Michele Fitzsimmons, growing ideas

May 14, 2012 § 3 Comments

Edible Landscaping

Michele Fitzimmons © gwionthorpe

Ask anyone who loves Cardiff to give you three reasons why it’s such an ace city and I bet you most of them will name one of our beautiful parks. Big slices of lush greenery right smack bang in the middle of the urban sprawl.  We’re so lucky to have them.  But one remarkable lady isn’t content with a few public parks, she is on a mission to green, grow and feed our city.

“Everywhere you go in Cardiff there are bits of land where there is the potential to grow some food.  It could be a small area at the end of your street where there might be room for a nut tree, it could be a brownfield site where you think raised beds with vegetables could work, it could be a community centre where you would like to join with others in creating a community garden”.

Michele Fitzsimmons is a permaculture designer and educator who, since the mid 1990s has been developing her Edible Landscaping ethos.  Having completed a permaculture design course, Michele decided to turn her hand to creating edible and wildlife gardens to benefit her local community.  “I’ve designed quite small gardens for places like Adamsdown Community Garden, South Riverside Development Centre and areas in Roath, to slightly bigger plots like Chapter Arts Community Garden in Canton.  I’m particularly proud of the design I created at Edwardsville Primary School in Merthyr Tydfil”.  This latter design included the school buildings and grounds and helped the School win the Wales Eco-Primary School of the Year award in 2008.

Michele’s latest project, part of the Transition Cardiff movement, is Farm Cardiff.  It hopes to inspire individuals and groups to identify areas in their neighbourhood where there is food growing potential and then feed the info back to a group of committed volunteers who will place it on an online map available to everyone. “One way of thinking about it is to see Cardiff as a farm, with the potential to produce much more of its own food.  Farm Cardiff is an open, informal group with a range of skills but above all enthusiasm and commitment to get things done”.

Michele is from Australia and her love of nature started from an early age. “I’ve been gardening for as long as I can remember. I had a really idyllic childhood.  We had this big garden and beyond that was acres of bush land, which was my own private playground. I used to run around in the bush, jump over snakes, go down to the waterhole, sit on top of the waterfall, hide in the caves and that was my normal playtime. I just loved being out with nature. It was heaven.”

Michele’s philosophy is matching what people want to do in their garden with some practical ideas and design. “I think we should all have an investment in our own individual food security, but I realise that most people are really busy so it’s a matter of making it easier for more people to grow their own food, even if it’s a couple of pot plants”.  She runs numerous short courses for individuals right through to full landscape design and consultancy services.  “I teach anything from ‘how to grow vegetables’ right through to ‘edible forest gardening’ and anything in between.  It’s literally horses for courses”.

The word ‘permaculture’ comes from ‘permanent agriculture‘ and is about living lightly on the planet and in harmony with nature to make sure that we can sustain our activities for many generations to come.  Or as Michele puts it, “It’s not rocket science.  It’s a way of working with nature to create a really productive, nature-friendly garden and it can be achieved in all sorts of spaces”.

Over the past few months, Michele and her colleagues from Cardiff Transition have been tackling the question ‘can Cardiff feed itself?’  “Of course, it’s ridiculous to think that Cardiff could feed itself, it’s got hardly any agricultural land and over 340 thousand people, but it’s a question that raises some significant issues. A better question, and one we need to tackle, is ‘can Wales feed Cardiff and itself?’ Because yes is the answer to that…almost”.  Based on research by Amber Wheeler into how many hectares are needed per person to eat a healthy diet, Wales is short by some 80,000 hectares of suitable land.  “Theoretically it is possible, but it relies on a number of factors, which are quite complex. But a really simple step is to get more people interested in growing their own food.  We’ve run out of agricultural land, so we need to start looking at people’s gardens, parks, industrial estates, verges, flat roves. We need to start thinking of as many opportunities as possible to grow food”.  Enter Farm Cardiff.

Whilst the focus of Michele’s work is on Cardiff and Wales, the motivation is global. “There are lots of really hungry people in this World and yet they’re growing cash crops for us Westerners.  Why?  Why shouldn’t they grow food for themselves? And why should we depend on them for our food? Why aren’t we pulling out all the stops? I just think it’s our responsibility to grow more of our own food.  So my motivation is to bring about ideas of how we can do that and get more people involved in the idea of growing food for themselves.”

But don’t think Michele is standing on any kind of soapbox.  She is very much a roll your sleeves up and get your hands dirty kind of lady.  More practical than political. “I see my role as being more pro-active at the grass roots level. Engaging and enthusing people about nature and gardening. I don’t really want to go to meetings and talk about it.  I need to stick to what I know and I know how to grow food”.

Michele Fitzsimmons is a permaculture designer and educator and runs Edible Landscaping, an education and design business specialising in edible gardens, organic fruit and vegetable growing and permaculture.  She works with individuals, businesses and communities to help them realise their aspirations with their food-growing project www.ediblelandscaping.co.uk

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