No-till Soil Prep For Crops

No-till soil prep is a way of growing crops from year to year without disturbing the soil through tillage – meaning you improve soil health over time rather than consistently degrading it.  It’s a method quite common in the market gardening community and something we’re starting to use at our own place now that we have nice, long straight’ish beds.

On the new patch of land we recently bought we did some significant earthworks in Autumn and have been growing green manures ever since. We’re letting 98% of the green manure crops grow until late winter, but we did put in a small garlic patch and used the no-till method to help us do it.

This method uses silage tarps as a form of weed/crop control, meaning instead of digging in your green manures (or crops) you temporarily cover the bed in non-toxic, UV stabilised plastic to do the job for you. I know – it sounds whack and it actually took me a while to get my head around it. But after seeing it in action at the Hobart City Farm, and seeing how darn well it worked I was sold.

Here’s how we did it for our little garlic patch…

Firstly we cut the green manure crops down to the ground, as they were already pretty short we left all the green waste on the bed. If your crops are really tall you’ll want to remove some of them as too much fresh, green matter can create an anaerobic environment which isn’t great for soil life and health.

Then we planted directly into the bed with no digging except to make a small hole for each garlic. We also sprinkled a small amount of gypsum as our soil needs this. This is where you might want to spread a layer of compost, it just depends on your soils and crops.

Planting, planting, planting


Once fully planted, water in the crop (if needed) and cover with your silage tarp. We actually used non-toxic black builders plastic as this is what we had available. While we’re a bit unclear whether this is acceptable for organically certified farms we do know some market gardeners who use it in this way who grow chemically-free and grow well! We’re comfortable using it as our research tells us this particular type is non-toxic and UV stabilised.

What’s the plastic actually doing?

  • It’s killing any fresh growth currently there (the green manures), keeping their roots in tact for the soil life to thrive in and around,
  • Suppressing/killing weed seeds,
  • Heating the soil up – increasing the rate of germination, and
  • Drawing up soil life (earthworms galore) to the top layers of the soil where it’s still dark and moist thanks to the plastic.

How long does the plastic stay on there?

This varies depending on the season, weather and crop rotation system you have in place. We left ours on the garlic for around one month, checking it every now and then to see if it had germinated.

Once you can see fairly even germination it’s time for the plastic to come off.

The garlic you can see above and below is pale green/white, this is fine as it’ll green up in 2-3 weeks. The main thing we like is the lack of competing plants that garlic has to deal with (garlic hates competitors) and the fact we didn’t have to do the usual manual weeding to get it to this point.

As we’re having a unusually dry winter we’re now watering the garlic a bit to kick it along – otherwise our work here is done. We’ll water as needed (c’mon winter rains!) and do some light manual weeding here and there – but the next key job we’ll have to do here is harvesting later on in the year. Yesss!

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Making Furniture Polish From Beeswax

One of the great benefits of keeping bees is beeswax. Beeswax has a long history and its uses are legion. We use it to keep things running smoothly – such as fixing door hinges and swing mechanisms. They also make lovely candles with a beautiful aroma as they burn. However we get the most use out of beeswax as a timber and leather preservative. Variations of beeswax furniture polish line our shelves and are used to seal our woodwork, polish our boots and treat our beehives.

So how is it made?

As top bar beekeepers we have a lot of crushed beeswax. To turn this into pure wax we do the following steps. Please excuse the quality of the photos – we made it at night time while our daughter slept and the lighting was bad.

  1. Heat wax with water, heat until melted


2. Strain hot wax/water through cheesecloth or sacrificial sieve (nothing that touches hot wax will be the same again.  The photo below shows a lot of dark material sieved out.  The wax used included some very old comb with a lot of old casings (the lining of the brood comb)

3. Let cool. The wax will solidify on top.

4. Drain the water off the bottom. If the wax was fresh this honeyed water can be used to make mead (that’s a whole other blog).

The Polish Ingredients

Generally speaking we use some or all of the following ingredients, in various proportions:

  • Beeswax –This forms a durable coating.
  • Limonene – Citrus Turpentine – we use this as a thinner.
  • Linseed oil – This oil penetrates wood and hardens. Unboiled is better but I use what’s on the shelf.
  • Olive Oil – We use this as an extender to make the polish more workable.

