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!

Traditional English Orchards

Today I visited a number of fruit tree planting sites around Woodbridge, Suffolk.  This was after attending the Saturday farmers market, where my mind may have been turned toward all things apple by purchasing a bottle of James Grieve apple juice for morning tea!  Many areas of the UK have distinct agricultural and horticultural traditions.  While we tend to think of orchards as massive plantings of hundreds or thousands of trees, there are only 3-4 counties of England where this is common.  In the rest, orchards tend to be smaller groupings of 5-15 trees arranged around or near a farmhouse.  Often each tree is different, which provides the farmhouse with a range of fruits across the season.

Bramley Seedling planted on public land by Transition Woodbridge

There are a range of great local and national groups that support orchards and heirloom apple varieties across the country.  For instance, the Suffolk Traditional Orchard Group have a range of aims, including to

  • record and protect old orchard sites;
  • promote the new planting of traditional orchard fruit and nut varieties; and
  • preserve and disseminate the practice, cultural and historical value of orchards through education and publication

Suffolk has its own unique named varieties of fruit trees, particularly apples like the St Edmund’s Russet (pre-1875), Maclean’s Favourite (1820), Lady Henniker (c. 1845), Lord Stradbroke (c. 1900), Catherine (pre 1900), Old Blake (pre 1900)

Here are some of the collection of STOG working notes – resources which may not be applicable depending on your soils and climate, but which provide a great base for overall understanding of many of the principles of orcharding.

You can find out about orchards all over England through the Orchard Network of the People’s Trust for Endangered Species, who list links to local groups and have an Orchard Network webpage.

Since I’m staying in Suffolk right now, I have been looking at some plantings carried out by Transition Woodbridge.

Espaliered apples & pears planted by Transition Woordbridge near public housing playground
Transition Woodbridge food forest planting

For locals looking for trees of the right heritage, there are several well organised sources of supply, including the East of England Apples and Orchards project, which is a charity aimed at preserving old orchards, creating new ones and having people plant varieties traditional to their local county.  Check out their 2017 fruit tree catalogue and you can see how easy it could be to grow a range of heirloom varieties in your local garden.



Permaculture entrepreneurs

The Knowledge Exchange for Entrepreneurship in Permaculture (KEEP) project is a fabulous UK collaboration between the Permaculture Association (UK) and Kingston University London.  It is funded by a  grant from the Institute for Small Business and Entrepreneurship.

The aims of the project are to:

  • conduct preliminary research on the current state of permaculture enterprises and entrepreneurship;
  • identify and explore key factors underlying the success of permaculture enterprises;
  • identify, prepare and share case studies of outstanding permaculture enterprises;
  • develop knowledge resources and knowledge sharing processes which will encourage a new wave of permaculture-inspired enterprises and;
  • assist the Permaculture Association to create an enterprise hub

Check out the project website  which includes a wide range of case studies showing how different people have created diverse incomes based on permaculture – and it’s great to see that lots of the businesses are about things other than gardening or teaching permaculture (!)

…or here’s a great Vimeo video of Permaculture Association researcher Chris Warburton Brown talking about the project.

Central Victorian educators gathering

Monday was a public holiday and a few of us in central Victoria celebrated by gathering to discuss permaculture education across the region.  There were lots of ideas canvassed, but one interesting theme was how to make the Permaculture Design Course more relevant to renters.  One of our current PDC students came across with us and presented her view that permaculture sends a strong message that only those with land, or access to it, can have a permaculture lifestyle.

educators Rowe Morrow Nick Ritar

Rowe Morrow, who is visiting the region for a week or so, dropped in on the meeting and her comments about making permaculture relevant to nomads and the landless in developing countries echoed the point about renters.

David Holmgren described how renters are woven into the stories in his upcoming RetroSuburbia book.  There was general consensus that long-term renters (as opposed to those who are renting short term before buying land) are not well served by the current PDC syllabus.  I wondered whether there should be a PDC just for renters.  Wouldn’t the dynamic in the room change if everyone didn’t own land?  …and maybe had little prospect of ever doing so.  What would our design projects look like?  Would we see less landscape-based work and more designs in other domains?  It could be a very interesting project.  I’m on the plane in four days, though, so I don’t need a new project to keep me busy… might have to ponder on all this while I’m away.

oh, and at the end of the meeting a few of us ended up in Joel’s shed getting excited about a hand-powered milk separator he’s using to extract olive oil.  Check it out…  🙂

Joel’s butter churn

Permaculture Principles Masterclass

In late July, I will be running a one day event in Suffolk (UK), exploring the permaculture design principles as outlined by David Holmgren in his 2002 book “Permaculture: Principles & Pathways beyond Sustainability”.  In the fifteen years since the book was published, David’s set of principles have become increasingly recognised as suitable for application to a wide range of contexts, rather than just applying to landscape or garden design.  In this workshop, through a process of individual and group work, we will explore each principle, find personal examples of each and look at how multiple principles can be used to help make decisions in relation to a single project, such as writing a song or building a house.

More information and tickets are available here:

chestnut farm principles card game