Posts from the ‘Permaculture’ category

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.

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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.

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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!

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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 100mm 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 100mm – 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 100mm 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, and while the pile had definitely heated up to 40-50 degrees 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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A Greywater, Worm Farm & Mushroom Garden System

We held our latest permaculture design course in the very wonderful Okines Community House and Garden in Dodges Ferry. While there, we had the opportunity to integrate our already planned mushroom garden workshop into the design for their greywater system for the garden’s kitchen.  Our guest teacher, Nick Ritar from Milkwood suggested we integrate a worm farm, the mushroom garden and the greywater into one – creating *one* system as opposed to three separate ones. Stacking a number of functions and techniques into one system is a key element of permaculture design and is something we’re always looking to do.

image (1)A mature mushroom garden. Image via Nick Ritar

The mushroom garden is focused on growing the edible mushroom, Stropharia rugosoannulata, commonly known as the wine cap stropharia, “garden giant”, burgundy mushroom or king stropharia.

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The diagram above is a great guideline to follow. We didn’t follow this exactly due to having a limited amount of spawn. Image via Nick Ritar.

How to do it….

Soak at least one 44 gallon drum of woodchips for week, these need to be hardwood chips from either gum trees, oaks, poplar or fruit trees. Importantly don’t use any woodchips from conifer/pine trees. You can see our mix below has quite a lot of gum leaf in there, this isn’t ideal but will still work.

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To make sure all the woodchips are submerged under the water place some mesh and a rock/brick on top as seen below. Over the one week, you’ll see the water turn a dark brown (that’s healthy) and an anaerobic smell will appear (also normal).

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The next step is to drain the woodchips completely so there’s no obvious pooling of water. I put all the woodchips into a couple of free draining baskets for around 10mts for this to happen.

Then put half of the woodchips back in the bucket, add the mature spawn to the bucket and fill the bucket with the remaining soaked woodchips. Finally, place the whole bucket in the shade for one month.

Importantly, make sure this bucket has holes in the bottom so it can drain any pooling water out of the bucket. This will prevent the bottom section getting stinky (anaerobic). I didn’t do this and while it ultimately all worked out fine – this is something I’d do better next time.

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IMG_7492But where do you get the mature spawn from?

We sourced ours from a good friend passionate about fungi.

Where can you get it? That will depend on where you live, touch base with your local mushroom networks, groups to find the best option.

 

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Now comes the implementation bit

Once you have all your woodchips primed and the spawn in place for one month it’s time to bring it to  its final destination – for us, this was the Okines Community Garden. They were in the process of building a simple grey water system for their outdoor “garden kitchen”. For the past 5 or so years they’ve simply had a bucket under the kitchen sink which they emptied directly onto their gardens – it was time for an upgrade.

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The design was simple, plum the sink out the wall and into a low-tech worm farm grease trap in a recycled bath. Compost worms love a nutrient-rich, highly moist environment – so this a kind of heaven for them. Just like any other worm farm it’ll need to be emptied every now and then, with the worm’s castings being used on the food gardens as a fertiliser.

If you’re keen to know how to make a bathtub worm farm, have a read at one our earlier blogs here. 

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The worm farm’s drainage is directed straight into the woodchip pit – *this* is where the mushrooms will grow from. The pit is around 30cm deep and filled with pre-soaked gum woodchips (they were soaked for at least a few days before this point).

As the soil is mostly sand here (they’re on the coast) we lined the hole with black plastic to retain moisture, preventing the mushroom garden from drying out. The plastic also has holes punched into it so excess water can slowly leave the system, preventing it from becoming waterlogged. If you had good clay, you could line the hole with a clay slip instead, you’d then have to monitor it and maintain it as needed to make sure it holds water sufficiently.

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This is where Nick took over by making a shallow hole in the existing woodchips and placed the inoculated woodchips in the middle. Straight away you could see how the white spawn had already started to slowly but surely spread through the woodchips.

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Finally, these woodchips were covered with additional (pre-soaked) gum woodchips – tucking them all in and making sure they don’t dry out.

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The garden coordinator’s Claire and Gabe then built a temporary shade structure to keep the hot afternoon sun off the woodchips, also preventing it from drying it out. Soon they’ll plant an ever-green shrub to provide this shade and add to the general beauty of the space.
IMG_7602The overflow from this system all ends up in some grassland and then travels into the local wetland. The worm farm and mushroom garden are filtering strong nutrients out of the water before it gets here, ensuring there’s no heavy nutrients hitting this native ecosystem – keeping it happy and healthy.

