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Central Texas Permaculture: Learning by Working

About a year ago I began volunteering at a small school and permaculture education center just south of Austin, Texas. At the time, I was working at a nursery in the city. I had an interest in plant care but no real awareness of permaculture. Since then, I have been on the fast-track to full permaculture immersion, learning by working.

Right around the time I was introduced to permaculture, I received the opportunity to be part of a start-up company doing this work in central Texas. I have spent the last year working with a team dedicated to ecologically viable methods of land management. So far, I’ve been learning the basics of ‘whole-systems’ design and installation. I’m discovering the unique qualities of the climate in this area and how permaculture design works here.

This work is teaching me to look at the environment in a different way than I have before. Where I once felt disconnected from my surroundings, I now feel motivated to interact and find sustainable living solutions. I am beginning to see how complex the ecosystem is. And at times, I am brought to a state of wonderment as I think about how each piece fits together. Working with the Earth certainly has its rewards.

What’s most rewarding for me is the promise of local abundance that I see possible through permaculture methods. The ability of these designed systems to provide for our needs is remarkable. And on our projects, we always look for ways to use local resources that the land is already providing. We use natural materials such as Juniper wood, and we utilize the city’s waste streams by gathering cardboard for sheet mulch.

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This fence is built for a chicken run from locally-sourced Juniper posts and welded wire. Additionally, bark from the posts was used as mulch for the area. Central Texas has an abundance of Juniper, but it is generally regarded as a nuisance and is thus under-utilized. Often times, it is simply burnt or bull-dozed or otherwise destroyed in processes using heavy machinery that cause pollution. By using local resources such as this, we make a healthier choice for the environment by minimizing pollution and energy consumption.

One thing I have taken from my experience so far is some insight into the ‘whole-systems’ approach of permaculture design. By our works, I have seen ecosystems come to life from the ground up, literally! When we go to develop a plot, we set the systems up piece by piece. Everything is done to encourage a strong, diverse ecosystem to develop and thrive. It’s quite a fascinating experience to see ecosystems in the making.

We usually start with the earthworks and sheet-mulching. We dig out swale systems as designed for the site, and lay out cardboard and spread mulch for weed-control. We add compost, and extra soil if it needs to be built up. Then we germinate and spread cover crop seed throughout the system. The swales get inoculated with mushroom spawn. Oyster mushroom and King Stropharia are our fungi of choice. Next we plant the producing trees and plants, and other support species. Drip irrigation lines are then set up to supply water directly to the roots of the plants.

The process can take a few weeks or more. By the end of it I find myself in the midst of a budding food forest.

Urban Food Forests in Austin, TX

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Here is a shot of a project near completion. This backyard food forest is on a small urban lot in Austin. The swale and berm is sheet mulched to prevent weeds, and the berm is built up with additional compost and mulch. The berm and adjacent area are planted with a variety of fruit-bearing trees, shrubs, and vines including fig, peach, plum, apple, blackberry, raspberry, and more. Drip lines are set in place to irrigate each tree. The cover crops are just beginning to sprout in this picture. In just a few weeks they filled in the area. They include hairy vetch, crimson clover, and winter pea. Cover crops add bio-matter to the soil which builds it up, provide a habitat for insects, act as additional weed control, fix nitrogen, and moderate the soil temperature.

My design and installation experiences are beginning to bring me an understanding of the system elements within the space of a yard or homestead. This is essential, but considerations of the region and its climate are also necessary. I am learning what the reality of this is for the Austin area.

As with any bio-region, central Texas presents unique environmental challenges to land management. Austin is situated near the border of two major climate zones: the humid subtropics of the gulf and the semi-arid steppe of the Midwest. The area also receives influences from northern continental climates. Because of this, Austin is subject to varied climate conditions that can produce quick and drastic changes in the weather. In springtime, a stormy night can bring hail and lower the temperature into the 50s (Fahrenheit), and the next day the sun raises the area back up to 90 degrees! In the winter, daily temperatures can fluctuate between freezing lows to near 80 degrees.

In addition, Austin lies where the Balcones escarpment meets the Colorado River. This giant rock wall and river separate the rocky hill country to the west from the deep clay Blackland prairies to the east. Austin is on the edge, so the surrounding area consists of a mix of these two types of country. Soil conditions range from shallow, rocky hill sides with limestone shelves just several inches down, to deep and fertile loamy clay in stream valleys.

Trees are not easy to plant in rock or thick clay with little to no humus, and poor soil conditions don’t encourage survival. Unpredictable weather patterns put crops at risk. But there are ways of mitigating these tough soil and weather conditions by working with the elements of the ecosystem. We can set up home grown ecosystems that can soften and build soil over time, and stabilize the local micro climate. Sheet-mulching, cover-cropping, earth works, and planting woody perennials are all effective methods to do this. Sheet-mulching and cover-cropping encourages soil growth, while swales capture water for the soil, and over time woody trees add organic matter to the ground, with increasing returns. And the plants themselves are climate stabilizers!

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This property lies on a hill side near Dripping Springs. The soil here is shallow and rocky. Planting trees here was tough, and the trees have tough work ahead to break through the caliche as they grow. These raised beds will provide immediate deep, well-drained soil for garden crops while the food forest begins to soften the ground. The process of soil-building has begun with a layer of compost, mulch, and germinated cover crops.

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Here is another view of the hill side.

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This view is from below on the same hill. This is after just one growing season. Most of what is growing here are cover crops of vetch, crimson clover, and winter pea.

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These newly planted fruit trees are on a 3 acre homestead near dripping springs. Here the soil is deep and loamy. The area pictured was previously a dense thicket of brushy trees including elbow bush, young cedar elm, chinaberry, and old oaks that had died. One reason this property has nice soil is because of the cycling of organic material from all these trees. We continue this cycle with mulch produced from the brush we removed. This way, the unwanted or invasive species are taken out and repurposed to benefit the system we want to encourage.
I find that the beauty of permaculture is in the knowledge of how to work effectively with the elements of the ecosystem for the benefit of ourselves, our community, and the whole environment. There are as many solutions as there are environmental challenges.

My interactions with the environment are bringing me to an understanding of the ecosystem. I now take notice of the various elements of a system and how they interact. The plants, animals, bugs, birds, and the land itself all come together to continue the growth and turnover of the environment through their natural processes. And to me, it’s a beautiful thing to guide these natural processes with permaculture methods.

It’s been about nine months now I’ve been working for One World Permaculture, and as someone who’s new to the concepts and principles it’s been quite the hands-on learning experience! I’ve been learning the philosophy and the reality of it as we go. What I have learned so far has changed the way I interact with the environment and given me a sense of self-reliance.

Evan Waddell began learning about permaculture through volunteer experiences at WLLC. He believes in doing what you love, & finds a natural joy of plant life. He has worked at nurseries in Pflugerville & Austin, where he learned basic plant care. He met Michael during Amala Foundation’s Camp Indigo as a volunteer in the summer of 2014, & soon after began working on projects with him. Evan believes in bringing our food systems back to a local basis. He sees the flaws of the food production systems prevalent today, & recognizes a need to restore local self-sufficiency. He believes this starts with growing our own food. Evan views permaculture practices as effective solutions to environmental problems. He is committed to spreading awareness of restorative land practices & enjoys working to restore self-sufficiency to the individual & community.

2 Comments

  1. That was a beautiful story of how you became involved in this. I enjoyed you and your dedicated crew coming to the house everyday to build our beautiful ecosystem. You were all so mindful of all of the small details and the big picture. I learned so much more from reading this article. Good luck with all of this fabulous work you are doing. I love your enthusiasm and passion. I will ask Becky to send you a picture of our new (10) baby chicks as they play in the chicken run. You are amazing. Thank you for helping to change the world.

  2. Evan, thank you for this detailed, informative, and inspirational article! I’m moving to Austin soon to implement permaculture systems on a plot of family land but was also hoping to find organizations to volunteer or work with. Now you’ve provided me with starting places for those aspirations. Thank you! The more hands on experience and connections with people people and place, the better. Who knows, maybe I’ll meet you along the way. Good luck and keep up the good work.

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