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In early 2021, the Food Farming and Countryside Commission published a report explaining that their research has proven that the UK can feed itself using Nature Friendly methods. This is fantastic news but not a surprise now it is understood how much more food and more nutritious food at that, is produced when using regenerative farming techniques.

That is without needing imported food at all and that is without chemical inputs that we now know harm not only our soil, our carbon sequestration abilities but also the whole food chain, including ourselves.

This study highlights the increase in soil building and (therefore likely carbon capture), soil health (therefore likely plant health) and infiltration rates (therefore likely drought and flood mitigation), through regenerative practice

Please see the Food Farming and Countryside Commissions’ report and previous reports detailing how regenerative / agroecological farming also makes financial sense. Details of their reports can be found here – https://ffcc.co.uk/news-and-press/farmingforchange

Their ‘Farming for Change’ report suggests regions where types of food production should be prioritised, ‘extensive livestock systems in the north of the UK, mixed cropping and livestock systems in the south, west and east and vegetable systems focused on the fertile lowland areas of each region’. We need a large increase in fruit and nut production and in order to support a healthy ecological system we do indeed need to reduce meat and dairy intake and eat more veg, pulses, nuts and fruits.

The new payment scheme for farmers (ELMS – Environmental Land Management Scheme) coming through slowly from DEFRA over the next eight years is going to hopefully help the majority of farmers in the UK transition towards regenerative practice. However, this transition will be helped if coming also from the ground up.

This change of subsidy is the biggest shake up the farming sector has had since the war. Indeed, all industry, business and our daily lives, are having a massive shake up, not only because of Covid but as we realise, we cannot continue business as usual.

Agriculture is one part of our human jigsaw where, as far as GHG emissions and sequestration go, we can put back, more than we take. It is also a tool to improve upon our biodiversity and human health depletion. This is why regenerative agriculture is such a positive story and is increasingly getting the attention it deserves.

Change is never easy though especially for farmers stuck in toxic contracts, or with high rents, in debt and with us not paying a fair price for their labour. They are currently coping with poor soils, Brexit, Covid and increased flooding, droughts and high winds.  It is not clear what they will get from the ELMS payments and Regenerative agriculture is a massive change of mindset for many. They were not taught regenerative agriculture at college and the only people who tend to visit them are machinery and agrichemical salesmen plus their vets.

Many have already given up and many will follow but there will soon be more, brave, happier farmers, starting along the regenerative path. The market needs to be there to welcome them though and, in this respect, please see our vision for an increase of more convenient food hubs, (see ‘Food Hub Vision’, bottom section of this website).

Perhaps you could help instigate one in your area? Humanity needs a more diverse mixture of local produced food, growing healthy soil for a local market. Not potatoes that travel 9000 miles before they end up on our plates!

Please therefore support regenerative farmers, education around its benefits and local, regenerative food systems however you can.

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You probably already know this – but it is still mind-blowing – that there are more living organisms in a teaspoon of decent soil than number of people on the planet! Such a teaspoon of soil could well contain more than 75,000 species of bacteria, 25,000 species of fungi, 1,000 species of protozoa and 100 species of nematodes. It is also amazing that microbes consume 95% of what is produced by green plants, whereas animals only consume 5%!

The creatures living in our soil are, after all, responsible for making nutrients accessible to plants, for determining the structure of the soil, for water and air movement, for disease control and for plant growth.

Clearly, life in the soil is a critical component of life on and in the earth! Until now most of us haven’t given them much thought but we now need to!

The life in our soils, (microbes or microorganisms) has been depleted through tillage, compaction, artificial fertilisers and all manner of chemicals.

This creates an environment where there is a serious imbalance between the numerous forms of soil life, so inhibiting their vital contribution to the cycle of life and nutrition.

You see, naturally our soils will absorb nutrients and release some too, including carbon through the breakdown of organic materials, such as leaves, twigs, microbes and animals. We should be adding and better protecting more organic materials with more microbes to assist the retention of carbon, thus protecting the environment from increasing carbon dioxide levels.  At the moment we have the balance wrong and we are emitting too much carbon dioxide in this way and not trapping enough, because the microbes in the soil are not being allowed to do their thing!

It is also vital to manage our water cycle better, helping to build soil to act as a sponge that can absorb water.  Farmers can also benefit from good management of the water cycle as climate change facilitates more frequent severe weather events, including droughts or floods.

