Archive for September, 2009

PDC…..Week 4

September 27, 2009

We started week 4 with a quick look at the hot compost heap we made last week. The volume was much reduced, indicating that decomposition was taking place. Cam had turned the pile once through the week and although it had smelled OK (no anaerobic breakdown was occurring, which is what causes it to smell), he considered that it was getting too hot and therefore had too much nitrogen, so needed more carbon to get the carbon/nitrogen ratio right. It should be about 25/1. With too hot a pile, some of the benefical micro-organisms would be killed. We re-layered the pile using a bit more straw to increase the carbon content.

Back inside, and as it was a cold day, we gratefully snuggled into the doonas that Jessie had thoughtfully spread over the couches. School was never like this!

We were to begin doing some design work (the core of permaculture) and started with another of the principles:

Principle 6.  Integrate rather than segregate.

In natural systems, the connections between things are as important as the things themselves. So in permaculture design, the purpose is to place the elements in the system in such a way that each serves the needs and accepts the products of other elements. In other words, the elements in the design are integrated rather than segregated; each thoughtfully placed, instead of being just dumped anywhere.

We did what’s called a Needs, Function, Products analysis of a typical permaculture system element, the humble chicken. Listing its needs (food, water, shelter, etc), functions (scratching, eating insects, etc) and products (eggs, fertiliser, meat, etc), gives an idea of how and where it can fit into a system.

We split into 4 groups and each group was allocated an element in a permaculture system and asked to design a system to integrate that element with the chicken system. Our group got greenhouse/chicken, so it was onto the floor with butcher’s paper and textas to draw up a system which integrated the two. Each group then took turns in displaying and explaining their system. It’s not as easy as you might think and it got worse, as we then had to design a system that integrated the sum of each group’s elements and the chicken. There was a lot of head-scratching and general hilarity while Cam interjected with hints and suggestions. The more elements you add into a system the harder it is to successfully integrate them, or at least, the more thought it requires.

It was wanting expertise in the design element of permaculture that prompted me to take this course and I’m starting to realise that a successful, working permaculture system doesn’t just happen in five minutes.

We moved on to zone and sector analysis. Sectors are about the outside energies that affect a site, such as sun, winds, shade, frost, etc. Zones relate to energy saving involved in visiting or working with each element in a design. The house is zone 0. Zone 1, close to the house, is the most frequented zone. Zones 2, 3, 4, and 5 are progressively further away, for elements less frequently visited. Sectors and zones  must be taken into account in a good design.

After a brief look at animals in a system (which are the best chook and duck breeds, etc), we finished with an introduction to the forest garden; a garden which mimics the elements of a natural forest, but one in which all the products are edible, or useful in some other way.

A good reference is Forest Gardening by Robert Hart. Here’s a link to some information about the garden he established in the UK (there are many links on the subject, just google).

PDC…..Week 3

September 21, 2009

Soils ain’t soils. And if you thought so, think again.

Needless to say, this week’s PDC topic was soil—its chemistry, its biology and its physical structure.  It’s pretty simple really. Healthy soil = healthy people. Which is why the industrial agriculture model is killing us with unhealthy food. It doesn’t consider, even remotely, the health of the soil in which the plants grow.

The three pillars of healthy soil are the physical, the biological and the chemical, and they are all held together by carbon.

Pillar 1. Physical.  If the structure (physical) is poor, then the soil life (biological) can’t thrive and the soil’s water and nutrient holding capacity (chemical) is reduced.

Pillar 2. Biological. If the soil life (biological) is damaged, their ability to build and maintain soil structure is lost (physical) and they stop recycling and storing nutrients (chemical).

Pillar 3. Chemical.  If the mineral balance or moisture (chemical) is absent, then the soil structure can collapse (physical), and soil life (biological) cannot thrive.

Carbon holds it all together by building an open structure (physical), food and homes for the life in the soil (biological), and sites for water and nutrients (chemical) to be stored.

An easy way to look at the physical components of your soil is to fill a jar to one-third with soil, top up with water, put the lid on and shake vigorously. Leave to stand and when the contents have settled, the heavy material—coarse sand and gravel—will be at the bottom, with (in order), fine sand, silt, clay, organic material and water at the top.

Humus is that beautiful, dark brown, fluffy stuff which results from the breakdown of organic materials in the soil. It has a spongelike consistency which maintains air pockets, holds moisture, binds soil particles together and holds minerals. More importantly, it stores carbon in the soil and this can remain stable for thousands of years. Adding lots of organic matter to the soil produces lots of humus.

