PLEASE DON’T LABEL US
I like Permaculture. I really do. I bought and read the manuals written by Mollison and Holmgren back in the 70s when they came out (showing my age…). I read them and dreamed of the day I would have a patch of land. I liked the drawings and the very practical solutions to problems; I liked the way of thinking…
Having some formal and amateur study in botany, ‘I got’ the whole Permaculture plant guild thing. It automatically rang true.
I have stayed at extraordinary Permaculture Gardens in Tuntable Falls and marvelled at an incredible Food Forest full of exotic edibles I’d never heard of. I marvelled at the incredibly fertile volcanic soil and sub-tropical environment of former dairy land that was the cradle of permaculture.
There, you barely needed to plant a seed. I reckon if you just threw it on the soil surface, the fertile soil and abundant rain would have that seed germinating in a day and a foot high in a week. Well, maybe not, but you know what I mean… a far cry from the extremely brittle, fire-prone and harsh land that I now farm in the South West Slopes of NSW. So, while I am a fan and one might say an ‘early adopter’ of Permaculture, I’ve decided I don’t want to use the label for anything we do here at Highfield Farm.
WHY NOT WHEN YOU ARE A FAN?
Well, it seems that with the increased popularity of Permaculture (which has to be a good thing) and its promotion via numerous courses and experiences, websites and Facebook groups, I feel something has been lost.
I’m sure that this is not the fault of Permaculture educators, or is it? I don’t know, but something is being lost in the translation.
Somehow the increased popularity has led to a perception, by at least some, of Permaculture that I find very narrow and shallow. In some instances, it seems permaculture has come to be defined as the practitioner needing to have a certain set of structures or plants in their garden rather than permaculture being an overall approach, a philosophy, an aid for decision making and a complex set of flexible tools.
What do I mean?
Well, I’m going to use the examples of the Herb Spiral, Tagasaste and Zones to explain.
WHERE IS YOUR HERBAL SPIRAL?
One day an enthusiastic young woman who had done a Permaculture course but who confessed she’d never had a garden of any sort came to our farm to have a look around.
She said to me, “I thought you practiced permaculture, so where is your herb spiral?” I’m not making this up. I explained that I was familiar with the herb spiral as a technique for growing all your herbs together and how the stacked spiral helps you create different niches for them according to their need for water. It’s clever and simple, fun and compact.
“So”, she asked, “why don’t you have one?”
I carefully described what I do instead. I described how I grow my herbs with my veggies, not separately in their own spiral bed. I described how some herbs have protective qualities in repelling insects – like garlic chives for apple trees – and are thus grown directly under apples.
I described how herb flowers bring insects to the garden to help with the pollination of fruit trees and vegetables. I described how some herbs have deep tap roots – like parsley – and that these plants help to mine the minerals that have been leached deeper in the soil, and when you ‘chop and drop’ the herbs, you bring those nutrients to the top of the soil in a herb mulch.
I explained how I didn’t need to have a separate herb spiral when the herbs in the veggie and fruit garden were beneficial to my vegetables and fruit trees.
She understood I think, but boy, was she disappointed I didn’t have a herb spiral. Somehow this structure defined what permaculture was.
We might write this off as an innocent question by a young and enthusiastic want-to-be gardener. Maybe she wanted to build her own herb spiral as her first gardening endeavour and wanted to see one in operation so she could understand the concept better. But I kept finding examples of simplistic ways of defining permaculture.
Sometimes, for some people, a structure like a herb spiral defines permaculture. For others, it is a particular plant. Enter stage right, Tagasaste.
WHY DON’T YOU PLANT TAGASASTE?
Tagasaste, or Tree Lucerne, is a very useful plant. It’s a nitrogen fixer, it is a bee attractant, and it generates a huge number of seeds that might be very useful for chicken fodder. It’s also great as a browse feed for animals. You can ‘chop it and drop it’ to create a nitrogen rich mulch.
