Pit-falls, projects and laughs from our Permaculture journey
“How does a tree make a mango? I’ve never thought about it like that before, but isn’t that crazy? A tree can make a mango!”
“Yes, dear,” says Chris.
We’re driving around the back streets of Cooroy, getting to know our new extended neighbourhood, and we just passed a grove of mango trees.
“No one’s mangos have fruited this season. I’ve heard it’s due to too much rain,” I say.
“So we could get some on our tree next year?”
“Isn’t that amazing? A tree can make a mango…” I’m aware my realisation sounds like someone who’s just tried smoking pot for the first time.
“I’m taking you home. You’re freaking me out today. You’re a bit hyper,” jokes Chris, glancing at me side-ways.
He’s right. I am hyper today. I’m totally fixated on looking at garden edging. Other people’s garden edging. I’ve never really thought about garden edging before, but since buying our first home and designing our first Permaculture garden, it’s one more thing I find myself staring at as we drive past people’s houses. Rocks, timber, grass, bricks, concrete. Those seem to be the options. I like rocks or timber, and surprisingly bricks can look quite good too, if you dig them into the ground at a 45 degree angle.
Our garden is in its infant stages. Actually, it looks more like a kamikaze Permaculture rocket has tried to launch in our backyard. Half finished projects, empty buckets, wheel-barrows, bags of manure and garden tools lay strewn in the ever growing grass. Amongst the chaos is an empty two by two metre frog pond with dirt piles surrounding the edges, waiting for the pond lining to arrive; six no-dig gardens, laying somewhat haphazardly in our zone one, literally right outside our back-door (where we can keep an eye on the capsicum, lettuce and gooseberries from our bed-room window, seeing how much they’ve grown before even getting out of bed); one herb spiral that has already flavoured numerous cups of peppermint and lemon balm tea, conveniently located under a sensor light so I can avoid stepping on the hoards of cane toads who have taken up residence in the new hay-covered garden-beds; a shade-house using the Permaculture design Rosina Buckman showed us with star pickets, bamboo from Tania Coppel, agricultural pipe, and shade-cloth from Fernland Nambour; and about sixteen new fruit trees planted in the already partly established orchard we inherited with the house. Almost all of which we are going to replant next week after we invited Dee & Ian Humphreys over and they graciously showed us a better design integrating lemon-grass, bush basil, pigeon pea and other support species, orientated on swales running north to south along our block’s contour.
Chris constructing the shade house
I still have to enclose the back with shade cloth
Around the time Dee and Ian left we had a mini-meeting.
“You know, I think it’s time we re-think some things and come up with a proper design. We know all those principles they mentioned, but we just haven’t put them into practice,” said Chris.
He was right. During the PDC with Geoff Lawton and Bill Mollison in Melbourne last month, Geoff said ‘Whatever you do, don’t go home and design your own garden. Do a bunch of other people’s and make your mistakes there first!’ Instead, Chris and I came home, decided we didn’t have anyone else’s garden to practice on and what the heck, we’d dive on in and learn in our own back-yard.
First we wrote a brief, pretending to be the clients, and outlined what we wanted to achieve on the property. It included growing most of our own organic fruit and vegetables, having some chooks, worm farms and irrigation for the veggies, a fire circle and cob oven for outdoor living, and down the track more costly alterations to the house to achieve passive heating and cooling, harnessing solar power and rainfall with panels and tanks, and eventually building an art studio and additional dam lower on the block.
Enthusiastic, we set about drawing on the Google Maps print-out of our property. But we hit some visual and practical brick walls. Quite simply, we didn’t know what we were doing. We knew how to read landforms to tell the difference between arid or humid climates, what plants to put along a grey-water trench, how to think about scale, utilise zones and visualise patterns. But there were gaping holes in our knowledge. How big should the vegetable garden be? How much sun does a shade house need? Can we dig swales by hand and if not, how much does it cost to hire the machine that will? What will happen to the northern sun when we build the new deck? Where exactly IS north? How can you grow vines on the house without damaging the weatherboards?
My way to resolve these issues was to borrow more books from the library covering organic gardening, fence building, fruit tree growing and plant propagation. They piled on top of the Permaculture Designer’s Manual in the middle of the coffee table. Chris said the sight of all those books was too much and all he wanted to do was dig a hole, put a fruit tree in and see what happened.
“Let’s just start. We can do the design later, after we’ve done a few things,” he said.
So, just one day after returning from Melbourne, we made our first no-dig garden outside our bedroom window. We sprinkled horse manure from a friend’s stable on the bare ground, then layered cardboard boxes from our recent move, followed by weeds which had literally grown five foot tall while we were in Melbourne, compost we had started six weeks before using Sonya Wallace’s method, hay from Pomona Ag Supplies, mushroom compost, more hay and a few handfuls of Natramin and McCleod’s Soil Conditioner. We watered each layer in with the hose and completed the process by watering in a dash of molasses to satisfy the microbes’ sweet-tooth, encouraging them to work up an appetite.
No-dig gardening begins!
Resources need to be brought in for the initial stage of our no-dig gardens
That same day we pilled dug dirt from the pond to form a large mound, right by the back-door, making sure it wasn’t wider than two meters so we could reach the centre without trampling the edges. Our herb spiral was completed the next day. We were well under way and we had energy to burn.
