“I like simple solutions” April Sampson-Kelly on the innovative energy solutions that she’s employing in her garden.
April Sampson-Kelly is a member and volunteer at Permaculture Australia, and has been the director of Wollongong Permaculture Institute since 2013. April leads Permaculture Visions, a specialist education provider of permaculture design courses online, and runs an active blog on its website, that you can check out here. Permaculture Visions also offer PA Members a 10% discount on courses using the special PA member code here.
We talked to April about innovative energy systems, gardens under stress and the need for online Permaculture learning.
When and where was your first interaction with permaculture?
I first learnt about Permaculture through the television series called global gardener. Both my parents had been politically active & my partner & I had strong connection with nature. I had a tiny baby & wondered about his future prospects.
What’s your Wollongong site looking like? What’s growing at the moment?
Our site is a mature food forest with lots of different microclimates. We’ve travelled to other food forests & watched lots of videos & what amazes me is the diversity. Ours is dark, like the surrounding rainforest, with little glades for annual foods. During the current drought the glades are dry but the perennial trees, shrubs, vines are green & productive. I’m super proud that we’ve got microclimates for Tropical plants such as jackfruit, lychee, Logan & jabuticaba. We are adding more bush Tucker. In the 26 years we have completely eradicated Kikuyu grass and have built a garden that absorbs all the rainwater that falls on to it.
We are also adding more water storage & misting systems to combat fire & climate change. The first time we experienced 41c the grapes that were in the sun shrivelled up. Those in the shade survived. The food forest is often cooler than the glades.
Tell me about the importance of the impressive collection of mulberry trees that you have planted at Silk Farm.
The bulk of our canopy is formed by mulberry trees. For 10 years we had Silkworms. I used the sale of Silkworms to teach my sons how to set and operate a cooperative business. The mulberry leaves and fruit are edible. The timber is multifunctional and they provide good shade in summer and are semi-deciduous. Mulberries provide a lot of good food and nesting spaces for birds, possums, and water dragons. But in the last 3 years they have been stressed. A lot of new species of birds have flown over the escarpment to escape the fires. It is a noisy garden full of wildlife but there is still some food for us. My favourite food is still the humble chicken egg. My sons’ favourite foods are monstera deliciosa, the macadamias & mix of flowers & bamboo tea. Paul’s favourite food is native and European raspberries. Lots of people love mulberries, especially with our banana on pizzas. We gave up on growing apples, plums or anything that gets pests like fruit fly.
The February Permaculture Principle is “catch and store energy”, I notice from your website you’ve got quite an intricate heating mechanism in your house. Could you summarise how it works for our readers?
Paul is an engineer, he loves to experiment with new technologies. We both have science backgrounds but the difference is I prefer simple solutions. So, together we have experimented on lots of heating and cooking systems and documented their efficiency. the most expensive experiment was the hot water radiator (hydraulic) system. It cost us $6K. But we accept that pioneers often have to spend more. It is still going after 15 years and brings the room temperature up to a more bearable 18˚C in the open area but a cozy 24˚C in the smaller bedrooms. It has paid off.
The best investment ever was our wood stove. It is 25 years old and a bit bent inside but still roars in winter heating the whole house on cool nights with the addition of a desk fan. We have ample fuel and great kindling from the giant bamboos. The pizza oven I built out of recycled bits and pieces is still pumping out pizzas, but we use the solar ovens more often. They are so easy to use and the food never burns.
We are proud of the upscaled outdoor rocket stove. Upscaling that was no easy engineering feat. In fact, we had to do physical experiments. Best of all, these have been fun activities together.
(The rocket stove Fagao (brazilian burner) and one of our eldest residents – a 16 year old silkie)
What brought you to start Permaculture Visions? Do you think online courses are the best way to spread the word about permaculture for the next generation?
I started Permaculture Visions because I saw a need. I myself would have loved to not have to travel in order to learn. At that time my sons were both under the age of 3, so leaving them to do a 2 week course was tough on the whole family.
I remember asking Paul if he thought this internet thing was here to stay? That’s how early in the technology we were. I started the webpage in 1993 because I had some software training as a teenager (Basic and SAS) and figured html couldn’t be that hard. I was already training as a Piano teacher and understand the importance of framing knowledge for individual learners. So, a lot of unusual working conditions were in place. But above all, I like to be open, friendly and supportive of others. When I floated the idea, most other permaculture teachers were outraged. But Bill Mollison said “It could work”. So I gave it a try and now lots and lots of people are doing it. But what they don’t realise is how hard it is to do well. Few people learn by reading, some people learn by watching videos (I’m not patient enough for that), a lot of people like infographics but most people like choices and to have someone to ask questions. This is an expensive and challenging way to teach. But I do it. And my graduates have become world leaders.
Anything else you’d like our readers to know about?
I discovered early on that I needed to be able to include photos and graphics in the course notes to build understanding, but I totally respect other people’s copyright, so I wouldn’t copy the great works of Andrew Jeeves. So, I started drawing. Then I started more quirky artworks for promotion and play. There are lots of photos on my website.