Tag Archives: permaculture

Permaculture versus my lettuces.

For advocates of permaculture, this will probably make them bristle. Although secretly, they will admit (but only to themselves in the wee small hours) that sharing their lettuces with the pigeons, slugs, rabbits and anyone else that wants some is at best irritating and at worst – well let’s not go there. What is permaculture? It started from a principle first put forward by a New Zealand ecologist, Bill Mollison (and his student David Holmgren) who noticed that the greatest amount of useable biomass in terms of food was produced by multi-layered complex ecosystems such as forests. It has long since expanded to cover a whole philosophy of life and way of thinking.

The three core principles at the heart of permaculture are:

  1. Care for the earth: No disagreement here, right?
  2. Care for the people: Well, that sounds pretty sensible too.
  3. Return of surplus: Reinvesting surpluses back into the system to provide for the first two ethics. Needs a bit of clarification perhaps? This is sometimes referred to as ‘Fair Share’ to reflect that each of us should take no more than what we need before we reinvest the surplus.
Plenty for all - come on down! Although if I am honest, these are not my lettuces. Mine didn't get quite this bad.
Plenty for all – come on down! Although if I am honest, these are not my lettuces. Mine didn’t get quite this bad.

The third ethic – fair share – is a great principle, and clearly life would be a lot better if we all lived like that. However, will somebody please tell the pigeons in my garden? They seem to think that ‘fair share’ means all my brassicas, lettuces and young pea shoots. This year, they have been kind enough to leave me the broad beans (although read my blog post from last year – ‘Badly balanced vegetables’ for other problems with broad beans). They have also pointed out to me on a number of occasions that I can also have the nettles and thistles. Negotiations are ongoing, you might say. Meanwhile, I have netted my lettuces to keep them off and also have some (totally ineffective) cloches over my kale and cavalo nero. This also seems to keep the other interlopers (rabbit and his friends & relations) out of the beds. However, this particular year slugs are taking their fair share. Unfortunately, they seem to take it rather unevenly – a bite here, a bite there – and also once they have eaten their fill, like to snuggle down for a little nap between the leaves. This does not go down well with offspring (or anyone else at the table, come to that).

These are my lettuces - complete with plastic slug collars.
These are my lettuces – complete with plastic slug collars.

My solution has been to use plastic soup containers (herein lies an admission that I sometimes don’t make all my own soup – but don’t tell anyone). I cut the bottoms off them and gently thread them over the lettuces. this seems to work, and it is even a bit permaculturey – I am recycling after all! You might notice in the picture mulching with grass clippings and my irrigation system, which runs off rainwater stored in an IBC (International bulk container). All a bit Bob Flowerdew, but it works! Ignore the weeds please.

Of course this acceptance of intervention is at the heart of gardening and of garden design. Indeed, it is what defines it (see my blog post from a couple of years ago – When is a garden designer a landscape designer?). By making interventions we clearly make conscious choices about what we will or won’t allow in our space. The natural world impinges upon that space; it is allowable if it works with or doesn’t directly undermine our choices. When it does, we define it as a pest. So I suppose what fascinates me about all this is that we are very keen as gardeners and garden designers to cater for ‘wildlife’. As long as it doesn’t eat our lettuces, that is. This same view pervades our view of plants as well. The difference between a wildflower and a weed? Well, the old adage is that a weed is just a plant in the wrong place. So by extension, is a pest just wildlife in the wrong place? Squirrels are OK when they eat nuts from your hand in the park, but not from your walnut tree? Rabbits are OK in a hutch but not (as with us this winter) when they cause several hundred pounds’ worth of damage to newly planted trees – all ring-barked. Do I sound bitter and twisted? Maybe a little, but as least with my soup container solution, the slugs and I can live happily side by side! Maybe they will even eat the weeds…

Has Cuba’s urban organic revolution stalled, and should that be a surprise?

Fruit and vegetable stalls are on almost every corner in Havana
Fruit and vegetable stalls are on almost every corner in Havana

We were over in Cuba a couple of weeks ago. This trip had been planned for years, but has only recently come to fruition. As it turned out the timing was interesting to say the least. We were there just before Obama’s ground-breaking visit (and that of the Stones). One might argue that Cuba is on the cusp of change, and I am sure the history books will mark Obama’s visit as the great change point, but the truth is that change has been happening at a remarkable rate for the last few years. The alterations brought about by Raoul Castro in 2010 onwards, such as deregulation of farmers markets and allowing home-run restaurants and guest houses to open are the most obvious manifestations of these changes to a visitor. The Cuban government is trying to pull off a difficult balancing act of maintaining ‘democratic socialism’ whilst allowing inward investment and motivating private enterprise by allowing individuals to keep profits. One can argue about the degree of democracy of course, but there is no doubt that broadly speaking the system has popular support.

