Acotanc: Permaculture: Setting the Scene

Permaculture: Setting the Scene

Author: Ross Mars
E-mail: [email protected]

12 Dryandra Crescent
Darlington WA 6070
Phone: +61 8-92954627 Fax: +61 8-92954627
E-mail: [email protected]

Getting Started in Permaculture, Mars, Ross and Jenny,1994. Candlelight Trust, Hovea, WA. 60pp.

Basics of Permaculture Design, Mars, Ross, 1996. Candlelight Trust, Hovea, WA. 170 pp.

The Best of PAWA, Eds. Mars, Ross and Bob Willis,1996. Candlelight Trust, Hovea, WA. 74pp.

Permaculture is an integrated, wholistic system for developing local ecosystems, with the aim of promoting self-reliance, health, comfort and beneficial social structures.

I have been involved with permaculture for a long time, written a few books. One is called Getting Started in Permaculture, which is all about my farm, Candlelight Farm. I have sold that property now and moved somewhere else after many years of toil. It has quite a large number of unique features. This book was written about some of the things we did, and how to do basic stuff, techniques, if you like.

This morning we are talking about the Basics of Permaculture Design. Just the idea of permaculture and the design process. This tells you how to do designs, how to harvest water, and so on. It goes from small acreage to large acreage ideas. I also edited a little book for the Permaculture Association, The Best of PAWA. This was just a little series of articles, but the kind of articles you would want to keep, ducks, chooks, various types of plants, aquaculture, etc.

I have been teaching courses and setting up permaculture courses for at least ten years. I thought I would just sow the seeds about what permaculture is, set the scene.

Permaculture is a word initially coined from the words 'permanent' and 'agriculture.' It is, in fact, a perennial agriculture system. While that is so, permaculture very soon became more than that. It changed into more of a 'permanent culture.' In one sense, it deals with all aspects human culture. So, it is not just gardening. Over the years, some people have confused permaculture with organic gardening, or hydroponics and biodynamics. In one sense, it deals with perennial crops, large trees, tree crops, nut crops, fruit crops, as a main emphasis, but it soon encompasses everything else. It is not just about gardening. It is more to do with how we live, the houses we build, how we treat the planet, and so on.

It uses a variety of techniques: organic gardening is one of those techniques. If you like, permaculture is more of a wholistic overview, using various techniques such as organic gardening. It certainly does include animals in the system, wherever possible, we try to integrate animals into the system. That is not always possible, of course, but if you adhere to the true definition of permaculture and where it is heading, it is trying to set up an ecosystem. An ecosystem has both plants and animals, integrated, so we are trying to mimic that idea and to set up a system where everything just flows along just fine.

The aim is to be very productive, to have food on-going at all times, to be a bit more self-reliant. There have been a lot of terms in the '80s and '90s about being self-sufficient. I wouldn't think that is what permaculture is about: it is more about being self-reliant. Self sufficiency, to me, gives the impression that you are living on a ten-acre block down in the southwest, vegetating at home and growing vegetables at home and being kind of a mung bean. That is not what permaculture is about. Permaculture is about people and human settlements, people getting along with other people, working together. While it is trying to grow food, and be healthy, it is also dealing with people. One of the ethics is Care of People.

Another ethic is about the environment, Care of the Earth. Recycling, composting, and a whole lot of other stuff associated with that. I wrote this a few years ago. After I had written it and gotten down to the last paragraph, I realised what I wanted to say was basically just the last paragraph. I guess permaculture to me is two extremes: one extreme would be that it just deals with nuts and bolts stuff, about growing vegetables, having animals and earthworms, etc., trying to grow healthy food and be more responsible, caring for the land. The other extreme is the philosophy, and it deals with a whole lot of other issues as well. It is not a religion. We don't have gurus, we don't have special practices we have to adhere to--it is pretty flexible.

I am more of a purist, on the permaculture side of things, the organic gardening, the animals and plants, and I have a major focus on soil. What also happens with permaculture is that you get other people involved who take permaculture in different directions. There are people who do other things with permaculture. Permaculture may be associated with them, but may not need to be. Feng shui, dowsing, biodynamics, all those other things that people bring in, and you learn about, may not be in the true sense what permaculture is all about. Permaculture is more basic than that.

