Tweed Horizons: permaculture growing and living in the Scottish Borders

Maddy Harland
Tuesday, 1st October 1996

Maddy Harland reports on a groundbreaking eco demonstration centre on the banks of the River Tweed

By a beautiful meander of the River Tweed in the Scottish Borders is Tweed Horizons, Centre For Sustainable Technology funded by Scottish Borders Enterprise and the Millennium Commission. The Centre, a converted monastery, is the first of its kind in Britain and was established in 1993 to support a variety of projects in the areas of environmental design, green products, sustainable agriculture and ecological architecture. Some of the most innovative work taking place at the Centre is being directed by permaculture designer and author, Graham Bell, who has set up a permaculture consultancy, Earthward.

The underpinning philosophy of Earthward is stewardship: "...sustainability means permanence. Permanent societies are those which endure across generations, without damaging their natural resources. Sustainable societies are impossible without environ-mental stewardship and care for the physical environment is meaningless without care for people..." The Earthward team address the problems of impermanence with a variety of approaches.

In The Garden

Earthward have set up a number of demonstrations in the grounds of Tweed Horizons. There is a young forest garden, which includes a gene bank of useful top fruit and nut cultivars. An orchard has been restored, and an organic fruit and vegetable garden has been established using permaculture techniques.

Many of the plants are propagated in a south facing greenhouse which doubles as a tool store. The concrete base of the building acts as a thermal store, an important design feature in the cool Scottish Borders. Rainwater is harvested wherever possible, grape vines shade the sunny greenhouse in summer, protecting vulnerable young plants, and there are composting systems for organic matter generated on site. Green manures, such as comfrey, sunflowers, clover, mustard and phacelia, are grown on site to generate nutrients and keep soil fertility high. In the initial phase, horse manure was imported to improve the soil but, as the garden matures, Earthward aims to be self-sufficient in compost. The gardens demonstrate just how much can be grown in a permaculture garden.

Earthward intend to set up a Community Supported Agriculture scheme and an organic co-operative, supplying fruit and vegetables to local markets, including caterers and hotels as well as individuals, thus virtually eliminating food miles and creating community links.

Everything possible is recycled on site, including juice and milk cartons which double as flowerpots for growing on seedlings. Mulch is used everywhere, except on seed beds, to preserve soil, moisture and suppress weeds. Some soft fruit such as jostaberries and gooseberries are grown as standards which are successfully interplanted with annual and perennial vegetables and fruit to take advantage of both vertical and horizontal space. Companion planting is practised; for example, garlic is planted with Swiss chard under clear plastic sheeting. The plastic encourages early establishment of the plants and the garlic deters slugs.

At the end of each bed are 'conservation headlands'. These are mini forest gardens planted with perennials - trees, shrubs and perennial flowers and herbs - which provide an overwintering habitat for beneficial insects and form part of the integrated pest management system in the gardens. The headlands have permanent ground cover and consist of plants like bugle, Jacob's Ladder, sedum (edible leaves), primulas (edible flowers) and hawkweed which provide forage for the Earthward beehives and attract the beneficial insects which feed on the garden's pests. They also provide a beautiful edge to the well maintained garden which is a pleasure to visit. The gardens provide an opportunity for skill training through work experience placements. Earthward are already employing 5 full time, 1 part time and 3 trainee people. Together they are building a gene bank of rare biological material especially adapted to their regional climate, specialising in north hardy varieties, and investigating low work, high output techniques. The demonstration sites also provide a practical focus for the various courses on offer - from permaculture design and forest gardening to grafting and land use regeneration.

New Life For Hill Farms

In a four hectare field sloping down to a meander of the River Tweed is an agroforestry demonstration designed and implemented by Earthward. Two hectares of the field are planted with trees in seven strips, slightly off contour. Each is managed differently. There are 30-40 species of native broadleaf trees in the design, planted in such strips. Beneath these is a shrub layer which include nitrogen fixing plants such as gorse. The long-term climax trees, such as oak and ash, are planted with faster growing pioneer trees, including rowan, birch and willow, which act as a nurse to the climax trees.

The livestock levels on this land remain the same as in a conventional hill farm, but what is different is the diversity of plants and animals. The trees create wildlife habitats which in turn will reduce pests. Turkeys, ducks, geese and chickens are run in the woodland strips and sheep and shorthorn cattle in the field. The poultry weed, fertilise and graze the grass around the trees and forage wild fruit and nuts from the under storey. Poultry also yield meat and eggs, another potential product for the farmer.

The trees create a microclimate and improve the health of the livestock, providing shade in summer reducing stress from overheating, and shelter from the wind in winter. Rotating grazing cattle and sheep on the pasture outside the woodland strips also produces better pasture and healthier stock. The trees prevent downslope erosion, and soil is built through root mining for minerals which return to the soil by leaf fall. The trees will provide animal feed from brashings and edge trimmings, and forage for humans and animals such as wild fruit and fungi. There are also opportunities for making higher value products, such as jams, chutneys and coppice crafts, and an improved, more diverse landscape. Add to this the possibility of grant aid to set the system up and you are looking at an economically viable alternative for the struggling hill farmers.

Graham Bell describes the system as: "...woodland and farming. It is looking at what we can do to increase the fertility of upland hill farms and find some benefits as well. Everything we do is concerned with developing the rural economy and in particular in using land in ways which are environmentally kind."

He acknowledges that fencing is required in the system to rotate poultry and sheep around the site and that individual yields may be relatively small. But it is the combination of all the yields which gives all round economic benefits to the farmer, often working marginal hill farms and struggling to survive. He aims to encourage farmers to co-operate in trials and reverse the spiral of decline which is affecting this traditional way of life. Encouraging too are the grants on offer to support this work. The Forestry Commission supports the renovation of derelict woodlands and there are also grants for planting new farm woodland schemes and for creating a more diverse landscape.

Creating A Sustainable Future

Graham's sense of place fuels his commitment to the project.

"My family comes from the Borders and I have lived in the Borders for 8 years. To me coming back here was about coming back to where my family had to leave because there wasn't any work here. Many people throughout Scotland and certainly in the Borders have had similar experiences. What we are trying to do is find ways of working with the land profitably, building the fertility of what we have, but also creating incomes so that young people in the Borders can see that there is a future here. So rather than simply mining our upland pasture for sheep fodder, which is effectively what most farmers are driven to do on marginal hill farms, we are creating a system where the trees are actually feeding the land. Because they are planted slightly off the contour in strips along the hillside rather than in square boxes they also resist downslope erosion so we can keep some of that topsoil on our land instead of watching it go down the River Tweed. The improved stock health means better lambing rates so we can look to a more profitable hill farm which gives you the woodland for free. Then you can also start looking for coppice products, fruit for human consumption, country jam and wine as further products on the back of the land."

The agroforestry demonstration site was formally opened in May 1996 by Sir Michael Strang Steel, a Forestry Commissioner and farmer. His enthusiasm was unmistakable: "An excellent project... Hill farming in particular is very fragile and subsidies are sustaining it. If the subsidies were reduced or withdrawn in the future, any way in which you could improve the productivity without increasing the expenditure must be right."