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Permaculture on a budget

For many years I thought Permaculture was one of those things that desk and chair gardeners raved about. The Permaculture display gardens at various festivals would often be pretty, but failed to impress me as to their capacity to feed people. As far as I’m concerned, lime leaves have the texture of furry tissues and I don’t care for the earthy (read muddy) taste of chickweed either, not as long as there are lots of lovely annual vegetables about. It also came across as something fairly exclusive. Not just in the language, but Permaculture Design courses were prohibitively expensive and in most cases would take you away from work and family for two whole weeks, not something everybody can easily do. Landownership seemed essential in order to create a permaculture project, which made it a non starter for landless peasants like us.

chickweed in flowerBut still, somewhere along the way I got hooked in and the more I learned about it, the more I wondered how I could ever have been so sceptical. These days Permaculture principles and ethos  are present in my life like weeds in a raised bed, always popping up, full of unexpected insights and good ideas. My husband managed to gain a free place on a Permaculture Design Course (with the excellent Sector39, who offer the PDC as a part time course over six weekends) by teaching a module on charcoal making on it. We still don’t own any land, but we’ve got a flourishing market garden going, created by using lots of Permaculture inspired thinking. It took us years of looking, but we finally found a bramble infested corner of a boggy field with two neglected polytunnels on it, which we could use. We lease it on a year to year agreement, which doesn’t give us a lot of long term security, but it’s what we’ve got and that is exactly where you start with Permaculture. We’ve employed the principles according to our needs and “problems” have become exciting opportunities to try out some novel solutions.

hugelculture bed under construction showing layersTake for instance the waterlogging. Raised beds weren’t enough to stop our poor vegetables from drowning, so we decided to give hugelculture beds a go. We dug out a bed down to 30cms deep, filled it with rotting wood to about 40cms above ground level, covered it with fresh manure and then put the dug out soil on top of that. It’s a big job, especially as we are committed to minimal fossil fuel input, so no mechanical diggers for us, unlike Sepp Holzer

It was worth the effort as after one of the wettest and coldest summers ever in my time in Wales, the hugelculture bed turned out to be a great success. We were almost the only people locally who managed to grow courgettes and summer squash. This method can also be used to create dry, non muddy paths, you just dig a two foot deep, narrow trench where you want your path, fill it for two thirds with any sort of wood or rubble, backfill with soil and your wheelbarrow will never get stuck in the mud again! These techniques are perfect for where money is an issue or where there is not enough long term security to invest in more expensive drainage equipment.

muddy garden path drained using hugelculture techniqueBecause we don’t know how long we will be allowed to lease our patch, we didn’t have the luxury to observe for a whole year. Equally, obtaining a yield is more important, as there is rent to be paid. So we do our observing as we grow vegetables for market, noticing what does well where and adjusting as needed the next year.

Edges become extremely important, in the light of earning a livelihood, both literally and figuratively. Every bit of space is used; fences double as climbing frames for fruiting climbers, crossbars inside the polytunnel support hanging shelves carrying the trays with seedlings, whilst in the beds below early crops are planted out. Any excess seedlings will be sold on the market, as well as cuttings and grafted fruit trees.The trimmings from an overgrown hedge bordering our patch are used to fill a hugelculture bed or to weave hurdles, the thicker pieces make charcoal and biochar. The biochar gets soaked in urine and incorporated into the compost to be spread on the raised beds, increasing fertility, as well as sequestering carbon. The charcoal is bagged and sold on the market as barbecue fuel. Also the surrounding woodlands make their contribution to our livelihood, as this time of year the acorns drop and are collected for sale to tree nurseries as local provenance seed. Sloes get made into sloe gin for X-mas, blackberries into jam, bilberries into pies. Then there’s all the stored, bottled, dried and chutneyed produce for use over winter. There’s no end to the edges.                                                                                                                                

Polytunnel in early spring showing hanging shelves

We honour fair shares by freely sharing our expertise and some of our produce with our local community, by planting flowers for the bees and sacrificial crops for slugs. We've made a pond for the amphibians and hideouts for slow-worms. We don't believe in annihilating any species, but try to establish a balance instead. In the three years we've worked the land we've increased the ecological diversity of this patch more than tenfold.  And this for me is the true value of Permaculture: it allows us to give back to the Earth, rather than just take from it. Food grown this way does not only nourish the body, it feeds the soul as well and puts a smile on your face.

Bee feeding on marigoldWhen creating the process of Transition in a community, much can be gained from thinking along Permaculture lines and by applying the principles. One obstacle we often encounter is that of difficult group dynamics. Just imagine how different we could approach these situations if we "applied self regulation and accepted feedback" more readily, sought to "intergrate rather than segregate", "used and valued diversity" and then "creatively used and responded to change".

The answers are there, we just need to be brave enough to use them.


John Mason's picture

Nice one, Ann! Like Ann, I've

Nice one, Ann!

Like Ann, I've been through this process (albeit on a smaller scale): see for the tale and lots of photos. That was in 2009 and this year, the third since starting, I've recorded sixteen species of butterflies and if I knew about hoverfly taxonomy I'm sure there would be many records in excess of that number. One of the most pleasing things this year was the way the cabbage whites were sidetracked by a huge bed of nasturtiums and largely left my broccoli plants unchewed - and the bees love the flowers. To a more mainstream gardener the place might look rather untidy but the incredible organisation of healthy and improving biodiversity does not work in straight lines!

Cheers - John

Jo Homan's picture

"There's no end to the edges"

"There's no end to the edges" - how true! I hadn't heard of hugelculture but did see Sepp H's piece in permaculture mag but being used to make a sloping bed.

Is it the small leaved lime you tried? I think I found them hairy as well. But around here we have these hybrid ones with massive leaves which are completely smooth. The Victorians seem to have planted loads in London and they're always getting pollarded. Me and my kids love 'em. I'll show you them when you come to ELL and you can see what you think!

Ann Owen's picture

Lime leaves

Hi Jo,

Yes, it must be the small leaved lime around here, look forward to trying the London ones!

tom peifer's picture

For a twist on your efforts

For a twist on your efforts to raise beds, increase long duration soil carbon, etc., you can char the refuse in the trench before covering.

We have practiced this for years at my site in Costa Rica. the results on banana plantings are very noticeable.

For people working on slopes, these trenches should be on contour and you get a conveniently placed absorption pit underneath your plantings.

tom Peifer