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Magic in Melbourne

There’s alchemy and magic afoot in Melbourne, where we take a look at Bill and Geoff’s PDC and the garden of a certain urban magician called Angelo.

Bill Mollison at Trinity College, Melbourne
All photographs © Craig Mackintosh

I had never been to Melbourne before this week, but from my very short exposure to it over the last few days, I can already sense that it is a very strange place….

Take yesterday for example. I was in town, and noticed someone had dropped their purse on the sidewalk. There was a lot of foot traffic, and so, standing at a distance, I watched to see what people would do – you know, once they noticed it. Would they pocket it and hurry off? Would they look around for its owner, or maybe a policeman to hand it to?

Unfortunately, neither. Instead, I was mortified to see people – in full view of passers by – just sit on it. I mean, who would do that?

Another example. Here at Trinity College, where the latest Bill Mollison/Geoff Lawton PDC has been taking place, Geoff escorted me to the dining hall for breakfast. Standing before two impressive looking wooden doors, he asked me, with a hint of mischief, if I knew Harry Potter. Perplexed, but sensing something ominous, I could only respond that I’d heard the name, but that was all. With that, Geoff swung the doors wide open, and, with a degree of apprehension, I stepped in.

Although expecting something unusual, everything seemed to check out okay inside. At the same time, it was hard to shrug the nervousness off. I don’t know what it was, but I had this strange feeling – you know, like when you feel you’ve been somewhere before, even though you know you haven’t.

It was kind of creepy. Inexplicable.

The Dining Hall in Harry Potterville, Trinity College, Melbourne

PDC students come to learn wizardry

The course has been going very well it seems, although, to be honest, I haven’t sat in on many classes. I’ve been on missions in the area instead. But, during my short classroom visits I’ve enjoyed watching a tremendous tag team in action. Sometimes Bill and Geoff were teaching in turns, sometimes simultaneously. It was always interesting. When teaching together, their immense knowledge, vast experience and biting wit had people learning and laughing continually.

Bill Mollison and Geoff Lawton teach a PDC at Trinity College, Melbourne

84 novice warlocks, witches and wizards and their teachers (centre)
Click for larger view!

Respectively, the two of them have worked magic worldwide – doing the impossible in some very strange and faraway lands. People have watched as they’ve turned barren hillsides into flowing springs, sand into fruit. They’ve even created hope where there was none, and out of the most basic and unexpected elements – soil, water, air and biological agents.

They’ve also inspired many to learn the craft.

Speaking of which….

Angelo, the Urban Wizard

On one of my Melbourne adventures I stopped in the suburb of Preston, at the house of a certain urban wizard called Angelo. I knew immediately that he was a wizard because of his cat, Louie.

Lavender is an excellent companion
and medicinal plant

Louie has a tail that can take any shape he wishes. Just after my arrival he went through just a portion of his repertoire; there was the corkscrew (which is just as you’d imagine), the backridge (where his tail lies flat along the entire length of his back), the spiral, the wave and more. As convincing as this was, though, there was even more evidence that Angelo was a wizard than just his cat, as we shall see.

Angelo wasn’t always a wizard. A few years ago he was just like you and I – at least until a certain mysterious girl got him reading strange books and experimenting with various plant potions.

Up until this time, Angelo had always been a computer systems engineer (yes, just like Neo). Then, one day, a strange wind blew and Angelo happened upon an advert on the interweb – for one of Bill and Geoff’s courses. Along he went, down the rabbit hole and all the way to Harry Potterville. The rest is history. (Just a short history though, as that was only last September.)

Angelo must have been wizard material, as up until recently his parent’s yard was a strange cross between a typical English style garden (full of roses and ornamentals) and an overrun jungle, and today the section is something else entirely.

A wave of those hands and who knows what could happen

Prior to the course, Angelo’s ‘garden’ consisted of many kinds of plants scattered about the property – but mostly all in pots. It was container gardening mayhem. After the course, and after some negotiations with his parents – his absentee landlords – he decided to liberate his plants and reconnect them with the earth.

