Fences are often necessary for privacy, security and the safety of pets and children. As Mara Ripani explains, there are myriad ways to create them with plants, adding extra greenery to our built environment.
With populations increasing and cities and towns growing, we need to take every opportunity to introduce green into our built environment: ‘rewilding’ our surroundings, even in small ways. A living fence is a simple and effective way to start. There are many approaches to creating a living fence: what they all have in common is a thriving explosion of plants!
What is a living fence? Fences are commonly used for creating privacy (both visual privacy and by preventing access), for keeping pets and children contained and safe, and simply for marking property boundaries. With a bit of planning, all of these requirements can be fulfilled with a living fence: one that is made using plants on their own or by combining plants with an appropriate structure. Depending on its main purpose, the space available and your aesthetic preference, a living fence can take the form of closely-planted clumping grasses, a hedge created from shrubs, a line of small trees or espaliered fruit trees, or a cascade of tendrils and flowers from a climbing vine – to name just a few possibilities.
Why choose a living fence? No matter how small your property, if there is room for a fence then there is probably room for a living fence. Well-kept living fences are extremely beautiful. Evergreen plants provide a verdant wall to look at all year round. Climbing plants with flowers provide colour, interest and architectural shapes to admire. A living fence is an extension of your garden, allowing you to layer greenery to create depth and texture. And if you already have a standard fence, you can breathe life into it with a climbing plant.
Cooling microclimates While living fences add a great deal of beauty, they can also help green our cities and create cool microclimates. Built-up urban areas are prone to the urban heat island effect: dense concentrations of pavement, buildings and other thermal mass surfaces absorb daytime heat, releasing it again at night. As a result, ambient temperatures can increase by one to three degrees Celsius. Greening infrastructure projects large and small, including living fences, can help counter this effect through the plants’ natural transpiration.
How to choose plants for a living fence When deciding on the style and plant selection for your living fence, consider its purpose, maintenance requirements, and how it will fit into your existing garden. Whether you opt for native or non-native species, always ensure you avoid species considered invasive in your area. Be careful
that your living fence does not impede communal walking paths, and consider traffic sightlines where necessary – especially for cars exiting driveways.
Grasses If your main priority is boundary marking, a living fence can be as simple as planting a row of ornamental grasses. There are many choices: Poa labillardierei (Common Tussock-grass) Pennisetum alopecuroides (Chinese Fountain grass), Lomandra hystrix (Green Mat-rush,) Miscanthus sinensis (Chinese Silver grass), Schizachyrium scoparium (Little Bluestem) to name but a few. Be sure to choose perennial grasses that will live year after year, either evergreen or grasses that will dry to a sandy or copper colour, marking the changing seasons. Some grasses have spiky foliage or sharp edges hence consider their appropriateness. Grasses can be cut back in late winter or left uncut for a few years. When cut back they reappear as vibrant green tufts in spring.
Shrubs Privacy and safety for children and pets can be achieved with shrubs planted to make hedges (though note that hedges need dense foliage or supplementing with a wire fence to reliably contain small pets). There are many shrubs to choose from, and garden nurseries offer plenty of information on the growing requirements of plants to help you make your selection. Look for plants in the following genuses Acacia, Westringia, Acmena, Yew, Thuja, and Laurel to name but a mere few. Search for plants that suit your soil type and climate, and be sure to check the height, width and growth rate. Fast-growing hedges will establish quickly but need more frequent pruning, watering and compost. Slower-growing hedges can take years to establish but will then need less maintenance. Also consider colour, foliage texture, and whether you’d prefer evergreen or deciduous. An evergreen shrub will stay green all year round, while deciduous species will change colour before (usually) dropping their leaves. For example, Berberis thunbergia (Japanese Barberry) is a deciduous shrub that goes from green to bright red foliage in autumn. For silver foliage try Westringia fruticose (Native Rosemary(, Teucrium fruticans Tree Garmander), or Pittosporum tenuifolium ‘Silver Sheen’ (Pittosporum Silver Sheen)
Trees A line of small trees can also be used to create a fence, or to green an existing fence line. A popular choice is any tree in the conifer family with a tall, narrow form; plant them as close as planting instructions will allow. For an ‘edible fence’, you can espalier fruit trees. Espaliering is easy to do, saves space and allows even small garden owners to access seasonal fruit. Buy bare-rooted trees and plant in winter, and explore the many instructional videos on different espaliering techniques available online.
