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.
I caught a glimpse of something small and magical in the trickle of first rain and how a small fig tree catches and redirects the rain to efficiently distribute such a precious resource. It’s incredible to imagine the full interaction of water on earth, taken up into clouds, and cycled down into the soil, roots and fungi, into rivers and lakes, out to sea and back up into the clouds again. How the pattern of bark and shape of leaf plays its part.
This small tiny observation on a tiny water trickle, led me into lots of reading about how this connects to the bigger patterns of weather stemfall, interception, throughfall in ecological and permaculture thinking.
This is why observing the tiniest of interactions is all about learning.
Blink or pass too quickly by the tree and you miss a world of understanding.
It’s not a perfect video, but I captured it on my phone:
(there’s no audio)
(and if you want to read about it, see 6.6 How a tree interacts with rain in Permaculture A Designers’ Manual by Bill Mollison)
It’s easy to fall into a yearning for more space when you have your head in permaculture thinking, yet with just a backyard sized space to play out your zones. When I see field-sized rows of vegetable beds I have to admit, sometimes my thoughts stray to wishing I had vast fields to lay down beds for sprawling pumpkins, or wander through my own orchard! If only I had a small forest to harvest fallen wood…or room for ducks and goats again…
These aren’t useful threads of thoughts though. So, here’s just one example of how I tackle my mind out of the feeling of wanting more growing space. It’s by concentrating on ritual as the yield.
In the past, I was lucky enough to experience having 20 acres and being able to collect fallen branches and twigs after a storm to store as firewood.Now, in a backyard farm, I have young fruit and nut trees, one large lilly pilly shade tree and a long wait for lots of fruit and nut trees to mature.
A few years ago I researched trees and small shrubs that could be used as a harvest for wood on a small scale, for basketry or kindling. This brought me to the Vitex agnus castus, or Chaste Tree. It ticked all the boxes with buddleia like bee-attracting flowers, deciduous in winter and with pliable limbs that could be cut to ground level. This is the white variety and the flowers tower over one of the raised vegetable beds, calling all the bees in the area over to my tomatoes.
The chaste tree dies off in autumn, you can cut the branches to ground level, and quite late into Spring (many people often think the tree is dead) it will suddenly burst into new green life anew and grow even thicker woody branches than the previous year. The branches also have a lovely earthy scent.
Here is the small bunch of wood from last year, dried over summer and ready for use either as kindling or maybe some beginners basketry?
It’s not much is it? It won’t go far this winter. But does that matter? Is the size of yield the achievement?
For me, no.
This is about being in touch with harvesting wood as a ritual, about repeating a seasonal pattern and about that sense of being human in a permaculture system in a managed backyard garden. The ritual is the yield here. This is like a small echo of an ancient wood harvesting management called coppicing, where young forest trees were cut down to the ground to resprout. I’m not encroaching on a forest or the wilderness, so it’s a good rhythm for this space to harvest the long bare branches each winter. It’s a way to be in touch with a rhythm of taking from nature in a way that allows the tree to regrow even more vigorously, with even more blooms offered up to pollen craving bees through Summer.
There is a huge sense of worth in that little bundle of sticks and knowing that the next season will yield a slightly thicker little bundle of sticks.
If you have any other suggestions for plants and small trees that allow a small yield of wood like this, would love to hear about them.
sharing wild spells of magic found in… nature, YA and middle grade books, backyard farming & permaculture