Tag Archives: function

Plants, animals and cultivated ecology in The Sustainable Backyard

After spending two months researching a particular subject, it’s difficult  to summarize all that is worth mention, or even the highlights, in one blog post.  To ease the challenge I have featured other voices, and will continue to post several more interviews of other key stakeholders, on the Sustainable Backyard.  However this post is meant as part two of Finding the Sustainable Backyard, Hamilton Gardens, the reward to virtual visitors in the form of a 60-photo slide show featuring the cultivated ecology within the Sustainable Backyard.

One major focus of my work with the Hamilton Permaculture Trust was redevelopment of their website, and as part of that work I created a virtual tour of the Sustainable Backyard.  Rather than duplicate that effort, I encourage readers to visit the main Sustainable Backyard page, and link directly to the virtual tour with a clickable map, which shows the garden design.  I have chosen different images for this slide show, and readers who view both should get a pretty good idea of what the Sustainable looks and feels like, and maybe even get a sense of the sounds and smells.

As you view the slide show, I ask the reader to consider the following questions:

What unique challenges does a permaculture garden located within a public garden face?       and…

How does the Sustainable Backyard address (or not address) these challenges?

I would love to hear your responses, so when you’re done watching the show, please take a moment and write a comment.  Also, if you’d like a caption or more information on a particular image, let me know!

If you’d like to stop to read the interpretive panels, roll your mouse over the show to reveal controls. The show is 4 minutes, and I’d recommend opening your favorite radio station on Pandora or Live 365 while you watch.

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Learn more about the history and development of the Sustainable Backyard and other initiatives of the Hamilton Permaculture Trust by visiting the  Hamilton Permaculture Trust website.

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.

Melliodora Permaculture Farm with David Holmgren

photos by Miles Marteal

On the edge of Hepburn Springs, David Holmgren, co-founder of the permaculture concept, and his partner Su Dennett, have been developing Melliodora, a two and a quarter acre permaculture farm since 1990, when it was over-run by blackberry and covered with degraded soil.  Since then it has become perhaps the best-documented permaculture demonstration site world-wide, and has been featured on Gardening Australia ABC’s Global Gardener, among many others.  Despite Melliodora’s popularity as a permaculture demonstration site, it was designed to meet the needs of a family, rather than as a demo site.  While limited to their own experimentation, idiosyncrasies and climate,  it is an authentic and mature example of permaculture in action.

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I joined in the Sunday afternoon tour on October 3. It was a crisp Spring day, and I was pleased when David Holmgren himself emerged to give us the tour.  After opening with a brief history of the farm in its present location as something of a frost pocket set low among the surrounding hills, amidst an older history of a gold rush that transformed the land, and later a keen local interest in permaculture dating back to 1978, (the same year Permaculture One was published), David explained that his family eats entirely in season.  They modify their patterns of eating to be in line with patterns of production.  “You can change your yields ever so slightly by adjusting growing techniques to push the limits of your season, but you can change your human consumption behaviors much more.”

Melliodora has 120 fruit and nut trees in a European style orchard (with geese and wildflowers coexisting beneath) chooks, geese, goats, and an intensive vegetable garden on their modest acreage.  Last year they harvested 200 kilos (440 lbs) of nectarines.  David, an intellectual who applies his academic understanding of natural forces to his practical interpretation of the land and vice versa, discussed the importance of understanding soil minerals and how mineral balance manifests in plant health or deficiency.  “Being self-sufficient,” he allows, “subjects you to your own imbalances. When you eat from the supermarket you’re subjecting yourself to a host of someone else’s imbalances.”  David and Su are constantly exploring ways to gain maximum mineral health in the soil, which David explains, is the key to plant health.  For example, calcium and boron are indicated for a plant’s ability to hold water and lettuce growers who lack sufficient copper in the soil are likely to be outcompeted in the marketplace.  Also, by understanding a plant’s mineral requirements, (e.g. calcium underpins nitrogen, potassium underpins fiber) growers can select the more appropriate mulch material for the crop being grown.  Even after 20 years of farming this land there are crops that David feels have not reached their potential due to non-deal soil mineralization and soil experimentation is ongoing.

