Visitors to Hockerton come expecting a tour of our homes, but the first stop – whether the visitors are permaculture pioneers or planning professionals – is our orchard and allotment area.
We are often asked why we haven’t just focused on low energy housing but we were clear from the beginning, 20 years ago, that a sustainable lifestyle has to balance social, environmental and economic factors. This cannot be delivered by architecture alone.
In 1997 the Building Research Establishment published a General Information Report GIR53 which was entitled “Building a Sustainable Future-Homes for an Autonomous Community”. Within this report it was pointed out that at that time the average family produced about 4 tonnes of CO2 through car transport, 4 tonnes of CO2 in heating the family house-yet twice that amount of CO2-8 tonnes was associated with food consumed by such a family each year.
This is because food is often the product of intensive farming which uses fossil fuel based fertilisers and is then transported thousands of miles to our shops where it is stored until it is transported to our homes, usually by car.
So by focussing on heating costs and transport alone without addressing food production we would miss out on impacting half the CO2 emissions we could potentially address.
Hockerton thus incorporated a land management plan in its design, which as well as providing an environment for wildlife to flourish would contain an organic growing area.
Over the years our food production has added to our organic allotment. We now have and orchard with fruit trees, bee hives, chickens and a flock of sheep.
The added bonus of all this is that we are kept in touch with the natural cycles of nature, spend time outside in our green gym and benefit from food produced to high standards and on our own doorstep.
So if you are thinking about your own sustainability projects, don’t forget the opportunities for food production which could outweigh the reductions in CO2 from household energy saving measures that you take.
This year we’ve planned a more diverse planting scheme in our polytunnel, and it’s paying off. For the past 8 years we’ve had two tunnels, with a rotation of tomatoes in one and a range of vegetables in the other; but a poor tomato harvest and a new year’s resolution led to a review of our approach.
The ‘tomato tunnel’ was always a sight to behold: two narrow paths leading through a veritable jungle of yellow and red fruits, large and small. But last year the plants suffered from mildew, affecting both the yield and flavour. As we are organic we don’t use fungicides, and as we can’t control the heat, the only solution open to us was to see if we could improve ventilation by increasing the distance between plants.
Our planning in early 2014 was also affected by a new year’s resolution to make more of the tunnels, having moved them next to each other within easier reach of the homes. We wanted to extend the season for peas and beans, and see what impact the extra warmth could have on a range of brassicas and celeriac.
So far, so good. The tomato tunnel is in full production: it is still a jungle but with more shafts of light and that all important air flow. We also found room for a cucumber plant or two, and the additional spacing has left room for underplanting of peppers and chillis, celeriac and a mix of herbs, most notably basil.
Tunnel two has gone through the greatest change. We’ve learned that the tunnel extends the broad bean season from a fortnight glut to four productive months, and harvested onions, garlic and a range of brassicas, impressive in size, looks and of course taste.
With those early crops now cleared as outdoor planting takes over, we are starting to harvest the first of the sweetcorn and are gearing up for winter with more peas, beans, brassicas, and carrots. So much for August being the month you just sit back and enjoy your garden!
If you’re thinking of getting a polytunnel or are reviewing your planting, we recommend taking a look at First Tunnels, their monthly planting advice is particularly helpful. And for organic seeds and seedlings, try Delfland Nurseries. The ability to book deliveries months in advance is particularly useful if you have limited time, space or patience to raise seedlings, particularly the trickier ones!
And if you fancy visiting our tomato jungle, along with a tour of one of our eco-homes and the wider site, please join us on our next Sustainable Living tour on 20 September.