Permaculture basics

G Magazine

Australian plants and gardens have always been a little more unruly than other countries like England. So it's no surprise that a messier, more environment-friendly way of gardening originated here.


Credit: Wikimedia

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Messy. That was my first, horrified response to the permaculture community my family and I had joined in Mudgee.

There were no neatly edged lawns and carefully coiffed rose bushes. Rather, a rapturous jumble of vegetables, herbs and flowers, companionably planted together to protect each other from the nasties, chaotically grew.

I felt like Margot Leadbetter in the 1970s' British sitcom, The Good Life. In my city clothes and high heels, I picked my way through the narrow dirt paths, and took a deep breath. And then some more.

Huge doonas of straw covered the soil, while fruit and nut trees jostled for sunlight in their close plantings, again designed to deter cockatoos and caterpillars.

Chooks, ducks and geese scratched, quacked and honked in delight as they seized on snails foolish enough to venture out of the macadamia-nut shells mulch.

Through the middle ran a dam for fish and yabbies, with overflow draining into the swale (ditch), which followed the land's contours.

Welcome to the self-sustaining world of permaculture.

Born in Australia 30 years ago, permaculture - a blend of the words permament agriculture - is now practised worldwide.

A young Fremantle student, David Holmgren, was hitching around Australia in the mid-70s and became fascinated with self-sufficiency. He enrolled in Tasmania's Environmental Design School and met Bill Mollison, a wildlife biologist ad university lecturer who'd help found the Tasmanian Organic Gardening and Farming Society.

Holmgren and Mollison published their seminal book, Permaculture One, in 1978.

It envisioned human-made ecosystems that were as self-sustaining as possible, with each element chosen and placed so that it performs many functions. It was all about creating a framework for sustainable human environments, to be in harmony with nature.

The initial focus was on the suburbs: fruit and nut trees growing on the nature strip; edible and medicinal front-yards; chooks and bantams in the backyard; and solar panels on the roof.

In the '80s and '90s, permaculturalists moved to rural enclaves, but now there's a return to the 'burbs and a revival of the 1950s' choko growing over the chook pen.

Permaculture takes time. And money. I know … I've tried it. These reservations aside, permaculture can be huge fun.

Almost nothing comes close to the joyous exhilaration when the first chickens hatch, or the early corn glows silkily in the dawn. Those are the moments that make the seemingly endless hard work all worthwhile.