By Dora Taylor
No Diggity Gardens is a no-dig, regenerative growing project in Walsall, near Birmingham. When the pandemic emerged at the start of the year, Neville Portas and his family realised their dream of being totally self-sufficient as a family was misplaced; in the face of a global pandemic it became crystal clear that community resilience was needed. As the supermarket shelves emptied, Neville, who features on ‘Who Feeds Us?’, the new series from Farmerama Radio, saw working towards group self-sufficiency as the key to ensuring the resilience and empowerment of himself, his family and his community. Since the start of 2020, the project has grown, and now runs across two local authority sites, and six allotment locations.
“We have production spaces, an education kitchen space, apiary, worm farm, polytunnel, chickens, small accessible gardens for people who don’t have time to look after a plot of their own,” Neville said. “Prior to [Covid] it really was a self-sufficiency drive for me and my family. When the pandemic hit, it was kind of pointless, because you understand the amount of people there is to be fed in cities and around cities. It seems silly to be the man on the hill with the farm, because obviously if the worst does happen, everybody else doesn’t know what to do, and needs that as much as you do.”
Neville and his family began to invite people down to their allotment during the pandemic, to show people what they were growing. “So a total change from looking inwards to trying to provide something that everyone can use,” Neville said, “whether it’s a pathway to making something from nothing, from using local streams of waste to create compost, just generally a starting point. That’s what we wanted to provide.”
Initially, Neville was saddened by peoples’ lack of knowledge. “With that move from self-sufficiency to community resilience, it becomes apparent that the disconnection from nature and from our food in general is really an issue. Just talking to people on a basis on which you think people understand, talking to them about growing different types of vegetables, people really have little knowledge of any of it.”
This realisation has motivated Neville and his family to push for diversity and inclusivity on their allotment. “Being on allotments, I can see that maybe it’s not the safest and most inviting place for everyone to be. That’s become a part of No Diggity’s mission, making that a safer space for people of colour,” Neville said.
Neville found that producing as much as food as possible meant the Gardens could give away produce, a good way of drawing in a broad range of people and enticing them to take an interest in the project. When people came down to the allotment, they would be shown around and introduced to some growing techniques.
“During Covid, we’ve been championing intensive market gardening,” Neville said. “Leafy greens are the easiest and the most rewarding thing to start with. Allotments are a big cacophony of how to grow a million things okay, rather than growing anything amazingly. We grow a lot of crops and see what wins. The market garden model really goes to the next level with polycultures and planting everything together and really squeezing things into small spaces.”
No Diggity’s main focus is soil health. The team fosters this by using a no-dig approach and practicing many methods of composting. Their concentration on soil regeneration and knowledge-sharing is building the foundations for food sovereignty in their community. Soil is at the intersection of many issues to do with food and the environment. As Neville puts it, “No matter what side of any story you’re on, whether you’re a vegan, whether you eat only meat or whether you’re somewhere in between, none of us can continue to do what we’re doing unless we have soils that are productive and are living. Without soil we have nothing.”
A big part of their focus on soil involves teaching people how to use compost as a way of reducing waste. Although Neville doesn’t believe that a closed-loop system is 100% possible “in this day and age,” the team at No Diggity are committed to reducing waste by turning food and other rubbish into soil and compost. On No Diggity’s community days, volunteers teach people about composting with worms and with bokashi systems—an approach which uses microbes to break down dairy, meat and oils, food waste streams which would normally be difficult to compost. “Children are very interested in compost,” said Neville, “When you talk about worms, and you talk about creating soil from waste streams, the kids are just on it. They can understand and they can see the whole world that is within soil, even though it is completely invisible.”
The Portas family has seen a change in peoples’ attitudes and approaches towards food-related issues in response to the visible strain the food system came under in the early months of the pandemic. People who hadn’t previously been interested have taken an interest in having a localised food system, and better, healthier food. “Since the pandemic, the discussions have really been tailored towards what can we do and how can we help our communities,” Neville said.
No Diggity’s approach to food—the drive for increasing the number of food growers, and sharing knowledge about growing—is rooted in the sense that the current food system needs to radically change. By teaching people how to save seeds and turn waste into fertiliser, No Diggity is building the foundations for community resilience, food sovereignty and a more enlightened food future.
“Scientists are saying sixty years before we’ve washed all our topsoil away”, Neville said. “We have to make these preparations now, we have to become locally sufficient… to have food systems that are protected by our communities.”
Looking towards the future, No Diggity has written a curriculum for resilience for local schools and this term, three schools will be coming to the garden one morning a week to learn about regenerative food growing. “We want to make sure that children have had exposure to this at an early age,” Neville said. “It’s great. It’s empowering. It makes me feel useful, a part of the community. Connection to nature is essential for all humans, I really do feel that.”
Who Feeds Us? is a chorus from the people who have fed us throughout the Covid crisis: people from all over the UK, of many different ages and beliefs, from different backgrounds, regions and classes; farmers, growers, community leaders, healers, chefs, beekeepers, and fishers. Who Feeds Us? is an important series about the relevance of food sovereignty to everyone in society. This means putting our food back in the hands of the people, and prioritising nature and nourishment. Tune into Who Feeds Us? by Farmerama Radio via all major podcast platforms or visit https://farmerama.co/listen/