The biological life in the soil is important because micro-organisms like bacteria and fungi break down organic matter and actually help plant roots to take up nutrients by exchanging them for sugars and proteins produced by the plants and excreted by the roots. The relationship is of mutual benefit to plants and soil micro-organisms, a nice example of symbiosis going on all the time under our feet. The chemical fertilisers of industrial agriculture gradually destroy all this beneficial soil life.

Existing minerals in the soil are determined by the underlying geology and past practices on the land. It’s important to know if the mineral balance is correct. We were referred to an independent soil-testing laboratory and I’m definitely going to have a soil test done. Once the mineral balance is correct, then recycling all organic materials (food waste, humanure, etc) should retain that balance.

There was a lot more, but here are some good links on the subject:

The Soil Food Web International

From the Soil Up

We also covered worm farms, making compost, nutrient teas and compost teas. There’s an important difference between these last two which I wasn’t aware of. A nutrient tea is produced by simply filling a bin with water,  adding fresh green material and letting the whole lot rot down. Nutrient accumulators like yarrow and comfrey are good plants to use. The resulting product is diluted to feed plants (warning: this brew can be pretty smelly as it breaks down. Use a container with a firm-fitting lid).

Compost teas are actually concentrated solutions of microbes and fungi which are bred up especially to increase their numbers in the soil. A couple of handfuls of good quality compost and worm castings are put into a mesh bag which is suspended in a 20 l bucket of water. The water must be aerated and a small fish tank aerator does the job pretty well. Also added to feed the microbes are seaweed (Seasol—2 capfuls) molasses (1/8 cup) and oatmeal (1 tbsp). The whole lot is aerated for 24 hours while the microbes breed up, then diluted for use and watered into the soil. It’s recommended that this be done four times a year.

In the afternoon’s prac session we made a hot compost heap, by layering straw, horse manure and green material till it reached a cubic metre in size. We’ll be turning that next week to see how the composting process is going. We also looked at the huge worm farm Cam has built on the property (he has access to horse poo by the trailer load) and finally we made a batch of aerated compost tea.

All in all, a very satisfying day, and one which has given me a greater appreciation of ‘dirt’ and an even greater desire to avoid the unhealthy food produced by industrial agriculture.

PDC…..Week 2

September 13, 2009

In yesterday’s lesson we continued to look further at some of the 12 permaculture principles:

Principle 2. Obtain a yield.

We started by looking at the concept of sustainability, something which, it seems, very few people understand. Here’s the definition we considered:

“a system is sustainable if it produces more energy than it consumes, with at least enough surplus to maintain and replace the system over its lifetime.”

Looking at it in energy terms is probably one of the best ways of approaching sustainability since nothing on earth happens without a supply of energy.  We looked at the concept of embodied energy or emergy, being the amount of energy it takes to create stuff, and an old friend ERoEI (energy returned on energy invested), something that any ‘peakoiler’ learns to understand very well.

So, energy audits are important. For example, we can look at our diet in energy terms:

1. Vegetarian diets are very efficient, providing they are grown at or close to home, with minimal energy inputs.

2. Omnivorous diets make the best use of complex natural systems, e.g. animals covert inedible plants into edible animal protein.

3. Carnivorous diets have a valid place in special ecologies, e.g. in cold areas where gardening doesn’t provide a sufficient food base.

Principle 3. Apply self-regulation and accept feedback.

To use a car analogy: positive feedback is the accelerator; negative feedback is the brake. We can self-regulate more readily when we have an appreciation of our level of use of a resource, e.g. living off tank water gives us a much greater appreciation of our water use compared with an invisible reservoir far away.

Principle 4. Produce no waste.

The common saying ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ can be extended to: refuse, reduce, reuse, repair, recycle. It’s also a hierarchy of energy use, with recycling taking the most energy of all. Makes you think again about the ‘feel good’ vibes of recycling. Maybe not the best option after all. Just refuse.

Principle 5. Design from patterns to details.

We spent a bit of time on this one, to quote Bill Mollison: “pattern is the most important subject of permaculture.”

A pattern is a type of theme of recurring events or objects, which repeat in a predictable manner. By harnessing and working with the recurring patterns in nature, we “work with nature rather than against it.”