There are many, many recipes with variations of proportions of the above ingredients available on the internet. The final product can be a liquid, cream/paste or a solid block depending on the proportions of each ingredient. The exact proportions in each recipe mentioned are not critical. Vary the amounts of each ingredient to suit yourself. Remember, the more Limonene or olive oil you add, the more liquid will be the final product.

The process to make a solid beeswax furniture polish

  • 2 part beeswax
  • 2 part Linseed Oil
  • 1 part Limonene

Mix all ingredients in an old can.

Heat the can on a double boiler (i.e in a saucepan of water), This prevents overheating and the chance of fire (did i mention all the ingredients are flammable). Mix them together to form a paste. Let it all cool down and use as a polish.

Here i am applying the polish while still hot, it allows increased penetration.  Our good friend James da Costa uses a very similar mix to treat the outside of his beehives

Rub, rub, rub.

We have also used a recipe based on olive oil.  The proportions are below and the process the same as above.  This makes a “creme” type polish.  This recipe is more suitable for the regular touch ups around the home to give timber back its special shine.

Beeswax polish paste

  • 1 parts beeswax
  • 3 parts olive oil
  • ¼ part Limonene

Good luck!

This blog was written by Anton Vikstrom, he’s usually working outside or inside doing things like making furniture polish. Every now and then I squeeze  blog out of him too.

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Our Permaculture Design Course: A Student’s Insight!

Every permaculture design course (PDC) we run we always offer at least one full scholarship to make sure we support people who need it most to access this training. On our last PDC Permaculture Tasmania also sponsored someone to come along – how fantastic! Meet Shane and read about his experience below.

Shane working hard on his group design project and fellow student, Ryan working in the community garden we hold this course in. 

“I recently completed a PDC with Good Life Permaculture at Okines Community Garden/Centre at Dodges Ferry just out of Hobart. It was a great educational and totally engaging experience which brought together excellent teachers in their fields, and a group hungry to absorb all that was given to them. The course brought together people from a range of countries and diverse backgrounds who left with many new friends and a direction to move in. The venue too was a great choice, showcasing how the local community can be brought together with great initiatives which seek to be inclusive of all.

I had previously completed a PDC with Bill Mollison and Janet Millington back in 2002 and then a family came along and a mortgage and I sort of lost my way a bit. I had always kept in touch with what was going on, and I have used this course as a chance to get back on the horse and gain some new inspiration and direction.

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I believe this course also helped me with my own confidence, being able to say what one thought without being judged on personal values was a great feeling in itself.

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I had always thought I’d had a pretty sound knowledge of permaculture systems, this course however with its fabulous teaching staff helped to flesh it out even more for me and hammered home the point that permaculture “is not just about gardening”. That being said it was awesome to go check out and learn from some great permie ‘gardeners’ on the field trip. The importance of applying the ethics and principles as much as possible without being a ‘permacultist’ was also duly noted, no-one is perfect but it’s worth giving it a good crack. Something really important I had forgotten was to start from zone 0/1 and work outwards, it would have made my life a whole lot easier!

Now I’m back in “real life’ and looking for a change. I’m helping out at a new community garden we’re are about to start in St Helens (NE Tas), the fence is up and we’re getting into a bit of planning using the knowledge I gained from the course.  We will be taking on a work for the dole program there and aiming to provide education, training and health driven outcomes for members of the community, and pass on the permie bug! Hopefully I can encourage more members of my local community to think more deeply about the impacts we all can have and make them positive ones!

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Finally, I fully encourage anyone who is wondering about their place in the world to look into permaculture, be inspired, take a course and pass on the knowledge you gain. If your teachers are half as good as these guys you’ll still find it a positive life changing experience.

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Thank you very much Permaculture Tasmania, and extra big thanks to Hannah Moloney, Anton Vikstrom, Nick Ritar, Jonathon Cooper, Oberon Carter and Millie Rooney. Not forgetting the kitchen crew Lou, Maddie and Kathy and of course Mr Resourceful, that’s you Blake!”

Thank you Shane! Thanks for coming, for investing your time and energy into working out the nuts and bolts for how you can make your own positive impact in your own and your community’s world. Onwards and upwards!

Interested in doing your own permaculture design course?

Join us this Jan 19 – Feb 2 in southern Tasmania for a life changing and affirming learning experience!

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An Inner City Balcony Garden

While Hobart’s a tiny city compared to some, it still has dense inner city living happening. Some of our friends (David and Frances) live in a beautiful heritage building in central Hobart and while they’ve love it they’ve long hankered for some garden space beyond their pots of herbs.

