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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:
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:
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.
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’:
Find a place/project that specifically pertains to garden design
Order the skills logically that you’re looking to master
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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’.