Some of the things that permaculture encompasses:
The first two main ethics of permaculture are

  • Caring for people,
  • Caring for the earth.
It also recognises the intrinsic worth of all plants and animals and their right to existence. Another ethic which is often mooted is
  • Share the Surplus,

to teach other people, make things available to them, and help them along.

You can see the kind of things it encompasses, and it is not just gardening. A lot of people get confused with that and think that permaculture is just kind of using straw, mulch, tyres. I actually believed that myself when I first started. I am a schoolteacher, and I knew about permaculture about 20 years ago. I had set some kids in a biology class an assignment about permaculture as one of their topics. My wife got involved, initially, and did some courses, and I tagged along. All I saw when I walked around was straw and tyres. But since that time, I found out there was a lot more to it than that. I already had a good background about renewable energy, organic stuff, compost and soil, and this just tied it all together for me.

A summary of what permaculture encompasses:

  • Self-sustaining system
  • Self-replenishing. The idea of setting up a system, growing plants to feed the animals, poop on the ground feeds the soil and the plants, so it is an on-going, cycling of matter.
  • High productivity. The diversity and biodiversity we have in a system is that you have food crops, tree crops maturing at all seasons, so you are never totally reliant on one thing. Productivity and diversity go together, because it is a polyculture system. We advocate polyculture rather than monoculture. So, we would probably never have a thousand olive trees on a farm. We would prefer to have more kinds of systems in place.
  • Intensive land use. We tend to have garden beds that are narrow, with narrow paths. We plant plants close together, perhaps stacked up. We try to have a very intense agricultural system.

Diversity is important not only because you want to make sure you have food all year round, make it economic all year round and you don't have to depend on one or two crops which may fail for a lot of reasons. The more diverse a system is, the more stable it is.

If there were some changes to the farm or environment, like a fire going through, or flood or drought, then, obviously, having diversity means that you can tolerate or withstand that change. While you might have a setback, you should still be able to survive OK. That is a very important thing when you are setting up any kind of farm system.

The idea of being ever-changing, in the loose sense of the word, evolving,....from my point of view, permaculture systems don't become stable. We try to make them a climax community, but they don't actually become stable, and it is more to do with speeding up the change process, succession, introducing more plants, replacing things. We are kind of moving along a little faster than normal. If you just wanted to leave things go, like Nature does, you would have to wait a very long time before things happened and you got the system you wanted.

We utilise and use, consider, a whole lot of other things such as the microclimate. Forest areas have a different climate from open paddocks. We consider the soil type and what we can grow there. We consider how we can use the slope, for harvesting runoff water and growing particular crops. We rely on the edge, between systems. The edge is a very productive system.

The edge of any ecosystem is a very productive area. When you think of some of the most productive systems in the world, you think of the rainforest, a coral reef, mangroves. They are the three main ones. A coral reef is, in fact, on the sea side of the junction between the sea and land. Mangroves are on the land side of the junction between the ocean and the land. These systems are very productive. There is an ocean system and a land system and where they meet you get an interaction and it is very productive.

The same idea applies to gardens. We try to have garden beds in shapes that give us lots of edge, lots of growing space, lots of interaction, lots of heat, lots of shelter, whatever you want to consider in the design. In the natural forest there are something like seven layers, root crops, ground covers, smaller crops, taller crops, understory, trees and vines growing upwards. This gives us ideas about stacking plants in gardens, and having plants growing and fruiting at many times of the year. Stacked gardens can even be made in containers on roofs and balconies.

Pioneers are those particular plants that we use to improve the soil, to harvest nutrients or to shelter others that are not pioneers. Legumes, wattles, that kind of fast-growing plants improve the soil. Albizias and wattles can be nursery crops for macadamias. Some trees that you want to grow, such as macadamias, are slower growing, and get hammered by the sun and the wind, so you put in fast trees like a wattle, albizia or tagasaste, nitrogen-fixing pioneers, to shelter and protect the nursery crop. Some people call weeds pioneers, because their jobs are to cover the soil, mine nutrients, and so on. I put in some mango and avocados. They do get hammered by the wind and the sun. There were some trees nearby which I really need to take out to make the mangoes and avocados grow. I left them in deliberately, just for shelter. I found that where I have done the albizias and wattle trees, after a few years those pioneer species die off and you can just remove them, and the main trees have had time to get established. I have seen quite quite a few people who were inexperienced, who put in acres and acres of trees on the advice of consultants, olives, nut trees. They have them all set up in rows in the paddock, and they just die. They just don't have the knowledge about looking after them, and realising that in the first few years in the lives of these young trees, they need a lot more protection.

