April 17, 2013

Permaculture... learning about the design system

"Permaculture", said Bill Mollison on one of his early videos, " ...is about a lot more than gardening". And, if anything, that's the idea that people attending the Randwick Council sustainability team's Introduction to Permaculture two-meeting workshop went away with last month.

Workshop educators, Steve Batley (landscape architect and permaculture educator), Terry Bail (architect, and permculture educator) and Fiona Campbell (council sustainability and permaculture educator) knew that people who come to permaculture workshops and introductory courses often come to learn vegetable growing. When they discover the course is also about energy and water efficiency and material selection in the home, the regional collaborative economy and community participation there's always the chance you will lose them and they will drop out. That this didn't happen suggests the formula the two have developed over the years captures the participant's imagination.

Day one at Barrett House

It was crowded as participants found their seats at Barrett House, the community sustainability centre in Randwick, and a second circle of seats had to be set up. Now settled, first of was getting to know each other and for the course leaders to discover what people wanted from the course. So people introduced themselves to each other in pairs, then  switched pairs a few times so that they got to meet most of those there and learn a little abut them. Fiona says that spending time on this is really important as people then feel comfortable with each other and more communicative. The process relaxes people — suddenly, they are no longer strangers.

A round robin disclosed what people hoped to learn:

  • to grow food
  • to start a garden in an apartment block (approved by the body corporate)
  • to manage their plot in Waverley Community Garden
  • likewise at Randwick Community Organic Garden
  • to grow herbs on their balcony
  • to learn more about permaculture
  • to add to their knowledge
  • to add to their interest in sustainability
  • because The Shire (Sutherland Shire Council) doesn't offer courses like this
  • to lead a more natural life
  • to create a natural environment.

Steve asked what people thought permaculture is and the responses were diverse:

  • living in harmony with nature
  • sustainable processes
  • the relationship between people and plants
  • collaboration
  • creating ecosystems
  • self-sustaining
  • free from synthetic chemicals
  • common sense and something that should be done anyway
  • something that increases over time
  • permanent culture
  • biological processes of nutrient flow and how things work
  • listening to the land.

Fiona summarised that permaculture was a design system to help build strong, resilient and sustainable neighbourhoods.

After Fiona filled people in on permaculture's history, Terry took them outside for an observation exercise, explaining that the act of observation is important to learning in permaculture. He then took them through sector and site analysis so that they could understand their own site better and the human and natural influences on it and left them with homework to observe their own house and garden space.

Then it was an introduction to the permaculture design process, to design thinking — permaculture principles, landuse zoning for the city, stacking of plants and functions in design, the design > build > maintain continuum.

After that, architect and permaculture graduate, Terry Bail took people on a tour of Barrett House's energy efficiency modifications and technologies, water harvesting/storage/use and materials and finishes such as paints used in the building He outlined some permaculture principles that influenced his design. Steve then took people on a tour of Barrett House's permaculture cottage garden outlining the permaculture principles he used when designing the garden.

And that was a full and a busy day one.

Day two at the Randwick Sustainability Hub

On day two — a week later — people met at the Randwick Sustainability Hub with its PIG — the Permaculture Interpretive Garden. It was recap time, visiting what was covered last week and sharing their observations of their house and garden site and sector analysis and drew up their own mudmap to share with a partner.

Steve then took people through permaculture's zoned landuse system, showing how there is usually only space in the city for zones zero through Zone Two — the house/apartment and Zone One with its veges, herbs, water tank, nursery and, for those who like the less-hurried life, a hammock. Compost goes well where it will be easily accessed, close to the kitchen and where Zone One joins Zone Two — where the fruit trees are planted and, perhaps, the chooks housed.

In the city, especially the higher density places like the northern areas of the Eastern Suburbs, Zone One, the home garden, might not be close to the house at all and may be in a nearby community garden. As for permaculture's other zones in the city, Zone Three, where commercial farming takes place, is found on the urban outskirts where city meets country and where market gardeners, orchardists and poultry farmers are located. Zone Four, an agricultural zone for lower-intensity agriculture such as farm forestry, is more a rural enterprise but Zone Five, left for natural systems, can be as close as the nearest patch of remnant urban bushland or, space allowing, located in the home garden.

Permaculture's principles, the layout of rooms in the home for energy efficiency and needs/yields/behaviours analysis took up much of the  remaining time. Chooks were the theme of explaining how to do an analysis, which went like this:

  • chook's needs: shelter, food, water, roaming, nesting, companionship, protection
  • chook's yields: eggs, feathers, fertiliser, meat, companionship, new chooks
  • chook's behaviours: scratching, eat insects, squark, sleep/wake cycle & timing.

How to provide the needs and make use of the yields and behaviours — essentially a design exercise — followed.
Here's the needs'yields/behaviours exercise the course participants did of the garden:

  • needs: water, sun, soil, nutrients, management/labour, space, harvesting, protection
  • yields: food, satisfaction, exercise, learning, pollination, seeds
  • behaviours: seasonality, aesthetics, hybridisation.

Now, connections were made between the chooks and the vege garden:

  • fertiliser/nutrients chook > gardenfood: garden > chooks; 
  • rotational gardening with chook tractoring (scratching) to prepare garden beds for planting.
  • pests: chooks eat them.

Terry lead a tour through the energy and water retrofits of the Hub emphasising the design principles that informed the design as did Steve, with the tour of the Permaculture Interpretive Garden.

Permaculture in the community was the final topic in the course — how people can take their permaculture ideas, ethics and principles out into the community.

What followed was a conversation about community gardens and how they bring people together and engage them in collaborative decision making, companionship and a sense of belonging.

On to the collaborative economy, it was a discussion of the different means of community exchange including community swap days, online trading systems and LETS — Local Exchange and Trading Systems that was started in Australia by permaculture people in the 1990s. This led naturally into a discussion of the relationship between LETs and the fair share ethic of the permaculture design system. These are aspects of social permaculture.

To concluded, it was time for another round robin in which participants described something they would do inspired by what they had learned.

Council's sustainability team have offered the permaculture introductory course before and each time it is offered it is tweaked to improve it, based on what was learned. That's the philosophy of continual improvement that the team follows. 



Story and photos by Russ Grayson, April 2013

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