Water and me. And you.

garlic chives and pear tree

Water woz ere. A clearly hydrated landscape thanks to good hydrological design at Strathcona Community Garden, Vancouver Canada

We’re all becoming acutely aware of the value of water. And so we should, as water’s role in our lives and in the planets’ cycles cannot really be understated. When designing and planning a Permaculture system, it’s top of the list – the order goes: Water, Access, Structure. Design and sort out your water catchments and systems before you design anything else. Give them priority. Water is not an optional extra. Without water, you’re stuffed.

How To: build a Geodesic Chook Dome

jesha and chook dome
Our first Geodesic Chook Dome with Jesha the Blue Heeler inspecting the chooks’ progress. The blue twine tying each side of the door to the dome has now been updated to a chain attached to either side, which clasps in the middle. The door hinges along the bottom for extra security from foxes etc.

Maybe you’re already familiar with that classic Permaculture tool known as the Chicken Tractor / Chook Dome system. No? Awright – in a nutshell: In this context, a Chicken Tractor is any structure that can be moved from place to place in a garden with a bunch of chickens housed in it. The chickens living in the tractor do what chickens are so good at: scratching up the soil and turning it over, making short work of any greenstuff to be found, and spreading their manure the length and breadth of the space available to them (not to mention producing eggs and more chickens).

Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands

rainwater covers

Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond – Vol I & II by Brad Landcaster

Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond is a much awarded series of titles out of the USA by Brad Landcaster. Brad’s a Permie who has worked extensively in grassroots greywater re-use and has also worked on many community projects in both developing and developed nations in the realms of rainwater harvesting systems.

Volume I focuses on designing and implementing rainwater harvesting systems for domestic, rural and community use, with a wide range of examples form various countries. Drylands processes are emphasized, but there’s plenty of other examples and the techniques hold true for any biosphere. It’s a great overview of the basics of rainwater harvesting for a range of environments, and full of tips and tricks for designing a complete system, or for the 1% rule of small, slow solutions

The Rocket-Powered Shower

rocket-powered shower diagram

Plan for our Rocket-Powered hot water system for the Basecamp shower + bath block

Spending all your day gathering sticks for a hot shower is just no fun. No fun at all. Mind you, anything that results in a hot shower (or even better, a hot bath) has to be considered a priority at Milkwood. So when Nick finished converting the old ‘Sunbeam Sheep Shower’ structure (basically a new-fangled sheepdip) to a shower block with a little wood-fired, home-made firebox thingamy to heat the water for the shower and the bath, that’s what we did. Lots of stick-gathering.

Rocket Mass Heaters: Ianto Evans and Leslie Jackson

rocket stoves cover
Rocket Mass Heaters – Superefficient wood stoves YOU can build (and snuggle up to)
Ianto Evans & Leslie Jackson

This is a great little book, and one that we used as inspiration (and practical advice) when building our Rocket-Powered Shower at Basecamp. It’s practical, straight-forward, and explains the premise and how-to of the concept clearly… and what a funky concept it is! We look forward to many future Rocket Stove projects… the possibilities are just about endless. This title is a darn good read for anyone interested in efficient, ethical and responsible heating, cooking or drying techniques.

Where to get a copy:

Belated harvest

ashar + beans

The harvest: one baby boy and some scarlet runner beans

You could be forgiven for thinking that things have been somewhat quiet on the Milkwood front of late. But it is not so! 'Tis only that the combination of Permaculture courses, cottage building and baby-making (the gestation part and the aftermath, i mean) has taken up every waking moment for the last little while.

We have been given the sage but belated advice recently to "never combine owner-building and childbirth" – and I can currently attest that the two are not the sweetest of bedfellows. However, this is where we are at. So a quick update on things at Milkwood:

Ashar Fox arrived on the Ides of March to delight and terrify us with his overwhelming yet beautiful presence. Many Permaculture courses were conducted, in Sydney and in Bathurst, and much fun was had. Basecamp got a rocket-powered bath (more on that shortly), and the potatoes were harvested. They did well, but not nearly as well as the Jerusalem Artichokes. We learned that flat-leaf parsley can be your main green, and take the place of spinach in most dishes. We came across a micro-bat nestling in a Drizabone overcoat, and alternately fried and then froze at Basecamp, dreaming of an insulated, passive-solar cottage that will soon rise from the clay on Milkwood (more on that shortly too).

nappies on the fence
Basecamp gardens in full flight, drip-fed by drying nappies


Meanwhile in the world beyond Milkwood, things seem to be every which-way. The newspapers and websites we read seem full of either doom-and-gloom or paint-your-world-green-and-it-will-be-fine… not much of a choice, really – however, we did recently come across this article by Madeleine Bunting in The Guardian which, if not offering a way out of the woods, at least hit the crux of the manner on the head with a small silver hammer. Not particularly cheerful reading, but at least it made us feel somewhat clarified on certain things.

