Each April I co-teach a PDC with a brilliant teacher called Aranya at the High Heathercombe centre on Dartmoor. This course was created by Aranya and Mel Lamb who runs the centre, and has a very different flavour to PDC I teach at Ragmans with Matt Dunwell, and to the courses I teach alone or with other tutors. Permaculture is hard to define and means different things to different people, and one of the great joys of teaching with different people at different venues is exploring all the varying perspectives on it. In this short film we see some great perspectives on Heathercombe itself and hear from some of the students, as well as from Aranya and I. So, what is permaculture?
Permaculture is based on the principles of ecology – the principles which make ecosystems function in a self-sustaining and productive way can be transferred to our own systems. If we design our human habitats to these principles we too can create not just sustainable, but abundant and thriving systems.
When it comes to food growing systems permaculture gardens and farms use methods like no-dig raised beds, mulches and polycultures. These can easily be adopted without having completed a full permaculture design course. In fact, there is limited time available on a PDC to go into great detail about food growing practices, and students are often keen to get more hands on practice and advice. This is what led me to create our new course, Permaculture Gardening: Seed to Table.
Growing food is one of the most fulfilling and positive actions we can take when aiming to be ‘a part of the solution, not a part of the problem’. Our current centralised food distribution systems are hugely energy intensive, they often rely heavily on chemical fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides and are therefore damaging to our health and the environment. Even if we buy organic food we are often eating vegetables that have travelled many miles and are far from fresh. Industrial scale agriculture requires many damaging inputs and creates many damaging outputs, so the more we can support small scale local growers, or ideally grow our own food, the better. Beyond this, growing our own food is empowering. Food is so vital that to be able to feed ourselves with good nutritious toxin-free food is a big step in taking control of our health and well-being. It was recently reported that a scientific study had found evidence that when our skin comes in to contact with the soil, ‘feel-good’ brain chemicals are released. Those of us who enjoy gardening already knew that!
One thing which is not so good for the body or the soil is digging. Having started out as a veg grower on heavy Devon clay soil I can vouch for that! It is very rare to see bare soil in nature, and it doesn’t stay bare for long. The soil organisms which keep a soil fertile need to be protected and supplied with organic matter from the soil surface. For these reasons it is best to avoid digging where possible, especially routine turning of the soil which damages soil life and breaks down the structure, leaving it vulnerable to erosion. Using surface mulches, especially organic materials, replicates nature and provides many benefits – less erosion, happier soil life, less water evaporation, increased fertility and no weeds. It’s a win-win situation! Raised beds make this kind of gardening much easier by having permanent growing areas that we don’t need to walk on. We just add organic matter to the top and the soil organisms do the rest. It is important to point out that ‘No Dig’ doesn’t mean that a garden tool should never enter the soil. Of course there are times when digging is necessary and helpful- root crops will need to be dug up for harvest, and very compacted soils will benefit from being dug until they are in a good enough condition to become naturally fertile.
Many green fingered or green minded folk have experimented with growing vegetables, herbs and fruit for themselves and their families, it is something that anyone can do, certainly not rocket science (excuse the pun). There are a few basic rules that we must follow, like crop rotation for example, to avoid a build-up of pests and diseases, and knowing when is the best time to sow, plant out, harvest and compost. The more you experiment and start to think holistically, the more flexible these rules can become, but for beginners it’s important to understand a little about how the garden works to avoid damage or disappointment! Having a good understanding of soil fertility and plant health will allow you to learn and grow with your garden.
If you want to be really productive and are keen to produce a significant proportion of your own food you need to have a plan. You will need to think about your bed plans, crop rotation, polyculture guilds (combinations of plants to grow together), seasonal continuity, and the varieties which will work well in your soil and climate, and will extend your growing season. Sitting down and drawing up your plans for the season ahead is exciting and you will reap the rewards for doing so. Our new course will guide students through the gardener’s year, from bed lay outs, crop planning and designing polycultures, through to harvesting and storing produce and everything in between. This is also outlined in the Organic Horticulture module of The Land Course Online for those who prefer to study at home.
In the last 40 years Permaculture has evolved into something we can apply to all areas of human life, but it began with growing food. When it comes to living a healthy, fulfilling and green lifestyle, growing food is a very good place to start.
Our upcoming course, Permaculture Gardening: Seed to Table at High Heathercombe on Dartmoor 18th-22nd May 2016.
It is many years since I have lived in a town, so while I have long appreciated the Transition Town movement in principle, I have not had the chance to get involved. Since I started teaching in Totnes, the town where this global movement was born, I have taken the opportunity to explore what transition means in practice.
Last night in the Civic Hall, Transition Town Totnes (TTT) held an event to showcase the many projects that are active in and around Totnes. And there are many. I was enthralled by the long stream of speakers talking about what they do in the community, and the invitation to get involved. Every corner of society is met with positive, citizen-led solutions to creating a more sustainable and resilient culture. Like the permaculture movement as a whole, Transition now embraces every facet of our human experience, from personal well-being, arts and social care, to local organic food, upcycling, housing and economics. Last night the journey of the movement was beautifully and comically acted out through the story of a metaphoric seed being sown. The metaphor has some serious mileage when you consider how the movement has grown since it’s conception in 2006.
Co-founder of the movement Rob Hopkins finished the evening with the launch of his new book, 21 Transition Stories which takes inspiring examples of Transition projects from around the world. Rob’s eloquence as a speaker has played no small part in spreading the idea of Transition, and it must be more than a little gratifying to see just how far and wide the seeds have travelled. These stories were taken to COP21 in Paris in November to demonstrate the power of positive community action.
It is worth reminding the Totnes community that they are a flagship for community action, and Rob Hopkins did so by sharing some of these international stories in his speech. The Totnes story is featured in the French film Demain, in which directors “Cyril Dion and Mélanie Laurent decided to [line] up known solutions [to today’s problems] in all spheres side-by-side to show what our society could look like tomorrow…” As a species we are pretty sure that we are intelligent and creative beings, but our current predicament would suggest otherwise. It is time to remind all of humankind how intelligent and creative we can be; this is what Demain does so beautifully. Many ideas which were born in Totnes, or made a success here have been adopted in towns far and wide, because ‘if it works there it could work here.’ This reminds me that the most powerful impact we can have is to walk our talk and live by our values.
Permaculture is all about positive solutions, found and implemented at a grass-roots level, and Transition is an urban manifestation of that principle. I sense a reinvention of the word activism – we can reclaim it to mean ‘positive action’ rather than meeting negative actions with negative actions. This may look like small steps on an individual level, but when we add up all of those small steps we see something moving pretty fast- there is no better example of this than Transition.
For more information about TTT projects go to www.transitiontowntotnes.org/ and for information about the transition network as a whole go to www.transitionnetwork.org where there is also an excellent blog.