Monthly Archives: September 2010

A conversation with garden educators at Mount Tomah Botanic Garden

On September 15, I met with Rusty Worsman, community education officer at Mount Tomah Botanic Garden, nestled in the Blue Mountains,  Eric Brocken, a ranger with NPWS at Mount Tomah, and Karen Gray, casual education staff at Mount Tomah.

Time was short so we jumped right in.

“Why aren’t botanic gardens doing more with permaculture?,”  I asked.

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“If you go too green you’re alienating 50% of your visitors, who will be put off by environmental messages,” Rusty explained.  Eric continued, “When I was in agriculture and NASSA (Australian and International Organic Certifier), they tried to sell organic for years to government and they were reluctant because there was a stigma associated with it; probably because there was a vested interest in chemical industry. The O & P words (organic and permaculture) just weren’t spoken.   I think things have changed now; people are a lot more comfortable with it now. Consumers now accept organics better, but governments still don’t want to offend vested interests.” Rusty added:  “As a botanical garden, we are focusing on creating a brand of ‘sustainable horticulture,’ instead of organics or permaculture, though both are embedded in the programs we run.” Eric concedes, “We don’t actually tell the public what we’re doing enough.  That relates to marketing as well… But it’s also the whole Kew structure, the conservative mentality.”

“Organics are probably higher up there (than permaculture) in terms of public knowledge.”   Eric and Rusty explain that in some areas of Western Sydney (about 50 k out of the city), neighborhoods that have been in a poverty spiral have probably never heard of permaculture or organics. “Permaculture and organics are upmarket and are generally for more affluent people.”

I found it particularly interesting that permaculture, which historically has been associated with international aid work, and living off the land without the amenities typically associated with material wealth, was grouped with upscale, gourmet organics here. When I asked for clarification about the difference in public perception of organics versus permaculture, Rusty and Eric explained, “People are aware of organic in regard to food production, and permaculture more in regards to land management.  In terms of food production, far more people would be familiar with organics.”

Eric, who has an associate’s degree in Horticulture and has also received a permaculture design certificate, teaches several permaculture-based community courses, such as “Grow your own food,’ ‘The no-dig garden,’ and ‘Sustainable Gardening.’  I asked if the classes tend to address the bigger picture of why these things are important, or if it is more of an experiential approach.

“You go around the class and find out why they’re there.  If they’re there for practical tips, like plant it two inches deep and water, then that’s what they’re there for.   If people come to learn how to grow tomatoes, you can’t tell them to start a cooperative.  But to me the best fertility is organic anyway.  NPK is quite inferior for supplying the full spectrum of nutrients.” Rusty continues, “As a garden we’ve moved in a sustainability direction a lot just since I’ve been here.  When I started all the waste was taken to the dump; now we have our own big worm farm and other biological methods of dealing with waste.  Great debate is held whenever we want to use any type of spray. With schools we talk about doing things in an environmentally friendly way.”

When I asked how permaculture might help Mount Tomah in meeting its mission, Rusty responds, “Permaculture is so holistic; it includes everything.  I think we need to inspire and empower people to do their own growing and sustainability efforts at home, and we can do that by inspiring them through their visits here; some of these kids have never been in a garden before.”

Rusty continues, “I’d like to do more hands-on things here.  In the upcoming master plan, there is scope for doing more hands-on.  There’s not enough space for it now.  There’s only three of us, only one full time.  We’re operating under the Vegemite principle:  We’re spread very thinly.”

“Permaculture is such a holistic concept; you can mold it into lots of shape; in sustainability it fits right in. I cannot imagine botanic gardens using the word ‘permaculture’ because there’s such a stigma associated with it, related to the brand of permaculture as belonging to Bill Mollison and botanic gardens want to establish their own brand.  I don’t think that will change unless there’s some sort of massive public upheaval.  The word organic was avoided for a long time, but now, the Dept of Agriculture can’t avoid using it.  I think really permaculture signifies a significant shift in the way we live, if people were to go down that path.  I think that this institution (botanic gardens) is very traditional.  They’re science-based so they tend to be reductionist in their thinking.”

Karen adds, “I’ve attended lots of world botanic gardens conferences, and I’ve never seen permaculture mentioned, though climate change has begun to be addressed.”