The new Grand Narrative will indeed emerge, methinks. And perhaps we could nudge it along a bit by actively building resilient communities and employing good design principles in the structures we build; be they physical, organic or invisible. And by eating more flat-leaf parseley. And then a bit more. Because the darn stuff is not only high in minerals, its also rampant, frost-proof and unstoppable. Want some? I could probably post you a posy…

Better living through Permaculture

glover st garden
Permaculture gardening in full flight – Glover St Community garden, Sydney NSW

Curiouser and curiouser. Recently I attempted to write a ‘Permaculture in a nutshell’ type affair for SuperLiving Magazine – which I assume is a publication for, um, people who like reading about superannuation. Or their lack thereof, given recent global developments. This was a slightly strange commission, as I felt it unwise to make too many jokes about other, more preferable forms of ‘natural capital’ and ‘nest eggs’ – or allude to the concept of not poo-ing in your drinking water and so forth. I also held back on how I felt that everyone should really get together and plant an orchard and a nut grove right now if they really wanted some long-term investments, rather that fiddling with their stocks. However, I managed to restrain myself and here’s what I wrote:

Basecamp Garden: plan for Summer

basecamp gardens plan

Basecamp gardens plan – click for enlargement. As for my illustration skills, that’s what happens when you spend your life on a laptop – you draw like a 12 year old…

Planning, making and planting the gardens around Bascamp has become one of my favourite parts of the week, and we are finally starting to feast on the results! I really cannot believe that i didn’t garden for the first 30 years of my mishappen (but oh-so very full) life… what was i thinking? This is great! And you can eat it! Yum.

The Transition Handbook by Rob Hoskins

Transition handbook cover

“The Transition Handbook: From oil dependency to local resilience” – front cover

The reason I am brandishing this book about at the moment is *not* because it crushes the reader with an avalanche of undeniable evidence. I feel that we’ve all been beaten about the head a fair bit with how the media portrays Peak-Oil and our society’s utter and complete dependence upon this black sauce. Not to mention Global Warming. And/or a potent combination of the two. It’s enough to make you go and find a large rock to wedge yourself beneath.

The reason I am brandishing this book about at the moment *is* because it is a template for community-level solutions. It ain’t a call to run for the hills, nor is it a treatise on how to greenify your life. This book describes (and very well, I think) possible ways to set up structures for community awareness, organization and implementation of action that will make a community more resilient to massive change.

2009 Permaculture Calendar + Diary

permaculture diary and cal

How good are these? You probably don’t know, so I’ll tell you – they’re great! Oh and though this looks like a shameless plug saying, basically, *buy stuff*, I’m afraid I have to mention it because they really are splendid. And really, how many other 2009 diaries will you find that contain the gruff but pertinent quote:

“there are two sorts of people in this world – those who poo in drinking water, and those who don’t…”

Ok, a little background… the 2009 Permaculture Diary + Calendar have been put together by Michele Margolis + David Arnold over the last 6 months or so. During this time, they invited contributions from people + groups all over to contribute projects and images for the two publications. I recently bought one of each to see how they turned out, and they are really, really good.

Feral Fruit Mapping: Update

map with cherry blossoms

About a year ago I mentioned here about the small but significant gesture that is Feral Fruit Mapping… and now it’s that time of year again (southside of this planet, anyways)… things are blossoming left, right and centre, and it is therfore a most excellent time to get your Feral Fruit Map going and map out where fruit is overhanging fences and growing roadside in your area, in preperation for the potential harvest to come…

Since I posted about this subject last year, I’ve discovered a bunch of folks both in Oz and abroad who are collating and sharing knowledge on this sorta subject in a variety of formats, which is great! However, I cannot help but be a little amazed that it isn’t happening more visibly, more often… ah well – perhaps one of the potential upsides to the recent economic downturn is that more people look to their back lanes and roadsides for some old-fashioned sustenance, rather than doing their hunting and gathering gathering only from their supermarket shelves…

A suitable inheritance

Lianas and Beechwoods in the escarpment above Kiama, NSW 

As a kid growing up on the seaside at Kiama (a pretty bit of the south coast of NSW) there was what would now be called a nature reserve between our house and the beach. When I was small it was just a bit of grassy space with a swamp at the end of it, and was where all the newly built households along that stretch came to dig out vast quantities of sand, to cart it back to their quarter-acre blocks for their kid's sandpits… despite the fact that there was are rather larger sandpit (ie a BEACH) right there for their kids to use whenever they liked… ever noticed how private pools figure largely in the backyards of beach-side houses? Same psychology, i think…