Being the wonderful people they are, they eventually managed to get the rest of the body corporate equally as excited in the idea and after much planning they now have this.

And while you can make the observation that it’s more balcony than garden this is enough for their context and capacity.

Special features include:

  • Water: After having a brief chat to us in the planning stages we recommended they explore having a wicking bed system, which they went with. The whole long veggie garden is one big wicking bed meaning it’s water efficient and easy to maintain. Clever.
  • Community: Both David and Frances have been over the moon with the more invisible outcomes of the garden. Socialising with the other body corporate members has massively increased. The garden’s not just growing food, but it’s growing community.
  • Waste: Currently David and Francis have one small worm farm beneath their stairs (along with some citrus trees). On our recent visit they mentioned they want to expand this significantly so other residents could add their food waste. We think a series of worm farm seats could do the trick (watch this space).

The small worm farm hiding beneath the stairs for processing food waste. 

The balcony garden doubles as a carport for the resident’s cars

David and Frances think they’ll probably stay here forever now – it seems to have completed their idea of what a good home is. It’s amazing how some clever design thinking, a touch of gumption and community can transform spaces.

Future plans include planting some additional fruit trees at the car park level, adding some more compost facilities and I’m voting for some passionfruit vines along that hot concrete wall directly above the annual veggie beds!

* This balcony garden was designed Hobart structural engineer Jim Gandy.

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A Wildlife-Proof, No-Dig Garden, Wicking Bed

We recently ran our Real Skills for Growing Food workshop at the very wonderful Fat Pig Farm. A personal highlight was completing the wildlife proof, no-dig garden, wicking bed that local builder and permaculturalist, Blake Harder, built and we filled in with our students.

What are wicking beds?

They’re a clever solutions for areas with erratic rainfall and/or for people with little time for pottering in the gardening. They can be on areas with no soil including tiny balconies, courtyards and roof top gardens (just be sure to know that your building/ balcony can handle the weight of the wicking bed).

In a nutshell they’re a fully contained garden bed with a false floor at the bottom which functions as a water aquifer. On top of this is a layer of geo-fabric material to prevent soil from clogging up the water and on top of this is a growing medium (soil) for plants to thrive in. Using capillary action, the plant’s roots draw water *up* from this aquifer, meaning you don’t need to water from the top.

There are nifty design features including an overflow pipe to prevent flooding/drowning of the plants and an inlet pipe where you can plug your hose in to top up the aquifer as needed. You can read (and see) an enormous amount of information about wicking beds from our friends at Very Edible Gardens. 

wicking bed diagram

Due to the vigorous Australian wildlife (possums and wallabies in this case) Blake also built a beautiful cage on top of the bed. The key to a good cage is that is should be easy for anyone to use – this one’s a beauty with strong hinges and timber props to keep it open while you harvest.

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Before filling in the bed we flushed the blue metal gravel with lots of water to wash of the fine dust that was on it. If we had our time again we would’ve made sure that the gravel was slightly bigger and clean. No worries though – after flushing this out, it was fine.

IMG_8232The garden hose plugged into the water inlet pipe, directing water where it’s needed – the aquifer. 

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On top of the blue metal goes a geo-fabric material, its job is to keep the soil from clogging the aquifer.

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Before I go any further, I should also point out that the timber bed is lined with a food grade black plastic to keep all the water in – you can see a glimpse of it in the photo above.

A really clever design feature is the overflow pipe you can see below. It’s built with an movable elbow join so if you need to, you can empty the water aquifer by turning it down.

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What’s a no-dig garden?

Developed by Esther Dean in the 1970s, no-dig gardening is a technique where you layer carbon and nitrogen materials on top of the ground like a lasagne to create a raised garden bed. You can go as high as you like – but generally people don’t go over 1 metre. This creates a nutrient-rich approach to growing food crops and a brilliant way to build healthy soil when there isn’t any onsite.

When we build raised gardens we always build them with the no-dig gardening method. This is because we’re yet to find a commercially available soil mix we’re satisfied with. We need our soils to be pumping with the biology, the no-dig garden ensures this happens.

The carbon material we had available to us on the day was aged hay from the paddocks – ideally straw would have been better as it’s “seed free” but we use what we have. For the nitrogen layer we used aged chook poo. Each layer was watered in thoroughly to ensure there was even moisture throughout the whole pile.

