Dec 16, 2012

Food Forest V's Orchard

Sometimes when I start to tell non Permaculture people I'm starting a Food Forest I stumble over the words. A fear creeps into my mind that I might sound pretentious, like I think my orchard is fancy and deserves a special name.

But there is a real practical difference, which I'll have a go at defining.

First up let's look at a typical orchard situation and some of the assumptions around it.  

  Typical Orchard, image from

When you think about getting a tree to grow there are probably two things that come to mind right away. Water and sunshine. Its pretty much universally understood that the more of these things an average tree can have the better it will grow. So traditionally (or in recent human history depending on your point of view) people have cleared the area around the trees. It makes sense right? That way the one tree will get all of the sunshine that falls on that spot and all the water that is put on the ground there. 

It also doesn't help that we have been raised on a steady diet of images that show clean and neat orchards as the kinds of things we should be aspiring to. These aspirations and expectations were established in an age when the human race was hell bent on dominating nature rather than living with it. They were then adapted and perpetuated by the modern industrial food system, mass producing food on a scale that makes global distribution possible demands that you can access your orchard with large machinery.


The superficial "benefits" are of course debatable, while clean edges and lines can be appealing, so can the blended soft shapes of nature. 

No self respecting Permie has any respect for industrial food production. Simply unsustainable and the evidence will be coming to an empty supermarket shelf near you in the years ahead.

The sunlight and water issue is where things get interesting for a Permaculturalist. The challenge is to search out and find the cycles and systems at play. Nature has a reason for everything and wastes nothing. So why don't trees generally grow in isolation in nature? Could it just be competition, survival of the fittest? Such a view suggests a world were all things operate in isolation, when we know the reality is that all the plants have evolved to live side by side over millions of years. Billions of combinations have been explored, the highest chance of survival for the widest diversity of life, and still the never ending search to find any tiny new increments of improved efficiency continues. The mano a mano winner takes all philosophy is a human invention, nature favours a stampede of possible winners running side by side. Left to its own devices nature will always create an abundance of some kind.

So why would trees grow clumped together. The main answer I would suggest is under our feet. Consider the soil in the heart of a rainforest.  


I'll bet one of the first things you thought of was moisture. The ground in a particular part of the rainforest may very well never be exposed to direct sunlight. The amount of evaporation from this soil would be tiny compared to the soil laying just beneath a thin layer of grass in a traditional orchard. Add to that a rich combination of leaf litter and plant material laid down by that dense covering of plants above, some animal droppings and decaying bodies and you have the perfect environment for healthy soil creation. Sure the tree branches above are having to compete for their share of sunlight, but the trees are designed to do that. It is estimated an average single tree catches about a third of the actual sunlight falling upon it, if there are no other trees around it the rest falls on the ground, drying it out. As a trade off for having to compete for light they get constant moisture (even in a drought) and healthy regenerating soil. Rainforest soil is among the most fertile in the world. 

So it comes back to understanding that the biosphere all came to be at the one time, over a very long time. The ground metres beneath you to the very highest reaches of the atmosphere and all that's in between are designed to work together and rely on each other. A stunningly intricate closed system that boggles my mind. You know half of your orchard is under the ground, we all know that the roots feed the tree. But have you considered that what is above the ground (in a natural system) looks after what's below as well. How cool is that!

So as we pass the one year mark here on our farm I have been reflecting on the progress in my own Food Forest. It will be a long time before there are any patches of ground in here that never see the sun, but there is progress. 

This first picture was taken just before I planted my first tree. From the moment we decided on a site the rule was that no ride on lawn mower or other big equipment was a allowed in there. The soil has had nothing heavier than me (or maybe the big kangaroo) stand on it for 12 months. 

This next picture was taken about 3 months ago I think, a little while after the frosts had stopped, but before the summer grass took off. Its hard to see, but there are well over 20 plants in there. Fruit trees, bamboo, lucerne trees, berries, a few nut trees etc, etc. I had a few casualties over winter due to the frost, but only a couple, I'll try to get more of a micro climate happening before I retry those varieties.

This last picture is a few days ago. Some extra citrus added, and lately I've been planting out a lot of wattle seedlings I started in pots up at the house, I planted ten in one go the other day. I've also put in some trees that will get mighty big, Bunya Trees and Silky Oak. 

If I had it to do over I would have put in the Acacia ahead of the fruit trees for extra frost protection, I also would have started with the trees planted in clumps under the existing Eucalyptus so I could get a micro climate started sooner and expand the whole thing out from there. Frost was a whole new issue for me.

