Before and After: You can see the site as the wooded area in the distance.
Plants For A Future, a small environmental group run entirely by volunteers, was established in 1989 when a 28 acre piece of land in Cornwall was purchased as a place to demonstrate the many uses of plants with a very strong emphasis on perennial species.
The land is situated at Higher Penpol, a small hamlet about 5 miles south of Lostwithiel. Called “The Field”, it comprises 28 acres of what was potentially good quality ground on a gentle south-facing slope. Cornwall is a very windy county and, with “The Field” being only 2 miles from the sea, the site is very exposed to strong winds, which often carry salt. Some years before we purchased the land it had been divided into 13 small fields but the owner at that time had removed all of these internal hedges in order to make the land more efficient for ploughing and for using other large machinery. The use of this heavy machinery lead to considerable soil compaction, whilst the removal of the hedges was also very detrimental because, not only did this mean the loss of shelter from the wind but it also meant the loss of protection to the soil from the effects of erosion. In the first year after their removal heavy rains had washed hundreds of tons of soil and newly planted potatoes down the slope, flooding a nearby house, with some of the potatoes ending up in the stream a mile away.
Elaeagnus parviflora – fruiting heavily in August
Over the years we have planted a very wide range of useful plants including:-
- Perennial salad plants supplying fresh nutritious salads throughout the year.
- Fruiting trees and shrubs. In addition to the conventional fruit crops, we also grow many unusual and delicious fruits which allow us to eat fresh fruit all year round. Some of these fruits are also highly nutritious superfoods, such as Hippophae and Elaeagnus.
- Various protein, carbohydrate and oil-rich seed and root crops.
- A wide range of medicinal plants, many of which are also foods.
- Other useful plants, supply various useful commodities such as soaps, fibres and fuel.
- Lots of native plants, especially trees and shrubs, to provide a wild-life haven for the benefit of humans as well as the environment. About half the land was planted to native woodland in the early 1990’s.
We try to find growing methods that are, as much as possible, in harmony with nature; trying to work with nature rather than fighting her like modern farming methods do.
Our first priority, upon obtaining the land, was to try and establish protection from the wind, since this was causing so much damage to our young plants. More than 20,000 trees were planted, mostly native species to form a woodland on the northern half of the land, but also several species of fast-growing wind-tolerant plants that could provide the shelter we needed (see our leaflet “Pioneer Plants”). In the first few years even the native trees found it difficult to become established as the winter gales dried out the wood and then in the spring the new leaves would be burnt by the salt-laden wind. Fortunately, though, the pioneer species we had used grew away really well and, within 10 years of planting them, they had greatly transformed the land so that now we have very good protection from the wind.
In the early years, the land was a near desert for wildlife. There was so little diversity to provide food and virtually no mature habitats to provide shelter. With the growth of the trees and other plants, though, all this has changed. Now the wildlife abounds – insects, amphibians, birds and mammals. In turn, the wild animals and increased natural balance help us by providing natural predators to control the populations of various “pests”. For example, during the third and fourth year there was a population explosion of slugs and snails making it very difficult to grow many plants – even a few trees were eaten to death! Anyone who has studied ecology will know that a new area of land (which effectively, is what our degraded land was) is initially colonised by plants and then by herbivores. The herbivore population explodes due to the abundance of food and lack of predators and it is some time before predators are able move in to take advantage of this new food source. Our herbivore pests were slugs.
In order to deal with this situation, we encouraged predators to come by providing habitats for them such as ponds for frogs, piles of organic matter for hedgehogs and slow worms. Gradually, also, the tree cover established itself to provide cover for slug-eating birds to nest. These measures did take time to become effective, but we now have a fairly well-balanced population of slugs and predators that keeps plant damage at an acceptable level.
The soil cover has also greatly improved, both in quantity and in quality. Weeds are always a good indicator of soil fertility – our first nettles, for example, were very sorry, scraggly looking specimens, rarely more than 60cm tall. Nowadays they grow big and lush, often to chest height at maturity. Ploughing the land not only encourages soil erosion by water and wind, but also speeds up the rate of breakdown of organic matter in the soil. If you use no-dig methods as much as possible and focus on perennial plants then soil fertility will begin to build. If you also allow, where possible, weeds to grow then these will help protect the soil from erosion and build up humus levels. Certain weeds, such as docks, are particularly good at bringing up nutrients from deeper in the soil and making them more available to other plants.
Setbacks and Problems
We have no planning permission to live on the land, so we have to commute from a village 3 km away. This uses up a lot of time and energy that could otherwise have been spent on more productive things, especially when we are also home-educating our two children.
One of the founder members has been ill for a number of years, with what has appeared to be a progressively degenerative disease of the nervous system. This has left him with very little energy to work on the land, resulting in a serious takeover by invasive species like brambles, bindweed, willows and grass. Many of the plants have been lost over the past few years as the weeds have moved in.
These problems have, in fact, shown the value of our system because, even during our worst years, there were still productive trees, shrubs and herbaceous perennials that continued to provide us with food. Had we been dependant on annual crops then there would have been very little food coming from the land.
Other developments over the years:
We have invested in some machinery to enable us to reduce the amount of hard physical work required to maintain the land.
We have obtained some very exciting new species and varieties of edible plants from around the world that will greatly improve the productivity of the perennial garden.
Over the years we have been able to continue a certain amount of re-development of the land, and keep clear some parts of it already planted, depending on the amount of volunteer help in any year. So, more volunteers are always welcome (see here).