Gardening Podcast – Maddy Harland

Byther Farm Gardening Podcast – Maddy Harland Season 3, episode 5.

Maddy Harland is a leading permaculturist, co-founder and editor of Permaculture magazine and co-founder of Permanent Publications. She is an author, teacher and public speaker.

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Links discussed in this podcast

⁠Permaculture magazine⁠

Books ⁠Permanent Publications⁠

YouTube ⁠Permaculture magazine⁠

⁠Permaculture magazine⁠ on Instagram

Maddy Harland on Byther Farm Gardening Podcast

Full Transcription of Gardening Podcast – Maddy Harland

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Liz – And today I am absolutely delighted to be joined by Maddy Harland, who is editor and co-founder of Permaculture magazine and publisher of my two books Grounded and The Seasoned Gardener. Maddy, welcome. Thank you so much.

Maddy – Thank you for inviting me Liz.

Liz – So now Maddy, we have known each other for, oh, maybe four years now. Good grief, time goes quite quickly.

It must be longer than that. We met at the Oxford Real Farming Conference.

Liz – We did, but I think that was 2020.

Maddy – Was it? I thought it was pre-COVID.

That was. It was just before COVID, and we were kind of doing that. Do we shake hands? Do we bump elbows? Or do we, you know, should we spend time, do we need masks? I don’t think we’d really started using masks and things.

No, we hadn’t. I was very conscious of, oh, we’re in a room with a lot of people. So, and then in that time, so as I say, we’ve done a couple of books, but you have moved house to the most gorgeous place in Devon, haven’t you?

Maddy – I have yes.

Liz – And so I came to stay, time goes very quickly so I came to stay probably the best part of two years ago now.

Maddy – You came and had a look at it at sort of ground zero when we just
got there. Mmm. Yes, so you saw it before we’d done anything.

So do you want to talk a little bit about what it is you have there and what it is that you are doing with it?

Okay, I will. So I live in a wood which is 12 acres. And it used to be I think looking at 12 acres at old maps, sort of woodland pasture. So raised old, raised banks with oak trees as boundaries and layered, quite ancient beaches that have sort of grown huge on the vertical and then upwards as well with a bit of hazel coppice. And then pretty much all the broadleaf woodland trees that you can imagine. I think we’ve probably got all of them. But there’s some really old coppiced beech, which is hundreds, sorry, not beech, birch, which is hundreds of years old. And the stools have sort of spread out to being four or five foot wide with maybe six stems. They’re quite remarkable.

We’ve got dormice and Barbastelle bats which are on the red list, European red list, and willow tits and pied and spotted flycatchers. And abundant nut hatches and gold crests and some goshawks that zoom in, take a squirrel, zoom up again. They’re amazing. They’re so fierce. I had one in one of the trees in the garden, just sitting there looking really malevolent at the birds at the bird table. That was magnificent.

And tons of deer, there’s red deer and roe deer and so it’s, you know, grass snakes, very big grass snakes and so forth. So all the sort of flora and fauna that you would expect in a Devon landscape. And because we’re on the Atlantic edge, it’s pretty damp. So some of the woodland is probably Atlantic rainforest, temperate rainforest, you know, with ferns growing on oak trees and quite rare lichens that are grey in colour.

How exciting is all that.

Maddy – Yeah, yeah, so it’s an interesting place because there’s lots of different habitats in a small acreage and so since we’ve been here it’s become a ‘county wildlife site.’

Liz – Right and what does that actually mean?

Maddy – Well it means that the local wildlife trust, Devon Wildlife Trust, has nominated it and sort of life site. So it’s recognizing that it’s a useful, it doesn’t mean that it’s a nature reserve and the universe can descend, it just means that it’s a recognition of its biodiversity and that’s quite useful for me when talking to people like the Forestry Commission and so forth. You know, it’s kind of like a badge really, I suppose, saying, yes, you’re very nice.

A badge for the land.

Yes, a badge for the land. We’ve also got this really interesting bit, which is two acres that was clearfelled in, it was a conifer woodland and the conifers felled.

Liz – Is this bit at the front of your hand.

Maddy – Yeah, that’s it. So that was felled in 2016 and just left to regenerate. And so I’m watching, you know, you get all the sedges and the early growth come in and the birch seeds and the willow. Now I’m watching hazel, you know, poking its way up above the canopy, and small oaks are beginning to appear.