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These types of low-tech techniques are brilliant for the right context. We’re really passionate about being able to “keep things real” with simple, safe and super effective systems like this one. Nick says that by next year the whole woodchip pit will be alive with the garden giant mushroom’s spawn – and edible mushrooms. Very good. Very, very good.

Want to know more?

  • You can see a more permanent example of a greywater worm farm design in action at Melliodora here. 
  • Get in touch with Forest Fungi for a range of resources.
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Hello 2017!

Hello 2017 and all you wonderful people out there. We’re a bit quiet on this blog at the moment – here’s why.

We started the year with a flurry of much needed camping trips with dear friends. Because even though life is very full with work commitments none of that can happen *well* unless we, and are little family, are happy. So happy we were and are.

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Frida turned two, so we went camping (again) – this time in our mate’s blueberry orchard to which she was forever grateful for and very well fed.

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And now? Now we are fully focused on prepping for our summer permaculture design course which starts this Friday!

On top of the many, many small logistical details we have to sort out, we decided to build a hot compost shower system for the two-week course. It’s the first time we’ve done this – huge thanks to Very Edible Gardens for teaching us how via many emails. We love you for your generosity, brains and funny characters.

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We’ll write a comprehensive blog about this system in a few weeks once we’ve used it, learned what we did wrong and right so you can then learn from us. But right now, we think it’s one of the most beautiful things we’ve ever help create – 20 cubic metres of glorious organic matter!

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And our home garden???

Well our own garden is pretty much taking care of itself at the moment. As a result of having a lot going on with work and life, we made the conscious decision to only plant a small annual garden of tomatoes, pumpkins and greens and then transition other annual beds into our new olive grove with a thick understory of dandelion and comfrey. We’ll get back to annual gardening next season…

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The perennial gardens/orchard are proving once again they are far superior than any annual gardens – pumping out the fruit, berries and wild greens while we make sure they have enough water. Weeding can wait as currently they’re helping reduce evaporation and provide fresh greens for our chooks.

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BECAUSE NEXT SEASON WE’LL HAVE A WHOLE NEW SPACE TO GROW INTO. Sorry to shout, but this development has been four years in planning/wishing/hoping. And now it’s all happening. As I write, an excavator is moving earth strategically (keeping the top soil safe) to create a series of terraces for our long-term annual beds and additional fruit/nut orchard with animal systems integrated.

2017 – you’re a big year, one we’ve been willing for – wanting to hurry up and get here so we can make so many of our garden/home/life dreams come true. We’re so happy you’re finally here, a touch overwhelmed with the enormity of it all but ultimately just deeply grateful and stoked.

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See You On The Other Side

Hi there good people,

In honour of meeting some fast approaching deadlines (thank you patient design clients) and doing some *big* home projects, we’re going to let this blog go quite over the next few weeks. We’re stepping away from the computer and into our garden for some exciting and long anticipated developments (watch this space).

We’ll also be enjoying each other and the fruits of our labour – literally….. Specifically, we’ll be dedicating some solid time to loitering at the raspberry patch each day *and* checking up on our ripening currents, nectarines, apricots, plums apples and cherries.

20161209_164247Raspberry path = current favourite hang out spot

Thanks for this year, it’s been a big one as they increasingly tend to be.

This little blog started as an interesting side experiment and has ended up becoming a central element to what we do. Documenting our ventures has become an invaluable resource for us and the broader community. So thanks for your interest, questions, comments and contributions. We think you’re tops!

Catch you in early 2017!

hannahmoloney1Me and Scratch – looking like she’d rather not be in my arms!

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Nick Ritar: His Permaculture Journey

Nick Ritar: Director of permaculture power house – Milkwood, permaculture educator extraordinaire, lover of all things fungi, talker of many words (good ones) and guest teacher on our upcoming permaculture design course (PDC).

I first met Nick in 2012 when he invited me up to guest teach on one of their PDCs in Sydney. I was a bit/a lot nervous to work with him say the least, – but his support, professionalism and now friendship has been brain stretching, comfort-zone expanding and fun. I feel fortunate to have this talkative chap in my life and owe him (and his partner Kirsten) much for where I am now.

Have a read about Nick, his perspective on life, permaculture and the future.