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Once the bed was full we planted it out with herbs for the kitchen. For each seedling we dug a small hole in the top and backfilled it with mature compost and planted directly into this. We call these “compost pockets”. This is a resource efficient way of using what can be expensive compost. Instead of buying heaps of it, we only source enough for planting each plant. By the time the seedling’s roots break through out of this pocket into the surrounding hay and chook poo below it will already be transforming into gorgeous soil.

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There you have it, the wildlife-proof, no-dig garden, wicking bed. Bit of a mouthful isn’t it! This productive and low maintenance wicking bed is destined to provide many herbs and much happiness to all who grace Fat Pig Farm’s kitchen.

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Using Timber Pallets In Your Garden

Lately we’re getting some people contacting us concerned that we’re using timber pallets in helping to establish some of our food gardens. They’re worried that we’re using chemically treated pallets that will leach into our soils, contaminating the plants that we eat. And fair enough – have you seen how many pallets we’re using to stabilise our earth berms??!!

IMG_8111Two out of three of our earth berms we’re using timber pallets to stabilise the soil and plant into. 

Many, many, many pallets are finding their way off building sites and furniture store’s skip bins into our garden. This winter we’re planting our edible forest gardens into them – so we really appreciate your concern.

But fear not folks – the good news is we don’t use chemically treated pallets *at all*, only heat treated ones. Here’s a brief overview of what type of pallets are out there and how to know which ones to choose. Thanks to 1001 pallets for summarising all the facts that I’m drawing on for this particular blog.

The basics of pallet identification

1001pallets.com-how-to-tell-if-a-pallet-is-safe-for-reuse-6Image from 1001 pallets

When you’re identifying what type of pallet you’re looking at, 1001 Pallets recommend looking for two main things:

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*The IPPC Logo: if you don’t see it, don’t use it! Even if a pallet may be perfectly safe without this logo, it could also mean that it was treated with chemicals!

*The treatment code : [HT] = Heat treatment / [MB] = Methyl Bromide / [DB] = Debarked / [KD] = Kiln Dried.


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1001pallets.com-how-to-tell-if-a-pallet-is-safe-for-reuse-600x400Image form 1001 Pallets

We only pick up pallets with the “HT” stamp on them as seen below – this is 100% safe to use. This particular photo is from when we built of rather beautiful and highly functional chook house all from pallets and all perfectly safe for our chooks to live in.

2014-03-27-09.35.09-1024x768Note the HT stamp above – this is what you’re looking for. 

Heat Treated

Heat treated (HT) pallets are “built to break”, meaning they’ll start to break down within 5 years’ish as they’re not treated with any chemicals to preserve them.

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[They] undergo a pest control treatment called heat treating (HT) which involves heating the pallet to a minimum core temperature of 56°C for softwoods and 60°C for hardwoods for a minimum of 30 minutes in a kiln.  HT pallets are not harmful to your health.

A word of caution: If you notice liquids spilt onto the pallet, don’t use it as it could be a harmful substance you really don’t want near your veggie patch. Better to be safe than sorry and considering there’s approximately a **g’zillion** pallets out there, you can afford to be picky.

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Above you can see Anton planting out comfrey roots into the pallets which will eventually take over the pallet’s role in stablising the slope with its deep tap roots. The pallets are temporary and will break down in place. We wont bother trying to remove them, instead they’ll return to the soil – much better than ending up in landfill.

What if there’s no stamp on the pallet?

While it might be fine, we say leave it – the risk of contaminating your soil is not worth the risk.

Want to know more?

If you’d like to read up more, head on over to 1001 Pallets who’ve obviously dedicated enormous hours into researching everything pallets!

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Adelaide Tour Of Farming Loves

On our recent trip to Adelaide, South Australia we made sure to catch up with some of our old and new farming and grower friends. It gives us *great* joy to see people we love and admire flourishing in and out of the soil. It also reinvigorates us to “keep going” ourselves. So, in the spirit of sharing and inspiring others – check out these three fabulous, dedicated South Australian growers we can’t get enough of.

Woodville School Garden

15 years old and started by our very dear friend and horticulturalist, Brian Noone, the Woodville School Garden is a dense, multi-layered edible oasis in the middle of suburbia.

