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Flying Blind with Four Photos and an Outdated Google Map

It can be hard making the leap from studying Permaculture to actually working it so I thought I’d share my first experience on making that leap.

Flying Blind with Four Photos and an Outdated Google Map

Hop in my shoes – I was asked to consult and work on a property in inland New South Wales, with some of the worst drought conditions in Australia, after some of the world’s leading consultants on land hydration and rehabilitation had been there.

In recent years the property has been visited by the likes of Peter Andrews from Natural Sequence Farming, Matthew Kilby from Global Land Repair, and even Geoff Lawton, who only 12 months ago was installing dams and swales on the property and gabions in the eroded Pinnacle Creek.

Fresh out of our internship I strapped on these huge boots with fellow import, P. David Stockhausen all the way from San Francisco USA, and set to work on a mother of a task – a complex kitchen/main crop garden and food forest system all rolled into one.

And the client, a very special Australian family with a great interest in Permaculture, the Allsopp Family of Livingston NSW, joined us on the journey of developing their farm into what is fast becoming the best demonstration of sustainable land management and family food security for the region.

When this kind of opportunity comes up and the scope of the projects size hits you, you realise you may have bitten off more than you can chew and that you better chew like hell! However I do have to admit I had a good head start, I owned and directed a landscaping company in Queensland for the last 11 years until I started my PDC in November 2009 and followed up with the internship of Jan – April 2010. With that knowledge and experience in hand I got to work and contacted the client for a long distance consultation, extracting information that would allow David and I to get a job ready from 1360km away and hit the ground running from the day we arrived on site.

On the other side of the knowledge bank I had the support of David, who I became really good friends with from day one of the internship. His history has been in organic food production in market gardens in San Francisco, holding a vast amount of experience of owning his own business as well, and installing and managing vegetable gardens for clients. So joining forces, we set about designing, planning, project managing, quoting, ordering materials, equipment and resources to bring the project together from a hand drawn (scale) plan, with 4 photos and a Google map that was out of date..!

Listen to the podcast at top to hear more about this project!


Photos to follow:


  1. Whow – I wish I had this sort of budget. I fear this post cold have a discouraging effect to anyone considering kicking off his/her own permaculture project when looking at this projects costs as a guideline.

    My message to those is: don’t.

    If you want to have everything installed and planted in 2 weeks then you’ll probably have to spend that sort of money. But if you are prepared to take it a little slower and have time to learn as you go then you can easily start your permaculture project with hardly any money at all.

    First take your time and learn about permaculture concepts and ideas yourself. Watch the Food Forest DVD. Order Bill Mollison’s Permaculture Design book – yes it’s not cheap but money well spent. Then read it. Pay extra attention to the section for your climate zone. Then think about what you want and where you want it.

    Make a list of plants including groundcover, vines, shrubs, understory trees, canopy trees. Think about the timeline for things to happen.

    Then, buy a lot of tree tubes, good quality soil an order tree seeds and start growing your own trees. I have 800 tree tubes and am already re-using them. Seed a lot of plants and trees because not nearly all of them will germinate and if they do they might die before you can plant them. Start twice as many as you think you’ll need. Everytime you eat a mango, avocado, plum, citrus fruit etc. that tasts really nice – plant the seeds. I have also “borrowed” bamboo cuttings from the botanical gardens and successfully propagated a good number of bamboo plants. You’ll be surprised to learn how many plants can be grown for free.

    I am afraid I am rambling now… One last thought I would like to share is about using permaculture consultants. And let it be clear that I do not wish to discredit the work Nick & Peter or anyone else have done with this project. But I think anyone starring out should consider doing the PDC course before hiring a consultant because once the consultant(s) are gone, you are on your own unless you have a never ending supply of money and can call back the consultant whenever you need to.

    Oh.. and getting it going is actually really hard work. Even when you do it slowly :)


  2. Tillage and rows as straight as a string?! I thoughty tidyness was a sign of mental illness. ;)

    Can’t wait to listen to the podcast later. I hope you explain what all the pink things are.

