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 (!)
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.
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.
The beautiful personalities of three Australorp chickens settling into the backyard has been a thoroughly enjoyable part of the Christmas break. I can’t describe how much I love them. I wake up and can’t wait to say good morning to them.
Chickpea who turned out to be Chuckpea was swapped for a black pullet, at least…I hope she’s a pullet! It can be a little hard to tell, but we’ll just have to see. My youngest chose her name…Fluffy. So, Betty, Penelope and…Fluffy.
I’ve already had that heart-stopping moment of believing they were gone. I arrived later home than planned from the local Christmas twilight farmers market. The darkening garden was silent. The coop, empty…
Then, a gentle chicken-sleeping sound. I found them snoozing up high in the lilly-pilly tree. Such a relief to scoop them up and plop them into their safe night house. Foxes are plentiful around here in wine country.
Ah, they are already in my heart, these three.
We’ve had the first special gift to them via me. I was excited to find a cockroach in my potting shed, caught it and delivered it with the speed of a pizza delivery guy to the girls. Betty is the boss and so Betty dined on cockroach and we shared a knowing glance of mutual understanding.
We’ve also, already had that chat, about vegetables and boundaries. It’s related to the chat that you have with cats about not eating any creature that appears in Wind in the Willows. In particular, with chickens, we discussed the unauthorised harvesting of onions and beetroot. It happens. They love the raised-ness of raised-beds of course, and saw me scratching around planting, and so took it, naturally, as the invitation they had not actually been waiting for. It’s their nature, their gift. They did a brilliant job, really very gentle. Just in case they get a little exuberant under the spell of the harvest festival time, I’ve erected a sort of pacifist form of barbed wire so that forays into the vegetables are by invitation only for now. I know they will outsmart it. I know what it looks like. Wooly rainbow bunting that says “The place for chickens to party and feast is up here by these vegetables!”
You know what it’s like when families or friends converge on a house. Who gets which room, who gets which bed. Chickens are no different.
In the past we had the luxury of a chicken shed larger than my present garden shed, with multiple height perches and a large flock. Luxury in a tin shed of epic proportions. There was plenty of room to sleep anywhere. However, now with a smaller night house, space is limited and every space has a single purpose.
With the arrival of Fluffy, Betty and Penelope had to establish their authority. During the day this was with the odd peck and being punished for daring to share some watermelon. By night, Penelope and Betty both began to sleep in the nesting boxes, banishing Fluffy to sleep alone on the perches.
It isn’t a good idea for chickens to routinely sleep in the nesting area because they poo at night, making the area a little unsuitable for egg laying. It can also discourage them from laying as egg laying is usually a bit of a cosy private affair, with a bit of flapping around and shouting it from the rooftops afterwards to announce it.
I observed their interactions each day, and noticed in the last few days that the relationships between the three, had steadied and grown. Fluffy had earned her place in the hierarchy and all three were getting along swimmingly, each finding their role. Fluffy was no longer an outcast.
This signalled to me, that they would be willing to sleep in the same space together. So, tonight, to discourage Betty and Penelope from sleeping in the nest boxes, I attached cardboard to a piece of squared wire and slotted this in at around 8pm (summer time in Adelaide) as they were trying to settle in for sleep. Then at about 11pm, I checked on them by torchlight to make sure they were all asleep together on the perches and gently and quietly remove the partition. Will this work? I have no idea!
Although I let them out of the night house around 5am every morning, they are just before point of lay and who knows when the egg-laying urge will strike, so I don’t want to leave the removal of the partition until morning at this special time in a chicken life – the first egg should be a special and safe experience for a hen.
If there’s a lot of poo in the nestboxes and a chicken sized indentation in the straw when I check in the morning, it means they probably moved in there overnight and I’ll have to leave the removal of the partition until morning.
I think after a few nights of this, hopefully they will stop going into the nest boxes to sleep.
If anyone has any other genius tips for discouraging crashing out in the nest for rest, let me know.
It’s fair to say that I’m still learning a lot about the micro-climate of our back garden after five years of growing here. I’m also still learning a lot about permaculture by revisiting and thinking about the principles a lot.
With the chickens now a new part of it, I did a quick messy sketch, to review where things are at, and to think about where things are going.
The chicken coop is located in shadiest spot of the garden, on the lower level, underneath a large lillypilly tree. This is also a favourite climbing tree for our children. I like the feel of this as the central point of the garden, and there are tomatoes shoved in underneath the plum tree nearby, and anywhere there is a spare space, so the edges are suitable mixed.
With temperatures at the moment over 40 degrees for many days in a row, shade is really important for chickens, so having the tree as shelter was obvious, but the location decision was made simple because there was no room anywhere else.
