From mid-July to October, my life is temporarily shifting gear a bit. We were asked to use up excess leave at work. Usually, this leave would be preciously cached for school holidays. I’d use it to look after my children in the summer holidays or family trips to see our loved ones who are overseas. Things are of course very different in 2020.
Whilst I could usually easily fill the time with house chores, cooking, D.I.Y., reading novels and walks to wild places, I have also been facing a new health challenge since March this year. It means that I really don’t know how much physical work I’ll be capable of over the next few months. I’m immunocompromised and my physical abilities have fluctuated over the last few months. Things may get worse before they get better. I know it’s time to be serious about it and to properly respect my limits. I start a journey of seeing specialists next week and I have really no idea about what this will involve.
To tackle a period of uncertainty like this, I just need a plan. At the core is something to keep my mind engaged, with a bonus if my body will allow me to do anything practical.
Frugally hedonistic retro suburban sustainable living (!)
Back in February 2020, my husband converted the bespoke kid’s cubby house at the bottom of the garden into a roomier version that would be a potting shed for me. The kids had outgrown it and he achieved the transformation by dropping the floor height and cutting a larger door and patching up the floor.
I had never had my own shed before. I decorated the inside with things that I have had forever and leftover paint. I probably got slightly carried away, because The Burrow became something far more than I imagined.
Potting sheds for practical magic
I didn’t imagine how important having a potting shed would be. I didn’t imagine loving a shed.
It is practical for gardening, because it makes seed keeping and sowing easier. I can now always find my tools and access things to keep my chickens happy.
But also, on another level, because I made it a place of whimsy, it’s just a quirky little space, a sanctuary where I can just have a cup of tea for five minutes. Where I feel connected to growing, the garden and permaculture thinking.
I can fit regular small-scale seed sowing in more easily to life because it is an organised space. The kids have used the potting shed too, planting radishes and drawing art for inside it.
There is just something about it that feels…otherworldly. Looking at it, and stepping inside is strangely comforting. It’s real magic.
Reusing and upcycling
What I loved about this project was that we reused and recycled what we could. We bought the minimum items needed where we could not source second hand. My husband found an incredible old door for sale nearby and converted it into a half-opening barn door.
Inspiration for “The Burrow”
Our chicken coop is called “The Bothy” so I needed a name for my potting shed. It felt right to call my potting shed “The Burrow” – a name borrowed from the Harry Potter series.
All fantastic worlds collide in my head, and my shed!
I used anything I had in the house – like a teapot that I loved but being clumsy, I had dropped it and broken the handle. Perfect for a bit of fun in the potting shed…
Gardening like farmer, farming like a gardener
With a green man keeping a watchful eye on the outside of the burrow, it seemed right to have one on the inside. Who better than the source of inspiration for all my gardening adventures in Australia, but Costa Georgiadis!
I had a magazine page (from Earth Garden magazine) that I had stuck onto an old baking tray with a quote from Costa Georgiadis…
“And at the end of the day, it’s all about gardening like a farmer and farming like a gardener”
My brother and sister in law know I am a Costa Georgiadis fan and had bought me this beautiful art by local artist Joan and Rose. It just felt right to have Costa as a green man in the potting shed and I’m fairly sure it’s why the chickens love visiting the shed so much.
I had an epiphany learning how to build soil through his series ‘Costa’s Garden Odyssey’. Having Costa as the Southern Hemisphere green man of the inside of my potting shed seems right and I hope he doesn’t mind.
On a sunny day I can brew water for tea in my Sun Rocket solar camping kettle. The potting trolley (“Any plants from the trolley?”) was our second child’s baby change table, which my husband converted into a moveable potting table.
Although months later than usual, today I did one of my favourite annual rituals of taking a yield of beautifully scented wood from the Vitex agnus-castus known along the ages as Chaste Tree, Abraham’s Balm, Monk’s pepper amongst other mysterious names.
History of The Chaste Tree
Chaste Tree has an ancient history, with its use referenced in literature and poetry. It is still used today in herbal medicine practices.
In a medieval poem The Floure and the Leafe which was written anonymously in Middle English, a beautiful lady in white wears a crown of Vitex agnus:
“On her head, of leves fresh and grene, So wele wrought, and so mervelously, That it was a noble sight to sene. Some of laurer, and some ful pleasantly Had chapelets of woodbind, and sadly Some of Agnus castus were also Chapelets fresh.”
According to its effect on the human body, if Chaucer’s characters for example, had ingested this herb more, let’s just say that The Canterbury Tales would certainly have less rudey-bits and rumpy-pumpy! This herb could have saved me from SO MUCH blushing as a Medieval Literature student when having to read Chaucer aloud!
Harvesting Vitex agnus
I have written about this annual task before because of how seasonal the task feels as a ritual. I only began to value it in this way, as a recurring seasonal task after spending six months with my head in a permaculture course. I discovered that the actual yield is not about measuring the yield of wood…which is quite small.
It’s more about connection to the cycle of seasons. Thinking about the ancient history of this tree, valued enough to be in poem and story. A sensory trigger from the feel and scent of the beautiful wood.