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When soil is turned over, initially, plants will grow better because the microorganisms die and release their nutrients into the soil, but if tillage is repeated too soon the soil will become barren! Without the microorganisms feeding the plants, aerating the soil, making both water and nutrients accessible, plants become weakened and prone to pests and disease. As a result, farmers have tended to opt for the short-term solution which has catastrophic longer-term results.  They have added artificial fertilisers and killed off any remaining microorganisms. Tillage also exposes the soil organic matter (SOM) – the main mass of soil which acts as a sponge for both water and carbon.  When SOM is exposed to light and heat it releases carbon dioxide through a chemical process called oxidisation, a chemical reaction, a bit like burning. The light burns it and ultraviolet rays sterilize it, releasing carbon dioxide which we don’t need!


Created by ever larger and heavier farm vehicles, plus livestock, not only allows water run-off, soil loss and nutrient loss, but it also means there is not enough space for oxygen to flow through the soil. When soil, or indeed compost, lacks oxygen, anaerobic bacteria grow.  These bacteria prevent nutrient cycling, so plants don’t get the nutrients or the oxygen they need.


Much like tillage, this exposes the life and organic matter in the soil to oxidation and ultraviolet light and releases our precious, trapped carbon.  Moreover, as with compaction, bare, exposed soil allows organic matter to be flushed away by rain and blown away in the wind. Unfortunately, when this happens, it can take the nitrogen from fertilisers with it, over-stimulating algae in our rivers and oceans, suffocating and destroying life in the water.


are now known to confuse the dynamics of soil life. Ordinarily, nitrogen and phosphorus are cycled through various life forms before being taken up by a plant. If, for example, a plant is given nitrogen directly, it doesn’t have to work hard enough for it by photosynthesis, pushing sugars down the roots to feed the life processes there. Consequently, it misses out on trace elements and other minerals which get fed along with the nitrogen by the microbes.  So, artificial fertilisers may give a short-term impression of being good for our plants and soils, but they are building disaster for the near future.  It is vital that complex additives such as good compost are used instead of artificial chemical concoctions so that a full balance of nutrients really does give nutrition and life to our soils and sustains them for the long-term (see compost section). 

Life in the soil has suffered with a lack of food sources ordinarily given by a healthy mix of decomposing plants as well as from the sugar food from their roots. A diverse mixture of plants will be able to feed and support different concentrations of different microbes at different depths of the soil. These microbes can then feed nutrients to the plants and make healthy plants for us to eat. If a mono-crop is repeatedly grown, far fewer microbes will be fed and they will only exist within a far smaller depth of the soil.

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Which feed on bacteria, fungi, protozoans and even other nematodes.  They play a very important role in mineralising, nutrient cycling – including nitrogen – and in the releasing of nutrients for plant growth. Other nematodes attack insects and help to control insect pests. When nematodes eat bacteria or fungi, ammonium (NH4+) is released, because bacteria and fungi contain much more nitrogen than the nematodes require. If, though, unpleasant anaerobic bacteria develop, or if the soil is disturbed too much, nematodes will not flourish.   Most nematodes are very desirable in the soil, but some types may not be.  A root vegetable cover crop can be used, if necessary, to discourage nematodes if a problem with them is identified.


Help plants access nitrogen and other nutrients.  They like water and are a food source for other soil organisms, as well as helping to suppress disease by competing with, or feeding on, pathogens. They mainly eat bacteria and so, like bacteria, they tend to be in higher numbers near plant roots.


Bacteria are the smallest and most hardy microbe in the soil and can survive under harsh conditions, like those produced by tillage.  Not surprisingly, this is why our soils are bacteria dominant.  A teaspoon of productive soil generally contains between 100 million and 1 billion bacteria, equivalent to the mass of two cows per acre!  Bacteria, however, are only 20 to 30 per cent efficient at recycling carbon, but they have a high nitrogen content, a lower carbon content, and a short life span. They decompose organic material and minerals and turn them into nutrients that plants can use.

Nitrogen-fixing bacteria found near the roots of leguminous plants, eg; clover.

Plants use nitrogen as fuel, if it is given to then by artificial fertiliser, the plant doesn’t have to work for it and as a result becomes weak. It doesn’t have to photosynthesise as much, in order to feed the microbes in the soil. The microbes don’t then get fed and the plant misses out on the other nutrients, including minerals and trace element, that ordinarily get fed to the plant along with nitrogen, by the microbes. The weakness of the plant grown make those eating them weak, which includes us.

They also make a “carbon glue” that can hold small particles together, so-called “build bricks”.

Nitrogen fixing Rhizobium bacteria form nodules on a soybean root. Photo by Randall Reeder
Nitrogen and carbon cycles are connected and humans have also negatively affected both.


