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. :)