Greenhouse Pioneer: Alys Fowler

Alys is a presenter on BBC Gardener’s World, and a widely published journalist whose work appears in The Guardian, The Garden, Gardeners’ World Magazine, Gardens Illustrated and Horticulture Week.

Alys Fowler with dogThe ‘grow your own’ movement is getting a lot of attention lately, and there isn’t a better advocate for it than Alys Fowler. Alys is a gardening superstar, but without a star’s ego. Naturally warm, modest, eclectic and funny, she’s the gardener next door — who just happened to train at the Royal Horticultural Society, the New York Botanical Gardens and the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew.

Alys is a presenter on BBC Gardener’s World, and a widely published journalist whose work appears in The Guardian, The Garden, Gardeners’ World Magazine, Gardens Illustrated and Horticulture Week.

Her latest book ‘The Edible Garden: How to Have Your Garden and Eat It’ is currently the number three book in the Gardening category on Amazon UK.

We’ve chosen her as our Eco Hero for this edition because not only do we love her utter willingness to share her knowledge of all things horticultural — and tie that into your health and wellbeing — she also understands the positive impact gardening has on communities and the environment. She gets it. So one minute she’s teaching people how to pot vegetables on a fire escape, and the next she’s planting guerrilla allotments at Heathrow to protest runway expansion. She’s a rebel in a pair of Wellies.

As guest blogger Anna Shepard found out in the interview that follows, what’s not to love? — ed.

How would you describe yourself?

Gardener and cyclist.

What is your mission?

We’re going to need more skills in the future and one of those is growing food. I want to pass on knowledge about how to do this. I’m very aware that my role is simply to pass on the things that were taught to me. Having trained at Kew and New York Botanical Garden, I’m one in a long line of gardeners. Many have come before me and many will come after. I’m just handing on the knowledge.

What do you care passionately about?

I care most about finding a way for all of us to become part of our environment. I don’t like this idea that man is pitted against nature and that we have to change ourselves to make it better. A lot of environmentalism is about ‘not doing’ things. Stop this; reduce that; cut back on the other – it can be quite negative. What I love about gardening is that it’s not negative. All that matters is that you do more of it.

Why is organic so important?

You can call it organic, natural, or whatever you like, but what matters is that we have the most gentle approach to our environment and that we try to have the least impact possible. Organic is a word that has become complex because it’s used in so many different ways.

In gardening terms, it means no chemicals, no pesticides, no herbicides, no man-made fertilizers and as little water as possible. I try to think about the fact that yes, it’s my garden, but all the little insects and animals don’t know that. To them it’s just a bit of ground.

What is the next big challenge?

To build up soil fertility, particularly in urban areas where there’s no endless supply of farmyard manure. It is so necessary if we’re going to grow food in our cities. On a lighter note, I am setting myself the challenge of learning to love slugs. When you’ve had plants eaten by slugs, it’s hard not to want to annihilate every single one of them. Of course, if a slug comes too near me, it’s probably going to get squished, but I am trying to learn to live with them. It’s an important lesson; it’s about realizing that you are part of a wider eco system. The more you can accept that, the easier it is to garden because you learn to accept it’s not all about you.

What would you like to achieve in your lifetime?

If I knew the answer to that, wouldn’t that be perfect happiness? No, seriously, one thing I would like – although maybe it’s a little idealistic – would be for society to move away from being so consumerist. Instead I’d like more people to be engaged with bigger issues. If everyone did things they were truly passionate about, wouldn’t it all be a lot easier? Apathy is a big problem. People do things without even realizing why they’re doing them. They go shopping because it seems like a nice thing to do, but if people could really focus on what they were truly excited about, we might all be happier.

What top green principles do you live by?

I cycle as much as possible and eat as many homegrown things as I can. The other thing is that I believe in walking to happiness. This is something my cousin said to me the other day, that we should keep the things that make us happy – whether it’s people, hobbies or work – as close to home as possible.

What one thing do you wish everyone would do?

Make more things. It could be some jam, a knitted jumper or a thank you card; the things you make and do yourself have meaning for a really long time.

And in the garden?

Plant an apple tree, preferably an English variety. Within five years, you’ll be cropping your own apples, you’ll also have lovely blossom in late spring, and you’re doing it for the next generations as well.

How long have we got to save the planet?

No time at all. We need to do it immediately. This is partly why I don’t want to have children; we need to be more sensible about our population. But I’m not naturally pessimistic about the future. If everyone did one small thing, such as One Pot Pledge [link] this would have a huge effect.

Who is your Eco Hero and why?

I’m totally in love with the work of Wendell Berry. He’s an American farmer and philosopher who writes about agrarian issues. He looks at how many of our problems began when we moved away from being close to the soil. Every time I pick up anything written by him, I think he’s absolutely on the money.



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