Some time ago we inherited a very large garden. I was not a gardener but strangely enough I come from generations of farmers. So, I learned fast. I also wanted a method that would suit my wife who was injured in a car accident and sometimes found bending painful. Trawling the internet, I found Strawbale Gardening.
This was some seventeen years ago. I have experimented with the method, and it works very well. I have taught it in the UK, Australia, America and Canada.
Firstly, you do not need soil. So, it follows that you can start your new strawbale garden almost anywhere. On grass, concrete, on your drive, patio or in the backyard. There is no digging and best of all no weeds. There is no waste. When the strawbales are “tired” having had no soil borne diseases they make first-rate compost.
Speaking for myself and a few friends these seem to be the most popular vegetables to grow in strawbales. Pole beans, onions, tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, spring onions, marrows, pumpkins, peas, beetroot, cucumbers, lettuce, cabbage, and cauliflower to name but a few. I have had extremely mixed results with sweetcorn so I would probably advise you to steer clear until you have mastered the technique. Strawbales fit in most spaces, you can grow on the surface of the bale, being careful to plant right to the edge, and vertically using poles.
One of my favourite strawbale systems uses three bales and seven canes. I grow three varieties of tomatoes up the canes and lettuce, cabbage and marrows on the surface. I have attached a bad drawing to illustrate. You can also plant flowers to act as companion plants. Strawbale gardening is not simply a question of throwing a few seeds in the bale and hoping for the best. It is a little more complicated than that. But it is very doable and very worthwhile. The main thing is to get the strawbales composting. You achieve this by adding water and a nitrogen-based feed over some time and in varying quantities. This gets the bales “cooking”. I have devised a seventeen-day “maturing” schedule and by the end of this time, the strawbales should be ready to plant and or sow into. This is a vital part of the whole operation and when done correctly ensures good crops.
Potatoes are great fun to grow in bales. There are two lengths of bailing twine going horizontally around the strawbale. This is one of only a few times I removed both the twines. It gives the potatoes a bit more freedom. Choose a potato that is not generally available in the shops. My favourite is Pink Fur Apple. It is a great little salad potato and super tasty. When you pull apart the strawbale to reveal your potato treasure it should come away in slices. If you lay this down it makes a great bed for marrows and pumpkins, so not a thing gets wasted. Incidentally, this method is great for children and makes a good classroom project.
One last thing, a strawbale garden looks great. I hope this has whetted your appetite to have a go at strawbale gardening. If you need any further information, please use the Contact Us page on my website. If you want all the lowdown, then I have written an e-book that covers everything.
Jessica Perini – from the Permaculture Australia education team – is combining local and refugee learners in a new model of online learning. She hopes to create long-distance connections, funding for refugee projects, and lasting memories and opportunities for all.
Elijah and I have been friends for a while now.
Together we do yoga sessions over Zoom, even though he’s in Nakivale, among the largest refugee camps in the world, and even though his internet is … well, rubbish … But we laugh over tree pose, and the constant internet dropouts. Laughter is the ultimate remedy.
Having worked with refugees remotely since COVID, I’ve come to understand that connection is among the most important things for people like Elijah.
I know this because around 4 pm Sydney time I am inundated with messages that tell me East Africa is waking up. ‘Hey Jess, how you going?’ ‘Hi big sis.’ ‘Hi Mum.’ Followed by copious photos of mulching, worms, and food forests flourishing. Mostly from refugees in settlements in Uganda, and Kenya. My group, Permaculture Partners, has built these connections since the pandemic through numerous workshops. Generally covering the topics most requested by refugees. (Maggot farming being one of the most popular – go figure!)
This is just my observation as an outsider, but having contact with the outside world seems to sustain these refugees. And when it comes to permaculture, this also means hope.
What does all this have to do with mushrooms?
A few months ago, I was running a training session for Elijah’s group (Biogreen) on the three most important soil properties – physical, chemical, and biological. Their main question (apart from ‘What do you mean “chemicals”? Aren’t chemicals bad?’ – translating English to Swahili is fraught!) was ‘When can we learn about mushrooms?’
A 15-minute discussion on soils quickly turned into a one-and-a-half-hour Q and A about the best types of mushrooms, whether refugee farmers would be able to grow them, how quickly they grew and how much they’d have to spend to get the business going. From these people who had little experience with mushroom farming, the fascination was palpable.