And because there is such a fabulous abundance of brambles, which of course some foresters might think are bad, and certainly gardeners don’t want them in certain areas, they’re protecting the regrowth from the red deer, which are as big as horses, small ponies. So the brambles have got a really important function. And then there’s gorse. And that, of course, is fixing the nitrogen. So that area has got, that’s where the Barbastelle bats were found, and also dormice, even though there’s no hazel coppice yet there. They like to eat blackberries and bramble leaves.

Liz – Oh nice. And then the other thing I know you’ve got because I saw them when I came to stay, was you’ve got glow worms.

Maddy – I do have glow worms, yes. Yes.

Liz – I’ve never seen one before. No. What a privilege to see one.

And you know, they’re beetles basically that have shining bottoms, but when they’re breeding, so yes, really exciting to have glow worms.

Liz – And we were trying to take photographs of them.

Maddy – Very difficult.

Liz – The camera automatically wants to do a flash, so then you don’t see the glow, and if it’s not flashing, then everything else is still too murky to be able to make out what it is. Exactly. Really interesting.

Maddy – And the reason there are glowworms is because there’s a wildflower meadow because they need those marginal edges. If it was just woodland, there wouldn’t be glowworms. So we’ve got an area of wildflowers which has got lots of different species with like meadow sweet, but it’s also got betony, a really good standard betony. And I’m told that is a good thing. So yeah, that’s good too.

And of course, we’ve got a new dig garden and some apple trees and flowers too and herbs, all the things you’d expect.

Liz – You have an enormous apple tree which we sat under, it’s so huge and so abundant.

It is. It is. And I kind of was looking at it because you get these veteran apples that haven’t been pruned in living memory and you sort of think, oh, should I, should I take, should I restoration prune it? Should I take a third of the crown out and bring it down? Because you know, it’s not doing very much as it is, etc. You know, this kind of intervention thought.

And I’ve actually sat and looked at it for two years. And I mean, it is a magnificent specimen. I don’t know what variety it is. And I must find out at an apple day at some point when I get a moment. But I looked at it and in the end, I thought, you know, this is a tree where the bull finches come and they might take the buds off the top layers and they’re fabulous birds, they’re beautiful birds.

I’ve seen gold crests in there, all the songbirds that you could imagine go and sit there and sing. The spotted flycatchers love it, they sit in the outer branches and then hop into the air, catch a fly and land again. And so I’m sort of, and we’ve had pied flycatchers too, so I’m kind of looking at it, and indeed I think I might have just spotted my first pied flycatcher of the year.

Because I know that…

Liz – Maddy has just picked up some binoculars.

Maddy – Oh, well, I have to. I’m so sorry, but this is very important.

Liz – She’s picked up her binoculars to look out of her window and see.

Maddy – This is actually a genuine moment of, yes, ornithological bliss, because, yeah, I think that was possibly the first pied of the year.

Anyway, I looked at it as an ecosystem rather than as a yielding fruit tree. I thought, no, don’t be silly. So all I’m going to do is prune the dead branches on the lower levels. If I restoration pruned it, I’d have to take half of it away ultimately over years, obviously only up to a third a year. And then I would be forever cutting back water spouts because it knows…

Liz – Yes, because once you start, you just have to keep going, don’t you?

Maddy – So why give myself that toil? So I’m going to summer prune. When I can see exactly which branches are dead, I’m going to summer prune the dead ones to thin the lower levels and then leave the rest of it to nature. And indeed, since you were here, I’ve taken out a coppiced hawthorn and a coppiced hazel behind and just left the young shoots. I haven’t killed the trees but I’ve taken out a couple of big
leaners that were pinching the light from the apple tree.

So I guess you know from your listeners’ point of view perhaps we think we have to always be productive as gardeners, but sometimes just the joy of those veteran trees is the yield in itself.

Liz – And sometimes yeah and the yield is the, that wonderful nature. I’m quite envious of having mature fruit trees because we’ve got none here. Apart from, I have discovered there is quite a huge crab apple tree at the very far end from where I’m sitting now, it’s about as far as you can get, and I only discovered it when we were chasing stray sheep out of the field, and it was like, oh look, there’s hundreds of apples on the floor. So this year I may go and see if I can actually harvest some because obviously there were far more than the squirrels or the birds or that anyone else wanted because so many were hitting the floor in January.

