Sunday, December 14, 2014

Permaculture WWOOFing in Tasmania.

Back in Nepal we hiked for a bit with a young Japanese man who had spent two years in New Zealand and Australia studying a particular farming technique called "permaculture."

We'd heard this term thrown around in various WWOOF gigs but we'd never fully understood the concept or how it was applied. It didn't help that we hadn't seen consistent implementation of the concept among the various "permaculture" farms we visited during our travels. After talking with the Japanese man, we decided to investigate further.

Through our initial research we learned that two Tasmanians named Bill Mollison and David Holmgren coined the term "permaculture" in the late '70s. It's been defined various ways, including:
  • "the conscious design and co-creative evolution of agriculturally productive ecosystems and cooperative and economically just social systems which have the diversity, stability and resilience of 'natural' systems";
  • "a philosophy of working with, rather than against nature; of protracted & thoughtful observation rather than protracted & thoughtless labour; & of looking at plants & animals in all their functions, rather than treating any area as a single-product system";
  • "a design method which abandons the linear sectoral organization of human support systems (such as agriculture, energy & water management, architecture, urban planning, education, recreation, administration, etc.) in order to create linkages between the various elements needed for each specific task"
There are many other definitions here... and most are just as wordy, technical, and inaccessible.

So what do all those big words mean, exactly, and how do they translate into actionable steps that farmers (and regular people) can take?

We went to Tasmania to try to find out. Two farmstays and almost a month later, we're a bit closer in our understanding of this interesting farming technique...  But just a bit.  In general it's a fascinating land management strategy with principles and ethics. At times it feels over-complicated and overly-designed, as though the implementers are attempting to play God by restoring nature to the way it was before humans intervened (only in typical human fashion they want to do it FASTER than God).

But the thing is, this concept seems to work. We'll try to explain a bit here and provide links if anyone is interested in learning more. (Note! Web site links were chosen pretty much at random and don't mean to promote one thought or person or program over another. Interpret and utilize as you wish, and please add any other useful web site references in a comment below - we could certainly use the information! Thank you!)


Our first WWOOF stay was with Julia and Dylan, a semi-retired couple working toward self-sufficiency on their large property in Lorinna. A few years ago they completed construction on their beautiful strawbale home (solar-powered with composting toilets and an independent water source, of course!) and now they are really concentrating efforts on their impressive fruit, flower and vegetable garden. Although we never heard them refer to themselves as "permaculturists," Julia and Dylan's land incorporates many aspects of permaculture.

Our second WWOOF stay was with Stuart, an energetic social ecologist and landscape architect who recently completed his permaculture certification. Stuart purchased a small plot of land a few years ago and aims to create a holistic permaculture design in the coming years. His property was the rawest we'd worked on - we helped with one of the most important first steps to a farm, the fencing - and working with Stuart in this early stage of his property transformation provided good insight into what we should consider if we do decide to purchase land at some point.

We learned a lot about permaculture through almost a month of conversations, books, and hands-on experience. Our brains are still processing how to apply some of the more technical things, and whether we would even want to apply some of the more technical things, but here are a few really basic ideas to see if this piques your interest like it did ours.

First up - chickens rule! Most of our WWOOF farms have had chickens and we've never doubted their merits. Some have also had ducks, but chooks are key to any permaculture design. These ladies are really good at controlling bugs in gardens, replacing valuable nutrients in the land through their poop, and loosening the ground before planting.

(or in this case, before mulching)

Chickens require little space and generally don't wreck the space you give them (we're talking to you, adorable-but-annoying goat friends). They eat your food scraps and in return, they give you delicious eggs.


Chickens are also good at harming tender tree roots with their scratchy little feet, and they do require daily (albeit low) maintenance. And you might want to consider a dog to keep foxes and other predators away. But these are small trade-offs for the benefits that chooks provide.

on an unrelated note,
rock-chasing dogs are also cute, but not terribly helpful around the garden

Next up - plan before you build. Okay, this one isn't rocket science either, but in permaculture you think about what will work best for - and with - the land before designing your property layout. The permaculture design is based on "zones" - 0-5, with Zone 0 being your home, Zone 1 being the vegetable garden, and so on until Zone 5 which is the outlying forest area. Things get wilder and less maintained as you progress through the zones. A little forethought about these zones alongside the natural topography of the landscape can go a long way.

For example, if you can see your veggie garden from your most inhabited room (be it the kitchen or living room or whatever), you're more likely to take care of it properly and actually eat what comes out of it - hence the veggie garden in Zone 1.

Zone 1 bounty coming soon at Julia and Dylan's

Animal pens at the top of the hill allow the soil to replenish as their manure washes downhill; slanted land means building terraced gardens; swales around the downhill "zones" catch all the crap from the graywater before it hits the outskirts of your property. All good things to consider.

And while you may not want certain animals in your garden, they serve a purpose in your local ecosystem and you can design the land so that they don't disappear completely. Julia and Dylan address this by piling cut weeds outside the fence around their property - this keeps the wallabies satisfied so they don't invade the garden while the natural balance of the ecosystem is maintained. Stuart's new veggie garden fence will keep the possums out while the bush on the back of his property (Zone 5, that is) will still provide them with food and protection from the weather and predators.

and don't forget -
permaculture allows for function AND form!
picture a wave of recycled painted tin fencing at Stuart's place

Another consideration - trees are worth their weight in gold. A permaculture design always includes trees, with the outermost "zone" being the most tree-heavy. Trees make great natural borders, they provide shade and habitat for animals, and they make fuel for your stove and timber for your fences.

they also make great mulch for your gardens and swales

Food-bearing trees are even better. One book we read at Stuart's place suggested that it was a wiser investment to plant a nut tree than put your money into a 401K, because in 20 years you'd have enough nuts to make a fortune. Not sure we agree with this 100%, but an abundant supply of protein-rich, healthy-fat, free nuts at our disposal is definitely very appealing. Fruit trees are really good too, but might require an extra freezer or two for winter storage!

mulching fruit trees in Lorinna

Next is the importance of soil management! We've all heard stories about overplanted corn fields or giant cow pastures that have been completely depleted of nutrients and now grow nothing. Basic principals like crop rotation and proper undergrowth replenish the land naturally, preventing the need for fertilizers.

harvest garlic after winter growth,
then plant oats in the summer to replenish the soil

Planting native flora instead of foreign plants also helps the soil heal. It probably goes without saying but native flora keep your local bee population happy too. And the best native flora are the ones you can eat!

pretty, AND delicious in salads!
now how much would you pay?

Add all of this to the ever-growing list of general farm tips we've learned - start small, use as much reclaimed material as possible, invest in good tools, build it yourself but make sure you allow time and budget to do so - all common themes from the last 20 months.

But perhaps the biggest lesson from our permaculture experience (and all of our WWOOF experiences to date) is this: if it works for you, run with it!

Look, there are fifty bazillion different ways to make compost, plant potatoes, build a fence, feed a chicken, mulch a tree, apply any one of the permaculture design principles noted above, create an environmentally-friendly home... The point is to find the way that works for you, based on your location, interests, skills, time, and budget. AND THEN DO IT.

Welcome to what we'll be thinking about for the next six months as we venture slowly back to the Pacific Northwest...