This main part of the Forest extends down one side of the property. The extra long looooong term plan would be for it to be the base and then have long fingers extending out across the property following swales. The space between the swales being just wide enough for a portable animal enclosure to move along there. But if there is one thing a project like this teaches you it is patience. I'll keep chipping away :)

Dec 2, 2012

The Power of Portable Fencing

One of the more interesting Permi principles is Exploit Edges. I like it because it makes me look at things in a way I never had before. Have you ever noticed? Things do tend to grow more at the edges between things. Edges are where there is often more light, where water accumulates, where organic material builds up. Its a treasure trove for organic growth. Then the creative part is how can that be exploited. 

So when we moved here I had this vision of my chickens roaming free, where ever they wanted. What I under estimated was their determination to get into my veggie patch, so I had to put up a fence, they still have a huge space for six chooks. I bought some fencing mesh but couldn't at the time find the motivation to put in permanent fence posts, instead I used some moveable tread in posts. I'm hoping that turns out to be a blessing. 

So I had this idea that I could move part of the fence back and plant some chicken food there. Then when it has grown I can move the fence forward again so the chooks can get in there and chow down. Then I realised that while they were doing that they would probably do a good job of preparing the soil for more growing (some human food). THEN I realised that while they were working on that first patch I could move back the next part of the fence and have some more chook food growing there.

Continue the pattern and you have a veggie patch that travels along the fence line (edge), a veggie patch that is constantly being weeded and fertilised for the chooks. Well that's the theory anyway, we'll see how it goes. :) 

Dec 1, 2012

Permaculture is a platform for Creativity

A nice simple little example of how my life has changed in recent years and of how everyone's will need to change in the years ahead.

Here I have two garden stakes set up for some beans I planted out last week. The one on the left is an old one I brought with me from our last home. So the vine has something to get a hold of I have some wire netting bought from Bunnings over the pole. On the right is one made from an old cutting off of the peach tree (you can see the tree in the background top left), its bound to a stake with some old bailing twine.

Now lets just reflect on what it took to create these two items that perform the same task. The raw materials for the old one were mined out of the ground somewhere (probably Australia) then shipped off to some other country (probably China or India), then processed in a factory of which I know nothing out its environmental or humanitarian practices. Next it was shipped back to Australia, distributed across the land and then attached to a stick so I can grow a vine on it. Then when I am finished with it, it will sit in a land fill for who knows how long. 

The newer model grew just a few metres away, capturing carbon out of the air as it grew. It was free. It should last a few years and then it will go on the ground in the food forest or be chucked in a swale (when I dig some), there it will rot down into the earth taking some of its carbon with it into my soil where it will potentially stay for thousands of years. It will also provide a home for fungus in the soil, improving its fertility so I can grow more. In its entire journey it will probably have travelled less than a couple of hundred metres.

Now for my favourite bit. There are probably hundreds of different sustainable ways to hold up a vine. But this is my solution, the one I created using the elements at my disposal. Permaculture is all about CREATIVITY! Its structure has some striking similarities with my old life as an animator. According to the nine old men from the founding days of Disney there are twelve animation principles, there are also twelve Permaculture principles. As a teacher of animation I occasionally encounter a student who wants to side step the principles, they mistake them for rules. I have to explain that as principles they empower creativity, they help you to be unique rather than restrict like boundaries  The Permaculture principles are exactly the same, they are a launching pad for ideas. My time here on the property is a constant flow of ideas and creation, and I'm as happy as a pig in mud. :)


Nov 23, 2012

The Chicken Wagon

Its looking like there will be a string of chicken related posts. This one is about the creation of my first mobile chicken coop, I've been working on it for about 3 weeks between other things.. It will most likely contain chooks for eating, but the main thing I'm after is that I'll be able to set them to work revitalizing my pasture.

I started with 3 old desk frames from the tip shop. I think they were from a preschool or something because they were low and had different coloured paint splattered on them. 

I bolted them together, flipped them over and bolted on some slatted cupboard doors also from the tip shop.

Next I made some forks out of old palate wood and fixed a couple of old bike wheels in place, again from the tip shop.

Still more work to do on the underside, but I couldn't resist turning it over for a look.

So back on the underside I attached another door on hinges and covered the remaining space with fencing wire left over from the chicken enclosure. 