Babaco fruit – related to Paw Paw

Angelo only transformed two garden beds at first, but, with a full sense of the power in his hands, he was soon working his magic on more. Unwanted plants disappeared, the land got flattened, new plants appeared. From what he said, the new plants ‘communicated’ with each other (I couldn’t hear them, but maybe it’ll come to me in time) and had special mysterious relationships too.

Then, thinking he was getting short on space, Angelo also shrank the lawn by half – simultaneously growing the garden. It seemed there was nothing he couldn’t do.

I walked about, following Angelo’s enthusiastic steps, getting a sore hand trying to write down all the enormous array of plant species he has in this space (I gave up in the end). Geoff talks about the garden being the ultimate health food shop. If that is the case, then Angelo’s yard is a health food shop and apothecary complex.

An infant Duck Potato

There were dwarfs in the land as well he said. Dwarf oranges worked to shade raspberries, and there were dwarf nectarines and peaches. By planting early, mid and late harvesting trees, he ensured an extended harvest period. Not all of the fruit trees were dwarfs though, but their tight spacing and spring and summer prunings kept them at a manageable and very productive size.

Nashi and Williams pears were planted next to a north facing heat absorbing wall – planted on wires 18 inches away so as not to cook their leaves.

There was comfrey under mandarin, nasturtium under apples. There was cat thyme (his sidekick Louie liked to hang out here) and yarrow, pomegranates, goji berries, the small and potent alpine strawberry and yellow, cherry and pineapple guavas. There were blueberries, red and black currants and grape underplanted with hyssop, lemon geranium and strawberries.

Angelo grew potatoes in pots – the regular variety in soil, and ‘duck potato’ (or arrowhead) in water. Even blackberries, which can run amuck in a garden, were present – kept in a pot to keep them in check.

A clump of stinging nettle was left in situ, a great home for the preying mantis and aphid-eating ladybird. All kinds of sage had their place, along with tansy, lemon balm, citronella, scented geraniums, fever few, growth-enhancing fox gloves, and insect-confusing wormwood. There was tree mugwort, a fast-growing windbreak that doubles as an excellent medicinal plant for woman’s problems, triples as an excellent cane coppice, and quadruples as a nice high roost for cat-avoiding, insect-eating birdlife.

It seems even wizards have to listen to their parents. The roses had to stay, but they got underplanted with strawberries, sorrel and aphid-repelling chives.

Scotch broom – most regard as a ‘weed’, but here it’s a great
nitrogen-fixing companion for fruit trees

Angelo, like all wizards, was very conscious of the movement of the stars. Trees were planted on the south side so as not to block light for smaller species, and being deciduous, they were perfect in front of windows – blocking the harsh summer sun but allowing winter warmth to stream through.

Angelo’s serious plant diversity reduces ‘pest’ problems to an absolute minimum.
Some are decoys, some are repellents, and some are habitat for predatory insects.

Angelo, though still in the league of apprentices, already has his eyes set on even more advanced sorcery. He has a roachberry (or soda apple or devil plant) – a rather imposing, tall and prickly plant – that he plans to graft eggplant and tomato onto (same family), which then magically allows a significantly increased yield of each.

A goldfish (perhaps a former girlfriend or misbehaving pet?) comes up to say hello.
The azola doubles in quantity every month – great food for the worm farm

Angelo is conjuring up huge quantities of fresh, nutrient-dense, chemical free fruits, berries, vegetables and herbs – much of which are largely invisible to ‘pests‘. The health and vitality you can squeeze out of mere metres of urban space seems like pure alchemy to me! I’m looking forward to visiting Angelo and Louie again, in the summer months when I fully intend to sit on his wood-chip mulched paths and gorge myself on foods you rarely see in our long distance, centralised industrial food system – the berries and fruits that just don’t transport well across continents, but that transport just fine from plant to plate.