2-nick-inspecting-shitake-logsImage from here

What do you think permaculture’s role is in creating a vibrant, sustainable and resilient world for our children’s children?

I see permaculture as a blueprint for how we’re going to live on this planet in future years, and by living I mean live a joyous & abundant life where we can thrive, not just survive. There is a lot of very scary things that are happening in our global society and hearing about them can be incredibly disempowering. Permaculture empowers us to take action in our lives and in our communities and that will become more and more important in future years.

Where has permaculture taken you in life?

Permaculture has allowed me to recognise what I really value in life. When I first started being a permaculturalist I was still living a relatively conventional life. The longer I’ve spent being a permie, I’ve realised I can be fulfilled with a lot less, especially from an economic perspective. The economic system can be a powerful tool to allow us to engage with society so I am still engaged with it. But in my personal life I try to live without it. My life now is very low income, even lower expenditure and full of amazing beautiful experiences. Strong community and amazing relationships with people have allowed this to happen.

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Where do you live now?

Melliodora – Hepburn Springs, Victoria – home of Sue Dennet and David Holmgren, co-founder of permaculture. This property is an 8700m² diverse, perennial polyculture with amazing annual gardens, goats, chickens, geese, fungi  and a few lovingly built homes.  We get to live in one of them – a mudbrick building built by family and community for family and community. 

We’re so fortunate to be able to be living on this incredible permaculture demonstration property. That opportunity came about via the strong community connections we’ve made over the years through permaculture. In a very true sense permaculture has given us this opportunity. When you engage with a passion for things that you really believe in other people end up really supporting you in that. The support that we’ve been given to live here comes out of the ethics of permaculture. Probably the single most important thing to us is that we have a community of people who we love and support and in turn, they love and support us. 

We don’t own our own property and haven’t got tenure over it. It’s through interpersonal relationships and the improvement of these that maintains this opportunity. It’s unique and rare, but perhaps that’s not unattainable. The amount of small farms with ageing owners who need and want help and company is abundant in our country. Perhaps shifting our cultural mindset is the more challenging barrier to making this a common option for people, young people in particular who are looking to access land, but can’t afford to join an inflated real-estate market.

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By living at Melliodora you’re living in one of the most established permaculture properties in the world. Besides a kick-arse garden, what other permaculture elements are you and your family loving?

We’re building stronger connections with this property all the time, but even more interesting/exciting is the connections we’re building within our bioregion. Included in this is the local Spring Creek community forest, this is a place where we spend time to grow and harvest fungi and the goats graze there regularly. It helps us close the cycle of this property where we give and take in a healthy way.  

It’s the dream set up where functional connections are self-forming (beyond the property fence line), resources are abundant and things are self-connecting. That’s what’s different to a mature permaculture system; you become a player rather than a director. Establishment of a permaculture systems is so different to maintaining one where your rhythm is heavily directive, in a mature system your rhythm becomes more responsive to the seasons and available resources.

What’s one of the most exciting and meaningful permaculture projects you’ve worked on?

Milkwood – our business. This includes the Milkwood farm we had in Mudgee, NSW (now sold) but alsor964775_10407800 Milkwood as the unaffiliated educational organisation. That’s been the biggest project for me, designing this and making sure it’s true to the permaculture ethics, that it provides meaningful livelihoods and promotes permaculture principles. Within this, a big project for us has been the 107 Projects roof top garden we designed and built in Redfern, Sydney. This is where we teach a lot of our classes and is one of our longer term projects we’re proud of – earlier this year it won gold awards from the Australian Institute of Landscape Designers and Managers in two categories.

What we haven’t done and would like to do more of is community design projects. We’ve mostly worked with corporate and individual design clients. This has limits to how close you can get to the project as it’s more of a financial relationship rather than a community project where you invest in a long-term relationship. We’re really looking forward to participating in the development of our son’s new school – a place where we hope to be invested in for the next 5 years.

Working on Melliodora is also incredibly fulfilling. We’re getting to design and implement crazy mushroom gardens, annual food production and parts of the tree and animal systems not to mention also getting to work on the amazing natural buildings and help Sue and Dave out with parts of their enterprise. By working on the place you live, you get to have a level of ownership over things and get to see the results.

But of course, the ultimate project for any permaculture designer is their own life and their families. You can start with yourself, then move out to your family, then your community and lastly the broader world – this is where you can design and implement permaculture on every possible level.  

