If you want to make permaculture happen, then just start. This is the story of how one garden ended up providing work, food and fun for people in the community of Gwynedd, Wales.
It was autumn, March 2012, and unemployment was at an all time high in North Wales. I was a qualified permaculture consultant wandering the lands searching for my next project, but also suffering the strain of recession. I then stumbled upon some unusual funding from an organisation called Nacro. The organisation provides paid work experience for people who are generally deemed antisocial or who are long term unemployed. The organisation had funding left for the year and needed somewhere to put it. So I went dressed, suited and booted, and proposed an idea to Nacro that would help at least three people find work in the future. Luckily the man I encountered empathised with me and I managed to secure a paid job for myself and two others, implementing a permaculture garden for three months only.
So I had 3 months to find the land and build a garden with only enough money to pay a small wage and no materials. Quite the challenge! I asked my friends Lizzy and Dwynwen if they would help and of course they were up for the challenge.
Then that same day I arrived at our local night club, Hendre Hall, an old Victorian farm at the foot of Snowdonia that hosted the best Bohemian dance nights, the only night club where you’re likely to be dancing alongside chickens on the dance floor! At the time my mum had been looking for a house in North Wales and she had just been fortunate enough to secure a tenancy in an apartment in the noisy but entertaining courtyard of Hendre Hall.
I told the landlord of what I had just done and he got very excited and then offered me the top part of his camping field to turn into a garden. Of course I jumped at the chance! The night club to me was the heart of North Wales, a community hub that hadn’t been beating so well recently — a permaculture garden would breath new life into it. He also offered me a flat in the old barn so I took that too, it was my lucky day.
The field was sometimes used for grazing cattle and was heavily compacted and sloped northwards towards the sea where it was regularly exposed to icy winds. It also experienced regular flooding, but we were yet to discover this; hence why it’s important to get to know your land before you start to grow stuff. But this also depends on whether you enjoy a bit of peril with your adventures.
First things first, I surveyed the land and drew up a design — one which I can’t show you as it became covered in mud and disintegrated. This is why I like to provide a plastic wallet with my designs these days.
We urgently needed to improve the soil, so we whipped together some compost bins out of some old pallets we found and called the local tree surgeons to ask for their wood chips, which they delivered promptly free of charge! We mixed this with the food waste from Hendre Hall. The compost was underway, so now we had to sort the water out.
Droughts are rare in North Wales; getting rid of water is usually the biggest problem. We decided a ditch at the northern side of the field would be the best solution to help drain the compacted, waterlogged ground. We would then plant willows along the bank to help block the wind, suck up the excess water and provide a windbreak plus wildlife corridor and firewood. We found lots of willow at the sides of roads and in a friend’s field, so we coppiced them.
Unfortunately the warm spring meant that the leaves on the willow were already well out. This was less than ideal for planting — if only I had known about defoliating at the time. (By stripping the leaves you fool the plant into thinking it’s winter again, and it also prevents it from drying out too much.)
The next problem was the huge trench we needed to dig. By now my mum was helping, but even with four women this was a mammoth task to complete in the time we had. Luckily Malcolm the hall owner came to the rescue — inspired by our enthusiasm he hired a man to come with a digger to dig our trench for us.
The digger driver was an artist sculpting with soil. It was like watching Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore in Ghost make pottery (the digger was Demi Moore). What a pleasure it was seeing our vision take shape all in one day. He even helped us to lovingly plant the willows with the giant shovel.
He shifted huge mounds of soil for us and dug us a bloody great hole for our pond, which he insisted should be twice the size that I had specified. He even let me have a go with the digger!
We built a willow dome at the back of the pond with the aim of channeling the run to feed the willow. We knew we were taking a risk with the willow with its leaves out. But willow has often surprised me with it resiliency.
I had been obsessed from the very beginning that at the entrance of the garden would be a salad amphitheater — a place where salads could thrive in the secure micro-climate of a south facing terraced horseshoe constructed from stones and broken slate we found in a derelict house and soil from a fortunate mound at the bottom of the field.
I set the task to my digger man, and sure enough, he created it to perfection whilst I leapt about on mounds of soil conducting his movements with my dirty hands. He used the pile of rubbish as the foundation which was buried beneath the structure.
We collected yet more willow sticks, and then my mum got hold of them…. I have never seen anyone work sticks as fast as my ma. It seemed like a blink of an eye and she had created a beautiful willow archway to frame the amphitheater.
Word soon got around of what was happening at Hendre, especially with the major earthworks! We offered a free lunch and an opportunity to learn gardening whist getting a muddy work-out. And sure enough, volunteers started to show up, many of them our friends and many people who just wanted to help. People donated seeds, plants, tools and trees and often stayed until after sunset, enthusiastically toiling in the garden. We were getting quite a reputation at Hendre for breathing new life into the old place.
