The Veg Patch
Gardening, biodiversity and creativity
A man wheels a wheelbarrow with a backdrop of flourishing green vegetation and bnushes

Gardening, biodiversity and creativity

5 mins
The Veg Patch

Spring is upon us and many of us are tending to our windowsill gardens, veg patches and allotments. There was no better time to sit down with the folks from Tidy Content to chat about the wonders of gardening, creativity and biodiversity.

With climate change at the heart of much of the public conversation and increasing awareness of the importance of conserving and protecting the planet's biodiversity, you might be wondering how you can take a more mindful approach to gardening.

We caught up with South Wales-based designer, illustrator and environmentalist, Ed Harrison to hear about his creative projects, conservation campaigns, and his advice for nurturing a more biodiverse garden this year.

A man in a woolen jumper, dungarees and wellies leans back against a white set of wooden barn doors

Wellies on and ready for work! Image credit: Alex Sedgmond

Growing up in a home filled with science books, old medical instruments, and shelves stacked to the rafters with nature journals and iconic bright yellow National Geographic magazines, Ed and his three brothers were encouraged to fill sketchbooks and scrapbooks from a young age.

They learned to draw, create and experiment with different media, and it's no surprise that all four siblings pursued creative careers. After graduating, Ed honed his design skills in the branding industry, yet very few of his paid work revolved around nature.

I started a side project titled Animalia Daily where I illustrated 100 animals for 100 days to keep myself sane during my early freelance days", Ed tells us.

He shared the project with his brother, James, a skilled designer and experimental printmaker. It ignited conversation and a big question loomed over them: how could they call themselves wildlife artists if all of these magnificent species were falling into extinction?

A man shoveling horse manure into a wheel barrow with a backdrop of bushes
A man shoveling horse manure into a wheel barrow with a backdrop of bushes

Shovelling horse manure last winter, which is regularly delivered by a friend who owns horses. Circular economy in action! Photo credit: Alex Sedgmond

Getting under the skin

Humans had caused the loss of 83% of wild mammals, the brothers discovered, and the endangered species list had doubled in the past decade. It was 2015, the time before Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion, and no one seemed to be talking about this. Their initial conversation planted the seed which would blossom into a powerful awareness campaign.

Under the Skin is a limited edition screen-printed collection of some of the world's most endangered species. Under UV light, the hidden skeleton of the animal is revealed: all that remains if a species falls into the darkness of extinction.

But it's not all doom and gloom: these are prints that protect with 20% of all proceeds going to front-line conservation charities working to protect each endangered species in the series.

What started as a side project between the brothers gradually grew into a business and life venture: their screen prints are shipped worldwide, and they've formed exclusive partnerships with global leaders in conservation including Sea Shepherd, Ol Pejeta and RSPB.

A set of three screenprints of endangered animals glowing in the darkness to reveal their skeletons
A colourful set of three screenprints of illustrated endangered animals; a gorilla, vaquita porpoise and whooping crane.
Two brothers leaning over and looking down whilst screenprinting t-shirts with ink

Heads down screenprinting in the Under the Skin studio with my brother. Photo credit: Alex Sedgmond

From pen to pitchfork

During the pandemic, Ed found himself fortunate enough to return to his roots at his parents' home in South Wales.

"The pandemic forced my hand - and, in turn, opened my eyes - to just how relentless my pace of life had become", he tells us. "Leaving my daily habits behind, I had the chance to re-evaluate what truly mattered: family, friends, and physical and mental nourishment in the form of breathing in nature. Inspired by my dad, this is where I turned my hand to gardening."

A man holding a beetroot whilst a golden retriever dog looks up at it.

Paws for thought. Photo credit: Alex Sedgmond

As children, Ed and his brothers had helped out with chores in the garden - weeding and managing their woodland. But it wasn't until the pandemic that he grew vegetables for the first time.

Part oak woodland, part allotment, Ed describes his parents' garden as a special place where biodiversity flourishes. In the garden, there's a mixture of wilderness and 'messy' scrubland which is an ideal habitat for songbirds to nest, hedgehogs to hibernate and insects to thrive. Next to a small pond surrounded by trees, the veg patch consists of six raised beds made from old reclaimed railway sleepers.

"The act of slipping on my wellies, picking up a fork and getting out into the garden helps me slow down and appreciate nature on a different scale and at a different pace."

Swallows return to their barn every year from South Africa marking the beginning of Spring alongside the sea of daffodils, followed by a wave of bluebells covering the woodland floor.

Among the many oaks stands a 30-foot tall horse chestnut tree which Ed planted with his father from a conker as a young boy some 25 years ago.

"Weeding, maintaining, watering and watching the veg grow is a therapeutic, mindful process. In today's super-connected and fast-paced world, slowing down can seem like a thing of the past, of times gone by. The act of slipping on my wellies, picking up a fork and getting out into the garden helps me slow down and appreciate nature on a different scale and at a different pace."

A man leans over to harvest fresh onions covered in dirt

Homegrown onions taste best. Photo credit: Alex Sedgmond

Let your garden grow

"We need to reframe the ideals of what a garden should look like and abandon the outdated cultural obsession with tidiness which is contributing to the decline of insect habitats", Ed tells us, adding, "Short mown gardens, hard surfaces and spraying weed killers can all have negative effects on bees and other insect pollinators."