So Maddy let’s talk a little bit about your work. It’s all around publishing publishing, but you kind of have the two hats on, one of publishing books and one with the magazine. So can we talk a little bit about the magazine, which has been going for 32 years, is that about right?

Maddy – You’re absolutely correct. It was, we started our first issue in around September 1992.

Liz – So why? What made you think, oh, let’s do a magazine and then let’s do a magazine about, around permaculture?

Maddy – Yes, good question. So we did have a little publishing company and I’d written a couple of books for it, mainly about health and homeopathy and running a natural medicine practice which was my background at the time. And Tim and I saw a film called In Grave Danger of Falling Food.

It was all about Bill Mollison and the ideas behind permaculture, about the landscape being, it was really before its time, so it was about peak resources, so looking at fossil fuels becoming more and more expensive over time, and looking at current agricultural practices and pesticides and herbicides, and the devastation of the plough and what it does to soil runoff, all of these subjects.

And it was predicting that food would become very expensive, oil would become very expensive, and that we would go into this peak experience where there was scarcity and the environment would become degraded and we’d have plummeting biodiversity. So it was incredibly prophetic, effectively. and then it proposed the idea of permaculture, so working with nature, benefiting from tree crops and perennial systems mostly, using renewable energy, designing our homes, ecologically capturing sunlight, storing sunlight etc., etc., the whole sort of beautiful suite of all the things that you could do to maximize your energy systems and make them efficient.

And be in grave danger, indeed, of food falling upon your head because you’ve lived in such a paradise, how do you say that word? Paradisical? Paradise or something like that. So, and this was kind of like a total light bulb moment. And I have to admit, Tim got it before I did. So he just had this vision.

We were already into conservation and we were really interested in wildlife gardening and making wildflower meadows and planting native species and creating habitats. And we were just about to acquire some land to practice on. And then he thought, well, you know, why not also integrate growing food? Why not have a forest garden and grow veggies organically in the most sympathetic way possible and have polycultures and grow flowers mixed up with food and so forth, and keep chickens and ducks? And we had a couple of quite young children at the time and we thought, yeah, let’s do that.

And so we did it and then we were approached by the Permaculture Association, who had a newsletter and were looking for someone to run their newsletter and we were members and they knew that we’d published stuff and we’d both had a background in publishing. So I was a publisher’s editor her and Tim had worked in a publishing company in Hampshire.

And so we thought with great youthful optimism and yeah, let’s do it. We said, well, we’ll take it on, but can we turn it into a magazine? And we’d like to make it available to as many people as possible, rather than have just a members only publication. Because the brainstorm had occurred and the light bulb had gone on and we just thought everyone needs to know about this stuff.

It’s just, this is what we should be doing with our lives. We need to integrate all these brilliant ideas and practices and change the world.

Liz – It has. It’s had such a massive impact.

Maddy – Yes, it has, but we need, we just could do with a bit more of a tipping point that changes our economic system and our governance so that we stop thinking, oh, we’ve got to do business as usual and have endless economic growth and we start to really invest in improving the lives of ordinary people and the 99% not just the 1% who are coining it.


Maddy –
Despite being in a cost of living crisis and a recession and everything else.

Liz – Well, that’s only us, I think, who are. I think that’s not the 1%. I don’t think they’re having a cost of living crisis.

Maddy – No, that’s my point. They’re not having any cost of living, but they’re coining it on the stock exchange and having a great time. And they have none of the challenges of running a small business in post-Brexit Britain, where every export to certain European countries is taxed on the doorstep. It is a disaster for anyone wanting to post books to someone in Portugal, for example.

Yes, I have discovered. I have discovered.

Maddy – Yes, well, that’s why I thought I’d mention it.

Liz – So just because you have bought a book and you’re not in the UK, I’m so sorry if you have had to pay additional taxes. Absolutely nothing we can do anything about.

Maddy – Well, we’ve got round that actually, Liz, in the sense that we’re working with a distributor who has a depot in France.

Liz – Perfect.

