As well as teaching permaculture design I practice as a designer and last week I started a particularly interesting job. You may well have heard of Mark Boyle, the Moneyless Man, famous for living some years without using money at all. Having learnt a great deal from that experience he’s now embarking, with his companions, Shaun Chamberlin and Jess Pasteiner, on the next stage in his quest for a truly sustainable way of life, an ecological smallholding.
Shaun, Jess and Mark on their plot.
The land is one of three small plots at Greenham Reach in Devon, made available to new smallholders by the Ecological Land Cooperative after a heroic battle through the planning system – but that’s the subject of another blog post . Mark, Jess and Shaun chose the flattest of the three plots. It’s not the most beautiful but it is the best suited to their purposes.
This plot is lovely but not so practical from their point of view.
Reading the Landscape
I went down there for a site visit with them and when I first looked in through the gate I thought I must have come to the wrong place. The field was dotted with rushes, an indicator of poor drainage. Surely no-one would have bought land like this for smallholding? But it was the right place, and after a good walk round I began to get a better idea of why the rushes are there. One clue was on the boundary of one of the other plots, which is also rushy. The rushes stop exactly on the boundary fence and the neighbouring field is completely free of them. A change in natural conditions couldn’t coincide so precisely with a straight fence. The rushes must be due to bad land management by the previous occupier.
The rushes stop right on the boundary.
Later we dug a couple of soil pits and found that the top layer of soil is severely compacted but below that there was well-structured soil with no trace of impeded drainage. The compaction was clearly due to excessive grazing of the land in wet weather. Nonetheless, the rushes are denser in some areas than others and one part of the plot is virtually free of them. Even though the compaction problem can easily be relieved by subsoiling, the rush free area nonetheless indicates the soil which is most likely to be free of compaction and the best place for annual crops. So I carefully mapped it out and it will be one of the factors which decides what goes where in the design.
In this case the annual crops don’t only include vegetables. One aim of the three is to provide as much of their own needs as practicable from the land itself. Most smallholders grow all their own vegetables and fruit, keep a few poultry and perhaps other animals for meat and milk. But if you look at what we actually eat, where the majority of our calories come from grains play a big part, often providing more than all other foods put together. So the trio are seriously considering growing small-scale cereals.
There are various challenges to be met. One is birds. I have known people grow half an acre of barley or wheat in an area with a high song bird population only for every grain to be eaten up by our feathered friends. On a larger scale the birds will eat the same amount of grain but it will only be a small fraction of the total yield. Birds seem to be a problem in some areas but not in others. The future will tell whether they are at Greenham Reach.
Another challenge is doing all the work by hand. Providing for their own needs means being as self-sufficient as possible in fuel, so they don’t plan to have a tractor. Nor are they going to keep draft animals. Actually the amount of land needed to provide grain for three people is very small, so adapting no-dig gardening methods to grain production should be feasible. But the smaller the area the greater the bird problem.
The key to success in a project like this is not to try and do everything at once. Part of my task as designer will be to work out an implementation plan which shows the sequence in which different tasks should be done. Embarking on growing cereals will come some years down the line. Their first task is to build their house. As for the rest of it, I think I’d better wait till I’ve drawn up the design before I start going into more details.
If you want to learn more about permaculture design why not come on our Permaculture Design Course 16th-28th June? I will take you through the process step by step and you will have the experience of doing a design as part of a group with my guidance. That experience is the part of permaculture you can’t get from books.