One of the principles of permaculture is to ‘observe’. Having started in permaculture about 18 months ago I’d like to share some of my observations, especially in regards to my own behaviour, assumptions and, importantly, mistakes I’ve made along the way.
Back in October, 2009, having just discovered permaculture, my wife and I became very excited about the possibilities for our 8-acre property in the Gold Coast hinterland in Queensland, Australia. Our property is on the side of a hill, and formerly having horses as tenants, it has hard, stony, compacted earth with a number of areas of erosion caused by fast flowing water after rain events. For us to have any hope of growing anything useful here, other than the few struggling natives, we needed to perform some major earth surgery.
At this stage we knew practically nothing about permaculture design so we engaged the services of Craig Gallagher who was at the time the farm manager at the PRI’s Zaytuna Farm. Craig designed a water catchment plan for us which included swales and some new dams.
By this time it was December 2009 and to say I was keen to get started is an understatement. Being a thrifty soul, and having a thirst for adventure, my first thought was to buy a small excavator (I was thinking around 3 tons), do the work myself, then sell the machine – hopefully for a profit – with the end result being free earthworks! Great idea, however, there were two problems with this approach.
1. I knew absolutely nothing about earthworks or driving an excavator (and after watching a professional at work I probably would have killed myself in the process!)
2. It turns out that the 3 ton excavator I was intending to buy would have been “no better than using a bucket and crowbar” (I’ll explain why below.)
I’m lucky enough to have friends from a variety of backgrounds, and one of them, with way more experience than me at this sort of thing, quickly talked me out of the foolishness of buying my own machine, and pointed me to a local earthworks contractor. At this point I told
Craig that I had hired someone to do the earth works so could he please come up and explain to the driver what needed to be done. Craig asked me to hold off for a few weeks as he was too busy, but as I was far too excited about the
possibilities, and lacked any patience, I couldn’t wait. So, ignoring his advice, I decided to get started with some earth moving. This was mistake number one as you’ll see shortly.
Two days later a truck turns up with a 20 ton excavator on the back. When I told the driver of my original plan to buy my own 3 tonner and do it myself, he just laughed and made the comment about the bucket and crowbar I quoted above. You
see, there is a lot of rock we needed to cut through and even this huge digger had moments of hesitation trying to get through some of it.
Beginning the Earth Surgery
So here we are, the excavator is off the truck and the operator is ready to go. I’ve had a chat to the operator, asked him read through the design Craig created for us, and walked him around the property explaining what I wanted. At this stage I have an image in my head as to what it is I want that has come from Craig’s plan and all the conversations with him and others who were helping with the design.
However, there are things I didn’t know, which are:
- Anything at all about earthworks
- Anything at all about surveying
- What ‘on-contour’ really meant
- What the end result really should look like
- Where my hat was (it’s hot out here walking around with this guy)
So, the operator has read the doc, had the walk, and nodded at all the right times. I’m happy and off I go to do my own work, after all I need to make the money to pay for all of this, and I’m just expecting things just to magically happen. Big Mistake!
The problem was that the excavator operator was hearing me say, “swales”, and I’m hearing him say, “yes, I’ve done lots of swales”, but having no permaculture experience he is thinking ‘swale drains’ – not ‘swales on contour!’. In other words he thinks I want drains to take the water off
the property, rather than for soaking it in to re-hydrate the landscape as I actually want/need. This is what he is used to doing as most of his work was with new housing developments. So the first swale he had dug was not on contour but running across the block down hill! Oh no!
By now it is the end of the day and rain is approaching. Filling a swale with water is a great way to show it isn’t on contour and nature did this perfectly as can be seen in the photo.
Luckily my good friend Matt had a neighbour who happened to have a dumpy level. We borrowed this and spent a day in the drizzling rain marking out where the swales should run so that they are on contour. Having the dumpy also helped with setting out the new dams. What a great tool!
The swale was corrected and put back on-contour, but it wasted a day for which I still had to pay.
After this little debacle we were back on track, and I was quite surprised how quickly this huge machine could operate and within a week I had 5 new swales and two new dams!
As soon as the swales were finished we wanted to get the newly exposed swale mounds planted. Rain was coming and we were worried that they would be washed away before we managed to get anything established.
To do this we brought in a few lucerne ’rounds’ and a 20kg bag of cow pea with innoculant. You could almost see the cow pea growing, it came up that fast! The photos at right and below show the swales finished on-contour (below), then a couple weeks later mulched with the cow pea starting to take hold (right). Also planted were a variety of things including, cassava, sweet potato, a number of fruit and nut trees, coffee, olive trees, and some support species.
This all happened over a year ago now and we have done lots since. I hope to share some more of our triumphs, mistakes, and observations in future posts but for now here are some….
In hindsight here are a few tips I can offer to anyone new to permaculture and who wants to get started on transforming their property:
- Don’t rush! Take small steps and do things gradually. Enjoy the process, don’t be in a hurry for an end result. The transformation of your property will continue for years. In fact it will probably never be done but each step along the way provides its own joy.
- Educate yourself as much as possible but also bring in the experts. Paying for a few hours consultation to an experience designer will more than likely save a lot of headaches, time and money in the long run.
- Just because you use the same words, don’t assume you’re talking about the same thing. Confirm and supervise any contractors that are not familiar with permaculture (case in point the my idea of a swale vs that of the digger operator).
- Take lots of photos. You will be surprised at the transformation of your property. After a few months you will have forgotten how things were before. Photos help to realise how amazing a transformation a good permaculture design can make. I have lots of photos of before, during earth works, and after and looking through them as I wrote this article I was surprised how much I had forgotten.
- Don’t bite off more than you can chew! I tried to transform and plant out about 5 acres of my place pretty much on my own. It is a lot of hard work. You can spend a lot of time doing one little thing (i.e. creating a vege garden) and neglect getting around to take care of all the other things you have put in motion (watering new plants, mulching new swale mounds, creating compost, establishing worm farms, etc.)
- If possible get together with others so you can help them and they can help you (see the point above). The old saying of ‘many hands make light work’ is never truer than in permaculture. And there is much joy to be had in working with others.
- Consider the financial cost (earthworks, buying trees, etc.). Establishing your design can become quite expensive so best to do things a piece at a time rather than trying to do it in one big bang (see my first point above!). Some things in life you can throw money at to fix, but plants and natural systems grow in their own time at their own pace.
- Keep at it and tell lots of people what you are doing. You never know who you might influence.