June 2016: Learning through Growing

It’s almost June already and the fruits of our labours over the last six months are beginning to flourish. In particular our summer educational displays are coming along promisingly. As you may know our motto here at the Greenhouses is “Learning through growing, growing through learning!” and this summer we’re doing more than ever to live up to it.

On June 17th our “Edible Jungle” display will open to the public in the lower greenhouse. We’ll be taking advantage of the extra heat afforded by the greenhouse and an enormous “hotbed” powered by horse manure to grow some of the many foods found in jungles and tropical forests around the globe. These are some of the most biodiverse ecosystems the Earth has ever seen, so it is no surprise they should also provide a bounty of food for humans too. For hundreds of thousands of years (the vast majority of our history) humans relied on wild foods like these for their sustenance and even today many of them remain favourites and are still gathered from semi-cultivated or wild environments.  Wander through and learn about the plants that produce some of your favourite and most exotic foods!

Outdoors we are also creating displays that highlight where the foods we eat come from and the different ways that agriculture developed, shaping human culture in the process.

The “3-sisters” bed shows an early system of agriculture developed by semi-nomadic Native American farming peoples. The Three Sisters are Maize (or Sweetcorn), Climbing Beans and Squashes or Pumpkins. The Maize acts as a pole for the beans to climb and the beans in turn anchor the maize against the wind, while locking Nitrogen into the soil through the action of Nitrogen-fixing bacteria living in nodules on their roots. The Squashes sprawl across the ground at their feet, protecting the soil from erosion, locking in moisture and shading out weeds. These three crops together are also a very nutritious balance, reportedly providing all of the amino acids required to produce the proteins needed by the human body.

Next door, our World Crops display bed is a gastronomic tour of the world, showing where many of the vegetables we grow and eat today in the UK originally came from and how they got here. Thanks to Britain’s Northerly latitude, ice ages have repeatedly scoured it of most of it’s vegetation over the last 100,000 years and so it has a relatively unvaried flora compared to botanical hotspots like Southern Europe, Asia Minor, China and Central America. Agriculture also developed relatively late in Britain and so  most of the wonderful variety of vegetables we can grow in the UK today are a result of  continuous waves of trade, invasion and immigration.

You may also have seen our Wheatfield already, where, with the help of Brockwell Bake, we are growing six different varieties of cereal that are now rare in cultivation. Wheat and other cereals were first domesticated and grown around 10,000 years ago by people living in an area often called the ‘Fertile Crescent’ in today’s Middle East. At about the same time rice was domesticated in China and Maize in Central America. Grains like these provided an easily stored surplus of food, which reduced the need to migrate or hunt and allowed for the creation of wealth, currency, taxes and social hierarchy. Interestingly many social anthropologists now believe that pre-agrarian societies were healthier, freer, more equal, had more leisure time, fewer wars and a more varied diet! However once the process had begun, agriculture spread across the globe, until by roughly the 16th century it was almost completely dominant. Today’s vast global population is sustained by a diet almost 60% based on cereals and grains.

Finally, tucked away at the bottom of the garden is our new seed saving bed, grown in collaboration with the London Freedom Seed Bank. The London Freedom Seed Bank is a network of food growers and gardeners dedicated to saving, storing and distributing vegetable, herb and flower seeds. They think that everyone should have access to organic and locally-saved seeds for more resilient, higher yielding and nutritious crops. Since they formed in 2012, they have trained over 100 growers about the basics of saving vegetable seeds and have distributed hundreds of free seed packets. Now they are working towards creating a network of seed gardens across London to promote better awareness of seed saving issues and to provide opportunities for training and education. By volunteering to grow some plants specifically to save seed from this year, we will be helping to raise awareness of their work and seed saving in general, as well as providing ourselves and others with an abundance of seed for next year’s growing!

Look out for more info on workshops and events connected with all of the above and be sure to pop in and take in the displays for yourself when you get the chance!

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