Fungi use this “glue” – known as glomalin – to create a connection to plant roots and to stick further particles of the soil together, forming aggregates. The glomalin is strong and hard, so the glued particles don’t break apart so easily in rain or wind and the organic matter (including carbon) and nutrients stay imbedded. This is soil building, the creative aspect of carbon sequestration, the creation of a relatively stable carbon which has the potential for long-term storage, even longer than a tree could achieve. The long-term carbon storage capacity of glomalin is very important and it is thought to store around 27% of the carbon in the soil.  As the plant grows, the fungi move down the roots to form new hyphae (tubular structures) to colonise the growing roots.  The hyphae higher up the roots become redundant and stop transporting nutrients, allowing their protective glomalin to fall away, into the soil.  It then attaches to particles of minerals (sand, silt, clay) and organic matter forming clumps.  The soil structure is stable enough to resist wind and water erosion, but porous enough to allow air, water and roots to move through it.  It harbours more beneficial microbes, holds more water and helps the soil surface to resist crusting.

Fungi also condense the simple compounds in soil into ever more complex forms and are the key contributors to the making of humus.  Mycorrhizal fungi achieve a carbon use efficiency of 40 to 55 percent, storing and recycling more carbon (10:1 carbon to nitrogen ratio) and less nitrogen (10 percent) in their cells than bacteria.  Fungi are more specialised and less generalised in their processes than bacteria and need a constant food source, growing much better under no-till conditions. They act like root extensions, accessing water and nutrients to swap with the roots of plants for sugars (carbohydrates). This connection enables plants to interact, or “talk” to each other, for strength and protection.  It is important to note that mycorrhizal fungi – and most beneficial microorganisms in the soil – suffer significantly when exposed to fungicides, herbicides, acid phosphates, salt fertilisers, nematicides, fallow periods, compaction, erosion and tillage.  The crops are then weakened and become more susceptible to pests, so more pesticides and fertilisers are seen to be needed to sustain yield – and so the cycle of a virtual addiction to destruction of the soil is continued!



Earthworms are major decomposers of dead and decomposing organic matter and derive their nutrition from the bacteria and fungi that grow upon these materials. They fragment organic matter and make a major contribution to recycling the nutrients such matter contains. Earthworms generate tons of casts per acre each year, dramatically altering soil structure. Their casts, like fungal glomalin, are also more strongly aggregated (bound together) than the surrounding soil, because of the mixing of organic matter and soil mineral material, as well as the intestinal mucus of the worms.  They are particularly useful because, although they derive their nutrition from microorganisms, many more microorganisms are present in their faeces or casts than in the organic matter that they consume.  As organic matter passes through their intestines, it is fragmented and inoculated with microorganisms – a creative enrichment of our compost and soil! Moreover, worms improve water-holding capacity, increase infiltration, provide channels for root growth, as well as burying and shredding plant residue.


There are also algae, which can free up oxygen in the soil, through photosynthesis. There are microarthropods that turn plant litter over and start the degradation process and there are actinomycetes that help limit the growth of several plant pathogens as well as helping to cycle nutrients. Springtails are a nuisance pest, which can damage plants by crewing the root but they also help spread fungi as the spores stick to them. Viruses are the smallest microorganism in our soil and help microbes mutate to their environment and probably have a role in managing microbial populations.

Each of these different types of creatures / life forms need each other to work well together to build bonds and networks.  This mirrors how animals in the world above ground function. Each community relies on each other; they work symbiotically, or should do!

Farmers and landowners, great and small, can improve the soil situation on their land.  Yet no one thing will succeed on its own; it needs to be done in combination, continually maintained and at scale – so please spread the word!

It is interesting to note that – despite previous understanding – plants have a significant part to play in determining the ph of soil. Here’s how: Bacteria and fungi in the Soil Food Web consume sugars from the roots of plants. Bacteria converts them into nitrates and fungi converts them (humic acids, to be specific- see below) and synthesises ammonium. It just so happens that nitrates make soils more alkaline and ammonium makes soils more acidic. So plants put out specific foods to attract the microbes they need to create these specific nutrients that adjust pH. Amazing!

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Compost /compost tea or extract when done well, is a fantastic way of inoculating soil with life. It should preferably be made from a diverse mixture of inputs, but generally consisting of around 30% green waste to feed bacteria, 60% woody waste to feed fungi, 10% high nitrogen waste. It can benefit from having a little biologically-rich, previously-made compost, or a tiny bit of soil from a forest, woodland or hedgerow, thus already containing plenty of microorganisms to inoculate the new compost. Compost isn’t only about adding suitable organic matter to feed nutrients into the soil. It’s about adding lots of different microbes and fungal spores, so these can then cycle nutrients and give them to plants.  Farming is about managing microbes.  If you can produce a good, healthy compost, a little will go a long way because microbes are tiny, yet in such large numbers!  A small amount of compost can be used to mix in water and then be spread easily on the fields. Obviously, do not put this liquid in a container with chemical residues that are designed to kill some of the microbes.  This will produce an imbalance in microbial populations, which could cause problems. It takes research, experimentation and time to mature, but is less extractive than humates and fits in with the circular economy far better. Nature has amazing ability to heal, but when our fields are inoculated with beneficial microbes and fungal spores we reboot the most precious resource we have, similar to giving the soil medicine.  One application should work for many years, but soil may need rebooting more frequently after repeated crop extraction or flooding etc. Worm counting and bird numbers and diversity can be a good indicator as to how healthy soil is. (See compost section).


