The Permaculture Design Course – To Do or Not To Do? On the 4th Day of the PDC….

Apologies for the delay, patient people, life got away from me – farm-sitting, PhD-ing, PDC prep… what happened to July!  I’ll be a bit sporadic over the next month too, with a PDC running in the last two weeks of August and my research proposal due mid September – eeeek – so don’t worry if I’m offline for a while, the story will continue as time allows.

This next bit is a little schmaltzy, so if you are easily nauseated, please skip down to the next solid line and you’ll dive right into the PDC Day 4.

I’d like to take a moment to say thanks to everyone who supported me both before, during and ever since my decision to retire last year.  Last Saturday (August 1st) marked the one year anniversary of that huge step in my life and, whilst I cannot say I have never had a moment of doubt about the decision, I have never felt so in control of my (and my families) future.  With all that happens in life – to us; our friends, family and loved ones; our neighbours and community; our country and planet …. its easy to feel a little lost, saddened and perhaps disillusioned at the direction we might be heading.  But there was a brilliant story in a movie I watched recently which sums up how I feel and which helped me find where my comfortable place is within the chaos…. The movie, oddly enough, was called ‘DIRT! THE MOVIE’ (little distressing in parts, but if you persevere it does end on a positive note!) and the story is told by Wangari Maathai.  Wangari Maathai was the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for “her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace” in 2004.  The story she tells is most beautifully summarised in the following description:

“Professor Maathai embodied the ideal that small steps we each take will add up to make real impact.  Her poignant story of the hummingbird helps us envision how mighty even the frailest among us can be:   When fire breaks out in a huge forest, all the animals flee, except the hummingbird. The little bird flies back and forth, back and forth, filling its tiny beak with water. The other animals feel helpless and overwhelmed.  When they criticize the hummingbird’s attempts, the little bird answers, “I am doing the best I can.””  (Reference, where you’ll hear her tell it)

After loosing my way a little at the end of my ‘mainstream working’ career, I am back to doing “the best I can”.


Like every big question in life (let alone the morePDC Cover Page Autumn 2015 SMALLER important ones about soil!), everyone wants the same answer…..  THE RIGHT ANSWER.

But everyone who has been involved with Permaculture (or asked the Guru a question) will know that we’ll all get the same answer…. IT DEPENDS.

I am now well and truly qualified to say “They’re right”.  It definitely does depend and in this BLOG SERIES I’m trying to explain what is talked about and why, so hopefully, my posts will give you enough information to determine what a course like this can or can’t offer to meet your current needs.

Click here to head to Day 1.

Click here to head to Day 2.

Click here to head to Day 3.

This is the fourth in the series.

So here we go with ….. Day 4

Day 4 consists of a heavy morning of botany, the purpose of trees and how they can fulfill so many roles within a system.  Planning is needed to understand the needs and products of a tree with certain characteristics through-out its life, so that we can cater to those needs and reap the rewards (by gaining our yield, but also by benefiting other flora, fauna and the soil).  Then (weather permitting!) we look at the importance of community and what is possible when like minded people work together.  Getting like minded people (who have never met before) together is a key goal of community gardens, they fulfill (along with growing food) the important massive role bringing socially active folks and those who have become isolated through injury, age, differing interests or any other reason where a talent or enthusiasm has been left untapped, together.

Day 4Session 1 – Recap and Qns – Discussed previously

Session 2/3 – Forests and Trees Intro / Botany and Plant Characteristics

In these sessions we look at the plant kingdom in general, introduce terminology frequently used and focus in on the function of trees within a system.  What roles do they fulfill within a natural forest system – including discussion of the criticality of energy input into the forest system, the role of trees in the water cycle and then converting this into a crop type setting.

The scale of a design is critical in this discussion when we consider monocultures versus mixed cropping in an urban, semi-rural (recreational sense) versus rural cropping (financial dependence).  So we then look at introducing the idea of a fruit forest to replicate natures mutually beneficial forest systems but with the human guided yield.

These sessions introduce many other topics that will be covered in more detail throughout the rest of the morning.  Scene setting as it were.

Plant Layers(Ref – Rob Hart – via

Session 4 – Plant Succession and Purpose, Guilds, diversity, resource sharing.

We run through succession within mixed plant systems, the need to embrace change (holding back change or keeping a system ‘frozen’ – think of those prize roses – takes significant work), and how we can guide the evolution of a system by planning the placement and support networks to act together.

