6 Nov 2006
Exclusive to Transition Culture! An Interview with Bob Flowerdew.
**”What To Do About Peak Oil? Grow Fruit!” An Interview with Bob Flowerdew. Totnes, Thursday 26th October.**
**Bob Flowerdew** is one of the UK’s best known organic gardening writers and broadcasters. On a tour to promote his new book The No Work Garden, we were fortunate to be able to put him on in Totnes. Just before Bob’s talk at Totnes Civic Hall I met him in town, and interviewed him over a pizza and garlic bread. This is a slightly edited transcript of our chat, which was regularly interrupted by the arrival of plates of pizza and so on. Bob’s regular references to my being a vegetarian came about from observing the pizza that I ordered!
We didn’t start with an actual question, I just told him about what we are doing with TTT and he just started talking…
“If you take your average 18 year old, straight out of school, could they light a fire in the fire place and keep it running with wood from the garden? Could they? Without smoking the entire house out, or burning it down? Those sort of skills we aren’t teaching any more. We need to be able to bake bread… you know, you might be able to find enough things to eat but could you actually turn them into food? This is the side of it that so much of the conversion to a greener world has got to address, it’s got to start in the home.
We are looking outside, we are looking at technology, we’re looking at big things, but we are not looking at the basics of life, like how many blankets do we have? Everybody has duvets and electric blankets, but how many blankets do you need if you haven’t got any heat in the house? Where are all the blankets? Where have all the blankets gone?
It’s these basics, the things that to our great grandparents were very simple and straightforward. They wore more clothes when it got cold … how many people now have a hat? I’ve got one in my bag in the car, because it keeps my head warm, but if you look at a picture of the 1930, everybody had a hat! It wasn’t style or fashion, it was because it was cold! It keeps your head warm, keeps the rain off. Now we are so used to moving in a car or public transport door-to-door that we forget that we need to keep warm.
You are a vegetarian, that’s fine, but a lot of people aren’t. How many people could actually, supposing they could get their hands on a rabbit, turn it into rabbit stew, without killing themselves with food poisoning or dying of squeamishness? Simple skills that our great grandparents would have had and even our grandparents had. ome people still have them, but to me that’s actually more of a concern, because we can have big plans, and Government-led plans, but its no good if at the bottom end people don’t know what to do.
It is this gulf between what we do have to have every day which is food, warmth and shelter, and what you actually need to do if you don’t have all the modern backup to give it to you. Supposing there’s a minor disaster, a meteorite falls between here and London knocking out the National Grid and the motorway, so the supermarkets run out of food in 6 hours. How many people have got enough in the kitchen, stored up in packets and tins to last more than a week?
Of course. Who has candles any more?! I have, but my concern is that we have to re-educate people in these things that are very important that they need, basic skills we should be teaching at school. Not just domestic economy, or food science, but actual survival skills. Not how to microwave an instant supper, which is what they get if they do get anything, but how to peel potatoes, and how to grow potatoes, keeping chickens, things that 50 years ago everybody did and had to do.
If we Dig For Victory now the gardens are all too small! In 1943, the average house had a significantly larger garden plot than now. By now there’s another house on that garden. Let’s face it, if disaster does strike, and we are back to a survival stage, then growing and cooking food is the only important thing. Then finding fuel and being able to keep yourself warm. Now there are many older houses that have a fireplace, some modern houses have a stove or a fireplace, but how many modern houses are built without any chimney. So if you are going to have a fire and burn old magazines or car tyres or whatever is available, how do you get the smoke out of the house? It does strike me that we perhaps should look at the planning regulations to insist that all new houses have a chimney.
**In terms of how can promote the culture of local food self reliance, where can we start?**
The best way to get anyone to do something is to show them how good it is and that it works. If you want to get people to want to grow more food for themselves and to buy local food and to actually go back to growing and eating better food rather than ready made, which actually, I’m not against instant food, junk food, any of it, its very nice and convenient, but it shouldn’t be all of life. If we want people to be more self reliant we have to go back to cooking. We all have to be taught to cook the basics, and I do think that we do need to have the basics of growing stuff. Simply because if you don’t know what it is, how can you make decisions?
