As people become urbanised, they start looking at the world in urban ways. What does that car or house say about that person? How does that person’s occupation affect their social standing? People may not admit it, but they understand the answers to these questions intuitively. As permaculturalists, we need to apply these same observational skills to our permacultural adventures.
These observational skills are important for permaculture because they allow you to read a landscape. No two pieces of land are ever the same! Whether that land is in an urban area or a rural area you can gather a huge amount of information as to its suitability for your next permaculture project simply by observation over a period of time. These skills will also allow you to identify ways to adapt your land to your particular purpose.
Reading a landscape is an observational skill so I have decided to take you on a virtual tour of the mountain range that I live in and tell you what I see in the different spots that we stop off at. I will highlight things at each location that I have learned on my food forest permaculture journey, and that I hope to impart to you the reader. I hope you enjoy the tour!
As a bit of general background before we start the tour, the Macedon Ranges are an hour north of Melbourne, which is the capital city of Victoria, Australia. The ranges are an extinct volcanic massif (a group of connected mountains) which rise above the surrounding elevated plains. The highest point in the range is 1,015m (3,330 feet) above sea level (ASL), whilst the elevated plains at the bottom of the range are around 450m (1,476 feet) ASL. The massif itself is about 25km (15.5 miles) from end to end.
In global terms, it is a pretty small mountain range, but it is full of different micro-climates. In addition to this, the climate itself is very variable. For example, rainfall can vary from between 500mm (19.6 inches) in a drought year to 1,400mm (55.1 inches) in a very wet year. In the past seven years, I have seen both.
The prevailing winds affecting the mountain range generally travel from the West to the East. When they originate in the North West (which is the centre of the Australian continent), they are warm to hot and very low in humidity. When they originate in the South West (which is from the ocean to the South of the continent all the way down to Antarctica), they are cool to cold and are very high in humidity.
Enough of the background, let’s get on with the tour (for the northern hemisphere readers please change references from South to North and North to South). Refer to the map (top) for each location in the mountain range.
Location 1 – 700m ASL
The land slopes gently downhill to the South. You can see in the photo that the forest, whilst being relatively open, is quite tall and straight. The over-storey trees have a reasonable diameter too. These are an indicator of deep soils and good water availability in the landscape. However, given the openness of the forest and the orange-brown coloured soils, you can also tell that whilst the volcanic loam is quite high in minerals, it is at the same time very low in organic matter.
Being only a gentle slope, rainfall has a chance to infiltrate the soil. Farm dams at this point in the mountain range also drain quickly, exactly like a swale. This is an indicator that the soil is very well drained (i.e. a loam) and most water is held below the surface – even in the local creeks, which run only after rainfall. Most of the local earthmoving contractors no longer accept jobs to build dams in this area, although there are a couple of shonky contractors who will.
This area is suitable for growing a wide range of trees because of the good drainage, however as the soil is low in organic matter, it must be brought in or generated on site.
Location 2 – 750m ASL
The land slopes gently downhill to the East. Facing East means that this land receives mostly morning sunlight which is much cooler than the hot afternoon sunlight (from the West) and as a consequence there is very little loss of water through evaporation. You can see that the over-story trees are very tall and very straight. There is also a dense under-story of trees and shrubs. This tells a story about deep rich soils and lots of water.
The soils here are also a volcanic loam, but because there is so much more vegetation with higher levels of diversity than the previous location, those soils contain a lot more organic matter.
This location is very high in the mountain range too, but has the bulk of the mountain range between it and the prevailing winds. As such it is sheltered from the worst of the winds. Strong winds have two adverse effects on a landscape: The tops of tall trees get blown off; and the wind results in higher rates of evaporation.
This area would be perfect for growing trees that like high levels of soil moisture. Apples and pears come to mind.
Location 3 – 600m ASL
The land here slopes down to the East. You’ll also notice that the photos of this location includes a reservoir for drinking water. Having the ability to hold water above ground is an indicator that the soil contains high levels of clay. The soil in the photo has a more yellow colour than previous soil photos which indicates a lower mineral content than the previous photos of volcanic loams.
The trees in the photos are also much shorter, less straight and tend to have spreading canopies. This is indicative of shallow soils.
Just like the reservoir, there are farm dams here, which means that this location is suitable for animal grazing (horses in particular) and you can see paddocks in the photos for this purpose.
Location 4 – 600m ASL
The land at this location slopes down to the North East and is in a valley in this range. A creek runs down the middle of the valley, whilst several other creeks also feed into this valley, originating from higher up in the mountain range.
The aspect of the land to the North East means that this area receives useful sunlight for the majority of the year.
The soils are volcanic loam but are also high in organic matter which has washed down from higher up in the mountain range over time. You can see in the photo that the soil has a darker colour.
The downside of this area is that, being in a valley, there is a certainty of frosts. Cold air always moves downwards from higher up in the range until it becomes trapped — usually in the bottom of a valley (or river/creek). Frosts usually occur during winter and spring. It can be counter intuitive, but it is actually warmer at higher elevations in amongst the trees during a frost than at the bottom of a valley in an open paddock!