Climbing vines Climbing vines on a structural support can form a fence for privacy and for containing animals and kids. Choose evergreen plants for year-round screening or deciduous ones for a flash of autumn red followed by bare branches. You can use metal mesh or tensioned wire on a structural frame or a
wooden fence to support your vines; remember that climbing plants are heavy once established so make sure the structure is able to support the weight. There are many fantastic climbing plants to choose from. The evergreen Hardenbergia violacea (Purple Coral Pea )produces a mass of gorgeous purple pea flowers. Pyrostegia venusta (Golden Shower) has stunning orange trumpet flowers and climbing tendrils. Trachelospermum jasminoides (Star Jasmine’s)’ sweet fragrance, Rosa banksiae’s (Lady Banks Rose) rose clusters and the tiny fairylike leaves of Muehlenbeckia complexa (Maidenhair Vine) are all attractive options. If your home or rental property has an existing brick or masonry fence then try Parthenocissus tricuspidata(Boston Ivy) with its burnt red autumn leaves, or Ficus pumila’s (Creeping Fig’s) attractive juvenile leaves.
Before planting Whether you opt for grasses, shrubs, trees or climbers for your living fence, do your plant research. How will the plant grow? How will it change over time? What level of maintenance will it need? Will it drop leaves? Might its root system cause any long-term problems? While it is good to be aware of these things, however, don’t get overwhelmed: generally the value of a living fence far outweighs its care needs. And one final piece of advice: if establishing a new fence, it’s a good idea to do a property boundary search via your relevant state agency to ensure you’re putting the fence in the right place and not on your neighbour’s property. Whether you live in a city, a regional town or in the bush, infrastructure like fences is often necessary. Likewise, rewilding our living environments is important, and easy to do. A living fence is a great way to combine the two, and the benefits will be experienced by you and all that pass by.
“As we face what seem like insurmountable challenges, or what design theorist Horst Rittel described as ‘wicked problems’, it’s easy to sink into despair and anxiety about the future. Naomi Klein has said, ‘we’re f#*ked if we believe we’re f#*ked’. I’ve been so grateful to Rowe Morrow for introducing me to permaculture in 2006 – the year my twin boys turned five and I sank into despair about the future.”
This months guest post is written by PA professional member Lis Bastian in the Blue Mountains. Lis is involved a range of different projects including The Big Fix, Blue Mountains Permaculture Institute and the Blackheath Community Garden. She was also recently awarded a Community Service Award at the Australasian Permaculture Convergence for exemplary service to permaculture. Read more about her story below.
“Fifteen years later, the solutions-focused system design thinking approach of permaculture has enabled me to get a handle on tackling wicked problems and helped me focus on hope, not despair. Two of the three permaculture ethics are about People care and Fair share, so my main focus has been on the cultural change side of ‘perma – culture’. This has been a natural fit as permaculture designing has merged with the arts and cultural development work I’ve been doing for the last 40 years.
I do this via a charity I founded called The Big Fix, which incorporates the Blue Mountains Permaculture Institute. Our mission is to ‘change the story to grow a collaborative solutions-focused culture’.
The Big Fix has six areas of focus for redesigning our culture. They address how we collaborate, tell our stories, learn, work, connect and care for the living systems which support us.
Facilitate Collaboration. Tackle wicked problems like climate change & biodiversity loss by avoiding social monocultures and growing cross-sector collaborations and alliances
Change the Culture by Changing the Story. Recognize that our artists and storytellers are our nitrogen-fixing species to accelerate succession. Work with them to bring back media ownership to communities and for hyperlocal and bioregional solutions media to feed up into global solutions media – a bottom up approach.
Encourage Pluriversal Learning. Create community-owned and operated intergenerational and cross-cultural learning and research opportunities that meet the needs of young people and our communities.
Create New Economies. Provide training and support the development of social enterprises that put the needs of all living things ahead of profit.
Grow the Health of our Communities. Provide public spaces and regular events that focus on what we all have in common – helping us to meet our needs for food security, social connection, creativity, physical activity and time outdoors reconnecting to the natural (versus online) world.
Involve Everyone in Redesigning our Systems through an Ecological Lens. Ensure ‘fair share’, social equity, inclusiveness and accessibility by expanding opportunities for free and adaptive permaculture design training, knowledge sharing and participation in community decision making.
On a practical level, we’ve implemented the above six areas by:
Working with local cross-sector Alliances
Producing The Big Fix Media – Australia’s first solutions media service
Trialling Australia’s first Pluriversity
Providing social enterprise design, development and mentoring as a new thread in permaculture training
Coordinating Blackheath Community Farm and Landcare
The Permaculture Garden and Micro-forest for Headspace, Katoomba; and
A new micro-farm being planned for the Lithgow PCYC
Providing free permaculture for young people in a range of settings through the Blue Mountains Pluriversity and its Permaculture Institute.
