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Living Edge Giving Veg – How To a Make Living Fence

Walls, fences, barriers, they’re so restrictive. They keep people out and keep people in and both of these things has a very negative feel about it. But maybe that’s because those non-living fences have get rid of the beauty of interatcions on boundaries. They turn a place that could become a magical fusion of both sides through a medium, into a stale and lifeless boundary that separates two sides.

Why Love Living Fences?

Living fences embody permaculture’s principles in their very conceptual breath. On the basic level, living fences demonstrate the example of multifunctionality. You plant the fence posts and they grow into trees which not only provide the needed barrier around you garden, for example, they provide shade, food, habitat for wildlife, mulch materials; they hold soil and prevent erosion, they hold water in their roots, they create a less formidable and more arable microclimate, and many tree suitable for living fences are also nitrogen fixers. Great, look at all those benefits that a steel barrier couldn’t provide.

Living_Fence_Posts
Knocking in Living Fence Posts

But it’s deeper than that. To pull the old rabbit adage out of the permaculture hat, living fences epitomise ‘more edge, more veg’. While this attitudinal principles can literally refer to the fact that more edge enables you to plant more vegetation, living fences embody the symbolism of the deeper-rooted meaning here. When two things exist, they exist in their own manner, say a pond and the land. When these two things meet each other, they interact. This creates a whole new area for development, a new space for magic to happen. When water meets the land’s edge, you get a mixture of both; wetter land and more silty water. This unique environment enables other things to grow that wouldn’t have grown on the land or water, such as reeds, water cress, lemongrass…

When you apply this idea to living fences, you see that the tree fence provides an avenue for what’s on the outside and what’s on the inside to interact in a more magical manner. Say you’re building a fence around your garden to keep the chickens out. Planting a living fence now provides an extra shaded area and perhaps more nitrogen. The tree attracts more insects, so your chickens will be attracted to this area, tilling the soil, eating the insects and manuring on the soil. So on the one side, your chickens are working the soil and so is the tree, and now you have this area just inside your fence which is high in nitrogen, slightly shaded, has been aerated and has a plethora of insect and microbiology; sounds perfect to plant some ginger!

By providing a catalyst for the two sides to interact, you now have a whole new place for yield.

Madre_De_Cacao_Living_Fence_in_Belize
Madre De Cacao Living Fence in Belize

Living Fences with Live Stake Propogation

There are many species of trees you can use for this but it’s best to look at your native climate to understand the best ones for you. We used Madre de Cacao but according to Andrew Schreiber, you can also use:

  • Scouler’s Willow
  • Austree Willow
  • Balsam Poplar
  • Black Mulberry
  • Blue Elderberry

I’d like to add Moringa, Poplar, Elder, Willow, Gliricidia, Gumbo Liimbo, Jatropha, and Madero Negro to the list. There are many more.

  • You want to try and cut the branches for propogation when the tree is dormant. For us, we were in the tropics, so this isa little harder but look for a time when the tree seems to be dropping most of its leaves. Otherwise, winter is best.
  • You need to cut branches that are about 4 inches thick for the main supporting posts, and then little think whip branches for weaving. You’re looking for newer branches here. Look around the base of the tree.
  • Mark out the place you want the fence and line that fenceline with the posts. They muct be the correct way up (i.e tip of the branch at the top). It is also good to cut the branch at an angle so that it has more surface area to work from
  • Living_Fence_Outline_Belize
    Outlining the Garden with Madre de Cacao post in Belize
  • Knock the posts in about half a metre deep.
  • This next bit isn’t essential, but it provides fencing while the trees grow and also allows the trees to mould together (TREES ARE AMAZING). Weaved the smaller branches between the posts.

That’s it. Then you let it grow. It gives a very Alice in Wonderland feel, which in truth, we all want Wonderland so why not?

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Classroom Prisoners – Permaculture as Cross-Curricular Education

So I talked a little before about outlining your own journey to understand where you want to be in the end, to understand what you need to learn. Outside of the four square walls of the oppressive schooling environment, I’m learning to learn in a far more effective and viceral manner. And this is the problem with school; you’re tied to a desk and expected to learn one way and only one that suits the standard format of statistical outcome spreadsheets. Are the children learning or ticking boxes for the sake of the government’s need to prove their ‘achievements’?

The Problem with School

The problem I often see in the schooling system, not that I’m the first to say this, is the compartmentalisation of learning.

Here’s science class. Sit down and learn your science. Here’s geography class. Let’s learn geography here as a completely isolated construct to science.

It makes no sense to me that we would separate these interweaving concepts. It somehow takes out the mystery and magic, the excitement and epiphanines. I’m just spitballing here but I think a lot of it has to do with trying to create a standardised education that’s easy to deliver to children in an organised and easily packaged manner so it looks good in the data. I hear my sister, a primary school teacher, complain about ‘data’ all the time. Data? What data. How can you measure somebody’s capacity to have learned when you apply it in an isolated manner.

