Posts from the ‘Building’ category

Making Steep Banks Stable, Productive & Beautiful (Cheaply)

On the weekend just gone, we had a mini working bee with some good mates, i.e 3 hours of power followed by lunch and beers. The mission for the morning was to convert our very bedraggled looking front, steep bank into the startings of a bee paradise garden.  This is our second attempt at this bank – the first one was going really well, until we accidentally set it on fire from a spark from the angle grinder – woops. That was a few months ago and as you can see below it was more than ready for some loving.

IMG_1488The vision for this bank is to be a perennial bee fodder and beneficial insect garden. The idea is that we never have to try and access this bank as it’s actually capping off a significant pile of rubbish which the previous owners buried there when they gutted the house.  Parts of the bank are full of old couches, bed springs, lino and lots of random wire and sharp things. Basically we don’t want to touch it as it’s a world of pain and ugly surprises. So we’re converting it into a bee paradise instead.

As a weed mat we’ve used old bike boxes from the local bike shop which will eventually break down – but not before they’ve helped suppress the grass while more desirable plants establish themselves. We pinned them down with landscaping pins we bought from the local hardware – but if you’re patient, you could also make your own out of high tensile wire.


Next up we used heat treated pallets (chemical free) to create rows of shelves roughly on contour to ‘lock in’ the cardboard even more and to provide a “pocket” to place some compost which we’ll plant directly into. Again, the pallets are free – salvaged from the side of the road around town. We’re a big fan of free, cheap and DIY, especially when you’re capturing a ‘waste product’ and converting it into a highly functional resource. True, it doesn’t look super flash, but it’s semi-temporary in that it’ll be visible for 2-3 years and then will be swamped by beautiful and productive plants. The plants will effectively replace the pallet shelves and hold the bank together with their roots.

IMG_1521 We then made sure the cardboard received a solid soaking. This helps ‘bed’ it down and prevents it from repelling water, we want it to integrate with the existing soil as quickly as possible to ensure the seeds and plants we pop in thrive. You can also see we’ve started filling the shelves with compost in the photo below. This is where we’ll plant directly into, ensuring that we can get plants established all over the bank, and not just at the very bottom.


IMG_1525    IMG_1534

IMG_1529Looking down on the bank you can now see we have 4 mini terraces to plant into, where as before there was none – yay!


So, what do we plant the bank out with straight away? Tough stuff, that’s what – enter white clover! For the record, clover will get weedy, hence we NEVER put it near our annual beds or in areas where we don’t want to have to be constantly controlling it. The only places we’ve put it on our place is the steep banks which need quick growing, soil improving (it’s a nitrogen fixer) and flowering plants – clover does it all. We also put in stacks of sunflower and calendula seeds. In coming weeks we’ll also plant out the bank with perennial herbs and hardy native shrubs and ground covers.


IMG_1549One of our almond trees with a happy cluster of fat hen, amaranth and stinging nettle (all desirable ‘weeds’) growing around it

We didn’t bother mulching the bottom section of the bank due to it being so steep, instead have simply covered it with a combination of cardboard and jute mate to suppress the vigorous grass from taking over. At the bottom of the bank you can see our young orchard which we planted this past Winter which is settling in nicely.


The finished product (above), planted out with white clover, calendula and sunflower seeds. We’ll be planting strategically into the shelves in coming weeks with hardy flowering natives and perennial herbs to create a low shrub and ground creeper layer. It’s going to be beautiful.

And of course, all good working bees end on a high and tasty note – a hearty and colourful lunch topped off with cake and beer to express our enormous gratitude to some of our mates for making it happen. Thank you, thank you, thank you – we look forward to returning the favour!





One tree, many uses

Over the past month or two we’ve been slowly cutting down some rather large cyprus macrocarpa trees which were looming over our house. One in particular was massive and blocked a large portion of sunlight to our house and garden and was a significant fire hazard. As soon as we moved in we acknowledged they ‘had to go’ due to practicalities, but we’ve been avoiding the enormity of the task.