A man on his knees bends over on the ground to plant a squash plant in the soil

Planting the "Three Sisters": corn, beans, and squash. This partnership planting method was practised by Indigenous peoples in North America. Photo credit: Alex Sedgmond

Ed's dad taught him everything he knows about gardening and gave him a great piece of advice when he started out: be realistic with what you can grow based on the soil and climate. For Ed and his family, this means dense soil with lots of clay, minimal light and lots and lots of rain.

"We've been gradually improving our soil with compost made from food waste at home, bulky organic matter from the garden and manure delivered to us from a neighbour with horses."

A short looping GIF of a hand pulling out a beetroot from the soil

Pulling beets! Photo credit: Alex Sedgmond

Gardening can be a lot of work, he admits. Especially trying to maintain the wilderness yet not let it take over completely. Ed shares his top tips for growing a more mindful, biodiverse garden this year.

1. Take part in 'no-mow may'. If you have a lawn, take part in this national campaign and let your grass grow throughout May. It's a quick and pain-free way to encourage your garden to become a little wilder.

2. Look for the 'plants for pollinators' symbol on seed packets. Many insects like butterflies, moths, bees and hoverflies feed on nectar and need flowering plants to survive. But many seeds and plants you get at garden centres lack pollen and nectar as they're purely decorative. Look for the Royal Horticultural Society Plants for Pollinators symbol on seed packs for year-round flowering plants that help tackle the decline in pollinator numbers.

3. Create wildlife corridors and nests. Create wildlife corridors and nests to attract and welcome garden visitors: you just need to make holes in fences and install bee boxes in brick walls.

A man peers through two broad bean plants whilst harvesting handfuls of crops.

Searching for beans amongst the greens. Photo credit: Alex Sedgmond

Embracing the butterfly effect

It's easy to feel disempowered and a sense of despair when we think about climate change, but Ed reminds us that our individual actions can still make a difference.

"It's all about 'the butterfly effect", he tells us. "It's surprising how many people can be inspired and positively affected by your everyday actions, no matter how small or insignificant they seem. There's no greater example of this than Greta Thunberg, a single child striking with a cardboard sign and inspiring a global movement."

A man and woman wearing woolen jumpers work together to dig out potatoes from the soil
A man and woman wearing woolemn jumpers work together to dig out potatoes from the soil

Digging potatoes with Julia Bethan, my partner and CPO (Chief Potato Officer). Photo credit: Alex Sedgmond

Climate change can feel scary, Ed says, but taking action is a powerful way of diminishing these feelings and knowing you're making a positive contribution to the world.

On the subject of taking action, Ed reveals his plans for 2023.

"We have loads of exciting things happening at Under the Skin", he shares. "A new range of screenprints in the works that celebrate and protect species across the world, from the deepest oceans to the African savannas."

They've also launched a sustainable merch line of t-shirts and tote bags which are available in the online shop. Everything's hand-printed by James in their small studio on 100% organic cotton made from climate-neutral manufacturing.

A man in a woolen jumper and wellies squats down to harvest spinach from a raised bed

"I'm strong to the finish 'cause I eats me spinach!" (Popeye the Sailor Man) Photo credit: Alex Sedgmond

"We're also launching a short documentary in partnership with Sea Shepherd called The Last Vaquita. It's been five years in the making and focuses on the most endangered marine mammal on the planet, the Vaquita Porpoise.

We're honoured to say that it was shortlisted for the International Ocean Film Festival. We went out to San Francisco to do a live Q&A on stage to discuss the future prospects of the Vaquita and our experience aboard the Sea Shepherd vessel whilst making the film."

A basket of fresh soil-covered vegetables placed in front of a pile of logs

Nature's bounty in a basket. Photo credit: Alex Sedgmond

And, of course, between his projects, Ed will be recharging in the garden.

I'm now growing the 'Three Sisters', a traditional intercropping method where three main crops are grown together: corn, beans, and squash. These three are planted together in a mutually beneficial manner.

The corn provides support for the beans to climb, the beans fix nitrogen in the soil, benefiting all three plants, and the squash spreads out and shades the ground, reducing weed growth and moisture evaporation. This beautifully sustainable planting method was historically practised by Indigenous peoples in North America and continues to be a valuable approach to sustainable agriculture."

"I'm now growing the "Three Sisters", a traditional intercropping method where three main crops are grown together: corn, beans, and squash."

"We will also continue to grow all the classics that we know grow well. The vegan revolution means there's no shortage of recipes and inspiration when cooking our fresh homegrown crops!"

A wooden basket full of freshly picked, colourful vegegtables covered in soil

We sowed an abundance of nasturtiums, which are not only edible (with a peppery taste) and adored by insect pollinators but also add vibrant splashes of colour to the veggies. Photo credit: Alex Sedgmond

This article is dedicated to my late father, Kim Harrison, who departed last spring; his memory will forever live on in our hearts, minds, and the bountiful vegetables we cultivate season after season.

An illustrated letter K wrapped in runner beans with small pink flowers flourishing from the sides
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