I have seen a change though. I see my sister apply cross-curricular thinking to her 6 year olds; trying to develop links between subjects across the board. However it’s insanely difficult to do that when the only stimulus you have is a concrete box in which they sit, an interactive whiteboard, and some crepe paper. You can learn all this theory about the world as much as you want, but as any millenial will tell you, this school system tells you nothing about how to actually be, live, breathe in the world. I was atrociously underprepared for what adulthood would throw at me because I didn’t know how to recognise interconnectivity in the system.

We see a rise of school gardens as a political nod at the envrionmental movement. Here you go, shut up, we’ve given the kids a garden now, what more do you want? What more do I want? I would like you to use it as the multi-faceted tool that it could be utilised as. I would like you to train your teachers into enticing and influencing creativity and pattern recognition in their pupils through this incredible medium that represents basic human needs in its rawest form. I’d like you to encourage children to become self-sustainable so they don’t have to live their lives believing your lies that they’re not good enough or clever enough or brave enough or smart enough to do it themselves and that they need governments to hold our hands in everything they do. This of course is a far bigger paradigm shift…one I firmly believe starts in the garden but it certainly doesn’t end at the tip of a trowel.

Permaculture as a Conduit

Permaculture. Ah. The baffling complexity and simultaneous simplicity of the concept is striking, even overwhelming. Many mistakenly see it as away of doing really good gardening. That’s short-sighted in my humble opinion, as it renounces the incredible capacity for it to demonstrate manners in which we can teach social, economic, and personal development.

Starting this journey, I realise the breadth of everything I need to learn. School teaches us abstract concepts without providing us with applicable scenarios. Kids switch off. Why in God’s name would a 15 year old care about erosion of soils? For serious, it’s not interesting to a teenager, no matter how jazzy your Powerpoint is.

If you want someone to care about something, you have to give them a reason to care; a stake, some ownership, a sense of pride and responsibility.

Wouldn’t it be far more engaging if you said to a 15 year old ‘Here look, by the end of this term, you’ll be making and selling your own hot sauce so you’ll have a bit of money in your pocket, a sense of self identity, a project of which you can be proud, something from which you can demonstrate your responsibilty, and skills which you can take out into the world. However, to get to that stage, there’s a few things you need to know.’ I know I’d be far more willing to hear about soil erosion. Maybe that’s just me.

Permaculture_Education_Mindmap
Permaculture Education Mindmap

Let’s picture what permaculture can teach kids. While the many branches of water management, natural building, cottage industry etc are all connected, let’s take the small example of the school garden; what can they learn? How about the chemistry and biology of soil and plants? What about the physics and mathematics of earthworks. How about the nutrition? Pattern recognition? Mapping? Natural geography? Botany. Energy recycling. Waste management.  How about all the economics they learn from producing products: profit and loss, distribution, marketing, inventory, problem-solving, planning. How about the community and social skills they learn? The philosophy of whole systems thinking. The documentation teaches photography skills, video skills. Want a child to learn IT? How about learning to use complex 3D design programs, video editing? How about the ability to historically look back at the land and understand previous usage; both people and planet. Climate changes, human geography. Entrepreneurship. Art. Home economics.

Sure kids won’t be interested in it all. But the one thing I have really learned through permaculture is that, yes, while I want to make beautiful natural cherry syrups, I have to learn all the processes that go into getting the cherries first and that journey makes it more worthwhile. It gives me a stronger sense of achievement and appreciation for what I have finally produced. Not only does it give me pride, ownership, and economic reward, it also teaches me value. The sheer work that goes into producing stuff and learning that process myself helps me to value things differently, reducing my consumption. It takes you out of the faceless, irrelevant classroom, and puts you in a place where where your learning becomes relevant to the real world.

I know I’m not the first to say this. I’m not the first to push this point across and I’m probably not the most articulate in doing it. However, it has given me the idea of perhaps producing a few resources aimed at education, for schools, parents, homeschoolers. So we’ll see how that goes. We’ll see if we can stimualte to activate.

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Hold Your Breath – Toxic Pesticide Fumigation Without Consent

So this article is a little less about giving advice and a little more about the bewildering scenario I witnessed the other day. So currently, I’m located in Santa Domingo, Dominican Republic before I move on to build a garden elsewhere. One thing I’ve noticed about being in a city after coming from the smothering silence of being alone on a farm, is the sheer interruption of pollution around you. Whether it’s the bellowing street vendors, the neighbourhood dogs, the scream of overhead helicopters, or raucous racing cars, there’s always some kind of noise piercing your peace of mind. I wouldn’t go as far as to call it an attack on your senses, but the sights, sounds, and smells of large cities like this certainly provide a jungle of visceral intrusions. For urban permies, this is your world, and I bow to you in the patience of it all, especially the lack of control you have over your own life in a place where being so crowded with others who do not share your vision, means that you are subjected to enduring the decisions that they make.