Who should do a permacultue design course and why?

Anyone who wants to live a fulfilling life – a life that brings them good food, community, safe/happy houses and happy families – and anyone who wants to help others achieve this too, whether that’s directly through their work roles, in their community or within their family. 

Interested in learning about permaculture?

Join us and special guest Nick Ritar this Jan21 – Feb 3 in Tasmania for our permaculture design course. 

nick-ritar-and-family_full-bleedNick with his very awesome partner, Kirsten Bradley and their son Ashar. Image from here

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Chopping And Dropping Comfrey Leaves

I’ve written a fair bit about comfrey and its many uses, including how to propagate it and making comfrey fritters. At one point, I wrote an extensive blog called “everything I know about comfrey so far” just to get it all out there and clear up a few myths. As an extension of that blog here’s a more detailed look at using comfrey leaves as mulch, aka “chopping and dropping”.

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We’ve got a big bank of comfrey downhill of our young espalier orchard which is on a small terrace carved out of a steep slope – you can see the design below and some of its  development story here.  The design matches reality around 99%, it’s now all there and thriving – we just decided to not run our chooks there for the time being.

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This particular type of comfrey grows *big*, well over one metre – providing a whole lots of biomass that can be cycled back in our garden. At least twice a season I’ll go through and chop the leaves off at the base and drop it straight back on the ground or move it to an area that needs mulch. This time round, I mulched the bank it grows on and the neighbouring currants and globe artichokes. Coming into summer, this is such a valuable resource – it means we don’t have to buy in mulch at all, our soil is protected and nourished for free.

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Comfrey has a reputation amongst keen gardeners as a “dynamic accumulator”. While there isn’t solid scientific data on this, you just can’t ignore the countless gardeners who swear that by adding comfrey to your garden, you end up with healthier soils and crops -we’ve observed this ourselves.  You can read up on this here and here. 

And after a solid hour of chopping and dropping – our bank now looks like this….

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While it looks like I’ve completely devastated the plant – rest assured I haven’t, new growth will start to pop back up within 1 – 2 weeks and the whole process will repeat again. You can’t kill this plant – or at least it would be really, really hard to.

img_7231Our currant bushes with a comfrey mulch

Our bank of comfrey is approximately 20m long with somewhere between 40-60 plants and counting. We subdivide and plant more each season to crowd out the grass, stabilise the bank and grow mulch for our orchard. If you can, grow your own multi-functional living mulches – you and your garden will never regret it!

img_7239One of our espaliered apple trees with a comfrey mulch on one side and calendula on the other – lucky apple tree. 

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Our Property Design In Process

We’ve been at our property for almost four years – you can see some of the work we’ve done on it here, here and here – it’s been a busy four years. Recently we bought the bush/weed block next door to us which more than doubles the size of our block. So we’re now redesigning our whole property to integrate it with this new patch of land. Thankfully, we always planned on buying this additional bit of land, so designed our place with this in mind. Our original design looked like this…

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We mostly stuck to this design when creating it all. Only “mostly” because as soon as you start implementing a design, reality kicks in – you learn new things along the way so respond accordingly. This is a good thing, a great thing actually as it means you’re working with the landscape, letting it unfold naturally rather than enforcing your fixed ideas onto it. When we work with clients we try and emphasise this – that the design we provide them will almost certainly change as you create it – embrace that.

Back in September we started drafting up our new “whole of property” design – it looked like this.

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We let this sit for a while – talked extensively with our excavator driver who’ll be doing all the terracing and building our driveway and quickly knew we had to make some changes to make the design “smarter”.

By smarter I mean we had to find a way to keep all the soil onsite, get ride of the retaining walls as they’ll blow our budget (we’ll build earth berms instead and grow useful plants on them), make the passive water harvesting system more elegant and make every terrace accessible with a wheelbarrow so you don’t have to do awkward carrying/lifting across our steep slope. The new draft looks like this….

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We fully expect to change this design *again* before we start implementing it this January. We also fully expect to tweak it *during* implementation as our landscape is a living entity that we work with and not against.

I’ll provide a second (and maybe third) chapter to this blog to show the design and implementation developments as they unfold. The key emphasise we’ll continue to demonstrate is the responsiveness and flexibility we try and embody when working with land. It’s already perfect as it is, and while we’re introducing some massively significant changes we know we can still do this within the natural integrity of the landscape. Watch. This. Space.

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