Tag Archives: community

The story of the Sustainable Backyard through City Council eyes, Bill Featherstone

Many people were involved in the development of the Sustainable Backyard, and Bill Featherstone was one such key player.  Bill held office of Manager of Parks & Gardens for City Council during the conceptualization, installation and the first 9 years of the Sustainable Backyard.  He was also keenly involved in the development of Hamilton Gardens as a whole.

Booklet available for purchase at Hamilton Gardens that explains the principles of permaculture in the Sustainable Backyard

His name was on my list of people to contact when I ran into him at a kumara (sweet potato) planting in the Te Parapara Garden, the first traditional Maori garden in New Zealand. After the plants were in the ground, we sat down over tea to discuss the origins and challenges of the Sustainable Backyard.  Bill, having just entered retirement, had a lot to say.

“Three of us came up with plan for Hamilton Gardens in the 1980s, and that plan did not include the Sustainable Backyard.  After the Hamilton Gardens concept got momentum, a number of community groups came forth wanting a garden representing their culture or community group, (e.g. the Dutch community here wanted a garden featuring windmill & tulips).  A group came forth wanting a permaculture garden.  It really had a hard time for a number of reasons.  First, there was no design.  And we were very protective of maintaining a high standard.  For many people, a permaculture garden looked untidy.  If it was going to be provided on a voluntary basis, how did you guarantee that there was going to be continuity, not just on a day-to-day basis but for the long-term as well?

There was reluctance on our part to take it on.  They were finally admitted because they didn’t ask for anything other than a piece of land.  They didn’t ask for any money – they said they’d do the whole lot themselves.  They were here on a year-by-year basis and had no security of tenure.

After a while, the Trust showed that they could work here on a regular basis, and more importantly, they were actually running community education days, and that was important to me.  If all we had was a small group growing vegetables and eating them – well this was more than that.  People were coming to the gardens to learn how to grow their own food and learn the principles of permaculture.

[The Hamilton Permaculture Trust] also said they wanted some more land, in the suburban areas.  Their membership waxed and waned like a lot of community organizations.  But [Hamilton Permaculture Trust] did have people who were there through thick and thin – who held the philosophy and kept it going.

I said, “Why don’t you stop looking for land, and use the land that everyone’s got.  Why not encourage people to use their own garden.  If you have 6 people interested you can trade off meeting at their own gardens.  But [the Permaculture Trust] was committed to being on public land.  They got to the stage where they didn’t have enough committed volunteers that we’d all agreed was appropriate for Hamilton Gardens, so they asked Hamilton Gardens to take responsibility for the maintenance of the garden.  (i.e. get money from council so they could pay someone to look after it.)  Council did give a grant, but they didn’t have someone whose only job was looking after the garden, so the commitment level of people looking after the garden was not always there.  The Trust came back and asked council to take it over.  We agreed to, because the garden had proved itself to be of value to the community, largely because of the education capacity, and the national, and international movement.

Permaculture and sustainable backyard gardening is still not a widespread interest, but I believe that it is a sustainable interest. Over the last 5 years, there’s been a remarkable resurgence in an interest in growing vegetables at home.  I know nurserymen and they were caught unawares – kept selling out of vegetable seeds!  It’s leveled out, but hasn’t dropped below that initial surge.

There’s a parallel in people wanting to plant fruit trees, and there’s a genuine interest in growing varieties that are common when I was a boy.  People my age are saying, “Fruit doesn’t taste like it used to taste.”  There is a growing number of heritage varieties going into home gardens.  I think, if you’re growing vegetables at home, the reality is people won’t save any money, in fact it might cost money.  But that’s not the primary motivation.  There’s a genuine concern about the use of chemicals in food production.  So, permaculture & sustainable backyard gardening is inextricably mixed in with organic gardening.  Many people will say they grow vegetables because they know they’ve been grown without chemicals.

