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.
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?”