THE JOURNEY: A HISTORY IN THE ARTS AND MAKING THE MOVE OUT OF SYDNEY TO ORANGE I trained and worked as an art teacher at a number of schools in Sydney and then, thirty-four years ago, left my job as an Education Officer at the Art Gallery of NSW to take up the role of curator at Orange Regional Gallery. I was a keen whitewater canoeist who escaped the city nearly every weekend to spend time in the bush. My former partner and I had the dream of buying a farm and leaving the city permanently. The job in Orange helped that dream become a reality. We purchased 80 acres and I began gardening and experimenting with cooking the seasonal food I grew myself. This eventually led to me opening one of Australia’s first bookshop cafes and becoming a food writer for a local paper. After 3 ½ years I left the Gallery, expanded my work as an exhibiting artist and writer, ran the Bookshop Café, taught Art at TAFE, and became the Regional Arts Promotion Officer for Arts OutWest – a regional cultural development organisation servicing 17 Local Government areas in Central NSW. This involved arts reporting for Prime TV, ABC Radio and a number of other commercial radio programs and newspapers. I eventually closed the Café, became CEO of Arts OutWest, started a magazine called ArtSpeak, launched the Central West Writers’ Centre and ran the Banjo Paterson Festival in Orange.
RELOCATING TO THE BLUE MOUNTAINS Just after our twin boys turned one, we moved to Blackheath in the Blue Mountains. We opened a gallery called Stop Laughing This Is Serious, which specialised in the best of Australia’s cartooning and illustration. At this stage a number of people who frequented the gallery, persuaded me of the seriousness of climate change. I subsequently applied to train as a climate ambassador with Al Gore, who’d produced ‘An Inconvenient Truth’. It changed the whole direction of my life. I went on to give over 120 presentations about climate change around Australia and worked with our local community to start a Climate Action Group in Blackheath.
POLITICAL ACTION AND PERMACULTURE AS A RESPONSE TO THE CLIMATE CRISIS In my search for solutions to the climate crisis I heard about permaculture and enrolled in a PDC with Rowe Morrow. She subsequently invited me to start teaching with her and we set up the Blue Mountains Permaculture Institute in 2007. I was attracted to permaculture because it was about redesigning systems and looking at everything we do through an ecological lens. I loved the focus on People care and Fair share (as well as Earth care), and the concept of the problem being the solution. At the same time I was working closely with Catherine Fitzpatrick, an inspiring climate strategist from Greenpeace (who went on to work for Greenpeace in China). She kept reminding me that our current situation is so urgent that individual action alone will never produce the change we need in time to avert catastrophic climate change. We need political change as well.
Our Climate Action Group began exploring how we could build fair share and resilience into our local community. Our projects included starting a community market with a Kids Toy Swap Table (run by kids), and a local produce co-op with our own seed company: Crazy Climate Seeds (if they could grow in Blackheath they could grow anywhere). We did bulk buys of solar panels and hazelnut trees, selling over 400 of each and creating a distributed hazelnut orchard through the Blue Mountains; and my husband and I produced a booklet: 101 Cool and Green Things to do in Blackheath, financed by the Blackheath Chamber of Commerce and Blue Mountains City Council.
LOCAL GOVERNMENT AND BIOREGIONAL SOLUTIONS
I became one of Australia’s first Climate Adaptation Officers at Centroc (the Central West Regional Organisation of Councils). After being briefed by the Department of Agriculture and others about future climate predictions for Central NSW, I wrote a speculative fiction story about living in Central NSW in 20 years’ time, imagining we’d ‘permacultured’ the region. I then worked my way back from the story to identify the steps that needed to be taken to get there. These steps became the basis of a 103-page Regional Resilience Strategy Options Paper for Central NSW. It was very well received by all the Mayors and General Managers because it took a practical win/win approach to meeting their communities’ needs.
THE GENESIS OF THE BIG FIX: RECOGNISING STORYTELLERS AS THE NITROGEN FIXING SPECIES THAT CAN ACCELERATE SUCCESSION The most important observation I made during this time was that there was a huge gap between what the media said government believed, and what local governments were actually doing to address climate change – which was a lot! I realised that the reason we weren’t making the progress we should be making, was that mainstream, top-down, for-profit media was controlling the story. I realised that the problem needed to be the solution, so I moved on to take on the challenge of redesigning the way media could operate in our world.
Our Blackheath Climate Action Group morphed into the charity The Big Fix. Our mission became to ‘change the story to grow a collaborative, solutions-focused culture’. We started The Big Fix Solutions Media in 2007 (Australia’s first Solutions Media service), sharing solutions stories from every sector around the world. We wanted to inspire people to action, to keep hope alive, to grow collaboration and to accelerate change by sharing knowledge and thereby reducing the need to reinvent the wheel.