I attended the BGCI (Botanic Garden Conservation International) education congress last November in Durban, South Africa, and APGA (American Public Garden Association) annual conference this year in Atlanta, GA, and I can corroborate Karen’s observation that there was no mention of permaculture at either one.  Yet BGCI published an article on permaculture in botanic garden education in a recent issue of Roots, their education review journal.  So, perhaps we should keep our eyes open for permaculture making its way onto the stage at upcoming botanic garden conferences?

Permaculture Blue Mountains

While in the Blue Mountains, a beautiful region of NSW just outside of Sydney that reminds me a lot of the Blue Ridge Mountains in southwest Virginia, though admittedly a bit more dramatic, I attended a Permaculture Blue Mountains (PBM) meeting.  PBM is a core group of about 20 members, though their online community is 100 and growing.


Three Sisters, Blue Mountains, NSW

I was impressed that the meeting was opened by a reading of the permaculture ethics:  care for people, care for earth and share surplus, followed by permaculture principles to be used in personal dealings, e.g. “accept feedback, observe and interact, use small and slow solutions, integrate rather than segregate and use and value diversity.”

A large part of PBM is providing opportunities for the Blue Mountains community to engage in local permaculture projects and permaculture education.  One way PBM accomplishes this is by hosting monthly sustainability talks: for example, Craig Laurendet spoke on using recycled materials in construction last week and next month, Rosemary Morrow will be talking about what’s happening in permaculture on the international scene.  In addition, every October, PBG teams up with TAFE (Australia’s largest vocational training and education provider) to provide an 8-week introduction to edible and sustainable gardening course based on permaculture principles.

PBM also provides support for establishing and improving local community gardens, and networks with groups such as Slow Food, Cittaslow, Transition BM and Fruit and Nut Tree Network, and Blue Mountains Permaculture Institute, and holds bimonthly working bees (group gatherings in which an existing garden is further developed or bare lawn is transformed into an edible garden, open to all, regardless of age, experience or skills; tea and food is usually served).

In addition to providing me with great contact information for other organizations I should check out along my way, PBM provided an example of a community group actively and effectively engaged in community education around the principles of permaculture.

Fig Tree Community Garden, Newcastle

On the way from Purple Pear in Maitland to the Blue Mountains, I stopped by the Fig Tree Community Garden, which Mark & Kate recommended as a great example of a community garden designed with permaculture principles, that could be well-suited for a botanic garden setting.  Though it would have been worth traveling out of our way, as it turned out, the garden was right on our route.

“Your first act in the garden should be to pick a strawberry, a piece of celery, a bean or a pea and eat it. Not bad is it? If you don’t feel like work today then that’s OK because we are happy for you to enjoy the food from the garden anyway.” The Fig Tree Community Garden website goes on to explain the many different jobs that can be done in the garden, but only after a visitor has tasted the fruit!

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I have now seen a couple of community gardens (will post on the other – Katoomba Organic Community Gardens – shortly) and a community farm (Northey Street Farm), and all have been in the form of a cohesive design rather than segmented plots (or “allotment” gardens as they are called here), which seem to be the more common type of community garden in the U.S.  The cohesive design allows for a much more comprehensive approach to the garden, and seemingly, more interaction among gardeners.

Cecilia Macaulay’s Zany Approach to Personal Permaculture

By popular request, I will summarize the unique aspects of permaculture as applied to humans as it emerged in Cecilia Macaulay’s webinar during my permaculture teacher training class at PRI several weeks ago.  Be forewarned: this is an approach to permaculture not yet considered previously in my blog thus far.

Cecilia’s voice is worth hearing on your own, so I also recommend a peek at one or more of her websites/blogs here:

Trained in permaculture, Cecilia has gravitated toward exploring how permaculture principles can be utilized in urban settings in creative and beautiful ways.  Yes, beautiful ways.  I’m learning that within permaculture circles, aesthetics are commonly ignored, if not frowned upon, and I found Cecilia’s willingness to embrace this unsung potential in permaculture refreshing.  (This tension between beauty and permaculture is a topic I hope will emerge in future blog posts, so stay tuned.)

Many people who study and practice permaculture are unwilling to define permaculture as a strategy, a tool, or even a tool box.  Rather, these stalwart permaculturalists define permaculture as ‘a way of life,’ or ‘a way of thinking.’  By such definitions, it is incomplete to relegate permaculture to the garden sphere, even if the garden is a central focus of a particular permaculture design.  While Cecilia does plenty of work in the garden dimension and is well-known for her urban permaculture balcony gardens, she does quite a lot indoors as well.  And not just with houseplants.