Many conversations ensued. Elijah went on a mission to the nearest big local town, Mbarara, 42 kilometres away. I’d found trainers there, but the cost was many thousands of dollars, so we looked at alternatives.
Knowing of his love and knowledge of mushrooms, I asked Nick Ritar of Milkwood if he would volunteer to teach a two-hour introductory session online.
Having worked with Milkwood on and off since I did their Permaculture Design Certificate in 2010, and having completed their excellent Home Mushroom Cultivation Course, I was delighted when they said they’d help. The workshop was set for 1 June.
The model I’ve developed over the years is simple. Put on two-hour training for local Australian audiences and refugees in camps concurrently; charge the locals, and the refugees attend for free. The locals finance materials for the refugees. Everyone gets to mingle and connect. People grow more food. Beautiful connections are made.
As we sold tickets to the June 1 event, I sent the funds to Elijah. Mushroom supplies were hard to come by in Mbarara, so he had to go further afield – to the capital of Uganda, Kampala. This involved numerous buses and boda bodas (motorbike taxis with whole families precariously perched on them, and, sometimes, astounding amounts of furniture).*
Working his way through the markets and squares, Elijah found the materials he needed. Grain spawn, alcohol for cleaning, gloves, gypsum … all the bits and pieces he would be hard-pressed to find in the refugee camp.
Together we workshopped a few ideas and adapted them.
Finding clean water and materials to burn in a refugee camp can be challenging. Boiling water was going to be a problem. So we explored steeping the substrate in cold water overnight.
For a time we couldn’t locate hydrated lime, so we considered using wood ash to raise the water’s pH. Although it doesn’t have all the same properties and functions as hydrated lime, it was a good alternative – provided Elijah’s group could get the pH to around 12 or 13.
They just needed pH strips … Another hurdle! We needed low-tech solutions. Think, think! Red cabbage water! Did they have red cabbage? Yes! A workshop for another day.
When the June 1 workshop rolled around, Elijah and his team had found everything they needed; it had been a Herculean feat. But we still had the dodgy internet to contend with.
The various refugee groups would be gathered – around 15 people per group – projecting the computer screen onto their walls, and we had no way of knowing whether the internet would hold up. If it rained, or if someone sneezed strangely … goodbye workshop. We met a few days pre-workshop to run through the process. Worst case scenario, Elijah could show them all the materials and play back the recorded session later.
On June 1, the refugees and locals came online to hear Nick speak. The participants from Uganda were thrown off the call by their weak connections, so we stumbled around for solutions. I considered WhatsApping, beaming my screen to them through two platforms. But eventually, the internet picked up, and most people hopped back in.
Everyone thoroughly enjoyed the session, and we were so thankful for Nick’s help and guidance. He answered a barrage of questions and has continued helping us over the last month.
Since then, Elijah and I have been growing our mushrooms in tandem. Mine have bloomed, but Biogreen’s first attempt has been patchy, the Nakivale team struggling with conditions in the camp. The heat, combined with the tin roof of the mushroom growing house, is not ideal. The new plan is to purpose-build a structure, with a leafy roof to mitigate the extreme heat. Maybe low-tech air con. More workshopping to come.
As the mushrooms reach the fruiting stage, the team will also have to contend with theft due to starvation. In a similar situation in Kakuma camp, my refugee friends have had to create a separate garden, with strong fences and 24-hour guards to protect their harvests.
Fair share is well and good when you’re not starving. But when you’re surrounded by a mounting refugee population, and your United Nations Food Program rations have gone down to a paltry $5 a month, or 1.5 kilos of flour, who can blame anyone for stealing food?
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the problems faced by refugee communities like Elijah’s. I’ve sat on this story for almost a month, trying to think of the perfect way forward.
But yesterday, I saw a photo of Elijah. As much as he smiles and jokes, his limbs all twisted into Eagle pose, and rushes about on these crazy quests, and tries to grow mushrooms in non-ideal conditions, he’s still skinny as.
Still disconnected from the bounties we enjoy here. Still struggling.
We can’t wait for the perfect answer to these big issues. Nor can we stumble at all the hurdles.
Elijah and his team have started a second batch of mushrooms, learning from their issues the first time around.
And we’re pressing ahead with small solutions. We have $100 left from the workshop sales, which is enough for transport, food, and 3-days of business and mushroom-growing training for Elijah in Kampala. After that, he’ll be equipped to teach his Nakivale group and the villagers beyond.
They’ll still need close and ongoing support from someone who’s not 11,000 kilometres away.