I used to get into arguments years ago with Friends of the Earth people, who were all for changing the world, but who had no idea of what a farmer was supposed to do once he had given up his tractor! There is this lack of knowledge about what actually is required. Their hearts are in the right place, but their heads don’t understand the basic problems.
I’ve been through a lot of different diets, and the one that really amazed me was macrobiotic, simply because the idea is that people only eat what is local, but then they eat brown rice! Since when did brown rice grow in England! (laughs) Every area you look in there are fundamental flaws in the processing… you are a vegetarian, I gave it up because I couldn’t kill my carrots with a clean conscience, they don’t want to be eaten either…. I became a fruitarian, as it is the only thing Nature wants us to eat. We eat the pulp and spread the seeds. That is the deal Nature has given us. Nothing else wants to be eaten. Nothing.
Again, we tend to break things down into simplistic little ideas, we’re OK in our little world, but out there the kids, quite often, are eating junk food, they are not getting taught how to cook food, they are nutritionally dissatisfied. If you are nutritionally dissatisfied, your head is not quite right. An example of this is supposing you are rushing around, you have a great big pile of greasy chips, some chocolate, some fizzy drinks, a bag a crisps, you have all those, then how do you feel? You feel full, replete maybe, but are you nutritionally comfortable? Then you are about to take a parking place, and some bastard comes in the other direction and takes it. How close to a serious fracas are you?
Now we’ll take another day, same harassed lifestyle, but you have a brown roll with a salad, a nice chunk of fresh cheese, some fresh fruit compote, a banana and a smoothie, and now that same guy takes your place. It’s not meat that makes us aggressive, it crap makes you aggressive! What I see around me is people who are all nutritionally disadvantaged, and they can’t do much about it because they don’t know what to do. In fact all they know to do is go to the next food outlet and buy some more, or going to the supermarket and buying something ready done and putting it in the oven, but they will never get what they are looking for.
Why does the US have such an obesity epidemic, and why are we following suit? If the food you eat doesn’t have enough zinc, you are going to want to keep eating until you get enough zinc. If you are eating crap that doesn’t contain enough zinc in the first place, you will continue eating. There are many reasons why people are grossly overweight, lack of exercise, genetics in some people, just straightforward eating too much. I suspect a large number of people are eating too much because they are trying to find the nutrition that they haven’t got. You need many minerals and their bodies are looking for it…. If they knew how to cook, they would be buying different things. When you start to cook, you automatically try to cook better. Generally you enjoy things and will try to improve them. If we want people to be able to look after themselves come what may, the best thing to do is to teach people to cook. If they can’t cook, what are they going to do? They’re going to kill each other, and then roast somebody over a fire, because that’s something they could probably work out! (laughs) I just hope they gut it first!
**When we talk about growing food intensively in urban areas, which techniques are most appropriate?**
Stop lobbying people to grow more vegetables. Vegetables are very worthy, but they require a lot of work. Vegetables need full sun, they need a rich soil, most of them need sowing every year, they need thinning, they may not need watering here, but they will need tending, but the trouble with vegetables is they are quite picky, the same garden will never grow good carrots and good brassicas, they have two different requirement. Vegetables are nutritionally superior, but what I am suggesting is that people who want to be healthier by having more of their own in a small garden, because gardens are too small nowadays to grow everything, and people don’t have the time, is to first of all grow herbs, because herbs just add a lot of quality and take no space at all, and very little work.
The next thing is to look at most expensive purchases. If you buy a lot of garlic or hot peppers, it is probably, in terms of economics, worth growing those. If you like French Beans and you eat a lot of them it may be worth growing them, you can buy organic potatoes by the sack from an organic farmer a lot cheaper and with a lot less effort than if you grow them. If you love potatoes and you want to get into them, then grow them, but if you just want potatoes, don’t go into the efforts of growing them, because it’ll kill you with the workload.