Along the tour David also discussed the controversy of weeds in the landscape, as the “weeds or wild nature” debate.  Indeed, as touched on in my interview with the staff at the Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens in Hobart (see Oct 13 post), this is an ongoing point of disagreement between permaculture philosophy and “nativism,” the latter perspective which is represented by many botanic gardens.  Nativism, as described by David, assumes non-native species are biological pollution.  David points out, however, that some non-natives are actually preferred habitat for native animal species, e.g. gorse, a non-native is the preferred habitat of the blue wren, and Cricket Bat willow is the preferred fodder of the ringtail possum.  He also points out that the tree violet, though a native shrub, needs high nitrogen input, defying the common perception that natives exist with little attention.  The point is about considering a particular plant from all angles of how it fits into the landscape and for what purpose, rather than choosing -or not choosing – on a single criterion.

After more discussion of economies of scale, irrigation, fire-proofing and the roles of acacia and weeping willow as fodder and multi-purpose plants, we concluded the tour with tea, comprised of a sparkling beverage made from home-grown apple mixed with Hepburn mineral springs water and a delicious apple cake.   I asked David to reflect on the historical and contemporary relationship between botanic gardens and permaculture.

“In the 1880’s-90’s, botanic gardens were really focused on economic botany and diversity of useful plants in the world.  When we got plants from other parts of the world, we gained a larger repertoire, which opened up more possibilities for creating complex ecosystems to provide for people.  However, this focus of botanic explorers from Kew got eclipsed by the rise in fossil fuel-based power, and became almost irrelevant.  Instead, more effort was put into agricultural plants that were already being invested in, like corn and wheat.  Then in the 1970’s, [at about the same time the permaculture concept was developed], there was a revival in interest in economic botany, which is one thread in common between botanic gardens and permaculture.”

“In the 1980’s, horticulture ignored the upwelling of interest in permaculture and organics.  And permaculture was generally pigeonholed in Australia.”

When I asked how this is unfolding now and into the future, David replied, “In our energy descent future, we are more dependent on how we can tweak natural systems.  For example, can we select for an oak low in tannin to produce an edible fruit like a chesnut?  Biodiversity conservation is also a huge area in which there is overlap between botanic gardens and permaculture.  For example, can we find the middle ground?  Can we look at species that are useful to people and also in need of conservation, like the Chilean Wine Palm (Jubaea chilensis) a rare plant which produces a coconut-like fruit in tempered climates?”

A reader writes…


Herb spiral at Eco Living Fair at Randwick Community Center, Sydney

“…One question for your travels.  As you see mandala gardens, herb spirals, and other popular permaculture style gardens, I would be interested in your views on how effective they are from a functional perspective….  I visited one garden last summer whose owner felt that the herb spiral didn’t really work.”

This is an excellent point, and illustrates the old adage that one size does not fit all, even in permaculture.  By definition, permaculture is a “design solutions framework” and if one strategy, structure, or implement is not working for an individual site, then perhaps an alternate approach needs to be considered.  An herb spiral, while extremely popular in permaculture gardens, is not a requirement in permaculture, and an extremely effective permaculture garden can be created without one.  Just as I suspect an extremely ineffective permaculture garden can be created despite incorporating a myriad of popular permaculture elements.  Myopic focus on a particular element within a system in the absence of adequate attention to the need for the element and how it works in tandem with the entire system, idiosyncrasies and all, risks compromising the system’s overall functioning integrity.    I would want to ask, “What wasn’t working about the herb spiral?” and  “What was the purpose of the herb spiral?” and suspect the failure of the herb spiral would lie somewhere astraddle of the answers to these questions.

That being said, I am convinced there is a serious need for research in the field of permaculture.  And lots of it.  Because science is very reductionist by nature, it is extremely difficult to adequately assess efficacy of permaculture as a whole within an experimental design.  Despite these barriers, it will be essential to consider permaculture practices through quantitative research.  Companion planting is one such practice widely used in both permaculture and horticulture, yet few quantitative studies have been produced backing its efficacy.

I will go forward with a mind to ask about function and efficacy of the permaculture practitioners I meet, but I invite all readers to reply or send me an email with your thoughts and experiences on specific permaculture practices, as well as any studies you are aware of that provide support for permaculture practices.