Tag Archives: design

Sustainable Backyard: One of Hamilton Gardens’ most popular gardens

Shortly after arriving in Hamilton, I had the chance to meet with Peter Sergel and Gus Flowers of Hamilton Gardens, Director and General Manager respectively.  I asked about public interest in the Sustainable Backyard.

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Gus explains, “It’s a small garden, but the interest in it is huge. The gardener [who left and was replaced between the time of this interview and the time of writing] would have been asked frequently all kinds of question. A common question at the Visitor’s Center is, “Where is the Sustainable Garden?” People also want to know what types of plants grown in the Sustainable Backyard and the chickens attract a lot of interest, as well as interest in knowing more about companion planting and beneficial insects. This public interest is the reason we started with developing the [Sustainable Backyard] booklet. (Currently, the Sustainable Backyard is one of only two gardens for which individual booklets have been made available for sale at the Visitor’s Center.)

When asked how the Sustainable Backyard fits into the whole of Hamilton Gardens, Peter replies, “We have a concept for all the gardens here. It’s about the history and meaning of gardens. We are not a botanical garden. We are really about the story of gardens. The Sustainable Backyard formed a community of interest around it. They [Hamilton Permaculture Trust] started as a community garden (in the site next door to its current location). Because it complemented our collections perfectly and because of public interest, council approved it. The stated goal of the Sustainable Backyard is to produce enough to feed a family of 4. It provides a message about sustainability. It’s a permanent fixture here.”

Gus speculates that of the visiting public, it’s about 50/50 who know about permaculture. “Others are curious about what this new thing is. From word of mouth I think it [the Sustainable Backyard] is one of the most popular gardens.” Peter referenced a survey in which visitors ranked their favorite gardens, and the Sustainable Backyard was right at the top, only behind the high profile Italian Renaissance and Indian Char Bagh Gardens.

I asked about partnerships that are in place to support the Sustainable Backyard. “We have a very good relationship with the Hamilton Permaculture Trust. They provide all of the formal education that takes place in the garden, which is very good for us because we don’t have an education program. It’s one of the main reasons we wanted to have the Sustainable Backyard garden here. We also work with a father-son team to manage the bees. Wintec is also a partnership we can tap into – the students give us some extra help.”

So far it seemed like the Sustainable Backyard and Hamilton Gardens was the perfect marriage.  I asked about unique challenges that are presented by the Sustainable Backyard.  “We get complaints over the condition of the chickens. People are always concerned about the chickens. We’ve had vandals. The worst was when there was a ruckus in the garden and someone called the police. The media showed up with the police and it turns out someone who was strung out on drugs was eating a live chicken. The cameraman caught the whole thing and aired it on T.V. Also, our solar panel [that operates the pond pump] has been stolen twice, and crops sometimes get stolen. The storage shed was broken into and the information board was attacked. Throughout the garden, we’re increasing our security, including putting in irrigation and quarry alarms, stationing a security guard and upgrading fences. Parkour is also a huge problem throughout the whole gardens.”

I also spoke with Sheree Austin, Assets Manager at Hamilton Gardens, about unique challenges that managing assets of the Sustainable Backyard presents.

“We are required to use contractors approved by Council, and many of them refuse to use sustainable products, for example untreated wood. [Using sustainable products in the Sustainable Backyard is one of the mandates of the design concept of the gardens.] I have been able to source with Cheryl’s (coordinator of the Hamilton Permaculture Trust) help. It’s really good because it’s a different kind of garden. We’ve been very very lucky that we’ve had the Permaculture Trust support us.

“I also order plants for the garden so I’ve had to learn about rotation of the beds. Because I only want a small number of plants for the Sustainable Backyard, and the nursery is used to supplying at least 50 plants of each variety, it’s been an adjustment to thinking about ordering. We get heirloom seeds from Kings Seeds because we’re trying to go for different color tomato or different carrots than people are used to seeing in the grocery store.

“One thing I had trouble with early on when the solar panel got stolen multiple times was that it took some time to find someone who understood what we needed it the panel to do. The Permaculture Trust gave me a list of all the assets and rough costs because there are things in this garden that are no where else in Hamilton Gardens (like solar panels). I basically contact the Trust first if I need to source anything for the garden outside of the usual materials. They are always available.