In 2017, Muhamad Yunus identified that the eight richest people in the world owned as much as four billion of the world’s poorest. They also controlled most of the world’s media. To regenerate our social desert, hyperlocal storytellers can give us the nutrients we need to grow bigger and stronger – they can ‘fix nitrogen’ and inspire collaboration between the many grassroots movements to create a mycelial network. This then can generate a healthier and more biodiverse forest from the bottom up.
THE BIG FIX: MEDIA
In 2016, informed by the knowledge and experience I’d gained working in all sectors, I began to work full time on The Big Fix. I started a ‘Youth Café’ weekly drop-in space for young people in Blackheath and we ran a campaign against single-use plastic that resulted in Blackheath becoming the first town in the world where all the businesses agreed to phase out plastic straws. This became the lead story of our first Solutions Magazine which was distributed to every household in the upper Blue Mountains. We partnered with the Blackheath Area Neighbourhood Centre to ensure their voice, and the voice of the community, continued to be heard, despite funding cuts. We now also run a monthly hyperlocal print news service for Blackheath which is funded by a different individual, community group, organisation or business every month.
THE BIG FIX: BLACKHEATH COMMUNITY FARMAND BLUE MOUNTAINS BLURIVERSITY In 2017 we started Blackheath Community Farm to create a public space to grow community and food, and to build a bank of locally acclimatised seed. We meet every Sunday and whoever works at the Farm takes a share of the produce. We’ve also created a Landcare group to regenerate the Zone V bushland around the Farm. In 2018 we launched the Blue Mountains Pluriversity, providing community-owned and generated learning opportunities for young people to meet their needs and the needs of their communities. We began teaching a new type of PDC – free Permaculture and Social Enterprise Design Courses in which young people worked on designing and implementing land-based projects as well as designing and implementing social enterprises that could provide them with an income as well as meeting the needs of their communities.
We’ve just finished a free course at Headspace in Katoomba which resulted in the design and construction of a Permaculture Garden at the site. It’s providing a safe outdoor, nature based gathering and event space for young people where Headspace practitioners can provide ‘incidental counselling’. It features a micro-forest of nearly 200 natives that emerged after the fires at Mount Tomah (these were donated to us by the Botanic Garden). The wider community rallied around and donated the other materials needed to help young people build this space in the heart of the CBD.
THE BIG FIX: THE LITHGOW SPRINT In 2019, Western Sydney University invited us to be part of a community consultation to help reimagine Lithgow to enact the Sustainable Development Goals in a regional city. The WSU campus in Lithgow will now become Maldhan Ngurr Ngurra (Wiradjuri for ‘Workmanship Together, Side by Side’) – The Lithgow Transformation Hub. To support a ‘just transition’ in Lithgow we launched a solutions storytelling site called The Lithgow Sprint, in honour of Marjorie Jackson the Olympic runner who lived in Lithgow. Our goal is to change the story for Lithgow quickly. In April 2021, the Pluriversity will teach the first course on the campus – a free Permaculture and Social Enterprise Design Course. We’ll work with young people to design and build a micro-farm around the PCYC in Lithgow and mentor them to design social enterprises.
THROW THE BEST PARTY! Perhaps the most important lesson I’ve learnt over the last 40 years is that the best way to influence opinion and encourage change is not to nag and pressure, but to throw the best party so that people want to join you!
Debbie Hunt and Kieran Malone moved to Bungonia, NSW in 2012 to escape the city, lower their carbon footprint and live in line with their values. They have regenerated their block, combatting frost, heatwaves, lack of rain and wind, and have opened An Alternative Life Learning Centre, to provide workshops, tours and design consultancies on sustainable living, gardening and food production. Debbie’s property was on high alert for bushfires for 79 days straight during the 2019-2020 bushfires in southern NSW. Just 6 weeks later, she had to close to visitors again due to COVID-19. PA volunteer Julia talked to Debbie about her approach to building resilient systems and what permaculture can teach us in the face of food insecurity.
What brought you to make the big move from city to rural and why Bungonia?
There was a combination of factors that led us from our suburban life to living An Alternative Life on a small rural property in Bungonia NSW. The never-ending cycle of bills, work and feeling like there was never enough time, to spend with the kids, to get out into nature, to do the things we loved. Feeling like we were stuck on the treadmill just doing the daily grind was one of the driving factors, we wanted to feel more connected to each other, to our surroundings, to our natural world. We wanted to downsize our debt and our bills so we could work less and live more.