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Brian started this garden from scratch on an old sports field. These days it’s now more like a food forest with mature fruit trees and patches of annuals scattered throughout. We visited on a *really* hot day and found refuge in this green, green garden of frog ponds, chickens, olive trees and corn so tall it cast beautiful shade.

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Brian works with a range of students in the garden – some of which are working towards their certificate two in horticulture. The local orchid group have set up a space to grow rare orchids and are teaching the kids how to do this themselves. There’s also an aquaponics system on its way to being built, an extensive nursery and a pizza oven with an outdoor kitchen for celebrations and feasts.

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Without a doubt this is one of the best school gardens I’ve seen. Its high level of productivity and obvious involvement from a range of people in and out of the school is impressive. Too often school gardens are reduced to a collection of raised veggie beds “in the corner” and the opportunity for a long term food source is missed.  Way to go Brian and Woodville School!

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The Food Forest

I first went to The Food Forest when I was 18 years old – 15 years ago. This is where I met Annemarie and Graham Bookman (the farmers) and had my “ah ha” moment about how effective and enjoyable permaculture can really be. It’s been 10 years since I was last there and it was such a joy to return with my little family, specifically to show Anton what I’ve been talking about consistently all these years!

As soon as we arrived Annemarie said “Let me take you to one my favourite places” and we walked away from the pumping market garden and orchards towards the river and riparian zone of regenerated bush. Sitting on a seat built by co-founder of permaculture, David Holmgren, Annemarie talked us through the evolution of this space and how it’s linked to restoring ecological stability to the area. In short, revegetating our water ways helps restore and stabilise ground water, rather than it rushing in and out of the landscape. There’s much more to it than that of course, years of thinking and hard work – but you get the jist.

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In recent years, due to a changing climate they made the decision to drill a bore to secure water for their already mature farm. Interestingly, they’re now investing a huge amount of energy to harvest water from the river (when running and healthy) and return it to the aquifer (through the bore via a settling pond and tanks ) to fill it up for times when they’re need to use it for irrigation. No other farmer has done this that I’m aware of – talk about ethical land/water management!

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We didn’t have time to walk the whole 15 hectares on our short visit, but the model below does a pretty good job at showing the huge diversity of farm crops grown including pistachios, carobs, figs, mixed fruit, small animals and so much more. This diversity ensures ecological health and a varied income spread over the year.

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These people will forever be some of my favourites. Their work ethic, generosity, incredible knowledgable and just darn lovely characters will always be an inspiration to me and many, many others.

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Village Greens Market Garden

Village Greens is only in its second growing season but operating like its an old hand at this market gardening gig. Beautifully designed and managed by Nat and Lucy, these two folks (and their team) are rocking this 1/2 acre of soil.

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Nestled amongst the Aldinga Arts Eco Village the market garden grows a broad range of seasonal crops for sale at two local markets and does a fresh box delivery each week – they’re hard workers this mob.

They grow over 40 different types of vegetables and while not certified organic, they use organic practices which support soil and plant health and result in delicious, nutrient-dense food.

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As we’ve worked on and around market gardens for many years we know what a good one looks like. As soon as I walked into this garden I noticed really good succession of crops happening – this is the result of *many* hours of planning and probably an impressive Excel spreadsheet working out timing of what’s planted when and where. South Australia’s lucky to have these folks growing for them!

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Adelaide – you continue to be known as Radelaide in my heart. Your people are of a particularly fantastic flavour and while you’re a bit too hot and dry for us, we love you deeply and dearly.

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Next to the market garden’s washing/packing/sorting shed is this cool-as forest where the local kids (from the Aldinga Arts Eco Village) have built this truly awesome bush play ground, complete with free ranging geese. And after our little market garden tour we popped in to see some old friends for lunch and lined up all the little people for a garden lunch. So beautiful. 

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Example Of A Permaculture Student’s Design

We were really impressed by the quality of the work from all the students at our recent permaculture design course. Here’s an example of just one of the group designs completed by some clever, deep thinking folks.

Before we start working with the landscape, the first thing we teach our students is “people analysis”. By getting to know the people living on the land – their needs, desires and capacity you can ensure that any design you create will be a design for *them* and not something you impose onto them. This is possibly the most important thing we try to gently ram into our student’s heads and hearts. We can list too many stories we’ve heard of design jobs gone wrong as a result of people not listening to the client.

