Permaculture is a design system for human settlement. You can apply permaculture principles not only to your garden but your kitchen, your business, your children or your whole life. It’s not simply a traditional way of doing things, but it honours traditional knowledge. It’s not a prescribed pattern to follow, but a call to examine what already exists and choose systems that are efficient and appropriate. I’m enjoying applying the principles to my backyard.
Over the first three months of living in my suburban house, I’ve spent a lot of time dreaming about plants. Guilds, food forests, orchards, chook fodder, raised beds, wicking beds, perennial vegetables, medicinal herbs, cottage gardens, edible weeds, romantic roses. I lie awake at night pairing plants together, wondering how high ginko trees grow (25m – too big for my block), calculating how many metres of fence I can create for the choko vine, how many apple trees I can fit in the duck pen, and on and on. I sit at my computer making plant lists. When I look out at the backyard, I see not flat grass but a mirage of an evolving orchard.
It’s especially hard not to buy plants right now, because it’s spring and my fingers are twitching. I’m trying to content myself with planting the existing garden beds with vegetables, berries and our first little section of food forest. I also filled some raised beds (upcycled old gutters, bought locally, and discarded supermarket trolleys from the tip shop) so I can garden out of reach of the guinea pigs. I positioned these right near the kitchen door, to make harvesting more likely to happen!
I used child labour to help shift the soil. I laid an old trampoline mat underneath to stop the kikuyu growing up into the raised beds – it’s UV stable and makes great weed matting.
When I have a gate on the yard, I plan to let the guinea pigs free range so they can mow my lawn for me. Guinea pigs make great lawn mowers, and they don’t burrow like rabbits. They also love mowing lettuce. So tasty vegies need to be at least half a metre off the ground, with no ramps! The circle beds won’t be high enough, but I can easily boost the protection with netting or wire.
I’m restraining myself from buying plants because I’m trying to observe all seasons in my garden first. Then I’ll have the specific information I need to design systems that are more likely to work. It’s a way to minimise expensive and time-consuming mistakes. However, I also want to eat from my garden as soon as possible, and look after my existing plants by getting them in the ground promptly. So I’m in a dance between the permaculture principle Observe and Interact, and Obtain a Yield. That’s why I’m concentrating on temporary, moveable structures first.
So far, I’ve been able to see the garden in the depths of winter, and the shoulder seasons. I have been visiting here and pottering in the garden since autumn, before I owned the property. I have yet to experience the hot, dry summer here. I’ve talked to the neighbours, who grow organic vegetables and tell me the soil is great. I’ve observed the canopy of trees in surrounding backyards, the birdlife and the flow of water through the soil towards our local creek system.
Before we moved in, I played in the sand pile on the farm to show my son how water moves through (a sandy) landscape. It was hard to eyeball the trenches level. We mapped my house-to-be with rocks and sprigs of weeds.
After we moved in, everyone in the house brainstormed with texta on big paper favourite things they’d like to include in the design of the property.
I then mapped out my observations so far onto a Base Map. The key on the left shows colour codes for Structures, Water, Weather, Plants, People, Soil and Services. Structures shows existing structures – the house, veranda, clothesline and shed. Water shows the flow and collection points for water. Weather shows prevailing wind, deep shade, and sun arc for summer – I didn’t overlay a winter sun path as it seemed too much information; I also just guessed the summer path quite roughly. Plants show existing plants only. People shows social influences I wanted to take into consideration in my design. Soil shows possible contamination, degree of bogginess, compaction and elevation. Services roughly maps the phone, power, sewerage and gas lines on and around the property. I used Google Maps to get the rough proportions for the Base Map, and added elements using informed guesswork.
For a more accurate version, I decided to pay a photographer to take a drone photo of my property. Aerial Videography Services did a prompt job and provided me with lots of pics to work with. They were taken about 10am, near the spring equinox. These will serve both as a record of where I started, and assist me with mapping. I’ll print out a copy and laminate it, and I can then draw various designs on top before I decide on a final design. It was interesting to see that I underestimated the spread of both the large trees on the property. The front yard is also a little short. I think I did a pretty accurate job with everything else, though!
I’ve already started playing with Phase One maps in Paint. I’d like to get my chickens here soon, but siting the chicken house and fencing affects a lot of other elements in my design so it takes some consideration. The next urgent thing is to get the soil tested – if it contains organochlorides from Argentine ant eradication in the seventies, I’ll need to design my chicken pen to avoid contact with the existing soil. I expect that the soil along the fenceline is likely to be contaminated; I’m hoping that the soil in the middle of the backyard is safe for chickens. DDT and other organochlorides last for decades in the soil. They are supposedly safe to grow above-ground plants on (where you’re not eating traces of soil, like unpeeled root vegetables), but they will accumulate in fat like egg yolks and chicken fat. Chickens naturally ingest soil, which can lead to contaminated eggs. So if I want healthy eggs, I need to find out what my situation is. There are lots of labs that do soil testing in Australia, usually for a few hundred dollars depending on how many samples and what you’re testing for. You can also get $20 heavy metal soil testing (5 samples, testing for 8 metals) within Australia through the VegeSafe program.
My eight year old son drew his own Phase One map – lots of cubbies and lots of trees. I drew the property outline for him, and the house and shed.
There are many things to keep in mind when deciding where each element should go. To help me, I wrote up notes on old envelopes: Needs, Products & Services (or Yields) and Characteristics (Variables). I began with little livestock – chickens, ducks, guinea pigs, quail and worms – and continued with other design elements like pond, outdoor bathroom, house, fencing and compost. I’m still gathering information on all these elements. I’m drawing on my knowledge of keeping chooks and guinea pigs previously, books, internet, garden visits and friends. You always learn something wandering around someone else’s garden!
While I ruminate, dream, ponder and research, the big open backyard is home to a shifting collection of wheels, ramps, pallets, chairs, planks and even a futon mattress that was too mouldy for inside the house. The kids love doing flips onto it, and the sunshine bleaches the top of it whiter than it was indoors. The yard looks messy, but loose parts are vital in kid’s playgrounds because they enable creativity and open-ended play. The playspace will evolve in and around the orchard and animals; meadow space will shrink but the growing forest will bring new delights.
I feel like things are moving so slowly; I’m impatient but permaculture reminds us to Use Small and Slow Solutions. Even when the garden seems neglected, I’m collating a combination of 3D modelling, photography, brainstorming, mapping, walking barefoot on the land, testing and lists to create a matrix of information that forms the groundwork for the next stage. I’m also collecting prices and finding out what’s available to me at local businesses. I’m focusing on personal and interpersonal sustainability as the household shifts back and forth between tension and harmony. I’m inviting all members of the household to participate in the design process, so it will become a vibrant, connected, abundant and supportive space that grows with us.