However, the combination of fertile soils, water availability and year round sunlight means that this area is prime agricultural land for a variety of purposes including cattle fattening. In past times, potatoes and berries have also been grown here.
Location 5 – 850m ASL
The land here slopes down towards the North. As such, the land receives excellent sunlight for the entire year and the high elevation ensures good rainfall.
The dominant trees in this location are the long lived broadleaf acacia’s (acacia melanoxylon, which are leguminous) and also a large number of exotic species. This indicates that the soil will have both high mineral and organic content. There are no farm dams in this area which is an indicator that the soils are also very well drained.
At this elevation, some snow can be received over winter which may be a problem for cold sensitive plants, although the snow would rarely settle for more than a few hours to a day at most.
The agricultural pursuits at this location include: cattle; potatoes; chestnuts and grapes. The chestnut trees and vines are deciduous which negates the impact of the few snowfalls received during the year.
Location 6 – 950m ASL
This location is on the top of the main ridge of the mountain range and has a very high elevation. The first thing you notice is that it is windy and that there is little protection from the wind.
The second thing you notice is that the forest is very uniform in age and growth. By this I mean that the over-story trees (mountain ash) and the under-story trees (black and silver wattles) are all about the same height and age. This is an indicator of extreme disturbance in a forest (logging or wildfire). In February 1983, 295km2 (114 square miles) of forest around this area was burnt, along with 628 buildings and the loss of 7 lives. This was the ‘Ash Wednesday’ fires. What you see in the photos is regrowth from that time as the fire in 1983 favoured the germination of the mountain ash forest which is growing today.
It is quite a harsh environment at this location, thanks to constant exposure to drying wind and sun, and there are no attempts at agriculture. However, on the southern, more protected, side of this ridge there are extensive plantings of the exotic Douglas Fir trees which are harvested in small quantities at irregular intervals. This is one of the few locations in Australia for this particular timber species and as an interesting side note this species has naturalised as well as exotic maples in this mountain range and the seedlings can be found popping up in all sorts of unexpected locations.
Location 7 – 850m ASL
The gold rush in Victoria from the 1850s, along with the exploitation of the local grass lands in raising vast herds of sheep for fleece, produced great wealth. Some of those wealthy families chose to spend their wealth building hill stations and ornamental English style gardens in the cool climate of the south west edge of this mountain range. The purpose of a hill station was so that a wealthy family could avoid the heat and disease of a typical Melbourne summer at the time. With no sewerage facilities in Melbourne back then, cholera and typhoid were rampant and the people also believed that disease was carried in the air itself, hence the preference for higher elevation in their summer retreats.
The land slopes away to the South East so it receives little direct sun even during summer which allowed the residents and gardeners to plant trees of European origins and the area has some of the oldest and tallest examples of these specimens in Australia.
There are two creeks which run through this area, however being loam soil water is only stored above ground in constructed dams and ponds of which there are many.
It is sometimes steep at this point in the mountain range so there are no agricultural activities, but it is worth noting that many of the historic hill stations have areas set aside for market gardens, orchards, berries and chickens just like any small holding.
Location 8 – 600m ASL
This location is elevated, about midway through the mountain range towards the Southern end. It has the unfortunate luck of facing West which means that over summer the area receives the hot afternoon sunlight. Evaporation at this point in the mountain range is very high and the soils are poor as a result.
The photos show that the trees are low, twisted and the canopy is quite open. There is very little undergrowth and the soil is exposed to the sun. Another indicator of a dry forest environment is the presence of the Australian grass trees. These grass trees are very slow growing and the examples here in the photo could easily be hundreds of years old. They are very hardy and only flower after fire and are indicative that conditions have not changed here for many years. There are no agricultural activities on this west facing land.
Lessons that I have learned
- Disturbance (Fires / Logging) are indicated by uniformity of forest age and growth
- Water in the landscape / rainfall indicated by creeks and visible water storage facilities
- Good drainage capacity of soil indicated by the absence of farm dams
- Prevailing winds impact on the evaporation of water and the growth of trees
- Depth of soils / organic matter in the soils indicated by vegetation height / diameter / canopy spread and the colour of the soil
- Aspect of the land to the sun N – E – S – W and its impact on evaporation rates
- Frosts are a risk in a valley or in and around creeks and rivers
- The sorts of animals being grazed is usually indicative of the quality of soil (e.g. cattle fattening usually indicates good soil)
- History of land use – the current land use is probably indicative of potential future land use.
I hope that you have enjoyed the virtual tour of my local mountain range.
Observational skills are the vital first step in your permaculture journey. As you can see above, not every location can be adapted to any permaculture or agricultural activity. Just imagine trying to rear ducks and geese in location 1 with the farm dam rapidly draining after having spent thousands of dollars on excavating that dam in the first place. All you’d be left with are some very grumpy and thirsty ducks and geese! The best advice I can give you is to look, consider, learn and apply.
Stay tuned for Part III….