A few years ago I started to become interested in growing food at home. I was frustrated by our lack of access to affordable organic food, and I wanted to find a way to get healthy produce into our lives, free from synthetic pesticides, insecticides and fertilisers.
I started off by making all the rookie mistakes:
- Sowing seeds at the wrong time of year.
- Planting vegetables that were unlikely to grow in Wellington.
- Planting avocado trees even though deep down I knew they wouldn't work in our local climate.
- Not understanding the way soil, microbes and plants interact with each other.
During my initial learning phase, I was constantly told I needed to fix issues by applying various chemicals.
Caterpillars on your brassicas (cabbage, broccoli etc)? There's a powder for that.
Curly leaves on your fruit trees? There's a spray for that.
There is a belief system permeating modern gardening stores that you need inputs to get outputs. The bag of 'strawberry fertiliser' is always right next to the strawberry plants. Ask for advice and you'll be told you can't plant anything and expect results unless you add manure, blood and bone, powdered fertilisers, the list goes on. For fruit trees, the range of products gets even more intense - herbicides, fungicides and fertilisers specific to each type of plant.
Want a pretty lawn? Cover it in glyphosate (Roundup), which itself is the focus of thousands of lawsuits from users that now have cancer.
To be fair, this is the model these gardening centres know, and for them, it gets immediate results. But at what cost to our soil (which sustains all life on earth)? And our long-term health?
Right from the start, this traditional 'pump your soil full of inputs' approach didn't resonate with me. I couldn't understand why I needed all these chemicals to grow plants?
Why are we trying to take control of nature? Why aren't we trying to work with (and for) nature instead?
Can't I just grow plants the way nature intended? A wild plum tree doesn't have anything sprayed on it.
These questions were constantly on my mind as I tried to grow fruit and vegetables with some success while avoiding the traditional approach. I wanted our home garden to be completely organic. Because otherwise, what's the point? If I want massively pumped-up vegetables with lord knows what sprayed onto them, I'll just pop down to countdown. I'm growing at home because I want the food to be healthier. And because I don't want to be using harsh chemicals anywhere near my young family.
Enter the mentor(s)
The video above is an interview with Sarah Smuts-Kennedy and Levi Brindson-Hall, who along with Daniel Schuurman, form the brains trust behind the Earthworkers Programme (run by For the Love of Bees).
I started to get an inkling that it was possible to grow food without all the additives when I first came across Rory & his team at Kaicycle, in Newtown, Te Whanganui a Tara (Wellington). They run what is called a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) project.
With a CSA, you pay a weekly subscription and receive a box of incredibly fresh, diverse, organic produce, every single week. No plastic, no chemicals, just good health in a box.
The community-supported agriculture model is a game-changer for growers and is the future of food in this country.
In a CSA system, there is zero waste. The farmer only harvests what they need to fill the weekly boxes, and they know exactly how much they need to grow at the start of each season (when customers sign up). Farmers have a secure income that can help them survive crop failures or tricky weather patterns, knowing that their customers will stand by them, even if the boxes vary slightly in size from week to week.
Farmers also won't have slightly imperfect produce rejected by large supermarkets who only want to stock straight carrots. Instead, they can add them to your weekly box and make sure none of that goodness goes to waste.
My challenge to you: Find a CSA in your area and support it!
After visiting the Kaicycle urban farm, I knew that was how I wanted to grow food.
One day, I was looking at the Kaicycle website, searching for tips and advice, when I came across the Earthworkers Regenerative Horticulture Programme, run by For The Love Of Bees, A charitable trust based in Tamaki Makaurau (Auckland) on a mission to grow radical hope through food.
I signed up straight away, and needless to say, the Earthworkers course has been a game-changer. They taught me how to become a biology-first, regenerative organic grower.
Within about 20 minutes of attending day one, I knew I had found my tribe*. This was the missing knowledge I needed. It filled in all the gaps.
The Earthworkers course taught me how nature thrives and how I can help create the best possible conditions for life, on any land I am fortunate enough to interact with.