Trinidad rural organoponico
These sort of out-of-town organic farms were established in Cuba during the special period and are still fairly common
Built from raised concrete beds and re-inforcement steel to support shading, they are a simple solution to a production problem.
Built from raised concrete beds and re-inforcement steel to support shading, they are a simple solution to a production problem.

Around twenty-five years ago, Cuba entered what is known as its ‘Special Period’. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the cheap oil for sugar deals that Cuba had benefitted from came to an end. At the same time, the world oil price rose sharply. The country lost approximately 80% of its imports, 80% of its exports and its Gross Domestic Product dropped by 34%. This caused major hardships for the population and a considerable rethink in the way Society operated, particularly with regards to energy policy and agriculture, as oil, pesticides and chemical fertilisers became unavailable. Australian and other permaculturists arriving in Cuba at the time began to distribute aid and taught their techniques to locals, who soon implemented them in Cuban fields, raised beds, and urban rooftops across the nation. Organic agriculture was soon after mandated by the Cuban government, supplanting the old industrialized form of agriculture Cubans had grown accustomed to. This is all well documented and probably well-known to many of the readers of this blog. And up until around 2008 or so, the system remained in place. One of the most interesting and unusual characteristics of the Cuban agricultural revolution was the widespread dispersed urban agriculture movement. Any free space became a food-growing resource – courtyards, rooftops, empty public and private plots were all turned over to communally cultivated fruit and vegetable plots. Check out this article from the Guardian almost exactly eight years ago for an interesting snap shot of where the country was in 2008. Oil and commodity prices were high and rising, the US blockade was still in full force (although the cracks were beginning to appear).

We went to Cuba expecting to see many ‘Organoponicas’ as they are known. However, over the last six years or so, a combination of lower oil prices and higher personal incomes has had some interesting side effects. The rise in roadside markets (on almost every other street corner in some areas) and the falling cost of growing food, coupled with more money in people’s pockets has meant that many of the smaller unorganised urban agriculture projects have foundered. Others are threatened by development although many of the larger ones survive. I guess this shouldn’t really be a surprise, although to many starry-eyed western permaculturists it may come as a bit of a shock. I suppose the real surprise is why they thought that Cubans were really any different from anyone else. After all, if you have spent ten hours at work, why would you want to stop by the community garden to tend the vegetables when you could buy them cheaply at the corner stall on your way home. Unless you wanted to that is. Because like anywhere else, there is a significant minority of the population that are motivated and interested growing things, but it is a minority. The legacy of the special period in Cuba has meant that unlike other countries there is an understanding of and skill-set in organic horticulture.

As well as Terrazas (a well known sustainable settlement dating from the late 1960s), we also visited a number of smaller local Organoponicas in Havana that have survived. Some of these visits were by arrangement and others just be looking over the fence!

So where does this leave Cuba and where does it leave permaculture? Well, the answer is certainly in a better place than it was before the agricultural revolution. But in the end it should be obvious that given the chance, people will specialise in what they do best and enjoy. That after all is how cities and indeed civilisation work.

As far as horticulture goes, our trip was exciting as we had expected as well as being interesting in unexpected ways. Plus we got to hear some really good music and drink a few knock-out mojitos.

Urban Havana School garden
Urban Havana School garden
These Aloe are grown for medicinal purposes in this Central Havana Organoponica. Plant based medicines are common in Cuba.
These Aloe are grown for medicinal purposes in this Central Havana Organoponica. Plant based medicines are common in Cuba.
Salad crops grown in a central Havana organic garden. Note the simple raised beds made of concrete channels.
Salad crops grown in a central Havana organic garden. Note the simple raised beds made of concrete channels.
These guys were really keen to show us around. Spot the tourist!
These guys were really keen to show us around. Spot the tourist!

 

A Bigger Splash – week three – story of a swimming pond for a garden designer

Vicky Wyer takes up the story…

Week three of the swimming pond saga and the garden still looks like the outskirts of a Welsh mining town.