Adding animals into an arable rotation brings additional microbial life from their dung, urine and saliva. Again, this is not necessarily easy, but it can be well worth the trouble and could help bring farmers together in cooperation for other benefits. British farming does not have a great record in this area, but there are many successful examples abroad and now, more than ever before, we need to work together better. Such animals need to eat from multi species, herbal leys with a diversity of root types which reach different depths of the soil, providing for the needs of a wide variety of microbes.


Replace rye grass and clover pasture with a mix of at least 7 different species. Gabe Brown’s and the Jena Experiments in Germany (see further reading section below) demonstrated that this reboots fungal and microbial populations. Ensuring that around 30% of this mix of species are legumes ensures enough nitrogen production and therefore good plant growth. It is, however, important not to use tillage as a means of establishing a mixed, herbal ley.  Advice is available on this from farmers on the conservation and direct drill sections of The Farming Forum and on the Facebook page, ‘Regenerative Farming UK’. In order to maintain such mixed pasture, mob grazing methods need to be introduced, otherwise animals will just pick off the species they prefer to eat and quite quickly reduce the mix.


Cover crops give microorganisms food for the winter and protection from the elements. If possible, use a mixture of crops providing microbes with different varieties of roots in different parts of the soil. As mentioned, seven or more varieties reboots fungal network growth. Keeping living roots in the soil is vital as roots feed the microbes with sugars / exudates and help with soil structure /aggregate development and carbon capture, thus building soil.  If the land is not covered, the precious microbes and organic matter are lost through oxidisation, UV light and weathering.


Diversity is the key both to compost making and building healthy, profit making, growing soil. Diverse soil foods from compost, manure and different plant root sugars feed different, healthier populations of microorganisms. High numbers of all the different types of microbes increase nutrient cycling, increasing aggregate growth, humus/ SOM production and carbon sequestration. All of which are needed right now. The bonus is that this also increases profitability over time and ELMS is there to support this transition.

Once the soil is healthy, it will absorb water better, helping control not only flooding and drought, but also contributing positively to the whole global water vapour/ water cycle system.  Water vapour is the largest greenhouse “gas” and therefore it is important that the balance is right! (See presentations by Walter Jehne on Youtube or https://www.ecofarmingdaily.com/supporting-the-soil-carbon-sponge/

There is still much to learn about the amazing web of life sustained in our soil. The production of glomalin or stable carbon by fungi was only discovered in the early 1990’s.  It is still not clear why mycorrhizal fungi doesn’t grow under certain plants including brassicas, such as cabbages, or ericoidal plants, such as rhododendrons.

Soil organic matter (SOM) is composed of the “living” (microorganisms), the “dead” (fresh residues), and the “very dead” (humus- see below). Active SOM is composed of the fresh plant or animal material which is food for microbes and is composed of easily digested sugars and proteins. Active SOM improves soil structure and holds nutrients available for plants. The passive SOM is resistant to decomposition by microbes (higher in lignin).

It is significant that, if they not nurtured and supplemented, up to 60% of the organic matter in bacterially dominant soils can be lost, whereas only 20% of the organic matter in fungally dominant soil may be lost. Therefore, it is evident that fungally dominant soils make for better carbon sequestration, although bacteria is still vital, with plant roots and all the other natural contributors to support them.

Soil organic matter serves several functions.  From a practical agricultural standpoint, it is important for two main reasons:

1) as a “revolving nutrient fund”

by which organic matter serves two main functions:

  • Plant residues are the basis of soil organic matter, thus they contain all of the essential plant nutrients. Hence, accumulated organic matter is a storehouse of plant nutrients.
  • The stable organic fraction (humus) absorbs and holds nutrients in a plant-available form

2) as an agent to improve soil structure, preparation of the soil surface and minimize erosion

It is clear that we need to put more life back into the soil than we take out, both above and below the surface of the ground.  Healthy soils, with leaf matter, microorganisms, plant roots and mycorrhizal fungi, capture carbon in organic form, whether alive or dead.  Yet most organic carbon, like most microbial life, is in the top layer of the soil.  It must be kept there and not be washed away, dug over or killed with an imbalance of chemicals.  In fact, we lose ten times as much carbon dioxide from such loss as we do currently from fossil fuel usage, so good management of our soils will reap massive rewards.