One of these such decisions barged into my life the other day while I was sitting reading Donella H Meadows book ‘Thinking in Systems: A Primer’ (excellent thought tool by the way). Ironically in the book, she was talking about looking for leverage points in systems where you wouldn’t necessarily realise they were, to help relieve problems at the source, rather than just patching up symptoms and waiting for the pipe to burst again. I heard the mechanical roar of machinery and then saw a dude blasting fertilizer on bin bags, walls, and even a pizza delivery motorcycle.

Fumigating_a_Wall_with_Insecticide
Fumigating a Wall with Insecticide

I’ve noticed that there are many mosquitoes in this city. Flies are also a problem. But so are stray dogs. While the flies and the dogs might not seems connected, of course they are, it’s just where you’re looking for the answers. Apparently there was a ZIKA scare here a little back so the people are avidly trying to control the mosquito population to help curb the chance of a recurrence of this issue. There’s no problem with this; the problem comes when these control measures are futile because they’re not properly assessed.

Take this, the last job I was on, there were a lot of mosquitoes. So I asked myself, why? There’s many reasons why you find mosquitoes within your vicinity: an abundance of their food, insect attracting plants, and places they can breed, are but a few. I noticed on the site that when it rained, there was a great deal of standing water and the cycle of mosquitoes would thicken for the following week or so as the water slowly drained away or evaporated. In this scenario, I designed a rainwater system which would reduce the amount of standing water, which would reduce the amount that mosquitoes could breed.

This is not what is happening in the city. When you look at the collection of mosquitoes, flies, and street dogs, you’ll find they congregate around certain weak points; the garbage sitting on the street. One of the things I noticed, sadly, about the Dominican Republic, is the high level of dumping, leading to areas where garbage is piled all strewn all around. While I have seen billboards denouncing this action, the question remains while it still happens, as this weak point is where those mosquitoes, flies, and dogs are gaining their strength. The likelihood is that the disparity in wealth means that poorer people cannot afford the private services for garbage collection, a service not provided by the government. This leaves them few other options.

Fumigation_of_trash

But what’s most baffling here is how the government are spending money on dealing with the issue. Rather than devising a garbage collection system that’s universal to its people (at least in the city), it sends round spirited young fellows to blast any pile or rubbish or rubble with pesticide. Adorned in a huge atomising body suit, these lads walk up and down the streets and spray everything in site with pesticide. Are the residents warned of this? Do they have a say in this? No they don’t; it just happens.

Obviously, my view on pesticides is far from favourable. I see their toxicity as something I’d rather avoid clogging up my lungs with and if I had children, I would definitely not want them to be subjected. Equally, to unwitting dog owners strolling the streets for their daily walk, it puts their animals at danger from being poisoned by licking or eating this garbage. Whether you agree to the damage that pesticides do to our world or not, it seems unfathomable to me that residents would not be warned about this, at least so they could be out of town for a day while the gasses choke the sky.

Spraying_Insecticide_on_a_Pizza_Motorbike

It also seems incredulous to me that this is the solution that they’ve decided to invest in. No doubt it’s probably cheaper than a garbage system that is affordable to all people, however this is a waste of money. It doesn’t solve the problem at all. Instead it leads to the government needing to frequently shell out money to have garbage fumigated, that continues to pile on the streets and grow pests anyway. The leverage point that they’re tackling isn’t a leverage point at all so the system is still going to kickback in the same way and nothing will change. It’s like increasing pressure through water pipes and patching up the leaks, when you need to either turn down the pressure or widen the pipes.

And this is the issue here that has led to many of our world’s quick-fixes. Rather than addressing the issues of overpopulation or a lack of quality soil or poverty, we try and fix it by pushing through a plaster to patch up the holes by taking more, consuming more, killing more. Systems work most effectively when they’re in balance, so when something becomes imbalanced, like the prevalence of a pest, we need to look at what’s causing that imbalance and remedy that. Not blow toxins in the faces of unwitting urbanites. They’ve already got enough problems with the car fumes to contend with; don’t be spraying extra cancer in their faces.

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Learning to Learn – Outlining My Permie Learny Journey

So I’ve embarked on this adventure to complete my Permaculture Diploma in Applied Design. That means I need to complete 10 designs in a minimum of two years. Obviously, I would like to do this as quickly as possible while broadening my knowledge, gaining hands-on experience, and really trying to become a well-rounded permaculturist.

We’ve all got goals. We also all have things we want to learn. But all too often I hear the murmuring cries of ‘Oh I wish I’d learned to play an instrument’ or ‘I’d love to know how to draw’.

Sometimes it seems like we constantly feel like we’re past our sell by dates, as if learning is limited to school-age individuals. As if the familiar adage ‘ you can’t teach an old dog new tricks’ is actually true. I think it’s as true as you make it. After all, if you don’t even try to learn how will you ever learn?

I think it’s not as simple as setting your mind to something and going for it. Often we have a menagerie of things we’d like to learn but we have no time/money/resources/inclination/*insert excuse here* to do it. Instead, we trundle along as bundles of sad faces wishing we were more than we’ll ever become.