Back the right way up I covered the fencing wire with fine chicken wire and screwed in some boards for the chooks to sit on. The mesh floor will hopefully allow plenty of their poo and wee to drop through to the pasture below. I'll also keep some straw in there for them.

Next I put on old door (tip shop again) on top as an openable lid. Actually that door didn't turn out to be weather proof so I had to replace it with another after I took the photos. (2 extra bucks!) 

So there is a piece of rope that runs down through the top and connects to the hinged door on the bottom of the coop. I can use the rope to lower the door down like a draw bridge. So at night the chooks should go up into the coop using it as a ramp and I can close it so they are safe and sound from wild dogs and the like.

Some iron for the remainder of the roof.

And finally some chicken wire hanging down from the edge like a skirt so I can contain the chooks to the space immediately under the coop, focusing all that scratching pooing goodness where I want it. I can open it at one end to let them out for some free ranging too, I'm thinking after most of the day I might let them out a few hours before dark so they can stretch their legs, then they should return to the coop at dusk and I can drop by to tuck them in.

There are parts of the whole thing that wont last forever out in the weather or subjected to chicken attack. But the steal frame at its core is solid and I can replace bits as needed. I already have a spare one of those slatted doors put aside to replace the ramp. The whole thing cost less than $50, now all I need is some chooks to put in there.

One day if I have the money it might be nice to get some electric fence netting I could use to make a larger enclosure around the coop, then I could remove the chicken wire skirt and keep the coop in one place for longer. But I would need a spare $300 for that :P

Its interesting to see that way back in November last year before we moved here I was musing about a mobile chicken coop. While it turned out looking quite different, it has many of the same features.

This coop will follow the mobile sheep enclosure around the property so the chooks can scratch around breaking down their manure (and their own) into the soil.

Nov 20, 2012

Chook workers

I'm going to try and make shorter posts in the hope it will help me find the time and motivation to post more often.

Today I finally got around to a simple thing I'd be wanting to do for ages. Putting the chooks to work in the veggie patch. The enclosure is quite small, but that's a plus because it means I can pick out specific little places for them to work on. We chose the two Lowmans to go in there because they get along quite well,  they seem quite happy in there.

UPDATE: Well I couldn't believe how easy that was. And now (a few hours after finishing the first one) I was sitting on the deck sipping tea while the chooks had a ball improving my garden bed for me. So a few more sips later I made another slightly bigger one with the remainder of the wire.

Oct 30, 2012

Big Things and Little (CUTE) Things

First up the obligatory apologies for not posting in so long. I've just finished a stint of near full time work filling in for the two other teachers I work with who both took leave at overlapping times. I was staying in the city right through the week, away from my lovely wife and farm. Not the sort of thing I would normally do, but I have a strong emotional attachment to the course I teach and felt it needed looking after while the other teachers took some much needed time away. But I'm back now and loving it again, absence makes the heart grow fonder :)

Now I'm sure a few posts back I made some bold claim about there being no more large infrastructure to do on the farm and we would be scrimping by on little things from now on..... NOT! A rather naive claim in retrospect, you never know what's around the corner, in this case it was one of these.

 Vicki found one of these "portable" shelters going for a good price on Gumtree. The first thing I have to say is that it was not very portable. Luckily the seller was willing to deliver it, and even stuck around for the better part of a day to help us with getting the basic frame up. Then there were days of more work to be done, the video on the manufacturers web page says 2 people can put one up in 3 hours which is a load of rubbish.

This is where we were up to after the first full day. Then Vicki and I had to get the rest of the tin up on the roof and bolted on. Not the sort of thing we have experience at, but that's part of the fun :)

Archie now has a high and dry shelter just for him, much better than the little car port we were using before. If the weather is consistently bad we can keep him in here for as long as is needed. This should result in less work for us (mostly Vicki) in the long run, because it is when he is out in the wet that his feet and skin problems get a lot worse.

The work is not over yet, such a large roof demands that a water tank be attached to it when you live out this way. The tank will be very handy for animal water and will be just up the hill from the food forest. I'll put in a long pipe with a tap and shouldn't have to cart water down there any more.

And now the little things. Just a few weeks into my stint of extra work these little ones were born.

A boy and a girl, both in perfect health. They were born late in an afternoon while Vicki was home alone. She had her hands full, but managed the situation very well. They are growing so fast, I'd go back to the city for another weeks work and return to find them a good 20%ish bigger some times. Here are some videos of them at different stages.

Just a few days old.