Compounds and function of humus

Humus – or humified organic matter – is the remaining part of organic matter that has been used and transformed by many different soil organisms. It is a relatively stable component formed by humic substances and is probably the most widely distributed organic carbon-containing material in both terrestrial and aquatic environments. Humus cannot be decomposed readily because of its intimate interactions with soil mineral phases and is chemically too complex to be used by most organisms. It has many functions.

One of the most striking characteristics of humic substances is their ability to interact with metal ions, oxides, hydroxides, mineral and organic compounds, including toxic pollutants, to form water-soluble and water-insoluble complexes. Through the formation of these complexes, humic substances can dissolve, mobilize and transport metals and organics in soils and waters, or accumulate in certain soil horizons. This influences nutrient availability, especially those nutrients present at micro concentrations only.

Humic and fulvic substances enhance plant growth directly through physiological and nutritional effects. Some of these substances function as natural plant hormones and are capable of improving seed germination, root initiation, uptake of plant nutrients and can serve as sources of N, P and S, Indirectly, they may affect plant growth through modifications of physical, chemical and biological properties of the soil, for example, enhanced soil water holding capacity and improved tilth and aeration through good soil structure.

About 35-55 percent of the non-living part of organic matter is humus. It is an important buffer, reducing fluctuations in soil acidity and nutrient availability. Compared with simple organic molecules, humic substances are very complex and large, with high molecular weights. The characteristics of the well-decomposed part of the organic matter, the humus, are very different from those of simple organic molecules. While much is known about their general chemical composition, the relative significance of the various types of humic materials to plant growth is yet to be established.

Humus consists of different humic substances:

  • Fulvic acids: the fraction of humus that is soluble in water under all pH conditions. Their colour is commonly light yellow to yellow-brown.
  • Humic acids: the fraction of humus that is soluble in water, except for conditions more acid than pH 2. Common colours are dark brown to black.
  • Humin: the fraction of humus that is not soluble in water at any pH and that cannot be extracted with a strong base, such as sodium hydroxide (NaOH). Commonly black in colour.

The term acid is used to describe humic materials because humus behaves like weak acids.

Fulvic and humic acids are complex mixtures of large molecules. Humic acids are larger than fulvic acids. Research suggests that the different substances are differentiated from each other on the basis of their water solubility.

Fulvic acids are produced in the earlier stages of humus formation. The relative amounts of humic and fulvic acids in soils vary with soil type and management practices. The humus of forest soils is characterised by a high content of fulvic acids, while the humus of agricultural and grassland areas contains more humic acids.

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Carbon sequestration is measured in terms of total organic carbon stored in the soil. Total organic carbon is mainly comprised of two carbon pools: the active pool and the passive pool. The active pool consists of very labile carbon [labile means “unstable, tending to slip or change”] labile carbon and the passive pool consists of less labile carbon and non-labile carbon.   Active pool carbon is an indicator of the small portion of soil organic matter that can serve as a readily available food and energy source for the soil microbial community, thus helping to maintain a healthy soil food webPassive pool carbon is mainly responsible for soil carbon sequestration.

Further reading & research:

For details of research into how we can further increase plant’s ability to store more carbon: https://ensia.com/articles/plants-co2/

Liquid Carbon Pathway – Dr Christine Jones – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C3_w_Gp1mLM

Here you can see how humus is made – https://vimeo.com/122856716?ref=fb-share&fbclid=IwAR28gzigkm5hQJyQusNAYrTaxIglAchGnrngH8MQt6BlzAkB6D6wJ-jyI9w

Read about how tillage at different times using different methods effects SOM / SOC and CO2 release- https://cropwatch.unl.edu/2018/long-term-tillage-and-soil-co2-fluxes

More about microbiology in soil – https://microbenotes.com/microorganisms-in-soil/#positive-effects-of-viruses-in-soil

Soil carbon saturation- myth or reality – https://lachefnet.wordpress.com/2019/08/03/soil-carbon-saturation-myth-or-reality/

The Jena Experiment – http://the-jena-experiment.de/

Gabe Brown – Gabe Brown – How to build healthy soil – http://brownsranch.us/category/videos/

Gabe Brown – do we need fertilisers – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UEOVLpZrvvU

Guide for farmers from the Soil Ass – https://www.soilassociation.org/media/4672/7-ways-to-save-our-soils-2016.pdf

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Perennials maintain the soil cover, soil structure and life within and have deeper root systems than annuals and thus provide soil stability and enhanced soil health. They can also tap available soil nutrients, enhance biodiversity, make more water available to plants, and capture and sequester carbon.