We also had a growing understanding of the vulnerability of our food system to extreme weather events and the impacts this could potentially have on price and potentially supply so we wanted to develop our own self sufficiency farm, that would supply our family’s food needs and to reduce our reliance on the corporate food.
We chose Bungonia as it is a beautiful area, the landscape and sunsets are stunning and there is huge areas of National Park and native bushland, but it was also about convenience and the ability to be within travelling distance of Canberra and Sydney allowing for off farm employment when needed. The area is a cool growing region, getting enough frost each winter to be able to grow stone fruits, berries and grapes. We also knew it would be a difficult area for growing food, conditions can be pretty extreme, at an elevation of over 700m it is incredibly windy at times, we get extreme heat over 45˚C, annual rainfall is low, on average 600mm and drought is a regular occurrence. It also gets extremely cold in winter, down to -8˚C
Paint a picture of your site: how has it transformed since you purchased it, what kind of processes and practices have you implemented to improve and care for the land?
Our block was an old bush block that had never been farmed or had livestock, half of the farm was remanent native bush primarily of Casuarina and Eucalyptus. The other half of the property was heavy clay that had been baked hard as rock as it had been cleared of all vegetation by the previous owner, other than a handful of large trees everything had been stripped and exposed to the sun. There were some radiata pines had been planted as wind protection, but little or no soil or pasture improvement had been undertaken.
When we arrived we sectioned off parts of the farm that were to be dedicated to bush regeneration, as there was no previous farming on the property the seed bank in the soil was mostly native so letting nature rewild these areas was our approach. They are now overwhelmed with native plants including grasses, shrubs as well as fruit and seed bearing trees that keep the cockatoos and parrots with a supply of their favourites and for the most part out of our orchard. We have planted over 300 food trees including things like sugar maples for maple syrup and stone pines for pine nuts.
What is your approach to your gardening system?
Our focus across the farm is on creating resilient and adaptive food systems.
We draw on a multitude of approaches from numerous land management, growing and garden systems both old and new. We get our inspiration and ideas from people and cultures from around the world, there is much knowledge that has been lost since the inception of modern farming however in some parts of the world practices that have sustained people and environments for centuries are still being practiced and offer us great insight to the sorts of solutions that can be implemented even when resources and modern day machinery is not available.
We admire, respect, and learn from the skills and knowledge of local Aboriginal people who managed the land and used it for food and shelter, in a sustainable way for tens of thousands of years. We try to our utmost to manage the land is a way that is sustainable – meeting our needs now whilst not reducing the lands capacity to provide for generations in the future.
Have you taken any inspiration from permaculture principles?
Yes in one way or another we use all the permaculture principles across our property and in our lives but I guess the one that resonates most with us do is “Value and respect diversity”. We have a diverse range of growing systems, some gardens are under cover and protected from animals and birds that might steal our food, some are out in the open and free for all to share. We have food forests, traditional raised vegetable gardens, a mixed orchard integrated with chooks and ducks, aquaponics system and a small undercover market garden. We have trellises of berries, grapes, kiwi fruit and passionfruit. Some of our vegetable patches are planted traditionally other are just allowed to go to seed and grow much more naturally.
We plant a huge range of fruit as an important part of our personal food security strategy and ensures we have something to harvest year round in Autumn we are harvesting figs and raspberries, in Winter and early Spring it is citrus, in late Spring and the beginning of Summer, berries such as boysenberries and strawberries are in season, then we get apricots, cherries, plums, apples, pears, almonds, hazelnuts, nectarines and peaches from early Summer through to mid-Autumn. Some of the fruits we grow require heavy frosts, some are much more tropical this way regardless of the season we always have something to harvest. We also plant a large variety of annual vegetables this way if one of our crops is attacked by pests or suffers disease, we do not loose our entire food supply.
We encourage biodiversity on the farm by protecting large parts of our property for native bushland that supplies food and habitat for all the local birds, animals and insects. Without a doubt diversity is the key to our success at being able to supply ourselves with an abundance of food from the garden year round and through extreme weather.
What gravitated you towards your philosophy of “fair share for all”? How do you practice this in your everyday life and work?
We believe that fair share extends beyond people, to all living things, with this in mind we dedicate more than 70% of our farm to native habitat. Our efforts to preserve land for native flora and fauna is repaid a thousand times over, it is the diversity of life on the farm, the insect eating birds and reptiles that do the bug and pest control in our gardens, it is the health of the mycorrhizal fungi beneath the soil that keep our fruit trees and gardens growing strong.