For example, if we wish to design and create a food forest, we need only to look at the patterns in a natural (evolved) forest, noting the characteristics of the various species and their function and repeating this in our design. We can thus go to any part of the world taking this pattern with us, and working with local knowledge, create a successful design even though the species we use may be unknown to us.

Good patterns feel good. The best permaculture patterns make our lives easier and our gardens more productive and they increase our sense of aliveness and well-being.

A good book on the subject is A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander.

After lunch we headed into the garden for some practical, physical stuff.

We created a new planting site using the sheet mulching technique. The guys barrowed in a few loads of nice, rich horse manure and the girls raked it out to a 10 cm depth over the bed. Meanwhile others were busy soaking large sheets of cardboard in a bath of water and this was laid over the top of the horse manure, the idea being that it would eliminate light and prevent seeds in the manure from germinating. Finally, the whole bed was covered in about 20 cm of straw. This will become the curcurbit bed and in a couple of weeks we’ll be planting this out with seedlings of cucumber, pumpkin and zucchini. We’ll make a hole in the straw, cut out a bit of the cardboard, pop in a handful of worm castings and plant the seedlings. We were assured we’d probably be eating some of the produce before the end of the course. (Considering the rate zucchinis grow, I’m not surprised).

Next week it’s soils, the soil food web, worms, compost and compost tea. Can’t wait (so long as I’m not expected to drink the compost tea!).

For a fuller treatment of the 12 permaculture principles, here’s David Holmgren’s website on the subject.

PDC…..Week 1

September 6, 2009

As noted a couple of posts ago I planned to start a 13-week permaculture design course with Forest Edge Permaculture. Yesterday was day one.

An hour’s drive took me to an outer eastern Melbourne suburb and a very steep, large suburban property. Just the slog up the long entrance drive set my heart racing. The house is situated roughly at the centre of the property and an equally steep permaculture garden rises up and away from the rear of the house.

Our teacher is Cam Wilson who lives at the property with wife Jessie and 13-month-old Ro (short for Yarrow, named after a useful permaculture herb. Ro is a very active and engaging little boy).

Cam, Jessie and Ro are house-sitting while the owners are away working overseas. In return, Cam has designed and produced a beautiful and productive landscape and this was to be our ‘schoolroom’ for the duration of the course. There are 13 of us, 4 guys and 9 girls (in my case I use the term loosely, being what I estimated to be, a good 20 years older than the next oldest. Never too late to learn something new!).

So….we began in the living room with an introduction to the permaculture concept and more importantly, the reasons why it was developed. And so we began with my old friend Peak Oil. It was refreshing to be in the same room with a dozen peak-oil-aware people. Such a thing has never happened to me before!

The permaculture concept was designed by a university lecturer Bill Mollison and his student David Holmgren in the early 1970’s, in response to the oil supply shocks of that decade. Realising that oil was a finite and non-renewable resource that would run out some day, they started putting together a system for creating sustainable human habitats and permaculture was born.

We started with the three permaculture ethics:

  1. Care for the Earth
  2. Care for people
  3. Fair share (set limits to consumption & reproduction and redistribute surplus)

Nice and simple.

After the ethics come the twelve permaculture principles and following each one is central to designing sustainable permaculture systems. It looks like we will be spending one lesson on each principle, with forays into the garden to see each one at work.

Principle 1. Catch and store energy.

This one started with us dividing into groups of three and sprawling on the floor with textacolours and sheets of butcher’s paper. Cam called out a number of words and we dutifully wrote them down. Worm, sun, tree, sparrow, micro-organism, eagle, grass, water & so on. We were asked to draw arrows connecting the various elements and write why they were connected. Sparrow—> worm (sparrow eats worm) and so on. At the end our sheets were a mess of connections and all arrows led away from the sun to the other elements. Conclusion: all things on earth are connected and the sun is the energy source that powers it all. I guess most of us  knew that anyway. The trick is to catch and store that energy.

I’m not going to go into huge masses of detail from here on because any good permaculture book will provide that for you. I do recommend that if you’re really interested you buy a good book on the subject.

Briefly, we can catch and store energy in 3 main ways: water storage (in the soil, in ponds and wetlands); nutrient storage (in living biomass and in soil organic matter); carbon storage (in timber and fuel forests, soil humus and food for people & animals).