They are not actually eating here, just copying mum we think.

I haven't really managed to get any good footage of it, but late in the day they will sometimes get what we call the zoomies, where they go a bit crazy and run around a lot.

They quite like climbing on the portable shelter we move around with their day paddock. Its cute but I am kind of hoping the novelty wears off before long, when they are full size they will probably break it.

We have been learning a lot as we go. Immunising, tail docking and even castrating. The fun of animal ownership :)

Oh and one last thing. Another reason I haven't posted in a while is because I've been setting up a new blog for my local Permaculture group. Why not stop by and check it out :) -

Jul 1, 2012

The Utility Area

Now there is a post title to fill you with excitement! It may not be that amazing, but it is where I spend a lot of my time these days so on the blog it goes :)

Down next to the shed is where I do all my soil creating work, there is electricity and water from the shed and we have planted a row of hedge plants up the hill a little so it will all be hidden from the house soon enough. You might also call this the smelly zone, its where all the collected manure gets piled up along with any organic matter bound for the compost. its kind of like the kitchen of the garden.

I did start with composting a little further down the hill on the other side of the fence. But having to walk all the way around the gate and back every time I wanted a different tool or some water was a pain so now its all up in the house paddock. I was worried Molly might get into all the manure, but she seemed to learn pretty quick to leave it alone.

The down side to moving it is that the space is kind of long and narrow, not a huge problem really, except I just have to lay everything out in one row. So when I am making a new compost heap (something I try to do at least once a month) there is a lot of walking back and forth with the spade or rake. But a little exercise never hurts (much).

I've also set up my worm farm down here. It's made from our old fridge using a technique I saw on Gardening Australia (Link).

 All it needs now is some worms.

I've got a lot of planting planned for spring so I'm trying to get ahead with the compost at the moment. My latest pile is bigger and has more ingredients than any so far and I hope to start another one before this one is ready (in about 25 days) so I can build up a supply. I use a system for composting from the Soil DVD published by the Permaculture Institute and it hasn't let me down yet. Its not available free on line as far as I know, but THIS video from the Milkwood blog is a pretty close recreation.

Still to come in this area is a set up for making aerated compost tea, and who knows maybe even a composting toilet one day.


Jun 16, 2012

The Experience

Something I have not done here in a while, a little bit of ill informed, artist slanted, social commentary.

The other day we drove to Kingaroy to buy some hardware bits and pieces, some big bags of flower and to try and buy some compost worms (couldn't find any). Along the highway on the way back we saw a sign at a turn off for a cafe we had not noticed before. We don't drink much take away coffee these days (what with child labour in Africa n all) but on a whim we turned in for a slice of cake. What we found tucked away at the end of a little bit of dirt road was a real treat.

The Whipbird Cafe. An old couple have beautifully restored a little old church, they were friendly, and they lovingly prepared all the food there on sight. Vicki and I shared a jaw droppingly yum slice of Rum and Chocolate Cheese Cake, had a nice chat with one of the owners (David) and left relaxed and happy.

It wasn't until later that I realised I had paid and left without it even registering how much it cost. Some people might do that all the time, but as a freelance teacher I'm just entering a month with no work or pay (mid semester break) and am in extra tight ass mode (as opposed to the regular only working one day a week tight ass mode).

The whole thing left me thinking about the power of the experience that comes with a purchase. Or maybe I should say the lost art of providing an experience with a purchase. Have you noticed? How the process of buying anything has become like a visit to a warehouse? As a child I remember a visit to a department store was like walking into a palace, clean polished floors, staff buzzing around straightening things on shelves and friendly smiling faces. I've only been there once (and wont bother again) but the Big W in Kingaroy feels more like a Bunnings, on this same trip we stopped into Target because Vicki had a $20 gift card (we couldn't find anything worth while to buy with it) and it was full of stacked boxes and crates in the isle ways. Food is proud of being predictable (i.e. bland) and is served to us quickly so we can get the hell out of there.

And of course this all trickles down to the commercial artist. I mean the only reason for associating art with a product in the first place is to improve the experience and if culture places no value on that experience then it follows it won't place much value on the art or artist. As someone who has raised a child in recent years and seen the peer pressure applied to his daughter I expect the majority of young consumers would place an emphasis on how many of a certain thing they had acquired over the quality of its presentation.

