27 Jan 2013

Permaculture: Growing Food in a Small Space

Just 10 years ago, 'permaculture', was a term known to just a tiny minority of people. Today, the term is known much more widely, with more and more people getting trained up in this remarkable approach of designing sustainable systems and applying it in their own lives and communities. 

While I initially heard of permaculture in the late '90's, it wasn't for another 10 years (i.e. in 2008), that I took any formal training in it - a weekend course run by Naturewise that both inspired me and made me thirsty for more...

The following year, I applied to get onto Earth Activist Training  - a two week residential intensive, while camping at Landmatters eco-community in Devon, that weaves together a full Permaculture Design Course (PDC) with sustainable activism and spirituality. One of the powerful ingredients of this course was the presence of some experienced activists in the direct action movement in the UK. It was a privilege to have been on it and I describe it a little within this post here

When I returned from the EAT course, one of the first projects I completed was converting a small area of land in our garden into a productive growing space

In the Beginning: Start with Observation..
One thing we permaculturisits like to do before designing a system is to observe it - and an aspect of observation involves recognising potential 'threats' or 'constraints' to the site. Through creative design, we might then consider how to work around (or within) those constraints. This cute creature seen basking in the sun lived above us. She enjoyed certain activities on our small piece of land. Although she probably didn't realise it herself, her digging holes to relieve herself was seen as a bit of a 'constraint' in getting some things growing on the land! So, I wanted to find a way around this...

To work around her behaviour, (or intrinsic characteristic), I decided to protect the site with netting. This actually had the added beneficial effect of preventing snails from getting to the veggies! I also put a layer of compost onto the soil, which you can see in the photo, the idea being to increase soil fertility and further cover any existing cat poop. Some of the compost was bought, and some was worm compost that we produce from organic kitchen waste.

Additonally, I chose to work on the site without digging, which would otherwise  disturb the soil layers and microbiology, and would bring weed seeds to the surface. This would inevitably increase the need to dig in the future, setting up a viscious cycle. Instead I would hoe out any weeds at the surface,and let them lie on the soil. Letting the weeds rest on the soil in this way  better mirrors principles in nature, and allows the weeds to breakdown where they directly feed the land.

Permaculture Principle: Make the least change for the greatest effect

I then covered the compost with a layer of straw. This was for a couple of reasons: firstly, to help prevent the compost drying out, and secondly to reduce the chances of any weed seeds that may be present near the soil surface from germinating.

Maximise growing space by 'Stacking'

Rather than making expensive interventions with potentially harmful consequences, permaculture is more about maximising the relationship between existing resources - this means working with what is already there in a harmonious way. Thus, using a permaculture principle called 'stacking', taller plants can be grown close to shorter ones - the taller ones are positioned furthest from the sun, and the smaller ones closer to it. This minimises competition for sunlight and means greater overall yields for the same area. 

This particular form of stacking is called 'vertical stacking'. We can also stack in time e.g. by growing crops that occupy the same space in different seasons so the land is productive throughout the year; or if we share the same living space with someone else but use  it at different times of the day. (Permaculture can help design social systems as well as gardens! Indeed it can help integrate the two!) In the photo, the tall plant against the back south-facing wall is a beautiful climbing french bean, called Blauhilde. Yet, even though it is at the back, it still gets plenty of sunlight by nature of its height. There's also a few tomato and perpetual spinach plants in the photo, as well as RosemarySo, lots of diversity in a small space.

 Here's a few of the purple french beans being harvested. The plant is high yielding and the beans are delicious! They also have this unusual characteristic that while purple when raw, they turn green when cooked! The plant also has wonderful tiny purple flowers that you can see more easily by enlarging the photo.  

Here is a close up of a perpetual spinach plant (protected by netting). What I love about perpetual spinach is, you plant it once and it provides yield for months on end. I'm surprised more people don't grow it. Even with just a few plants we  often had more than we could eat, and would often enjoy sharing the harvest with our neighbour.


Also planted were broad beans. These were actually harvested before the other crops. 

Permaculture Pricniple: The Problem is the Solution


In this picture are potatoes being chitted indoors to get them started early, before planting them in the soil outdoors. This particular variety came from Seedy Sunday.

