Food from your Forest Garden

I had the great pleasure of meeting Caroline Aitken this week.  Caroline and Matt Dunwell are the lead teachers on the Permaculture Design Course  I visited at Ragmans  Farm.  As well as being a fab permie teacher and all-round cracker on the ukelele, Caroline is the author of the fabulous Food From Your Forest Garden.

Some of you will have heard me enthuse about this book in the past: it fills a logical niche in the forest garden literature by guiding us in what to do once our garden starts producing!

Ragmans is a well-known permaculture demonstration farm which has been developed by Matt Dunwell since 1990.  It also has a long history as a permaculture training base, including courses with Bill Mollison in the early days.

p.s. Foodie trivia: Matt co authored the first Local Food Directory in 1997

Applewood Permaculture

Thanks to Chris Evans and Looby Macnamara for their hospitality when I visited their new farm – Applewood Permaculture.  Ian Lillington dropped in for lunch so we took a happy snap.  Chris felt a bit bad that he didn’t have a short-sleeved check shirt to wear, but we assured him it was only a requirement for Australians.

Chris lived and worked in Nepal from 1985 and got involved in permaculture while living there.  He is one of the few permaculture pioneers who have worked within a single developing-world country for such an extended period.  Even now, while developing the new property in the UK, he usually spends at least six weeks a year in Nepal, and is an integral part of the Himalayan Permaculture Project.   In 2001 he wrote The Farmers Handbook which was originally published in Nepali but has now been translated into multiple languages.  Read more about Chris.

Looby is well known as the author of Permaculture and People, which was published in 2012 and broke new ground as the first book to focus exclusively on personal and social applications of permaculture.   Looby has written further books, including a recently published book of poetry based around her Work That Connects.  Read more about Looby or buy the book; either directly from her or through her publisher Permanent Publications online outlet.

Tomas Remiarz

Tomas Remiarz book “Forest Gardening in Practice” is a series of case studies of developed and emerging forest gardens, mostly in the UK.

Yesterday I visited Tomas at his home only a few miles from Robert Hart’s original forest garden in Shropshire.  We talked about many things, including his recent visit to Robert’s garden,  which has been closed to the public for over a decade.    Tomas was interested to note that although the garden was very overgrown (having not been maintained for 17 years), there was still some edible yield available and he was particularly interested in the presence some groundcovers not usually seen outside ancient woodlands (e.g. wood speedwell and sanicle). How did they get there?  Did they pre-date Robert’s work in the garden?  Had Robert brought them in?  Had they come in since Robert’s death in 2000 – taking advantage of the ‘abandoned’ nature of the garden?  Impossible to know for sure, but an interesting phenomena to observe.   (…and another spur to me to learn more plant ID skills!)

Tomas showed me around the housing co-op where he and 6 other adults live.  It is on a 7 acre property & has been running as a community of one sort or another for over 40 years, although the current co-op members have all joined within the last 5 years.  Their current focus is on restoring and improving the Victorian buildings on the site.

It wasn’t all chatting –  we scythed a few nettles around the on-site wetland that processes all grey water produced from the 3 houses on site.

Tomas is actively involved in a forest garden research project for the UK Permaculture Association.  Initial work has identified three areas of particular interest:

► The ratio between energy put into the forest garden and the energy yield

► Making a living from forest gardening

► The potential of forest gardens in amenity horticulture

Lots of great data and more information here:

Bristol PDC presentations

Few things reinforce the global nature of permaculture like being stuck in a suburb on the other side of the planet for a day or two and having the random opportunity to attend final design presentations of a local Permaculture Design Course.

It was a privilege to sit in and enjoy the presentations and then share conversations in the pub afterwards. Mentally comparing Ballarat and Bristol, I was struck by the similarity of responses to the PDC that people talk about – how it was more than they expected, more than plants and compost, more than gardening… how lifestyle choices had been expanded, people had been inspired, how site visits and unexpected presentations had shifted ideas.

The design work was done in groups and the locations were diverse and interesting; a community garden space, an acre and a half private small holding, the garden surrounding an internal hotel lawn, a community building (ex library) leading to an amazing hidden acreage of meadows.  Because several people had plans to implement the plans, there was a reality and immediacy to the designs – these were not theoretical musings with no impact; people are going to implement these designs!

…and can you believe that someone recognised me from Ian Lillington’s shot of me and Lachie McKenzie at St Weburgh’s City Farm from yesterday?  Seriously?!

Van heaven

St Werburgh’s in Bristol is a very happening area; St Werburgh’s city farm, huge number of allotments, some innovative eco-residential developments and even local permaculture teaching (heading to a PDC design presentation event this evening).

BUT when you are living in a van for a few weeks you are mostly doing something unusual… except when you arrive in this suburb!  Check out the crazy range of live-in vans that all within a street or two of me right now.

Permaculture Scotland gathering

More than 120 people came to Castle Douglas in Dumfries and Galloway for the Permaculture Scotland gathering on the first weekend in July.  The venue – The Hidden Mill – lived up to its name as I drove around for 2.5 hours within 15 minutes of it.  Whoops!  Big thanks to the kind Council worker who said “Follow me!”, led me down the right byways and pointed me in the final direction.

Once at the venue, it was great to be part of a vibrant gathering.  People came and went throughout the weekend, so the total number attending was possibly as high as 150.  Here’s the Saturday morning circle in front of the big tent that was our kitchen and dining area.