With the chickens now involved in the garden, planting around their coop for shade is important (currently using hessian and shadecloth attached to the wire) as the summer sun rises over the hills in the east then bakes both levels of our garden.
So my thinking is a comfrey border around the chicken yard, and much more vertical space for climbing fruits and trying out some berries. Also mulching over the invasive lawn on the lower lever and putting in more raised beds at some stage would be great.
The south-eastern corner is the wild zone. There are native trees, and some drought tolerant plants including hollyhocks, protea, native violet and grasses that provide sheltered passage from the moss-rock wall where blue-tongue lizards are often seen. You can often hear and see them crunching over dry leaves going to and fro. Between the rocks are tough plants including natives like wooly bush, running postman climber alongside pincushion and king protea to attract birds.
The only struggle is the baking hot summer sun on the raised veggie beds, so insulating them a little is in my thoughts too. The two beds that are wicking beds fair better in the south-eastern corner, but the one near the gravel garden struggles.
I feel very contented now the chickens are here, no eggs for a little while yet, but their personalties are already making a huge impact.
And… the fig tree we planted into a barrel has baby figs!!
I can hear it. That sound, of happiness and curiosity that I’ve missed so much. Those dark intelligent eyes and witty ways. Absent from my daily life for five years.
Three chickens joined the garden yesterday, and my heart is brim full. Still cautious and alert in their new surroundings, so only a quick photograph snapped of Chickpea:
This morning was the first morning they were there when I went out into the garden (usually around 5:30am). Part of my routine in the veg garden was attending to them and it’s hard to describe the feeling of happiness. It just seems to be part of sunrise, part of life, part of the rhythm of morning, to be greeted by chickens. It feels like an age old tradition, marking the dawn and dusk.
From memories of their presence in past times on the farm, to travel memories; disembarking an overnight train from the hot hustle-bustle of Mumbai, up towards the cool mountains and on first stepping off the long haul journey of the night, emerging out of the hot train to the cool sound of happy chickens on the train platform. They are just a delightful presence. Eggs are a bonus, I’m in it for their personalities. 🙂
I love how chickens so aptly, make you feel like a stupid human too. Chickpea has already proven that she is the clever one. Escape from the pen is a simple task by leaping up onto the roof. They will soon free range with supervision, but in these first few days making sure they know the coop is their base is important. So this morning was quickly rigging up some rooftop discouragement and coaxing her back into the pen with a freshly-picked strawberry. She will already come close if she sees me with a strawberry. Today I sacrificed a lot of strawberries for new friendships.
There are three ladies, all big and beautiful Australorps. Chickpea is black, Betty is a blue and Penelope is a splash. They came from a local family-run farm property five minutes away and you could tell the owner loves and cares for her chickens. Although alert to their surroundings, they are surprisingly calm.
They will be such an important step in the garden in terms of contributing to the slow progress of permaculture design. It’s actually working now, I can feel it, but I can always see ways of using the space better and learning something new about what I’ve observed. Creating some vertical growing spaces are in my thoughts as well as planting crops near the new coop.
Oh, and every new coop needs a name, so that was made very early this morning.
I am just finally able to feel it – it’s a backyard farm. Things grow here.
Having been here at our house for around five years, after downsizing from a large property, it has felt at times like a slow journey to transform a garden devoid of anything but a few fruit trees into a backyard farm. Looking back at what I began back then, learning about building soil in the Winter of 2012, it seems a long time ago.
From building soil, raised beds, setting up worm farms, a small compost bin, planting fruit and nut trees, getting into a rhythm of learning about growing my own seedlings and establishing some zones in the garden, and reading a lot about permaculture and how to transfer that thinking in a practical way, into a small space. It’s been a constant and ongoing thing. It’s not there yet, but that’s the whole point. It never will be. Constantly evolving and growing.
I now grow so many heirlooms seedlings, (mostly Diggers varieties) with such success that I regularly have heirloom seedlings to share regularly though the local community share table, and I’ve started a small monthly seedling and produce share at my work too.
And now, a major milestone is on the horizon. Chickens will be joining us in our backyard very soon! At this point, the backyard farms begins to be feel like one. Just the thought of having chickens again makes me feel wonderfully excited.
I think there will be differences in keeping chickens in a backyard (no wedge-tailed eagles or foxes trying to raid the coop). I expect to have to unlearn some of things I think I understand about keeping chickens. So despite keeping chickens on the farm, I’m not approaching this venture like I know what I’m doing. I’m on the wait-list at my local library for the book Backyard Poultry Naturally by Alanna Moore which has some great reviews. There is always room for re-learning what you think you know.
With less space, more care and planning is required to give chickens what they need for happiness. This is why the long wait to bring them in. I’ve allowed the garden to mature into shady pockets, the soil to build and deepen, trees to grow and for intentional little wild zones to develop, just right for curious and clever chickens to explore when they free range.
