Category Archives: Permaculture stuff

Getting a Baseline in an open field

At last, I got to spend a few hours back in my field. My task: to establish a baseline after the disaster of my first set of measurements. I also took along my camera to show you a little of how things look.

Facing West showing rushes in foreground, ferns and the drop to the left (South) at the bottom

Facing West showing rushes in foreground, ferns, brambles and the drop to the left (South) at the bottom. You can clearly see the bottom ‘pole’ and Slieve League beyond. It’s on the Wild Atlantic Way’. Fabulous @ 1974 feet.

I realised the best plan for a baseline was to use the ‘amenities provided’ so I decided to use the telegraph poles. You see, when your field is not regularly supervised over the years, when the telephone guys come around, they plonk their poles on your ground, rather than your neighbours. Anyhow, I now have a pole just inside my fences at each end of the field. Being a very slopey field, the poles can be seen from everywhere, whereas a fence-post cannot.

So, I began by checking and adjusting the measurement between the knots on my measuring line. I was as much as 9 inches out in some cases (oops). So I got that right before I started. It reminds me of the maxim:

“There’s never time to do it right, but always time to do it again!”

The line is an unused white washing line on which I tied knots every 5 metres along its length. I’ve tied some red twine on the fifth knot (25 metres). Finally, I attached a short piece of rough twine to the front end, to allow me attach the line to the poles or to fence posts etc., without losing any inches off the line. I use a carpenter’s tape measure to capture the final few metres of each measurement.

Line of sight

The line from fence post 3 to top of field, where you can see the top pole at right hand end of house. This pic also shows the strength of the slope and Ferns close by, Rushes in the mid ground and Brambles on southern boundary to the right.


Then I got some fence-posts and arranged these in a line-of-sight from ‘pole to pole’, putting the posts every 25 metres. Because of the 20% slope, I needed an extra post at 11 metres, (top of the slope) so I could see a full line from the first post down the slope. So my posts end up at 11M, 25M, 50M and 75M. From the last post to the far pole is 13M and with the small gaps from each pole to the adjoining fence, my field measures a total of 91 metres along this ‘baseline’. At the top/road end, it measures 26 metres across, giving me approximately 2,400 square metres (4,046 is an acre).

I still have to verify the measurement across the bottom end, which is awkward, because of the mound at that end where it falls away sharply at the SW corner. (Wasn’t this supposed to be straightforward?). Instead, I’ll measure at the foot of the mound, where I can see from fence to fence, north to south. Actually, if I do it at the 3rd round post (see photo), I have already noted that the post is 9 metres from the North fence, so all I have to do is measure the other way (duh!) to have a complete width. Looking at my site-map on the deeds (It’s tiny) and at the Google earth picture, it appears to be an almost perfect rectangle, so it  should measure 26 metres down there too. I’ll trust the measurement on the ground long before the maps!

Measuring the drop at the rock, mentioned in previous posts, I used a tape measure and the camera to record. See below: 2.6 M drop at the RockCamera great tool in survey!

Species: The photos show Willow, Rowan and a Sycamore along the boundaries. Then I have quantities of Rushes, Nettles, Thistles, Ferns and Brambles all growing strongly. Actually, the abundance of the growth is very encouraging. Shaun’s sheep have done a great job of processing the biomass and manuring the ground! I have lots to learn before I can begin to identify the lesser species, grasses, flowers etc. I have just ordered “Wildflowers of Ireland — a Field Guide” and will post a review in due course. Which reminds me, I have to do reviews on a few other books as well. Aranya in his book Permaculture Design, uses ‘D-A-F-O-R’ to record how prevalent each species is: D= dominant; A= abundant; F=frequent; O= occasional and R=rare. Some folks add M=Missing to record species you’d expect to find in an area, but don’t! So my collection of rushes, nettles, ferns and brambles all come in  between D & A, depending on which part of the field you’re looking at. Thistles are O=occasional, but large, standing nearly 3 feet tall and with a 2-3 foot spread in some cases.

So, gradually I’m gathering information about the field, its flora, its shape and dimensions. My next step will be to measure from the posts along my ‘baseline’ to the various points along the boundary: tree, rock, stump, pipe, etc., and develop a base map, which I WILL share with you when it’s done. After that comes the beginnings of the design: permanent structural elements like paths, swales or drains, a pond, retaining wall, a shed of some kind, raised bed(s), and gradually adding planting schemes, starting with the trees. This won’t be a quick job, will it?


If you’ve been here before, you know my field is in Donegal where, I recently discovered, it rains about 1,600 to 1,800 mm a year. That means, without drainage, my land would be covered 4 or 5 feet deep, except for the fact that I am the proud owner of a fine sloping field, (up to 20% in spots) and the rain runs off, but the ground gets bloody wet too!!