Angelo the Wizard’s Top Five Tips
by Angelo

  1. Feed the soil, it’s alive!
    The soil is a living ecosystem, feed it as if you were feeding a living thing, and it will build up, it will "grow". Don’t try feeding the plants themselves, feed the soil and your plants will thank you much more for it.
  2. Plants prefer to grow like they do in nature…
    Try to emulate the patterns of nature wherever possible, they’re far superior to anything we humans can dream up. Plant trees, with shrubs under them, followed by herbaceous plants, then ground cover plants. And toss a few climbers in the background too! They all look after each other and create a microclimate which helps them all grow better. And please, no wide spaces with bare dirt, you don’t have a tractor to drive between your plants, so cover it up, otherwise nature will cover it up for you, with her emergency repair crews, the pioneer plants (who are often referred to by the derogatory term ‘weeds’).
  3. Plants need companions too, and they need variety…
    Create diversity – successful gardening is like a social party. If everyone was like you, it would be terribly monotonous! It’s the same with plants, they all have different qualities, and lend their unique contribution when growing together. Use companion plants; some repel pests, some strengthen their neighbours against disease, some mask the scent of their friends from pests to stop them getting eaten. They all get by with a little help from their friends, so don’t be afraid to mix it up a bit!
  4. Plants have a different sense of ‘order’ to you!
    Don’t impose human ideals of order on plants when it works against them!!! Don’t line up identical plants like soldiers in a military parade. Unlike the military, plants are peaceful, and are actually weakened in these arrangements! Other than not having a diversity of helpful companions, they are left open, vulnerable and exposed. Nothing would make a lettuce-eating pest happier than rows and rows of lettuce in a nice line. When they’re done with one, they hop to the next, with minimal effort! Even better, no other plants that could serve as homes for pest-eating insects and their young, so it’s a pest heaven and totally safe! Plants prefer to be safely scattered in the crowd of other plants, if one goes down, the rest are safe! Use "planting guilds" to make it harder for pests and better for plants!
  5. Don’t be afraid to experiment!
    It’s only by trying (and often stuffing it all up) that you actually truly learn something first hand. Yes, if you’ve never accidentally lost a plant, then you’re either not gardening at all, or you’re not being honest…. Try different things and see what works best for the plants on your area. There are so many possibilities that you can never work out in your head, so let nature do the work for you. Put the seed or plant in the ground and see what happens. Try different species, locations, gardening styles, you name it. It keeps it all very interesting. If you have the patience to see nature through its cycle of the seasons, you’ll be greatly rewarded by what you learn. If you never try, you’ll never know!

Feel free to check out my site for more details on my particular setup.

Happy Gardening!



  1. Wow,

    This is a great example of urban spells at work and Angelo’s site is loaded with “how to” plus the Companion Planting area is great for beginners.

    The Analysis & Yields area is really awesome and inspirational.

    A great article

    The big C

  2. Send a hi to Angelo for me!
    I havn’t seen him since the PDC last year.
    Glad to see he’s keeping the faith.

    I did the same thing in my yard, but then said “bugger it, i want to move to the country.” So i sold my house and closed my business but am still looking around gatton for a cheap block.


  3. i was angelo’s coursemate at the trinity pdc last year. the dining hall and the college did seem like hogwarts and i referred to it as such in my article. but we were unaware a mystic gardener was amidst us.
    angelo is becoming a wise and inspiring voice in our mailing list. the scale of his achievements is stunning. all done in under a year since last september!
    let me repeat my claim to fame: “i was angelo’s coursemate”

  4. Glad you like my garden folks! Gardens are truly magical!

    A big Hi to Brett and to all my PDC coursemates too!!!

    DV, you’re famous in your own right, and your great permaculture work is a source of inspiration for me!

    Cecilia, the writer of this article was non other than the masterful wordsmith Craig Mackintosh!

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