Tag Archives: biodynamic

Willunga Waldorf School Garden

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It was the end of a long day that had started at 4 am, continued with faulty GPS communication, a resulting missed cab and sizable bribe of a nearby shuttle company, and miraculous arrival at the airport 28 minutes before scheduled departure time.  After breaking cue and relinquishing my son’s souvenir finger cuffs at security, we felt we’d experienced a sequence fit for a cheesy made-for-t.v. movie.

More than 12 hours after the grueling start, I was unwilling to forgo our final tour of the day, a visit to the Willunga Waldorf School garden.  Allegiance to my travel weary family forced me to inform our consummate host, Jeff Simmons, a parent and gardener at the school, that we’d have to keep it inside of 10 minutes.

Nearly ninety minutes later,  I was still gaping at the gardens, which were far more expansive than any school gardens I had seen before.  Ten minutes would have been woefully insufficient.

At this Steiner (Waldorf) school, growing things is integral to the curriculum, from kindergarten where the focus is on sensory immersion – bright colors, beautiful scents, and rich textures, to Class 3, where students focus on gardening and farming, growing grains like wheat and rye.

The gardens are all maintained organically and biodynamically, and feature a variety of permaculture principles.  Companions such as garlic and marigolds are planted to deter pests and promote plant health. Many different crops and varieties are grown here, providing a rich and extensive outdoor living laboratory.

The school employs three (part-time) gardeners through a creative tuition exchange, so the kids don’t have to do all the work.  But there are some of the same challenges you’d find in any school garden.  Like precious shrubs that have been lovingly converted by young hands into forts.  The garden staff have addressed this issue with creativity, allowing it in one area and creating an additional fort-building area with loose detached limbs in another.  Archways have been installed in certain areas to encourage kids to look up – and therefore slow down -when entering a garden space.

One thing is clear.  With a focus on the garden, both for beauty and for learning, the sky’s the limit.

Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens

While in Tasmania, I met with Mark Fountain, Deputy Director of Collections and Research, and Marcus Ragus, Manager of  Learning & Community Engagement of the Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens in Hobart, and enjoyed good conversation about botanic gardens and permaculture over a nice cappuccino.

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I first phoned the garden weeks earlier to inquire about a permaculture course I saw advertised online, to be told by the receptionist that the course wasn’t likely to run since there weren’t enough bookings.  It was the first time the Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens had offered a permaculture course.  I asked Mark and Marcus why the course hadn’t filled.

“We’ve done very little in the way of promotions.  It’s also the perceived value of what we do at the botanic gardens.  People are not aware of what we’re doing educationally.  This has been the first round of classes like this we’ve offered.   A product is only as effective as its marketing, and currently, our marketing department focuses more on major events and communications than education.”  Perhaps not unlike many botanic gardens, though there is hope, and some evidence, that the trend is changing.

“We are very aware of what’s happening around the world in botanical gardens and the shift in focus, and that seems to be very strong in America.  You can see it in some that are converting carparks into food gardens, with organic gardening and that kind of approach.  We’ve had a very strong focus on things just like that.

In fact, the Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens is quite famous for its Veggie Patch, the site of a beloved segment of the same name, on ABC’s Gardening Australia with Peter Cundall.  Organic gardening principles are followed in the patch, using green manures and compost to naturally enrich the soil. The main beds follow a 6-year crop rotation system to prevent the build up of pests and diseases for healthier soil.  (Though Peter Cundall wasn’t at the garden when I visited, and I still haven’t seen the show for myself, it was a treat to see this small-scale, 6-bed vegetable garden in person.)  All meant to inspire the home gardener.

Marcus continues, “Organics is really the focus in Australia. Organics is made up of Permaculture, encompasses permaculture.  Biodynamics is another one that is very very strong.  Biodynamics groups have an effective national and state organization and they form a basis of our growing techniques.  There are not as many permaculture farmers as biodynamic farmers, who are more structured.  Natural Sequence Farming is another one.  One of our aims is to bring these groups together to form partnerships, because we see synergies.  There will always be these practices and there’s no use alienating them.  In other words everyone has their own mustard, and we work with them all for some sort of learning.  Our focus is really to make sure that the community is aware of all these practices.”

I was impressed by this perspective. Rather than shying away from offering a course for fear of perceived endorsement of one land management approach over another, the botanic gardens is rather reflecting back to the community various practices that are already occurring within Tasmania and around Australia.  And these are all important, given their relationship with and impact on local ecosystems.

“When we’re looking at permaculture or biodynamics, we’re looking at aspects of these approaches that are impacting natural systems.  Farming practices impact local bush, flora and woodlands, and the natural systems at play there.  That’s why it’s important to address these issues, and educate about various practices and how they respond to and effect those natural systems.”  And how does a botanic garden go about doing this?

“People hear a lot about biodiversity and threatened species but don’t know what that means. If we can package it in a way that’s close to their heart like lifestyle and food then you can also get this connection to the land and plants. It’s also important to get this info out to farmers.”

Why hasn’t permaculture gained traction yet within the botanic garden world?, I asked.

“I think it comes back to esoteric aspects of teaching.  The organic areas field is very fragmented as well.  There’s a book a week coming out related to organic gardening and they all have similar values but different techniques.  Permaculture hasn’t been in the community long enough for people to digest if it’s real or if its up there with myth and legend.  It’s only time before these things are taken in and become ‘fact’.

“My belief is there’s not one particular be all and end all; permaculture is one option of a very strong environmental perspective, with Bill Mollison’s emphasis on environment.  Permaculture is very structured from a design aspect, and that is really how it stands apart from other strategies, as well as interpretation of natural ecosystems.

“Even with permaculture, I have great problems with certain aspects of it.  For example, sometimes they [permaculturalists] are quite limited with how plants can be used in certain environments, and some of those plants are actually weeds.  So weed impact with certain types of areas is a big issue across the nation.”  Marcus continues, “Issues of sustainability are still not well explained within permaculture, for example bringing external materials in, or allowing adequate quarantine between farms.  Some plants chosen might be completely exotic to plants that surround a permaculture property. Also, we have a huge network of community gardens.  One wanted to clear out native bushland to put in a vegetable garden.  That’s the kind of thing we want to educate about and change.”

After levying some common criticisms of permaculture, Marcus considers the standard limitations found within botanical garden institutions.

“I’m not saying we should go to a hunter-gatherer system, but as far as botanic gardens go, we’re still stuck in a very conservative mindset.  We go to the traditional core business of botanic gardens.  There’s a skepticism to moving into new areas:  How much is it going to cost?”

A possible next step?  “There’s a huge movement into healthy living, sustainable living and how to produce food. Community needs to weigh in on how to make these things happen. ”

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.