  3. Mate,

    Brings a tear to the eye. That was good fun and good learning too. Nice article. Great to show folks how we went all about it.

    Keep up the dynamite work.


  4. Matt,

    Citrus, some mangoes and possibly plums do not come true to type and must be grafted (cloned from another plant). R2E2 and Bowen mangoes seeds are OK.

    There is a trade off between learning enough yourself to be confident to do this level of design & installation, and using a consultant. The consultant obviously involves a significant financial cost, but there is a big opportunity cost in doing it yourself. That is, while you do not have productive systems in place you are foregoing their benefits, including income, soil building, predator populations, etc. For most people it will take years of study and mistakes to get near to the level of a consultant, consuming time and money. The cost when you do get to it yourself may be higher since the consultant will know or find the best material sources and will also have specialist tools you may not want to own for one job.

    The client should learn how and why their design functions, of course. The job of the consultant should not be to just set it up and run, but to involve the client, explain & document the design, provide a user manual and get them started on their education. Providing the client with resources for further study and support networks may mitigate the problem you mention of calling back the consultant.

    From a big picture point of view, we need consultants to address the overwhelming backlog of work. Quality commercial projects will give permaculture the credibility needed to be taken seriously. I often hear from primary producers the idea that “permaculture doesn’t scale up”, while they burn money on inputs, let water run off and evaporate, and degrade the environment. We need to turn that around by building up a strong consulting industry and commercial portfolio, showing how profitable it can be.

  5. Tim,

    the message I am trying to get accross here is that permaculture does not have to be as costly as this project turned out to be.

    Regarding growing fruit trees from seed: Not true to type does not mean no fruit. No fruit does not mean useless. Avocado can be a good hedge if kept low, fruit or not. Some fruit trees provide valuable timber. Continous grafting results in trees not being able to evolve along with their predators. The result: fungicides and pesticides. Examples of “hit the jackpot” type of fruit grown from seed are Golden Delicious and Granny Smith. “Accidents”.

    You make it sound as if using permaculture consultants is the smart thing to do, not doing that can result in “losses”. (mainly fincancial?) Making errors is a learning process as well. Reading books and doing a PDC is not taking longer than, say, 3 months? And once that is done the work with a consultant will be much more beneficial. 3 months loss of opportunity? Pleeeaaase… And what do “true” permaculturists say: Slow and Small is good.

    Not smart to use this project as an example for “scaling” commercial permacultrue operations. We’re talking $40k for a kitchen garden and orchard (hopefully) feeding a family of 4. Consultants that charge over $500 per day? What is this now, permaculture for the rich?

    I thought permaculture is mainly a grass root movement. As Geoff so beautifully sais: “All problems in the world can be saved in a garden”. It’s not a “…commercial orchard”. Grass roots. Small is beautifull. Slow is good. Plan, do, observe, act.

    What we need are consultants and normal down to earth people than can show us how things can be done small scale. Everyone. Especialy the ones that have little means to do it. What we don’t need is “scaling up” of single projects. We need to “scale” the number of projects. Small ones.

    The window of opportunity to “truck” tons of mulch for hunderts of KMs to establish a new garden is closing. We need to see ways to start off on little more than nothing. Seeds from Woolies or Coles – Why not? Dates, Citrus, Nectarines, Lemon grass (yes just plant it), tropical fruit. Be creative.

    Also: $9k for mulch? I paid $900 for a semi trailer with 28 rounds of spoilt lucerne. Yes spoilt – perfect! That covered 2.5 acres about 15cm thick. What about the almost black walking paths? Would not want to walk in the garden without shoes in summer – or winter for that matter. Would that not “bake” the soil from the side?

  6. ahem.. me again. I am sorry but somehow this is the first post on this site that really gets me worked up.