Years ago I got to work with Dave Jacke who taught us how to make a goal statement – a present tense statement that summarises what the vision for the design is. This is the outcome of people analysis and functions as a reference point for designing and implementing. This particular design group’s goal statement can be seen below… Notice how you get a strong feeling of what this property is like? That’s what we’re aiming for, rather then specific design solutions.

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The second key step in the design process is to do the “site analysis and assessment” (SAA) process. Simply put, this is where you document what is already on the property (not what you want to design) and the sectors (external energies, i.e. sun, wind, traffic etc) impacting the property.

There is of course a deeper level to this stage as landscapes are already their own “whole”. As designers our job is to read landscapes and differentiate the existing parts and work within those. That’s a really important detail that isn’t always articulated well in permaculture text.

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This is also the stage where you’ll naturally start having design ideas like – “oh this sunny section might be the perfect place for a veggie patch”. However as this is such an early stage of the design process we don’t want to get attached to these ideas, as we haven’t gathered all the information yet. So on our SAA summary we make dot points with key titles next to them describing what’s on the landscape (i.e. sunny patch) and arrows beneath them outlining the possible options that could go there (i.e. possible veggie patch). In the work below one example is a small shack (that’s the “dot”), the arrows (design possibilities) beneath this are:

  • possible sleep out
  • water catchment
  • compost loo onsite

The idea is that you don’t get too stuck/attached with one idea at such an early stage of the design process. So you can just take note of them in an orderly manner and get back to them later on when you’ve gathered *all* the information you need to make an informed decision.

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The next step is to crete a concept design. This is a broad design with minimal detail, showing what goes where in a basic “bubble diagram” as seen below.

At this stage you’re still not fixed on a certain approach to the design, rather you’re testing this concept with the people living onsite. Sometimes you’ll make little tweaks other times you might start again, although that’s rare.

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At the same time as doing the concept design, a permaculture zones map is also developing.

Zones are a method of organising your property efficiently according to the phrase “oftenest nearest”. This means you place the things you need most often (herbs, worm farm, kitchen garden) closest to your zone 0 which is the heart of your property (house or workplace). And place the things you need least often (i.e. native plants for small birds, dam, wood lot etc) furtherest away from zone 0 – in your zone 3, 4 or 5. Not all zones need to be included in one property so you wont see all of them all in the example below. You can read more about permaculture zones here. 

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After any tweaks have been made, you’re finally ready to do a final design showing detail around plants, structures, access, water and more. Funnily enough, this is the quickest and easiest stage of designing as you’ve already done extensive ground work leading up to this point.

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This particular landscape the students were design for was really sandy, so they came up with some nifty approaches to building soil for food crops like this hugelkultur style pit for fruit trees and made ace sketches to show how it could work…

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It was such a pleasure to teach/learn with this bunch of hardworking legends. It never ceases to amaze us what transformations can happen over the period of this course!

Interested in learning about permaculture design?

Join us on our upcoming Introduction to Permaculture this May or our part-time Permaculture Design Course this June and July in Hobart.

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The Grain Family

Meet Gareth, Tonia and little Ida from The Grain Family. This freshly launched enterprise is a small-scale organic Tasmanian farming family growing a range of delicious grains, pulses and seeds. We’re so in love with their grains and their approach to farming we want to tell you about them…

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Based in northern Tasmania where the soils are red and black and rainfall abundant, The Grain Family has emerged from the same land where Elgaar Farm is based. Run by Tonia’s parents (Joe and Antonia), Elgaar is Tasmania’s only organic, ethical dairy – The Grain Family have now entered into a share farming arrangement with them and are now venturing out from under Elgaar’s wings to forge their own way as farmers. How awesome.

What do they grow?

The Grain Family stone millThey grow everything from oats, linseed, rye, spelt and wheat – plus they’re always doing trial crops to see what else they can grow. As they’re passionate about showing people the potential of grains as truly delicious foods in their own right, they mill grain fresh each week. By milling small batches weekly, they’re ensuring they’re at their absolute freshest and most delicious.

Their approach to farming

Growing grains in Australia is generally linked with unsustainable farming practices. Mainstream grain cropping will often use huge amounts of water, chemical inputs and heavy machinery to guarantee yields.

However over the past decade or so we’ve seen more innovative and sensible approaches to growing grain like Colin Seis from Winona Farm in NSW who co-developed “pasture cropping”.