Cecilia is an endeavoring share-houser in and around Syndey and Melbourne.  “Lots of people are spending resources on building brand-new energy efficient dwellings, which is wonderful, but by adding one person under the roof, you automatically decrease your energy consumption by 50%,” she explains.  But not just anyone under one roof will do.  As all plants have value, so do all people.  And similar to plants, not all people are meant to be in the same space with each other.  While some combinations make fantastic companion plantings, others are doomed from the start.   So the first step in operating a successful house share is getting the right house-mates.

A key qualification for selecting the right “companions” is finding people who share the same standards of cleanliness as you do.  “Nothing,” Cecilia explains, “will ruin chances of success faster than co-habitating with individuals whose home habits are neater or sloppier than yours are.”  To make sure Cecilia finds the right companions, she has adopted a communication strategy that ensures success:  Ask questions that can only be answered with one word: ‘Yes.’   In the true spirit of permaculture, Cecilia does not like to force or push or nag or waste unnecessary energy with inefficient systems.  Rather, she looks for ways to coax the natural potential within her share house system.  After lots of experience and observation house-sharing, Cecilia has devised a system that works for her, and ultimately for her housemates.  Cecilia, a self-declared “monster of mess” has devised a system that nevertheless keeps her abode in a tidy condition.  When she interviews prospective house-sharers, she explains that every Saturday  morning they have a two hour house-cleaning party.  “Doesn’t that sound like fun?” she asks. “Would you like to participate in that?”  ‘Yes,’ they say.  Cecilia also explains that because she works from home, the kitchen must be clean, spotless really, at all times.  All dishes must be washed, dried and put away immediately.  Not a knife shall remain in the bottom of the sink.  However Cecilia understands that we are all human and that sometimes we are just plain running late.  “In those cases,” Cecilia explains, “you can put your dirty dish on a tray and take it to your room and you can wash it up when you return home.  Doesn’t that sound good?” she asks. ‘Yes,’ they say.  And so become members of a tightly run ship.

Good communication and taking care of each other are really important parts of successful permaculture, and something we often hear much less of in the permaculture world.  There is much about earth care, and indirectly, people care through provisioning with food, fiber, etc., but Cecilia talks about the more interpersonal parts of permaculture.  Could botanical gardens branch out to include this important aspect of permaculture?  Don’t some already, like Brooklyn Botanic Garden and Chicago Botanic Garden do this, by reaching out to their community through community garden and education programs?

I hope to speak more with Cecilia as I make my way toward Melbourne & Sydney in the coming weeks.

Permaculture at Purple Pear: Productive AND Beautiful

Just yesterday we packed up from a two day Wwoofing stint at Purple Pear Organics, a small farm just outside of Maitland, NSW, run on permaculture and biodynamic principles.  Owners Kate & Mark, who I had the good fortune of meeting at my teacher training course at PRI, have been in business in since 2006, though they were on the land long before that.

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“We really want to be a model for others,” says Kate, “as an example of what they can do with their own land.”  Though the farm is situated on 14 acres, the market garden, which supplies 20-25 families with weekly boxes of veggies, herbs, fruits and soon, nuts through a CSA, only sits on approximately 1/2 an acre.  It is no ordinary 1/2 acre, however.

There are many notable elements in this clever market garden that inspire awe and admiration, and I apparently, am not the only admirer.  While I was wwoofing at Purple Pear, one of their CSA customers stopped by with a small entourage of friends to show off the garden to.  They left quite impressed.

First, the entire garden is laid out in a mandala, inspired by Linda Woodrow’s book, “The Permaculture Home Garden.”  It is quite a singular experience to walk through a garden entirely comprised of circles, so customary are angled beds and rows of plantings.  And according to Mark & Kate, neither efficiency nor productivity are compromised with the use of the circles, but rather facilitated by the comprehensive, systems-thinking design.

Immediately noticed in the landscape are move-able chook domes throughout the garden, precisely the size of the circular garden beds: an integral part of this whole garden design.  “We couldn’t do this kind of intensive growing on this scale without them,” says Kate.  The chooks dig, aerate, eat grubs and weeds, and fertilize the beds while simultaneously providing a daily ration of (delicious) eggs.  In addition, each Manadala area features a natural water habitat to attract ecosystem services from garden predators such as frogs and lizards, and along with companion planting and continuously building healthy soil with manure and compost, the need for additional pest control is dramatically reduced.