Our main thrust, if you like, is the perennial food crops, large trees. We have a variety of tree crops happening in this system, but that is not saying that we don't have annuals: we do. There are two aspects. One aspect is the back yard garden where you have vegetables and herbs and a few fruit trees. The other aspect is to take the rest of the block and develop that with trees, on a larger scale. That is an extension of the permaculture concept.

Having said all that, what marries all of this together is the design. The design is the key. The key to looking at all things is the design. Whether that is an artwork type of design or similar concept so that we integrate the plants and animals and have special places things go. You want to make things easy on ourselves, we want to be able to improve the soil and harvest the water and look after what we grow. That is how it works. In one sense, permaculture is a bit unique. It has been going for about 25 years, and has something a bit different to offer.

I lived in the hills and grew subtropical trees, mangoes, avocados, quite successfully, and I had frost. It is a lot colder up in the hills than on the flats. I soon learned a few things about how to solve frost problems and the use of running water, and where to plant trees. Where my house was used to get pretty frosty. There was a creek line with running water. Where the air moves, you don't get frost settling. So what I did was think about where to put the trees as part of the design process, and put the frost-susceptible trees close to the running water because the frost never settled there. So, when I walked down from the house, there was frost on the ground and on the car, but nothing near the stream. Plants like bananas could survive there. It is just a case of observation. In my particular case, after I bought this property up in the hills, I took almost a year of observation about where winds were and what happened, if there was flooding. I had lived all my life previously down on the sand plain with the Fremantle Doctor in the afternoon. I had that mentality when I went up to the new area, and I soon learned that wasn't the case there. The winds on the hills are different than the winds on the plains. A whole lot of things happened, but through the process of observation, taking notes and thinking about it, I did the design over the years. This is what you need to do for your own places. Make some very detailed observations about where the fire danger might be, where floods might be, what the winds do in winter and summer. Then think about where you are going to put things.

Slides. This shows us what we don't want--cabbages being hammered by pests. Most people go through that kind of scenario. I went through it in my early days, then discovered some interesting things about soil, how to improve the soil, condition the soil. What we want is this. Whether that is going to be in a back yard or on a broader scale, there are a whole lot of issues there. This is what it can be like, very productive, very intense, very colourful, too.

For me, permaculture is about the design: where the house goes, where the pathways and garden beds are, and so on. You can apply these ideas to small or large acreages. While permaculture hasn't yet been put often into a broad acre setting, it is an area I am keen to get into, myself. There is certainly a need to demonstrate these techniques and ideas on a much bigger area. Unfortunately, in WA, there are not too many people doing it.

Someone's back yard. The main thing about permaculture, as you can see, the paths are narrow, it is all laid out, it is very productive. Some things are flowering, some have seed setting. So there are things coming all the time. You are always picking something, harvesting, all the time. You are not reliant on one particular season.

It can be like that. Here, most people get told that if you have fruit and nut trees, you should spray the ground, kill the grasses because they compete with the plants. Let me just say that is not true. You can find scientific papers that suggest that the yield of fruit trees actually increases when the ground is sod-covered or mulched and also fertilised. Bare gound is the worst. Having herbs and flowers under fruit trees is good from a permaculture perspective, because you are not only protecting and improving the soil, you are protecting the plants from pests.

It is important to add organic fertilisers. You are feeding the system. Those particular plants may have other benefits to the tree. They might mine nutrients from deep down, they might help the soil release nutrients for the tree. They might provide pest control, and relieve the tree from spending energy getting rid of pests. There is a whole lot of stuff about plants helping each other. The idea is that while might be true they do compete, that is not that bad. I would maintain that the productivity of that tree will be far greater with plants underneath it than having bare soil.