In the past few years brown snakes have been nesting on the vacant block next door (none sighted this year so far), so keeping our back garden rodent free is a priority. This is why I invested in a grain feeder . On the farm, we weren’t so careful about the odd grain scatter, snakes were a daily encounter by the dams etc, but it feels important with children around, and a smaller enclosed space, to not invite snakes to a dinner party by encouraging mice. So, a bit of an investment to begin with seemed like a sensible idea.
So now, the tomatoes have the first blush of summer, the trees are laden with plums, daily small harvests of zuchinni, speckled bean pods hang on the vine, oranges and mandarins are green with future promise, corn nods its head in the breeze, strawberries burst into sweetness… and as soon as we have the coop set up and ready..the patter and scratch of chicken feet and their gentle happy ways will add to the cycle.
It does take time, all of this, but for me, growing is part of being connected to not just food production, but the small and beautiful details of life.
Infinite in diversity
Harvest picked by hand
In my purse, stashed in behind two photos of my children, is a scrap of paper with the only design principles that have ever made sense to me. Twelve simple principles as an antithesis, to a sea of educational and instructional design frameworks, some of which need maddening interrogation to explain or understand. Twelve simple principles that seem to work, whatever I throw at them.
They are understandable, no matter what your experience in life.
You can use them to approach anything. You can navigate them as a simple list, or delve deep into thick well-thumbed books and frequently cited journal articles. There is probably even a waiting list in your local public library for copies of these books.
They are design principles that you can intellectualise or philosophise as you please.
They can be the cleverest thinking tool and yet can also spawn you a robust do list.
You can skim the surface of them, and build immediately. Or, you can approach them as theory and dwell on them.
They have become my personal and professional principles – they seem to fit life and learning. Not perfectly, no, nothing is ever a perfect fit. But enough.
As thought principles, they were co-conceived, by two very different minds, with two vastly different personalities, who were not the wizened sages we sometimes expect such thinking to emerge from. They were relatively young, in their early 20s, in a young country, which is generally not seen as one of the historic intellectual powerhouses of the world.
Shared slowly and informally through community, these principles are still shared primarily on the energy of individual enthusiasm, now right across the world. They also can be navigated more formally in books, textbooks, and formal courses, as theory and practice, and alone or guided by various leaders bringing their own personalities into our explorations of the principles. This continual cycle shares the fundamental ideas based on that thinking of those original co-creators. Sometimes these approaches are at odds with each other, but this is part of adaptability, growing almost in the underground – surviving and thriving in constant change and chaos, for new and perhaps, unexpected audiences.
So, ahem, yes, ok….it’s permaculture.
Emerging from the 1970s, and Australia, these principles are still sometimes viewed as a bit of a sub-culture, mostly for those seeking an alternative to modern life, but if you never look further because this doesn’t appeal to you, I think you are missing an opportunity to be surprised. Despite the fact that permaculture “emerged from within academia and suffers only from a perception of lack of intellectual rigour, and the populist image..”. (*), these principles are still mostly pigeon-holed as ecology or organic gardening.
If you have only seen the popular visible face of permaculture, and you think that digging soil and planting veggies is not your thing, please, just urge and nudge that thread of thinking aside, the bit that says…outside of my sphere…not in my domain…not my scene… because that is just one side, the practical side of permaculture.
Have you delved much into its rich and fertile theory?
There is SO much beneath the surface, so very rhizomatic. These are not merely principles for growing vegetables.
Unfurl your mind, to the very frontiers of your thinking:
As a holographic thinker – being open to the idea that anything one observes anywhere is likely to have parallel expressions everywhere – I am led to go beyond the usual boundaries that are put around permaculture….I encourage you to similarly try applying these Permaculture Principles to any area that might benefit from such holistic design theory and practice. Areas that immediately come to mind include human settlements and business enterprises, political and economic systems, and the health field, child rearing and learning environments.
Professor Stuart B. Hill, Foundation Chair of Social Ecology, University of Western Sydney, NSW Australia in Permaculture: Principles & Pathways Beyond Sustainability
The 12 design principles
Try using the 12 design principles of permaculture. Don’t worry about reading the “official” definitions, yet., or dwelling on each individually. Shape them to your needs.
Just try them as a thinking tool, when you are thinking about something that ignites your mind and soul. Did they work for you?
Permaculture Design Principles
Observe and interact.
Catch and store energy.
Obtain a yield
Apply self-regulation and accept feedback.
Use and value renewable resources
Produce no waste
Design from patterns to detail.
Integrate rather than segregate
Use small and slow solutions.
Use and value diversity.
Use edges and value the marginals.
Creatively use and respond to change.
(*) Permaculture: Principles & Pathways Beyond Sustainability by David Holmgren.