It’s quite a thick plant and would be good in a wind break. It’s also kind of pretty. It’s the kind of plant often referred to in Permaculture books as being incredibly useful. A plant that does several useful things. It’s kind of a Permaculture signature plant. It’s a great plant in the right context. I have been asked many times why I don’t plant it.
Tagasaste is no doubt a useful plant, but it is also incredibly invasive. You’ve probably seen it without knowing. It is often along roadsides. So why don’t I grow it when it is such a versatile, multifunctional, Permaculture signature plant?
Because our farm is 2/3rds a conservation area and 1/3 a farm. The conservation area protects critically endangered habitat, and we are responsible for its regeneration but also weed control. In addition, we share a boundary with Ellerslie Nature Reserve (kind of like a National Park). The last thing I need to be growing on our farm is a highly invasive plant that could easily seed into our conservation area and our neighbouring Nature Reserve. I’d be running the risk of making a weed problem for myself in our conservation area and creating a weed problem for my neighbours who administer the Nature Reserve.
Because there is a naturally occurring native plant that does the same thing as Tagastaste.
What is it?
Wattle (or Acacia sp). Let me describe this for you a little more. Wattles fix nitrogen, attract bees, create huge numbers of seeds that are food for native animals and provide browse for browsing animals. They grow really fast and self-seed easily. You can easily ‘chop and drop’ to create a nitrogen-rich mulch. Wattles have exactly the same functions as Tagasate. Arguably they are less dense than Tagasaste, yes.
But wait – there is more to wattles!
Wattle seeds and pods provide a natural worming agent for my sheep, and certain wattles that grow naturally on our property also provide fantastic sugary gum that is an important food in a drought for squirrel gliders (which we have here). Certain wattles are also the preferred nesting trees for many small endangered birds, including the now vulnerable Diamond Firetail (which he also has here).
AND wattles are free!
They come up everywhere, I can collect the seed anytime, and these plants are totally adapted to this climate because they are from here. But I cannot tell you how many times it has been suggested to me that I should plant Tagasaste because it’s an important plant in permaculture. Again, for many, using this plant seems to define permaculture.
Many seem unable or unwilling to see Tagasaste as an example of a plant with multiple uses. Some seem unable or unwilling to translate how another plant, such as naturally occurring wattles, might be as useful as Tagasaste or maybe even preferable in certain contexts. Another example of where a particular thing – in this case, a plant – seems to define permaculture for some.
THE CONCEPT OF ZONES
The useful concept of Zones also seems to have become a defining structure for some in determining whether someone is practicing Permaculture. Let me explain a little further.
“You should take all these trees out so you can do your zones properly”.
Zones are used to describe different areas of activity in a permaculture garden. It’s a bit like the idea of time-motion studies. The outer zones you spend less time in and the inner zones more time. Structuring your plot with zones in mind helps you save time and energy. Typically, in permaculture, there are five zones.
Zones 1 is where you place things that need the most attention or upkeep or most observation or that you use frequently. Zone 1 is closest to your house (often called Zone 0). Zone 1 might include things like your herb and annual vegetable garden, your compost bin maybe even your laying hens. Also, perhaps a frequently accessed shed or storage area and your clothesline. That’s what’s in my Zone 1, anyway.
Areas requiring frequent but less attention are located in Zone 2 – a little further from your house. This might include your perennial vegetables, orchard trees and other shrubs. These will need weeding but maybe not as frequently as your Zone 1 areas. Having said that, my perennial vegetables are mixed through my vegetable garden, I don’t separate my annual veg from my perennials, but my orchard trees are in Zone 2.
Zone 3 in our operation is our pastureland – it’s where our sheep and cattle graze. You need to tend your animals, of course, but less frequently than popping out to pick herbs and vegetables.
Zone 4 is usually described as a buffer zone between the cultivated or farmed land and your bushland. Zone 4 might be parts of your land that you harvest wood from or that you grow a timber lot in or that you harvest wild food.
