How to choose a chook

mr strange
It takes all types to make a coop…

The usefulness of the chicken, especially on a small farm is difficult to understate. They bring incredible fertility wherever they pass if managed correctly – not to mention the potential in eggs, meat, companionship and more chickens.

Our first chooks at Milkwood were a motely crew purchased from the Windeyer trash and treasure sale – of inderterminate age and questionable parentage. Still, they did the trick and scratched their way through the tough grass of our hillside as we utilised them to clear and prepare the ground for our top food forest in their lovingly-made geodesic chook dome. Even got an egg or three two a week.

Milkwood Internships

tanya + jesse
Tanya + Jesse making a no-dig vegetable bed outside the Milkwood Classroom

As part of our skilling-up phase, back in the days before we moved to Milkwood, both Nick and i spent time at various Permaculture farms and properties all over the joint. We learnt to milk beautiful, melting-eyed jersey cows, hack away at spiny amaranth with machetes, shift un-cooperative cell-grazed sheep, make good compost and propagate seedlings.

Urban Permaculture Design Course

ncik teaching in Newtown
Nick Ritar teaching an Urban Permaculture course in Sydney last summer

Designing Permaculture into inner-city environments is, in some ways, taking things to the heart of the matter. Our cities are so often synonymous with waste; wasted water, wasted food, wasted energy. But it doesn't have to be this way – abundance and productivity is entirely possible within city environments – as always, it comes back to good design, and the energy to see things through.

So this Winter we'll be running an Urban Permaculture Design Course which will be quite a treat: a part-time Urban PDC with a 12-day, one day per week format, in the centre of Sydney starting May 29th 2010.

In addition to our standard curriculum, this PDC will provide in-depth focus on Permaculture for cities and urban communities. Organic food production, water harvesting, nutrient cycling, energy, local food systems, patterning and other aspects of Permaculture design will all focus on the urban context.

For further context and hands-on inspiration, we're also including a wide range of amazing site visits including urban backyard and balcony Permaculture systems and some of Sydney's funkiest examples of truly sustainable city homes, plus a bunch of workshops including a full-scale inner-city Permablitz.

Milkwood Permaculture's Nick Ritar will hold the fort, alongside sessions by guest teachers Cam Wilson of Permablitz, Penny Pyett of Permaculture Sydney North, Russ Grayson of Australian Community Gardens Network and Michele Margolis of Transition Marrickville; this PDC might just redefine how you co-exist with your city.

Run over 12 weekends, students can choose to take either the Saturday or the Sunday class. And if anyone needs to swap days for a week, that's no problem.

In keeping with the permaculture ethic of 'fair share', we're also offering substantial discounts to members of permaculture groups, community gardens and other community groups in the Sydney basin. See our Sydney Winter PDC course page for details.

The Edible Urban: Part 2


When I lived in the city, I always loved the idea of a microfarm. In my head, a microfarm was a plot of land with a footprint the size of a city terrace which was simultaneously blooming with flowers and vegetables, honking with geese, clucking with chickens and covered in trailing greenery and mulch. Someone drove a wheelbarrow through the plot, delivering hay to some minature cows while a small but sturdy windmill creaked overhead.

While this version of a microfarm might be only realisable in my head (or in duplo) and might seem a little idiotic, the real-life version of farming seems just as crazy these days, though its up the other end of the scale. The median size of an Australian farm which functions as a ‘primary producer’ is something like 700 acres. As opposed to my imagined 0.03 acres. Which means (leaving aside the delightful conversation we could have here about big agribusiness and the demise of the productive small farm) that any farm less than 700 acres is therefore a small(er) farm, and anything less than, say, 100 acres, would by today’s definition be getting into the micro.

Microcosms in Melbourne

seedballs on tarp

Just a little note of an off-site project of ours happening in Melbourne this month as part of the 2010 Food and Wine Festival. Westspace's series of rooftop installations entitled 'The High Life' is part of The Edible Garden initiative being spearheaded by the venerable Diggers Club as part of this year's festival.

Kirsten's contribution to this series is a seed ball project entitled The Latent Power of Germination and will be up on the rooftop of the Order of Melbourne from the 16-23 March, and also throughout the city thanks to hundreds of complimentary packets of seed balls. You can read all about it at Westspace's The High Life project page.

So if you live in Melbourne, please come along, sneak a peek, pick up a packet and off you go, a veritable harbringer of bloom.

Abundance in Drylands

ampersand project
Drylands greywater kitchen garden at Ampersand Sustainable Learning Center, Arizona

In the course of researching for our upcoming Permaculture Design Course in Alice Springs this April, I've come across quite a few great new resources for food security and regeneration for desert environments.