The Grain Family’s approach is centred on building and maintaining soil health. Heavily inspired by pasture cropping, they’re looking at ways at reducing tillage and are constantly refining their approaches.

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We started growing grains three years ago on an existing dairy. The nature of our heavy soils, dry summers and wet winters, and the need for animal feed to make milk, has meant we’ve adopted a ‘double cropping system’. We sow all our grains in spring and harvest in late summer and sow a grass/legume mix that grows over winter and is cut as hay in spring. There is always something growing. All added fertility comes from the grazing animal’s manure which we spread finely over the paddocks each year where it composts.

Gareth Ida linseed
Gareth inspecting wheat

Farming as a family

Both in developing and developed countries, family farming is the predominant form of agriculture in the food production sector.

 So important are family farmers to the sustainability of our local and global food systems, the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN (FAO) declared 2014 the International Year of the Family Farmer. This is because, as a whole family farms;

  • have more diverse crops and better soil health management strategies which contribute to the world’s agro-biodiversity, and
  • are generally heavily connected with their local area and economy, meaning money stays in the region leading to more resilient and robust communities.

The Grain Family are a small piece of the puzzle – helping to form a whole picture of what a local, sustainability food system can look like. With these folks on board it’s looking good for Tasmania in particular, as well as the rest of Australia. More of this please.

spelt flour 1kg (4) Spelt

Where can you buy these delicious grains?

If you’re lucky to live in Tasmania, you can find them each week at the Harvest Market in Launceston (on Saturdays) or Farm Gate Market in Hobart (on Sundays).

If you live elsewhere you can still get your hands on these grains through the Farmhouse Direct’s online shop. The Grain Family post freshly milled grain to anywhere in Australia every week!

Wheat Flour wheat

 

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Compost Powered Shower System!

We recently made our first compost powered shower system for our two week permaculture design course held at Okines Community House and Garden.  This is a method originally developed by French man, Jean Pain and has since been replicated and adapted all over the world. While we live in a fairly moderate/cool temperate climate, others with heavy snow also do this to heat water over freezing winters like Ben Falk in Vermont (skip to 2:20 in this video). So you can drop any thoughts you night have that this will only work in a warm climate. Hot compost is hot compost regardless of the climate.

This method is traditionally based on using mostly woodchips and water, we used aged woodchips and aged chook poo (layered fairly evenly) plus water as this is what we had available to us.

  • Before we go any further, we must say a special thanks to our friends over at Very Edible Gardens (VEG) for showing this particular version and answering approximately 100 of our questions.

A brief introduction to hot compost

Hot compost is where you arrange layers of carbon and nitrogen materials like a lasagne with water in between. It needs to be at least one cubic metre for it to heat up, with the desired heat being around 60-65 degrees. This is hot enough to kill off bad pathogens, any hotter and the good biology can suffer. For this particular system we’re wanted it to get as hot as possible as heating water is our focus, not compost for the garden. However saying that, this compost will eventually be used in the local community garden where it was built which will still be beneficial to the soil once it’s had a rest. You can read about how to make hot compost for your garden here. 

First step

Just like making any other hot compost system, layer your carbon and nitrogen materials – weIMG_7385did a couple of layers to establish the footprint of the pile (around 3m in diametre) and set up the internal pipe system. This consisted of four star pickets as the framework and 25mm of poly pipe tied onto it. Dan and Carey from VEG recommended using 100m of 50mm rural poly pipe, but we decided to use 25mm pipe as we could then use it easily on our property once the pile is dismantled. If we had our time again we would use the 50mm – more on that later. 

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We filled in the polypipe’s centre with layers of woodchips, chook poo and water – basically a mini hot compost system to make sure it would heat up evenly like the rest of the pile. Note the mini bob-cat machine. We hired it for the day as we didn’t have 20 people on hand to shovel the 20m2 of organic materials – it made the job possible and made us laugh. Imagine three people over 6 foot taking it in turns to drive –  like giant clowns in a tiny box car…

Water is key to any hot compost working – we alternated between the sprinkler approach (having it running on top of the internal pile) to having two people stationed there with hoses, watering in each layer thoroughly. You really don’t want any dry patches in your pile as this will preventing it from heating up evenly.

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Step 3

Put wire around the edge of your compost as seen below. This helps you build a pile with as much volume as possible – maximising the space you have and ensuring there’s plenty of mass to heat up. Only once you reach the top of the wire will the pile start to taper off into a pointing tip.

