II.6: HORTICULTURE

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Some authorities argue that the future of food production lies with horticulture. Horticulture is small compared with arable and livestock, when measured by monetary value, investment, and area, but it has enormous potential. Indeed it can be seen as the gateway to a better world, based on Enlightened Agriculture.

The term “horticulture” derives from the Latin hortus meaning garden (professional growers are called market gardeners), and gardening implies tender loving care applied to every square decimetre and every individual plant – and all that TLC pays off. Certainly in terms of biomass and cash value horticulture can provide far more food per unit area – sometimes orders of magnitude more – than arable, which in turn is generally far more productive per unit area than livestock. As quite a few suburbanites have demonstrated, all the vegetables needed by a family of five may be grown on a patio.

So it is, too, that horticulture can make good use of every scrap of land – and the world as a whole contains billions of hectares of scraps. In the great days of Britain’s railways signalmen grew vegetables on the railway banks. Vegetables and fruit are flourishing as I write in various plots around police and fire stations, lovingly tended by the incumbents. All institutions – hospitals, schools, prisons – could have their own market gardens, and many have, always with enormous benefits. It’s easy to create micro-climates which may double the yields – not just with glass and polythene but also with simple shelter. Walls act as storage heaters. The traditional walled gardens could be wonderfully productive and so, too, the “vertical gardens” now to be seen in many a city. Many an office block in many a city now has a mini-market garden on the roof. Most urban horticulture at present is retro-fitted but future estates and cities should be designed de novo with horticulture in mind – like the finest country estates of old.

Equally to the point, horticulture provides a route for everyone to get involved in food production; an essential step on the road to food sovereignty and the creation of true food culture. Herbs can be grown in window boxes. Many a city has seen the rise of “guerrilla gardening”, where people who often have no home of their own on which to keep a window box, are growing vegetables in every niche. In many a city, too, people with energy who have no land of their own tend the gardens of those who have land but no time or energy, again to everyone’s benefit.

Horticulture lends itself most readily to organic husbandry, including its variations like permaculture and biodynamic gardening (and farming).

Vegetables and fruit also gain when livestock is integrated – usually starting with chickens to eat the surpluses and scratch up the ground and add fertility. Thus the garden starts to turn into a smallholding, the small-scale mixed farm.

Finally and vitally, horticulture offers a realistic route into professional farming. As we have seen, countries like Britain now need many more farmers, and farming when done properly is one of the great vocations, endlessly satisfying. In the present economy, it’s very hard to get started but even in Britain, if they are in the right areas, many market gardeners make a living and provide employment for others on just a couple of hectares, rented for a few hundred pounds or, even in these extortionate times, bought for the price of a big car. You don’t have to be a multi-millionaire to get started (see Part VII, and my own book, Six Steps Back to the Land, Green Books, 2016).

But as always there are caveats. Horticulture in the western world in particular has focused more and more on high-value crops, including leaf salads, which may supply vital minerals, vitamins, and cryptonutrients but provide little or no protein or food energy, the macronutrients. Thus horticulture as it is commonly practised, and at its most lucrative, cannot “feed the world”; and hence cannot as things stand assume centre stage. The answer is to grow more and more of the staple crops that now are seen to be exclusively arable, including cereals, on the horticultural scale. This should become a serious area of study.

Secondly, horticulture like all forms of farming can be biosphere-friendly, which in general means sustainable, if practised according to the principles of agroecology, and it can make use of endless organic waste which otherwise would merely pollute. But it also lends itself to intensification of the worst kind. Modern garden centres may be havens of agrochemistry. Organic horticulture too can make huge and unacceptable inroads on the biosphere. It has long been recognized that peat should not be pillaged on the scale of the past just to lighten the top few inches of topsoil, yet the trade continues; and seaweed, too, pressed into service as a fertilizer, needs far more protection than it often seems to get.

Horticulture, in short, like all agriculture, needs a lot of radical rethinking – and indeed, as explored in this section, a lot of rethinking is being done.