And it would seem to me, as is usually the case, the main blockage between most modern drylands habitats becoming abundant places to inhabit is the time-worn problem of access to appropriate knowledge.

Fortunately, and somewhat mysteriously, our species has a very long history of living in seemingly inhospitable environments the world over. Traditional techniques that served previous generations with food and housing are not always possible in todays world, and so much knowledge has been lost in the last century with the arrival of industrialised (and colonial) everything.

In Australia, our own red centre is a case in point. Despite being the homeland of the oldest continuing civilisation on the planet (yup, really), many of Australia's indigenous nations have been disenfranchised by industrialised food systems which have brought almost complete dependance on the multi-national supermarket for nutrition. I'll leave the cataclysm of other aspects of indigenous disenfranchisement for you to ponder – I'm sure you have some idea of what has, and continues, to be affecting our indigenous nations. If not, start here.

 Digging a greywater system at Bustan Qaraaqa, Palestine.

Food security is something we should all be deeply passionate and active about. Really truly. By the way, what will you be eating for your very next meal after you read this article? Have a look on your plate. Know where any of it actually came from, in more than a vague i-hope-it's-from-somewhere-nearby sense? Know for a fact that any of it was produced within a truly sustainable framework?

Hmm. See what i mean? This is bigtime.

Designing resilience and security into our communities, in terms of food, livability and durability, is something we all need to attend to, starting today. But that need is perhaps more starkly apparent in environments where water is exquisitely valuable, any topsoil is not to be sniffed at and perceptions of what 'should grow' may be not very accurate.

Dry and brittle environments hold possibilities for both deep disappointment and joy for Permaculture designers. If you design + implement your system right, you get an amazing, resilient oasis. Get it wrong, and everything dies.

Which is why good design principles are so important. Design from pattern to details. Catch and store energy. Value the edge. Slow, small solutions. Observe and interact. Take these principles any way you want, on a micro or macrocosmic scale. Interpret them in terms of species selection, water harvesting, people care, family dynamics, urban planning, you name it. And if you do get it wrong, go back to the principles and re-design with the benefit of hindsight, observing and interacting as you go.

I think our PDC in Alice is going to be very energising and challenging for everyone involved. Challenging for us in terms of teaching (and learning from) students who deal with a desert biosphere and its associated parameters (environmental and social) every day, and energising for those who attend in terms of what possibilities are out there for designing communities for endurance and abundance.


Greywater oasis at Whoville Gardens, New Mexico

Fortunately, we'll be standing on the shoulders of giants in terms of sharing knowledge and skills for better living in drylands – here's a couple of the stellar resources we'll be working with:

  • Introduction to induced meandering: Bill Zeedyk is a legend of drylands regeneration. This introductory article merges good design with first-peoples understanding of hydrology to produce super simple and ardently effective solutions for managing and preventing  waterway erosion in drylands and beyond.
  • Quivira Coalition: This group is fast emerging in the Americas as a locus for innovative restoration and sustainable agriculture working with larger scale projects. The website seems a bit stuffy, but there's many jewels pointing to further research.
  • Bustan Qaraaqa (the Tortoise Garden) is a community Permaculture project, based in the West Bank town of Beit Sahour (Shepherds’ Fields), close to the city of Bethlehem. A really solid Palestinian crew who are going from strength to strength. Also their blog at Green Intifada.
  • Water Harvesting For Drylands: a book series by Brad Landcaster that I've mentioned before, but I'm mentioning it again because it kicks butt. Any community or council presented with a decent slideshow of the images in these books would then be ready for a full-blown discussion on how to move forward on this stuff.
  • Oasis Design: Art Luwdig's extensive work throughout Latin America on building safe greywater gardens and waste systems can't be overstated in terms of relevance and importance given what's going on around the world right now. Tried and tested techniques. Don't let their simplicity fool you – this is design elegance at its most basic and immediately effective level.
  • Jordan family house: A little overview of techniques suggested for better living + gardening in Jordan, one of the lowest and driest places on earth, by the infatigable Lawton family.
  • Sink and Wall garden: simple yet effective. A small blog post from the Fantons on the road in India.

From a certain world view, the drylands of this planet represent possibilities for the ultimate in economical living, and the exquisite duality which comes with the idea of the oasis (so deeply embedded in all our cultural memories).

Add to that the extensive and far-reaching indigenous knowledge of country, some of which we will have access to during our time in the Alice, and i think the possibilities are endless for future drylands living which fuses many forms of knowledge together to make truly abundant communities possible – both in Australia, and beyond.

j9's garden
J9's vege garden in Alice Springs. We're looking forward to taking a peek at this one in April.


