Backyard permaculture – pre-design thinking

Now that I’m half way through my Permaculture Design Certificate (PDC) theory, I’m about to take a really good crack at some intentional design in terms of applying permaculture principles in an average sized garden.

Below,  is the layout of the productive backyard that we now have after five-six years of ad-hoc design with permaculture principles in mind, but without really any formal or deep understanding.

[click image to enlarge]

2017

My final PDC design project has therefore rather humble aims:

Moving this young backyard farm into maturity by giving it a vision and including:

  • removing the last of the invasive lower lawn for veg beds
  • creating more vertical veg growing space,
  • connecting it to the front yard which is now an emerging food forest too
  • solutions for unused wasted sides of the house
  • developing a natural play area for the kids

Bringing it all together as a whole,  is where hopefully having some idea of permaculture design principles will help so that I can see the space and the little areas of potential.

How we got to this stage

I wanted to capture where we are now, and how this young productive garden emerged, before I start my final design project for my PDC and for anyone else working on their PDC with a small space.

Six years ago we moved away from our 20 acre rural block, our dream hobby farm – into a house on about 890 square metres. We were in our 30s so not really traditional ‘downsizers’, but the property was situated precariously on a ridge top, had limited access and in summer we had a close call with bushfire without any access to water.

Leaving our farm was the hardest thing I ever did.

We left space, epic views, secret valleys, winter rivers, echidnas and wedge tailed eagles, space for orchards you could walk through and just everything I had dreamed of. We went to a normal street, into a normal house into a normal space that meant no more cows, goats or roosters or wild places.

I still have days when my heart pines to be back there, listening to the wind blowing through sheoaks.

But, as it tuned out, we were able to slowly create a more sustainable future. A slow retrofit is still in progress, starting with insulation and adding internal doors for example.

We now have less reliance on cars, can walk into the Main Street of our small town rather than having to drive everywhere,  could afford to upgrade solar hot water and power, have massively reduced electricity consumption and no electricity bills – even our house sewage septic system is recycled for viticulture irrigation. Instead of feeding cows and maintaining fences I food gardened.

We moved into bareness in the backyard – just rectangles of invasive lawn, 3 spindly young fruit trees and no soil. I was eight months pregnant and managed to throw a few veg seedlings in to settle in.

 

when we moved in
Soiless and souless

 

We both work professional jobs and have young children and yes, I have to be honest, ALL my free time over the last six years is mostly immersed in food gardening. Or reading about others about food gardening, or talking to others about food garden or thinking about food gardening.

My daughter described me as “mad about permaculture” on a poster describing their mums at school. Maybe I am mad putting all this heart in.

On days I was too exhausted with my baby son, I would be up early to watch episodes of Costa’s Garden Oddyssey I found on DVDs and it became a morning ritual with a baby and four year old.  I had a moment of understanding that this was going to take time and to start with the soil – to build soil – and be patient.

In 2012, I started lasagne gardening/sheet mulching this place to build soil . I borrowed books on permaculture from the library and dreamed of the backyard forest that this garden could be. It was imaginary.

There was no design, no vision, just a hazy idea of what could be daydreamed, the design emerged in the edges of everything else. It felt right to design informally in this way with dreams by the fireside, experiments and failures.

Bit by built we built structures, and after 4 years finally culminated in adding chickens . When they arrived I felt the backyard farm had become!

So, undertaking this PDC has given me an unexpected concern. I’m feeling doubtful about whether I’m suited to designing gardens properly on paper -with any precision. It feels…unlike me to garden on paper.  I’m trying though. I measured out my space last week to roughly get the plan I put together to scale. Sort of.

But I wonder if others feel this way. To be truthful, drawing it out first feels like it kills the wonder a bit for me.

But…what I want to encourage is simple. Start where you are. Right now. In whatever way it feels right to begin.

Don’t wait until you have “the dream acreage” don’t feel that you have to have big space to apply permaculture design. Learn now from the tiniest space.