You can cut Vitex down to ground level and you can grow it as a single trunk tree or shrub.
What I love about this task is the scent of this wood. It is really unique and hard to describe. It reminds me of patchouli wood perhaps mixed with pine but far more distinct. When dried it retains its scent and burns sweetly.
The white spikes of summer flowers are very similar to Buddleia and attract many butterflies, bees and hover flies. I’ve observed that native Australian blue-banded bees seem to find the white flowers fascinating, even though their preference is for blue hues.
Vitex agnus is just one of those quiet plants that I don’t see often, but is a special, brilliant and appreciated part of my small permaculture inspired garden.
Now that I’m half way through my Permaculture Design Certificate (PDC) theory, I’m about to take a really good crack at some intentional design in terms of applying permaculture principles in an average sized garden.
Below, is the layout of the productive backyard that we now have after five-six years of ad-hoc design with permaculture principles in mind, but without really any formal or deep understanding.
[click image to enlarge]
My final PDC design project has therefore rather humble aims:
Moving this young backyard farm into maturity by giving it a vision and including:
removing the last of the invasive lower lawn for veg beds
Bringing it all together as a whole, is where hopefully having some idea of permaculture design principles will help so that I can see the space and the little areas of potential.
How we got to this stage
I wanted to capture where we are now, and how this young productive garden emerged, before I start my final design project for my PDC and for anyone else working on their PDC with a small space.
Six years ago we moved away from our 20 acre rural block, our dream hobby farm – into a house on about 890 square metres. We were in our 30s so not really traditional ‘downsizers’, but the property was situated precariously on a ridge top, had limited access and in summer we had a close call with bushfire without any access to water.
Leaving our farm was the hardest thing I ever did.
We left space, epic views, secret valleys, winter rivers, echidnas and wedge tailed eagles, space for orchards you could walk through and just everything I had dreamed of. We went to a normal street, into a normal house into a normal space that meant no more cows, goats or roosters or wild places.
I still have days when my heart pines to be back there, listening to the wind blowing through sheoaks.
But, as it tuned out, we were able to slowly create a more sustainable future. A slow retrofit is still in progress, starting with insulation and adding internal doors for example.
We now have less reliance on cars, can walk into the Main Street of our small town rather than having to drive everywhere, could afford to upgrade solar hot water and power, have massively reduced electricity consumption and no electricity bills – even our house sewage septic system is recycled for viticulture irrigation. Instead of feeding cows and maintaining fences I food gardened.
We both work professional jobs and have young children and yes, I have to be honest, ALL my free time over the last six years is mostly immersed in food gardening. Or reading about others about food gardening, or talking to others about food garden or thinking about food gardening.
My daughter described me as “mad about permaculture” on a poster describing their mums at school. Maybe I am mad putting all this heart in.
On days I was too exhausted with my baby son, I would be up early to watch episodes of Costa’s Garden Oddyssey I found on DVDs and it became a morning ritual with a baby and four year old. I had a moment of understanding that this was going to take time and to start with the soil – to build soil – and be patient.
There was no design, no vision, just a hazy idea of what could be daydreamed, the design emerged in the edges of everything else. It felt right to design informally in this way with dreams by the fireside, experiments and failures.
So, undertaking this PDC has given me an unexpected concern. I’m feeling doubtful about whether I’m suited to designing gardens properly on paper -with any precision. It feels…unlike me to garden on paper. I’m trying though. I measured out my space last week to roughly get the plan I put together to scale. Sort of.
But I wonder if others feel this way. To be truthful, drawing it out first feels like it kills the wonder a bit for me.
But…what I want to encourage is simple. Start where you are. Right now. In whatever way it feels right to begin.
Don’t wait until you have “the dream acreage” don’t feel that you have to have big space to apply permaculture design. Learn now from the tiniest space.
In 1999, my first veg garden in my 20s was a front garden patch of about 15m2 in England. We won a prize because it was seen as a novelty to grow veg amongst cottage garden flowers – but it was all the space we had. The design – intercropping – emerged from the limits. Limitation can be the spark.
Any space can be enough room to grow.
Make boundaries into horizons.
Any space can be everything you need, if you can begin with valuing the potential of what you do have. If you still need more trees, visit them. Or if you need wilderness (which yes, I really do miss in my deepest soul) go forth and camp there, or join in an effort to plant trees there. If you dream of more growing space, volunteeer in your local school or community garden.
In the breath-held beauty of night, every leaf seems paused as if painted in still life, branches striking shapes, shadow-shifting in the moonlit corners of my sight. Crickets sing a rhythmic chorus under the waxing glow of gibbous moon, inciting beetle feet to tread their forests of towering grass blades. The dance of Diplopoda feet, heard burrowing through to damp soil, microcosmic tramping that loosens pathways, unthreading mycorrhizal threads, triggering fungi to fruit. The luminous moon conjures magpies into a midnight warbling, their tree-to-tree dream song the perfect soundtrack of the Universe. I lift my head and eyes to dive up into the starred abyss of the dark-sea spaces in The Milky Way above. Scrambling for words enough to surface from deep wonder, with everything above and below and around and within connected.