It’s such a big task that at one point we tried outsourcing the job to a contractor to chop and mulch it (except the key logs). However when his machinery literally starting sliding off our hill and people’s lives were threatened we called it off. And so, we named it up as another ‘character building’ exercise and have been slowly but surely chopping it down and using as much as possible on site. Here’s how.

Fence Posts

We recently built a floppy fence on our eastern boundary line. Conveniently, we have no termites in Tasmania (yay) and macrocarpa’s timber is well known for its durability for outside uses, so it’s highly sort after for landscaping purposes. Generally it’ll last around 15 years before showing signs of needing replacing, and sometimes more. It sure is doing a swell job supporting our fence line!


 Retaining walls

Anton’s just created this very organic looking, strong and down right beautiful (in my humble opinion) retaining wall for part of our orchard. It hugs the bottom of a slope and is home to our apricot and almond trees, soon we’ll also have a diverse understory sprawling throughout.


To make them so sturdy, Anton drilled a big hole through the small logs and used some old water pipe (hard steel stuff) as ‘pegs’ which he put directly though the wall and staked into the ground. We then lined it with geofabric and filled it in with juicy top soil.


Mulched pathways

We don’t have a chipper. Instead Anton’s been using his chainsaw to ‘mulch’ the greenery that’s come off the macrocarpa and using it as much needed mud proofing on our paths. This has worked surprisingly well. A key thing to be mindful of when using macrocarpa on pathways is that it’s anti-fungal, in an orchard (as the path below is) this isn’t ideal as we REALLY want fungi to thrive in this environment. To speed up the breaking down process we’ll be adding a bit of blood and bone amongst the path. We’re also planning on finding some mature macrocarpa plantings elsewhere which have rotting leaf/branch litter beneath the trees with visible fungi growing and inoculating our paths with it… We’ll see how that goes.


Espalier fence posts

We’re espaliering part of our orchard so we can fit more trees on our urban block. Providing the backbone for this framework are three long (around 5 metres) logs we salvaged from the tree which are doing a bang up job of looking spunky and supporting our very young trees and kiwi fruits.




They’ll also eventually have seasonal netting put over them to protect the fruit from being picked off by the many birds which swamp the gardens and orchards around our neighbourhood come harvest time. We put these cute silver caps on the top of each post to ensure the netting can be smoothly put on and off, without getting caught on the rough timber.


Some of the posts were roughly cut down in size, all with the chainsaw, it’s rough but does the job wonderfully.


Stairs – we love em and seriously need them to navigate our slope safely. Once again the macrocarpa has come to the rescue to provide all the materials to create these spunky and solid stairs. We’ve back filled them with sawdust to create mud free, level steps. Below you can see David Holmgren helping bed down the sawdust while he was staying with us recently… Yep, even David gets put to work when visiting. Actually, we couldn’t stop him from wanting to help out with whatever was happening. Seriously top bloke that one.


We’ve also used a lot of the green mulched needles as deep litter in our chook run which they’re loving scratching through and chopped up a large fire wood pile for coming years. And finally (or maybe not) we’ve left the main trunk (with some short branches) in the ground in order to build an adventure tree house! Apparently it’s for our kid (arriving in late 2014), however it’s quickly becoming Anton’s most desired place for evening beers, so I think it’s really for him. We’ve left one of the tall spikes you can see Anton sitting on below as a flag pole – because, you know, that’s super important.


The question we asked ourselves at the start of this whole process was, how can we utilise and respect the embodied energy of this massive tree? Our answer was to convert that energy it’s put into growing so big all these years into creating numerous functional and fun structures which will continue to live on for time to come. So, here’s to many more years of our cypress macrocarpa living on in its new and many forms!

* Your blogger is Hannah Moloney, co-director of Good Life and lover of all things fun and garden-esk.