Permaculture videos and books and talks all seem to spend lots of time on swales, hence Patrick Whitefield refers to them as something of a ‘Holy Cow’.

But in our wet climate in NW Ireland, they’re hardly appropriate. However, how much is enough, when it comes to water? If I put in drains, the water runs away. If I put in swales, too much water hangs around. How do I decide? I can imagine a high pond, catching run-off from the road and from my house and the cement drive opposite,  with an overflow arrangement into a lower pond perhaps, but is 2 ponds too much in 2/3rds of an acre (circa 2600 sq. metres)?

Problems, problems. Any suggestions, anyone?

While I have a problem, it’s good to have it discussed online. I’d appreciate any help I can get. Tll next time. Byeee.

Oh yeah, any suggestions for the best PDC around these islands? R

see Book Review “How to Makea Forest Garden” by PW

New definition of wealth — a permaculture definition

Hi folks.

Still stuck in Dublin. However, I’m still ‘alive and learning’ from magazines, books, blogs, and the internet. I was listening, yesterday, to a podcast (no. 089) on the permaculture website It’s a phone conversation between the (rather loud) American host, Paul Wheaton, and a genius of permaculture, Australian, Geoff Lawton. (

He says, during the conversation, that the average industrial worker does 40 to 60 hours a week and, in his opinion, all he has to show for his labour is … gadgets.

On the other hand, he referred to people who survive on their permaculture produce with just 12 hours work per week and what they have in return, is the following:

  • Clean air,
  • Clean water
  • Clean food
  • Sensible housing
  • Warmth
  • Friendship and
  • Community

“This is wealth” he says. “There’s no value in money. It only buys you gadgets!”


As a total aside, I am the delighted victim of serendipity today. I was talking to my wife just yesterday, saying “I’d love to grow a kiwi fruit up that eucalyptus tree” in our garden. Then this afternoon, my daughter phoned me to say she had just bought me a kiwi plant at a Garden fete in Claregalway in Co. Galway. Cool or what? Fresh kiwis from the garden … and I bet you thought it was a tropical fruit!

I’ll report on its development as time passes. I’ll have to take a cutting for Donegal.

Till next time, God bless.

Illness stops me in my tracks

Illness in the family keeps us from going to Donegal, so I haven’t had the opportunity to check out my mapping errors. In my previous post, I had said a student was drafting up a decent-looking map for me, from my plotting notes. Well, it seems I’ve a lot to learn!! I know that some of the ‘apparent’ errors are caused by the sometimes steep slopes in the field, but some of my measurements are way off. It strikes me that I should get a helper in the field, next time. So, not only can I not go to Donegal, I can’t even progress my mapping project until i go and check my measurements.

That said, I have been reading and watching videos online. I finally gave in recently and bought Sepp Holzer’s book ‘Permaculture’. Brilliant. He has such a complete understanding of his material and is so brave and relentless with his experimentation. You also have to be impressed by his observation of nature. So inspiring.

Speaking of inspiration, I get a regular email & video from ‘Peak Moment’ with Janaia Donaldson. This month’s video is called ‘Shaping Water and Soil’. It  features some land work by Brian Kirkvliet at “Inspiration Farm” in Washington State. (He’s a great explainer / teacher) What was interesting for me was the fact that they had a wet, soggy field (so like Donegal) where, in an average year, we have 1600 – 1800 mm of rain. Isn’t that scary… it’s 4 to 5 FEET of water … everywhere) I had been asking myself what was the difference between using swales and banks, as opposed to putting in drains to catch and move the water fast. This 26 minute video shows a series of on-contour-swales with grazing and/or vegetables between.

They always say about swales and water in permaculture videos and books,  that you ‘Slow it, spread it and sink it’. You make use of it as often as possible, before you allow it move off your site. So, it seems to me that, despite all that rainfall, i sill have to hold it on my land as long as possible and not just drain it away as fast as possible. I feel a pond coming on!

The Inspiration Farm video shows they use polycultures very well and layer planting with fruit trees, shrub fruits, harbaceous plants and groundcover, all together on the swale banks. Also in the mix are nitrogen fixers, dynamic accumulators and biomass makers. The ‘dynamic accumulators’ are the deep-tap-rooted plants that harvest minerals from deep in the soil and make it available to their neighbour plants (especially fruit trees which tend to have shallow feeding roots). For example, comfrey, nettles, teasles and dandylions. Finally, they make the point that they are growing SOIL, not food. If you get the soil growing and improving every year, the food will come naturally and abundantly, without irrigation, without manure and without pesticides. (Type ‘shaping water and soil’ into the search window on

Till the next time. Enjoy.

