Symbolic Forest Gardenblog

An experiment in container gardening

Seed Swap

This afternoon: a seed swapping event at my favourite cinema, The Cube off King Square. I felt rather sheepish going along, because I felt I didn’t have any seeds to take. I do have seeds I’ve saved, but I have no idea at all if any of them are viable, so didn’t feel I could pass them on to the rest of the Bristol gardening community quite yet.

However, it wasn’t a wasted trip, because there was plenty to do besides swap seeds. There was a Compost Cam showing people just how entrancing worms can be to watch; there were taste tests inviting you to spot the home-grown food; and, being a cinema, there were documentary showings. I was particularly interested by one, a BBC documentary from two or three years ago, on the future of farming. In a nutshell: modern farming is doomed. Modern farming needs oil, lots of it, both for combustion engines and for chemical feedstock. As the oil industry declines, modern farming – and the entire modern food economy – will rapidly become unaffordable. All very depressing. The answer, according to the programme, is in seeing biodiversity as an essential part of food production rather than just something that gives us pretty wildlife; in designing agricultural systems which work with rather than against our natural environment; and in a move away from factory-scale agriculture towards smallholdings, because organic smallholdings, run by gardeners rather than farmers, can produce rather more food per acre than an industrial farm can. One thinks here of the Soviet Union, where despite the vast acreage of mechanised kolkhoz and sovkhoz farms, all of the quality food, and a big proportion of the staples, was cultivated on the smallholdings of kolkhoz employees in their spare time and sold in barely-tolerated private markets. Gardeners are better than farmers, it seems. Unfortunately, this is because gardeners devote much more time and attention to each square metre of land than a farmer can, and any sort of smallholding-based solution to the oncoming food supply problem will mean social change at an earth-shattering level.

The other question which comes up regularly in my mind, which the documentary reminded me of, is: just how sustainable, in the long term, is the sort of small-back-garden container gardening that I do? Because, on the face of it, it doesn’t seem to be the healthiest form of gardening. Sustainability is all about generating healthy, fertile soil, soil with its own ecosystem. The ecosystem is needed to replace everything that my plants take away, to replace everything that ends up in my dinner, and if nothing ever goes back into the soil to replace that the soil ends up dead. The general “conventional” guideline for container gardening seems to be: “use fresh compost; grow your plants; your compost is now exhausted”. That process isn’t going to build up any sort of long term sustainability.

I do have some thoughts and ideas about the above: how to make container gardening more sustainable, at the systemic level. The container garden equivalent of the medieval three-field system, maybe. This post is already well into TLDR territory, so those thoughts will come later. In other news, I just hope that the Cube do hold another event next year, when I can donate more to the proceedings myself.

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