By this point we had planted hundreds of seedlings that had been donated to us by various benefactors. We incubated them in an array of cloches we had created out of things we found lying around.
We terraced the amphitheater with rocks and broken slate to accommodate the plants and form microclimates.
We moved the surplus turf around the edges of it to support it.
We even built a place to stand and sing to the salads should anybody feel the need.
We terraced the pond to accommodate the plants, and create micro-climates.
We built a fire pit in a sitting circle surrounded by fruit bushes. And we used the cobbles to make annual veg beds. We also made a water catchment system off the salad amphitheater to collect rainwater.
We tried to compact the soil in the pond so we would not need a liner but the soil was too full of pebbles. Fortunately Malcolm the landlord came to the rescue again and bought us a pond liner. We lined the pond and filled it with plants and added some sludge from a friend’s pond to get the microbial activity going.
The Birth of Caffi Cynefin
Then one day Malcolm the landlord of the 18th century Victorian hall asked if we would like to have a café. The café was a shed with a counter, broken windows and a sink. We decided why not — it would be fun to play cafes for a bit. So we added the café to our to-do list. He also said we could use the big hall if we would like to put an event on. We needed trees and more compost for the garden, and we wanted to carry on with it once the funding ran out. We had around 6 weeks left so we decided to organise a local food and arts fair to raise money.
We managed to track down local producers and crafts people in the area and musicians who would play for food and a chance to showcase themselves. We contacted the local papers and put out flyers and posters advertising our event. There would be live music, delicious vegetarian organic food served in the café and local arts, crafts and workshops, all in aid of raising money for the community permaculture garden at Hendre Hall — a place where people could come and learn about permaculture in action and help themselves to the bounty it had to offer.
This is the photo that made it to the local papers.
Lizzy left, me centre, Dwynwen right.
We brightened the café up by painting the floor bright orange and the doors and windows bright blue. We repaired the windows and did up the old wood burner. We were donated lots of fabric from a neighbor and also from an upholstering business, so we all set about creating beautiful soft furnishings. We decided on a Moroccan / Welsh theme as we were donated antique welsh tapestries and Bohemian style fabrics. Fortunately my mum and I are a dab hand at sewing and interior design so it wasn’t long before the café looked magnificent. The landlord Malcolm soon got over the initial shock of the bright orange floor and blue doors.
It seemed like no time at all before the first of June — our funding had ended and the day of the fair was upon us. We had been up all night baking delicious creations using local produce and the baby salads we had grown in the garden.
The morning of the fair arrived, and to our delight, after weeks of rain, we suddenly had blazing sunshine. Fortune was once again on our side.
The garden was a huge draw. Many people came to see what had happened in the field at Hendre Hall.
The café was a huge success and people loved our food.
The Cafe filling up with first customers
Cars were parked all the way down the road. We had around 300 people turn up. Some people said it was the busiest they had ever seen Hendre. People danced, drank, ate and shopped and made new friends. Children played and dogs begged. It was like a mini festival.
It is needless to say that since the first food and arts fair we have had one every month since, and now more food and arts fairs have since popped up in Gwynedd. It has now become a regular thing. More and more people are becoming entrepreneurs and turning to the arts and growing food to make a living, paving the way for community sufficiency.
Our events give budding entrepreneurs, artists, musicians, poets, bakers, herbalists, fortune tellers, florists and farmers the opportunity to test their trade and get a foot hold in the market or just develop confidence. The local community networks with each other, builds bonds and gets a chance to share wealth with their community. We now host dance nights, alternative cookery nights, festivals and much more and the garden is at its root supplying food for these events and providing a model for the interlinking of all things.
The Café and events have gone from strength to strength, as has our garden.
The salad amphitheater three months after it was created — enough
salad to feed a county it seems.
The pond with lilys, water boatmen, great diving beetles, dragonflies, newts and
frogs, three months after it was created. The willow dome didn’t thrive so it
was converted into a sculpture which next year will be replanted with willow.
We grew more borage than you could shake a stick at! to help
our dwindling bee population.
Many more flowers have sprung up in the garden
The Birth of the Cynefin Permaculture Project, community interest company
The three jobs originally created by the garden are still alive and many more jobs have been created. We now have chefs, musicians, event organizers, not to mention the hundreds of stall holders we support every month. We have now become an incorporated organisation called the Cynefin Permaculture Project which ultimately aims to help people live symbiotically with our land and the flora and fauna that inhabits it, and earn a living whilst doing the things that they enjoy. We work for each other, with each other.
Many people are afraid of corporations because they have negative associations with greed. The Cynefin Permaculture Project was created as an opposition to these corporations — it is now a separate entity to its creators, and legal structures ensure it can only ever do good to serve the community and the environment. Although it has only just been born it is steadily making its way into the corporate battle to achieve community sufficiency.