After taking a short one-day course on permaculture design in 2006, I’ve been pining to explore formally studying permaculture again, but this time, to go deeper. Ideally, that would look like signing up for a two week intensive residential course on a permaculture farm somewhere, in the traditional way, learning with a bunch of other enthusiastic learners – immersed. However, with a young family I’m not keen to try and squeeze this in, nor do I have the leave to take from work, nor do I want to be away from the kids to pursue this. It’s just not me to indulge like this. I’m still keen on doing a residential course in the future, but I’ve been searching for something to fit around my circumstances.
I saw Geoff Lawton’s online PDC offering, which is spread across 20+ weeks, still has a design project component and because I have my own garden and community garden to contribute to, delving deeply into the theory among my existing practical exploration on the side really appeals to me. I can almost fit in the 2-3 hours in each week to do this! 🙂 The course was launched few days ago on my 40th birthday, so it also a lovely way to launch the next decade of my life with something so personally meaningful.
You can get an idea of Geoff’s approach as he’s released some materials free at the Permaculture Circle. and the course is structured around Bill Mollison’s Permaculture A Designers’ Manual. There are people from all over the world taking the course, many have acreage but there are plenty of backyard and urban balcony farmers too. Diversity right there. There are also teaching assistants who are experienced permaculture practioners supporting Geoff, so I think that a lot of thinking has gone into making this an online community of learning.
I’m also discovering that many people do multiple PDC courses – there isn’t just one ultimate one course that will fill your bucket brim full. Perhaps some people might rightly be critical of online study of something so practical, but for me right now, mixing a deeper study of the theory, while I’m reflecting on my five years trying to self-practice permaculture design and starting new design adventures – fits my situation perfectly. One day, I would still love to head off on an intensive practical, when the stars and planets align to make this an option.
I’ll be trying to keep up with the course, and posting insights and understandings here. For me, having an accessible and well-planned online study option for a PDC is giving me an opportunity to expand my understanding without needing to be cram it all in or be away from my family to pursue this development experience. So I’m giving it everything!
We’re the hippies of the hood perhaps, with our mostly native rambling front garden but I decided to forge on a bit further and gently introduce some vegetables as it’s a great growing site. It’s a first for me in an Australian garden growing vegetables in the front (did it in the UK as we had a very small space).
With wallaby and kangaroo grass seeding, flax lilly’s dainty clusters of nodding blue and yellow flowers, red and yellow kangaroo paw in flower and the sweet scent of native frangipani trees it’s a hot colour riot of sight and smell right now. A bee haven. Mingling scents of native frangipani, rosemary, lavender and lemon basil too. So why not even more diversity with some produce in the mix!
The first adventures into mixing some veg into the front (we don’t have street verges alas!) was sacrificing a bed that had mainly herbs. We inherited heavy clay soil in this front garden, so I took a patient year of soil prepping including worm castings, mushroom compost, direct deep composting of kitchen scraps first, before attempting any removal or planting. Removing the large woody herbs wasn’t too laborious once the soil had improved (previoulsy impossible baked into hard clay!) and the tomato seedlings have loved their freedom!
There will be more front veg planting to come, longer term plans for strawbale or timbercrete to replace wooden retaining walls – so much to do – and I’m converting a lawn at the back first – so my guess is this is it for a while in the front. But by tackling one small thing at a time – like a yield of heirloom tomatoes, which have always been challenging in my backyard raised beds, you find that you can slow down enough to think about design more, rather than just rushing in to plant and change everything all at once. It gives you time to observe.
I’ve been keen to try building nest blocks for blue-banded bees, by packing a clay/sand mix into rectangular PVC pipe after hearing about this technique and seeing it online.I’ve looked at a few ideas for insect hotels and made a list of materials required.
It would cost around $20 from the local hardware store for the PVC pipe. Not much in the scheme of things, but bees have been finding accommodation for thousands of years before PVC pipe came along, so…
In the meantime, it’s Spring and bees need shelter. I used what I had in the spirit of experimenting with some ramshackle nests that I could probably call ‘ bee shacks’, and not quite bee hotels. For the less discerning bee, or indeed any insect interested in a small house footprint. Calling all bees and insects looking for a downshift!
The way I look at is, the wider bee community and insects in general make do with what nature provides, rarely to a formula or straight lines or perfect build. So why not appeal to those opportunistic and adapatable personalities of nature , with my very own flavour of hacky haphazardness?
So here is a combination of weathered bamboo garden stakes I already had, hessian, twine and some mesh that was a plant protector, packed with a clay and sand mix (clay soils from our front garden), that I then accidentally dropped from a height- removing most of the clay/soil.
Lashed by twine onto a dodgy trellis – it will move slightly in the wind:
And also, an old pot packed with clay and sand, a few hints at what wandering insects might want to do to make a crash pad, and undaintily shoved on the soil underneath the borage.
Now to see, who, if anyone, shelters in these tiny share shacks!
This is where I am logging the first sightings in my garden (McLaren Vale, South Australia) of native blue-banded bees (Amegilla) each year, going back to 2014 which is the first year I noticed them and fell head-over heels in love.