Friday, December 21, 2007

Permaculture in Canberra

I have been to a number of courses and workshops over recent weeks, starting with my visit to Jackie French's wonderful garden, followed by a field day at Mulloon Creek Natural Farms and an outing to another inspiring organic farm in our district.

I also attended a three session permaculture course run by the Canberra Environment Centre, which has recently moved to its new location near the National Museum in Canberra (photo left). In her book "Earth user's guide to permaculture", Rosemary Marrow defines permaculture as "the science of applied ecological design". This sounds rather grand, and I was a bit worried, especially as a friend of mine remarked that "putting in place all those ideas is just so expensive!" Nevertheless, I figured it would be worth going along anyway.

I was very pleasantly surprised! The course was run by Barbara Schreiner (pictured on the right below), who gave an introduction to the philosophy and application of permaculture principles. I quickly realised that in many ways, I am already applying some of those ideas and principles, but I also learnt many new, useful skills. I also learnt a bit more about the two co-founders of the permaculture idea, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren.

During our first session, Barbara outlined the design principles for a well-organised permaculture garden. This kind of garden is a Garden of Eden, devoted to producing food for people, timber for firewood (space permitting) and food for native animals. There are several "zones", starting with the energy-efficient house, then going out to herbs, moving on to less frequently used vegetables, the chook yard, fruit trees, a woodlot for timber and finally a wilderness area for native plants. The idea here is to have the most used areas closest to the house. As one has to walk past these areas every day to feed the chooks, it is easy to be aware of what is happening in the vegetable garden and whether it may need some water, more mulch or whether something is ready to be picked. Less frequently visited crops, such as fruit trees, or native plants can be located further away from the house.

Of course, most of us don't start from scratch but have to work with what is already there. As "homework" we were to do a "site analysis" of our own garden plot, looking at what was where, which areas where used a lot and which ones were not etc. I quickly realised that while my herbs are in a good spot right outside the kitchen window, the vegetables are not at all in a practical area - they are way out there and require a lot of walking both to get to them and to carry water to them. But then again, I enjoy the beautiful view from my kitchen and I need to be able to supervise my boys outside, so under those circumstances, I guess the vegetable beds are in the best possible spot. I just have to make a conscious effort of going out there every day.

Barbara also stressed that one of the ideas in permaculture is to use what is already there - reuse, reduce and recycle, in that order, and to look around our own yard and the wider neighbourhood to find things that other people have discarded but that may still have some useful life in them. That is certainly a principle I fully subscribe to! It was very refreshing to realise that this particular kind of gardening does NOT require expensive new-fangled gardening tools and a complicated set-up, quite on the contrary.

One thing I am going to change next year is the way I plant my vegetable beds. So far I have been planting in squares (due to having to put chicken wire around everything to keep the rabbits away) with reasonably straight lines. Many permaculture designs instead suggest planting in curves, for example in the shape of "keyholes" which allows better access to the plants.

We also learnt a lot about pollination and plant propagation, about manure, compost and no-dig gardening methods, about how to protect young seedlings and what to plant when. At the last session, Barbara showed us some pictures of her own suburban Canberra garden, the way it had started out and how she had gradually turned it into a garden of plenty.

There will be more courses held next year. The website for the Environment Centre can be found at

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