We strongly believe that the skills and knowledge to grow food should be available to everyone in particular those struggling to meet their food needs. We sponsor people in need through our courses and workshops for free and when they have completed the course, we provide seeds, tree and resources so they can get growing on their own.
We also share our harvest with those in our community who are struggling to meet their food needs and do not have the capacity or room to grow their own. We also share our knowledge and services to community groups who are working to “sow the seeds of a sustainable future”
Tell me about An Alternative Life Learning Centre. What inspired you to start this business and what need are you filling here?
Primarily we started An Alternative Life Learning Centre as we wanted to bring together a network of people who are looking to be part of a community not based on competition, consumerism and capitalism but instead operate on a basis of compassion, collaboration, and cooperation. At the same time, we saw a growing need for people to learn skills associated with personal food production and resilience. Working overseas I saw how communities were implementing a range of strategies to improve outcomes during and after extreme weather events, improved communications systems and networks, the building or evacuation centres and organisation of teams of on call volunteers, local food storage for communities that may have transport routes interrupted, new methods of growing and food preservation techniques. I also saw that these programs were indeed working and saving lives. In Australia we either deny that climate change is happening or tend to think that we will somehow be unaffected, that it is something that will happen elsewhere to other people.
Having studied climate change extensively over the years, we knew there was an increasing likelihood of our communities being impacted in negative ways by extreme weather events and there was a growing need for people to understand the risks and undertake strategies to build resilience at personal and community levels. There was also an increasing awareness of climate change and a move of people looking to live more sustainable self-sufficient lifestyles, so we opened the learning centre to give people the skills, knowledge and confidence needed to make the change.
What is on the horizon for 2021?
There are always a multitude of new projects on the go here on the farm, we have just completed building a bedroom cabin for guests, both those attending our workshops and those just looking to experience living an alternative life for a few days.
We have designed an urban food garden that would supply a family of four in fruit and vegetables year round and intend to implement the design over the coming months.
We are hosting a new range of on-site events including month “Get a taste of farm life” tours which include a guided tour of the farm and all the gardens and growing areas as well a 3 course lunch of farm produce.
We are running “design and plan a food garden” and “design and plan a mixed orchard” weekend workshops as well as a range of practical skills workshops including planting, pruning and propagation of fruit, berries for beginners and will also be hosting some family farm fun days during the school holidays that will include a host of family fun activities.
The pandemic has caused a lot of people to consider making the move from urban to rural. Any advice on how and where to start?
We started to see people making the move to urban to rural prior to the pandemic, a lot of people were made aware of our need to build resilience personally and at a community level happen during the fires of 2020. Images of people in Australia on the beaches waiting for the navy to come and rescue them, people spending NYE fleeing fire under terrifying circumstances, the loss of communications and basic services electricity, clean water, sewerage, and service stations running out of fuel was a considerable wake up call for how underprepared we are to cope with and recover from disasters, the pandemic only emphasised the problems with our food system and supply chains and increased the realisation that the current systems could not always be relied on and again increased the numbers of people looking to grow their own food and live a more sustainable self sufficient life.
In terms of where to start, before you start spend as much time as you can understanding your site and your local conditions, research the rainfall and temperature ranges. We always advise people not to just look at averages but extremes, how much rain will you get in drought years, how hot does it get in a heatwave, how much snow or frost your site gets in an extremely cold year find out what the fire history in your area, this information will give you a good guide as to what sort of resilience strategies to use when designing your food system.
If your strategy is long term then we always suggest people start with what takes longest to grow and produce, food trees – fruit and nut trees can take year before they are producing a reasonable crop so get them in first, they will grow and provide shade and shelter for your vegetable gardens and growing areas but it takes time for them to establish.
You can follow an Alternative Life Learning Centre through their Facebook page, and hear about their latest events, tours and workshops through their website.
“For me, permaculture is finding people’s best selves and putting them in a position where their best selves can flourish“
Cecilia Macaulay is a PA member, permaculture educator, designer and Declutterer Extraordinaire, specialising in “life design”, She runs classes on sensible permaculture design both inside and outside and workshops on decluttering and communication. Her work is accessible through her website and blog, and youtube channel. She has travelled extensively, particularly in Japan, and has taken inspiration from her travels to her work.
PA volunteer Julia chatted to Cecilia about the importance of “people care” and “life design” in her permaculture philosophy, the role Japan has played in her life and work, and the simplicity of permaculture’s applicability to all areas of our lives. Cecilia’s approach to life and work is simultaneously highly pragmatic and optimistic. She sees permaculture in all aspects of her life: from outside to inside to cleaning to reading — she knows that permaculture is always around to offer solutions to our everyday problems and to help us feel more alive and happy (though not “comfortable”– that is a word Cecilia does not like!).