Another unique element in this market garden is the use of guinea pigs as grass cutters, in small tractors that are moved between rows planted with garlic (in the one area planted in rows adjacent to the mandala garden).  These extremely cute farm animals are moved along the row a couple times each day, and don’t have the digging tendencies of rabbits and chickens (and their blades don’t get rusty and never need sharpening).

These are just a few of the special things you would see at Purple Pear Organics were you to visit, and hopefully you’d get to sample Kate’s delicious homemade yogurt and Mark’s beautiful cheese.  And Purple Pear lettuce is truly the best you’ve ever tasted.  Currently the Purple Pear CSA has a waiting list, however they offer permaculture courses for those interested in growing their own.

Crystal Waters Ecovillage

Last week I was able to spend a few days at Crystal Waters, the well-known ecovillage developed around permaculture principles about two hours northwest of Brisbane. We took a tour of the village and got the inside scoop on Crystal Waters.  The highlight for me was walking among the majestic and ethereal bamboo stands.  See the slide show below for images and captions.

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Based on a collective dream of integrating quality of life, social needs and wildlife and nature preservation, Crystal Waters was founded in the mid 80’s.  Apparently a number of share holders got together and purchased the property, but for a number of reasons couldn’t quite get things off the ground initially.  That’s when they turned to permaculture, and Max Lindegger, to design a permaculture-based ecovillage.  Today it is considered a model ecovillage.

A total of 640 acres, about 85 lots on about 15 % of the land are owned and inhabited by residents, about 5 % are visitor and village areas, and the remaining 80% of the land is owned in common.  About 200 people live in Crystal Waters today, and among these a number of nationalities are represented.  While weeding the village green path in preparation for the Saturday Market, I spoke with one resident, originally from Germany, who had been at Crystal Waters for about 6 years.  A parent of young children, he finds Crystal Waters to be “a great community that offers a lot of support, with music groups, mens groups, book clubs, and activities for nearly any interest.”  However according to our tour guide, it’s not all roses.  A handful of members tend to carry the weight of the masses and then burn out, so while new projects attract a lot of energy, attention wanes for ongoing maintenance of the same projects.  Perhaps not even a model ecovillage is entirely immune to challenges associated with the Tragedy of the Commons (Hardin 1968).

Aligned with permaculture principles, the land features over a dozen dams for multiple uses, including drinking water,  irrigation and safeguarding against drought.  Most of the buildings at Crystal Waters are models of green building materials, including the rammed earth, community-built Crystal Waters Info Center.  Huge stands of bamboo are grown on the common land, primarily for the sprouts which fetch high market prices (and they are delicious!).  A quaint village green is bounded by a cafe on one end and a bakery and gathering space on either side, although the hours are limited and excepting the First Saturday Market, the place feels sleepy.   There is no communal farm or garden, though most people here do grow at least some of their own food. Crystal Waters also rents out cabins, tent-sites and rooms in a bunkhouse (where we stayed), and this generates a revenue stream for the ecovillage.

In looking for more information online about the Crystal Waters,  I came across an extremely interesting article by Chris TurnerThe Outquisition & The Future of The Ecovillage (17 Nov 08).  Perhaps more relevant to my research, which is by default focused on how permaculture can be applied in urban systems (since the majority of the world’s botanic gardens are in urban centers), was a comment to the article, posted by Diminoc on 23 Nov 08 at  Here, the myth of permaculture as a movement to a rural, agrarian lifestyle is dispelled, and clarified as a “set of design tools” that is applicable to the environment of here and now.  Perhaps this is one of the reasons permaculture has been passed on by botanic gardens. Please read on.