We explore the products of the individual plants within food forests using a neat key word trigger called the 7 F’s.   But using mind mapping we challenge the group to beat the record of the number of potential products…. there are heaps – perhaps challenge yourself, let me know your record!

We revisit guilding of plants which might be compared to ‘companion planting’, but looks more at the characteristics for co-operative growth, resource sharing and production (from roots, to canopy, to nutrients needs, to habitat creation, to pests/predators…..) rather than a recipe for putting plant A with plant B as that is best in climate X and soil condition Y…. but maybe not in yours.

This is a fascinating look at how nature has this all figured out.  We explore how we might pick and choose some of her well developed tactics (which can be observed and learnt visually as repeated patterns in nature) to both develop the space we are considering, but also to minimise the input required down the track to make the system thrive in our harsh climate.  One of my favourite topics…..

What we learn is that, like a forest, diversity and resource sharing is critical to the evolution of a system.  Each plant produces multiple products to meet the needs of others (e.g. leave litter, root exudates, fruits, shade etc) whilst gaining multiple benefits from the plants around them (predator habitats, bee attraction, birds to deliver seeds elsewhere, soil bacteria to deliver nutrients)….. a plant on its own in the middle of an open space or a field of identical plants (monoculture) miss out on this cross beneficial effect – all drain the same nutrients so we need to do work to replace them in the system.

We also learn that we can fit more into a smaller space if we are looking for plants who work together – for urban spaces and rural settings feeding off natures learnings are equally critical but for very different reasons.  I.e. in rural setting work minimisation would be the win, in urban setting where there is less space to tend to, high production without depleting the soil would be the win to be aspired to.

Session 5 – Forests – Tree Crops. Forage, Coppice, Windbreaks…..

This session focuses on the function of trees – be it for shade, wind breaks, growth etc – and what influence we may have on enhancing or moulding these functions for a defined purpose.  It is acknowledged that this purpose may either create or reduce work, but that the overall benefit to the system needs to be assessed and weighed up against this ‘cost’.  Assessing the benefit requires an understanding of the tree’s needs and potential (as we may be messing with its characteristics), as well as what impact the influence has on other elements.

10519569_10152674104169610_186514464810301503_oFor example – if we are talking about tree crops, typically orchards or forestry, then we are looking at a monoculture arranged for easy crop collection.  Permacultures  ‘orchard’ is designed and considered with more complexity, examining the elements and functions within the system as a whole in the sense of developing the food forest with tiering systems to help cropping, sun harvesting, soil replenishment etc.  So there may be trees combined with annual cereals or veggies that can be cropped opportunely. The soil might be protected from the sun and weed’s controlled by a trafficable rambling productive groundcover like sweet potato.  For deciduous systems, it may be that once the fruit and leavsomeone's larva feastinges are gone, so is the habitat for the pests (yay!), but also the predators (boo!).  Keeping a year round habitat for both the food source (pests – small numbers, but quick to multiply when season is right!) and the eaters (predators – smaller numbers, but there, so able to respond when food increases much faster than if they had to recolonise first) And so on….  One day I’ll get back to food forests as this is a ripper topic to explore in full, but for now, we’re looking for diversity so as to minimise our work for optimum yield.  The diversity can also subsidise income if there is a problem with the primary crop….. the resilience chestnut raises its head in this very coarse simplistic example, but you get my drift.

FROG1Preserving pockets of nature’s system and farming by foraging is an alternate means of obtaining an opportune yield and, ensuring you understand the inputs to / drains on that system (and hence your health and the health of the system are considered), then this yield may be obtained and maintained with minimal work.  Such an arrangement is tricky in an urban sense – especially with council weed control spraying and so not advised – exploring rural properties can be a fascinating and nourishing experience for land holders.

Whilst I could waffle on here, needless to say the shaping, pruning and placement of trees can be planned to fulfill a purpose. Coppicing, being the practice of cutting trees back to the stump, enables fresh growth from established rootstock produces faster wood regrowth, a more diverse forest laying and deliberately shaped plant.  Non-deciduous plants can be heavily pruned to effectively ‘deciduise’ for winter and hence with this work accepted as necessary, the plant’s placement (or not removing it) can be slightly different to what its characteristics might define.  I.e. you can have a lot of fun with placement (one less constraint), use what already has been established, or work with a potential mistake by finding the opportunity in the problem.

