A Little Shed Time Reading – A personal selection of gardening and permaculture classics

Perhaps one of the most overlooked of garden tools is the book, a perfect companion to the deck chair and a case of fine local ale. By taking time out from the practical tasks of sowing, planting, pruning and mulching we can sit back, contemplate and absorb the wisdom of those who have gone before us and gain not only practical skills but philosophical insights as well. The definitive list of ‘The Greatest Gardening Books’ will always be highly subjective and ultimately pointless, but for what it’s worth, here’s my contenders for a few 20th century gardening classics that have each in their own way influenced my own ideas and thinking…


Visions by Clifford Harper

OK, so my first pick isn’t actually a book, but so what? It was 1978, not long after I’d left school, when I discovered Anarchist artist Clifford Harper’s utopian ‘Visions’ series of graphics in a little alternative bookshop tucked away in a Brighton back street. The basement walls were decorated with six A3 posters consisting of lovingly detailed line illustrations of what a post-revolutionary society might look like. Depicting community run printing and light industrial workshops, solar and wind powered housing estates and publicly controlled radio and TV stations, they were yellowing and dog eared, belonging to an optimistic age of counter-culture that was unfashionable at the pre-dawn of the Thatcher era. But for me they were an epiphany, especially the image of the Collectivised Terrace – an ordinary street in any town or city where the fences dividing previously private and isolated back yards have been torn down, with the resulting open spaces turned into productive plots of vegetables, fruit bushes, chicken houses, cold -frames and bee hives managed by urban farmers and libertarian communards. Thatcher’s hardline ‘there is no such thing as society’ agenda was just around the corner and already looming large in the public conciousness. But this was a positive glimpse of another way, how things could be, revealing both the enormous potential of the power of community, and the urban food growing space available by applying just a little common sense, co-operation and imagination to what surrounds us. All it takes is a small shift in our perceptions to see that we all have the power to create better times for ourselves and each other. Maybe this is subversive talk, but who needs supermarkets and agro-chemicals when according to the SAFE Alliance, London alone has some 1.4 million households with gardens, 1388 ha of derelict land, 53,600 ha of protected open space, 14,411 ha of agricultural land plus school playgrounds, rooftops and parks?

‘Radical Technology’, the book from which these posters were originally culled, is long out of print, but you can download a PDF copy here. Scans of the full set of Harper’s ‘Visions’ can be found here.


The Allotment – its Landscape and Culture by David Crouch and Colin Ward (Five Leaves Publishing)

It wasn’t until some five years later that I actually got around to some real growing, when the Southend Libertarian and Anarchist Group decided to rent a collective allotment. Debate around the politics of food production – together with a challenge from slightly older and more seasoned group member Ron to stop pontificating and actually DO something – led to about ten of us regularly turning up on the plot in our home-made CRASS teeshirts, mohicans and dreadlocks, empowering ourselves by getting our hands dirty and relearning some of the horticultural skills that earlier generations took for granted. The ‘old boys’, with their cloth caps, sleeveless jerseys and straight lines of leeks and cabbages, called us the ‘coloured haired lot’, and our initial contacts with them felt like a culture clash until we realised that we were part of a continuum. These seasoned allotmenteers had for years been putting into practice our anarcho-punk ideals of self-reliance, DIY and mutual aid. Ward and Crouch celebrate this heritage of autonomy and creativity in this classic work first published in 1988. An in-depth survey of the informal relationships between culture, plots and people, it is full of anecdotes and evidence recounting examples that give a sense of that gift economy, community spirit and improvised asthetic shared by gardeners and growers throughout the ages, right back to Winstanley and the Diggers who in 1649 took the land as a common treasury for all.

Although nowadays largely taken for granted on the edges of urban settlements, allotments still offer a whole raft of benefits additional to growing fresh organic vegetables and fruit, from healthy exercise in the open air, community reconnection, socialising and stress relief, through to the preservation of what are often some of the only green spaces, wildlife habitats and places for free cultural expression to be found within the centres of our towns and cities.  Despite the official position that local authorities have a statutory obligation to provide allotment sites if six or more rate payers request them, the reality is that there can be large discrepancies regarding the availability of plots – sometimes there are lengthy waiting lists, whilst in other areas many plots are largely disused and overgrown. Many sites are also finding themselves under threat due to pressure from land developers, with numbers declining from 1.4 million during World War Two to less than 300,000 by the start of the new millennium. Use them or lose them!