Large corporations, conditioning consumers, feeding their agenda of constant growth rar rar rar rage! etc etc :P

But what I did find interesting was how the owners of this beautiful little cafe had managed to find themselves a little niche out of the spotlight, but still providing them with enough to get buy. We'd said to David that we had been living here for six months now and not known they were there, but he simply said they get good business on the weekends and it was more than enough to get buy on. He wasn't interested in the financial growth game, which instantly earns my respect.

I wonder if we will ever stumble upon a niche up here in the hills for a couple of commercial artists.

May 27, 2012

Our Property Has A Name.

Just a quick post to show off the beautiful sign Vicki made to go out the front of our house. It's painted by hand using oil paints on an old fence post we found half buried out in the back paddock. I think it and Vicki are just beautiful :)

May 20, 2012

The Evolving Garden

Its been a while between posts, I thought I'd do a garden update and talk about a few related things. There are now about 9 garden beds in the veggie patch, my feeling is that its about half the size I'm eventually aiming for or maybe a bit under. Its hard to get the whole thing into one photo so the first 3 pictures here are all taken from the front deck slowly panning from left to right.

First up 2 beds where I am experimenting with some plastic covers. We are just starting to get out first frosts (a new thing for me) and I have a lot to learn about coping with them. While the nights are cold, the days still get pretty warm so I have to open them up to let some of the heat out during the day. Its pretty labour intensive, but seems to be working so far.

Some of the plastic covers are made from big plastic bags that the moving company put around our mattresses when we moved, others are made from painting drop sheets. The mattress bags are best so far, the plastic is stronger, in the future I might bug some bedding shops to see if they have any they are throwing away. I'm toying with the idea of turning the hills hoist into a greenhouse :P

Further around to the right is the main section where the original beds were put in. You can also see bits of the the drip irrigation system I've made.  The red bucket are connected to poly pipe with little holes punched in them. I got some poly pipe from my dad when I visited them last Christmas and then I also picked up some more from the local tip shop for a few dollars. I can water about 90 percent of my plants with 3 buckets of water when it used to take me about 6 watering cans, I've been checking and the ground is always moist.

Further around you can see the bed next to the water tanks and my seedling table, also protected from the frost. There is another bed further down the hill, the one the shower system drains into. That's the direction I will be expanding in. There are a few obstacles and strange shaped spaces down there so I might go for circular beds that are easier to fit around things.

Pictures of soil don't show up very well on my phone camera so I don't have images, but the soil in the older beds that are about 5 months old now is looking great. They were just cardboard, horse manure and straw, but now they are light, rich and fluffy carbon packed soil. That's carbon we put in the ground, a constant activity here now in multiple ways. It feels great to know we are completing that cycle, its how all things on this planet are supposed to live. When there is no carbon left in your top soil it is simply not top soil any more because the bacteria and fungus that fertilise growing things feed on the rotting carbon. Its estimated that there is about one third less top soil on the planet than there was 50 years ago, the USA has lost two thirds. Where did it all go? Ploughing and cultivating the soil instead of building on top of it releases the carbon into the atmosphere. Planting mono cultures and a smaller variety of crops will not help either.

I am starting to mulch between the beds too now so I don't have to mow between them. It also means there is more organic material breaking down into the ground.

Using some old vacuum seal bags stolen from the linen cupboard and a bit more poly pipe I've also made a few smaller free standing plant covers. In this one you can see the coriander is very happy in the hot steamy conditions it creates.

I've put in some new strawberries and we have a bumper crop of lemons coming on, I can't take much credit for them though, the tree was already there when we moved in.

Another thing we have been chipping away at in this part of the garden is clearing some of the grass out the front of the property. I don't have anything against the long grass in general (better than mowing), but as it gets very dry here in winter we felt it was probably a bit of a fire hazard. You can see in this images below how much we have cleared. 

That was all cleared by hand, no machines involved. Bloody hard work :P. Now I have to think what to do with it. I don't want more grass to mow, and I don't want to slowly loose it to weeds again either. For now I'm putting in a green manure/animal feed crop of Lucerne which will keep it busy while I think about it. Its actually a great spot for a food forest, close to the house with great soil, but its the councils land and I'm a bit hesitant to put in expensive plants that the council might come along a bulldoze one day to put in a pipe line or something.

Another great thing that happened the other week is I found a local Permaculture group that meets once a month. It has several other members that live right here in Nanango, some even in my street. It feels so good to know I'm not alone out here and I can't wait to see how things develop with them. One of them called Farmer Liz has a great blog if you would like to see more -

Hmm I wonder what tomorrow will bring :)