Anyway. My Dad decided that we would plant a costal forest on this sorry little strip of grass at the bottom of the hill, and endless sticky summer days were spent carting buckets of water to resuscitate all manner of seedlings that our family planted all up and down this open space – Norfolk Island Pines, Ti-trees, Coral trees, Banksias, more Banksias, more Ti-trees and later on a couple of Morton Bay Figs and even a costal Quince or two. This planting and watering cycle went on for most of my childhood, interjected with Dad rushing down the hill every now and then to intercept marauding kids who meandered up from the car-park at the other end of the beach  and attempted to trash the plantings. Good, clean fun.

I remember Dad telling me once that the avenue of Ti-trees we had planted that day would one day reach far above my head and create a tunnel that I could walk through, down to the waves. And I remember thinking that there was NO WAY that could ever happen, as I looked at those pathetic little seedlings already half lost in the long grass – yeah sure Dad – and I moped off feeling both resentful and tired after a day of hauling water from the little swamp on my fat little 5-year-old legs.

Now whenever I go back to my parent's house I wander though this place, my favorite forest… the ground is deep in topsoil after 30 years of leaf litter mulching it, the trees stretch tall and there are many tunnels through which I can walk down to the waves. Under one of the special trees are the ashes of my Grandmother and also my Great-Aunt, with a legion of family dogs, goldfish and other little critters laid to rest here and there in the many groves. This little forest is a privilege and a pleasure to be in, and now that the ecology has found a kind of balance, all manner of native species are popping up, both plant and animal, that would have never, ever stood a chance here 30 years past, when it was just that little windswept strip at the bottom of the hill.

So lately what we have been mulling over is this: what is a suitable inheritance? What things can you bequeath to your children that will actually enrich the environment and deeply connect the child to country at the same time? The above example is one way. But here at Milkwood, we're planning for another.

afternoon above the studio site at Milkwood

I've been gathering a collection of flying rumors about trees as inheritance. Not the plant-a-tree-and-save-the-world type thing, nor the offset-your-guilt-about-X-by-planting-Yx100-trees type thing, though both those concepts have their merits. Im talking planting specific trees for a specific purpose, specifically for that particular child. For example, I've heard that in Poland there is an old tradition of planting a grove of trees apon the birth of a child. The species of tree is chosen for its superior qualities of structural timber. When the child 'comes of age', that grove of trees is used to build their house with. Or there is the Chinese tradition of planting a grove of trees for every daughter (on certain islands of the Yangtze), the timber from which will become her dowry. Or the tradition in the south of France, where a line of Lombardy Poplars are planted for every girl-child, for the same reason…

The reason I like this idea of trees as inheritance (not dowry, mind you, just inheritance) so much is that it ties the kid to the land and to the country in specific way. You grow, you watch your trees grow. You can sit in the middle of your own grove. You have stewardship of something and you have responsibility for something. The actual outcome and the implications of what having a grove means might not resonate with a 6 year old, but that's fine. They are just your trees. And one day when you need them, they can be turned into high-value timber; for you to build something, or for you to secure something else, depending on your needs and wants.

And when it is time to turn your grove into a resource, it's not just a matter of cashing in that long-term deposit. It's a process which is real and actually happening in front of you, and contains all the emotions of transformation from one state to another. You can see it happening, smell it happening, and most likely you'll be deeply involved in the whole process of taking this resource from tall tree to dressed timber. And though this concept implies a different sort of 'worth' from the usual forms of inheritance, but I thinks it's the one that we're going for… 

As expectant parents (we're due at the end of Summer) we are about to embark on the process of choosing the species, location and other parameters of our first-born's grove… thinking, thinking… I'm all for Black Walnut (Juglans Nigra), Nick rekons Blackwood (Acacia Melanoxylon) would be better… hmm… we've got five more months to come to an informed and amicable decision…

Back steps, front steps

herb garden, caravan, puppydog

Milkwood basecamp with *new* no-dig herb garden, mulched path and puppydog

Vegetable gardens are the ultimate in complex, layered systems which have implications that flow through every corner of your daily life. And, no, I’m not being dramatic – I really believe this to be so… even more now that we’ve had to take a couple of major backward steps in order to move forwards with one of the basics of life… growing food to eat.

In Nick + my usual style, we appoached the Milkwood kitchen garden (Mark I) with much gusto. We chose a large area close to the studio site, sculpted beds, re-sculpted beds, planned the ultimate vegetable manifesto and then set about bringing it to life… and, also in our usual style, bit off more than we could chew.