PA member and former PA Board member Dr Cally Brennan is a permaculture designer and educator based in Canberra, and founded Canberra Permaculture Design. Prior to working in permaculture, Cally held roles in academia and in the public sector, working in energy and climate policy.She is also the designer of one of the PA limited edition T shirts with the slogan ‘Permaculture. Do you dig it.’
Cally spoke to PA volunteer Julia about why permaculture came at the right time in her life, and how her past experiences have shaped her understanding of it.
How did permaculture come along, and how was it shaped by your background working in academia and climate policy?
I have always had an interest in sustainability and I have always loved gardening. My grandfather was involved in the Dig for Victory campaign in the UK, we had some lovely holidays visiting his garden. This first sparked my interest in gardening. I have worked in academia, mostly from realising that it was fun to educate people, and like many people in the world, you disconnect your degree from what you want to do in life. So, I tried a range of things until I settled on permaculture. I studied ethnomusicology, a mixture of music and anthropology that explores how people use music to express their cultural identity. I was also lucky enough to do some fieldwork in Malaysia and Singapore. Predictably, there were not many jobs in this area! So, it was on speck that I decided to join the public service.
I came to Canberra in 2006 as a graduate and then found myself in an analytical role in economic research. It didn’t quite fit with my moral side however, as I was coming to conclusions that I fundamentally disagreed with. I ended up working in energy efficiency and climate policy. Working directly on the ground in dealing with climate change policy was a lot! I found that there was a lot of politics involved in climate policy, on both sides. The urgency of the issue was such that I didn’t want to spend the next few years writing and working on things that were basically there to pretend things were on track when they were not. I felt I could make a bigger impact doing other things with my life. So that’s where permaculture came in. I had learned about permaculture when we had first moved to Australia in about 1994. I first remember visiting a garden in Freemantle, WA which had a lot of tyres in its designs. So my conception of permaculture around then was lots of straw mulch and old tyres! It wasn’t until I joined Permablitz ACT in 2009, that I learnt what permaculture was really about. I met a horticulturalist in the group who knew a lot about plants. He had the ability to make you feel like you could try anything, and that it was good to try new things and to not feel constrained by tradition. My conception of permaculture changed to something that was exciting and different and new. I did a PDC with John champagne and Phil Gould back in 2011 and that was the usual brain-popping experience when I realised it was just about common sense. What struck me was how good it would feel to be doing something on an individual level that was regenerative and helpful. I could do both important civic participation through protesting and doing a small thing in regenerative permaculture. Permaculture was an area where I could learn about how nature worked.
I later set up Canberra Permaculture design, because I could design, draw well, and use my interest in sustainability. I built a client base and some confidence. I’m now rushed off my feet with people who want to find out more about permaculture, which is great! For a while, it was a good balance to be working on the big picture stuff (but no direct connection with people) to actually legislate on building standards or energy plans, and then the small picture stuff of doing something with my own life and my own garden.
Wow! So you’ve done so many different things, how do they overlap? Where do you see parallels between permaculture and energy policy?
Having worked in energy policy, it’s amazing to know how much permaculture is about energy, and energy efficiency is fundamental to permaculture design. Permaculture is about capturing energy in your house and your garden. It’s nice to see this linked: the more I learned about energy from work, the more I deeply understood the workings of permaculture.
That’s really fascinating, and it’s great to see how all the varied experiences in your life have combined together to help you understand all of these different processes, and your background seems to have influenced significantly your perception and understanding of permaculture! I was particularly struck when you were speaking about your days in Permablitz ACT, where the horticulturalist in the group had this “can do” attitude about trying new things and seeing what worked. Has that philosophy influenced the way you approach permaculture design in your garden, home and life, and new clients who may not be familiar with permaculture?
The experimental side of my permaculture practice is reserved for what we do in our garden! I make the mistakes on behalf of other people so I can share what I have learned. The most effective design incorporates water into its heart. Canberra is a semi-arid climate normally (though this year it’s quite moist), and last year was terribly dry. I’m now very aware of passive water harvesting. I experiment with these designs in our garden, and then I suggest ideas on water harvesting. I generally build my designs about passive water harvesting: everything is about water here. There’s a lot of opportunities though to capture water: it’s very often wasted in residential properties.
What are some of your most effective passive water harvesting techniques you’ve found on your own properties?
French drains and swales are two of the most effective designs and are at the right scale for a residential property. In ours, we’ve used drainage channels through our driveway, so we’ve diverted water from our driveway and directed into a small swale around a raised bed. It has worked really well I love it!!
Anything you’re listening to that’s inspiring you at the moment?