    I have one additional point to make: The pre-requisites for becoming a permaculture consultant: Its a 72-hrs course. It’s not years of study and it won’t give you anywhere near the knowledge that is required – I don’t think you’ll walk away with the knowledge of plant guilds for every soil type, climate and rainfall. How you organise and direct earthworks and what questions you have to ask the potential contractor. You won’t learn how to grow specific vegies. You also won’t have the botanical knowledge to id most plants on sight.

    I repeat from the original post above: “Fresh out of our internship I strapped on these huge boots …”

    The internship is 10 weeks. So after 72hrs of PDC and 10 weeks internship one is able to charge consulting money that not even a dr. med. gets out of med shool after probably more than 6 years of full time study.

    Again regarding the “Big Picture” – I believe the permaculture master plan is: People do the PDC, start their projects and finance their expenses by teaching permaculture. Its a pyramid scheme but its a good one.

    The more people grow their own food and improve their soils and the planet in the process the less we have a need for commercial growers and the attached required transport and cooling and outlet chains. Any commercial operation that exports their nutrients (and don’t consume and return the waste on site) will have to put input into their operations. Input from where? Obviously the place from where those inputs come from is being impoverished.

    We also need to learn how to grow plants from seed, cuttings, by grafting and division.

    Forget commercial permaculture.

  7. That project looks to me to be equivalent to 3 to 4 years grocery bills at Woolworths or Coles for expert help and payback over the lifetime of reduced grocery bills alone not counting the land improvement value and other benefits.

    I enjoyed reading the project write up as I have been trying to design a similar system for myself in similar climate and location, just less inland but on the same basic longitude in NSW in cool temperate climate. I find the support species lists most interesting as that is what I’ve been scratching my head to come up with.

    I also notice this design is standard orchard tree types. Is that a climate limitation or client prference?


  8. Matt,

    I didn’t say there were not cheaper approaches in monetary terms, only that there are other costs to consider (time, foregone benefits). Every case is different and I am not saying consultancy is always the way to go.

    In this example, let’s take the 3 months cost of doing a PDC and 10 week internship as a lower limit. The median Australian income is about $66,820 (Wiki), giving an after tax income of $52,924. The net income foregone to do these courses and develop and implement the same design (assuming 1 week design time and 6 working weeks labor time (14 days * 2 consultants)), comes to a total of 19 weeks = 19/52*$52,924 = $19,282, plus course fees ($1925 + $6600), comes to a conservative grand total of $27,807. This does not include travel costs, purchase of reference material, background study, extra experience and material sourcing time, delivered at least 3 months later. Nick and David charged $10,640 for their travel and consultation. If you went through these courses you would have the knowledge to execute further projects, but if this was the end goal then the consultancy was a more economical and expediant route. Prior commitments may have made doing these courses impossible.

    Mistakes are important for learning but they can also be expensive and hazardous. Some friends of mine recently put together some raised beds from brand new CCA treated pine. How much do you value your health?

    Advising people to plant seeds that are not true to type without telling them that is wasting their time. Millions of seeds needed to be planted to come up with the popular cultivars and your initial comment suggested you were interested in the fruit, not a hedge or timber for which there are likely to be much better choices.

    Neither did I say that this was an example of scaled up permaculture. I meant that (good) consultants will be the most qualified to undertake such projects in a reasonable time frame. Scaling up does not necessarily mean a large land area. This is a confusion conventional farmers make. A very profitable commercial system can be tiny. David Blume ran a 2 acre farm through community supported agriculture and was competitive with organic farms of much greater size:

    If you listen to Mollison he is constantly talking about consulting – designing for clients and charging for it. It’s not one way or another, every approach can be taken. Use and value diversity. Permaculture has been going for some 30 years and the small and slow teaching model is great, but we need to pick up the pace.

    I have heard of poor quality consultation but this is just like any industry. It does not invalidate the model, it may just indicate the need for improvement in education, assessment and certification. Even in the medical profession there are doctors that should not be practicing – Dr. Patel for example. You can see David’s copious experience listed in this article, and Nick has been a landscaper for 11 years and participates in permablitzes. I agree that a PDC and 10 week internship is not enough experience to be charging these rates.

