The Accidental Permaculturalist (Victoria, Australia)

Raised rock beds provide a solid but permeable edge

Many years ago, out of a desire to be able to plant more fruit trees, I purchased a forested block of land. It wasn’t a particularly good bit of land, or even well adapted to my desires. What the property had in its favour was that no one else wanted it (having been on the market for a long time), and this put it within my price range: cheap!

No particular grand plans were ever initially drawn up for the property and my only aspiration was that I could owner-build a house on it, have lots of room for planting more fruit trees and install an off grid solar power system. That didn’t seem too much to ask for.

Eventually, the chance to owner-build the house happened. It was very exciting and also challenging, as my partner and I undertook all aspects of construction other than excavation, plumbing and mains electrical works.

However, sometimes things can become a little bit too challenging. The year of house construction was the wettest year in recorded history here, with over 1,437mm of rain (or 56.5 inches) in just twelve months. I’d never seen so much water! The water didn’t just fall onto my property from the sky either. Sometimes, it flowed on from surrounding properties and the roads.

I had to get serious about managing the water as a major rain event in the early days of construction caused considerable damage to the excavations. The damage was repaired by hand, shovel and wheelbarrow and a considerable amount of labour. Lesson learned.

The local earthmoving contractor who had been operating in the area for over 30 years gave me a reality check about installing a dam at this location. Farm dams in this area simply leak away within an hour due to the volcanic loam soils. He pointed out that this is why quite a few dams in this area are empty.

I’d been reading about the permaculture people who installed swales on their property to assist with the infiltration of rainfall into the water table and thought that this would be an ingenious method of dealing with the large volumes of water that I had to manage here. The earthmoving contractor installed two swales on the property on contour and they are still here today, happily gobbling up any surplus water and storing it in the water table.

Construction of the swales and installation of the sewerage system involved the movement of large machinery over my fragile soils and damaged them, which resulted in hard surfaces where water ran when it rained, causing further erosion. Yet, I’d observed that on other parts of the property, where there was established herbage and ground cover, no water ever ran over the surface as it was all absorbed into the soil. I needed herbage!

Establishing herbage over several acres involved feeding the volcanic loam with a mix of compost, woody mulch and mushroom compost. Feeding the soil is simply a fancy description for throwing the soil mix from a wheelbarrow so that there is a thin coating of the mix all over the ground. I also added some seed to the mix for good measure. One to two months later herbage sprouted all over the place.

Water has a habit of always finding the weak spots in any system. For me the weak spots were near the edges of the excavation. If water breached the edge of the excavation then it would pick up speed as it moved downhill, taking whatever soil and silt it could with it. These edges were actually close to the house and so I solved the problem by building raised herb and vegetable beds using old steel water tanks and rocks. These garden beds halted the movement of water and caused it to infiltrate into the soil, watering those beds in the process.

These raised garden beds of perennial vegetables, herbs and berries next to the house were not only good common sense but there were also zoning principles in action. We were slowly developing a greater appreciation and interest in permaculture design principles through seeing the benefits of those principles in action.

Chicken enclosure on contour

Applying zoning principles meant that our chicken house and enclosure were built on the same contour as the house. All of these things save effort, but when you are surrounded by forest, then it also reduces predation from the wildlife as the native animals don’t like coming too close to the house.

Given that we are unable to have a dam, water storage systems are critical. Last year, during the extreme summer heat and five-month drought, we almost ran out of water. This forced us to increase our storage capacity, and set up the water supplies so that water could be moved anywhere on the property (or rather, from one water tank to another).

Also, because of the prolonged lack of rain, water had to be easily available to all of the animal systems, which meant separate permanent sources for the native animals, chickens, bees, birds, frogs and reptiles — all of whom contribute to the farm in one way or another. Some of the bee hives in the surrounding farming areas died during this period because of the lack of availability of water and feed.

Our bees were deliberately located in a position adjacent to a water supply and in a position between the two food forests, cottage garden, herbs and vegetable systems. To ensure their continued supply of pollen, we’ve established very cold and heat hardy selections of flowers so that the bees can forage any day of the year.

Good design also involved planting water-loving fruit trees such as citrus around the mulch pits so that in dry times they had access to lots of ground water.

Raised vegetable beds provide a barrier to water

Over the years we have observed the climate here is excessively variable so we have taken advantage of the additional sunshine available in the “Sunny Food Forest” for such sun loving fruit trees as apricots and almonds. Into the “Shady Food Forest”, the more delicate food trees such as chestnuts and hazelnuts were moved. This was all learned through trial and error and observation.

It has been a great to discover that many of the systems here are consistent with permaculture design principles. Permaculture design systems provide an effective way to lay out a site. The more of those design principles that I have learned, the more that they get implemented into the systems here. Learning through trial and error is a good way to go, but why reinvent the wheel when there is so much good guidance and information available?

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