Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Tenderbreak Permaculture story continues.......

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.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

In the last post I didn't get round to telling why 600 people came to the open day at our place. Sorry about that, but I became distracted by the Tenderbreak Permaculture Farm story and how it came into existance. The story continues with this post, but I promise I will eventually get back to the Open Day.

The two major elements in our permaculture plan were the house design and the construction of a large dam. The previous owners had intended building higher up the slope to maximise their “view” of the surrounding landscape. This would have kept the house away from any suitable site for a dam and made the access driveway very long (and more expensive to maintain). We selected a spot lower down the slope. The dam was positioned 60m to the north of the house site, at the junction of two small gullies which would assist it to fill more rapidly. The dam would offer some protection from wildfire and be a convenient source of water for gardens and fire fighting.

The year we constructed the dam (1995) was unusually wet, causing many delays. Although the site had ideal topography, the subsoils were not ideal. Kevin Jones, our very expert dozer driver had to go quite deep to locate the clay needed to seal the wall. As a consequence, the dam is much deeper than we intended (7m), but since our climate has started getting drier we are very grateful for having the extra water storage capacity.

We played with dozens of different house designs (varying greatly in layout and types of construction). Initially we were intending to build an earth sheltered house using the “Terradome” technique (Interlinked concrete domes). However three main factors changed our mind – the high cost, the need for specialist builders and we were not comfortable with the thought of living inside an almost totally concrete structure.

Eventually we settled on mudbrick construction using the post and beam technique. We drew up plans ourselves, taking care to integrate as many design elements as possible. Over a period of months we gradually changed and refined these so that the final package would best meet our requirements. One day we will do a post on the main features of our house design.

Once we had settled on the concept we sent off our ideas to Rod Sheppard (Earthform Constructions), who we had contracted to assist us with building the frame and roof, and asked him for his comments. After some minor adjustments we asked Rod to draw up the specs, draft the plans, order the timber and list other materials necessary. I took three months off on long service leave (May to July, 1999). Together with Rod, his mate and Heather on weekends; the slab, frame and roof of our house and barn were put up. An advantage of us working on site was that we were able to be involved in making choices as they came up. Building a house is a complex job and very hard for novices to envisage in 3D, from two dimensional plans. As the building took shape we were able to make dozens of modifications and adjustments. Once the frame and roof was up, we basically did the rest ourselves with occasional help from children and friends.

Initially we intended to use timber off the property and our own soil to make mudbricks. Unfortunately these two ideas fell through. Our timber turned out to be unsatisfactory in size and quality, so we chose plantation grown Cypress Macrocarpa for the frame. After making 60 of our own mudbricks, we realized that it would take forever to make the 4000 mudbricks required. So we settled on puddled bricks (made with the help of a tractor) supplied by Barclay Bricks, a local mudbrick company (Hurstbridge).

We sold our previous house in May 2001 which gave us 4 months to get the new house into a liveable state. We moved in, in late August, but still had no external doors, no B.I.R. and no walls on the garage. Since then we have been slowly finishing off the inside of the house and doing what we like to do most of all -developing the food gardens and outside structures. We’ll leave details of building our mudbrick dream house to a later post.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Yes our Open Day was a huge wonderful success. But what did all those people come to our place to see? We’d better briefly explain our story.

We (Andrew & Heather) had an interest in gardening ever since we were children. Both of our families had small veggie patches and the concept rubbed off on both of us. As we moved from place to place we always grew a small amount of food. When we purchased our first house in 1975, one of the first things we did was establish (what was to us) a large and successful garden. Over the years though, our garden became less and less productive due to the increasing shade from large eucalypts all around.

The time came to look for a bigger block. By now we had set our sights on getting a small acreage. We scoured the papers and estate agents for 5 -20 acre blocks which incorporated our dream qualities (running stream etc.) for close to a year. We searched an area up to 100 km from Melbourne (Australia). Promising leads often turned to disappointment when we inspected properties to find they contained steep slopes (mountain goat country) or were crossed by high voltage power lines etc.

Finally just before Christmas in 1985 we answered a small ad in the newspaper which sounded ok. A visit on the following weekend clinched it. It was not 100% ideal, but it had enough positive features, for us to make a quick decision- this was the site for us. The property was a 96 acre bush block with 12 recently cleared acres. It looked like a complete disaster with row after row of windrows (trees bulldozed into long piles ready to be burned) and the dozer had turned the silty clay into fine talcum powder-like dust. Our rose coloured glasses could only see the future potential. It didn’t have a permanent stream but did have several gullies which carried water for a few hours after rainy periods. Most of the block was gently undulating with a northern slope- ideal for a passive solar house. The biggest advantage though was its proximity to Melbourne (65km from the GPO), which meant weekend visits would take less than an hour. Its biggest disadvantage was poor vehicle access and lack of services which was a contributing factor to the reasonable price being asked. We decided we could cope with the rough, one lane 4wd forestry road and as for electricity- or the more reason to go solar.

For the next ten years we got to know “the block” using it for frequent weekend trips and holidays. We gradually worked our way through many of the windrows, using them as firewood for the combustion stove and wood heater. At first we camped in a tent, then went “posh” by building a 10m by 8m tin garage which we converted to 2 bedroom accommodation and living area. It was a home away from home.

Our three children greatly enjoyed their bush holidays. The windrows became ships and jungles in their imaginations, and the hollows underneath became tunnels to be explored. To them it was like living in Healesville Sanctuary because of their frequent interactions with native wildlife, which included kangaroos, wallabies, wombats, echidnas, goannas, snakes and all sorts of birds. We decided we would not move until our children had finished secondary school, so as not to disrupt their education. In the meantime we came to understand more about the land and had time to ponder building and development.

The next critical element in our story came in 1996 when we saw an ad in the local paper advertising a permaculture course. (It seems our lives have hinged on small ads in newspapers). The course informed and inspired us and gave us the tools required to design our future house and its environs. In fact the final task in the course was to develop a permaculture design. Our property design (for our block) took weeks to develop as we tried out various possibilities and worked through issues. We were very pleased with the final outcome, which as it turned out 12 years later, has largely come to fruition.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Our First Public Open Day

On September 21, 2008 we hosted a Permaculture Open Day on behalf of Yarra Valley Permaculture Group. In the week leading up to the BIG DAY we started thinking we were mad to have taken on such a task. We were so busy getting the place ready we hardly had time to to do anything else. We squeezed a meal here and there, went to bed late and were up early the next morning. Even in our sleep we were thinking "open day thoughts". (Often waking up with the comment "I've just thought of something else that needs doing.").

Well the day came and went and what a day it was! Of all the things we imagined might have gone wrong- nothing did. We had around 600 people visit that day (including around 50 invalauble volunteer helpers), and the day's activities went smoothly and without any major hitches. Judging from the positive and enthusiastic feedback, most people found it informative and enjoyable. We certainly enjoyed ourselves.

Mind you it has taken a couple of weeks to recover. We have our energy levels back and we're starting to catch up on regular tasks that were placed on the "backburner". This week its planting spuds (something we had planned to do in August). The house is starting to get back to normal- but the garage/workshop is still tidy. That won't take long to fix.

One of the best things about the open day was the way it encouraged/motivated/forced us to get the place looking at its best and we probably finished 20 or more major jobs that otherwise would have taken months to get done.

We've told you all about the open day, but haven't introduced ourselves or told you anything about what all those people came to see. That will have to wait till the next post.
Free Hit Counter