PET HATE – REMEMBER – Trees really want to just photosynthesis and grow.  If one is already in a space, please, please, please don’t remove it so you have a blank canvas to start your design on! Later you may elect to remove it, but do it with careful consideration and in depth understanding – look at what it gives to your system and what ‘opportunities’ it provides….. if there are negatives, can they be worked around or used to advantage…..

Session 6 – Urban Trees – Fruit, shade, etc…

1 Slipper Gourd 3 (Large)Here we focus in on the interests of the PDC group.  So depending of the mix of people we cover – urban vs rural; size, productivity, needs…. (the trees that is, not the group!); common easy plants vs less common niche plants;  consider Perth’s and its surrounds micro climates that are already available versus what we might create; etc.  Often in this discussion, there are members of the group who share successes and failures.  There are also often guru’s within the student and teaching group who have elected to specialise in a particular species or variant on the main stream.  This particular session pulls together the morning’s conversation into a local context and provides reference to resources/experience/support groups for further information.

Bare in mind – the aim of this course is not to provide us with a list of plants to use in every design.  The aim is ensure we know the characteristics we want for a certain purpose for a certain place.  Its good to be familiar with options, but if we get lazy and lock ourselves into a standard, then we start to miss out on the true nature of a design and will fall short of the optimum set up for meeting needs.  Plus, we may find that nurseries are not stocking that certain plant for some reason and then we (or our client) is left dangling without a clue about what to put in that space.  If we understand the why, then we can look for an alternate to fulfill the role on that basis.  Whilst the PDC covers a huge range of topics, it is not intended that you need to become knowledgeable in all things botanical, there are already wonderful folks who know far more than we have time to cover.  Most good nurseries (but choose carefully if its a big job!) have resident gurus who understand the characteristics, needs and products of the plants throughout their life, and can advise on available options.  By learning from them, over time we develop our own local niche and plant supplier knowledge.

Sunflower smallAn important part of plant selection in the designing process is not only drawing on the client and/or designers knowledge strengths (plus our friendly nursery folk), but also in observing what those locally have had success with.  So encouraging people to wander around their suburb and look at what the council has planted, what is visible in neighbouring properties and even what the parks or community gardens locally have given a go.  By doing this, whilst you then get to understand the longer term climate influences allow (taking into account individual’s skills and watering habits – which can also be observed from the footpath!), you may also get chatting to locals and start that fundamental connection and support network which we will move onto in the next session…. leading to long term information, seed, cutting, social and many other exchanges that advance a design (and a community) far more effectively than an individual working on their own.

There’s that African proverb of it taking “a village to raise a child” (and i could not agree more!), which could be extended in western culture in so many directions – a community to raise a child…  to nurture/value an adult; to raise a garden; to direct a change…. as individuals we can do the best we can, but as a group of individuals we can do even better. (Plus have people to celebrate the wins with!)

Session 7 – Designing Social Fabric – Community Design and the common threads. Why we get involved  +   Session 8 – Community Groups and Growing Local Capacity   +  Session 9 – Community Links and Activities

Wow, how to tell you about this topic in a paragraph…… typically we tell stories – ours, local gardens, examples across Perth, Australia and the world.  This discussion can be really up lifting when you see what individuals have been able to achieve as well as understanding the enthusiasm already out there to help others.  After three and half days of ‘facts’ (sometimes to the point of info overload), it is a great opportunity to explore the trials and tribulations of others, learning from their journeys and thinking about our own contribution.

The key theme of this discussion is “Grow Community, Grow Resilience”.

As a brief aside – I have many folks ask about what is available for people hoping to ‘learn on a budget’.  As a society we seem to be taught we need to pay money to get value.  However the more I learn, the more I find that most community initiatives prefer energy or enthusiasm to financial contribution and, whilst presenters need to be financially sustained, the Permaculture community and many others aim for low cost, and large audience to maximise skill sharing/value.  Even the councils around Perth are getting on board as they try to deliver services their ratepayers are asking for..  There are heaps of free workshops or festivals with talks happening, it’s just a matter of knowing where to look so you can plan your soon to be busy schedule!  A good place to start is local council websites; “Perth Green Events Calendar“; your local community garden; your local Permaculture Association, Transition Town Group…. web pages; local markets; community centres or roam through facebook.

