Editor’s Note: It’d be great if more people would share their successes and failures in similar fashion as Greg has below. The reason I say this is three-fold — 1) you get valuable feedback from readers on how to overcome your challenges, 2) readers can learn from your mistakes and thus hopefully avoid them, and 3) people new to permaculture will have a decent dose of reality as they start their on-the-ground work, and so won’t give up in despair the moment things don’t immediately pan out as anticipated! Send your articles to editor (at) permaculturenews.org !
Incredible results from the master after just three months in the same temperate climate as us.
Did you and our family have the same experience? Did you watch Geoff’s Food Forest DVD with mouth agape, saying “wow” to yourself at least a dozen times?
You saw it — plan, excavate, mulch, plant. Stand back and be amazed as your planned accelerated succession of productive plants unfolds.
We were lucky enough to have the property and funds to give it a try. I think we’ve failed. Here I’ll explain what we did, mistakes we know about, and the results. Maybe you can spot more mistakes and give us some ideas of where we can go from here.
Dutifully, we planned six swales, interfacing with an existing dam. We fretted over and calculated width, depth, spacing, length. We planned spillways.
Mistake: Assuming 85% runoff from our hard clay when 15% is more realistic. Though, as you’ll see, they’ve still filled many times.
I marked out contours with a water level before the gruff excavator operator, while double-checking my pegs with a laser level, remarked: “Wow, you did pretty well”. My pegs were right on.
The big day came and 500m of swales were dug. This was late autumn.
Mistake: Not cleverly sequencing the digging so as to keep topsoil on top. Though this may have been OK since it meant the grass root balls and the weed seed bank were buried.
Looks pretty good, but have you ever had that
“Oh my, what have we done?” feeling?
View of three of six swales we had dug those two days.
Were we brave or stupid? Anxiety reins and time will tell!
Excellent! Water fills them before we could even get mulch,
compost, and seeds distributed.
Mistake: Not having the knowledge of how to analyze the soil at depth and figure out that the soil was too heavy (clay) and so too hard in some of our swales to allow infiltration within three days.
Mistake: Some berms are so high that they must be drier than the flat ground down slope from them. Only when some enterprising taproot makes its way down deep will the magic of swale architecture start working.
We distributed mulch, compost and six species of groundcover seeds. The compost was nothing more than a dusting, the idea being to inoculate the hard (sometimes sub-soil) clay with microbes and fungi and to give the groundcover seeds a packed lunch.
Two months later. A – some standing water. B – thick groundcover well
differentiated from surrounding vegetation. C – happy dampness. D – existing dam.
Closer view of established groundcover
Mistake: Our warm season groundcover sprouted in our mild mid-north coast NSW winter, and I didn’t figure that out in time to replace it. Given Geoff’s “3-month” progress report in the video, I thought this would be OK.
So at first, things looked good. The cowpea took off, and much of the “junk” in the birdseed did too. We had an impromptu sunflower crop in the middle of winter. Later, the lupin took over from the cowpea. The groundcover was established.
We started putting in native nitrogen fixers — black wattle (Acacia melanoxylon), casaurina, and ice cream bean tree (Inga edulis).
Come late winter/early spring, 80 eager fruit and nut trees arrived. Outlay: about $1000. We picked up some 40 more native nitrogen fixers, inoculated leucanea seeds, and propagated our own bamboo (Bambusa oldhamii), sweet potato, arrowroot (Canna edulis), black bean tree (Castanospermum australe) and more. Throw in some miracle trees (Moringa oleifera), bunya pines (Araucaria bidwillii), saba nuts (Pachira aquatica) and all the other beauties that I dreamt of as a cubicle dweller just a few short years ago.
Mistake: Not hearing Geoff’s 4:1 ratio of N-fixers to productive plants in the video. We planted probably 60 N-fixers.
So here’s what happened. The cowpea and lupin died off in late spring and nothing that was next in the succession survived. The thick mulch the ground covers provided wasn’t enough to prevent the weeds and grasses from moving in. None of our other plants really took off except a few arrowroot. None of the other groundcover seeds ever germinated, or if they did I didn’t see them.
Oops, things are starting to look feral. Groundcover not dominant anymore.
Those are two inundated fruit trees you can see on the left (see yellow arrows).
Close up of our “Weed forest”. Fireweed, dock, thistles, horseweed, verbena,
grasses, and all the other typical pasture inhabitants found in NSW.
Worse, almost every one of the fruit trees has failed — some by plain old transplant failure, but most by having their tops broken off (yet not eaten) by wallabies. I get nature, but this just seems mean.
Most of the N-fixers are gone too. Not sure what’s happened to them, but I suspect rabbits.
Several of our poor darlings survived an initial leaf stripping, only to be stripped again and then have their tops broken off.
Nothing was particularly stacked against us — we’ve had good, normal rain (about 110 mm/month), and below average spring temperatures. The soil is hard clay and acidic, but Geoff works in NSW too.
Here are some pictures from today, mid-summer.
Success: A few of the N-fixers are doing OK.
Success: All of the Arrowroot we planted is growing, but will it be able to
resist the onslaught of grasses and weeds?
Success: Paulownia is happy. That’s supposedly the fastest growing tree in
the world so odds are with us on this one. Note the encroaching grass in the
foreground. The overly thick mulch in the form of bales was an experiment to see
if this one did any better than the others (so far they’re about the same).
Success: Some of the Bunya pine are surviving, but it looks nearly
swallowed by the incoming weed wave.
Fail: Stripped one (or more) times but having one more go at it.
Fail: My heart (and wallet) breaks at the site of this poor thing which came
back after being stripped, only to have the stem below its new growth broken.
Something for CSI: Brombin to evaluate.
Oversowing with a new groundcover species won’t work since nothing out-competes weeds in their time and space niches (that’s why they’re weeds).
It’s illegal to shoot wallabies. End of story I think.
Electric fencing is impractical because the growing grass would short out the fence – unless slashing 500m of swales is par for the course.
We might try those rigid tree guards but those are $5/each (the wallabies just push down the soft ones). $400 to protect $1000 isn’t a terrible idea, but there’s no guarantee that would be money well spent either.
It seems that on PRI we see a lot of successes documented so I thought I’d throw in a different experience and put the “idea hat” out there for anybody to chip in if they felt like it.