Common Perennial Vegetables

Artichokes, Asparagus, Florence Fennel, Garlic, Shallots, Watercress and Wild Rocket can all be grown as perennials in cool temperate climates, although not everyone will choose to grow them this way – when garlic is grown as a perennial, for example, the bulbs can become crowded and misshapen, which can make them less desirable from a commercial standpoint. Potatoes are also perennials, but for a number of reasons – one being that they won’t always survive UK winters in the ground – the roots are generally all lifted, and some are then later replanted. Something similar is true for Sweet Potatoes, although rather than replanting the roots themselves, they are generally propagated from slips. Tomatoes, Peppers (inc. Chili Peppers), and Aubergines, are also perennial, but tender, and will only survive under cover, not outdoors or in open ground.

Some vegetables that usually have an annual or biennial life-cycle, have close relatives that are perennial. In some cases, these relatives belong to the same species. Two of the best examples of this are the Brassicas and the Alliums.


Brassicas include cabbage, kale, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, kohl rabi, swedes, turnips, pak choi, among others. Of these, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, brussel sprouts, kohl rabi, and most kales, are actually members of the same botanical species, Brassica oleracea,. The wild cabbage from which these were developed – through selection for different traits over many generations – is often perennial, and a small handful of domesticated varieties have also retained this trait to different degrees.

Some examples include:

Taunton Deane: a hardy, vigorous perennial kale.

Daubenton – a slightly less hardy, bushy kale with tender leaves. There is also a variegated form available.

Purple Tree Collard: a very tall, long-lived Kale, with large leaves, with a stronger flavour than many kales. Some plants in the US are reputedly over 20 years old, however, it is only reliably hardy in the colder parts of UK.

9 Star Perennial Broccoli: actually more like a sprouting cauliflower.

There are other perennial varieties in circulation, and a number of amateur breeders are currently working with these to develop more.


Something similar happened with Onions and Leeks, which are both Alliums. White, Brown and Red onions, belong to the same species as shallots, namely Allium cepa, however, unlike the latter, the majority of onions sold today, and almost all Leeks (which belong to a different species, A. porrum), have had the perennial life-cycle of their ancestors gradually bred out of them.

In my own experience, some shop bought onions will grow as perennials. Beyond that, there are also several interesting perennial Onions. For example, the Potato Onions and Everlasting or Perutile Onions, both vareities of A. cepa,, and the Top-setting or Walking Onions (A. x proliferum).

The latter are thought to be a hybrid between A. cepa, and another species, sometimes grown as spring onions A. fistulosum. In the horticultural trade, these are known as Welsh or Bunching Onions.

They owe the latter name to the fact that they can form large bunches or clumps if left in place for a couple of years. Once established, some can be harvested from these clumps each year, leaving others to multiply, so there are some to harvest the following year..

There are also perennial Leeks – some heritage variety, such as St. Victor, will sometimes produces bulblets at the base, after they have flowered, which allow them to perennialize. There is also the Wild Leek, from which both common leeks and elephant garlic, were domesticated, A. ampeloprasum. One of the most commonly circulated is Babington’s Leek (A. ampeloprasum var. babingtonii) it is slightly variable, but the flavour is usually stronger than other leeks, sometimes with garlic overtones, which make it less versatile. Some amateur breeders are working to develop further perennial leek varieties.

Throughout history, well over a hundred different species of Allium have been used for food. Below are some examples of those with which I have experience.

French Grey Shallots (A. oschaninii): or eschalot grise, are highly sought after in the restaurant trade for their rich flavour.

Garlic chives (A. tuberosum): the name says it all.

Wild Garlic (A. ursinum): edible bulbs, leaves, buds, flowers and immature seeds. Can tolerate shade. Very productive once established.

Rakkyo (A. chinensis): whole plant edible. Mild onion flavour. Often sold pickled in China.

Nodding Onion / Lady’s Leek (A. cernuum): whole plant has a strong onion flavour. Bulb, leaves and flowers all edible raw or cooked. Highly ornamental.

Three-Cornered Leek (A. triquetrum): and Few-Flowered Garlic (A. paradoxum) are both considered invasive. If they do invade, however, they are both excellent edibles.

Sand Leeks (A. scorodoprasum): also known as rocambole. bulbs taste of garlic, rest of plant more like onion, including the edible bulbils. Like leeks the leaves and stem need longer cooking to soften. Flower-stems can be used like garlic scapes.