One thing about the diploma is it teaches you, nay, forces you to set a learning path. A learning yellow brick road if you will. Sometimes the overwhelmingness of the amount of things we want to learn causes us to collapse into a ball under the pressure and we never even get started. I felt so blown over by the prospect of starting this self-taught diploma that being able to devise a learning plan for myself felt like too much, as though I needed all the information at once and had to learn everything simultaneously like an orchestra conductor forced to play all the instruments while trying to keep the symphony together.

Pen to Paper

After a deep breath, and a kick up my own bum, I decided to start small. I tapped myself on the shoulder and asked myself why I’m taking this journey and what I’d like to learn along the way. Yes, permaculture embraces complex agricultural techniques, logical applications of water systems and all manner of complicated social structures so intricate my brain might burst, but I don’t have to start there. And I don’t have to be restricted to those things either. So I asked myself, what do I want to learn in life?

And here’s the trick of the trade, my fellows. GET IT DOWN ON PAPER. As the ink slips out that pen you start to colour your own learning landscape. You start to see how you can bring those skills together to stack functions, with one following on from the other, utilising one to help learn another.

Here’s where I started:

Learning_Objectives_for_Life
Learning Objectives for Life

Seeing it on paper helps to ruse that go-getter in you. My good friend and amazing blogger Super Lucy J has jumped on this bandwagon to become inspired on her learning journey; as soon as you see it being laid out, it really gets your toes tapping.

Beginning, Middle, and End

So you have this paper peppered with possibilities of lucrative learning. But where do you start? For me, I wanted to tie in these skills I want to learn with where I need to go with my diploma. So I asked myself, ‘where am I now and where do I want to be?’.

Right now, I’m just dipping my toe in the concept of designing permaculture systems and I want to be in a place where I can strategically design, implement and manage complex social structures. I know that where permaculture uses the patterns in nature, I need to understand the basics before I’ll ever get there.

Like a child writing a story, I looked at my beginning, middle, and end. I need to start with the practical basics, somewhere in the middle I will start to focus on social permaculture, and toward the end I want to be looking at more complex social systems. Then I broke this down further to ask myself, which 10 steps do you need to learn?

I have decided that I need to learn about:

  • Garden Design

  • Water Design

  • Waste System Design

  • Renewable Energy Systems

  • Methods to Economic Sustainability

  • Fairshare Volunteer Programs

  • Outreach Educational Methods

  • Food Security Programs

  • Community Empowerment Methods

Tying Together the Symphony

Now I know my beginning, middle and end, I can look at what I’d like to learn and ask myself where it fits in that journey. What skills do I want to learn and how are they going to complement the steps I’m taking in order to lead to developing my all-round knowledge and capacity? Place the skills from the first mindmap with the steps you want to take. This final step helps you to know where to start.

Permie_Journey_Steps_and_Skills
Permie Journey Steps and Skills

For example, I can’t draw. I just can’t. It’s like my brain has this amazing idea and then my hand is drunk. It just wiggles on the paper and mocks my internal creativity. However, if I want to be a permaculture designer, I need to practice this skill; I need to learn to draw. So that’s where I’m starting. I tie together the first step of garden design with the first skill of drawing and I begin to practice, hence the somewhat horrifically child-like drawing of my timeline to follow (logically, the picture probably should go here, but I need to warn you in case you wanted to wear sunglasses or cover your eyes).

I can now look at that first step on my learny journey and say to myself ‘OK, Emmy, chill out. This is what you need to do’:

  1. Find a place/project that specifically pertains to garden design

  2. Order the skills logically that you’re looking to master

  3. Use that time to implement those skills

When you start to get these rushing streams of ideas down on to paper, you start to see the connections and the chronology more easily. For example, take the first step of learning garden design. The catastrophe of skills I’d like to learn seem to order themselves when you think logically. Take a look.

Permie_Learning_Journey_Step_1
Permie Learning Journey Step 1

Straight away you can see that the need to learn to draw goes before learning to use Adobe Illustrator, as I’ll be digitalising the drawings after I’ve made them. Equally, learning to make compost tea will come after making garden ferments, as I’ll make the ferments at the same time as I make the compost and I’ll have to wait for the compost to develop before I can make the teas. When you see it laid out, it dances together to form its own logical sense to you.

The Permie Learny Journey

Here’s my first attempt at drawing out my learning journey. It’s rudimental to say the least, but it’s a start. Next time you see it, it’ll be jazzed up in Illustrator and you’ll be convinced I’m a professional!

Permie_Learning_Journey
Permie Learning Journey

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Only Fools Rush In – The Site-Specifics of Sheet Mulching

Permie_Emmy_Sheet_Mulch
Raking it in

Anyone who works on their garden knows that compost is the thing you put on plants to make them do well. Few people know why unless they’ve dabbled in a little soil science.