Food in New Zealand supermarkets comes from overseas.  In mid winter you can buy a plum from California that tastes like plastic though it looks magnificent.  A tin of apricots ten years ago was grown in New Zealand. Today it’s grown in South Africa and imported.  Many people are concerned about apparent lack of regulation in some of these producer countries.  For example there was an enormous reaction to melamine in baby food imported from China.    The mindset is, “You can’t trust the food that comes from China.”  It’s absolutely irrational, but that’s the mindset.  Even my wife said, “let’s go back to growing our own vegetables.”

I don’t know that very many people use the words sustainable or permaculture when they’re gardening at home, or even when they come to these community days, but “organic” and “safe” and “in control of what I ingest” are the motivators for people growing food at home.

If we take a holistic view of health, it’s got to get better.  This is an era where people are talking about cocooning.  We have more and more homes where fewer people are talking to each other and feeling love and concern.  And we have attrition of volunteerism.  Community gardening is one example of benefits that go well beyond a parsnip and an apple.

Chinese Scholar's Garden

In 1986, we built the Chinese garden, and put enormous effort into authenticity and integrity of design.  We reflected and realized that one day we’ll retire, and all this thought is going to be vulnerable to inadvertent change. We came up with landscape design statements that captured design philosophy of each garden.  Not to say they’re immutable, but if you make a change you do it wittingly and you know the impact on initial design.

When the Permaculture Trust said, “we want [City Council] to take [the Sustainable Backyard] over.’  We said, “sit down with us and talk about the sustainability, regime for maintenance and preservation for the garden.  How do we insure an acceptable standard?  We all negotiated a mutually acceptable preservation standard, which became the landscape design statement.  My tip for others is to have a written agreement so at least you know where you are.

I recommended to Council they keep the Sustainable Backyard.  Peter (Director of Hamilton Gardens) conducts visitor surveys, and one of the questions was, “which garden do you appreciate the most?”  There was a significant group of data to suggest that visitors appreciate the Sustainable Backyard, so it was easy for me to make a recommendation that I believed was the right one.  Numerically, the evidence was there that people were enjoying the garden.  Some people might not be interested in the whole philosophy of garden, but may enjoy a particular aspect of it.

Bee hives atop grape pergola, Sustainable Backyard

On one occasion, I visited community education day in the Sustainable Backyard, where there was a person talking about keeping bee hives.  I was one of a crowd of people who were there and I suspect that many of the people weren’t interested in chickens or water chestnuts, but they were interested in keeping bees.  And the Sustainable Backyard garden was an appropriate place to learn about bees.  There are many dimensions to the level of interest individuals have in the Sustainable Backyard.  I don’t think today any public garden would have any difficulty including a garden of this nature.  However, just because it can be done successfully, don’t relax the rigor.  The rigor was an important part of the process, because what it did as a pioneering movement, was it showed political people, decision makers that they could meet the tests.  And I think the tests slightly modified the actual garden.  There were some things that are non-negotiable if you are going to be on public land.

The most worrying part is the council can weed and feed chickens, but we don’t have an education officer in the gardens or public relations person.  In the meantime, we’re dependent on people like Cheryl Noble and the Hamilton Permaculture Trust to run those community education days, and they’ve been doing that successfully.  One thing about all voluntary organizations, is they depend on 2-3 key people.  The vigor of voluntary organizations is only as strong as those 2 or 3 people they have at any particular time.

I didn’t make it easy for [the Hamilton Permaculture Trust] to get the garden.”

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Read my previous blog post, Reflections from Permaculture Trust co-founder Adrienne Grant for the Hamilton Permaculture Trust perspective on the same era.

Read a short interview with Bill Featherstone’s on his retirement in the Waikato Times article,It’s time for Bill to reap rewards.

The Sustainable Backyard shows family they don’t need to move to the country

While in Hamilton, I’ve had the privilege of speaking with individuals who have been inspired by the Sustainable Backyard at Hamilton Gardens. Kim Duggan was the first person I spoke with, and her story appears here.

Espaliered Apple Tree in Sustainable Backyard

“We’ve lived in Hamilton for 6 years. We used to go to the Sustainable Backyard and ooh and ah over it. The more we looked at it, the more we realized there wasn’t anything particularly technical about it. We realized that we could do it ourselves. Then we started a family and thought we needed to move out to the country for more space. We wanted to grow food and plant an orchard.

