It was actually during my Cycloasis tour that several French pointed out this amazing project in Belgium, Mouscron. A former industrial town near the French border not far away from Roubaix.
Back in Belgium I got curious and so I visited this extraordinary example of how a simple garden can become so productive and yet with so little interference! Gilbert and Josine, a retired couple by now, managed to do this for over more than 35 years. It was actually unemployment that changed it all.
As thousands of other workers in this former industrial region, Gilbert was laid off in the ’70 of last century and was looking for an activity and a way to meet ends. And growing your own food is taking things in your own hands and creating autonomy, as I have learned from Pierre Rabhi, the Baronnet’s, and so many others on my Cycloasis journey. Soon gardening becomes a real passion for the couple. Josine and Gilbert, having been involved as volunteers in projects in South-America in earlier years, set up the association ‘Les Fraternités Ouvrières’, the brotherhood of workers. In fact, this association is a prolongation of their labour and social activities, of enabling access for all to healthy and diversified food, while empowering people. The idea is that organic food is not a luxury only available to the rich. Healthy, colourful, tasty, and ecologically grown food is a right for all. Solidarity, equity and ecology are at the core of the work of these volunteers of Les Fraternités Ouvrières.
First men, then, with permaculture, also women
A wonderful proof that quality food production can happen anywhere, also in the middle of a town on only 1800 square meters! Apart from the project in their own garden, the group recently started on a terrain nearby a vegetable garden of 6500 square meters with 6 families (12 to 15 persons), also practicing permaculture.
Josine tells me that their garden project evolved along the lines of the developments in knowledge on eco-gardening. In the very beginning it was a group of 15 men involved in the garden. It was when gardening still was digging and ploughing. So the heavy physical work, according to the state of knowledge back then. Then, she says with a twinkle in her eyes, when we learned about permaculture, which means moving around and interfering in the soil as little as necessary, women also became interested and active.
Don’t do what the books say!
Our volunteer guide often responds with a smile when visitors refer to what is written in books and ask how it is done here. He then replies: “You are right, but Gilbert is often not doing what is said in the books”! To give just two examples:
- The whole garden is based on the principle of no crop-rotation. Between the trees there is space for a huge variety of vegetables, herbs, aromatic plants, etc., which follow each other in logical cycles of summer and winter crops. The soil is not turned, Also in one glass house, where they grow tomatoes, potatoes and aubergines, these crops actually do better when not rotated, contrary to what is often said. As they also do not cut the branches of tomatoes.
- The fruit trees are cut in full season when full with leaves, between spring and September. There are several advantages to do so. First, you see what plant you cut – harder to see in winter when the leaves are gone! Second, to reduce the effect of the first aphids arriving in summer, which form mildew on the leaves. This also prevents the tree from growing too big and putting energy in its growth instead of producing fruits. Third, as soon as the buts are closed (goes faster in warmer weather), they not only retain the sap of the branches, but also change the concentration from liquid and full of nitrogen into more solid. The latter not appreciated by the aphids and they will die. So the trees are better protected and can produce plenty of fruits! The cut branches are left as fertilizer on the ground.
The secrets of this rich green jungle
The first steps into this garden are immediately overwhelming – its green jungle!
The set-up was not left to chance. On the outside of this garden larger fruit trees were planted. These protect the (inner) garden plants from wind and rain. As a result this dense garden has a microclimate enabling many different sorts to grow and to protect each other from disease, wind, cold, etc. In winter the temperature is 3 to 5 °C above average and in summer slightly cooler and humid. The soil, the source of all this wealth, is not only better protected, but evaporates less. So no additional watering needed!
The number of different plants is incredible – biodiversity at its max in a city garden! Apples, pears, prunes, apricots, figs, cherries, grapes, kiwis, a variety of berries, all kinds of vegetables, etc. grow here. There is also room for a small water pool, attracting insects and frogs. Furthermore, they apply different types of glass houses. One remarkable is the so called ‘Californian’.
The glass walls are constructed on a water basin, even containing fish. This mass of water creates a microclimate, allowing temperature control, which protects the small seeds in the pots in winter from the cold and cools it in summer. The vegetation on the outside is so positioned that it allows the sun in in winter and covers it in summer.
The icing on the cake of any agro-ecology!
The staggering numbers of this rich forest garden leave everyone flabbergasted.
- 395 apple trees, of which 312 varieties
- 81 prune trees, of which 69 varieties
- 127 wine plants in 82 varieties
- 41 fig trees in 35 varieties
- 82 sorts of citrus trees
- 50 different varieties of raspberry trees, etc. etc. etc.
In total they have planted more than 2000 trees and fruit trees of which more than 1300 varieties!
Sharing a wealth of knowledge
Already in 1978 they started giving courses on responsible gardening. Sharing the experiences is at the core of this remarkable and amicable couple. Already 8000 people followed these courses. They organise workshops on gardening, cooking, bread making, etc. Furthermore, cycles of conferences and reflection groups on diverse societal issues. Almost every Sunday throughout the year people can follow courses on permaculture. Each Thursday afternoon they have an open doors day (actually their door is never closed!) and people can visit the garden for free. Since last year they received 2000 visitors and from different countries as well. This shows the growing interest in this type of gardening.
This house contains a treasure of Life – SEEDS. Four walls of shelves up until the ceiling contain an enormous collection of seeds, carefully arranged and numbered. It contains the seeds of 5000 different varieties of vegetables, cereals, flowers, aromatic & medical plants, fruit trees, and ancient sorts. The seeds come from gardeners, associations, and other seed collectors from Europe and beyond! A kind of Kokopelli in small.
The Association also consists of a group of people buying collectively, a so called ‘groupe d’achat’, in order to reduce the price of the various agricultural products and tools needed. Since 1980 they have planted together with around 100 families about 50.000 fruit trees.
This garden is a beautiful story of abundance, in a rather unexpected city environment, still struggling to get to terms with its previous industrial era and human labour ‘deforestation’. This garden of Eden surpasses any imagination!
Watch these videos (in French) and see with your own eyes this wonderful green ‘jungle’ of fruits, vegetables and aromatic & medical plants!
A Notélé production http://www.notele.be/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=6971&Itemid=254
A French production (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P831hBMJB_w)