In 1999, my first veg garden in my 20s was a front garden patch of about 15m2 in England. We won a prize because it was seen as a novelty to grow veg amongst cottage garden flowers – but it was all the space we had. The design – intercropping – emerged from the limits. Limitation can be the spark.

Any space can be enough room to grow.

Make boundaries into horizons.

Inspiration hanging in my garden                              c/o Costa Georgiadis & Earth Garden magazine

Any space can be everything you need, if you can begin with valuing the potential of what you do have.  If you still need more trees, visit them. Or if you need wilderness (which yes,  I really do miss in my deepest soul) go forth and camp there, or join in an effort to plant trees there.  If you dream of more growing space, volunteeer in your local school or community garden.

And then come home to grow where you live.

And live where you grow.

And take your growing, where ever you go.

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In the breath-held beauty of night, every leaf seems paused as if painted in still life, branches striking shapes, shadow-shifting in the moonlit corners of my sight. Crickets sing a rhythmic chorus under the waxing glow of gibbous moon, inciting beetle feet to tread their forests of towering grass blades. The dance of Diplopoda feet, heard burrowing through to damp soil, microcosmic tramping that loosens pathways, unthreading mycorrhizal threads, triggering fungi to fruit. The luminous moon conjures magpies into a midnight warbling, their tree-to-tree dream song the perfect soundtrack of the Universe. I lift my head and eyes to dive up into the starred abyss of the dark-sea spaces in The Milky Way above. Scrambling for words enough to surface from deep wonder, with everything above and below and around and within connected.

Waldschattenspiel (Shadows in the Woods) – a board game

Wer wird gewinnen, das Lich oder die Zwerge?

Who will win, the light or the dwarves?

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This beautiful German board game by Kraul, wandered into our lives at Christmas. It’s a simple but magical game best played in complete darkness. The board is a forest – lit by a single luminary tea-light that travels the forest pathways on each roll of a die. The tea-light illuminates wooden 3D trees which cast a shadow on to the board, providing hiding places.

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The shadowy woods

Within the shadows cast by the trees,  tiny Zwerge – dwarves/gnomes – must keep to the shadows. Any who stray from the shadows are frozen in the light until rescued by another dwarf.

The objective of the game is for all the dwarves to gather together in the shadow of one tree, before the light freezes them all.

frozen
A dwarf alone in the woods, frozen by the light, awaiting rescue

Tip: First time play – unpack in daytime

This is handy to know if you’re excited to play this for the first time one night – unpack it in daytime. Before playing, you have the opportunity to transform the wooden dwarf playing pieces into dwarfish characters. There is felt supplied for their crafting their hats.

naked-dwarves

I also took up the additional suggestion to add some beards, and some felted wool from my stash added a beardyness any king from under the mountain would be proud of. I did have a few visions of them catching alight, so tamed my initial extravagant very curly beards to this:

ready to roll.jpg

dwarve-completed

Playing

What I particularly love in a world of plastic Monopoly and Game of Life empire building, is that this feels like a fresh breeze in games, because it hearkens back to old story-telling, to simple themes of light and dark, yet, where the shadows are the safer place. It is a very calming game,  and dwarf players play cooperatively against the light player.  Usually an adult plays the  light as the naked flame is pushed around the board through the forest, while the children work cooperatively as hiding dwarves, but responsible children could be given the role of the light.

It’s such a soothing game that it can played right before bedtime.

Complete darkness works best, and in this shadowy world,  the trees even cast their shadows on the walls too, so if you can preserve a childlike wonder, you too are in the shadowy forest. Part of the realisation for the children is that they can hide their dwarves in sight right in front of you (the light-bearer) in what feels like it should be visible to you – yet if the candle is beyond the tree the adult won’t be able to see them – they are hidden right in front of you, in complete darkness. The light-bearer can’t move from their seat and you rely utterly on the tiny light to catch a glimpse of a hat or beard. It’s actually very difficult to find the dwarves, much to the amusement of the children.

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I see you! Betrayed by a bushy beard!