After a delicious hot lunch provided by Jessie, we went out into the garden to see permaculture in action. The back section seemed even steeper than the driveway. Right at the top is a 30,000 litre water tank. Water collected from the house roof is pumped up to the tank. Watering of the garden takes place by gravity, through dripper systems.

The top section of garden is the orchard; a dozen or more fruit trees planted on mounds created by digging out swales (water-collecting channels, dug on contour—the contour bit is most important). Underneath the young trees, the ground was covered in thick growth—wheat, clover, vetch—what the average gardener would call weeds and all deliberately sown. I queried….wouldn’t this growth compete with the trees for water and nutrients? No…. while the trees are dormant they don’t need nutrients. The growth is storing nutrients and water in the soil (as roots) and in the top growth. As the fruit trees flower and come into leaf this growth will be slashed and left to lie on the ground, where it will rot away and feed the trees. We all said…”aah”…  as enlightenment dawned, and I thought of the bare ground beneath my own trees.

The lower part of the garden is terraced vegetable beds, all full of healthy-looking plants and all covered with an incredibly thick mulch of pea straw. Cam says that most vegetables need only 6 hours of sunlight a day and to shield these beds from the hot afternoon sun, he’s in the process of building a trellis over the top that will support  grapevines. The vegies get morning and midday sun and the vines shade out the hot afternoon sun, providing grapes and mulch in return. Already I’m thinking of how I can duplicate this in my own garden.

Other features of the property included a large, newly-completed pond which will shelter frogs to help with insect control and a chook pen with three enormous chooks that were happily scratching around in the orchard and pecking at our boots as we stood there. A glasshouse for raising seedlings and growing winter tomatoes has recently been added to the side of the chook house. The pond was cleverly designed so that the overflows (in two directions) sent water into other garden beds. I can’t even begin to describe how that was done, but we all said…”aah”…again.

I think we were all overwhelmed by it all and are looking forward to next week. Already, as I look at my own non-designed garden, I’m seeing new ideas.

Tomatoes ready to go

September 3, 2009

I wrote recently about my new propagating gadget here. I sowed tomatoes in it at the winter solstice and put the box on a heated propagation mat, inside, in a sunny window. The mat is only turned on during the day.  Here’s what they looked like a month later:


I soaked the seeds overnight and planted 3 into each cell. The germination rate was very good with all 3 seeds germinating in most cells and 2 in the others. As they grew larger, I thinned to one seedling per cell and watered them with a weak solution of  worm wee (run-off from the worm farm) and Seasol.

Here’s how they looked after thinning and about 2 months after sowing:


They were potted on into small square pots using a mix of 4 parts potting mix and 1 part mixed (cow & chook) manure and kept inside for a couple of weeks more. And here they are today, almost ready for planting out (except that the ground’s a bit too cold still). They’ve now graduated to the polyhouse outside to harden off:


This year there are 13 varieties:

  • Roma (good for drying and freezing)
  • San Marzano (ditto drying and freezing)
  • Grosse Lisse (perennial favourite)
  • Green Zebra (grew this last year and loved the flavour)
  • Black Zebra (new variety this year)
  • Purple Russian (new variety this year)
  • Black Russian (love the flavour of this one—in my 3rd year of growing it)
  • Yellow Pear (cherry)
  • Green Grape (cherry)
  • Red Pear (cherry—all the cherry types are good for drying)
  • Brandywine (a new variety for me)
  • Wild Tomato (cherry—from Phoenix Seeds—supposed to be the original wild variety)
  • Grub’s Mystery Green (supposed to be really good—seeds were generously supplied by a member of Ozgrow garden forum)

The beds are ready and waiting; the stakes are in place and a thermometer is checking soil temperatures. I can’t wait to start planting! This year I’m aiming to dry, bottle and freeze as much of the tomato crop as possible. I want to be self-sufficient in pasta sauce for the following winter.

Going back to school

September 2, 2009

This weekend I realise a long-held dream: I’ll be starting a permaculture design course with Forest Edge Permaculture.

Most courses I’ve seen advertised are full-on, two-week, live-in courses and I’ve never been able to spare that much time all at once. The beauty of this course is that it’s run one day a week, for 13 weeks. By the look of the testimonials from former students, I’m in for something really good!

It’s my belief that permaculture will really come into its own in the near future as fossil-fuel based agriculture goes into terminal decline. Ultimately I’d like to get involved in doing permaculture designs for people and maybe even to teach someday. Meanwhile I’ll try and update here on a weekly basis to share what I’m learning.