Rosy Garlic (A. roseum):  leaves have an onion / chive flavour. Bulbs are small, but can be eaten used like onions. Rosy-coloured flowers and bulbils also edible.

Golden Garlic (A. moly): Bulbs can be used as a garlic substitute. Leaves used for flavouring. Flower buds and Flowers edible.

Other Perennial Vegetables

Sea Kale (Crambe maritima): young blanched leaf-shoots delicious cooked, as are the florets (like broccoli), leaves cooked like cabbage (tougher so needs a bit longer), and edible roots, look a bit like horseradish, but tastes more like turnip.

Jerusalem Artichokes (Helianthus tuberosus) – roots delicious cooked or pickled / lacto-fermented. High in inulin, which can cause flatulence, painful in sensitive individuals. patches can be maintained, simply by leaving a few in the ground when harvesting.

Daylilies (Hemerocalis fulva): Young shoots and Flower buds used as cooked vegetables. Tubers cooked like potatoes. Petals are commonly dehydrated and used in soups in parts of Asia.

Good King Henry (Blitum bonus-henricus syn. Chenopodium bonus-henricus): a versatile, shade-tolerant, UK native perennial vegetable. Cooked leaves are a good substitute for spinach, raw they’re not that great. Immature flower stems are a delicious alternative to asparagus, and the seeds can be used like those its relative quinoa, after soaking to remove saponins (also required when processing quinoa).

Caucasian Spinach (Hablitzia tamnoides): shoots, leaves, vine tipes, and immature inflorescences edible. Tastes like spinach, but can live for 20 + years, and grows well in partial shade. Growing here with Herb Robert and Wood Avens.

Sea Beet (Beta vulgaris subsp. maritima): the wild progenitor of cultivated beets, chard and perpetual spinach. The roots are fibrous and generally not eaten. The young leaves are very good raw in salads, older ones cooked – a truely perpetual spinach.

Saltbush (Atriplex halimus): related to the annual vegetable known as Orache or Mountain Spinach (Atriplex hortensis), the leaves taste similar to spinach but with a natural saltiness (even when grown in non-saline soils).

Ground Elder (Aegopodium podagraria): Introduced by the Romans who consumed it as a vegetable. The leaves are edible raw or cooked, but are best when young and still glossy. Widespread, and considered a nuisance by many, as it is aggressively spreading, particularly on disturbed ground. However, it is also an excellent cut and come again perennial vegetable. There is also a variegated variety (pictured).

Alpine Bistort (Persicaria vivipara): edible roots (cooked) and bulbils (the little red things in my hand – on some plants they’re yellow). A nutty flavour.

Rock Samphire (Crithmum maritimum): the succulent leaves have a strong flavour that’s difficult to describe, and raw it can be a bit overwhelming if you use too much, but they’re delicious lightly cooked or pickled.

Black Salsify (Scorzonera hispanica): an excellent root vegetable, but eating this means digging the plant up and treating it more like an annual. They can also be grown as perennials for their tasty, mild-flavoured leaves. Flowers stems and unopened buds, can also be cooked like asparagus and make for very good eating!

Horseradish (Armoracia rusticana): for some purposes, the roots can be harvested from around the crown without digging up the whole plant, but well as a condiment from these, horseradish is also a good source of cooked greens. These aren’t spicy, but taste more like cabbage.

Edible Asters: at one point, all members of the genus Aster, but now divided into several genera. Several provide tasty cooked greens, including the following: Aster glehnii

Aster trifoliatus subsp. ageratoides

Eurybia macrophylla

Kalimeris pinnatifida (syn. Aster iinumae)

Kalimeris incisa

Tripolum pannonicum

Edible Hostas: the young shoots and flowers of several species of Hosta are eaten as a vegetable in parts of Asia. The young shoots (tightly curled up leaves) can be eaten cooked. The flowers have a sweet flavour and crisp texture

Chinese Toon (Toona sinensis): A tree from China. Young shoots and leaves, which have a thick, fleshy midrib, are a popular vegetable in parts of Asia. They have a rich savory flavour., with onion-like notes.

Sweet cicely (Myrrhis odorata): edible leaves, shoots, stems, flowers, roots and immature seeds, all of which have a sweet anise flavour which is strongest in the seeds.

Salad burnet (Poterium sanguisorba, syn. Sanguisorba minor): Cucumber flavoured leaves are delicious in salads.

Bladder campion / Carletti / Strigoli / Bubbolini, Sculpit / Stridolo (Silene vulgaris): young leaves delicious. Very popular in parts of Europe.

New Zealand Spinach (Tetragonia tetragonioides): edible leaves and shoot tips, best lightly cooked. Grows prolifically, but not fully hardy in colder parts of Britain and Ireland.