While this blog doesn’t aim to repeat the knowledge imparted by most other permaculture blogs, it does seek to divulge some of my personal experiences in permaculture techniques, to help prevent you from making the same mistakes as me. So we’ll cover a quick background here and then go on to my most recent foolishness.

Why is Compost so Damn Good?

I’m not going to give you a science lesson but simply, when we employ permaculture techniques, the idea is to accelerate the success of plant growth. In our dying world, it is no longer enough to sustain ourselves; we need to go further to regenerate the mess we’ve made and to do it with a little urgency. Succession in agroforestry terms basically refers to the stages in which ecosystems move through, from the first pioneer plants (or weeds as you laymen like to refer to them), up to a mature forest.

The soil is also making a personal journey in that time, most basically moving from bacteria to fungi. Bacteria breaks down green stuff like leaf drop, feeding on the nitrogen in the plants. Fungus breaks down brown stuff like straw and dried leaves, feeding on the carbon. In order to accelerate succession, we need both. Compost is a lovely amalgamation of both of these things with bacteria and fungi bumbling along in there, breaking down the stuff we put in, building soil for the plants we want to grow. A rough calculation for this is that you need 40% green stuff, 40% brown stuff and 20% high nitrogen (manure or kitchen scraps, but manure is better). I’ll address how to make quick hot compost another time, but for now, this is about my adventure with sheet mulching.

What in the Heavens is Sheet Mulching?

When we make compost, we tend to make it in a nice, neat pile, relatively close to the garden. However, this still requires that we distribute it around the garden with our back-breaking labour. Sheet mulching is a beautiful technique which increases efficiency by building compost on the spot, pertaining to the permaculture principle of relative location. Not only does this make our lives easier, it also keeps the ecosystems that develop in the soil undisturbed. While turning compost and moving it to put it in place allows oxygen to enter, which helps to fire up the decomposition process, it also disturbs the complex life systems forming inside. Imagine you’re a happy little basteria, building a life for yourself down then, having built your own community and home with other bacteria. You’ve got yourself a bacteria job and you’re putting bacteria food on your bacteria table for your bacteria kids, taking them to their bacteria extra-curricular activities and having a bacteria pint down the bacteria pub with your bacteria mates. Then all over a sudden the dreaded natural disaster of the ‘spade’ wipes out your whole bacteria life and family, and you have to start over again from scratch, or worse, you get burned up in the process. Sheet mulching keeps those systems intact and undisturbed, and keeps them happily working away.

It’s basically making compost in the bed, which improves the soil straight off the bat. Recently I was reading a blog by a highly Christian, middle of America, homesteading Mummy who referred to this technique as ‘lasagne beds’. This made me chuckle but I really liked it as a descriptive title.

Collecting_Brown_Carbon_Sheet_Mulch
Collecting Brown, Carbon Material

So it’s this simple…or so I thought. You dig you bed. Then you place a layer of high nitrogen (manure most often), followed by a layer of green material (weeds, leaves, etc), followed by a layer of brown material (dry leaves, straw, rice husks). This brown material should be wet. You need generously thick layers of each and over time you pile these up over and over, which decomposes making rich composty soil in place. Not only this, the covering of the soil suppresses weeds, preventing erosion by rain, and holds water in the soil.

So Where Did I Go Wrong?

The tropics are luscious, thick eco-systems of pure production, but the nutrients are held in the plants, and not so much in the soil. The moment it gets in the soil, these overarching trees are sucking it up and expanding their growth. Not only does this mean you have to constantly feed the soil, it means that as quickly as you work to manage the growth, the jungle extends its spidery tendrils to take the land back.

When I laid down my sheet mulching, I thought it would be most effective to hoe the land first and clear the weeds out, to prevent them growing through. You can, in fact, just leave them and pile on top and the deprivation of sunlight from the other layers will kill them off, allowing their nitrogen to leech back into the soil. That was my first mistake; doing too much work for no reason. Just too in love with my hoe.

Mulching_hoe_permieemmy
Mulching with my hoe

My second mistake was thinking those weeds would die once I pulled them up, because logically that’s how life works no? No. These weeds are resilient little beggars.

I used dried leaves as my brown layer as we had an abundance around the site, but I found that the weeds underneath that I had pulled up, continued to grow searching branches, weedling through the leaf layers to find the sunlight, while their roots struggled to find solid ground. Often I feel like I’m personally doing this in my daily life, so I could most definitely sympathise. While the majority of stuff was decomposing under the top leaf layer, there were a selection of more viney weeds that would just not give up!

After speaking with one of my permaculture mentors, Itai Goldman, (when I say speaking, I mean freaking out and having a mild nervous breakdown) what I realised I should have done was the old bio-cardboard trick. Luckily, I’d been fermenting up a good old witch’s brew of nitrogen weed fertiliser in the background so I had that at my disposal to use. Rather than digging up all the weeds, I should have soaked the cardboard (make sure it has no ink on it) in the ferment and laid this over the weeds. That way this opaque layer would really stop them getting sunlight. Then I build my lasagne layers on top.