So we now post out our European orders from France. But you have to go to a bookshop to order it.

Liz – Okay. Well, it’s a start.

Maddy – You can’t buy it off our website but you know it is a start.

Liz – So one of the things that I know that we’ve both done in the past is grow maybe a polyculture but maybe all our brassicas together and then we’ve created, you created a really nice brassica tunnel, didn’t you, a couple of years back?

Maddy – I did, I did it in lockdown from scrap wood from my neighbours, who had this wonderful bonfire pile of wood from their build, various builds, and we were allowed to go and pick anything out of it we wanted. So, we, yeah, we built this quite large brassica cage that you could pretty much stand up in, which worked brilliantly well.

Liz – Well, and it’s a win-win because that’s a recycling and a reusing and a repurposing. And, you know, I know you still grew some brassicas outside the tunnel thing, so you were supporting your wildlife population, but just having a few brassicas that haven’t been completely trashed by the caterpillars is quite nice, isn’t it?

Maddy – Yes, it is. I did enjoy it. And also I could take the cage off and get in there and have a really big tidy up at the end of each season, which I liked.

One of the things that I’ve discovered quite recently, Maddy, is a netting to cover over things like brassicas and even carrots, because it’s very, very fine. But it is made from plant material. It’s plastic free.

Maddy – Oh, nice. Yeah, because that’s one of the problems, isn’t it, is that we do all this eco stuff and we don’t use pesticides and herbicides and etc. etc. and then we just buy loads of plastic. And then it has microplastic implications in our soil. So it’s like so nice to eliminate that kind of thing. Yeah, yeah.

Liz – Yes, I’m trying, I am trying more and more to find the plastic-free options but they have, you know, they have a financial.

Maddy – They do. They do. You kind of have to save up and do things bit by bit.

Yes. Yeah. Absolutely. So we talked a bit about the magazine and how you started that. So I’m guessing did the magazine come before book publishing or was the book published books first?

Maddy – Books. So we never intended to start a magazine. That just was how, you know, stuff happens, doesn’t it? We were book publishers to begin with, and that was our background as well. I was a freelance editor and Tim was a director of a publishing company that published local books and books on finance as well. So not a lot of preparation for where we were going, but at the time there were no books about permaculture in temperate climates, or indeed the northern hemisphere. Everything was Australian and it was subtropical or tropical.

So we felt a real need to take permaculture theory and explore how it could work in a completely different climate with different species.

Liz – And so here you are 30-something years later. Do you remember, do you know how many books you’ve published?

Maddy – Do you know? I don’t really. I kind of counted it up a few years ago and it was a hundred and something. And then I’ve sort of lost count, but it must be around 125 or so. You know, it’s, I will count again.

Liz – That’s an incredible number of books to have supported and developed and edited and to go through that whole process because obviously I don’t understand the whole process but I’m familiar with some of it. It’s a long complicated process and sometimes you have somewhat argumentative writers, she says, holding her hand up. You and I have kind of quite a lot of conversations about specific words and things.

Maddy – Yes, like wood chips. Yes!

Liz – I just had a bee in my bonnet about that one, didn’t I?

You did.

So yeah, we spent a long time discussing whether it was wood chips, it was one word, two words, whether it was a hyphenated, a singular, plural.

Maddy – Yeah, but the thing is, as long as there’s consistency. So you know, we live in a multicultural world, and we have all sorts of readers reading in the English language all over the planet. You know, you’re read in Australia and New Zealand and the United States and Canada, you’re not just read by Europeans. And so we have to make an agreement and then whatever we agree, we stay with and are consistent with. So that’s how we get around this. And, you know, we try not to be overly dogmatic about how we do things because we want happy authors, not browbeaten, bullied authors that don’t feel agency and ownership of their books.

Yeah. Do you know, quite often when I’m out in the garden and I’m measuring distances between things, I’ll go, yeah, that’s eight inches, right, so the next one needs to be 20 centimetres. And I just flick between the two!

Maddy – Yes, but for Americans, we need to have Imperial as they don’t do centimetres.

Liz – Yeah, I think also I’m just of an age where I just got to learn pounds, shillings, pence, and I just got to understand feet and inches. And then school said, right, you’ve got to grips with that. So now you’re going to have to learn like metric. I’m not brilliant at maths concepts at all. So it was just like, I’ve just got my head around this and now I’ve got to learn a whole new thing.