I was pretty impressed with the creativity of these composting toilets… what a clever design to merge walls and roof.  Eye-catching but also structurally smart because we all know how strong a triangle is, right?

There were workshops talks but also some practicals, like this outdoor class on peg loom weaving.

or this one on using cool old handsaws.  If you’ve got one of these pinned to a wall as a decoration, maybe it’s time to clean it up and sharpen it?

The food was fabulous and somehow most people found a seat (aka log).  It was byo plate, bowl, cup & cutlery so that made things simple for the caterers.

although they did sometimes need some big spoons of their own…

Graham Bell discussing 30 years of green living.

and here’s the mill pond, being as still as a mill pond, as the saying suggests it should…

The weather was gorgeous all weekend with lovely sunny afternoons and evenings.  One thing I wasn’t prepared for was how long the days are in mid-Summer in Scotland.  Because we were 20 degrees of latitude closer to the poles than I am used to, my sense of evening time was completely out of whack.  On Saturday night, I looked at the evening sky which was just starting to darken and thought it was about 9 o’clock.  I asked someone what the time was…. 11.30pm!

Garden Cottage Coldstream

Graham and Nancy Bell have a fantastic forest garden in Coldstream, Scotland.  It is about 800 m2, with high stone walls on three sides and a 2 m hedge along the fourth.  The garden has been established since 1991 and is primarily producing food for a family – although Graham would hasten to add that it also feeds the 1000 visitors they have on open days throughout each year!

Chestnut Farm Cottage Garden

You can read a history of the garden on Graham’s website.

As well as the food yield, there is also a nice yield in energy (note solar panels) and a small commercial nursery manages to nestle in amongst everything else… yes, that’s why there are trays of seedlings and clumps of potted fruit trees dotted here and there.

Graham is doing us all a great service by documenting a lot of his work, including specific yields.  The garden produced over 1.2 metric tonnes of food in 2015.  You can see his garden research page and check it out yourself.  Or find out a bit more about Graham.

Neatness = inefficiency?

“Neatness and tidyness costs energy and reduces the efficiency of your system” (Martin Crawford)

Form small groups and discuss. No points awarded to teams where members later require medical attention.

Follow a simpler way

Wurruk’an is a small intentional community in Gippsland, just outside Moe.  The landowners have created space for people to come and experiment with communal living and a simple lifestyle, without the need to first buy land.  The ‘land barrier’ is a significant reason many people are unable to explore their desire to take up a simpler rural lifestyle.  David Holmgren would be quick to point out that retrofitting the suburbs is a legitimate and necessary response to the global challenges of climate change, environmental degradation and consumer-driven growth, however there are still people who hanker to get out of the cities and try something different.

In 2015-6, Wurruk’an conducted an extended experiment in radical simplicity where a number of people came to live on the property, grow their own food, build tiny houses or retrofit existing buildings while working out how to live together.

The resulting documentary, A Simpler Way, is available as a free documentary on Youtube and I highly recommend it.  Including interviews with those involved in the experiment, plus thinkers like David Holmgren, Nicol Foss, Ted Trainer, Helena Norberg-Hodge and David Spratt, the film portrays both the highs and lows of the experience. It is obvious that projects like building a tiny house or retrofitting the old double garage shed into a communal kitchen and lounge space brought heaps of community energy together and resulted in massive satisfaction and achievement.  The exuberance of such moments is balanced by participants interviews where they candidly talk of the struggles to live in community; the difficulties of resolving conflicts when systems for doing that hadn’t yet evolved, and the challenge of working in a cultural vacuum without rituals, songs or ways to celebrate, process, begin or end.

Perhaps this is one of the areas where we will all need to become more skilled – how do we create new communal rituals when old ones have been abandoned?  Surely we can do better than stiff backs and hand shakes with eyes averted, but which way to go?  Will we be like the fake druids dressing in white sheets and pretending we’re continuing ancient practices … or do we  become tie-dyed hippies dancing in circles at the end of every meeting?  I can imagine quite a few Aussies finding that all a bit much!

Anyway, have a think about that and no doubt we’ll discuss it more anon!

You can visit the Wuurk’an website which is a little dated but still has some great photos and information about the project, courses offered and future direction.  They are currently seeking expressions of interest for long-term residents, so that might be of interest?  (You can also follow Wurruk’an on the Book of Faces)

For broader information on radical simplicity, head to the Simplicity Institute website – with plenty of great content from Ted Trainer and Samuel Alexander, as well as many others.  I really like the practicality of their Take Action page – but of course I should have expected simplicity from the Simplicity Institute, sholdn’t I!

[by the way, Elizabeth Wade and Taj Scicluna were two of the people involved in the experiment.  Taj taught on our last Permaculture Design Course and Liz is now living locally with her partner and baby.  Nice to have some local connections!]

Spiral Ridge Permaculture, Tennessee

One of the delights of my 2014 trip to the US was becoming friends with Cliff Davis, of Spiral Ridge Permaculture, in Tennessee.  Cliff was one of the teachers on Dave Jacke’s teacher training course just outside Nashville.  After the course, I visited Cliff, Jennifer and their beautiful family on their farm.  A few years have gone by and there’s been some massive progress…  which I’ve just had a ‘tour’ of, via one of Justin Rhodes video blogs.  Justin and his family are touring north America, visiting great permaculture sites.  His tour of Stefan Sobkowiak‘s Miracle Farm orchard is a great one to check out, too, but have a look at this visit to Cliff’s place – only five days ago!