“I came in on the weekend to help them [Hamilton Permaculture Trust] build the adobe pizza oven and it was really interesting to get involved with that. People are really interested to learn what they can do in their backyard. We get lots of questions about the chicken coop and the bee hives.

1 To address this theft concern, the solar panel was relocated to the top of the pergola, making it less visible and providing natural guards in the form of lively honey bees, whose hive is perched right next to the panel.

Cecilia’s 13 steps to creating beauty in the permaculture garden

by Erin Marteal & Cecilia Macaulay

After encountering numerous objections to permaculture in the public garden sector based on a perceived fault in aesthetics, I’ve become keenly interested in the relationship between permaculture and beauty. (See background article, Permaculture is many things; Is beauty one of them?)  I recently interviewed Cecilia Macaulay, artist and permaculturalist, and asked her for tips on how to go about designing for beauty in the permaculture garden.  Though aiming for 10, she easily came to 13, and I have no doubt she will some day write a book on the subject.  We hope these ideas spark conversation and inspire aesthetic explorations in permaculture gardens everywhere.

“I want permaculture to spread to the mainstream; enriching other lives like it does mine. If you design beauty into your gardens, people can’t resist, and want one too. Beauty is a source of renewable energy, as valid as wind or solar; it gives people energy to act.  It’s easy to get helpers for gardens that are on their way to being beautiful. It takes effort and investment in the beginning though.

The analogy is, if you want birds in the garden, you need to get rid of the cat, and similarly, if you want allies for your garden, you may have to give up some old habits. The exciting thing is, beauty isn’t a cosmetic you slather on top of a permaculture garden. Permaculture attitudes and principles ARE beauty-creation principles.  Stare deeply into any striking beauty, and you’ll find something that brings life and liveliness into being.

Beautiful Permaculture in 13 Steps:

1. Make use of very old memories.

The children of the Jiyugakuen school, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, grow and cook their own organic lunches, then spend playtime in the trees.

Dappled shade under a canopy of maple invites human repose

What humans find deeply beautiful are those things which have helped us to survive through history, like the smell of a campfire, which echos as the smell of warmth, safety and friends.  When we’re under the dappled light of trees we feel a quiet peace and security, which is no surprise since that’s where our furry ancestors made their homes.

Replicate these lively forest elements when you make gardens for people, and watch what happens. When an outdoor table is on an exposed, windy patio, people don’t use it.  We are drawn to covered and protected areas. We tend to be attracted to those elements that helped our ancestors survive.

2. Create ‘Families’.

Creating stable, exciting families is what I want to do when composing a garden. When choosing containers for balcony gardens, I stick to similar materials, colors or shapes, so that the plants have a visually stable and cohesive ‘ground’ from which to fruit, flower and do their thing. The growing plants are what we want to give our attention to, the pots just need to be capable, supportive and silent.

The thing about families is, they don’t accept just anyone who wanders into their kitchen. Members have a history and a future together, they understand and look after each other. They make up for each others weaknesses, and together, they have a chance at a stable future, at surviving. Let every member of your garden feel they are wanted and needed. Don’t accept spikey or looming things that will wonder what they are doing there.  In a human family, each person has their unique contribution:  one tells the jokes,  another is boss of getting the DVD player to work. Each have their niche, yet they are all related. That’s the key – not so similar it’s repetitive, not so distant they all feel alone, but getting the connection lively, just right.

Caterpillar-munching praying mantis

Sticking to a common heritage is one way to make a garden look good. Imagine an edible South American garden, with its exotic blooms, drooping with avocados and tomatillos. It can transport you to another world. It’s not just co-incidence that plants who look good together and taste good together also take care of each other in the garden.  My Lebanese dinner of Tabouli and Baba Ganoush used parsley and eggplant. Without the parsley in the garden, there wouldn’t have been any eggplant, as its pollen-rich flowers attracted a fearsome praying mantis, who then patrolled the eggplant-eating caterpillars.

Raspberries in hessian-wrapped recycling crate, with pink-painted irrigation pipes from rainwater-pond, with Bougainvillea.