Maddy –
I have to admit when I’m building and measuring to cut, I always use metric because it’s so accurate. Yeah. Down to the millimetre so that you cut the right length of timber.

Liz – Yes. Yes. And then when I’m pacing things out, it’s like I’ll do that in yards because I know roughly enough.

Maddy –

If it’s an approximate, it goes into yards. If it’s an exact measurement, yeah, then it’s metric. Let’s go back to your wood and your woodland. When I came to stay, as we went from the garden at the back of the house through into the woodland, you had the most enormous pile of chopped wood and I know you’re saying since then you’ve moved it all and you’ve been doing other stuff, but do you want to talk a little bit about what you’ve been doing in terms of using the wood that you’ve coppiced and that’s it.

Maddy – Yeah, sure. So when we came here, the house was heated exclusively with oil and we had a very ancient Rayburn, and you know all about ancient Rayburns, that was chugging along all winter, very warm and toasty, but like a millionaire’s device really. You know, it would have cost thousands in this day and age to run it, and it was pretty stinky and inefficient as well and very temperamental, had to be serviced every six months and something was always breaking because it, you know, it was born in 1958.

So the first thing we did was we had a, like a 50s fireplace in the main room and we fireplace and it was a bit of an archaeological exercise because underneath about a foot in from the breeze block infrastructure, that was built like a bomb shelter, was actually a Victorian brick inglenook with a bread oven inside the fireplace. And it was very, very nice. Very nice and very large.

And so we thought, well, this is an absolutely ample opportunity not to put in a cast iron wood-burning stove, which are great when they’re running, when the flames are heating the metal. But as soon as they go out, the metal cools down and the ambient heat stops radiating through the house. So we thought right, let’s put in a sort of hybrid masonry stove. So this isn’t built into the walls. It’s an additional stove. It’s called an Eccostove. But it’s made of silicon carbide, which is a material that is very heavy.

So it comes in, you have to build it in components. It comes in, I think, five components. And when the actual fire in the fire box goes out, it retains the heat and radiates it and stays warm for up to 12 hours.

Liz- Wow.

Maddy – Yeah. So this stove, which is very efficient, so it burns the wood and then it burns the gases, the off gas from the wood, and then it pushes the gases through a series of air channels and burns them again. It’s got tertiary burning. So when you’re running it with really well seasoned dry wood, you’re getting the maximum heat from the stove that you could possibly get, and then you’re retaining it and radiating it out through the house for hours after you’ve gone to bed, which is lovely.

But of course, nothing is for free in life, and it requires wood. Instead of buying oil, I am now looking after the woodland and cutting enough wood, it’s about, probably we’ll have about 11 cubic metres, sorry I can’t do that in yards, 11 cubic metres of wood, which is a considerable sized log store. So we built a log store pretty soon after we got here, leveled the land and built the store.

And my first foray into wood was to take some of the coppice, the hazel coppice that’s beginning, is so old that it’s beginning to fall over and it will die. Thin some of the garden because it was completely shading the house and burn that. And that means burning Leylandii, which is fine. You just have to let these softwoods, which are resinous, season for six months.

And we’re seasoning off the ground and with good airflow on at least two sides. So it’s a fast seasoning, with a tin roof, so it heats up when it’s hot and it’s in an area that’s not too overstood by shady trees. It’s a very efficient rotating system and as soon as one bay is empty, there’s a stack sitting on pallets waiting to be cut and put into the next bay. So the whole process should go through an entire winter and I use it. Some people have gym membership and I have wooding and I do wooding when I really need to.

So if I’m sad or if I’m feeling like I need to get outdoors and do something really physical, I move wood, I cut wood and I split wood.

Liz – Wow. Amazing.

Maddy – I guess it’s my practice. It’s part of what’s got me through in the last six months particularly.

Liz – Brilliant. Maddy, thank you so much for your time. We are pretty much at the end of our time. I will make sure I leave links to your website, to the magazine and publishing and all that sort of information and also to all your social media. And can I ask you to come back again later in the year and maybe we talk about how things are going in the autumn?

Maddy – Yeah, sure.

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