Four weeks later, and I’ve put my back out, not from gardening but from coughing (yes, coughing! I had a nasty flu for two solid weeks which included non-stop, tickle-the-back-of-your-throat, dry-retch water-in-your-eyes coughing, pulling a muscle in my ribs making it difficult to breathe, laugh and God help me, cough), and I’m taking a moment to assess the amount of energy I have to put into the garden. Another Permaculture principle: take stock of resources available. Our wish-list is percolating in the background and while that’s going on, seeds are germinating in the shade-house, the plants are growing in the no-dig gardens (much to our astonishment!), we’ve decided to keep hand-watering while we look into installing irrigation ourselves, and tonight Chris filled the frog pond. Although the yard’s chaotic, we think it’s looking great.
“Let’s plant the fruit trees today!” I say, worried they’ll be damaged where they are, getting blown over in our shade house, and the sooner we plant them the sooner we’ll have fruit.
“Ok. Where should we put them?” asks Chris.
This is a complicated question — one I don’t have the answer to. We know they are going in the orchard, our zone two, which is still close to the house but not somewhere we visit every day. The question is, in what configuration and what order? This needs some knowledge of heights the trees will grow to, how much water each species needs, requirements for full sun, shade or protection from sunburn on their trunks. Things I have a vague knowledge of but am feeling overwhelmed by when combined with advice from Jackie French’s book “Backyard Self-sufficiency,” where she suggests planting fruit trees along all your fences, no more than 2m apart. They may grow tall to reach the sunlight, she says, but it means the branches will intermingle and protect the fruit from birds, meaning less work netting and pruning. I want to plant the trees in lines running east-west, thinking this means they are ‘facing north’ like a house should be to get the best sun, and plant them close together like Jackie suggests.
“I love my bright red tractor,” says Chris, quoting a poem Geoff recited in the PDC talent night about farmers planting crops in ‘incredibly straight lines.’
“That’s cheeky,” I reply.
“Well, I think it’s silly to plant trees in rows. It looks terrible. They’re just begging to go between the trees that are already there, in the middle so they have room to grow.”
He’s placing them like the fifth dot on a dice that’s rolled a five. I can’t argue because it does look better and there’s so many answers and too many questions and I’m too tired to dig the holes myself so I concede and say ok. The result is an orchard that looks like the trees have been planted where a handful of seeds were scattered to the wind. We’ve forgotten about pattern and design and water management and instead relapsed to seeing the world with artists’ eyes. Aesthetics. It’s a constant battle for us, between the practical and the aesthetic. Just when we think we’re cured of aesthetic values, one of us becomes self-conscious of the garden edging looking so ramshackle (me, imagining our first PET day and hoping the plants have grown to hide the rough job we did of recycling materials left on the property: logs butted up adjacent to bricks, gapes filled in with sticks and still with yellowing newspaper poking across the paths: not very pretty) or of fruit trees in rows instead of dotted like a meadow.
It was soon after our tree planting that Dee came over with a hand-drawn design listing support species, distance between swales and orientation. It answered all our questions and pointed us in the right direction. The weak points in Chris’ design were to do with practicalities of irrigation. It would be easier to run pipe from the dam in straight lines along trees banked up on swales than curving around trees planted in isolation, plus swales will capture the runoff from the hill above our property. And the other point was lawn mowing. Something we hadn’t put much thought into, but Dee and Ian said mowing around single trees, speaking from experience, is terribly time consuming: you’re always left with a little triangle that requires going back and forth, back and forth. My design had the sun angles all wrong. North facing rows would have only shaded the trees behind, and as Dee said, fruit trees need sun. We’re still unsure about how closely to plant, but it won’t be the end of the world if we get it wrong. Just another opportunity to learn and maybe get the shovel out.
“How’s the garden?” asks Ian, our ex-housemate from Brisbane who introduced me to Permaculture.
“Yeah, it’s going well, thanks.”
“Have you done a design?”
“No, we decided that was too hard so we thought we’d just get started.”
“But isn’t that what it’s all about? A Permaculture Design Course?” He’s not being facetious. He’s genuinely surprised.
So far, the list of transplants, re-digging, shifting and alterations include replanting a young comfry plant well away from the septic tank, as we thought it may break through the concrete using it’s almighty tap-root (we didn’t want to underestimate it’s strength – not with such a potentially costly experiment!); digging a swale by eye and filling it in again as it wasn’t level, then moving (ie. re-digging) it down the slope; planting and then replanting an avocado into a mound of soil, heaping it up 40cm high in hope of giving it a chance of survival (we’ve been told avos keel over and die once their tap-root hits clay); removing the seedlings we’d planted in pure mushroom compost and mixing in topsoil after I tested the mushroom compost and found it’s PH was 9, meaning no matter how much worm juice or seaweed we fed them their leaves were turning yellow as they couldn’t absorb the nutrients; planting and soon replanting six citrus, one jaboticaba, one mango, one tropical apple, one macadamia and one nectarine into the design Dee shared with us; making a pond and lining it with cheap black plastic, only to find the top wasn’t level on our gently slopping block, so emptying the pond, making it larger and deeper to aid the biotrope (water health) process and buying proper pond liner from Pumps Plus in Cooroy, this time deciding to do the job right. I suppose it’s not too bad for a couple of city kids.
Tomorrow we’re going to take a day off and draw up a proper design, taking into account the needs and products of all the things we want, including chooks and ducks, swales and trees. I’m sure there will be plenty of things we do and then decide to do again in a different place, using a different method or getting rid of completely. But they say the hardest part is getting started, and we’ve well and truly done that. Keeping us motivated is the anticipation of next season when we can hopefully taste the magic of how our very own tree can make a mango!
Note: using the level this time!
Proper pond liner costs more but works a treat
So far so good