While common heritage has its benefits, a well-chosen mixed marriage can be even more productive. Having tropical Bougainvillea clambering over balcony railings can create dappled shade for the delicate English garden it shelters, while its thorns guard against marauding possums.  The hot pink flowers and the deep pink raspberries made beautiful music together.

Gothic garden starring black plastic pots

In my garden, I avoided using black plastic pots because they didn’t suit my theme.  Actually, I thought they were ugly. But in permaculture, as in nature, nothing is inherently right or wrong. It’s just something of potential value in the wrong place. So to extend my prissy boundaries, I gave myself the challenge of creating a Gothic Balcony Garden, making the black plastic pots into the stars of the show. They did great. They held black kale, black edible pansies, blackberries, eggplants, and lots of spooky mauve – lilly pilly, rosemary flowers.

You could even make a white polystyrene boxes garden that is beautiful. It would take a lot of ingenuity, but it’s not impossible. But if an object is not contributing, not wanted and needed and part of the family, it will be unhappy and so will your garden.

3. Give yourself permission to pass it along.

Give yourself permission to pass on or recycle things you don’t love and that don’t fit your garden’s composition.  Our brains often say “I have no choice; I have to accept whatever I have been given.”  But we are designers, not victims. We don’t have to listen to the little voice that makes us surrender to living with clutter.

Throwing things away is difficult for almost everyone, and the reason for that is hard-wired –  an excess of stuff hasn’t killed many of us, but until only one or two generations ago, lack was our constant threat.   If you want to make a beautiful garden, subtracting unwanted things is cheaper and more effective, but a lot more difficult than just tossing pretty new things into an existing mess.

It’s usually the soft-hearted people, the people who can see redeeming points in any broken-down contraption that find themselves mired in garden clutter. – Here is a sentence I find powerful: ‘ Just because it’s there doesn’t mean I have to use it‘.  And the blessing is, once I get strong about refusing things in my physical surroundings, I’m more able to do it in my mind and spirit. Just because an emotion is there doesn’t mean I have to act on it.  Just because I feel angry doesn’t mean I have to express it.  That really changes my life and changes my world.  If you can do it in your balcony garden you can do it in your life.
When you leave things you don’t like in your garden, you get numb to them, which is convenient. The cost is, you get numb to beauty as well.  To keep your vision crisp and appreciative, don’t force it to tolerate mangy stuff.  Be brave, make the decision, and throw it away. The pain of this waste is therapeutic. It will stop you from buying and accepting things you don’t love for the rest of your days, it’s a big milestone in your life.

4. Respect the nature of each thing. 

Stepping stones make a walking trail through the rhubarb, asparagus and salad violas.

Short squat plants look good in short squat pots.  Tall plants need tall pots.  When things are happy and fulfilling their nature, they look good.  If you want to make a path with square tiles, you put them in a straight line, or stagger them, or line them up in an angular basket weave, but don’t force them into curves. If you put them off their horizon, they get dizzy, and no-one is happy.

Rough rocks meander, while straight boards give a structured background, lots of little discoveries can be made in Michele Margolis nature Strip, Sydney. The pink flower was picked up from the road on her way home, to be cherished a few minutes before coming to its final resting place here.

Likewise, lining up odd-shaped rocks like a string of pearls looks awkward. Rocks want to be wild, they want to lay about with big rocks and little rocks, on different levels, as they do in the mountain, in nature.  So just as you don’t force your tomboy daughter to do ballet, or your graceful son to do rugby, you listen to what materials want to be, and let them do a good job of being themselves.

5. Love each plant.

My heritage striped mauve eggplant

It’s easy to love a garden if individually you love each plant.  Fill your garden with plants that have a story. Get cuttings from friends, gifts to mark special events. Get plants that re-create a favorite holiday, or even self-portrait plants, and order rare breeds from the internet. Save the seeds and improve them.  Unlike commonplace supermarket plant, plants with stories attract your affection and attention. You won’t let them die without a fight; they are irreplaceable.

6. Balance the elements.

Mariko my housemate enjoys the summer courtyard’s napping spot.

Nameplate and entrance Morimoto familiy’s Permaculture Guest House, Gifu Japan. Following gravity, dark goes down, light goes up. verticals and Horizontals relate to each other respectfully. A balance of elements are present - metal, wood, water, earth and air, Everything is weathered and humble, the Japanese aesthetic known as wabi-sabi (literally, rusted and lonely).

