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What (and not) About that Natural Pool Conversion on the Gold Coast?

April 2008

It’s been about a year now since I had the pleasure of Craig at my house to do the story on the Natural Swimming Pool conversion I am attempting. It was an interesting year for me on the home garden front and the personal front with lots of new surprises and projects. I thought I would do a follow up because we had a lot of enquiries about the pool after the story.

I am lucky to have a wonderful partner Vanessa who, because of her Permaculture training with Bill (PDC) and Geoff (PDC & Internship) and also at Northey Street Farm, is able to accept why I would want to have a go at producing food in our own home and also why I was getting rid of a swimming pool in favour of a pond and some fish.

Project one was establishing the front yard. We had some large fig trees which decided they would burst through our mains water line and storm water pipes. Not only is water a precious resource on the Gold Coast, it’s an expensive one as well.

I am a pretty cheap and lazy bastard, so the thought of an excess water bill and wasted resources spurred me into some considerable action. Not wanting to repeat the exercise again I have now placed all the water lines above ground giving the new generation of trees, free and unlimited access to the ground they live in. Rather than let the storm water run off the property, I divert it into my pool and various tanks around the house and also into swales. You will notice in the photo that I do have a storm water pipe leading to the front – this is law on the Gold Coast – however I never glued the top part which rests in a swale, so the water fills up the swale instead which overflows into the next swale.

A special thanks to Brendon of Dempsey Bobcats on the Gold Coast who kindly helped with the fig stumps I had been removing manually. Brendon was a skilful operator who took a keen interest in what we were doing. Best of all however he did it for an extremely reasonable price. In a stroke of pure fortune, he was working next door pulling up a driveway, so I sent the wife over to do the negotiation. It is a little known economic fact that Brazilian women are able to cut the price of goods and services drastically just by smiling.

The front yard slopes down quite a bit as you can see, and so this was a bit of a challenge. I had just finished reading a little booklet produced by an NGO in Thailand. The booklets basic premise was about upland agriculture using Cajanus cajan and other assorted NFL trees. The booklet was aimed at swidden farmers, who often get a bad rap, without good reason.

The information appealed to me because I often entertain day dreams of being a subsistence farmer whilst driving to work. I thought I would give the system they were describing a shot. The system involves placing NFT trees at intervals of about 3-5 meters down the slope on contour as terracing and then planting a staple crop between the terraces.

The aim of this was to provide these usually poor farmers with a mulch system that would be ‘in situ’ through chop and drop, and of course add stability to the slope and the soil as well as nitrogen fixation, which would bring extra productivity to the life of the farmers, giving them better yields and saving them a few bucks on synthetic fertilizers that just end up polluting river systems.

I took it a step further and chucked in a couple of swales and a bit of diversity, and then we soaked the whole lot in some compost tea made from worm castings. I paper mulched the most recalcitrant sections, because I don’t like to bend over unless I am picking up money.

I used a mixture of pigeon pea and crotalaria (mulch) for the terraces, some sunflowers for bee fodder (and colour, soil stabilization, presents for my wife), comfrey (chicken food, compost activator, liquid fertilizer), Canna edulis (chicken/human food, mulch), Mexican Salvia (colour, food), wing beans (food), vetiver grass (mulch, erosion control), lemon grass (mulch, food), yams, taro, yakon, assorted green manures for the swales, cosmos (colour, nematode control), mandarin, dragon fruit, black sugar cane and sweet potato with some melons for a ground cover. There are also some ceylon and brazilian spinach. The staple was cassava – a personal favourite of mine and a winner with my wife. “Happy wife, happy life”, some wise man once said.

The flowers had another purpose too – if you are going to embark on this type of process you can draw a lot of attention from neighbours. It’s best if you want to win the hearts and minds of the general public to make your garden as pretty as possible in the beginning. It gets them softened up for when the thing goes rampant and you start to reclaim the foot path.

We planted out the front yard in September 2009. So far we have had good success. My melons, however, never really developed into anything worth while and the comfrey that I placed too close to the hot footpath suffered a good deal in the heat of the Queensland summer.

We had a Permablitz, organized by the wonderful Leah Galvin who is an ex intern of Geoff’s and the Panya project in Thailand. Leah is a dynamic force on the Gold Coast Permaculture scene and within its community gardens. That was in March, with lots of chop and drop, and some revamping of the back yard as well. It was a good deal. I made some food and supplied beer and some clever mates of mine did the talking (thanks Dave Spicer, Nick Huggins and Geoff from Belgium). We had a good crowd so it meant that I could concentrate on drinking and avoiding the hard work. A Galah turned up for afternoon tea and the other volunteers brought extra snacks and supplies. We had a good lot of new people and a good lot of conversation. Permablitz is a powerful way to interact with the general public in a fun and collective way. It provides educational and networking opportunities and also a great social time.

Last week I harvested the first of my cassava (July 2010). The plant harvested was a smaller variety and had about 5 kilos of roots. Cassava is without a doubt one of the most useful and resilient plants in the world. I have some other varieties that I have been developing over the last couple of seasons and when they have finished setting their seed, I will harvest and weigh them. I believe that I will have well over 80 kilos of roots – more than enough. They make all manner of derivative flours, tapioca and substitute for a potato very easily. As a source of low GI carbohydrates they are unmatched. I tried a new guild of wing bean, cassava and brazilian spinach and it has performed very favourably.

The smaller variety of Cassava was provided to me by Gardeners who have a large community garden at the Griffith University Logan campus and were recently featured on Costa’s Garden Odyssey. I was invited there a while back to give some workshops and take part in the steering committee and was privileged to see one of the most productive community gardens in Australia. It’s well worth looking at. You might be able, if you are in the area, to procure some interesting exotic vegetables at a very reasonable price, and also pick up some great African recipes.

January 2010

What about the pool you say? It’s coming along nicely and I will finish the rest of this story in a few days with some new pictures and the other things that it has taught me.

Some of the key successes from this project have not been related to yield or earth repair or water saving. The real gains have been a greater contact with my friends and neighbours through footpath discussion and sharing of plants and produce. We’ve gained an increased sense of community in tandem with a massive increase in biodiversity on what was once a sterile landscape. It also created a place for me just to get lost in general day dreams. To me, a half hour day dream in the garden is the equivalent to a good dose of Valium.

I also learned how lucky I am to live in a place with relative food security, that I don’t live on the edge of a food precipice, that I don’t rely on my land and nature’s whims to support my family, that I have the pleasure, as an affluent westerner, to choose what I will and won’t eat, that subsistence farmers all over the world are the ones who will bear the brunt of climate change. Small holders and subsistence farmers need our support, by consuming less and doing more in support of their struggles.

Bill Mollison said at the end of the first International Permaculture Consultant’s conference in 1984:

… what we are doing on the ground is increasing fantastically, and it’s because most people involved in permaculture are doing something on the ground,… that’s what is doing it…. Keep it on the ground. – International Permaculture Journal issue 17, 1984 page 2.


  1. What an amazing transformation!

    I’m really impressed by the variety of food you’ve been able to grow on your property. It’s a fantastic way to grow your own pesticide-free food – much healthier and cheaper than what you’d find in a major food chain.

  2. The fresh daikons prove the quality. A big fat green caterpillar came with the daikon leaves so I had to have Leeanne get rid of it!

  3. People in Brasil, where I live, should know more this wonderfull experience you were able to make true.

    Thenks god there are people with such inspiration to change and search for a better world.

    Congratulations to the International Permaculture Journal for this article.

  4. I’m really impressed by your achievements and am looking foward to the next installment of the pool conversion. I’d like to do the same here in Ipswich.

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