How to Find Contour Lines: Low-fi & High Tech Options

Knowing how to find and mark out a contour line is pretty darn useful. It allows to you build foundations for houses, catch and store water and nutrients in swales or swale pathways, make fantastic walking tracks across steep hillsides and numerous other fantastically functional things. We’ve just been teaching 3 different ways (high tech and low-fi) you can find and mark contour lines to our Permaculture Design Course students and thought we’d share them with you too…

The Bunyip Level (aka the water level)

Bunyip level

Caroline and Nysha learning the ways of the bunyip

Firstly, I have no idea how the bunyip level earned this name, if you know I’d love to hear from you. This handy tool consists of two posts and a hose connecting them meaning it’s either free or dirt cheap to make. On each of the upright timber posts are measurements showing up to 1 metre off the ground. This means you can match the water line against the numbers at both ends of the hose, ensuring you have the same level. We added some yellow food dye into the hose so you can see the water line more clearly, however this was a bad colour choice as it inspires thoughts of urine…. Will choose a different colour next time. You can make your own so easily at home, watch Brad Lancaster’s video about how and check out all his other work, when it comes to water harvesting he’s one of the best.

Bunyip w group

The hose can be varying lengths, this one is approximately 10 metres which allows you to mark out short or long areas and move around corners or structures. One thing you do have to watch out for is making sure that you hold the post perfectly upright. To help, you could hold a spirit level against the post to make sure it’s vertical (instead of leaning to one side) so you get an accurate reading.  This is a minor, yet crucial detail in creating successful contours.

We’ve used the bunyip level a lot of our own place for creating swale pathways amongst our vegetable gardens, they work a treat.

The A-frame

Todd w A frame

 Todd calibrating the A-frame

The A-frame consists of three sticks, a length of string and a weight to hold the string down – we’ve used a big heavy bolt for this particular one. When making your own, the key thing to remember is to make the distance between the legs a desirable length, 1m or 2m generally works well as it helps you keep track of distance. You can see a step-by-step guide to making, calibrating and using an A-frame here, all filmed to a thumping techno sound-track… But don’t worry, you can turn the sound down. The guys on this short film are using nails to join the timber pieces together, I’d actually recommend using screws, bolts or just some strong lashing as nails have a tendency to pop out sooner rather than later.

A-frame marking contour

The A-frame in action, you can see the short sticks in the ground marking the actual contour line.

The Laser Level

The laser level is the high tech option which can get fairly pricey (depending on how much you’re willing to spend), however you can also hire them by the day. Currently this is what we do when we need it for big jobs as it’s super quick to mark out large areas with one person and when you’re working with an earth moving machine it’s easy to check or tweak levels as earth is being moved. It consists of a tripod with a ‘computer head’ (not the proper term… obviously) on top which projects a laser light to the height of your choice and a long, retractable measuring stick with an electronic reader on it which picks up the laser light coming from the tripod.

June w Laser Level

June marking out a contour on our current part-time Permaculture Design Course, 2014

Laser LevelThe laser level can be used across long distances by one person and is super quick to get accurate contour lines marked out quick smart. 

All three of these contraptions can also be used to create a gradual ‘fall’ on your site so that water is channeled across landscapes, or you might want to create a ramp for wheelbarrows and walking. If moving water, the recommended fall is 1:400, one metre over 400m (or 1cm over 4m) this will move your water slowly over your property, ensuring that it still soaks into the soil first being moving to the next area you’re directing it to.

The really great things is that when used correctly the A-frame and bunyip level are just as accurate as the laser level, they simply require a bit more time to do the job. But if you’re just working on your own garden and not looking to do big landscaping projects regularly we can’t recommend these two options enough!

Handy Resources

A big thanks to Tamas Oszvald for taking all these photos!

* Your blogger is Hannah Moloney, co-director of Good Life Permaculture and lover of all things fun and garden-esk.