Emma Leaf-Grimshaw

Emma lives in a semi-detatched house on the outskirts of Cambridge, with her family where she home educates her children and works as Permaculture Designer and Diploma Tutor

How did you get into permaculture? What is your journey so far? 

I read Starhawk’s book Earth Path and wondered “What is this word Permaculture?” I had a young family so luckily found a PDC that was run over a year and completed this in 2011. Began my Diploma in 2016 and accredited in 2023. I used my Diploma to create designs for our home, gardens and lifestyle. I am now a Permaculture Diploma Tutor, Designer and [Pr]activist running several community projects. I am working towards becoming a Permaculture Educator.

What did you hope to achieve when you started your urban permaculture work? 

Initially I wanted the green dream of land, a small-holding etc. However after adopting four children with diverse needs and choosing to Home Educate, my priority became them and providing a safe, loving environment that they could thrive and grow in. Whilst on my PDC, a fellow learner said to me “We can’t all move to the country.” This was a real lightning strike moment! So I set about making our urban home as resilient, productive and self-reliant as it could be. 

In 2013, we needed to move and so this process really took off when we bought a slightly shabby, 1980s semi-detached house and began our retrofit of the building and redesigning the garden.

We wanted to demonstrate that it was perfectly possible to live in a comfortable, content way whilst being as sustainable, regenerative and light on the earth as possible. Earth Care doesn’t mean reducing People Care, green living isn’t harder, going backwards, lacking nor does it feel austere. We’ve actually found the opposite: we live abundantly with joy. Systems take care of themselves now, back garden growing is less time intensive than allotment growing for instance so we have the time to design and implement projects in the community as well as time to follow our own hobbies and interests. We have found it to be a very rewarding, positive way to live as a family. We embody the Permaculture ethics in our daily lives and feel connected to the land, all whilst living in an ordinary house with an average sized garden in a typical suburban street. 

Emma's garden
Emma's back garden

How does your permaculture project/ garden connect with your urban environment? 

Our house and garden is part of an estate that contributed to urban sprawl in the 70s and 80s, there are hundreds of houses with similar construction and sized gardens. Our large village is a commuter settlement with many residents working away in London and Cambridge. We have a public footpath/ alleyway that runs all along the north-east border of our home and east along the back garden. We have at least 15 houses overlooking our back garden and our front garden is there for everyone to see. Our front garden has fruit trees and medicinal herbs which are labelled plus wildlife habitat zones. Many people stop and ask questions about the herbs and fruit trees, I’ve even taken cuttings for delivery drivers who spotted herbs they had been looking for. Urban issues include shared water and drainage, street lights, covenants on the estate such as no chickens allowed, neighbour needs.

How has this work positively impacted individuals, communities or the environment? 

Our home is an oasis for wildlife and biodiversity. At first our neighbours were not pleased with our seemingly unruly garden. However, over the ten years several neighbours are now growing food, planting trees and creating habitat for wildlife. Our biodiverse garden is about to become a case study as part of a project to increase biodiversity in gardens within the Parish. Other neighbours have also had solar panels fitted and installed green roofs on their flat roofs. No one had anything like this on any of the roads near to us, we were the first and we hope that by doing something a bit different to the suburban norm that we have helped others be brave enough to do so. Due to the designing and implementation of projects at home we have been able to talk to our local Parish Council with confidence about community projects we’d like to offer. We have been able to plant a Pocket Forest on council land, plant native hedges, begin regeneration of the community orchards, establish a repair cafe, run community Green Days and more projects in the pipeline. By living in a Permaculture way at home we have been allowed to myceliate regenerative living out into our community. Our children have done all of this alongside us, this way of living is the norm to them and they happily, confidently talk to friends, college tutors and others about the way we do things. 

Emma's garden
Emma's garden

Have you collaborated with any other organisations or individuals to achieve your goals?

Gamlingay Parish Council. Other local volunteers.

What future aspirations do you have for this project? 

We are currently looking to install an air source heat pump. We currently heat our home with two wood burning stoves with wood coppiced from a friend’s managed wood. We’d like to move to a cleaner source of heat as our primary heat but keep the burners as secondary sources. 
We would like to increase our water catchment and storage. 

Once these things are done we’d like to work towards becoming a LAND centre and a demo site for local sustainable open homes projects. I am also wondering if I can run PDCs from here with a urban/suburban/ family life flavour, we shall see…

How has permaculture helped you to deliver this work?

None of this would have happened without Permaculture. Everything we have done has been designed using Permaculture Principles and Ethics. We thought about doing these sorts of things before I did the PDC but maybe didn’t have the confidence, it felt a bit out there. Once I had found the permaculture community I felt like anything was possible that I should trust my gut and make changes, step outside the norm. 

Ten years into designing this Permaculture home and life I trust the design process, I can see the results. Our home is resilient during power cuts, price hikes and food shortages. Our garden has food and medicinal herbs I can pick all year round. We have an abundance of wildlife that we share the land with. 

When I am applying for grants and making project offers I use Permaculture Design tools to complete the applications, I haven’t been turned down yet! I am being asked to consult and contribute to meetings at Parish, District and County council levels for various projects and am introduced as a Permaculture Designer, allowing me to be a voice for the land and our community. 

Emma's garden