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Permaculture and the joy of growing chickpeas

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Permaculture and the joy of growing chickpeas

I was lucky enough to live the first eight years of my life surrounded by fields, gardens and orchards in the East Anglia region of England. The village allotments were next door, with no fence to keep us out. To the other side was the smallholding which my grandparents ran. They had two mature fruiting walnut trees, an old little orchard near the road of our quiet cul-de-sac and a newer but fully established orchard of apples, pears, plums and greengages further back. My parents and grandparents also each had a thriving fruit and vegetable garden. My parents grew everything from blackcurrants and rhubarb to potatoes and purple sprouting broccoli. My retired grandparents were even more adventurous, growing asparagus, peaches and figs.

So when I was offered a quarter of a nearby allotment plot shared with a neighbour about ten years ago, I jumped at the chance. I had my childhood gardening memories, a lot of reading experience (especially about vegan permaculture), some practice on a friend’s allotment, plus some very basic guidelines:

  1.  Grow what you love to eat!
  2.  The best encouragement is the gardener’s shadow.
  3.  Plants want to grow and you just need to give them the right sunlight, rainwater, soil and local conditions.
  4.  Start small!

One thing I love to eat is pulses, particularly chickpeas: hummus, chickpea curry, aquafaba cakes, you name it. I was therefore very excited when Hodmedod worked with farmer Henry Raker to grow the first British field-scale commercial crop of chickpeas in 2019. A group of us at The Vegan Society clubbed together to buy some.   As a project for spring 2020, when life changed again due to two simultaneous pandemics, I started sprouting some British-grown chickpeas. 
A pack of 2019 British chickpeas.  The Hodmedod’s logo, a hedgehog (which is an East Anglian dialect word meaning ‘curled up’, sometimes applied to hedgehogs), with the strap line ‘British pulse & grain pioneers’ all in brick red, and the description “British Grown Chickpeas.  After many years spent learning to grown them in our gardens and on farms we’re delighted that, with a little help from the weather and the farming skill of Henry Rakers, we’re finally able to offer UK-grown chickpeas.  Enjoy them!  Grown by Henry Raker at Croxton, Norfolk.

Chickpeas need a well-drained soil with full sun. You can sow them directly into the soil throughout the spring. Where I live in central England, our spring starts around 3-10 °C and ends with 8-17 °C, getting 2-3 cm of rain per month.  Some say that chickpeas aren’t keen on being transplanted, but my seedlings were getting eaten. I get better results starting the chickpeas off in modules: soaked in rainwater, they germinate within a few days above freezing! 

The seedlings are frost-hardy too,so I germinate in mid-March and plant out mid-April for a long growing season. I put up pea sticks – not for them to climb up, but to deter winged diners from getting to them first. I will try bottle cloches next year too (discarded five litre water bottles from a neighbour) to better deter garden molluscs.

The British-grown chickpeas I have – some are home-saved now! – have white flowers, although apparently other varieties are purple or bluish.
One of the authors chickpea plants, inter-sowed with home-saved spinach. 

Lifting a chickpea ‘branch’ to show how the pods form like raindrops along it, with only one to three peas per pod. 
You can eat the chickpeas green and lightly cooked, especially in cooler, damper areas, but if you have a longer, hotter growing season, you can ripen the chickpeas, which I’ve also managed to do. You’ll want to pick them around the time of the first hard frost (early November for me these days) for the best chance of mature seeds. The viable yellow seeds will be slightly smaller than you’re used to buying from warmer climates, though.

I’m grateful for secure access to good growing land and being able to grow my own chickpeas, as well as others such as the ‘old drying pea’, or carlin pea, and broad beans, also known as Fava beans. I eat my own soft fruit daily too, fresh or from the freezer. It’s a privilege which I do not take for granted. 

Being able to practice vegan permaculture, despite some incomprehension and criticism from other allotment holders, is very good for my physical and mental health. Contrary to common media portrayals, permaculture aims to bring the ethics of earth care, people care, and fair shares to all aspects of our lives. 

Our ‘permaculture’ – originally short for ‘Permanent Agriculture’, now understood as ‘Permanent Culture’ – was explicitly inspired by the ways of living in nature of Indigenous Peoples around the world. I’m trying to build better relationships with my neighbours, so they will ask me about my ‘unusual’ ways of growing, and maybe try some veganic methods themselves, but our current crises demand more and faster change, so I'll leave you with a message from a group of Indigenous leaders:

“Regenerative agriculture and permaculture claim to be the solutions to our ecological crises. While they both borrow practices from Indigenous cultures, critically, they leave out our worldviews and continue the pattern of erasing our history and contributions to the modern world.

“While the practices 'sustainable farming' promote are important, they do not encompass the deep cultural and relational changes needed to realize our collective healing.”

AC Baker is an amateur grower who enjoys the privilege of a full-sized allotment garden in central England. They initially adopted stock-free organic (veganic) permaculture methods for ethical reasons, but this approach is now indispensable due to the disabilities which they’ve developed, plus the increasing extremes of weather due largely to climate change.

Grow Green

We’re celebrating National Allotments Week as part of our Grow Green campaign. Transformation of our food system must take place at every level, from your back garden to the farmers that grow our beans and cabbages, to the national and international policies which influence how food is produced. Through the Grow Green campaign, The Vegan Society advocates for a planet friendly, vegan farming system, it pushes for better farming policies to help those growing plant proteins and vegetables in the UK and the EU and shares knowledge on the transition to animal free farming. Find out more on our Grow Green campaign pages.

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