Its a whole new way of thinking….. or old way I should say.  We seem to be moving back to the unspoken barter system….. I’ll come to your talk and reward you with useful questions and my surplus yield of tomatoes…. You’ll know you’ve improved a groups knowledge; the council has subsidised both the talk and the community get together/exchange of knowledge; the produce has cut shopping costs for all who attended and exchanged; plus you can afford to volunteer your time free the following weekend at a festival to impart knowledge to an even wider audience….

Here I have to repeat a little anecdote I stated once before about community as it just rings so true…. for my avid readers, please forgive the repetition.

This small passion of mine is summed up by the absolutely brilliant Terry Pratchett (whose passing was a great loss to us all) as Miss Level (a witch) and Tiffany (a witch in training) wander through the local villages and farms “doing medicine” –

“Tiffany couldn’t quite work out how Miss Level got paid…..Hat full of skya woman would scurry out with a fresh-baked loaf or a jar of pickles, even though Miss Level hadn’t stopped. But they’d spend an hour somewhere else, stitching up the leg of a farmer…and get a cup of tea and a stale biscuit.  It didn’t seem fair. 

‘Oh, it evens out,’ said Miss Level…’You do what you can. People give what they can when they can.  Old Slapwick there, with the leg, he’s as mean as a cat, but there’ll be a big cut of beef on my doorstep before the week’s end, you can bet on it…..Pretty soon people will be killing their pigs for the winter, and I’ll get more brawn, ham, bacon and sausages turning up than a family could eat in a year.’  

‘You do? What do you do with all that food?’  

‘Store it,’ said Miss Level. 

‘But you-‘

‘I store it in other people.  It’s amazing what you can store in other people…..I take what I don’t need round to those who don’t have a pig, or who’re going through a bad patch, or who don’t have anyone to remember them.’

‘But that means they’ll owe you a favour!’

‘Right! And so it just keeps on going round.  It all works out”  (A Hat Full of Sky, Terry Pratchett, 2004).

And, whilst I don’t really fall in with the ‘owe you a favour’, the sentiment of storing surplus in other people is key element within a community that is missing with individuals and which makes the community as a whole more resilient than a group of individuals…..we are hearing this a lot now as Pay it Forward.

A very obvious example is seed saving – storing seed in many people’s gardens gives you the best chance of getting seeds the following year. Someone is bound to get it right and with us, being time poor, there is unlikely to be a whole lot of productive growth in our seed storage cupboard!

A fun activity in this session is looking at community as an element analysis as everyone has a different view of community and has angles they have not considered….. this also tends to bring out the quieter members of the group as, being typically observers, they have a grasp on the topics discussed, what’s happening local to them and have often pulled together the link between our garden designs and community structures which work….. After today, normally we have a far more open and bonded group with several pennies dropping – especially for the more scientifically minded people – me included!

Session 10/11/12 – Community Garden Tours

This session is on the go, with a tour of local examples of community gardens – looking at the history, the evolution, the current structure and the future plans.  There is a look at both the problems incurred in setting up such community activities, and the shining lights they form within local communities.  There is discussion about the design features within the gardens, the council interactions/involvement in the development of the garden and the various community groups which indirectly support these gardens through donations of time, energy or experience.  The wealth of knowledge and unwavering enthusiasm to share that knowledge with others must be the most refreshing part of watching a community garden develop, along with the way shared produce encourages others into that space (in the current economy, this is more and more often initially just due to financial hardships and the need to finding a new place in society’s structure).

And so we’ve negotiated Terra Perma’s PDC Day Four and I have to say each time I sit to write these blogs it starts with dread…… but somehow ends with impatience that our next PDC is not starting tomorrow.  The joy we get from guiding peoples thinking from just putting a plant in the ground as gardening; to learning what that plant really has to offer; and how to fit it into a system which will both benefit the system and ourselves.  Follow this up with an understanding of how these systems work in a garden context and then exploring the fact this is not so dissimilar to an understanding how individuals in the community work better with support, both for themselves and initiatives which encourage others.

Whoops a little deep for a Tuesday night…. but don’t worry, I found some fascinating fungi in the garden a couple of weeks back, which I’m keen to investigate – so next blog will be light and fluffy.

Until next time, enjoy


(P.S. Happy Birthday Carole, this one is for you!)

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