I did this in the end over the layers I had already put down and just piled more over the top and it worked. It stopped those weedy greens struggling to come back through. I was also a little more picky on what I laid as green material. I used cut-grass as the lack of roots meant that the grass would die off quickly without struggling to regrow.

Sheet_Mulched_Raised_Sunken_Beds
Sheet Mulched Raised and Sunken Beds

The beds are happily mulching away now. I haven’t planted in them yet although you can plant pretty much straight away. As I used raised beds, when it rains the water collects in them and the mulch holds them. If it’s dry, at the beginning, I would water the beds a little to encourage the brown leaves to decompose, as when they dry out they do nothing but sit and sometimes blow away in the wind.

What I Learned?

You can read all the books in the world about this stuff. You can indulge in all the blogs with different techniques. Only when you start to do it, do you realise that everything really is site-specific. I didn’t realise the voracity that these vine weeds would seek to stay alive and no blog or permie book really talks about that; because it doesn’t occur on their sites.

Next time, I’ll stand back and observe for longer and really take into account what is occurring on my site and what is likely to be a setback for the generic technique I’m applying, or should we say a hurdle I may need to overcome. Just because our PDCs taught us a little knack we can use for growing, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be consistently thinking about how our site specifically will work with this technique, and what feedback loops the system might throw at us. As our good buddy Elvis taught us ‘Wise men say, only fools rush in’.

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Cocoloco – How To Make Homemade Coconut Oil

coconut_oil_heat_mixture
Carolina heating the coconut oil mixture

Coconut oil has found its place as the wondernut of the organic world. We’re obsessed with it, advised by organic visionaries worldwide to use it on our hair, as a medicine to clean out our lungs, as a moisturiser for an all-over smooth finish, and to increase our heart health and lower cholesterol.

Now, while I am a huge advocate for coconut oil, I find the usual marketing dramas of fads to be particularly honed in on coconut oil. Obviously, as its growth is limited to countries with hot climates, its price is absolutely driven by the transportation it takes to conveniently appear in a store near you. However, the extra tags banging on about how its supreme quality ‘hand-made’ ‘home-made’ ‘all-natural’ ‘dipped in gold’, drive the prices up to become a product that can only be accessed by yummy mummy middle-class yoga bunnies with more spare cash than the GDP of many developing countries. And while I’m not saying these people don’t have the right to this product, they shouldn’t have the monopoly. So in true permaculture style, we look to the homesteading techniques of doing it ourselves.

Recently, I’ve been in the Dominican Republic. My boss, Carolina, decided one day that we would make coconut oil. I had always been under the impression that making oil was a cumbersome and frankly too difficult task for the likes of me, despite never having actually researched the process. I found out, however, that pretty much every Dominican woman knows how to make coconut oil, as they use it for their hair.

This is why I’m on this journey though, isn’t it. To learn the cultural practices and hands-on skills that are utilised by varying peoples worldwide, to enhance their lives and remain self-sufficient to a certain extent. I’m like an art curator, collecting these skills in the basket of my brain, creating an encyclopedia of self-sustainability in my mind, and then sharing it with all of you.

So, despite the self-imposed barrier imagining the difficulty of making coconut oil, it’s quite a simple process. Here’s how you can do it at home:

You will need:

  • Two coconuts

  • Water

  • A heating device

  • A sieve

If you want to get super rudimental like we did, you can do this in a self-made rocket stove, or as I watched local all-round handy-lady, Lucia, you can make it over an open fire.

Rocket_Stove_for_Homemade_Coconut_Oil
Rocket Stove for Coconut Oil
  1. You need the nut of the coconut. So if it’s still inside the green/yellow outer shell, you need to remove this. Next you have to remove that hairy, brown layer on the outside.

  1. Grate the coconut with a cheese grater. Grating it gives you smaller pieces which increases the surface area, allowing the oil to be extracted more easily. Keep that coconut in a heatproof bowl.

(At this point, thinking I was some kind of authority on innovation, I asked why they didn’t just put the coconut in a blender, to which they laughed and laughed and laughed. The reason is because you would need to add water which dilutes the oil and makes it harder to extract the oil as a pure substance. They also pointed out that if it was easier to blend it, didn’t I think they would be doing exactly that. Fair point.)

  1. Heat the water in a large pan. You will need enough water that it generously covers all the coconut shreds, but there’s no hard and fast rules for the quantity; mainly because it’s going to evaporate.

  1. Once the water begins to boil, take it off the heat and pour it over the coconut. Cover this for about 10 minutes.

  1. Remove the lid and let the coconut and water stand until the water cools off. It doesn’t need to be completely room temperature, make sure its still a little warm, but not too hot. This soaking and cooling should take about 20-30 minutes.