We rely on making compost. This is a bit of a large scale one I had at home. It is serious composting and one of the secrets of soil improvement. From any point of view, the secret to pest control and healthy plants is the soil. That is the most important thing. If you get the soil right, and the conditioning of the soil right, you won't get attacked. I have shown that myself, time and time again. When things are right in the soil, the plant has a natural ability to withstand attack from pests.

Earthworms, compost worms, any kind of worms, are important. We rely on mulches and compost when we are building our garden beds.

A series of slides of my own place to show changes that happened over 3 or 4 years.

It looks pretty overgrown, and things were hidden, which was great. If there was broccoli, or cabbages, whatever, in there, the pests couldn't find them. That is part of the strategy: not have rows and rows of cabbages and broccoli. Instead have other things planted around so that the smell and colour and shape of those plants mask the cabbages, and the pests can't find it.

Jeff Nugent's place. Examples of intensive planting, having trees almost on top of each other, and they are all fine. It can be done. You don't have to have trees 4 metres apart. You can put them closer and be more intensive than you are led to believe.

Permaculture is also about sustainable living. My house was an energy-efficient house, passive solar design, facing the right way. At the front of the house are some Paulownia trees. One of the important things, from my point of view, to have an energy-efficient house, is to integrate the garden with the house. Allow the garden to help the house to become cool, or protect from winds, whatever.

Aquaculture is an important part of permaculture. There is a lot of food in aquaculture. There are things you can grow in dams on farms. It can be a small kind of pond idea, or it can be much larger. This is a property down at Balingup, with a whole range of polyculture stuff there amongst the aquaculture: ducks, geese, fish, etc.

You should have the polyculture idea for shelterbelts. Too often you see belts made of just one type of tree. Some of the trees we actually put into farms aren't very good for our native animals. Farmers here are told to put in tree belts, but they don't put in the kinds of trees that are beneficial to the environment. Some of the trees we have introduced to farming areas tolerate high salt levels, but our native birds won't even go in them or nest there.

Chicken pens and some fodder plants growing in them. If you are going to have chooks or sheep or whatever, you don't want to have to be going to the stockfeed store for pellets. You want to be growing the food. The idea of self-replenishing is to grow the food to feed the animals, and you use the products of the animals to feed the plants, and so on, cut down on expenses. That particular place not only had fodder plants they could eat, there were herbs around the outside. Animals are quite special; they are good at eating things that they need to eat. I found early on with emus that they would hammer the wormwood, maybe for intestinal parasites. Animals will pick at things and they know what to eat to make themselves well and healthy. We need to make sure we are aware of that.

Permaculture can be very small-scale, as on a balcony.

Herbs for companion planting, pest control, soil improvement.

Attracting animals for pest control. There are some famous cliches about permaculture. If you have too many slugs and snails, you have a duck deficiency. If you have too many slaters, you need quail or bantams. Animals are important in the system.

Example of mixed garden. Intense, to mask the smell or shape or colour of target plants. A mixture of flower, root, leaf, stalk crops. I didn't have all the root crops together, or all the leaf crops together.

Various understory plants. Groundcovers. Utilise the land under the fruit trees. Nasturtiums, sweet potatoes, help minimize weeds, avoiding spraying.

Using plants to attract ladybirds for aphid control.

Hover flies and wasps.

A cabbage caterpillar with wasp larvae. Wasps inject eggs into caterpillars. The eggs develop and suddenly they all burst out of the skin and kill the pest. Trying to encourage nature to do that in the garden is important.

There are commercial traps with pheromones to attract pests, sticky kinds of things, for a range of different pests. You can make fruit fly traps.

Variety of plants important for the health of the soil. Feverfew, yarrow, buddleia (which attracts butterflies)

In the UK, permaculture is called forest gardening. In Australia we talk about the edible garden or the food forest. I have taken those kind of concepts and developed them into school materials. I call it the outside classroom.

Slides about schools: it is important that our young people learn about these techniques and utilise them. Hilton primary, Hamilton Hill High School. I am at John Forrest. Schools have lots of areas that aren't utilised very well. This is John Forrest about 5 years ago, and then it changed to this. This is the outside classroom which has been utilised by lots of teachers and kids.

White Gum Valley. We have busy bees with parents and kids, teaching techniques to kids, showing them what they can do...that is very important. We end up with more and more people learning about these things and being more self-reliant.