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Blake the legend watering in the pile from the top!

The shower stalls

We built the shower block from timber pallets salvaged from building sites and shower bases from the local steep shop, for privacy we covered them in sheets. The stalls were located as close to the compost pile as possible so the hot water leaving the pile didn’t have far to travel – meaning it wasn’t going to cool down before it got to the actual shower head. In the photo below left, you can also see we insulated the hot water pipes leading up to the shower head. 

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The greywater system

We needed to design and build a temporary greywater system to filter the water coming through the IMG_7464shower before it hit the neighbouring wetland. We made a simple, safe and effective bathtub system to do this job. We lined two baths with old doona covers, filled them with coarse woodchips and ran pipes from the showers to them, using gravity to move the water where it needed to go. The woodchips act as a filtering sponge, as water moved through them any grease and soaps were caught meaning the water leaving the system was filtered and safe to enter the beautiful wetlands which lead straight to ocean a few hundred metres away.
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So…. Did it work?

The short answer is yes, we successful showered 30 people over two weeks, averaging around 10-15 each day (spread over the morning and evenings). As expected, people only had short showers up to 5 minutes at the most – which is more then enough. The recharge wait between showers was somewhere between 5 – 15 minutes depending on how many people wanted to have showers.

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Thermometre showing 60 degrees and Anton the babe enjoying his first hot compost shower. 

What would we do differently next time?

Quite a few things…

  • Use bigger pipe (as we were told to do). We used 25mm instead of 50mm pipe as we could easily use that in our irrigation system afterwards. What we didn’t think through properly is that this drastically decreases the volume of water being heated up at any one time in the pile.
  • Cover the pile with the tarpaulin (or any insulating layer, i.e. strawbales) the day we built the compost and not one week later. To be fair, there were *crazy* winds on the day we built the pile so it wasn’t going to work. But a week later, the pile had definitely heated up to 40-50 degrees but the showers were only luke warm at best. So we added the tarpaulin to it and the next morning – boom! The heat was up in the 60s and showers were hot. Our friend Nick from Milkwood tried to reassure us that it would have heated up anyway with a bit more time, as it’s just such a big compost pile. While he’s probably right, the tarp seemed to help bring it home *quickly* which we really needed for the course.
  • Get a longer thermometer stick – the thermometer you can see above only had a stick 45cm long. As the pile was 3m in diametre that meant we couldn’t gauge the centre of the pile’s temperature without digging a little hole in the side and compromising its heat retention capacity. So we just left it to measure the outer edges of the pile – which was still reading around 60 degrees after three weeks.
  • Make the shower stalls a but more weather proof. While it’s summer and mostly warm and lovely in Tassie, we still get days where the wind blows and you reach for your jumper. If we had more time and resources it would have been preferable to make the shower stalls a bit more solid with a roof and solid door. This design would be perfect for the warmer parts of the world!
  • It wasn’t as affordable to build as we had hoped. In the end we had to pay for all organic inputs, hire someone for two days to help build it, buy random bits and pieces and hire the machine – coming in at just under $1500. In theory we were going to source woodchips for free from the Council, organise a community working bee to shovel everything and just pay for some nitrogen (chook poo). Next time, we might think a bit harder about how to bring this price done to make it more viable. Of course, if you live on a farm with lots of resources it’s likely you could do it for under $500.
  • Talk to the school across the road 6 months ago…. We built this pile because we were told there were no showers within easy walking distance. The day before the course, when we were a bit worried about whether the pile would heat up enough (and we eventually added the tarpaulin) I went, stuff it – even though we’ve been told there’s no showers in the school I’ll just go check. Turns out there was a whole shower block 150m from us and they handed me the key in two minutes and happily let us use it as a back up for the two week course. To say we felt a but silly is a gigantic understatement – swear words were mentioned. On the major up side, we got to build a compost powered shower, how cool is that!!! I’ve wanted to do it for years and overall, learning new skills trumps feelings of silly-ness (eventually).

Would we do it again?

For shizzle! Despite the long list of “stuff ups” above, I’m so pumped for this method of heating water. For years it’s been on my list of awesome things I want to do – adding to my skill set and now it’s firmly lodged in my head, heart and hands. I look forward to making our next compost shower – it’s going to be a walk in the park after all the things we learned from this time round!

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