Having a balance of the five elements makes humans feel at ease. Some wood, some fire, some water, air and void.  Fire might be present through lighting a Mexican chiminea (portable earthen fireplace) in winter, or citronella candle in summer. Water might be a goldfish and reed pond in a big bright bucket, or even just a large bowl with a bamboo dipper –  it doesn’t need to be elaborate, so long as it’s in use and freshly appreciated each day.

Humans don’t like to be confronted by a wall of timber, they like to see airy space between each piece of wood.  Look at spacing in a forest and copy that in your garden. Use a hedge rather than a paling fence, or cover it with a forest of raspberries.

When you use a balance of the proportions found in nature, you feel balanced just by viewing, as the Japanese know. But it’s older than that. “Here is my waterhole, my cozy cave, my hunting and gathering grounds, my clan. Everything I need is here, and I will be safe.”

7.  Be resourceful.

Technoratty - creating a solar powered electric vehicle from repurposed scraps

We can be tempted into thinking that if we don’t earn much money, we can’t have what we want, we can’t bring our beautiful plans into reality.  If you have less money, and you are a value-creating Permaculturist, you will have more time, more community, more skills.  We can often trade something we have for something we need.  If you haven’t got a real-world community, quick, go and get one. Talk to the neighbors, become a WWOOF host, create an Epicurean-style study group in your garden.  Hold grafting days, seed saving swaps.

Installing a collection of fashionable plants risks creating a soulless display.   But a garden pieced together, coaxed into existence through the riches of human connection looks unique in all the world. Most of my gardens were created with the help of brave, life-loving WWOOF1 travelers who came to stay with me.  The garden would hold memories of our time cooking and partying together, getting fond of and grateful for each other.

8.  Create space for human connection.

Kohei (13) helping Cecilia create courtyard edible garden at Asaba Art Square, Yokohama.

Something that connects people will feel beautiful, such as a little space to sit and be together.  If we don’t connect we won’t survive. Conversations you have in useful gardens while shelling peas have a very different quality to conversations had in yet another restaurant or café.

Kohei and Cecilia take a break

9.  Foster beauty of spirit.

In response to the suicide of a child she knew, Mrs Asaba created a neighbourhood art school for children. 40 years later, Asaba Art Square is a small universe of permaculture generativity.

Undesirables will pop up in your garden – a dead rat, an infestation on your plant.  That’s when you say, “I’m brave, strong, creative, and I’ve got Google.”  There’s nothing bad about ugliness, but if it stops you from doing your job caring for people, earth and sharing surplus, well, that’s a waste.  You can’t always have physical beauty. But beauty of spirit is available anytime, anywhere. For me, when I see people bravely doing as they decide, not as their emotions dictate, l feel I’m in the presence of beauty, and it always awes me.

10.  Allow for mystery and surprise.

Compost heated showers, one of the pleasures of APC 10, the Australian Permaculture Convergence in Cairns 2010.

Beautiful gardens do the unexpected. You can do your bit as a designer to elicit curiosity, then discovery by creating wending pathways, hills with stepping stones to clamber and harvest from, little doorways into other worlds in your garden.  Nature will do the rest of the choreography. She will send your garden pests, just to tease you. Then she will send in new insects to clean them up, and you will be grateful. And sometimes nature will send you lavish gifts – anoperatic songbird, a frilly butterfly, a waft of fragrance, and whatever washappening till that moment you will say “I’ve changed my mind – being alive is wonderful.”

11. White is difficult

Gardens look best when they are nature-colored, and here in Australia, nature doesn’t provide big swathes of white.  This dazzling color is best when its renewable; a white flower, a white, freshly licked cat, or a Gum tree displaying luscious snowy limbs under rough bark.  Humans are phototrophic and our eyes will zoom straight to white, so unless your compositional skills are excellent, it will unbalance your garden.

The goldfish was conspicuous, therefore uneasy in the white-bottomed dish. The Mongolian horse hair mulch looked amazing for a while, discolored, and went to the compost.

Go to an art gallery to see how painters manage this color and you might do something extraordinary.  Man-made white is bridal. It dominates, and it needs to stay pristine.