The Allotment – its Landscape and Culture is currently out of print, but second hand copies can be obtained via Amazon and other book sellers


The Permaculture Garden by Graham Bell (Permanent Publications)

I first came across the word ‘Permaculture’ in an article in ‘Peace News’ way back in 1981. The word intrigued me, and I filed it away in some back cupboard of my brain for the next few years. In the meantime I’d continued as the sole remaining member of our collective allotment project, and become a reasonably competent vegetable grower, able to supply the young family I now had with plentiful supplies of potatoes, onions, cabbages and beans. I’d also learned much from the books of organic pioneers such as HDRA (now Garden Organic) founder Lawrence D Hills and the late, great Geoff Hamilton. I’d even borrowed David Holmgren and Bill Mollison’s ‘Permaculture One’ from the library a couple of times, but found it rather dense and difficult to get my head around. I did however grasp that permaculture had something to do with herb spirals, and decided I’d like one of these in the garden of the house we bought in 1994, after 7 years of being cooped up in a tiny first floor flat. So as I liked the pictures in Graham’s book I bought a copy in the hope of gaining a few tips. When i got it home I found it had nothing about herb spirals, but instead was one of the most eye-opening books I’ve ever read, changing my whole attitude to gardening, growing and ultimately, life. Giving insights into topics such as soil ecology, water management, composting and energy conservation, Graham gently explains that permaculture is a design system, based around ethics of caring for the earth and each other, and principles of using minimum effort for maximum results, seeing solutions instead of problems and above all, working with nature rather than against, as has been the pattern of most agricultural systems for the last few hundred years. More over, these ethics and principles can be applied to almost any other field of human activity beyond simply growing food; architecture and building to economic systems, forestry management to healthcare, energy production to community building. Somebody once described permaculture as ‘revolution disguised as organic gardening’, but I think its more important than that. Climate change and peak oil are the earth’s way of telling us that we need to alter our behaviours. With permaculture we can not only make those changes but learn to thrive as well.

Buy Graham Bell’s The Permaculture Garden here


Forest Gardening by Robert Hart

Situated at Wenlock Edge on the Welsh borders, Robert began his forest garden project some 40 years ago after observing that a small bed of perennial vegetables and herbs that he had planted up in a corner of his more conventional smallholding was looking after itself with little or no intervention, unlike his annual crops that needed constant attention such as sewing, planting, weeding and so on. Furthermore, these plants provided interesting and unusual additions to the diet, as well as seeming to promote health and vigour in both body and mind.

Noting the maxim of Hippocrates to “make food your medicine and medicine your food”, Robert adopted a vegan, 90% raw food diet. He also began to examine the interactions and relationships that take place between plants in natural systems, particularly in woodland. Based on the observation that the natural forest can be divided into distinct layers or ‘storeys’, he developed an existing small orchard into an edible landscape consisting of canopy tall trees, dwarfing fruit trees, shrubs, herbs and climbers, yielding apples, pears, cherries, plums, grapes, gooseberries and currants as well as fresh green salad leaves and herbs as ground cover plants.

His vision was that such low input green and productive landscapes would replace the grey concrete jungles and factory farmed ‘countrysides’ in which so many of us exist;

“Obviously, few of us are in a position to restore the forests. But tens of millions of us have gardens, or access to open spaces such as industrial wastelands, where trees can be planted. and if full advantage can be taken of the potentialities that are available even in heavily built up areas, new ‘city forests’ can arise…”

To me Robert was a true 20th Century hero, whose contribution to our sense of possiblity far, far outstripped the sad, small values my generation have been encouraged to see as aspirational. Robert died in 2000, after which the future of his land fell into doubt. But nonetheless his vision continues to inspire countless numbers who have implemented his ideas in private and community gardens, school grounds, allotments and council estates…