What people should be doing is growing fruit. The benefits of fruit are radically different. Firstly the cost isn’t high. With soft fruit you can buy blackcurrants, gooseberries, raspberries, strawberries, for less than a pint of beer or two, the plants are very cheap. You put them in, ideally you put up a fruit cage. You don’t need to, just old net curtains will keep the birds off to an extent. You can mulch underneath, thick mulches of old carpet and cardboard, throw something over the top and you’ll get a crop with doing very little.
If you grow fruit the advantages are many fold. The economic costs are actually less than vegetables over 5 years. Fruit trees are VAT free too! Flowering plants aren’t, so if you fill your garden with fruit you are saving money. The next thing is you only have to do the job once. It is relatively easy to make a big effort. A lot of people start an allotment, get the garden under and then find they can’t keep up with the maintenance. A vegetable bed has to be maintained. Fruit, be it blackcurrants, an apple tree, a plum tree, whatever, you stick it in and you can basically get away with doing absolutely bugger all for the next 10-15 years. It does improve the soft fruit to be pruned, it helps if you mulch, but it is much easier than digging up vegetables from the mud.
Next thing is in terms of value, fruit is usually more expensive to buy than vegetables. The next thing is ecology. Seeds are very intensively grown, even organic ones, they require a lot of inputs, whereas most trees that you buy, be it soft fruit or trees, are open field-grown from slips and cuttings, they stick them in the ground and next year they dig them up, you don’t need to spray them, don’t need to dry them, or package them, so in ecological terms buying fruit instead of packets of seed is really much better.
Then we’ve got the benefits to the environment. A vegetable bed is bare soil. This is anathema to nature. It washes out nutrients, it’s not good. Fruit, be it through grass or mulch, preferably mulch, is much kinder, the soil is covered, it doesn’t blow away or wash away. Then you’ve got the value. Vegetables are no use to wildlife whatsoever, apart from those that flower. There is a little value from the flowering of potatoes, some insects might get a benefit from that, the peas could possibly help one or two, but basically vegetables do not benefit nature. All fruiting plants produce flowers which help the insects.
Then you have returns to the soil. Vegetables, yes your surpluses can be returned to the soil as compost, but with a tree or soft fruit you get treefall, petal fall, you get the fruits that you don’t use. If you don’t eat your vegetables, and believe me, most vegetables aren’t eaten, they are left to die and put in the compost heap, go to any allotment and you’ll see more vegetables going to waste than were consumed on most plots. You’ll see a row of beetroots, a row of brussel sprouts, a row of parsnips, they never intended to eat them but they’ve grown them. What eats them apart from a slug? It is no benefit to the ecology.
If you have an apple tree it’s going to be covered with thrushes and blackbirds all eating the fruit. If you grow soft fruit you’re going to feed them even earlier than that. If you don’t use it nature does, so fruit is so much more beneficial in that way. Then there is ease. Although some vegetables store easily, on average they need processing; peas, beetroot, you can’t just put them in a cupboard and wait for them, and you can’t just put them in the freezer (if you’ve got a freezer) because you need to blanche them before you freeze them or they go off, or you need to pickle them.
Very little fruit can be stored as easily as potatoes and apples can, but the majority can be juiced, and the juice frozen, I know its using technology but it’s still a very useful one, or they can be dried. Drying fruit is very sensible. One of the great advantages with any processing, pickling, jamming, fermenting, is that if vegetables go wrong there are serious problems, food poisoning, whereas if fruit goes wrong you get drunk! If you’re not very good at following instructions and you make piccalilli you could poison yourself. If you’re not very good at making jam, it might not be good but it’s not going to poison you.
Then there’s aesthetics. I know some people like the look of a vegetable garden, but you’re far better looking out there at the flowering trees. A flowering cherry is no prettier than a fruiting cherry, so why plant a flowering tree when you could plant a flowering tree that also produces fruit? Then there is the pragmatic reason. You are a vegetarian. You already eat a lot of fruit and vegetables. The average person doesn’t. One of the reasons why I think vegetarians are healthier isn’t because they eat less meat, its because they eat more fruit and vegetables.