  1. Now, get the pan you used for heating the water. You wanted to strain the coconut so that all the water goes into the bowl. Get physical with this, ladies and gents. Really get your hands in and there squeeze the liquid out of the coconut. While not necessary, the wonderful lady I did this with, squeezed everything out and put the coconut back for a minute and did it all over again.

    squeeze_coconut_oil
    Squeezing out the coconut to drain the oil
  1. Set the coconut aside, pour the coconut liquid from the bowl back into the pan, and put the pan back on the heat without a lid.

  1. You need to heat until the water evaporates. As it heats up, the oil and water will separate with the oil settling on top of the water, like the science experiments we did as kids.

  1. Once all the water is evaporated, you’ll be left with oil. Make sure you’re paying attention here as you don’t want to heat the oil, so be ready to take it off the heat when the water gets to a low level and you can skim the oil off the top.

This oil will be a very light brown colour and will have a much nuttier smell than regular coconut oil, but it works wonders. I’ve been using it for a few weeks now and my skin is so soft, I’m scared I’m going to slid off my most seats I sit on!

If you really want to get your permaculture on and stack those functions, you can dry the coconut shreds out and use them as a sprinkling for your morning granola. Alternatively, we fed the scraps to the chickens who absolutely love coconut it turns out!

Fueling_the_Coconut_Oil_Rocket_Stove
Fueling the Coconut Oil Rocket Stove

How to Make a Flowerpot Oven

So while this may not be a first priority in everyone’s case, this article is a little about being resourceful.

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So let’s set the scene. Back last year I was on a job helping to clear an overgrown garden to turn it into a more fruitful and utilisable landscape. It has previously been owned by a woman who had reached her 90s and had completely lost the ability to care for the area. Overgrowth was an understatement, especially when we found a rogue greenhouse lost in a jungle of trees that had wildly taken back human innovation as their own. However, the long-term leaf drop from the overgrown trees had led to the development of an extremely productive and beautifully deep layer of humus, creating fantastic soil.

Anyway, while we were staying on the property, we needed to cook for ourselves. After buying the ingredients to make a casserole, we later found that the oven didn’t work. While permaculture and natural building advocates the construction of rather elegant cob ovens, we had neither the time nor the resources for this. Instead we chose to build an oven with the resources we had around us, constructing a rather rudimentary but extremely successful flowerpot oven. While you may feel you will never need this, it could come in handy for making pizza on a camping trip!

Here’s how you can recreate this very simply.

What You Will Need:

  • Large terracotta pot – This needs to be large enough to serve as the cavern for your oven

  • Heatproof rocks – While we used bricks, you need to be careful with bricks or flint as they can explode

  • A grill that fits inside the pot

  • Fuel – We used embers from a wood-fire we were burning (a fine example of an element having many functions!). You want something that will burn well and reduce to long-lasting embers

Here’s What You Gotta Do:

  1. Create a circle using the bricks or rocks. You will need to keep a gap in one side for the air to flow through. It is best to consider where the wind is coming from and place the gap on this side.

  2. Place the fuel within the circle and get a fire going.

  3. As the fire begins to burn down to embers, place the grill over the rocks.

  4. Place your food on the grill.

  5. Place the terracotta pot over the grill and cover the hole on the bottom with rock.

  6. After about 15 minutes, remove the rock from the top to use this hole as a chimney. This will allow the air to circulate around.

  7. The food will be heated in three ways; from the direct heat of the fuel below, by the circulating heat within the pot, and via the thermal mass radiating from the heated pot.

  8. It took around 40 minutes for our chicken casserole to be ready and around 30 minutes for the lasagne we cooked the next day!

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Two Heads – Growing Permaculture Through Skill-Sharing

I have recently moved to the Dominican Republic to pursue a project and have been fortunate enough to meet the creative and productive soul that is The Growing Dutchman, Chris Kaput. We’ve been able to put our heads together and the ball’s already rolling…

One of the important and until recently neglected areas of permaculture that needs much evaluation and a plethora of innovative minds is social permaculture. Encompassing everything abstract that embroils human beings, social permaculture looks to evaluate and devise social and economic systems. From structures of governance to methods of resolving conflict, from techniques for creating a sustainable livelihood to systems for fair sharing profit, social permaculture is a difficult topic to master, especially with the extremely complex and seemingly spontaneous behaviour of human beings.

Going It Alone

From the outset, as an individual embarking on a permaculture journey, making social connections is important to gain social power through networks and communities, both locally and globally. I know that I am not the only person who has experienced the loneliness of this life, heavy like the burden we shoulder when we agree to enter this uphill struggle to overturn the paradigms of destructive systems within our world.

More than once I have heard the heart-wrenching stories of people saying that they felt themselves to be crazy due to their belief in this way of life on account of the blatant ridicule and dejection of their peers. In fact, when I was completing my PDC, this was a topic that came up so often.