What are your New Year’s permaculture resolutions? Anything on the horizon?
Balance is what I need to work on. I need to work out how to balance my business and the important service that I provide with everything else in my life. We’re still establishing this garden, and haven’t run workshops this year. We had a massive hailstorm that hit us in late January of this year that smashed everything up, and along with the poor air quality and smoke in January and COVID later on, we couldn’t run any in person workshops outside. We’re at the moment now doing a lot of infrastructure work: putting in a chicken coop and a greenhouse. I’m trying to find a balance between doing designs for other people and getting onto the things that I have to do now: putting in the greenhouse, getting the beans in and all of those big and small tasks that come up all the time. I need to make sure I have more time for us: my family and myself as well. It’s easy to run yourself ragged because people want help and you can help them!!
Dr Cally Brennan is a professional member of Permaculture Australia, the national member-based organisation in Australia. Sign up as a member here today to join hundreds of members across Australia like Cally advocating for permaculture solutions.
This article aligns with the permaculture ethics (Earth Care, People Care, Fair Share) and permaculture principles including Produce No Waste, Catch & Store Energy, Integrate rather than segregate and Use Edges and Value the Marginal. Find out more about the permaculture principles and ethics here.
Cally is wearing one of the Permaculture Australia T shirts, featuring her design ‘Permaculture: Do you Dig it’. These limited edition T shirts can be purchased here.
In our monthly video interview series, PA Members Morag Gamble, John Champagne and Lachie McKenzie share their experiences working with community permaculture projects across the globe. Key lessons learnt include:
community led projects and solutions are key to success
youth led activities are effective to bring positive change, and
the importance of promoting and re-learning Indigenous knowledge and traditional skills.
The panel members
Lachlan McKenzie (Dip. Permaculture) is the Co-Director of Permatil Global. He has been immersed in permaculture since completing his Permaculture Design Course (PDC) in 1994. His permaculture adventures took him to Timor-Leste in 2001 working for 5 years with Timorese NGO Permatil and consulting for International NGOs providing trainings (including PDCs), writing curriculums, creating educational materials and demonstration sites. This culminated in co-writing and producing the Permaculture Guidebook from Timor-Leste in three languages. An accompanying bi-lingual Permaculture Facilitator’s Handbook and permaculture educational DVD were created working with IDEP Foundation in Bali and post-tsunami Aceh, Indonesia. He volunteered with the Permaculture Association Britain for two years, working with permaculture projects in the UK, France and Portugal. He is a core member of the International Permaculture Education Network (IPEN) project, current Chairperson for Permaculture South Australia and loves to keep his hands dirty in the garden.
Morag Gamble is an award-winning international permaculture teacher, speaker, designer and practitioner. She is the founder of the Permaculture Education Institute and Director of the registered charity, the Ethos Foundation. Morag is based at a UN World Habitat Award winning permaculture village in Australia and has taught permaculture in more than 20 countries over the past 25 years. She leads the Permaculture Educators Program – the first comprehensive combined online Permaculture Design Certificate and Permaculture Teacher Certificate. Morag is co-founder of the iconic Northey Street City Farm in Brisbane, the Sunshine Coast University Community Garden and the Australian City Farms and Community Gardens Network and many other local food initiatives around the world. She leads permaculture camps for schools, nature kids programs for young children, and mentors many young people in permaculture.
John Champagne (Dip Permaculture) has more than 25 years permaculture experience in teaching and projects in Australia and internationally, including Indonesia and India. John is recognized as an elder within the Permaculture Movement in Australia and continues to be active in permaculture. He was on the Board of Permaculture Australia for three years and is the Convener of PA’s Permafund, a registered charity that receives and distributes funds to permaculture projects worldwide. In 2018 John was one of the drivers and organisers of the Australasian Permaculture Convergence (APC14) held in Canberra. He is based at Brogo Permaculture Gardens in NSW.
Video interview: What does effective permaculture aid look like?
PA’s PERMAFUND provides small grants to community permaculture projects across the globe. They have funded 51 projects in 15 countries with a focus on food security, regenerative agriculture practices, seed sovereignty, women’s empowerment, and permaculture education to name a few. Donations over $2 are tax deductible in Australia.
PERMATIL GLOBALis making permaculture tools and knowledge accessible to everyone across the globe, working with people to strengthen food sovereignty, facilitate environmental regeneration, mitigate climate change and build resilient and sustainable communities everywhere.
ETHOS FOUNDATION, in partnership with the PERMACULTURE EDUCATION INSTITUTE, is supporting local permaculture initiatives in East Africa. They are committed to supporting community led programs that are guided by the ethics – earth care • people care • fair share.