There is a permaculture principle that 'the problem is the solution'. To make good use of space, I managed to secure some unwanted used tyres (the 'problem') from a local store, and used them to grow the potatoes (i.e the solution!).

As the potato plants grew, I would put another tyre on top of the existing ones, added some compost and topsoil, and thus made greater use of vertical space. This meant getting a greater yield for the same land surface area. 

Here's a sample of the harvest of potatoes


So that's a brief outline of a few permaculture principles that can be used by anyone, to grow food even in a small urban space. 

Permaculture Workshops

If you feel permaculture could be useful for your group and are interested in a workshop with Wisdom In Nature, click here for more information.

Further Reading 

 Here's a short selection of books that I've found useful and inspiring alongside course that I've attended...

The Permaculture Way / Also, The Permaculture Garden: Both by Graham Bell  
Two very readable books by the same author. Both are useful in their own right.

Permaculture: A Beginners Guide, By Graham Burnett
A wonderful little book provides an excellent introduction to the permaculture approach.

The One Straw Revolution: By Masanobu Fukuoka 
Not explicitly about permaculture but an inspiration to many permaculture practitioners.

The Earth Care Manual: By Patrick Whitefield
Comprehensive, and very well written. For Britain and other Temperate Climates.

Muzammal Hussain

22 Jan 2013

Islamic Group: Away from GM Crops - Towards Holistic Approaches Aligned with Core Islamic Principles

 WIN's Position on GM Food 

Away from GM Crops -
Towards holistic approaches aligned with core Islamic Principles 

"At WIN, through our research, discussions and reflections, we believe that the release of GM organisms into the wider ecology should, from an Islamic perspective, be opposed.

Furthermore, we believe that there are approaches - such as permaculture, organic farming and agroforestry - that have fewer risks, are based on a greater recognition of the interconnectedness of life, and which instead of undermining relationships, draw on principles that nurture them. They thus are more in alignment with core principles from the spiritual traditions including Islam. 

We ask Muslim communities around the world to wake up to the fact that industrial farming practices, of which GM is a part, do not fit with core Islamic values. In the same light, we cannot turn a blind eye to the fact that GM crops are fed to animals destined for halal slaughter. 

If the 'halal' stamp is incapable of defining what is Islamic, we must move beyond the false comfort zone the term 'halal' has provided, for it is now beyond any doubt that a more authentic 'Islam' needs to emerge, one that is alive to the challenges of our time, yet remains in union with the spirit of this beautiful tradition.

Also, we believe that as we move away from large scale industrial farming towards smaller scale decentralised food production, this would not only be more compatible with a sustainable, life supporting future, but would also lead to greater empowerment. Such a move will also draw people, land, livelihood and traditional local knowledge together, enriching biodiversity and nurturing community.

Witnessing the small, but growing numbers of Muslims working at the grassroots with fellow citizens of the world to create a new, more wholesome paradigm gives us much hope.

We have produced the GM section on our website in a style that we hope is readable, while outlining key background information to help readers appreciate the reasoning and principles leading us to take the clear position we have.

We received no funding for this project, and the production of this part of the website was completed entirely through voluntary efforts.

Wisdom In Nature is open to collaboration and partnerships with like-minded people, networks and organisations. Applications for volunteering are also welcome. Please get in touch!"


Visit the
GM & Islam section on
Wisdom In Nature's website>> 

13 Jan 2013

Seedy Sunday: UK's Biggest Seed Swap!: Sun 3rd Feb 2013, Brighton

Seedy Sunday Brighton, the UK's biggest and longest-running community seed swap event.
Date: Sunday 3rd February, 10am - 4.00pm 
Venue: Brighton Corn Exchange, Church Street, BN1 1UE.
Seedy Sunday is the UK's biggest community seed swap. The event takes place every February in Brighton and Hove, in southern England. Seedy Sunday is also a campaign to protect biodiversity and protest against the increasing control of the seed supply by a handful of large companies.

