On Radical Ecology and Tender Gardening

Permaculture | Guerrilla Gardening
Forêt Comestible de Gilbert et Josine Cardon, 2011

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As thousands of other workers in this former industrial region, Gilbert Cardon was laid off in the ’70 and was looking for an activity to make ends meet. Growing your own food is taking things in your own hands and creating autonomy. Josine and Gilbert, involved as volunteers in projects in South-America in earlier years, set up the association Les Fraternités Ouvrières. In fact, this association is a prolongation of their labour and social activities, of enabling access for all to healthy and diversified food, while empowering people. The idea is that organic food is not a luxury only available to the rich. Healthy, colourful, tasty and ecologically grown food is a right for all. Solidarity, equity and ecology are at the core of Les Fraternités Ouvrières.

The whole garden is based on the principle of no crop rotation. Between the trees there is space for a huge variety of vegetables, herbs, aromatic plants, et cetera, which follow each other in cycles of summer and winter crops. The soil is not turned and branches of tomato plants are not cut. In one glass house, where they grow tomatoes, potatoes and aubergines, these crops actually do better when not rotated, contrary to what is often said.

The fruit trees are cut in full season between spring and September. There are several advantages to do so. First, you see what plant you cut - harder to see in winter when the leaves are gone. Second, to reduce the effect of the first aphids arriving in summer, which form mildew on the leaves. This also prevents the tree from growing too big and putting energy in its growth instead of producing fruits. Third, as soon as the buts are closed (goes faster in warmer weather), they do not only retain the sap of the branches, but also change the concentration from liquid and full of nitrogen into more solid. The latter will not be appreciated by the aphids and they will die. So the trees are better protected and can produce plenty of fruits. The cutted branches are left as fertilizer on the ground.

The set-up was not left to chance. On the outside of the garden, larger fruit trees were planted. They protect the (inner) garden plants from wind and rain. As a result the dense garden has a microclimate enabling many different botanical species to grow and to protect each other from disease, wind, cold, et cetera. In winter the temperature is 3 to 5°C above average and in summer slightly cooler and humid. The soil, the source of all this wealth, is not only better protected, but evaporates less. So no additional watering needed.

The number of different plants is incredible - biodiversity is at its maximum in this city garden. Apples, pears, prunes, apricots, figs, cherries, grapes, kiwis, a variety of berries, all kinds of vegetables grow here. There is also a small pont attracting insects and frogs. Furthermore, they apply different types of glass houses. The most remarkable one is called the Californian. The glass walls are constructed on a water basin, even containing fish. This mass of water creates a microclimate, allowing temperature control, which protects the small seeds in the pots in winter from the cold and cools it in summer. The vegetation on the outside is so positioned that it allows the sun in during winter and covers it during summer.

In 1978 they started giving courses on responsible gardening, cooking, bread making and so on. Recently cycles of conferences and reflection groups were organised treating diverse societal issues. Sharing the experiences is at the core of this amicable couple. Already 8000 people followed these courses. Furthermore, cycles of conferences and reflection groups on diverse societal issues. Almost every Sunday throughout the year people can follow courses on permaculture. Each Thursday afternoon they have an open doors day - actually their door is never closed - and people can visit the garden for free. They receive 2000 visitors each year coming from different countries. This shows the growing interest in this type of gardening.

The accompanying house contains a treasure of life: seeds. Four walls of shelves up until the ceiling contain an enormous collection of seeds, carefully arranged and numbered. It accommodates the seeds of 5000 different varieties of vegetables, cereals, flowers, aromatic and medical plants, fruit trees, and ancient sorts. The seeds come from gardeners, associations and other seed collectors from Europe and beyond. The association Fraternités Ouvrières also consists of a group of people buying collectively, a so-called groupe d’achat, in order to reduce the price of the various agricultural products and tools needed. Since 1980 they have planted together with around 100 families about 50.000 fruit trees.

This garden is a beautiful story of abundance, in a rather unexpected city environment, still struggling to get to terms with its previous industrial era and human labour deforestation. This Garden of Eden surpasses any imagination.