In the last month, we’ve met several people who are growing mushrooms not far from Nakivale. Some are even preparing their own spawn, despite the limitations of an African setting. A few have very kindly offered to come to Nakivale and help the farmers establish a mushroom-growing enterprise. We just need to set the farmers up with a few basics and they’ll be on their way.
So the plan is: get Elijah to Kampala. When he comes back, at some stage ask a kind individual or group with experience to come and help them get set up. Create a secure building, well suited to mushroom growing. Buy some materials. Milkwood has very kindly offered scholarships in its online mushroom-growing course – ongoing education is key.
Two days into the new grow, Elijah texts me: ‘I have good news.’ I’m on a call with someone else, so I can’t answer. ‘I have good news!’ That exclamation is a good amount of energy from Elijah. I have to check-in. When I get him on a video call, his eyes are shining. The second batch of mushrooms is growing! I don’t think I’ve ever seen him so happy.
We’d like to give our heartfelt thanks to Nick and Kirsten from Milkwood for giving us their time, knowledge and patience as we work our way through this process. We’d also like to thank everyone who came along on 1 June and donated to this wonderful venture, and the countless individuals who help conduct workshops, and give their time and experience free of charge to help refugees in these camps. A big shout out to BioGreen and all the groups that attended on the day. Individuals such as Elijah volunteer for such groups purely for the benefit of their communities, and we are inspired by their persistence, grace in the face of extreme difficulty, and big smiles when things go well.
If you’d like to help us set up a group of 25 farmers with a secure building and enough spawn to get them cracking in mushroom growing you can donate here.
*Photo of boda boda used with permission courtesy of Elizabeth Fekonia, from her June 2023 permaculture workshop tour of Kenya and Uganda. Thanks to Elijah and BioGreen for the workshop photos.
These reflections are my own of events that occurred in the lead up to the formation of the trading name ‘Permaculture Australia’. It’s intended as background information as we gather in Adelaide at Convergence that includes a really important AGM. Members of PA can elect 7 people to the Board…..people with passion, skills, commitment and the time available to project this organisation into the huge potential it has to represent the movement.”
“The survey conducted by the Amigo Troika ( Bruce Zell, Ian Lillington & myself) is now 13 years old and represents a moment in time. If conducted today….what would it look like? As we elect 7 Board members soon, maybe its time to ask the membership, ask the movement what they vision a Peak Body to do into the future ?”
The COVID-19 pandemic has turned out to be a contentious issue in the Australian permie community. As we are approaching the biennial Australian Permaculture Convergence (APC), a gathering celebrating all things Permie, organisers and participants must navigate the complexities of meeting face-to-face in as respectful and safe a manner as possible.
Individuals within the permie community, like many communities in Australia, hold a variety of different relationships with COVID, and with COVID-safe practices. A number of participants who will be at the APC are beloved permie elders, in their 70s and 80s, who are at increased risk from the impact of COVID. Others among us are immune compromised, unable to be vaccinated while simultaneously at higher risk from complications of COVID.
Others of us are healthy, vaccinated, and committed to keeping our more vulnerable embers safe by doing all we can to stay COVID-safe. Included in this is a concern for our over-burdened health system and health workers, and the vaccination imperative for protecting our health system. Yet others of us are sceptical of vaccination technologies.
Some of us choose not to be vaccinated, and some see mandatory vaccination, mask-wearing and lockdowns as infringements on individual and community rights. There is a concern among some that the pandemic has provided justification for autocratic government and police interventionism; others are concerned that some of the protest actions of this last group have opened the door and invited right-wing, white-superiority, US-style “preppers”, and the culture of racism, misogyny and violence that accompanies them, into the permie space, thus putting members of our permaculture community at risk.
Some of us argue that COVID and vaccine debates have nothing to do with permaculture, while others argue that they are issues central to our ethics: People Care (eg: the importance of keeping people safe); Earth Care (eg: COVID is a zoonotic disease, and zoonotic diseases are exacerbated under industrialised monocultural food growing practices) and Fair Share (eg: discrepancies between food security and access to health care, including vaccinations, between wealthy and impoverished communities).
Organisers of the APC are doing all they can to ensure that our convergence is a physically, intellectually, emotionally and spiritually safe space.
There will be a couple of sessions at the APC for open and respectful discussion on covid and Permaculture.