Buy Robert Hart’s Forest Gardening here


Abundant Living in the Coming Age of the Tree by Kathleen Jannaway (MCL Publications)

Ever since I was a small child I seemed to make the connection between the meat served up on my plate every Sunday lunchtime and the cows, sheep and pigs I would see in fields we would pass on trips to the countryside in my grandad’s car. I always had trouble swallowing animal flesh even if I didn’t consciously know why at the time. I became vegetarian in 1977 at the age of 16, but by the early 1980s had begun to realise that the dairy industry had as much (if not more) involvement in animal cruelty as meat production, and became vegan in 1984. I quickly recognised however that it is as easy to lead an unsustainable, unaccountable vegan lifestyle based on imported, fossil fuel hungry convenience foods as it is to live as an unsustainable and unaccountable omnivore. I was pleased therefore to discover the Movement for Compassionate Living, an organisation set up in 1985 to promote ‘ecological veganism’, in particular the late Kathleen Jannaway’s seminal pamphlet ‘Abundant Living in the Coming Age of the Tree’ that hugely influenced my thinking with it’s vision of a future tree rather than oil based culture. This was a visionary publication that proposed an entirely new paradigm for the evolution of humankind beyond the age of oil dependency, annual grain agriculture and animal exploitation. It pointed the way towards a tree-based culture very different from anything seen thus far in history, wherin virtually all our needs for food, shelter, fuel and fibre are met from managed woodlands and food forests. We can’t of course know what a future tree-based culture will look like any more than our ancestors would have been able to envisage the world after the advent of the plough or the internal combustion engine. But Kathleen Jannaway’s slim publication perhaps offers some glimpses of how things could be and is virtually a manifesto for a vegan permaculture;

“Trees of carefully selected species can be grown in most habitable areas of the world to meet human needs locally in a sustainable manner. Apart from the enormous saving of the fuel, labour and materials that now transport goods backwards and forwards across the world, such local resources will facilitate the functioning of self-reliant village communities. Such communities will be large enough to provide sufficient reserves of human skills and enlightenment for the whole to function smoothly, and small enough for each individual member to feel that he or she has an essential part to play in the whole, that her or his contribution is valuable and valued. Face to face democracy will function, with decisions affecting the village community reached by consensus.

Food will be produced locally in small fields protected by hedges. Within each village, each garden will have its trees, especially fruit and nut bearing trees. Extensive forest will serve groups of villages. They will be large enough for their function as maintainers of environmental health not to be damaged by their use for supplies of wood. Trees will be sensitively felled in a sustainable yield system, no clear felling. Much of the wood will go to the village to be made, by wise and joyful craftsmanship, into articles that will last. The rest will be used in the forest industries. Waste wood will be used as fuel for the industries and for any heating and lighting in the villages that cannot be provided by such means as solar panels and sensitively sited wind or water mills.
As nearly all food will be produced locally and eaten fresh, the enormous amounts of energy and resources now used for processing, packaging and transport will be saved. Similar economy will be achieved by goods being made by local craftsmen and in local industries.

Nourished by health giving foods, enjoying the security of being members of a mutually caring group, with a proper balance of worthwhile labour and creative leisure, people will be free of many of the frustrations and fears that, in our present culture, erupt into ill health, crime and violence. A new world order will develop through the recognition of the need for unity in diversity. It will evolve according to the same principles as inspire the villages: that physical needs must be met in an environmentally sustainable manner, that spiritual growth must be nurtured by freedom, mutual respect and service, and opportunities for creative expression.

A Vision such as that suggested above is so at variance with present values and practices and with dominating social, religious and political institutions that it may be regarded as the idle fancy of impractical dreamers. Yet it accords with much of the ethos of tribal societies that have flourished for many generations and with the teachings of Buddha, Jesus, Gandhi, Lao-Tse and many others. As it becomes ever more obvious that the ‘practical’ men are leading humanity to extinction at an ever increasing pace, the ‘impractical’ visions will come to be recognised as viable and desirable alternatives.”

Download Kathleen Jannaway’s Abundant Living in the Coming Age of the Tree here

Graham Burnett (This is an slightly expanded version of an article that originally appeared in ‘The Idler’ magazine)