Whether it’s a white fence or a bench, a bedraggled, rain-streaked, discarded bride will curse you every time you pass.

A carefully tended white garden could be breathtaking though – white eggplants, fragrant jasmine, Mongolian horse-hair mulch for the potted plants, and lots of silver foliage.  A Marilyn Monroe garden. But don’t forget, she got her hair bleached every Saturday for decades, not cheap and easy.

12.  Overcome imaginary limitations

Borrow your neighbor’s garden. Just go and capture it. Care for it, get intimate with it, share the harvest. She probably won’t even charge you rent. We are so funny.  We feel we aren’t allowed to love things we don’t legally own.  Being a renter also doesn’t count as a reason to avoid living in beauty. The plants you put in will be your friends, and will enchant your memories of those one-and-only years of your life. Rental gardens are a canvas to practice on, a university course to learn from, they go in your folio as a permaculture designer, and other garden-making chances will then open up for you.

Overcome limitations

If you (and your WWOOFers1) do an impeccable job on one section of the garden, it might give your landlord the confidence to fund the rest of the project. But he won’t invest in your garden if you don’t.

Don’t worry about leaving it behind – we end up leaving everything behind in this life, and it’s better to have loved and lost than never to have had that garden at all.   When you must leave, there is also the option of bringing your tried-and-tested potted trees with you, or giving your pet plants to someone you love.  Gifts given when it’s not even birthday or Christmas have a special glow.  The crisis of having to move an ecosystem can bring people together.

13. Beauty needs love.

Bette Davis said, “A woman is beautiful when she is loved.”  When a garden is regularly tended and gazed at, passers-by feel it, they know they are in the presence of something valuable. Because it’s an ecosystem garden, there will be things not found in regular gardens:  flowers gone to seed hosting useful insects, maybe useful weeds amongst pretty flowers, hollow logs, layers of life and life renewing. Amongst all this may be other signs of activity – skillfully made rain ponds, a convivial breakfast table, sculptures purchased from people you’ve met. This will communicate as engaging liveliness, something rare, and in turn, lovable.

A loved garden does take time, but time with this garden is your favorite hour of the day.

But if the weeds and dead flowers are accompanied by forgotten fruit on the ground, a fence half-repaired with blue string, lolly wrappers caught in prickly weeds, everyone can see ‘procrastination’ and ‘lack of love’ written up in neon lights. Cheap, stuttering Neon lights.  While regular gardens take a lot of fertilizers, Zone One Urban Permaculture gardens take a lot of gazing. Gazing so we know what’s ready to harvest, what bugs are eating what pests, and what needs our help.  And it’s a pleasure, because this garden is our darling garden, and when you have a darling, you want to have your hands on this darling all the time, you want to marvel at the new beauties that each day brings. Imagine choosing a low-maintenance spouse, one you just walk by each day, then throw water on once a week.

A loved garden does take time, but time with this garden is your favorite hour of the day. To make this happen, put a table and chair there, and just start spending time. Breakfast time, or after-work Happy Hour time. Get a rhythm going, because the power of rhythm will carry you and your garden along.
Once love starts, it snowballs, and your garden will elicit more and more, polishing your character, and making you strong, smart and beautiful. So many things I didn’t know about myself were revealed to me though my guru, my garden.

See more of Cecilia’s work:


and check out my previous post on Cecilia’s perspectives on intimate permaculture.

1  WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms),  is a network of national organizations that facilitates the placement of volunteers on organic properties, in which the volunteer exchanges labor for room, board, and learning.

Milkwood Permaculture Farm

Over a bush track of water-covered causeways, hill and dale my non-4-wheel drive rental car- a white Holden sedan I’ve dubbed “the Beast” – bumped and strained for 17 k along Campbell Creek Road.  Having not been able to access the directions Kirsten had kindly emailed me, for lack of internet and cell-phone service, I relied on the confidence of the barman for directions. Thankfully he told me I’d feel I was on the road to nowhere.  Indeed I did.

