We moved into our 75% complete mudbrick home in August 2001. Over the next 12 months we finished off the walls, built B.I.R's in each bedroom, finished off the garage, rendered mudbricks, built a shadehouse at the back door and started staining the timber ceilings and internal timber walls. By the end of 2002 however we gave in to our real passion and started working outside bringing the rest of our permaculture design into reality.
Our first veggie patch was created at the back of the house with the help of the wonderful members of Mountain District Permaculture Group. We planted a variety of vegetables, mulched them and tended them over summer. Although this patch was moderately successful, it was not really the best location. The site was located in an area cut into the ground to make a level house site, so the soil was on top of a very hard shale/clay base. There was also only limited space to expand the garden.
The next year the veggies were relocated to the front of the house. We started with a small patch (about 3mx3m) where we had a compost heap. The veggies showed their appreciation by thriving. Each year from then on, we expanded the veggie garden- it now measures roughly 20m x 20m. Our general technique is to use bush logs to form the borders of the garden bed. Then we shovel the topsoil from pathways onto the bed to create raised beds. The paths are covered in hardwood sawdust to provide a surface that can handle lots of foot traffic without getting boggy. When this eventually breaks down, the material can be composted or added to garden beds. We are constantly on the lookout for organic matter to compost. Friends and relatives are happy for us to take away trailer loads of their oak leaves. Compost heaps are built on veggie areas prior to planting as this really gets the worm populations going. Once the plants are in, we mulch beds with straw, grass, oak leaves etc which encourages our little “worm workers” to keep going flat out at working our soil. This method has turned our very poor ground into rich soils. Our veggie gardens are now so productive, they provide 90% of our veggies throughout the year. In fact most of the time we have an excess which we sell locally at the Healesville Organic Market every Saturday morning.
Ever since we purchased the property we have been trialling different types of fruit trees. A few were successful but most were not. However each time something didn’t work out it gave us a chance to learn something new. Over time we found out that for fruit trees to be successful at our place they needed specific requirements. Their sites had to be prepared well beforehand, ensuring the soil was fertile and friable enough so their roots could get established easily. They needed a watering regime in place that gave them adequate moisture in summer which can be hot and dry with hardly any rainfall. And finally they need some protection from rabbits, deer, kangaroos, wallabies and a varied assortment of birds that thought our plantings were specifically for their benefit.
A handful of trees made it through those early years, but over the past 5 years we have expanded our orchard considerably. At present we have over 100 different varieties of fruiting trees and bushes and nearly 150 different plants. Most of these are just starting to bear fruit and we have had the pleasure of eating our own mandarins, lemons, tangelos, grapefruit, figs, many varieties of apples, strawberry guavas, plums, medlars, mulberries, hazelnuts, almonds, feijoas, nectarines, pepinos, raspberries, blackcurrants and avocados.
All these plantings required an extensive watering system. To meet their needs we engaged Kevin Jones to excavate a header dam 200m up the slope from the house. With a head of around 30m it can supply water under good pressure to all parts of our “living envelope”. However almost one km of piping was needed to deliver the water where it was needed. We hired a trenching machine and dug the trenches over a weekend. It then took us several months to clean out the trenches, lay the polypipe, cover it up and attach fittings. Our irrigation system delivers water at good pressure to all food growing areas. At the moment we do most watering by handheld hose. This has made a big difference in the ability of plants to survive our long hot summers, but the garden and orchard are so big that this job can take several hours. One of our many future projects is to install drip irrigation lines to reduce the time spent on doing the job manually.
Some may wonder how all the above differs from other small farm developments. Our answer is that we have worked to a carefully thought through permaculture design plan. All elements are placed so that they support one another, maximise their output (multiple functions where possible), minimise their use of energy (fossil fuel, electrical and human) and support overriding considerations such as contributing to our defence against wildfire (The area is in a high fire risk area). Other concepts central to our plan include use of recycled materials where possible, minimising our impact on the natural habitat and its residents and use of low impact alternative technologies such as worm farm waste water systems. There is much more to tell, but we'll have to leave that for future posts.