Permaculture, 10 years into it

Since hosting our first PDC (Permaculture Design Course) here on the farm some 10 years ago, and having since then gained a measure of fame for our applications of this particular design science, i want to take a few moments here for celebration and critical reflection on that experience.

One project in particular stands out for me as reflecting pretty much the entire rainbow of possibilities: the light, the dark, and everything in between. Since Yassine and Joana came by yesterday, curious to see progress on this front, and since they were there at the very beginning, having observed progress only at intervals from afar, we had a good chat about what really worked, what didn’t, and what we’d do differently, given another go at creating…

a Syntropic Forest Garden: lessons learned

In a 2011 autumn workshop facilitated by the legendary Ernst Gotsch, of “Sytropic Agriculture” fame (website offline ATM, so here’s his Facebook page), we designed and planted up a mini-forest of some 3.3k m2, with some hundreds of trees/ bushes/ vines/ ground cover plants -all in the space of a week! And though i have no regrets, we did learn a few lessons along the way, worth passing along for posterity here.

What worked well

  • Dense & Diverse Perennial Plantation: Also included some annuals (since we were going to be irrigating anyway, why not take a quick yield), but the focus on “Plants for a Future” has definitely paid off. We had some losses, virtually all of which were simply not suited to the climate (e.g. mango and papaya), but everything else (including some odd couples, like the guava growing in shade of a sequoia!) is now (8 years on) showing quite impressively, so… Being no young sapling myself, i very glad we established this plantation when we did!
  • Aggressive Pruning & Deep Mulching: Though this was a lesson learned late (see the next section), we did eventually get some religion about pruning, chop & drop mulching… Also incorporatinug from a virtual mountain of organic matter that we got courtesy of a local landscaping contractor who otherwise have to pay to dispose of such “waste” (i.e. resources in wrong place/time).
  • Water: Site selection, just below a public irrigation canal, has been most auspicious, enabling us to flood beds periodically, all through the long dry season. Water is a precious resource in these parts -with it you can grow most anything- and though we enjoy favorable water economics these days, i don’t count on that being the case forever, so… We’ve done well to invest so much water in building up good soil, and the biota that call it home.

What did not work well

  • Poor planning of Water & Access: Flood irrigation was difficult, labor intensive. Paths that seemed generous at incep quickly became impassible, as the thing got going. Wires for climbing species kept us from crossing over the lines of trees.
  • Neglected fruits & tentative pruning: Fast growing pioneer trees quickly overshadowing others, that were to be the successional species. Fruits ripening and falling on the ground to rot, breeding pests that we were unprepared to control. It soon became by default an experiment to see what will happen if we “let nature take its course” -as if this were a natural environment!
  • Lack of stewardship: Because the farm was during formative years of this project hosting WWOOFers and other itinerant volunteers on an open-plan (i.e. revolving door) basis, the baton of reponsibility for duties of maintenance (i.e. irrigating beds, harvesting fruits, pruning trees) would get handed-off to someone ill-prepared to carry it well, if at all, so important tasks were often not done when they should have been.

Do Different

  • Project Ownership: In the very first place, whose project is this? What are the design goals of the project owner? Who will take care to ensure that things are going in the intended direction, who can and will make the necessary interventions in time? All well and good to call it a community project, of/ for/ by the collective, but if everyone is responsible, then no-one is responsible, in fact.
  • Risk Management: Insofar as the project has some untested assumptions about it -a given, when you are talking about creating a whole new ecosystem!- are you clear what all those assumptions are? Make a list, rate the risk of failure on each of those points, and w/r/t any unacceptable risks, then you must either find a way to test the assumption, or else remove that element from the design.
  • Follow Design Process all the way through: Whether you follow OBREDIM or SADIM, those 3 steps of Design, Implementation and Maintenance are the same… and you must address them all in your Design -including Maintenance!- before you proceed to Implementation. Furthermore, following the “Keyline Scale of Permanence,” it makes sense to design Water and Access before giving serious thought to what Trees you intend to plant. While i heartly recommend committing to the project and diving in with both feet, i would NOT go from blank design sheet to fully planted system in <1 week, as we did!

And that, i would say, pretty much sums-up my little addendum to the vast body of literature on the subject of Permaculture. It’s a terrific set of tools, based on a solid set of Ethics and Principles very well proven in practice. As to the pratice: it is a practice, that takes years of practice to master in a particular context, where you must dig in and apply yourself for a time (something that too many pop-up Permaculture tumbleweeds tend to forget, in their youthful enthusiastic rambling around the world :-)


LINKS:

  • A Photo Album with pix of specific plants, from last summer.
  • A closeup image SFG closeup image of the SFG.
  • An aerial image SFG aerial image of the SFG. _____