I had been building home gardens for myself and others for many years, wherever i lived. At one stage, I had spent 7 years on and off travelling to various places in Qld to build food forests on farms.
For the last several of those years during my garden-building travels, I realised that some of my permaculture practices were considered unusual because of people’s reaction, their surprise. A dedicated gardener is always experimenting – it is how they build a tremendous understanding and experience of nature, the soil, the plants, their particular microcosm. Rather than experimenting, people generally “went by the book” possibly because there were principles that were not understood. If the principles were understood, then they could answer their own questions, do some experiment and develop their own methods according to their needs, according to their corner of the world.
I began to identify differences between my permaculture practice and others:
- I usually watered my vege garden with a watering can or bucket filled at a tap. Many gardeners water with a hose or by irrigation from a creek, not realising that is is unnecessary if they make soil building their priority.
- Most gardeners were sold on the idea of a kitchen-scrap compost, separate from the garden itself. and and i was amazed that people were still having problems with how to build a productive compost. most “compost” heaps i saw were sources of pollution and smelt really bad instead of sweet and heavenly. And that most people found composting too much work. They didn’t understand how to make it work and they were always looking up the rule book. I had not built a separate compost for kitchen scraps since 1975. Rather I left corners of my garden where I would put kitchen scraps, placing a clean layer of straw or sawdust each time so that the flies would not find it.
- Gardeners were generally unsure about or confused about: what nutrients to put into the soil, what plants to plant where, what plants to use as companion plants, why their plants were being eaten or why they developed disease. I haven’t thought about these things for years. I just concentrate on building a nutrient-dense soil.
- I left behind the practice of building a worm farm, always separate from the garden and often difficult to get the right balance of materials. Rather, I created a soil in which the earthworms would travel from all over to set up house in my soil
- People were so averse to using their own humanure, deciding that if they were going to use it, that it would have to sit in a pile unused for at least 6 months before YUK! it could be used. and that was because they still considered their humanure to be unclean in the first place. if you are eating pure organic produce, much of it straight from the garden, and not habitually eating flesh, then your humanure breaks down very quickly and can be utilised by the micro-organisms immediately and it is immensely wonderful as far as micro-organisms are concerned!
During the last year or so of building other people’s food gardens and forests, several ideas reoccurred:
- I felt that applying nutrients did not make much sense. I felt that the soil should be able to create its own nutrients if it was built right, perhaps after the soil had reach a certain virility
- I began to think vaguely about how to create a garden with the properties of neglected compost piles – ones that were left alone, not fiddled with. I had experienced the joy over and over again of witnessing self-sown seeds emerge from my deep straw mulch and from other people’s compost piles with such vigour and purpose. So many times, I have seen pumpkins, tomatoes, watermelon growing pest-free, full of life.
- I began to realise that it was imperative to avoid large variations in the moisture content of the soil. I had understood from very young at my mother’s knee about plants being stressed when they were transplanted and how to avoid that stress. I also realised quite a few years ago that to avoid stressing a plant, it was a good idea to reduce the temperature variation as much as possible by carefully choosing the right place for winter gardens and summer gardens.
- If plants are being eaten by insects, that the plant is stressed for some reason.
- I began to think of micro-organisms incessantly. If I could build a soil which created a home for micro-organisms, then they would be happy and create beautiful nutrient-dense soil. Often as I held soil in my palm, I would find myself saying, if I was a worm, would I like to live here?
- I wanted to be able to produce all the mulching materials, and began thinking of inbuilt hedgerow-type growth and living fences
- At one stage, I came across people who were having difficulties with bush turkeys raiding thir mulch, scratching it away to feather their nests right next to the vegetable garden. I asked one market gardener how he dealt with them and he said his mother told him what to do. She said, build a plot especially for the bush turkeys further down the slope and fill it with sweet potato – that will keep them happy – and it did. At that time, the turkey no longer travelled up the hill to his market garden.
1975 Organic Market Gardening on my father’s land
I began foregoing building a separate kitechen waste compost and simply spread the scraps into one corner of the garden.
I also built an outdoor compost toilet which was odor-free and a pleasure to use. The only drawback was having to use sawdust, necessitating finding sources of friendly sawmill and friendly managers. And there is always the question of – has the milled timber been treated with poison?
The toilet took 6 months to fill with two adults using it. I moved the toilet to another location, and covered the humanure with a thick covering of hay. I checked the heap in two weeks and to my delight, I deemed it ready, so I shovelled the pile into another corner of the garden bed, not planting directly on top. Rather enabling the micro-organisms do their thing, using any nutrients they wanted to. You would not believe the quality of those vegetables!
1992 Blackheath Blue Mountains NSW
I had already experimented with creating a home for earthworms in Blackhealth in the Blue Mountains. And the experiment was televised on Gardening Australia in 1992. At the time I had a huge backyard which was completely flat and lifeless. I wanted to create some interesting height in the flatness, to create microcosms, to make it beautiful and interesting in a short space of time.
So I decided that I would built curving walls from newspapers. I then put some degraded soil from the backyard on top of the walls and at the back and front of the walls, and drenched this soil with pre-made liquid manure. That was in the days when stacks of newspapers could be picked up from newsagents by arrangement. Today, these newspapers are usually recycled and are no longer available in bulk from the newsagents.
I had already collected huge pieces of carpet underlay which were destined for landfill. The underlay was made of copra or some such natural fibre. I cut the pieces to size, laying it over the wall, then covered the whole lot with any straw I could get hold of and clumps of tall grass from the backyard.
To my surprise and delight, earthworms appeared out of nowhere and began having zillions of babies in the open ends of each of the newspaper stacks! And along with the earthworms were bugs and beetles, all living and working happily together! I was thrilled!
2012 North Qld
At a garden in North Qld, the owner had access to lots of woody compost – “rubbish” that was begging to be used – a woody mix of soil, not much soil, mostly with various sized shredded pieces with lots of stringy bits, rather than shiny, slick evenly-sized chopped or chipped – strips and lumps of softwood, strips and small bits of bark – lots of places for soil organisms to live in – perfect for what I needed.
I wanted to created a strip of trees as a barrier and i wanted them to be fast-growing without watering. The mix was perfect for building a swale on top of the ground, and in 8 foot area in front of the swale, following the curve of the swale – to slow down the water which pooled behind the swale during the rainy season.
And then one fine day it happened! An Ahah!! moment!
I was sitting in the bush with my back against a tree contemplating going for a swim in the creek. and began idly digging through the leaf litter and realised that this was a self-managed system, not needing any watering or fertilizing or pest control input from anyone. It was self-healing, self-sustaining – needing nothing from man. What if a garden could be like that !?! What if an organic market garden could be like that?
I became very interested about revisiting the garden in North Qld, to see how the woody mulch fared.
On visiting the garden months later after a very hot season, I was absolutely amazed at the growth and virility of the herbs, the tomatoes and trees – and it had not been irrigated!