Growing food is critical to human survival but they way much of our food is now grown endangers other species, impacts our climate and even degrades the very soils we rely on to grow.
In 2018 the Permaculture Association (Britain), James Hutton Institute, and IIASA worked with the University of Dundee to create and run a free online course to help growers, gardeners and others better understand not the challenges of food production.
The initiative also sought to teach growers about regenerative growing practices and how to investigate the impacts or benefits of these in their own growing.
Originally, the intention of the scientists behind the GROW Observatory course was to help make widely available robust and well-researched practices to regenerate soils and benefit biodiversity whilst growing food.
However, as they investigated the scientific research and experiments conducted on topics like using cover crops, mulching and planting legumes, they discovered that almost all the research was at the scale of mechanised farms.
Virtually none was at the scale of growing that most course participants were interested in - home gardens, own-grown, allotments and market gardens.
A unique opportunity to extend the learning beyond the course, and the benefits beyond the participants was envisaged.
The course expanded beyond the usual provision of topical information to teach participants how to develop research questions from their own ideas and observations and turn these into practical experiments.
Participants were then invited to join in with the experiment and grow, observe, and harvest over the summer season before returning in the autumn to learn how to use and apply the results in a follow-up course.
The Great GROW Experiment invited growers to compare the productivity of three crops (beans, spinach and radish) grown together in a polyculture with those same crops each grown alone in a monoculture.
Each participant would get an answer from their own growing, but also contribute to a collective understanding of whether or not more diverse crop plantings can be more productive with less space.
The experiment involved quite a commitment of time and space compared to other citizen science projects where citizens tend just to provide some simple observations and the scientists use the data.
Here, participants were supported to analyse and use their own findings. The experimenters who joined in certainly found that it was worthwhile.
Along the way, experimenters who started on the online course met up in real life, inspired their friends, and even went on local radio to talk about their community garden participating in an international experiment!
Over 80 percent of those who’d never tried growing a polyculture before were already using the new technique or intended to do so.
Many said that as a result of participating they were inspired to improve their observations and record-keeping, and were setting up experiments of their own from testing out new soil improvement methods to growing new crops in new ways.
And the results of the experiment? Overall, the polyculture planting was significantly more successful, with the beans doing particularly well. However, this wasn’t the result for everyone - about 30 percent of experimenters got better yields from the monoculture plantings.
There’s clearly more to learn and a growing appetite to take the learning out of the classrooms and into the garden.
The free online course “Citizen Science: Living Soils, Growing Food” runs again starting May 13th 2019. Sign up for free unlimited access.
The Permaculture Association is supporting a new member-led experiment comparing polycultures and monocultures - find out more and join in here.
This project has received funding from the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement, number 690199.
Dr Naomi van der Velden works with the Permaculture Association (Britain).