CarriageWorks’ Kitchen Garden Project



Just a wee heads-up that a most encouraging initiative is being launched in Sydney this coming Saturday 6th Feb. Namely CarriageWorks' Kitchen Garden Project. Another nudge in the direction of local food security. Huzzah!

If you're a Sydneysider you're probably already familiar with CarriageWorks' Saturday farmer's market, which has a darn fine range of yummy regional produce and is fast becoming the biggest farmers market in Sydney. With this Kitchen Garden Project, CarriageWorks are pushing the notion of 'creative sustainability' through a series of events and workshops which I hope will result in more kitchen gardens outside (or inside) more local kitchens.

The launch on Saturday includes talks and stalls from 1pm after the farmers' market and will generally be good fun and a chance to talk about important things like how to grow stuff where you live and the finer points of how to make Kale tasty (there is a way!).

The whole Milkwood family will be there with our bicycle-powered seed ball machine, a bunch of great books on Permaculture and urban farming, Permaculture course information, and many little brown paper bags containing stealth salad seed balls, for you to take away and try a bit of guerilla gardening on your home turf.

Come by and say hello!


Seedballs: from Fukuoka to Green Guerillas

seedballs at milkwood
Seed balls in the making at Milkwood
The poetry of the Seedball concept is simple, yet immense. Encase a seed (or seeds) in a protective jacket of clay, creating a Seed ball. Distribute Seedballs across ground, not worrying if this day, or this month even, is the best time to ‘sow’. Protected from insects, buirds, heat and sunlight until the time is right, the seedball activates with a rain event which is sufficient to soak through the clay coating to germinate the seed. Which incidentally is the sort of rain event that you want to have directly following the perfect seed sowing day. And that’s it. But that’s not all.

Introducing our TinyHouse

house design 1
If only building it was as easy as making this mock-up, we'd be done by now…

It's happening, it's happening! After what seems like a thousand stops and starts, most notably a) hiccups with the local council regarding various things (don't even go there), b) the death of a certain piece of essential machinery (still yet to be resurrected – best not go there either), c) the birth of a certain small human, and not forgetting d) our unfortunate need to make a living, it appears that things are truly moving forward on our small dwelling at Milkwood…

2010 Permaculture Diary + Calendar

2010 PCDC

Getting organised has been an ongoing process at Milkwood – from planning our planting cycles for our kitchen garden to trying to figure out how to build that cottage of ours (getting there!). To keep track of everything that’s going on we use a combo of online organisational gizmos, whiteboards, luck, guesswork and of course, my ol’ faithful, hardcopy diary. And if i had to pare everything back to one organizational tool, it would be my diary – it doesn’t need plugging in and even better i can tuck it under my arm, throw it in a wheelbarrow or use as a flower press for strange unidentified clover-like plants, if needed.

The Edible Urban: Part 1

crack garden 1

Fissured foodstuffs – image by Tom Fox

One of the few things that makes me sometimes long for the city is to be part of the kerbside revolution that’s happening here, there and everywhere. Every time i walk past an inner-city grass verge that’s sprouting tomatoes or a roundabout which has seen a bit of guerrilla gardening action I breathe a little sigh of relief, because I feel like I can smell the beginnings of that sweetest of ferments in the air: it’s the beginnings of food security in the hands of people, not supermarkets.

In the last several years, community gardening has taken on new significance throughout the western world. It seems nearly every city now has some sort of kerbside vegetable gardening initiative, victory garden schemes, community gardens, you name it. And hooray to that – we need any and all of these initiatives. We need them because we all need to get more deeply involved in our own food security. We also all need them to get more deeply involved in our community if we’re going to build true resilience in our world over the next number of decades, and gardening is a great way to start. Bring on the edible landscapes…

New Milkwood Permaculture website

MPC website

A brief but shameless plug for our brand new website over at Over this winter we've been very busy selecting and organising a bunch of great teachers and courses to fill our calendar for Spring 2009 through to Autumn 2010. There's Introductory and also Urban Permaculture courses, Compost Tea workshops, Keyline Design Courses, the full-blown Permaculture Design Certificate course and who knows what else still yet to come.

Oh *and* our courses are FarmReady accredited, so if you're an Australian farmer, land manager or in the family of either, you can do our courses completely free through the FarmReady subsidy scheme. And you even get a refund on travel, accom and childcare. Wow. If I didn't already live here, I'd come here just to attend something. So go on over, have a look at the site and tell us what you think? I think we've even ironed out most of the spelling mistakes now…