The Architecture of Victory

plans for victory garden

The San Francisco Victory Garden is well underway, as you can see here. For me, one of the most exciting parts of this lies in the thinking behind the planting.

John Bela is the garden’s designer, and he’s put together an astonishing space. It’s one that’s accessible to all, that maximises the exposure of the crops to the people, and is built with the principles of permaculture foremost in mind. I’d not heard of the ‘keyhole’ concept before, but it’s genius. Look closely at John’s master plan, and you’ll see this:

keyhole plan view

In real life, it looks like this.
raised bed keyhole style

The genius of it lies in the positioning of those wee gullies. The idea is that you can kneel in them, and work your way around the garden on your knees without crushing the cultivated soil, maximising the total area that you can plant in.

But there’s more to agroecology than inspired landscape architecture. I was lucky enough this evening to have a drink with Miguel Altieri, one of the godfathers of agroecology. I put to him some of the questions that y’all have asked in the comments sections or in correspondence, and the answers point to the fact that there’s a great deal of social architecture that needs to support its physical counterpart.

First, to the question of whether there’d be animals in an agroecological future, particularly on land unsuited to crops, Miguel answered with an unequivocal “yes”. In fact, he said, animals are integral to agroecology, not only for manure and fertilizer, but also for traction. And even, possibly, meat. What that means for our diet, I’ll leave to another time. But it’s a point that needs to be worried at a little, I reckon.

Second, a question that I received via email – “agroecology is all well and good, but what would you do if your crop were threatened by locusts — would you have enough time to breed enough predators to combat them?” Miguel’s answer: ‘no’. But then he said, “the advantage of a pluriculture, though, is that there’s a greater chance that there’ll be some crops that the locusts don’t like”. It’s a good counter. It doesn’t solve the question of how to avoid a major dive in output. But the point, surely, is that locusts are a fairly rare, but predictable part of agriculture in certain parts of the world. Our agricultural systems need to be adapted to these natural fluctuations. And herein lies the rub.

In order to build sustainable agricultural systems, it’s not sufficient to have physical blueprints, even ones as excellent as John Bela’s. The social systems for storing and distributing food equitably also need to be in place. There are strong social forces that militate against such systems. In order for the agroecology of victory to work, as Miguel also suggested this evening, we’ll need to confront not just nature, but capitalism itself.