As the adult playing the game with younger children, because you need to look away while the children hide their dwaves each time, you may need to ask older children to take responsibility for helping the younger childen avoid reaching directly over the candle flame. The game is recommended for 5 years and above.

dice

The only other grown-up person in our family of 4,  found the game painfully boring, and I’m not sure we’ll convince him to play again. Both kids 9 and 5 absolutely love it, and keep asking to play it, as I do, so it wins with 3 out of 4 of us. It’s more than a game, it’s got something enchanting about it.

pyramid

There is an additional game board on the reverse of the board which we haven’t played yet.

I can’t quite explain how much I absolutely love this game , unique in its gentleness and with the feel of a fairy tale. It feels older than it is. It relies on your willingness to take on a role and be part of the world of the shadowy forest, to fall into a story of your own making. In simple terms, imagination beyond the board. The kids have invented names for the dwarves and I love their secret whispering strategies as they negotiate tactics for keeping hidden and guessing where the shadows will fall.

A game that will be remembered and loved beyond childhood, and if you find it hard to track down, you can also try making your own version.

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“When you light a candle, you also cast a shadow.”
Ursula K. Le Guin.

PDC – Permaculture Design Certificate

After taking a short one-day course on permaculture design in 2006, I’ve been pining to explore formally studying permaculture again, but this time, to go deeper. Ideally, that would look like signing up for a two week intensive residential course on a permaculture farm somewhere, in the traditional way, learning with a bunch of other enthusiastic learners – immersed. However, with a  young family I’m not keen to try and squeeze this in, nor do I have the leave to take from work, nor do I want to be away from the kids to pursue this. It’s just not me to indulge like this. I’m still keen on doing a residential course in the future, but I’ve been searching for something to fit around my circumstances.

I saw Geoff Lawton’s online PDC offering, which is spread across 20+ weeks, still has a design project component and because I have my own garden and community garden to contribute to, delving deeply into the theory among my existing practical exploration on the side really appeals to me. I can  almost fit in the 2-3 hours in each week to do this! 🙂 The course was launched  few days ago on my 40th birthday, so it also a lovely way to launch the next decade of my life with something so personally meaningful.

You can get an idea of Geoff’s approach as he’s released some materials free at the Permaculture Circle. and the course is structured around Bill Mollison’s Permaculture A Designers’ Manual. There are people from all over the world taking the course, many have acreage but there are plenty of backyard and urban balcony farmers too. Diversity right there. There are also teaching assistants who are experienced permaculture practioners supporting Geoff, so I think that a lot of thinking has gone into making this an online community of learning.

I’m also discovering that many people do multiple PDC courses – there isn’t just one ultimate one course that will fill your bucket brim full. Perhaps some people might rightly be critical of online study of something so practical, but for me right now,  mixing a deeper study of the theory, while I’m reflecting on my five years trying to self-practice permaculture design and starting new design adventures – fits my situation perfectly. One day, I would still love to head off on an intensive practical, when the stars and planets align to make this an option.

I’ll be trying to keep up with the course, and posting insights and understandings here. For me, having an accessible and well-planned online study option for a PDC is giving me an opportunity to expand my understanding without needing to be cram it all in or be away from my family to pursue this development experience. So I’m giving it everything!

Upfront-worthy veg

We’re the hippies of the hood perhaps, with our mostly native rambling front garden but I decided to forge on a bit further and gently introduce some vegetables as it’s a great growing site. It’s a first for me in an Australian garden growing vegetables in the front (did it in the UK as we had a very small space).

With wallaby and kangaroo grass seeding, flax lilly’s dainty clusters of nodding blue and yellow flowers, red and yellow kangaroo paw in flower and the sweet scent of native frangipani trees it’s a hot colour riot of sight and smell right now. A bee haven.  Mingling scents of native frangipani, rosemary, lavender and lemon basil too. So why not even more diversity with some produce in the mix!