“I think there is an essential misunderstanding of permaculture. Permaculture does not necessarily demand us to return to a pre-industrial eden, although many adherents of permaculture think this way. Permaculture is a set of design tools that enable us to become more sustainable within the limits posed by the ecosystem within which we operate, and the social demands we have. Good permaculture design unites the possibilities dictated by the environment, with the day-to-day realities of society in today’s world. In other words, an urban sustainable lifestyle is just as much part of permaculture as a pre-industrial eden. Permaculture was born in an era where being sustainable was equated with rural self-sufficiency, so the design manuals all talk about farm design and nature conservation. If permaculture was born today, in a city, it would treat zones not as parts of your farm, but parts of your community. All permaculture really demands from us is that we take a long hard and critical look at our needs (not wants), and try to satisfy them in whatever way is most sustainable. If we live in a rural area, then local eco-friendly food production may be the answer. If we live in cities, then collective action aimed at improving efficiency may hold solutions. What we don’t want, though, is for everyone to misunderstand what permaculture demands, and all head out into some rural paradise. If we all did that, where would the rural paradise be? In our dreams and history books only.

Point well-made.  There are some camps of permaculturalists who are focused solely on self-sufficiency.  Interdependency, however, is what is called for in urban landscapes, whether in public gardens or otherwise.

Northey Street City Farm, Brisbane

Right in the middle of the city (Brisbane), Northey Street City Farm is a vibrant buzz of urban permaculture – and urban permaculture education – in action.  A community and volunteer-run farm of 4 hectares (approximately 10 acres), Northey Street runs a Sunday organic market and hosts an ongoing assortment of horticulture and permaculture courses every week.  An open-air community kitchen and outdoor classroom sit at the heart of the farm, and when I stopped by to visit, both were in full swing.  The kitchen was abuzz with volunteers n a communal lunch,    A perfectly complementary companion, Edible Landscapes Nursery, sells permaculture plants, bush tucker*, worm farms and water tanks, and sits adjacent to the heart of Northey Street.

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When I stopped by the farm, a class on garden pests was in session. The class was engaged in a vibrant exchange of questions, answers and discussion, all about garden pests and how they could be properly managed in an urban backyard setting.  I ducked into the back to listen.  Dick Copeman, Northey Street City Farm founder, and Tim Lang, Permaculture Trainer were teaching.  I later learned the group is part of a government-funded program, Green Jobs Corps, that invests in providing young Australia job seekers with work experience and skill development for emerging green and climate change industries.  Very cool that permaculture training is one of the fields deemed worthy of investment.

I spoke with Genevieve Wills, Edible Landscapes Nursery, about permaculture in public gardens.  She indicated she thinks permaculture is still regarded with some skepticism among the public, as well as among horticulturists.  With one foot in both worlds, I inquired:  Did she see contradictions or discrepancies between permaculture and horticulture?  No, she said. They both fit naturally together.  Permaculture does not contradict horticulture.

Gemma Schuch, a long-time farm student and volunteer, and now the Farm’s volunteers coordinator, invited me to join in the communal lunch, which featured custard apple, passionfruit and several dishes with unrecognizable but delicious ingredients, and I got to chat with Dick and some of the students.  When I explained what I was researching,  one of the students spoke up and said he thought one of the reasons botanic gardens hadn’t bought into permaculture was that it just took too long to set up a thoughtful design, and with the limited resources of botanic gardens, they were not likely to pursue it.  He also suggested that because permaculturists are usually independent thinkers, going through existing channels (such as public gardens) would not be likely approach for permaculturists, which I found interesting.

After lunch, Gemma took me on a walking tour of the farm.  Past the new education building up on pilings to withstand the next flood (the flood one and a half years ago wiped out all their computers), the chook** house, a giant worm farm, a collection area for neighbors to offload their leaves and brush, bathtubs employed for growing water chestnuts, a memorial garden with large stones and seating area to honor a beloved member of the Farm, a backyard demo garden complete with edibles and clothesline (with clothes hanging out), a  wood lot, a diversity garden for seed saving, a food forest, and a children’s area, I was struck by how truly vibrant and participatory this space was.  For example, the compost system is comprised of several huge tumblers, rolled to and fro by dozens of volunteers each week, and the movable chook tractor is a 20X10′ yard enclosed with individual sections of chain link fencing; another project that requires multiple people to move.

While the original vision of this place may have belonged to a few, it has succeeded in becoming a farm of and for the community, with horticulture and permaculture totally integrated into a thriving, functioning  place for growing and provisioning people in a sustainable way.

*Bush tucker refers to any food native to Australia and used as sustenance by the original inhabitants, the Australian Aborigines, although it is sometimes used with the specific connotation of “food found in the Outback while living on the land”. …source:

** Chook = chicken