Take the average person, rather than yourself. How difficult do you think it would be for the average person to eat another half pound of iceberg lettuce a week? Or a punnet of strawberries? Or one apple, or two peaches? They all contain the same vitamin C. So which is going to be easier to add to your already lousy diet?
Cabbage is a lot healthier than apples, but which one are you going to eat? Spinach is a lot better for you than strawberries, but which one are you going to eat? Then there’s children of any age, up to say 70. Why do we think we should feed children greens? You or I need maintenance, our bodies are complete, we don’t want them to get any bigger, we’re into maintenance and repair, we need greens and folic acid in order to repair ourselves. Children are trying to put on weight, they’ve got to grow.
If you have a garden, and at one end you have a veggie garden and at the other end a fruit cage, and we’re talking about the summer holidays, where are the kids going to go? Are you going to find them pulling up carrots? Eating lettuce? Chomping their way through a cabbage? Or are they going to be there eating strawberries, raspberries, blackcurrants and gooseberries? You don’t have to encourage them! You’ll need a lock on the fruit cage door to keep them out!
**The Transition Town Totnes food group is looking at practical ways to relocalise the food supply system. Do you have any thoughts on that?**
We have to cut our losses. The current generation coming out of schools are almost irredeemably lost. We haven’t the time or the energy – but we can save the next lot. We must teach them cooking, and get them interested in growing. If you want to get them interested in growing stuff, get every variety of strawberry that wil grow locally, grow them on a plot and then invite every child to a taste-in day. Ask them which one they prefer and then give them a rooted runner to take home with them, or send it round later. They will almost certainly manage to grow some strawberries in a pot, it’s not impossible; if they can keep it alive it will fruit for them next year.
That will win them over far quicker than any logic, get them growing what they thought was the best flavoured one. After that Nature will take its course, but we have to teach them to cook simple things and get them so they can do that – and grow simple things. I don’t want them all to be forced out and made to grow stuff, just to be interested in it and grow one or two things initially.
**Does the climate in Devon present any particular challenges?**
You may need to look for new varieties of fruit from, say, New Zealand and other places with milder winters, because your major handicap is you don’t get a dormant period, so some things like blackcurrants which currently crop for you, as the climate becomes milder still, if it does, won’t crop so well, because they need a dormant period. You have a slight problem with the mildness with some fruits. You have plenty of rain. You have rich soil probably short on lime.
title=’bob1′ alt=’bob1′ />There are only one or two crops you wouldn’t be able to grow so well without adding lime, but there are no great difficulties to growing anything. I grow pineapples in Norfolk for crying out loud, undercover. But the total amount of heat I have throughout the year is perhaps one bathroom fan heater, because I use so many layers of insulation. I have a polytunnel inside a polytunnel, and then triple layers of bubbled plastic.
**Could the UK feed itself?**
We have sufficient land. What we don’t have is the skills. In World War 2, gardeners produced more nutrition than the farmers. Farms could produce the basics, but the real food, what kept people alive, the vitamins and minerals and so on were all home produced. Gardeners have always got a higher yield per acre than farmers, always. Now the parks are gone, the playing fields are gone, the gardens have gone, so we’re going to have to have a public horse and cart to take people out to the nearest fields where they can grow their crops, because otherwise they’re not going to be able to.
In World War Two Dig For Victory dug up the playing fields, parks and garden lawns, now the lawn’s got a bungalow on it or a block of flats, the playing field’s got 5 blocks of flats, the park’s been sold off, there isn’t the land in where the conurbations are. I see that as being a serious problem.
But we are clever. We can find ways, providing we have the time. The time is the problem, I do think the clock is ticking. We are on the way to a disaster. We may manage to put it off for a generation, but we cannot carry on the way we are. There’s no way we can carry on using energy and resources at the rate we’re doing. It doesn’t work. We have to start planning for it.
I can’t give up my car because I need it for work, I live out in the country. I bicycle every day, to the local shop but I can’t cycle down to my local town and cycle back with all the things I still need to buy. One day, if disaster strikes and there’s no more supermarket, I’ll go back to wiping my arse on leaves, but until that day I’m going to go and buy my toilet paper from the supermarket. You have to live in the real world, “render unto Caesar