But we kept visiting the Sustainable Backyard, and it showed us we didn’t need to move. Our whole garden space was 800 sq metres, but we realized we could still plant an orchard. We took the Sustainable Backyard’s idea of mixing fruit trees and veggies and flowers and did it at home.

The other thing we really liked was the paths. We did chip paths like the Sustainable Backyard which was really good, because we didn’t want to do more expensive paths with cobble or concrete. We also realized the garden needs to be right in your face if it’s going to be properly maintained. I always liked the flow of the Sustainable Backyard so we did something similar with our own path, so people could use the whole space and look after it all properly. We finally got to a size we quite like. It supplies our veggies for 6 months a year to our family of 4. My next step would be adding the bees.

One thing I really like about the Sustainable Backyard is there are stages to the garden. As a beginner you can see things that will work. And every time you go back there’s something more. Eventually I began thinking, “Actually espaliering fruit trees wouldn’t be that hard, and raising chickens wouldn’t be that hard.”

Mount Annan Botanic Garden

Mount Annan Botanic Garden is totally unlike any botanic garden I’ve visited. Sited in a suburban area at least a few kilometers from the nearest public transport, it is spread out across a sprawling 440 hectares (almost 1100 acres) and is designed for people to have a drive through experience. According to Caz McCallum, Assistant Director of the Botanic Garden Trust, the garden was intentionally spread out for the original director, as a strategy to discourage the city from reclaiming pieces of the land. As a result, the four main theme gardens alternate with tracts of meadow, bush and arboreta.

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I spent the morning meeting with Dan Bishop, Manager of Horticulture, Helen Byfield-Fleming, Coordinator of the MacArthur Center for Sustainable Living and Allen Powell, Community Education Officer and Caz MacCallum. According to Dan, “Mount Annan has never had a permaculture garden. We do sustainable gardening instead. Sustainable is different than organics, but we do use chemicals… sometimes chemicals are part of creating a sustainable environment.” As in the case of Chilean needle grass, he explains, without using chemicals, you have no chance of controlling the weed. “We don’t have the staff or resources to hand pick.”

Before becoming a botanic garden, the land served as a dairy farm, then horse land, and as a result, Mount Annan inherited a huge weed seed bank. “We have finite resources and staff and we’re trying to present to the public, which presents a challenge,” adds Caz.

Messages of sustainability, however appear throughout Mount Annan. A recently converted bottlebrush garden now focuses on backyard sustainability: the Big Idea Garden. This garden presents accessible cultivars that can be purchased in the local nursery, information about caring for the home garden, sustainable water use, recycling, as well as interpretation about beneficial interactions and microbes.

One display shows Lilly Pilly (Syzygium, a native Australian plant) being used for topiary, demonstrating you don’t need buxus to do the job. Numerous examples show recycling and reuse of materials, from benches and walkways to a worm farm made from a repurposed bathtub. Chris Cole, the principle horticulturist for the Big Idea Garden was taking a course at Permaculture Research Institute when I visited Mount Annan. It will be interesting to see what new ideas he brings back to Mount Annan.

Mount Annan Botanic Garden is also home to the Sydney research facilities, including a tissue culture laboratory, seed drying and storage rooms, growth cabinets, climate controlled glasshouses and several shade houses, all focused on the conservation and horticulture of Australian plants, particularly threatened species and species with economic potential.

I also visited Macarthur Centre for Sustainable Living (MCSL) which, while an independent organization, sits on 5 acres of Mount Annan land and partners with Mount Annan on aspects of administration and education. MCSL aspires to showcase sustainable living practices including waste-water management, recycling, green building and green energy techniques to the public, as well as organic gardening. I spoke with Tao Tribels who has been a volunteer tour guide since 2003, and Ruth Bolomey, another volunteer who designs the food gardens and works them two days per week.  Ruth hails from Chili where she grew up on a farm.

The gardens are lush, productive and beautiful, chock full of flowers, herbs, and vegetables and showcase companion-planted beds. I asked Ruth what her take on permaculture is. “I’m more flexible than permaculture. If you go in the forest you see there are still water and food requirements, it’s not just anything growing anywhere. It doesn’t work when it’s all mixed. You really need to organize your plantings.”