Hot spires of kangaroo paw – they love chicken manure

The first adventures into mixing some veg into the front (we don’t have street verges alas!) was sacrificing a bed that had mainly herbs. We inherited heavy clay soil in this front garden, so I took a patient year of soil prepping including worm castings, mushroom compost, direct deep composting of kitchen scraps first, before attempting any removal or planting. Removing the large woody herbs wasn’t too laborious once the soil had improved (previoulsy impossible baked into hard clay!) and the tomato seedlings have loved their freedom!

There will be more front veg planting to come, longer term plans for strawbale or timbercrete to replace wooden retaining walls – so much to do – and I’m converting a lawn at the back first – so my guess is this is it for a while in the front.  But by tackling one small thing at a time – like a yield of heirloom tomatoes, which have always been challenging in my backyard raised beds, you find that you can slow down enough to think about design more, rather than just rushing in to plant and change everything all at once. It gives you time to observe.

Front veg bed of heirloom tomatoes, lemon grass, lemon basil, zuchinni

Yellow kangaroo paw on a backdrop of lavender.
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Dianella (flax lilly) and native grasses under the native frangipani tree

Ramshackle insect shack hacks

I’ve been keen to try building nest blocks for blue-banded bees, by packing a clay/sand mix into rectangular PVC pipe after hearing about this technique and seeing it online.I’ve looked at a few ideas for insect hotels and made a list of materials required.

However, perhaps because of my recent sessions at Onkaparinga’s Living Smart sustainable living course, or starting my PDC, I’ve now crossed off the “buy rectangular PVC pipe” from my shopping list.

It would cost around $20 from the local hardware store for the PVC pipe. Not much in the scheme of things, but bees have been finding accommodation for thousands of years before PVC pipe came along, so…

First, I’ll keep an eye out for some off-cuts and unwanted bits of PVC pipe found in serendiptious moments out and about so that I can give these wonderful nests blocks from the Australian Native Bee Research Centre a go at minimum investment. They really know what works for attracting native bees, so that’s my ideal to work towards.

In the meantime, it’s Spring and bees need shelter. I used what I had in the spirit of experimenting with some ramshackle nests that I could probably call ‘ bee shacks’, and not quite bee hotels. For the less discerning bee, or indeed any insect interested in a small house footprint. Calling all bees and insects looking for a downshift!

The way I look at is, the wider bee community and insects in general make do with what nature provides, rarely to a formula or straight lines or perfect build.  So why not appeal to those opportunistic and adapatable personalities of nature , with my very own flavour of hacky haphazardness?

So here is a combination of weathered bamboo garden stakes I already had, hessian, twine and some mesh that was a plant protector, packed with a clay and sand mix (clay soils from our front garden), that I then accidentally dropped from a height- removing most of the clay/soil.

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Lashed by twine onto a dodgy trellis – it will move slightly in the wind:

location

And also, an old pot packed with clay and sand, a few hints at what wandering insects might want to do to make a crash pad, and undaintily shoved on the soil underneath the borage.

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Now to see, who, if anyone, shelters in these tiny share shacks!

 

Blue-banded bees (Amegilla) – native Australian bees

This is where I am logging the first sightings in my garden (McLaren Vale, South Australia) of native blue-banded bees (Amegilla) each year,  going back to 2014 which is the first year I noticed them and fell head-over heels in love.

To find out more about these incredibly beautiful bees, start with Australian Native Blue Banded Bees site. There are also some stunning videos around much better than mine.

Here are brief notes and observations in the last few years:

2017…

4th October- first blue-banded bee spotted in the garden (I’ve been away for 6 days).

I inspected last years nest and there’s now a woodlouse in it. Not sure if it’s moving in because a bee has already vacated, or is just moving in anyway. Will keep observing.

A woodlouse in last years Blue-banded bee nest

2016

First sighting – 17th December! I was afraid the blue-banded bees were never going to return, but the weather has been quite wet.

3-4 bees sighted daily

30 December:  Very excited! Nest discovered in our backyard in the dirt wall between wooden decking steps!! I simply followed one of the bees.

Blue-banded bee (females) nest

 

 

2015

October 23rd

2014

November

Ramblings about sustainability, nature and other lore

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