society and published by the National Foundation for Educational Research (Passy et al., 2010) This listed nine positive outcomes for children engaged in food gardening in school. 

   Greater scientific knowledge and understanding

   Enhanced literacy and numeracy, including the use of a wider vocabulary and greater oracy skills

   Increased awareness of the seasons and understanding of food production

   Increased confidence, resilience and self-esteem

   Development of physical skills, including fine motor skills

   Development of a sense of responsibility

   A positive attitude to healthy food choices

   Positive behaviour

   Improvements in emotional well-being

As well as ‘diverting’ people from wild places, gardening has another benefit on wild places. With labour-intensive management that is possible on a garden scale, together with catch-cropping,  inter-cropping and succession cropping, the whole garden can be productive all year round, producing more per square metre than a farm, and with zero waste.  Secondly, if you buy all your fruit and vegetables, you need to add your share of the land needed to grow (mono-crop) wood for pallets, crates, boxes, sacks, packets and bags, plus the land needed for packing-sheds and retailing, and a share of road space and shop parkingplus a share of land fill area where the packaging ends up. As far as vegetables and fruit are concerned, therefore, gardeners have minimal impact on the natural environment, but what about wildlife gardening? The small area of each garden, their fragmented distribution, and frequent disturbance by people, mean that gardens have limited value for wildlife. So, they might as well be used for intensive vegetable and fruit production. There will still be some wildlife, of course, and I would only advocate wildlife-friendly, organic methods. So, for every intensively cropped garden, somewhere in the world an area larger than the garden is freed up for wildlife, at least in theory!

Even the formal, highly manipulated productive garden can be a vehicle for conveying fundamental concepts of how nature works. Appreciation of and respect for nature and landscape can happily go hand in hand with gardening. I cannot say that we should never go to wild places but we should be very aware of what we might be disturbing. Stay on the edge or main paths. Instead of shouting, ‘Look, there’s a .!’  be silent and develop you own sign language. You will see and hear much more and have a better, more profound experience.

Reference Passy, R., Morris, M. and Reed, F., (2010) Impact of school gardening on learning.  Final report submitted to the Royal Horticultural Society.  Slough: National Foundation for Educational Research.  www.nfer.ac.uk

Rob can be contacted at : r.milne@yahoo.co.uk He would particularly welcome criticism from anyone willing to read the text of his forthcoming book on Organic Vegetable Gardening in a Changing Climate. Please contact Rob directly.

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