One of the most interesting and authentic cats on our course was a Romanian guy called Liviu, who explained to me that in his culture farmers are considered peasants, and the very concept that he would choose this life and see it as the means to repair the world and provide freedom made him fit for a mental institution in the eyes of his friends. He spoke of the judging looks from shop vendors when he entered their premises with dirty clothes, silently disregarding him and considering him disreputable. He spoke of the loneliness he felt when he walked his gardens, knowing nobody within his remit shared in his passion. And most importantly, he talked passionately and vividly about the invigoration he felt having been afforded the opportunity to spend time with 24 other people from all walks of life who also indulged in his passion.

Liviu, like many others, demonstrates the importance of social connections. Not only as a way to help us find some sense of much needed human belonging, but also as a way to make this work. With a battery of cliches at my fingertips, I’ll plump for the simple adage that ‘many hands make light work’.

Switching the Lights on in the Dominican Republic

Embarking on this journey alone has been tough and definitely lonely. My outer mirage of tough girl ‘I don’t need nobody’ independence has wavered a few times while I’ve been 24/7 alone on a farm in the middle of nowhere. Luckily, the intricate spider of social media affords us the ability to connect with strangers who share in our passions. While forums may offer remote help, certain social media outlets can provide us with direct connections and a chance to meet new people.

When I tentatively released my debut post on the Facebook group ‘Permacultura en Rep. Dominicana’, after having reread and re-typed it about 48 times to make sure that the 5 lines of garbled Spanish came across as the cool, laid-back and knowledgeable permaculture wizardess that I so clearly am, I expected maybe the odd ‘like’ or ‘Welcome new friend’. Instead, I was inundated with welcoming messages and people adding me to find out more about my project, with serious offers to visit and help out in anyway they could. Something I had not expected from this island, I must say.

One of those friendly faces was Chris Kaput, who immediately offered to link together seeing as we were located conveniently to one another. Not only did we have coffee to chat, he also took a trip out to the farm to help me consider the lay of the land (leading to him losing the soles on his shoes as we chased the floodplains to understand the water flows!). This was followed up swiftly by an invitation to co-host a workshop with him at Sacred Women’s Fest.

From Abstract Connections to Productive Skill-Sharing

While social connections can help us in a myriad of ways, from helping to get physical work done to providing us with skills outside of our remit, my most recent experience with Chris has shown that ‘two heads are better than one.’

While we each have our own projects to focus on, by combining our skills, we have been able to lend a hand to each other while picking each others’ noggins. This weekend, having been set back by car troubles that prevented us from delivering said workshop, we set about to apply our time to other areas of our projects that needed to be pursued.

I am up to my neck in trying to develop a rainwater harvesting system for 7.3 acres of land that currently experiences serious flooding and erosion during rainstorms, followed by long periods of drought that mimic desertification during dry season. While the tropical climate inherently means that much of the nutrients is stored in the plants, the fast-pace rushing water is eroding the beds and large areas of the land, bypassing the trees and heading straight for the neighbour’s property. Essentially, all our hard work is being reaped by the guy below.

Concurrently, Chris is looking to improve his own city property to model it as a shining example of urban permaculture while simultaneously providing online resources that demonstrate how to do this, highlighting the reality of the evolutionary journey of a permaculturist; kerfuffles, mistakes, and all! One of his pressing projects was to build a pallet wood deck to provide a place for humans to chill while the plants can thrive in the remaining space. He’s also looking to consider better use of the garden space.

So while we were held up by the mechanic’s late arrival, we decided to put our skills together and really stack functions to get two jobs done at once. While I helped Chris build his deck (mainly working as a human level to level out the deck sections he had already prepared), we discussed the water systems at my place and the functionality of his garden. While this doesn’t seem all that innovative as an idea, the hands-on work really gets your juices flowing as the blood is able to circulate around the body, opening the blood vessels in the brain and inducing those ‘Eureka moments’.

Having recently read Brad Lancaster’s Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond, I felt I had a pretty good beginner’s grasp of water systems, but implementing them into the site becomes a whole different story. By having someone to work with who has viewed the same plot of land with different eyes, we were able to both bring our own individual insights into the plan. Moreover, in true devil’s advocate style, I found that Chris was able to really question the final plan I was considering. His input helped me to consider feedback loops of which I hadn’t thought, while simultaneously teaching me to break it down simply and clearly so that my clients would be able to understand.

And while all these discussions were going on, we managed to craft a deck and plant a cover crop of mung beans and mustard, which are already happily sprouting away!

For me, this demonstrates that by stacking our time together, we could also stack our functions and collaborate to offer each other’s skills. This skill-sharing helps to build upon individual innovation; after all, we can’t think of everything ourselves. With that in mind, consciously and pro-actively making social connections is integral to creating a truly productive permaculture community; both locally to you and as a worldwide entity and supportive family.

It’s not about ego. It’s not about your name in flashing lights above a swale telling people that this was solely your idea and you’re the go-to-guy for permaculturing the world into a new age of regeneration. It’s about getting this done and getting it done right, having thought of all the feedback loops and building systems that meet the needs of everyone with the help of everyone. So we don’t mess it up all over again.

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