When 2 Worlds Meet – The Ecotones of Bringing Together Local and Global Knowledge

As I said in previous posts, I spent a little time on Ometepe in Nicaragua. This post is about my time spent with the local gardeners.

The hostel I was working at, Little Morgan’s Hostel is run by a guy called Morgan (the father of Little Morgan). Morgan is the kind of man that continuously makes you raise your eyebrows in heartfelt surprise at the many tricks of knowledge he has up his sleeve. On the face of it, his hostel appears as a drinking haunt for half-arsed backpackers trawling the same trail as all the other fish in the sea. But when you look slightly closer at the inner sense of community within his circles, you see a glorious mix of locals and internationals intermingling to get all the jobs done and Morgan flitting between them all with equal understanding, appreciation, and eagerness for each.

When I first suggested to him that I come down and build a garden for his restaurant, I was aware that his whole site was a menagerie of tropical trees and flowers planted himself. However, when I first visited a year ago, I wasn’t looking through permaculture lenses so in reality the true depth of the intricacies of his plantings had never occurred to me. No doubt it doesn’t occur at all to the backpackers who travel through there, distracted by the excitement of their short breaks from regular life, juiced up on alcohol and adrenaline from all the wonderful places they’ve swooped through. It’s not fair to say people don’t notice the beauty, but they don’t necessarily notice the multifunctionality of the beautiful site; me included.

DSC04030.JPGHowever, this time around I was entering with a new perspective and a different purpose. This enabled me to pop on my observation googles to notice what was hiding among the jungle chaos of the place. I was headed to build a garden on a spot which had previously been used for growing, but had become overgrown. Before I even got to the garden, I noticed that the bar itself is surrounded by a plethora of fruit trees and various other edibles. Mangoes, pineapples, squashes, coconuts, bananas, and plantains are casually hanging around dripping with goodies, and that’s just from a quick glance. And you can’t miss the animals mingling in and churning that soil while grabbing belly rubs from the patrons.

DSC04642.JPGThe thing is that the intricate density of all the green that splurges across this climate and landscape is difficult to comprehend. You need to have a helping hand. Often in permaculture we can be a little…let’s say…know-it-all. The principles set out by Bill Mollison and David Holgrem have served as a fantastic manual for working; the issue is that often we butt heads with local people when we come in with our white people club of new age farmers and tell them how they should be doing it. I’m not doubting the validity and excellence of permaculture and regenerative agricultural methods, but nobody knows the land better than the people who have had their hands in it every day of their lives.

I’ll be honest, when Morgan introduced me to the garden guys, I was intimidated. These guys have done this every day in the blistering heat, wearing jeans and knocking back whisky while they get the job done. Not only that, they built the myriad of phenomenal structures from the very garden they grew.

mirador.png
Source:volanthevistI couldn’t see them really taking my ideas, physical self, or vision seriously. While we want to think that our brand of feminism is the way forward, there’s no escaping the fact that traditionally, women do not work in the fields here. I was prepared for them to reject my capabilities. I was wrong.

They welcomed me into their team with open arms and spent a great deal of their precious time working with me to teach me some of the intricacies of the land and some of their knacks. But it didn’t stop there.

To begin with, it was a very macho experience; them trying to take the hard labour out of my hands, somehow humouring me with my little gardening fancies. But before long and as my Spanish developed, it became an exchange of friends and it ignited an interest in all of us.

It first started with the oldest guy in the crew, Chefan. Chefan tried to put an insect repellant on the soil and I nearly exploded with desperation. I didn’t want to insult him but I wanted to grow organically and I wanted to test the methods I’d be taught. I politely and in the most restrained way I could, asked him not to. I will never forget the look he gave me. The pause of a man who had lived many lives while never having left that island. The pause of a man who’d seen a million faces shit all over his culture and suddenly see one who wanted more than cheap plastic and throwaway touism. He cracked this smile so wide that I could have fit a boat in his mouth. He gestured for me to come with him and pointed to a neem tree, handing me the longest machete I’d ever seen and signalling that he’d give me a boost. When an indigenous Ometepian pulls you into their fold and tells you to climb that tree, guess what you’re doing. Up the tree I went and retrieved some neem. He put the neem, some garlic, and some of the local brain-blowing chilies in a bucket and we left it over night. We sprayed this all over the ground and plants and I had no bugs (for a while, this is the tropics, not Never Never Land!). He later laughed about how his Grandfather taught him this but he’d never used it and was amazed it had worked.

It only escalated from there. Chefan came to one night with the head builder, Luiz, and they said to me: ‘I see the fire in your eyes’. And we talked. Over whisky and tears we spilled our hearts. Luiz explained to me about how Chefan and himself bring young boys to come and work at the hostel to teach them about empowerment. No doubt you have seen the raucous of politics happening in Nicaragua right now; this was at the backbone of everything they were teaching. They taught these young boys to plant the seeds, grow the trees, design the building, choose the right branch, and build from it. They taught them to utilise what nature gives them, not to control it or break it or bend it to one’s will, but to work with it and create from it. They taught them to be empowered by the land, not to try and take power over it. They taught them that they didn’t need an oppressive regime if they could take care of everything themselves and until they could, they had no business fighting that regime (that’s a story for another time).

From here on in, these two older men had the younger men work with me. They explained that of they taught me the hands on sneaky tricks, I would teach them the science. I taught them to rebuild the terraces along contour to preserve water.

DSC04608 (1).JPGThey taught me to grow yard beans along the fences to keep weeds out, I taught them to stake yucca as the fence. They taught me to pierce pigs noses to stop them rooting, I taught them to use the pigs to root the pesky bindweed first. They cut down the overgrowth while I made them hot sauce from the local chilies. They taught me to plant my nursery in a bed of ashes, I taught them to create guilds to protect the tomatoes from fungus. They taught me the native plants and I taught them the names in English.

DSC04615.JPGOne day, when I was suffering from conjunctivitis and everyone was throwing back antibiotic drops, they made me an eye wash from witchhazel.

I taught them to look for the signs of pests and adjust the carbon to nitrogen. They taught me that the jungle will do what it will, and to eat what grew and enjoy it.

I spent many a night discussing philosophy and corporations with them. I will never forget the tears in Larry’s eyes when he was sure he was crazy, trying desperately to explain his own personal observations of how pesticides seem to affect the land and how nobody seemed to believe him. He’d never left the island, he doesn’t have the internet, he knows nothing about the worldwide anger raging about the use of these products; he just knew what he saw and drew his own conclusions. The wholehearted embrace that he gave me when I explained about Monsanto was like I’d put his mind at peace.

It wasn’t just knowledge they gave me. They gave me their hearts, their community. They had their wives teach me Spanish and how to cook. They shared stories and introduced me to their families.

Between us we grew a garden that managed to create some of the most delicious recipes I’d ever tasted, making that restaurant a bit more sustainable. Between us we managed to teach and learn and create. I thank them so deeply for those lessons and to me it’s proof that social diversity creates resilience, it creates strength. Because alone neither of us had the answers, but together, we killed it.

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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.

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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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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.

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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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