Some background reading David Holmgren’s various writings on the pandemic: see, for example, Pandemic Brooding
For the past 18 months, a group of Permaculture Educators has been working hard to complete the 5-yearly review of Permaculture in conjunction with Skills Impact, who are the Skills Service Organisation that manages the AHC – Agriculture, Horticulture & Conservation and Ecosystem Management – Training Package of which Permaculture is a part. There have been many opportunities for engagement with this process and lots of you have participated which is great as it means the resulting Units, Qualifications and Skill Sets will be ‘fit for purpose’. It also means that you will have the chance to participate in and benefit from the roll out of the reviewed courses, if you wish.
Training providers, including those offering the PDC, might be interested in partnering with RTOs to offer some components of this training There will be funding available for some programs in some States There will be opportunities for those with current qualifications (including Certificate IV in Training and Assessment) to deliver this training There will also be opportunities to work with the Education Team of Permaculture Australia to update assessment tools and training materials And of course there will be opportunities for study and professional development
In a nutshell, here are the main components resulting from the Review: 5 reviewed qualifications 48 units of competency 13 skill sets
It is exciting to note that many of the barriers between the PDC and the accredited training have been removed, and it is now much easier for teachers and trainers to find work in the accredited system (with a TAE qualification, of course). It is also exciting to note that two of the new skill sets have been specifically developed to bridge gaps:
Permaculture Designer Skill Set – corresponds to the core skills and knowledge of the PDC This skill set describes the skills and knowledge for working with clients and community to design and develop private, community or enterprise based permaculture systems in rural and urban environments. Comprised of units: AHCPER401 Provide advice on permaculture principles and practices AHCPER402 Design a rural permaculture system AHCPER403 Design an urban permaculture system AHCPER4X3 Select ‘appropriate technology’ for a permaculture system AHCPER406 Identify and analyse bioregional characteristics and resources
Advanced Permaculture Skill Set – bridges the gap between Diploma of Permaculture and Bachelor Degree in the Higher Education system This skill set describes advanced skills and knowledge to help individuals to transition into higher education. The units provide skills and knowledge for planning community governance and developing strategic plans for permaculture projects. Comprised of units: AHCPER6X1 Develop a strategic plan for a permaculture project or enterprise AHCPER6X2 Plan community governance and decision-making processes
AHCPER6X3 Prepare a sustainable community and bioregional development strategy
The timeline for the roll out depends on the government processes, but we anticipate that the newly endorsed courses will be available from early 2023. If you are interested in the process or want to familiarise yourself with what has been done, please go to the Skills Impact project page and click through to the areas that interest you. You can find the documents that correspond to earlier stages in the process by clicking on the arrows in the flow chart.
And our amazing professional training consultants from Skills Impact Ruth Geldard, Industry Skills Standards Specialist, Skills Impact Ron Barrow, Writer, Skills Impact and Nestor Consulting
We all look forward to rolling out our new courses and to energetic participation and enthusiasm from permies everywhere. For further information on the Review and the new components, please contact email@example.com
Elmer Sayre is a permie on the island of Mindanao in the Phillipines . His application for WAND (Water, Agroforestry, Nutrition and Development Foundation) secured a $2000 grant to teach two PDCs, and also raise thousands of seedlings with farmers so they can grow timber and food as well as sustain a community seed bank. To support the application, Elmer supplied evidence of previous projects which included Ecosan – a composting toilet, a tree planting project (with accompanying manual), worm composting, vegetable growing and water conservation. Elmer also gave us a long and in-depth talk on WAND’s work and context which began as a routine background-check interview over Zoom. Mindanao has about the same population as Australia, but as its population is 70 times denser the farming strategies are different.
Elmer explains: “The farming situation in our area is small farms that we need to develop into a diverse system utilising local inputs. The government might promote tree planting but the farmers say ‘How can we get income from that?’ The smaller ones want short-term income. So we say, you plant vegetables, plant bananas and in nine months you have a harvest, root crops in seven months you can harvest, green leafy vegetables in two or free weeks. Increasing their economic base. Pigs, free-range chickens, they don’t grow big like commercial ones but they are okay”. The plan is to grow trees for fruit, timber, and seed as well as foods including bananas, sweet potato, and cassava. With the two PDC trainings, the goal is to have an exponential increase in food production as farmers will be using heirloom and open-pollinated varieties. Fertility will come from vermicompost, composted humanure, goat poo, and biochar from rice hulls. Existing practices will be first be documented and photographed, then compared with post- project snapshots for evaluation. Results will be shared with other Permafund projects.