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.