Small-leaved Linden / Lime (Tilia cordata): young leaves are delicious, tender and mild, with a slight sweetness. Excellent in salads. The buds as they begin to open can be used more like a vegetable.

Hops (Humulus lupulus): as well as being used to make beer, the female cones have been used to flavour foods. The young shoots are a popular wild-gathered vegetable in parts of Europe. At one point they were also successfully marketed in the US as a gourmet ingredient.

Alfalfa / Lucerne (Medicago sativa): the sprouted seed are a nice addition to salads and stir-fries, and the young shoots are good cooked.

Goji Berry (Lycium barbarum): together with its close relative, L. chinense, the plants are actually a popular leaf vegetable in parts of Asia.

Five-leaved Akebia (Akebia quinata): Fruit edible, but generally requires a pollination partner to set any. Young vine tips edible cooked, one of the Japanese Mountain Vegetables or Sansai.

Hopniss / American groundnut (Apios america): cooked tubers are delicious. Some people seem to be mildly allergic and experience digestive discomfort.

Aardaker / Tuberous Sweet Pea (Lathyrus tuberosus): tubers, sometimes called Earth Almonds, are delicious cooked. (second picture, unwashed tubers)

Tassel hyacinths (Leopoldia comosa): Bulbs used in Puglia, Italy – where they are known as Lampascioni (sometimes lampascione or lampagione), also parts of Greece I believe. A bit of a faff to prepare but very tasty.

Goatsbeard (Aruncus dioecious): Young shoots edible cooked. Edibility of mature plant parts unknown, as it accumulates cyanogenic glycosides (these are processed out of some foods, like Kidney beans, but levels in Aruncus may be too high).

Buck’s Horn Plantain (Plantago coronopous): young leaves edible raw or cooked, older ones best cooked. The young flower-stems can be used like miniature asparagus. The seeds are edible, and the seed husks can be used as a substitute for Psyllium husk (which are from related species).

Musk mallow (Malva moschata): Leaves edible raw or cooked. Flowers edible. Pink and White flowered forms exist.

Red Valerian (Centranthus ruber): edible leaves, good in salads, best in spring and winter. In summer, better if they’re grown in light shade with plenty of moisture, as they can become bitter if its too dry / hot. Red, Pink and White flowered forms all available.

Further Reading:

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Integrating trees on farms is re-emerging in the UK as result of concern for declining wildlife numbers and climate change. Agroforestry has a multitude of benefits: it enhances biodiversity, resilience and ecosystem services, while providing timber, fruit and nuts which can be sold as an added income. However, while we desperately need to increase our nut, fruit and timber production in the UK, in order to reduce transportation costs, it is vital to plant suitable trees for the landscape as disturbing biodiverse, special places could have more negatives than positives effect. Getting professional advice is advisable or at least read up on the subject more first.

There are four main types of agroforestry:



Silvopastoral consists of combining trees and livestock by planting rows of tree, tree clumps or individual trees in pasture fields. Research shows that the shade and shelter provided by trees reduces livestock mortality and improves animal welfare. Trees also provide animals with alternative, mixed health forage which can be medicinal.


Silvoarable consists of combining trees with crops by planting trees within fields. Trees can improve the soil structure and organic matter content, affecting nutrient cycling and water holding capacity, reduce soil erosion and prevent downstream flooding. Crops are sheltered from the wind and can access more nutrients brought up by the deep roots of trees. By adding diversity, the system adds resilience.


Hedgerows are the most widespread agroforestry system, often acting as a field boundary while providing important corridors for wildlife, shade for livestock and supplying timber and fruit. Shelterbelts are planted in a linear format on the edge of a field to reduce wind speed, protect crops and livestock, and reduce erosion. These are becoming increasingly necessary.  Riparian planting is when trees are planted along watercourses such as streams, rivers and lakes to act as a buffer to protect the water quality from farm run-off.


Food forests or edible forests or forest gardens mimics the structures of a natural forest, with multiple layers of plants stacked vertically to increase overall production. Again, having such diversity increases resilience and reduces problems from pest and disease. Animals can be integrated, such as pigs, sheep, ducks and a wide variety of mushrooms, tree syrups, fruits, nuts, medicinal plants and crops can be grown.


Diversity is the key both to compost making and building healthy, profit making, growing soil. Diverse soil foods from compost, manure and different plant root sugars feed different, healthier populations of microorganisms. High numbers of all the different types of microbes increase nutrient cycling, increasing aggregate growth, humus/ SOM production and carbon sequestration. All of which are needed right now. The bonus is that this also increases profitability over time and ELMS is there to support this transition.