“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.

 Field pre sheep robcartoon

I tried to insert a cartoon picture is me … and oops, I don’t know how to make it smaller, so I’ve deleted it. So THAT’S how it’s going to be here: learn as we go along, on the blog and most likely in the forest garden too. Let’s enjoy the journey… Ahh, there it is. The cartoon! And while I’m at it, there’s a picture of my field before the sheep got in: scrub, weeds, wild grass. Not pretty. Nice view though, just north of west. The sea is to the left / south and the bay is just visible above the hedge on the right. The mountain is Slieve League which has one of the highest sea cliffs in Europe at 1972 feet. So we’re on the Wild Atlantic Way, as they’re calling it. The field finishes at the telegraph pole, on high ground, dead centre.

My plan is to grow an edible forest garden in that field in SW Donegal. I want to grow food sustainably, along permaculture lines, so that after a while … several years … it should keep itself going, more or less without me. That’s the plan. As of this moment I have 2/3rds of an acre with a neighbour’s sheep ‘cutting the grass’ for me, manuring as they go and doing a fine job of it. Dimensions are roughly 35 yards wide by about 90/95 yards long. atr I will measure and map thefield and publish my efforts for you to see. Hopefully we can learn together as I will share my successes and failures. 

I was ill during 2013 and had a lot of time to read and watch You tube videos. I got lucky: I watched most of a series of talks by Bill Mollison, one of the founders of ‘permaculture’. He was ably assisted by Geoff Lawton, a terrific teacher (see geofflawton.com). I got to watch about three-quarters of the series, before it was taken down. Still, I learned a lot about permaculture principles and permaculture design.

I went on to buy and read three books on the subject of permaculture gardening, each one better than the next (in order of published date):

  1. ‘One Straw Revolution’ by Masanobu Fukuoka, a small book by a Japanese scientist and small farmer who developed a remarkably simple method of sustainable, productive, efficient agriculture. He doesn’t ask much, just no digging, no fertilizers, no compost, no insecticides, no herbicides, no weeding and no sol compaction. All that and he takes 2 crops a year off his land. Fascinating.
  2. ‘How to make a Forest Garden’ by Patrick Whitefield, a UK teacher and practitioner. This is a clear, well laid out ‘how to’ guide for beginners like me. Patrick is knowledgeable, interesting, and passionate and you can look him up and listen to some of his talks on Youtube.
  3. ‘Creating a Forest Garden — working with nature to grow edible crops’ by Martin Crawford. Martin has written a thorough ‘bible’ for anyone planning a Food Forest in a temperate zone such as Ireland or Britain. He has loads of ‘how to’ text, clear explanations and very detailed descriptions of hundreds of trees, shrubs and perennial plants that are suitable for such a garden in this part of the world. He includes detail about the uses for each plant and its size and preferred conditions.

So I’ve studied and learned a lot and am right at the beginning of the project. I retire, with God’s help, next September (2014) and will then begin to work my garden. There’s rather a lot to do. Some of the ‘first things’ include:

  • Watch and learn: observe the space for a full season if possible. You’re looking for what’s growing already, soil conditions, water supply, flow and drainage, the sun, light and shade, winds and slope, microclimates and frost pockets.
  • Draw a scale map of the site (Base Map) and begin to draw in what you observe and want to keep. Omit those elements you will remove.
  • List your own and your family’s wants and needs from the site (places to sit and enjoy the view, places to play, hide eyesore views, a pond for wildlife, a stone bench, shed, greenhouse and so on).
  • Things that need correction before you start, like rocks to be moved, drains / pond to be dug, hedges trimmed, weeds to be killed off.

I’ve owned my field for years but never got to spend more than a couple of days at a time and just 2 weeks in Summer, when I’m more interested in relaxing than gardening. So I’ve done virtually nothing to it since I bought it, apart from pull up the ragwort and pull down an old stone shed before it fell down. A neighbour puts in a couple of animals now and again, as I’ve said, ‘to cut the grass’ and spread their manure.

Last week I was there for a couple of days and after all my reading, I couldn’t wait to get out into the field. I had a specific job I wanted to do, so I took a long board, a spirit level, a measuring tape and a notebook and pen. Why? to measure how far DOWN from the road the land slopes, because it falls almost directly westward for most of it’s length and then rises again at the end. Well, before I was chased in by a shower of rain, I had measured to the bottom of the slope, a drop of 28 feet in a 144 feet of travel. That’s a 20% (18 degree) slope. Now THAT’s real information. Crawford says that every degree of slope to the south (from horizontal) gives roughly an extra 2 days of growing season, so I’d estimate that my westward slope is worth about half that. That makes 18 days extra growing! Sounds good to me. This will be important if I’m growing fruit, allowing more sun-time for ripening.

My first job in the field will be to gradually bring it under control by cutting the brambles and hedges and picking the larger rocks and stones off the surface. (Yeah, I know: that’s TWO jobs). The hedges are mostly old willow, which will give me a lot of timber for my stove. The leaves, twigs and brambles I will chop up & leave on the surface to rot into the soil. (I’m considering buying a shredder) and while I’m out there doing that, I can carry my note book and do that all important observation. This nicely illustrates one of permaculture’s principles: “every element has several functions and every function is provided by several elements”.

Anyway folks, that’s where I’m coming from. I’ve worked for years as an accountant and teacher (of adults with disabilities,) so I hope to share my gleanings and experiences with a view to helping readers  and visitors to adopt a more sustainable lifestyle and perhaps grow a few trees along the way. Eric Toensmeier, a permaculture practitioner and writer says “my mistakes are copyrighted and my successes are open source”. I like this; it’s generous and common among permaculture folk and it’s the attitude I’d like to bring to this project.

Your comments and suggestions are welcome. I’ll come back from time to time and explain what I’m doing and reading. I’ll set up a few pages with writers you might look up, quotes I like, books & websites I like and, in time, the trees, shrubs and herbaceous material I’ve planted. A food forest could have 200 or more species growing. That’s a lot of plants, so I’ll share as I go. Tell me what you’ld like me to include (in the blog and in the garden of course).

Thanks for reading.