    You may be underestimating the accumulated cost of food, which is the largest proportion of household spending in Australia after housing. As Peter pointed out this is the family’s food budget for perhaps 3 or 4 years. The family may also save on fuel, the location being fairly remote. The return on investment is likely to be significant and they will likely have surplus food.

    Permaculture for the rich? Why not? I recommend you read the following article of Bill’s:

    If the window to truck goods is closing then we should take advantage of it while we can. The seeds you are planting from the supermarket are trucked too. On the other hand, with commercial application of permaculture the window to close nutrient cycles can be opened indefinitely by growing our own motor fuels. My article on biofuels should be appearing here shortly. Mollison has recommended harvesting seaweed and sea grasses for cycling nutrients.

    Where is the $9K figure for mulch? As far as I can see they spent $5K. It is difficult to compare with your experience since unknown delivery distance was included, quantities, and quality (e.g. organic) were not specified and there may have been other factors such as growing conditions, time of year and region. In any case I’m not trying to defend every decision that has been made on this or any project, and you may have gotten a bargain in that case.

    The small scale revolution will not come soon enough. While conventional farmers can take energetic subsidies and ignore external costs to produce cheap food, people will not have the incentive to grow their own food en masse. Depending on expensive food for motivation will result in widespread suffering. We need to create commercial models that produce better quality food for a competitive price to displace destructive models.

  9. Matt,

    I can’t understand why this article would get you going so much.

    Generally you have 1 or 2 of the following: time, money, experience.

    This client is busy with work and family. He has money. He will gain experience.

    You have time. You will gain experience.

    You’re both smart enough to realise it’s time to secure your supply lines but have different situations.

    You’ve both secured your supply lines.

    The end.

    What’s the problem here? We’re at a point in history where we just need to get on with it and I’m sick of hearing about Permaculture being ‘grassroots’ as if grassroots is a badge of honour from an exclusive club that you can only get membership to by feeling ashamed about earning money.

    This project was featured on ABC rural radio and has got many farmers in the region interested. The effect of that on the invisible structures alone is huge.

    It’s also nice that Nick took the time and effort to share what looks to be quite private information for the benefit of the permaculture community.

    Permaculture is the application of commonsense – Ingenio patet campus” – the field lies open to the intellect.

  10. Boy oh boy had a look at the budget the client must be really rich………………..

    If you put the money into Woolies shares the dividends would pay the grocery bill

  11. Nick, could we get a follow up post on the results of this project. How is this family going with their permaculture garden and orchard today?


  12. I would also love to see the results from this implementation.

    It seems Australia’s standards are far too different from the ones here in Eastern Europe, where a bale of straw is about 0.25$ and a 100 fruit trees are about 200$. It will hardly be possible to charge anyone here 5000$ for 2 weeks of consultancy work, but then again for our stantards we are unlikely to need to charge that amount.

  13. My first reaction was negative but then I started thinking. Is there anything wrong with permaculture for the rich? Should someone be excluded because of the size of their bank account? And is there anything wrong with someone hiring a permaculture gardener to tend it all? Is there anything wrong with talking about permaculture over cocktails on the terrace?

    The immediate answer is no, there is nothing wrong. Go for it. Show us what you can do. Even better show us something new.

  14. Well,here we go…..just like religion, a good thing to begin with… then the splintering groups claiming their way is the only way, then the message is obscured then the hate then the fighting then splintering into a thousand factions. Take a simple good idea that is good for all and then contort it into political retoric were the true message is lost. Depressing. Just grow food, share, be happy, tolerate and get along. One does things his way, the other does it different, its not a personal affront.

  15. It’s hard for me to come to an conclusion on this one. I don’t know what other things have been done on the site. I also don’t know what other structures are there. Most of the expense on the plan was items going into the gardens. The consultants did pretty well on the job but it was ultimately the decision of the people paying them. I am sure this could have been done without as much expense. It would be interesting to see how it stood up to the test of time.

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