Looking very deep now - swim area walls almost complete

The blockwork walls of the deep swim area are almost complete and now stand proud of the surrounding ground – although eventually they’ll be about 300mm below water level. As our garden is on an appreciable slope, we have planned this ‘perching’ of the pool in order to minimise the dig but also to redistribute what was in the hole around the garden.

So where our lawn was sloping it will be flatter, and beyond the pool the ground will need to be terraced to take it back down to existing levels. How this will be achieved when there are spoil mounds on almost every inch of ground remains to be seen…

Plans for our food forest

John has asked me to write a bit about our forest garden plans this week so here goes:

For those unfamiliar with forest gardens they are basically self-regulating, food-producing ecosystems designed to mimic the structure of a woodland edge – optimum light, shelter and layering of groundcover, shrub, understorey and canopy  to give abundant production.

Typical layers in a forest garden (unless you have chickens)

This is based on the principle that nature is always pushing towards climax vegetation (woodland in the UK) so why not harness that energy and work with it, adapting nature’s tendencies for our own ends.

How it should work

Briefly in an ideal forest garden all your resource inputs are minimised:

  • minimal weeding as planting or mulch covers the ground completely
  • minimal watering once established due to the woodland microclimate
  • minimal pests and diseases due to the biodiversity
  • minimal feeding as the design incorporates sufficient nitrogen fixers to feed the rest via microrrhizal activity. Potassium is added via comfrey mulches, etc

All of which is just as well as between us John and I are pretty rubbish at nurturing our own garden on the whole. Looking after three children, two dogs, a business, a community garden, a neglected house still in need of major renovation, four ducks, eleven chickens, some raised veg beds and a lawn that seems to be the mole-magnet of the county seems to fill most of our time…

Deckchairs on the Titanic? - where John and I will sit and laugh when this is all over (when we're done picking all the flippin forest garden fruit)

Factoring in existing ‘challenges’

And as with everything we do at home, our forest garden will be a bit of a compromise:  partly since we’re working with a set of existing trees, none of which fix nitrogen, partly because our garden is quite exposed with the sun and wind both coming mainly from the west, and partly because the forest garden is where our chickens roam – good for fertilisation, bad for growing a productive herb layer. Oh and then there’s the rabbits that pop over from the field next door for a little ‘silflay’ every morning…

Our Forest Garden plot - aka the chicken run - looking west

How it will work – we hope

The idea is to plant some Italian alders along the northerly boundary where they will add shelter and fix nitrogen but not shade the already dappled forest garden too much – luckily the existing trees are birches so there will be some sun getting through. An Autumn Olive (Elaeagnus umbellata) planted for its flavoursome berries next to the southerly hedge, will also fix nitrogen. Altogether this should give us enough nitrogen to satisfy the existing trees and our proposed fruit layers.

The Forest Garden plot looking towards the house (showing open cast mine inbetween)

As our soil is very sandy and free draining, the terraces we’re planning will help to retain runoff in the forest garden. Along the edges of the terraces we’re going to use the bulky tree waste and hedge trimmings we’ve stockpiled at the bottom of the garden from the removal of numerous unwanted or elderly trees and shrubs. These tree waste bunds will be covered with the turf from the old lawn to create ‘hugel’ beds; the slow break down of the tree waste will release nitrogen over a long period and enhance the soil structure. Rebel farmer Sepp Holzer uses this technique on Austrian mountainsides to great effect.

As well as fruit and nut trees, we’re planning to grow some bamboo near the pond. This will not only act as a much needed shelterbelt but we hope to harvest the shoots for eating.

It’s all happening so fast!

The apricots, almond, hazel, quince, medlar, gage, damson, Mirabelle, plum, blue honeysuckle, cherries, fig and berries-too-numerous-to-mention, have started to arrive from Martin Crawford’s Agroforestry Research Trust in Devon and various other specialist nurseries, and we’ve been busy heeling them in until the areas are ready for planting. And before you ask not all the plants are going in the forest garden – some will go nearer the house and some in the front garden.

The chickens look warily at the heeled-in fruit bushes

And we haven’t even started on the planting plans for the pond itself and its immediate surroundings! Looks like a busy weekend ahead with another round of decisions and compromises…

Recommended reading on Forest Gardening and Permaculture in practice:

Martin Crawford’s Creating a Forest Garden

Sepp Holzer’s Permaculture