This Sussex Life. Zoology undergrad Robbie Hoar: "Without wildlife there’ll be no food for people."
By: Jacqui Bealing
Last updated: Thursday, 20 May 2021
Zoology undergraduate Robbie Hoar is learning about and taking part in creating a Forest Food Garden on campus.
I’ve always been interested in growing food plants. I applied for an allotment as soon as I got my address at Sussex, but then I found out about the Sussex Roots society, a community garden on campus, and joined that. Last year Dr John Parry, a lecturer in the School of Education and Social Work, asked us if we were interested in taking his new Forest Food Garden module, and that really excited us.
A forest food garden is all about layers, from the top canopy, such as nut and fruit trees, moving down to smaller trees and shrubs, and then to the ground level with herbaceous plants and ground cover, not forgetting the root layer, which plays a key role in preventing soil erosion. The forest garden recreates an open woodland, giving space for a great diversity of species with food growing at each of the levels. The canopy creates a humid micro-climate below, allowing specialised species to thrive. The plan for a strip of land, measuring 2.5 acres, at the far northern end of campus is to develop it in four stages over the next six years.
For the first term we looked at understanding forest gardens – the social science of them, the nutritional value, and the implications from a global perspective. The second term is about how to create a forest garden, so we measured the site and plotted all the existing trees on a map, and we started planning which trees we wanted on the site, where they might go and how they might all integrate to make the optimal eco-system for growing food and attracting wildlife.
We don’t just want to plant food for people, we want to plant it for wildlife as well, because without wildlife there’ll be no food for people. We need our pollinators and our natural pest control – all these things that are currently in our standard monocultures are controlled by herbicides and pesticides.
Our forest garden on campus is next to mature woodland, so planting our trees here first means this woodland will support the garden in terms of protection from the elements, but it will also feed these trees and support their growth. Underground is a whole network of mycelial [fungus] threads – research has shown that they communicate between trees, passing nutrients ... and who knows what else.
There’s a lot of hawthorn on the site, which will be quite useful for grafting onto for apples or pears or peaches. We also have beech and maple and some oak. We’ll leave them in because it will support the other trees and their growth. We’re also planting whips because when you have a new ecosystem starting, you have pioneer species like birch and hawthorn, which is starting to happen, but we are going to speed up that process and get other trees planted in. They’ll eventually come out, but while they’re growing they’re enhancing the soil structure and helping it to lock together, and they’ll make it a better climate for other things to grow.
I wouldn’t have survived this past year without this module. A few others on the module feel the same. It’s been nice to switch off from just reading scientific papers. We came to the site a few times and sat in the grass and wrote poems. A lot of people had never written a poem before. It was a different way of thinking, trying to imagine what it would be like in the future from the perspective of a bird or the soil. It was good, especially for the people who had been struggling through Covid and were becoming Zoom exhausted.
We know that climate change and biodiversity loss is happening. Now it’s time for action. However many academic papers you research, and however many times you talk about it, you actually need to start changing it. Planting forest gardens gives our society resilience in the face of climate change as well as providing a safe, local source of nutrition for people and wildlife.
We’re going to have an educational hub for growing and biodiversity. It’s all about growing it, eating it and then turning what’s left back into the ecosystem, which is what we try to do with Roots and the compost. We want to get a shared building where people can learn, cook and innovate. We’re looking at getting a hemp bale building, which is more sustainable than current modern building techniques.
A lot of learning looks at problems. This is more focused on implementing practical solutions. Around 17 students were on the module this year while about 25 students are enrolled for the module next year, with more on the waiting list. People want to learn about this and get involved in sustainable solutions.
Although I won’t be here to see this finished, I think that’s the beauty of it. When you’re planting these trees, you may not live to taste their fruits, but some might feed your kids. I think that’s something we’ve lost in our society with the farming practices that we have. The focus is on how to increase the yearly yield without consideration for how this will affect the land for future harvest. That’s really messing up our ability to sustain ourselves and be resilient in a changing world.
This profile is part of our This Sussex Life series