Photo ‘survey’ of the Field

A kind friend has suggested I show some photos and drawings as I proceed here. I was in the field briefly over the weekend and I took loads of photos, so I’ve loaded some of these to give you a feel for where I’m at. It really is frustrating only getting into it for 20 minutes or an hour on the occasions when I get up to Donegal. This time we were moving furniture to Donegal and taking some bits home to Dublin and we had to leave early the next day too. So much to do; so little time!

This casts shadow above the rock as it stands on south edge

This neighbour’s casts shadow above the rock … it stands on south edge.

In order to get the most out of my opportunity and thinking similarly to my friend, I took about 30 photos up and down and across from different angles. I took photos of some of the features: some of the willows, old wall, ‘the rock’, trying to capture as much as I could for me … and for you. I will be starting to draw what is called a ‘base map’ shortly and I will use the photos as references. The base map is a simple map of the site omitting anything you’re going to remove and showing the existing features in position. then you can copy this multiple times and record specific things on different copies and, if you use tracing paper or clear acetate to draw on, you can overlay the different elements. Aranya, in Permaculture Design (see my book review) deals with this process in detail.

The rock/bank stands about 7 feet tall.

The rock/bank stands about 7 feet tall.

I thought it only fair to show my hardworking staff at work. I can’t do this on my own! Here, one of Shaun’s sheep keeps the grass down and the field manured … believe me there’s plenty manure. I’m amazed how tight they get it and even eat weeds down to the root and can tackle young bramble too. Worth their weight in … manure! 🙂



This hole in the bottom of the north wall is where the drain enters the field. it measures about 18 inches (450 mm) across and about a foot (300 mm) high. I love these little gems of old field-craft; things a city-boy would never see. This is the sort of detail you uncover when you do a deliberate ‘survey’ of a property. So often we miss the detail while looking at the field, or the view, or the neighbour’s place. I own the field for years, but only when I look with the eyes of a permaculture design survey did I see many small details I’d never seen before.

I was planning a trip to Donegal and the field for this St Patrick’s weekend (2014), but my wife had a fall last week and we’ve had to cancel that. I had hoped to draw a Base Map of the site. More on that next time.

“Don’t just do something, stand there!”

I’m right at the beginning of transitioning (is that a word?) from reading books and watching endless Youtube videos about Permaculture and Permaculture Design, to getting down and dirty with my field and doing something to take me towards what I think I want to do with it.

All the books tell me to slow down and, if I can, observe the site for an entire season, a whole year. Definitely a case of “Don’t just do something, stand there!” Well, I was in Donegal last week … oh, I’ve already told you about the drop of 28 feet. It wouldn’t stand scientific scrutiny, but for now it tells me I can grow quite large trees down there (up to 30 feet) and not intrude upon the view across the site from the house, which is fantastic … the view, that is! Slieve League and Teelin Harbour. This is good information.

So, what DO I want to do with it? Well, at its simplest, I want to use the field. It has lain idle pretty- well the entire time I’ve owned it and that’s just not right going forward. So my starting plan is to grow food using the practices and disciplines of permaculture. These say that I should

  • aim to produce increasing harvests with decreasing inputs over time.
  • optimise the use of local resources and energies and
  • minimise the amount of inputs I take in from outside the local area.
  • mimic what nature does in wild woodlands.

This will be good for my local area, for the air we breathe, for my family and good for the animals and plants that will live with us in and around the property.

The energies concept is interesting. Every site has them, energies or inherent resources: wind, rain and sunlight in different degrees. My site also has a strong slope and a stream down the side and across (in a pipe) at the low point. it has a really big rock (about 6 feet tall), under a neighbour’s overhanging tree, on its south edge and it had (perish the thought) an old (and probably inefficient) septic tank that the government will soon be coming to inspect. When they do, I’ll replace it with a modern efficient system. but until they come, I’m doing nothing, because they’ll probably want me to change whatever I put in now anyway. For now, I’ll wait and make sure I only have to do the job once! I need to capture these energies / resources and make sure I get the best use from them before they leave my site and my control.

How? Perhaps a wind turbine will work to power any pumps I may need, a kettle for a cuppa, a light to read / work by, power for chain-saw or shredder. I’ll see can I redirect the stream/drain, so that I give myself a trickling, aerating stream flowing into a small pond for perhaps some ducks at some point. A pond is good for frogs, birds and other friendly pest predators. Ducks will eat copious amounts of slugs and creepy crawlies and give me a harvest of eggs as well and, of course, manure. The rock will be a thermal mass to capture and then reflect heat out onto a bed, giving a warm micro-climate for tender plants. The sun will ‘feed’ trees, bushes and plants of different heights, with the tallest to the north side, smallest to the south and west, minimising shadow. I’ll have to block some of those prevailing SW winds with a hedge or fence of some kind, to allow shelter for the plants and fruit trees/bushes. I also want some nice sitting areas for afternoon tea, or an evening glass of wine and to allow my wife sit and paint and enjoy the view.