Zone 5 is typically described as being left for nature, or ‘unmanaged wilderness’. In our system, Zone 5 is our conservation area. We are responsible for managing it, however, for pests and weeds and fence maintenance. It certainly is not ‘unmanaged wilderness’, but it is true that we don’t visit it as frequently as our Zone 1.
Zones are all very sensible. It’s kind of what you’d do anyway, isn’t it? Certainly, our place is arranged roughly in zones because it just makes sense. But because we have some beautiful ancient eucalypts trees (read plants only suitable for Zone 5) in our Zones 1 and 2, we are defined by some as not doing Permaculture.
BACKGROUND ON HIGHFIELD FARM & WOODLAND
I’ll pause here for a moment to tell you a little more about our land. I’ve mentioned before when discussing Tagasaste, that we are two-thirds a conservation area protecting critically endangered habitats and that we farm only one-third. Our house sits on the edge of three habitats – grassland, woodland and denser forest. As biodiversity is always greatest at the edges of habitats, this makes our Zone 1 and 2 the sites of incredible bird diversity. Indeed, on our property, we have seen 137 different bird species, and the greatest diversity of species is closest to our house (i.e. in Zones 1 and 2).
One day I sought some advice from a Permaculture Expert. I had briefed him on our property and the extraordinary bird diversity, including rare and endangered birds that visited and bred near our house. And I outlined our desire to establish a grey water system with reed beds – the reason why we were consulting him.
He looked over the site and said, “Before we talk about a grey water system, the first thing you should do is get rid of all these trees so you can do your zones properly” whilst waving his hand at the ancient eucalyptus trees. He continued, “You can cut these trees down and re-build this habitat out somewhere else in your Zone 5”.
I explained once again that the greatest bird diversity on our whole property was near the house because of the mighty eucalyptus trees and because of the diversity of the edge that our house sat on, and, as such, we wouldn’t be taking his advice to cut them down.
Obviously, in his mind, it was more important to ‘do your zones properly’ than to maintain habitat for rare and endangered birds. That just didn’t seem right to me. For this Permaculture Expert, the perfect organisation into Zones, at least in part, defined Permaculture. By his assessment, our native trees and important bird habitat needed to be banished to Zone 5 otherwise we weren’t legit.
WE ARE NOT JUST GARDENING!
Later, in discussing the issue in general in a Permaculture Facebook Forum, this adherence to a structure such as Zones defining Permaculture was further reinforced. One comment that was offered went like this – “if you don’t do your zones properly you can’t be doing Permaculture, you are just gardening.”
Attitudes to Permaculture like those outlined above have led me and many others to abandon the term Permaculture as a label for what we do. Instead now we try to describe what we do on our farm instead of labelling it. We can talk at length about why we use raised beds built along contours, why we have fruit trees mixed in with our veggies, why I plant flowers and herbs in my veggie garden, about why I interplant fruit trees with wattles and why we plant wattles along our fencelines. We can describe everything we do in terms of zones and edges and the many useful permaculture principles, but I don’t label what we do as Permaculture.
Coined in 1978 by David Holmgren and Bill Mollison, Permaculture is defined as,
“The conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive systems which have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems. It is the harmonious integration of the landscape with people providing their food, energy, shelter and other material and non-material needs in a sustainable way.”
This seems to me to be a rich and complex definition of Permaculture. One that demands of us critical thinking, reflection and flexibility according to context. It invites all sorts of ingenious design, the clever and thoughtful usage of plants. It demands the close observation of the land, how it works and the understanding of the existing biodiversity that we need more than ever to protect. As far as I can see, the definition doesn’t mention herb spirals or the necessity to grow Tagasaste or the need to have perfect zones.
I’m not sure how Permaculture, for some, has become defined by the need to have certain structures or plants present. If this is what defines Permaculture, I’m happy not to be determined to be doing it. I’m comfortable to be “just gardening”. And, while I garden, right now in the spring, we have 10 different bird species, some endangered and vulnerable, nesting right here in my ancient eucalyptus trees.