And then a small river flowed across the road in front of me, and I brought the Commodore to a halt.  There was no way this low clearance car was going to forge this river, so I put the car in park, took a photo, (see slideshow) and contemplated my options.  I could try to hurdle the river, which seemed an unlikely success, or better yet, pull on my gum boots, (the nice thing about living out of one’s vehicle is that everything you need is within arm’s reach) wade through, then jog the rest of the way (it seemed I was nearly there!) as I was due for lunch at noon and it was about 11:58.  That’s when I heard the sweet sound of someone calling my name, and the sound was coming from this side of the river.

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Apparently trained in rescuing bewildered city folk (note: while NYC folks might consider Ithaca, from whence I hail, the outback of New York State, in this neck of the woods, the term city-folk aptly applies), Nick opened the gate and I pulled The Beast in, relieved to be saved from both river-hurdling and sprinting in gum boots.  And I was on time.

Nick, proprietor of Milkwood Permaculture along with his partner Kirsten, immediately began touring me around the property. Milkwood is flanked to the front by his parents’ farm, comprised of primarily hundreds (thousands?) of olive trees, and about 150 sheep.  Kirsten and Nick are currently living in a modest abode on his parents’ land while they build a small home (about 70 square meters) of their own. The current headquarters of their educational operation is a shear shed cleverly repurposed as a  classroom/dining/hang-out space and an insulated, heated caravan-kitchen, with an adjacent open-air dish-washing station.  While Nick’s parents farm is about 4000 acres (1k X 4 k), Milkwood is a small farm of 17 acres nestled into the hills, backed up by an additional 400 acres being reserved as undeveloped natural habitat.

Three years ago Kirsten & Nick moved up to the farm from Melbourne, and haven’t looked back.  As visual artists, they were tired of working tirelessly for grant money that was unpredictable and short-lived.  They wanted more freedom and less overhead, and the land presented an opportunity to provide both.  Now, Milkwood is becoming recognized as one of the leading permaculture education institutions in the region and beyond.

In addition to teaching PDCs (permaculture design courses), Milkwood partners with well-known permaculture teachers such as Bill Mollison, Rosemary Morrow, Geoff Lawton, (Virginian David Salatin of Polyface Farms will be coming over  in October to lead a course) to offer a wide and varied option of courses. Milkwood also runs Farm-Ready certified courses, and has over 50 farmers slated to attend their upcoming course on Bio-fertility.  FarmReady is a federal program which allows farmers to be reimbursed for the cost of the course as part of a national program to assist growers in becoming climate-change ready and adaptable.  These various strategies, along with employing their experience and skill in marketing, including savvy with social media (see the Milkwood Blog), and, I surmise, their apparent passion for people, plants, and permaculture, have all contributed to Milkwood’s status as a well-respected, rising enterprise on the permaculture scene.

In talking over lunch about how botanic gardens and permaculture relate to one another, Kirsten and Nick expressed confidence in compatibility between permaculture and public gardens.

“There’s no reason why permaculture can’t be part of a more formal design; the only reason it [permaculture] is stigmatized as less formal is because that’s what early permaculturists did.  But there’s no fundamental reason why you can’t have companion plants and other permaculture done in a more controlled and formalized way,” says Nick.  “In fact, it might even be more productive to have slightly more controlled landscapes.”

Perhaps Kirsten & Nick represent a new generation of permaculturalists.  Maybe Milkwood is a model of ‘new permaculture,’ untethered to old stereotypes, engaging in both traditional and modern technologies in complementary ways to bring a new face of permaculture to the fore.  Untethered to the stigmas of early, radical (and perceived as radical) permaculturalists, Nick and Kirsten’s approach is one of contemporary relevance and personal connections: an approach to permaculture that is both heartening and refreshing.

“We want to take back the word permaculture.  It’s such a brilliant design framework, we want to reclaim it,” says Kirsten.  Indeed, Milkwood will be worth watching into the foreseeable future.

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.

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 http://www.worldchanging.com/archives/009045.html.  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.

A history of permaculture worth reading

This is the first contemporary history I’ve seen of permaculture and found it extremely useful in understanding the evolution and varied personalities in the world of permaculture.  Many of the people mentioned I have met (or will) and many places mentioned I have seen (or will!)…

In 2007, ABC Organic Gardener magazine editor, Steve Payne, and Russ Grayson were approached by New Internationalist magazine to write a brief history of the permaculture design system, with particular focus on its formative years.

This is the article supplied to New Internationalist…