I am also thinking of putting in a container or old caravan as a shed and protected sitting / work space with the makings of a cup of tea out of the rain. it would also provide shelter/ climbing structure for a fruit tree, or a vine of some kind and perhaps a water harvest off the roof to irrigate a vegetable bed on the sunny side. Lots of possibilities.

This nicely demonstrates another principle of permaculture: one element providing multiple functions, and each function provided by multiple elements. This gives a resilient system, where if one element (crop) fails one year, I’m not left hungry. When Ireland’s major staple, the potato, failed in the 1840’s, the country collapsed into a disastrous famine. Diversity prevents this type of occurrance.

First job: start to cut back the old willow hedge on the north side. This runs most of the length so it will be a big job, not to be rushed … not with my back! Therefore I will start slowly, cutting with my loppers, bushman saw, or perhaps a small electric chainsaw on the thicker boughs. I’ll provide myself with a substantial amount of firewood (once it’s seasoned), I’ll get a heck of a lot of fresh air and exercise, I’ll get to see the field for long periods of time, some days early, some days late, through several seasons. Multiple harvests! It will give me something to be doing while I observe the site over time. While this is going on, of course, I can also develop a modest veggie patch at the top of the site, where it’s easy to get to from the house and easy to pick from.

That’s enough for today, don’t you think?

By the way. I’m adding a contact for if you’ld like to get in touch.

What is a Food Forest / Forest Garden?

Forest gardens were pioneered in UK & Ireland by Robert Hart. The idea is to mimic what naturally happens in a forest or woodland, except we substitute fruit trees and shrubs, edible plants and roots instead of the wild flowers and trees that nature normally supplies .

Observe how abundant growth is in a wild woodland, even in a field left untended for a few years. Notice that the ground underfoot is not bare soil. No, it’s full of ‘litter’: grass, leaves, seed husks, twigs, rotting logs and sprawling plants and animal dung. Notice too just how abundantly things grow, even though they’re all seemingly bunched up together: trees, shrubs, brambles, herbaceous and mossy groundcover.

Hart suggested that a forest structure had as many as seven ‘layers’ as follows:

  • Canopy or tall trees
  • Smaller trees
  • Shrubs
  • Herbaceous plants
  • Ground cover
  • Roots and fungi … the ‘rhizosphere’ (lovely word) and finally
  • Climbers and ramblers

So basically the one area of ground can support several or even of all these ‘layers’. Each utilises the sunlight at different heights and times, has roots at different levels, and despite being beside the others, all seem to grow successfully. There is no interference from humans: no digging or ploughing, no chemicals to feed or kill plants or insects, no weeds (what’s a weed?), no pruning. Nothing. The system works away, year after year, on its own. Strong plants thrive and out compete their weaker neighbours. Weak plants die and are gradually consumed by the forest fungi, by the composting processes of the natural world until they provide rich soil and food for their successors and all the other plants round about.

So next time you’re driving your car in the countryside, pay attention to hedgerows as you drive by. Notice their abundance of growth and diversity of plants. They are teeming with life and energy… and wildlife.

WHY do farmers insist on growing one plant type for acre after acre and expect it to be happy and productive? Truth is, it’s not. They have to pile on petro-chemicals every year to help it grow, insecticides to kill off this or that creepy crawly, herbicides to kill weeds, fungicides to protect it from blight and the like. Crazy or what? then we eat the stuff.

Over time I’m learning that we don’t need all these chemicals. Man has been on earth for millions of years but we’ve only had oil for about 150 and already we have used most of it. Man created ‘waste’. If you notice, there’s no waste in nature. All is gain. In the forest, if birds or insects don’t eat it on the tree, it falls to the ground and rots (feeds fungi & bacteria) and becomes humus in the soil. This in turn feeds the next generation of small plants and then larger plants, bushes and eventually more trees. In permaculture any input not provided by the system is called WORK and any output not used by the system is called POLLUTION. In  a natural forest or woodland there is no outside input like compost or chemical spray; there is no ‘waste’ messing up the forest floor. There’s two or three inches of soft, moist organic material. it’s teeming with worms and beetles, snails and fungi. It is all being recycled by nature. When will we ever learn?

On my way to work today I passed a corner surburban house-site with a ‘For Sale’ sign. It has been closed off for 5 or 6 years. Weeds all around the edge. Brambles growing maybe 5 or 6 feet high. There are several sycamore trees growing to around 15 feet or more and lots of other shrubs. In just a few short years, it has made big steps to returning to its natural state: forest. Amazing. It probably has the most fertile soil on the street.

So much to learn. So much to share. Catch you later. R

p.s. I’m currently reading a great book: ‘Permaculture Design’ by Aranya. I’ll write a review when I’m finished.