Permaculture has earned a reputation in some circles as planting more or less randomly, while many permaculture sources advocate for thoughtful planting combinations to promote most effective use of resources and promote healthy guilds. Ruth completed an introduction course in permaculture but did not pursue the full permaculture design course because, she said, it seemed to apply more to big farms, which was not relevant to her needs.

Allen Powell, community education officer, explains Mount Annan’s school education program which begins at the pre-k level and continues up through technical college. “We need to hit every teacher individually. Every grade has sustainability and Aboriginal Culture in the curriculum, which is new this year. We have the best Aboriginal program in the Sydney area, as well great sustainability programs, but the botanic garden competes with environmental education centers.”

“Botanic gardens have been amazingly slow at picking up this whole sustainability thing. Because it’s our future, our kids future, if we do the right thing now and lock in these things as habits when they’re young…….”

Mount Annan is actively encouraging cyclists to visit the garden, for example by offering a significantly reduced admittance fee. The main mission of Mount Annan Botanic Garden is to inspire conservation and appreciation of plants, in particular, Australian plants. “We also have a responsibility to increase participation and visitation, and as part of our state mandate, recreation as well. Cyclists generally consider botanic gardens to be boring places, where they’re not made particularly welcome. It’s a user group we haven’t reached yet,” says Dan. Development of a 7 k mountain biking trail – the Enduro Trail – through the botanic garden is another way of meeting these objectives.

Caz McCallum adds: “It’s hard to engage with people as a botanic garden because there are so many other distractions. We want to educate, but we also want to focus on recreation. There has been quite a lot of nearby development of big houses on small blocks, leaving very little land left to enjoy. They come here to recreate. It’s good for them and good for us, because over time they might get something more out of it.”

“Most people come for recreation, and bring their eskies (coolers) and barbecues,” continues Dan. “The garden is wallpaper for their experience. While most people visit other botanic gardens for recreation as well, there tends to be an expectation that they will have a ‘botanic garden experience’ as well during their visit, which is typically not the case here. We have to work a little harder than most botanic gardens in this regard.  The siting of the new entrance to the botanic gardens will be through the conservation area first, which will help bring the focus to conservation in more direct way: it will be the first thing people see rather than the last.”

Aldinga Arts Eco Village, South Australia

Situated on 18 hectares, Aldinga Arts Ecovillage (an hour south of Adelaide) is the physical manifestation of an idea that sprung 20 years ago among a group of artists and permaculturalists wanting more self sufficiency and an intentional lifestyle.  Land was purchased in 2000, and the ecovillage is now home to about 200 adults and 50 children. Resident Sue Eltahir toured us around. 

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“We’re encouraged to blur the edges of the Common Land.” In accordance, Sue’s verdant, edible garden curves out into the common area, though the village policy of “share excess food” and “pick, don’t strip” are well observed by neighbors.  Besides the green building techniques (see slide show for Sue’s hand-made adobe bricks), water catchment systems, and edible gardens grown by residents, Aldinga also has its own waste water processing facility that filters water on site and dispatches the effluent to the nearby wood lot.

Several acres of arable farm land at the outer edge of the ecovillage are currently under cover crop, building soil for a future permaculture demonstration garden.  Sue and another resident are using part of this farm land to experiment with growing native and vulnerable mally trees, such as the Eucalyptus dissita, whose roots also happen to be particularly effective for carbon sequestration.  They’re also experimenting with growing acacia to coppice for chook fodder.

One of the most unique landscape elements of the ecovillage is the purpose-built outdoor movie theater.  Mounded up with piles of Earth left from construction of the existing dam system and building sites, the grassy knoll is protected by a curved hedge and faces a movie screen, behind which beautiful views of the valley roll into the distance.  Movies are screened twice monthly and, according to Sue, “it’s a terrific community building activity.”

Ecovillage residents are now working on raising funds for capital improvement projects, including a community kitchen and meeting place and separate education building.

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:

http://intimatepermaculture.blogspot.com/
http://ceciliamacaulay.com.au/

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.