How I Live: Maddy Harland, Permaculture Guru

19 Jan|Maddy Harland

Maddy Harland in the woods

Eco pioneer Maddy Harland is the founder of Permaculture magazine and Permanent Publications, both of which she runs with her husband Tim

Neither Tim nor I have had proper jobs for decades. We didn’t want to be trapped in the endless 9-5 so we started our own publishing company in 1990.

To our surprise, we recently discovered that we’ve published over 80 books and 94 issues of Permaculture magazine since we started. Our ambition therefore remains to be more idle than we have been to date.

To that end, Tim started working in a home office two years ago. It allows him to walk in the woods when he likes and garden when the sun comes out. I stayed at our office at the Sustainability Centre in Hampshire. We have three-and-a-half staff there who make sure the magazine gets out to our 5,000 subscribers and many more customers around the world.

Permaculture is all about building self-reliant, self-sustaining farms, homes and communities.

I make sure I go offline to a special wood every other month to sleep among the owls, listen to the raspy bark of foxes and encounter the gentle countenances of the deer early in the morning.

I am not a fan of routine and nor is Tim – we prefer to be either in the garden or itinerant – so we edit the four issues of the magazine each year as an ongoing project, wherever we are and at whatever time of day suits us. We have edited one edition in our camper van on the east coast of Ireland. The kitchen table is a favourite place to edit books. You can concentrate there!

Our garden was a ploughed arable field with no life whatsoever in the soil and few visiting birds. Now it is a complex, thriving ecosystem that largely looks after itself

When home, our favourite days are very simple. Morning tea is a time to discuss our dreams, our concerns and plan our “play” for the day. There’s a saying, “Do the work you love and you will never work again”. We live on the South Downs in Hampshire and a typical play day starts after tea in bed with a simple breakfast and then into our edible forest garden. Depending on the time of year, we might add compost to a no-dig veggie bed and sow seeds, or harvest crops. In autumn, the wildflower meadow needs scything, a satisfying but exhausting job. We use the cuttings to mulch our soft fruit, and collection of over 60 fruit and nut trees. We have everything from apples, pears, plums, gages and cobnuts to more unusual Nepalese and Szechuan peppers, Russian olive and Saskatoon. They are carefully spaced so that we can grow soft fruit, herbs, globe artichokes, wildflowers and Nepalese raspberry underneath them. At all times of year something somewhere is flowering, forage for our honeybees and the host of other insects.


Maddy’s front garden

In 1992, our garden was a ploughed arable field with no life whatsoever in the soil and few visiting birds. Now it is a complex, thriving ecosystem that largely looks after itself. Nature really does do much of the work for us in the garden. Mostly, all we have to do is prune, weed the raised beds occasionally and harvest.

Apart from being in the garden, most of our days outside are spent in our local woods or walking by the sea. We are lucky to live near the Solent so it is a treat to walk the old Billy Line at Hayling or cast a few lures into a rising tide. We mostly “vegan” fish, catching mainly seaweed, but very occasionally we come home with a mackerel or bass to barbecue. For me, fishing is called “fishing” and not “catching” for a reason; it is more about watching.

Home for supper… we like to eat as much as we can from the garden or food foraged from our locality. We grow perennial veg as well as annuals. We also grow winter crops inside our greenhouse and kitchen as well as in the no-dig garden. We grow as many foraging plants as possible ourselves, like wild ransoms and sorrel, so our garden is our main foraging zone but we have special hunting grounds for chestnuts and edible mushrooms. We are careful to harvest the latter only lightly.

We are fairly self-contained and enjoy our own company but it is a treat when our daughters visit and share meals and adventures with us. We feel it is of the utmost importance to make the time to support our kids emotionally and in practical ways. They have it far tougher than we had when in our twenties. We also have some very special pals, both local and further away, who are constants in our life. There is nothing quite like cooking a meal outside and idling away an evening in front of a fire with good wine and stimulating conversation.

This piece appeared in Idler 58, January/February 2018. Buy a copy here. Maddy Harland has just published Fertile Edges: Regenerating Land, Culture and Hope which John Liu, the Green Gold film maker, described as “Breathtaking and strangely rollicking good fun.” It is available here.