I am no longer a home gardener, I am a microbe and photosynthesis farmer. I build soil that is full of life and capable of growing the tastiest, healthiest food you can imagine. Not by turning the soil upside down or adding a crapload of chemicals, but by understanding that what healthy soil needs is a variety of exudates (from a variety of plant species) and as little disruption as possible.
As Earthworkers mentor Sarah Smuts-Kennedy would say:
"Whatever you do, don't dig up your soil!"
Instead of forking your soil and applying fertiliser, you create healthy soil by applying a small amount of compost (made at home if possible), then plant a diverse mix of plants in every working space, which will work together to feed the microbes in the soil, providing those same plants with access to all the nutrients they need as a beautiful network of nematodes, microbes and mycorrhizal fungi develop beneath the ground.
Every time you do anything to disturb that soil, like pulling a plant out by its roots or digging the ground to add horse manure, or turning your garden bed over to loosen the soil, you are disturbing an intricate network of organisms and destroying a habitat that harbours more life than you or I could possibly imagine.
So I'll say it again: whatever you do, don't dig up your soil!
Another key pillar of this regenerative approach is that weeds are not the enemy.
- Weeds grow when they aren't crowded out by species that you have chosen to plant.
- Weeds are helpful because they are feeding the soil different types of exudates.
- Weeds keep the soil healthy until you are ready to plant the crops you want.
- Weeds are sending you a message, saying 'plants can grow here'.
Where I once saw mess in my garden, I now see life.
- Tāne Feary, For the Love of Bees Trustee
The only time you need to remove weeds (without disturbing the soil) is when they start shading the plants you do want to flourish, like baby seedlings.
But what about pests!
Many of the chemicals applied to plants in the modern agriculture model are sprayed or applied to deter pests. In the plant world, these pests recycle sick plants. In fact, they aren't really pests at all, they are the great workers of the plant and soil kingdom, breaking down organic matter and freeing up nutrients to create food for the vast network of organisms living under our feet, and the plants growing around us.
Plants that are deficient in some way have a low Brix level (essentially, their sugar content). These plants send out an infra-red signal which says 'eat me, take me away!'. So these workers come along, consume the plant and all the nutrients get recycled back into the soil.
Plants that are healthy on the other hand, have a high Brix level. They send out an infra-red signal which says 'don't eat me, I'm healthy'. Because they have a high Brix level, they have higher sugar content in their leaves. This protects them from most common pests because those same pests aren't able to process sugar. They don't have a pancreas!
Nature has designed this elegant system to ensure that healthy plants thrive, while unhealthy plants are removed from the system and their nutrients recycled.
Click here to learn more about Brix levels.
So next time you see caterpillars attacking your cabbages, don't reach for a chemical. Ask yourself, why is this plant getting attacked? What is missing from my environment? Have I damaged the soil by turning it over and applying too much fertiliser? What could I plant with my cabbages to provide the soil with a wide variety of exudates, creating a healthy ecosystem for growing healthy food?
The most common mistake is applying too much stuff. Too much compost, too much blood and bone, too much fertiliser, too many chemicals. This causes damage that the soil can take years to recover from.
Always remember: with any action you undertake in a growing / gardening space, you are either degrading or restoring the soil. There is no grey area.
Before you go...
If this story resonated with you, please consider signing up for the Earthworkers course. It's a life-changing experience.
You can also help by finding and joining a local CSA project in your area.
CSA projects are the future of food production: A decentralised network of small scale urban farms in every neighbourhood, providing weekly vegetable boxes to their local community using a community-supported agriculture (CSA) model.
Growing food this way creates a zero-waste farming system that produces healthy, organically grown produce in a climate positive framework.
Its climate change mitigation, local job creation, community food security and improved health outcomes all rolled into one.
Join the movement: Find a CSA in your area today!
If you can't find a CSA project near you, join the Earthworkers Programme and learn how to grow healthy food at home and/or how to start your own local CSA.
*Since attending the Earthworkers programme I'm excited to say I have now become a trustee of the For The Love of Bees Charitable Trust. I'm excited to use my skills to help the trust realise their vision of growing radical hope through food.