The Branch: Pocket Farm

The Branch Herb Garden is a space to re-connect ourselves with nature amid the urban setting of Osaka, and it also serves as a central point for many of our workshops and events.

In curating the experience of a modern city, much has been perpetrated against the wild. Today’s city still happily does away with things like self-planting wildflowers (we call them weeds), seasonal wild herbs, and most wildlife.

The result hasn’t been so good, either for humans or our environments at large. In fact, it’s probably fair to say that by making nature an ‘enemy’ in the city, we’ve all lost something integral to a healthy life.

Indeed, around the world there are city officials, urban planners, health experts, psychologists, ecologists, and everyday people going about their lives in the city, who are all calling for a change. On social, psychological, and biological levels (and other levels we probably can’t imagine) it is reasonable to suggest that every neighborhood should have access to natural spaces, and so too, access to grow and enjoy delicious, local, seasonal foods.

The Branch Pocket Farm began from this understanding.

Inspired by the tiny “pocket parks” of Patrick Geddes, and built in the spirit of natural farmers such as Masanobu Fukuoka and Yoshikazu Kawaguchi, activities in our Pocket Farm are based in a compassion for all living beings.

The herbs grown here are used for teas, herbal oils, tinctures, and all other sorts of good things that you can enjoy at our community cafe; as well, much of the harvest is given freely to our neighbors.

Concept plans for The Branch Herb Garden in Kitakagaya

More than simply the herbs and food, The Branch Pocket Farm is a space to re-connect ourselves with nature amid the urban setting of Osaka, and also serves as a central point for many of our workshops and events.

We thought it might be inspiring (and perhaps useful otherwise) to take you briefly through the process of making this garden space a reality. With a little work, much determination, and the support of a few community members, projects like this could literally happen anywhere.

Building The Pocket Farm

Part 1 (becoming a steward)

The first step for individuals who want to green their neighborhood, but have nearly zero budget, is to try and convince the owner of an empty lot, to allow you to be ‘stewards’ of the empty land. Usually this requires either knowing the person who owns the land, or otherwise having a great plan for what you would like to do with this land while it’s sitting empty.

This part was tricky for us, as we are foreigners in Japan, and have limited Japanese language skill. Luckily, the land owner (who are awfully kind to community-engaged artists), happily agreed, allowing us to steward the empty land at no cost. It probably helped that we had a pretty drawing, and as well, that we had done another community food project previously in the neighborhood.

Part 2 (design and build)

Next we take off the fence and get to work cleaning up.

Site survey come first, and it’s not only about ‘grading’ the land. Usually, the basic way to look at this it to take into account soil composition, to figure out how the water moves across the land, and where the sun, wind, ice, and other elements will be at various times of year. It is unfortunate, but this process often plays out with the near total destruction of the existing vegetation, as most people have a pre-conceived “idea” of what they want their “design” to look like. In academia, they like to call this anthropocentric. In the end, making a garden this way tends to create an ongoing struggle between what we want, and what nature wants.

Well, you know what? Gardens don’t need to be an ongoing struggle!

The trick is learning to be flexible in accepting what the living things in our garden are doing wherever possible. In the end, it’s more of an everyday learning game, and an ongoing relationship development class (with you and nature, that is).

Some call this ‘design thinking’ or ‘designing with nature’ but we like to think of it a bit more radically than this. In this garden, nature herself is the lead designer, and we are the apprentices.

When our planned idea doesn’t seem to be working, this usually means it’s time to stop what we’re doing and pay more attention to nature’s cues.

So instead of imposing a plan on the garden, we let the garden tell us what it wants to grow, firstly by looking at what is already growing. The survey of existing plant-life helps us plan around areas of life and biodiversity that already exist, as well to see areas that might need a hand. In any case, we stop shy of trying to re-invent what nature is already doing!

In our case, existing patches of wildflowers, clover, wood sorrel, dokudami (fish mint), some wild onion, and several others were kept and used as centerpoints in the garden design.

We did very minimal earthwork, only enough to make room for a few raised box beds and stone work. The boxes are, of course, a bit of cheating. If this were a total natural garden in the Fukuoka Masanobu style, we’d have thrown some clay seed balls and that would be the end of it.

Yet as Fukuoka often told his students, natural farming is not about the technique. It’s all about the way of thinking, and about your personal relationship with nature.

In this case, our relationship happens to have some boxes in it.

The boxes are of very simple design and were made from reclaimed wood that was donated and otherwise might have been send to the landfill. Stone was mostly from the areas we dug up, and a nearby demolition site. As well, a few benches were made with up-cycled old roofing tiles and cement squares that were similarly donated after being retired from service elsewhere.

With all that in place, we set to work seeding and propagating new plants, and seeing where they could fit in with the family of wild plants that were already growing.

Not always a smooth road, but truly a beautiful adventure and something new every time we step into this space.

The Result: Branch Pocket Farm

After the initial planing, the combination of wild plants, weeds, and our intentional herb beds having grown in together quite nicely.

It’s hard to describe how much joy comes from the fact that this garden is always changing, and always creating surprises.

We’ve noticed biodiversity increase in terms of plants as well as other living things, with many many new guests blowing in on the wind, or otherwise making themselves comfortable since the first year. Watering is also, for multiple reasons, has become less and less necessary over time.

We would like to thank our garden donors [Kosuke Okamura, Nana Aomori, Jared & Monica Looser, Takafumi Inoue, Mary Cheung, Jaye and Janine Lydon, Syanne Cole, and Jeongmi Na] who helped us to purchase plants and materials that we otherwise would not have been able to afford. As well, the Chishima Foundation for Creative Osaka who helped us become ‘stewards’ of the land, and also have a big pile of old wood that we readily salvaged!


More from The Branch

Enjoy more events and stories from our ecological art space in Osaka: