Time to share our new project! After years of journeying through family farms, rooftop community gardens, and a lot of rental permaculture… we’re finally putting down some roots. On a little patch of earth with a house on top, which has been christened Quoll Hollow by the kid (I veto-ed Dragons Rest, and various other options)… in southern lutruwita Tasmania.
As you can imagine, we have Big Plans to make this patch of earth an amazing backyard permaculture system, that will nourish our family and friends and grow many years of goodness. So take this as an introduction, if you will, to the where and why. We’d love you to join us on this new journey – and I can’t wait to tell you EVERY detail – but I’m going to try and start at the beginning. Here goes.
Where we are
So after 15+ years of planting gardens and fruit trees on family farms, community rooftops, rentals, back steps and other people’s farms, we’ve washed up on melukerdee country, near the town of Cygnet, in southern lutruwita Tasmania.
Why we’re here
So… we’d been dreaming of Tasmania for… a long time. In our minds, it was full of green rolling hills, reliable rainfall, and affordable housing – all of which sounded pretty ace. It took us quite a few years to make our way down here, mostly because of the big, beautiful opportunity to live at Melliodora with David Holmgren and Su Dennett for three years – formative years indeed! So much learned, and so grateful.
But, like lots of folks, the pull for housing security was strong. We wanted to put down roots, and feel like we could really stay somewhere. And so Tasmania seemed like the main option, to us.
Slight confession though – we didn’t really look at anywhere else IN Tasmania, other than where we are. Yes, looking around would have been prudent. But we had friends in this valley, there was an awesome ‘un-schooling school’ up the hill for our 12yo Ashar, and house prices were… well, they were less than the mainland, at least. Plus, it was the chance to live near saltwater and seaweed again, in a valley with good enough soil to grow all the things. And so that was that.
The main research on Tasmania that I did before moving here was reading Tasmanian Aborigines by Lyndall Ryan, which shifted my perspective on Tasmania greatly, and permanently. Once we arrived in this area, we got learning about the melukerdee people, who have stewarded this country for 40,000+ years, and sought out the South East Tasmanian Aboriginal Corporation (SETAC) so we could start to pay the rent.
We’re still actively learning about the history of the Cygnet area, but it had been a swan nursery since forever, and a protected valley that ran down to an estuary full of shellfish. In the last 150+ years, it’s been ‘apple country’ with orchards on every slope. In the last 50 years, most of the orchards have been cleared (though their legacy of heavy metals from pesticides remains – in many paddocks, and in the mud of the estuary also) and this area has become… many other things. Including our home.
After we arrived, we found a house-sit for 6 months, and then the plan was to rent for a few years until we had a house deposit saved up. But a combination of scarce rentals in the area, and the looming of COVID – which arrived on the scene 5 months after we moved to Tasmania, meant that we decided to fast-forward our plans, and try really hard to buy a place as soon as we could. I think the aftermath of the Black Summer 2019/2020 fires, which we were in, made us a combination of slightly unhinged and utterly determined to sort out homeownership, asap.
And we were privileged enough to be able to make that happen, thanks to the local community bank saying yes, you can have a loan (it was the early days of COVID and no-one was seeking home loans for a weird little pocket there, lucky for us). Now we needed to find a suitable patch.
So – here’s what we wanted our place to be, before we started…
“It’s a gentle sloping wonderland of veggies and berries and fruit and flowers – out the back there’s a big covered deck spilling down into the garden – the firepit is a focal point and there’s hidden nut groves and violets and trickling water and small birds everywhere. Above the house there’s beehives and more productive trees and water tanks and stacks of firewood and the washing ALWAYS dries in a day because the line is in just the right spot.
There’s small and bigger sheds and studios and all sorts of projects happening, or you can just stretch out by the fire circle and do absolutely nothing, too. It’s a place that warms the heart with gladness and feeds our family and community in all sorts of ways. It’s a sheltered valley unto itself.“
What we were looking for
So to be clear (because we’ve been asked this a lot, lately) we came here NOT looking for a farm. After years of stewarding other folks’ properties, we’ve come to a place where all we want is a cracking backyard growing system, and that’s it. We want to have extra energy to point outwards, into our community. And we’ve lived on enough farm-ish sized places to know how much work they take. Farms are excellent! But we didn’t want one. What we did want was:
- up to an acre, with north facing backyard (the sunny side of the hill is definitely preferred, here in southern Tas)
- a house that didn’t need major work immediately (we knew we wouldn’t have much spare cash for this)
- a house that was reasonably fire-resistant, and could be improved – so brick-ish
- on the edge of village if possible – for community, and walkability
- not surrounded by bush – defending 2 houses in 2 bushfires in the space of 12 months was enough for us, thanks
- walking distance to bus stops and basic village stuff (no parent taxi service required for teenager)
What we found
So prettymuch immediately, a place that matched most of our criteria, on the one street Nick had identified as ‘the best bit’ of the valley, because of its northerly aspect, came up for sale. So we jumped on it. Really, it was more about the aspect and slope of the land than the house, but we’ve come to love the house, in its way, also. The place we found has:
- 1/2 acre plot with gently sloping, north facing backyard
- On edge of village
- Good soil, out of identified landslip areas – you can use The List in Tassie to check this sort of thing
- We don’t THINK it was an orchard previously (which is good, re heavy metals loading in soil from orchard pesticides, etc)
- brick veneer house, built 1984. Roof slightly falling apart, but good enough to live in and sort later
About the house
Huzzah! We now had a house. We were keen to move in, and keen to get gardening. There were a few things we wanted to fix and do before we moved in, but because of our rental lease, and all the uncertainty of COVID, we decided to do what we could in 6 weeks, and leave everything else for later (much later, probably).
I’ll do another post about all the bits we did to the house so far, but our primary aim in this short time frame was to increase the house’s energy efficiency as much as we could, increase our water and heating resilience, increase our resilience to bushfires, and remove as many plastics as we could, within reason. The budget was limited, so we just did what we could. We managed to:
- insulate the ceiling
- get double glazing for all the windows – fireproofing, insulating
- put in wool carpet – insulating, fire resistant, less allergies
- install an air transfer system (similar to this one) for energy efficiency, moisture regulation + indoor air quality
- upgraded the existing wood heater (below) with a more efficient, cleaner burning model, with an oven / water jacket for resilience
- repainted internal walls with an ultra-low VOC ‘natural’ paint
- pulled back the vinyl flooring to find floorboards underneath (yay)
- added shelves + tiles in the kitchen
- added and plumbed in a small 1,200L water tank down the side, for drinking water
On the house list for later…
There’s a lot more we’d like to do with the house, but it will have to wait until we’ve established our food growing systems, and saved up a bit. Like any not-new house, it’s all very chicken and egg – we want to install water tanks and solar, but first needs to come re-doing the leaky roof and the rusted-through gutters… we’ll get there. The to-do list includes:
- installing big water tanks and taking house off town water (with town water option for bushfire defence)
- re-doing the roof and gutters, as it’s all coming apart a bit
- adding a solar array + batteries for energy resilience
- cover deck with glass shower panels – to create undercover outdoor space + bushfire protection
- add a compost toilet (of course)
- re-do slightly rotten bathrooms (this is last bc I don’t know how to reno a bathroom and it seems really expensive – might be wrong tho?)
Ok – that’s enough about you, little house! You keep us warm and dry and for that we are super thankful. But we’re really here for the garden.
What we’re aiming for, in this backyard permaculture system…
Oooh it’s nearly design time! Here is a rough list of what we brainstormed as a family as Essential for the outside areas.
Annual veggie production – we love growing veg, and there ain’t nothing better than salad and carrots from outside your back door.
Perennial food production – both veggies and other food, too. Much more resilient (in some ways) than annual veg to harsh seasons, and definitely part of the picture.
Small forest garden – because peaches! And all the other delicious fruits we can grow down here. With a happy and diverse understorey of herbs and flowers, to make life better.
Berries! Lots – ok so this is mostly me (Kirsten) but berries are my favourite thing ever. They also don’t translate terribly well to rental gardens, so I’ve got some serious catching up to do. Within reason, i shall have all the berries. Ok some of them. But heaps! And enough to share, too.
Large chicken run – for a goodly supply of eggs, chickens, and help with nutrient cycling for the rest of the system. Also chickens are hilarious. I never want to be without them again.
Outdoor summer kitchen + firepit – the best way to enjoy your garden, in my opinion, is roasting just-picked garden produce over your firepit, while the sun goes down, your bones ache from the wheelbarrow and your friend passes you a home-made cider. Yes please! I’m also a big fan of outdoor processing of preserves and such, so a summer kitchen must be added to this area also.
Possibly goats (later, but designed for) – we want the option of adding milking goats to our system, but not in phase 1, because goats are a lot of work. Love them, but there you have it. I do want the option of adding them, though, and so this needs to be accounted for in how we set things up.
Grass area for kids and dogs to do their thing (to be co-opted by goats, later) – important to plan for! Cricket in the corn patch is not desirable. And if you’re going to do backflips, don’t do them in the berries, please. Go over to your nice big patch of grass, and everyone will be happy. Just watch out for the grazing goat.
Possum proofing – because we like our berries ripe, and our pea shoots un-eaten. Possums are our main pest pressure down here – there is some bird pressure, but there’s a lot of better things in this valley to chew on than our little patch.
Beehives – we miss you, bees! Can’t wait to steward you again. Aiming for 4 warre hives up the front, above the house so you can all fly into the valley easily and bring home the goodness
Structures – a shed, a glasshouse, a tiny writing studio… yep, lots of desires here. Slowly, slowly…
Our main consideration when planning this system has been How Much is Too Much. Now – before you shout joyfully ‘never too much!’ … can I say that yes, I thought that too, once. But after years of digging and picking and processing All The Things, I now think that there is a good amount of veggie beds, and there is also a point at which one can have Too Many. Likewise with fruit trees. Our energy is not infinite, nor is my weeding and tending time, nor are our evenings, for processing 100s of kilos of produce.
Also, I like having a life that is not JUST about processing produce, from December until May, each year. So – on behalf of my dear departed Nana, who stirred endless pots of jams till her hands curled into claws and she fell asleep where she stood – I’m claiming some balance. I love growing food, and storing it. Love, love, love it. But I also like life beyond the garden. And so designing for ‘just enough’ (which still allows for enough to share) will be important.
Designing the backyard with Hannah
Once we had done our family visioning, and our wish list, it was time to get designing. For this important part of the process, we decided to work with our dear friend and ace permaculture designer Hannah of GoodLife Permaculture, rather than do the whole thing ourselves.
Why not just do it ourselves? Because we wanted an outside eye of someone we trusted and who knew a LOT about designing permaculture backyards for southern Tasmania. Also, to speak plainly, we both have a Lot Of Opinions, and we like being married – so getting an ace expert designer to help with this bit really freed us up to focus on Milkwood AND not have 6 months of possibly-heated ‘discussions’ about what should go where, and why. Thank you Hannah, we love you!
The process went something like this: Hannah sent us a bunch of great design questions about our motivations and dreams for the place, as well as anything specific that we wanted. Once we sent our answers back, along with a sketch of what we’d been thinking so far, she came to our place and did a bunch of sketching, thinking, measuring and chatting. Then, she went away for a few months and came back with an amazing design draft that incorporated everything we wanted. There were a few back-and-forth tweaks, and then she came back with a final design.
A note that we made a key decision with this backyard design to dedicate an amount of energy and inputs (within budget) into establishing things at the start, to ensure future energy inputs would be minimal. So – we decided to go with earthworks, earthmoving machines (and their attendant fossil fuels) and big rock walls to create flat spaces, rather than hand-terracing or hand-terraforming the site slowly, slowly, over a number of years, using our backs and our time as the main energy input for this part.
This was a conscious decision, and we hope that these once-in-a-lifetime earthworks will benefit our family and whoever stewards this patch next, for many decades of abundance.
The final design!
Here’s Hannah’s final design – there’s LOTS of info to absorb. Enjoy.
If you’d like to see the details, here’s a larger version of the final design.
Once the design was done, the next step was to clear the site of unwanted elements, and then book in Tim the amazing earthmover/artist, who would come to terra-form our backyard into a series of super-usable flat spaces, separated by rock walls. Can’t wait to share this next part of the process with you.
If you’ve got any questions about this stage of the process, please ask them in the comments below? So happy to answer whatever you’re wondering.
- Why Paying the Rent matters
- All our articles + resources on Permaculture Design
- Our Permaculture Living course, which is a great foundation for designing your life
- You can check out Hannah’s work at Goodlife Permaculture here
- If you’re a keen bean, Aranya’s Permaculture Design book is a great little design primer
We acknowledge that permaculture owes the roots of its theory and practice to traditional and Indigenous knowledges, from all over the world. We all stand on the shoulders of many ancestors – as we learn, and re-learn, these skills and concepts. We pay our deepest respects and give our heartfelt thanks to these knowledge-keepers, both past and present.
This is so super fantastic, I just want to jump up and down and whoop xxxxx
i’d like to see that! xxx
How wonderful, Congratulations. Like you we’ve been through the bushfires and are moving to a smaller block of land just over 1/3 of an acre at the end of September. Can’t wait to see your journey.
hooray for stability. just a bit of it. Glad to hear you’re regenerating after the fires and making plans –
I’m so inspired! Your plans and lists of wants/don’t wants have given me food for thought. I have a large suburban block (1400sqm) which needs about the same amount of work done as yours… but I love almost everything about it. The house is 1970s with no updates – it’s ugly by today’s standards but it feels like home, very cool. And, while there is joy in planning the outdoor areas and gardens, I have been struggling with paralysis by analysis! Thank you so much for sharing your good news, can’t wait to see the progress. x
yes isn’t it crazy – this opportunity is what we’ve always wanted, and once we had it, I had major ‘but what/how to I…’ moments. Main frame design first! From patterns to details 🙂 – best of luck
Thanks Kirsten for sharing this wonderful plans and thoughts about the whole process to get started! We are still new to the permaculture world, we’re in the second year of our very small urban garden but we’d like to go bigger…well big. So I was wondering about the costs of the planning done by Hannah and if she would be able to do that for a whole different flora&fauna.. Precisely that of Northern Africa? Or maybe you are familiar with someone having done that for Northern Africa? Any tips are much appreciated!! Take care!
Hey Tumi – you’re welcome! If you’re not yet connected with local-ish permaculture designers in North Africa, hmmm maybe get in touch with Morag? She’s done quite a bit of work over there, should be able to point you in the right direction of who or where to ask… https://www.moraggamble.com/ethos-foundation
You’ve got a warmglo fire like ours it is the best fire we ever had! Lovely article, wish you well.
Ha! Well, that is actually the one that we replaced, ours wasn’t working very well anymore, think it was burnt out… but glad yours does! 🙂
What fire did you end up going for? We’re trying to decide what to get, so would love your insights!
We went with a Thermalux/Wise Living ‘gourmet cooker’ – Australian made, very efficient, amazing quality, fire and hotplate and oven, should see us all out – https://www.wiseliving.com.au/gourmet-cooker
I read this after 2 brutal days of work and it was like a wonderful tonic that swept away all of the stress in one great story – very excited for you guys cant wait to see your progress (and totallly agree berries are the best !) 🙂
Ah, so glad it was useful 🙂 – yay berries!
Really interesting to read this. Though we’re in different climates (Scotland) and we’re on a slightly bigger acreage, it’s always fascinating to see other families designs for their needs. Cheers, James, Tap o’ Noth Farm.
Thanks James! Would love to come visit one day if/when we ever do the much planned family ‘viking trip’ to your part of the world 🙂
Thanks so much for sharing , it is so inspiring and useful! I look forward to seeing it grow and flourish! .
Thanks Lisa 🙂
Absolutely fabulous read. Wishing you all success and enjoyment.
Hi I would love to read all the information on the plan you have created as I am following your journey and loving it. I cant zoom in to read, is there somewhere I can please? Thanks
Allen, there’s a link underneath the plan to a larger version of it?
This is so lovely to see! I love how you’ve admitted that you didn’t want to go the full farm route but wanted to manage your own space and have time and brainspace left over for community involvement.
it’s been a long time coming, this realisation. Also not the only way to do things. But best for us, given everything we now know 🙂
Fantastic, thank you for sharing this.
> But I also like life beyond the garden. And so designing for ‘just enough’
Such a good sentiment, gettting the balance right!
that’s the dream! 🙂
Great to hear you’ve found a spot in Cygnet, it’s a wonderful part of the world. I lived on Dillons Hill Road for a few years but, like you realised, larger properties are a lot of work. Good luck with your project.
Beautiful garden design. Love it. Just curious about the placement of the chickens? I have never kept chickens before but on my wish list for our house build. Everything I have read so far says chickens should be near the house for easy access. I noticed yours are at the back which gives them a great space for free ranging but a long way to walk? Is the bigger space preferable and benefits outweigh having them closer?
Yeah great question – chickens are down the bottom specifically so that that daily chore (of chickens and eggs) leads us through the garden. Going for that old thing that what you see everyday, gets looked after. That said I wouldnt have the chickens much further away than this, but this seems about right for us. They’ve got a big space bc we really like chickens, so as the flock waxes and wanes through the year they’ll be more than happy.
Very inspiring and so nice to hear that you have landed well. Always love seeing what Hannah is up to as well. I like your wisdom about abundance. I’m looking forward to finding a balance of variety and sufficiency. Best wishes grace
Thanks Grace 🙂
Well the dog looks content, and that’s three parts of the battle won 🙂
So enjoying your journey! I was interested in your discussion regarding what is “enough” and looking for balance in your life. That is my preoccupation at the moment with my place. I will follow your story with pleasure.
‘enough’ is a tricky thing! 🙂
Thanks so much for all this great info, it’s wonderful to see your process and Hannah’s design in detail. Can you tell me some more about the earth moving process/retaining wall process? Was it very expensive? Do you feel like it’s all been worth it? Also could you please link to your magician earthmovers services? Thanks! Mimi
we’re going to do another post on the earthworks shortly 🙂 – can you get in touch via hel[email protected] and we’ll find the earthworks contact for you?
Wow you guys!! This is so exciting!! So happy for you!! xxx
thanks lovely xx
Congratulations! I’m so happy for you, and Welcome to lutruwita. I know you’ve been here for a while, but now you’re really putting down roots…..we’re so happy to have you. I do like the plan, though I will have a closer look on a different device later, it looks like it will grow to be a beautiful productive and nurturing space to live within.
Wonderful article thanks Kirsten! We are on the same size block in Vic and we’re just six months in to being here. I’d love to hear more from you about berries and how they fit in to your design – just if you find yourself writing about them more some time! I have blueberries (our soil is rather acidic – ace!) and raspberries ready to to go in. Thanks again
ah all the very best with it!
Thanks for sharing your design. Wishing you all the best with implementation! I noticed the veg beds are described as “.6m x 4.15 (as discussed)”. The 60cm width seems thin to me. Could you please share the thinking/experience behind that decision?
Hey! yeah I’m not sure what happened on that comment exactly but the beds are not that shape 🙂 – we’re now running 7 beds that are 1.2m wide and… about 3m long, in a north/south alignment. Such is the nature of implementing design!
Thanks for the update 🙂
Would love to read the next instalment and see the progression! Am loving the course, and Hannah’s new book so it was nice to find this post. I want to see & know more!
Hey! Love seeing this documented process & now see how far you’ve come. My question is what kind of slope were you on? Do you know the gradient? We are also on a slope (nothing like Hannah’s slope!! but maybe more similar to yours…) & your process has made me consider earthworks. Thank you!
Heya Emily – we’re on a 1:5 slope (roughly – it changes across the backyard) –