Entry to Seedy Sunday is just £3, concessions £2, children free. Come and enjoy more than 50 stalls, lots of talks, demonstrations and children's activities as well as the community seed-swap.
Seedy Sunday is supported by The Heritage Seed Library and The Millennium Seed Bank and generously sponsored by Infinity Foods. 
More info:
Location Map: Click here

Seedy Sunday Talks Programme 2013

Every year Seedy Sunday aims to provide a stimulating, challenging and entertaining series of talks during the day and this year we're very excited to have some great speakers joining us to discuss some very important topics. Whether you're interested in politics and campaigning or horticulture and sowing the seeds you've swapped, there are talks on this year's programme for everyone.  Each talk will be followed by an opportunity for questions and discussion. 
(Check the programme on the day for final details)

  • ‘Open Pollinated Seeds, Our Key to Seed Sovereignty’, Peter Brinch, The Open Pollinated Seeds Initiative
  • ‘Not Weeds But Resources’, Roy Vickery, South London Botanical Institute and editor of 
  • ‘Are you a first time seed-sower? An introduction to basic sowing and growing for the absolute beginner, Steve Bustin, local garden writer. 
  • ‘Saving Seeds from Corporate Control’, Patrick Mulvaney, UK Food Group.
  • James Wong, TV Botanist and science presenter and author of new book ‘James Wong’s Homegrown Revolution’.

More info:  
Location Map: Click here

12 Jan 2013

Two Faith-based Nonviolence Events- London, Jan 21st & 22nd 2013

WIN would like to draw attention to two upcoming events in London focusing on non-violence, that resonate with the underpinning Engaged Surrender strand of WIN: 

1) The Need for Faith Inspired Non-Violence Today
Monday January 21, 2013 6-9pm
St Ethelburga's Centre for Reconciliation and Peace
78 Bishopsgate London, EC2N 4AG
A Public Seminar on the legacy and influence of Martin Luther King with guest speaker Dr Qamar al Huda. Moderator Dr S. Ayse Kadayifci-Orellana. In association with the Cordoba Foundation.

Registration required - see

2) Seminar: Non Violence and Peace Building in Islam
Tuesday January 22, 2013 10:30am - 4pm
Initiatives of Change Centre
24 Greencoat Place, London, SW1P 1RD 

Organised by The Cordoba Foundation, Islamic Relief Worldwide, Initiatives of Change and Salam Institute for Peace and Justice.

A public seminar that will focus on addressing the Islamic traditions of nonviolence and peace-building, with talks from:

 * Professor Mohammed Abu Nimer (Salam Institute for Peace and Justice / American University)
 * Dr Qamar ul Huda (United States Institute of Peace)
 * Dr Ayse Kadayifci-Orellana (Georgetown University / Salam Institute for Peace and Justice)

Registration required - see

7 Jan 2013

GM Food Website Section coming soon...

GM Food has been a hot issue for quite a few years. Back in 1996, GM Soya products were being imported unlabelled into the UK, which meant that it made it difficult to avoid eating them. The anti-GM movement began to grow, and the issue exploded when Dr Arpad Pusztai announced results of GM feeding trials he had been conducting on rats and said that he would not eat GM foods. It seems that politicians got involved, and he was gagged. It was announced that he was confused, but this turned out to be false. 

A few Muslims were involved in campaigning against the genetic modification of our foods at the time, including myself through writing letters, giving talks, producing literature, mobilising for a march and putting together the occasional article. 

The GM debate is coming back on the scene with the UK government seemingly pretty pro-GM. As well as debate around GM, there are some bigger questions: 

For example, "What kind of food systems are best placed to provide people with sufficient good quality food, while also nurturing the land, and empowering and nurturing local communities?"; and "Given that there is more than sufficient food to feed everyone on the planet, why are people going hungry?"

Maybe, if we reflected on  questions like this, leaving aside corporate interests, we would move closer to understanding viable solutions to key challenges.

Over recent months, at WIN, we've been working hard to develop a GM Food & Islam section for our website. Within it, we look at fundamental questions like the ones above. We also raise important questions for Muslim communities, for as a social group we must take responsibility for having largely turned a blind eye to the wider context around food and farming. There is a need thus for serious reflection on the state of the world, as well as on ethical principles outlined in teachings that we hold dear.  We are in the final stages before we launch the website, and hope that it will not only be informative but will also encourage dialogue and positive action.  

Stay tuned!...