“We’re realising all of these environmental and economic problems now and we’re working out what we can do for ourselves. You can start anywhere, but it’s a lot better if you have a holistic design principle that you can use.”
Read Nevin’s insights into water and heat management, urban permaculture and why its popularity is surging in the pandemic as he chats with PA volunteer Julia.
PA Professional Member Nevin Sweeney is a member of Permaculture Sydney West and has been growing food in St Clair for 40 years. He has been featured on Gardening Australia and as a case study in Retrosuburbia, particularly for his innovative methods of managing heat, water and energy, as well as his very productive garden. He has worked with a number of Councils around Sydney running sustainability workshops and giving talks, and has most recently worked on the Grow Our Own Food (GOOF) Series for beginners keen to get into gardening. Nevin also runs a blog, Under the Choko Tree, which documents his work and innovations.
How did your permaculture journey start?
Back in the 80s, I bought a copy of Permaculture One, but it sat on my bookshelf for a while. When we moved out here to St. Clair I was interested in being self-sufficient (because that was the term in those days) and I was also interested in going bush. Needless to say for various reasons, including parents and kids, that never happened. But, I continued to develop this place with that thought in mind for a while. So while I was aware of permaculture, I wasn’t interested in getting into it until about the turn of the century. I had just gotten a job as an occupational health and safety (OHS) and environmental manager, so I needed to know something about the environmental side, so I did a Master’s Degree at the University of Western Sydney in OHS and environmental management which helped me quite a bit. It taught me that everything wasn’t right, that there were problems out there and problems that I needed to be aware of and maybe could do something about! So, permaculture came more onto the radar. It then occurred to me that the bush was fine, it was the city where we needed to make the changes. So, a friend suggested I come along to a meeting of Permaculture Sydney West. So I came along to that, and then before I knew it I was on the executive committee! I also did a PDC about 10 years ago with Danielle Wheeler. I’ve known Danielle for a number of years and she actually asked me to help me teach a PDC, and I said no, I’ve never done one! So we agreed that I’d do her next one. As well as PDCs I’ve got experience in training and educating as part of my OHS role, which I did for 20 years, and I have also been doing work with councils for about 10 years on and off.
Could you tell me a bit more about what Permaculture Sydney West does and your GOOFs?
Yes! I spent three years as President a while back, and a few of us have been there for a while. We’ve got about 200 members now. We do blitzes, we do living skills, we have a seed savers group, we have a library, so you get a whole stack of things when you become a member. A previous President of Permaculture Sydney West, Greg Meyer, and I have gotten together and put together the GOOF series (Grow Our Own Food). Permaculture is the big picture stuff, the GOOF stuff is more of the smaller picture: how to grow things, what to do with energy, water waste. There is also an Introduction to Permaculture workshop including the ethics that go along with it. Recently, Greg and I were involved in developing an online version due to Covid-19. We just ran one for Parramatta Council. The original idea had been for just Parramatta residents, but we’re actually getting people from across the world! So getting that ready to go online is one of the things I’ve been doing recently.
Can you describe your site in St Clair for me? What have you done around your zone zero regarding water and energy?
I’m in a fairly ideal position: we have our fun in western Sydney! It gets quite hot and a bit cold. Our land is only 600 sqm and we have a late 1970s house with brick veneer. When we bought it there was no insulation and it also faces west with no northerly windows. So, we have our issues, but having said that, we have a front and backyard and we have a house. The first thing we did when we moved in was put in insulation in the roof. I would love to insulate the walls, but it isn’t practical without spending a lot of cash. We also put in a big burning log open fire; great for the atmosphere but not so great in terms of efficiency. So last year we put in slow combustion stove that has a cooktop and an oven. The ash we create is used as fertiliser.
The big thing that we often deal with here is heat. My focus tends to be on low cost retrofit. We built a veranda on the back to take some of the heat, since the back faces north of west, so the house became a solar oven. We have covers for veggie patches, we’ve got covers on the veranda, we have solar panels to shade the roof. We’ve also put in a lot of plants: a banana circle and a large mulberry tree around the northern side. I was invited by Penrith Council to give a talk on heat with Josh Byrne from Gardening Australia and Mark Davis, an Architect. These guys are professionals and then there was me: the Penrith householder who’s having a go! (These talks were filmed and you can watch them here)
For a lot of the stuff I did, there was no planning in place: it kind of grew, and so when you get the whole permaculture view and start to look at it in a holistic sense, you realise the mistakes you’ve made. I’m not going to pull the whole place apart now and start from scratch. Instead, I’m going to work with what I’ve got and start from there. I did a couple of minor but important things: I moved the banana circle from the front yard into the back. I organised my wastewater. The wastewater from the bathroom goes through the banana circle. The wastewater from the laundry goes into a small constructed wetland and we use that for a few fruit trees. We’ve got 19000 litres of water storage. I’d like more: you can’t have too much out here. We started off with 2 x 2500 litre tanks on end of garage, and over the years we’ve added many small tanks. So, the advantages are we can put them all around the place; we don’t need room for a huge tank. Also: if something happens such as contamination or forgetting to turn the tap off, you don’t lose all your water. We’ve got water coming from the roof of the house, garage and carport, and 95% of that water goes into tanks. We don’t have a gutter on the veranda out the back, but we have a deep gravel path underneath so all the water that comes off the roof goes into the ground. So we’re also storing water in the ground as well as in the tanks.
We do our food growing using a chook tractor, which has been on for about 15 years. We grow our own seedlings and have a small greenhouse. We also save our own seeds. what I can’t save myself I buy from seed savers at Permaculture Sydney west, so that makes it quite easy. We have had David Holmgren and Su Dennett come out. I did a bit of work with him when he was doing the Retrosuburbia release, and we’re on the website as a case study. He came out and had a look around and we spent the afternoon with them. In 2018, we were on Gardening Australia with Costa.
What are the big challenges of practicing permaculture in an urban setting?
As with anyone who wants to grow food, the issue is space. That is good and bad. Bad because I don’t have the space to grow everything I need. We grow about 80% of our veg and 40-50% of our fruit, and up until recently 100% of our eggs. But it is good because lack of space forces you to be more innovative. It forces you to say: “if I can’t do this what can I do?”. We still haven’t developed this place fully: there’s always something else you can do. One of the projects I’m working on at the moment is mushrooms. There’s some really good stuff in the Milkwood book, which has been very helpful, and the way they do mushrooms in there is absolutely fantastic. One of my other projects is developing a permaculture balcony.
There’s also some other more minor things that you simply can’t do in suburbia. I wanted a wind generator but it wouldn’t work well in suburbia as there is too much turbulence. Unless you’re on the edge of the continent or there’s a large flat area for the wind to build up, it just doesn’t make sense, so I gave that to a mate of mine who has a place in the country and can use it properly. You can start anywhere but it all comes back to the limits: the more land you have the more opportunities you have.
Why are people coming to permaculture now? What’s driving this newfound popularity?
One single word: resilience. We have had it good for a really long time and you get used to the kind of feeling that everything is ok: you may have a storm or this or that, but everything is generally alright. All of a sudden Covid-19 has made us think maybe that it’s not all right. Looming up we obviously have climate change, peak oil and economic difficulties. We’re realising all of these environmental and economic problems now and now we’re working out what we can do for ourselves. You can start anywhere, but it’s a lot better if you have a holistic design principle that you can use. If I had that when I started, my place would look very different to how it is now. People are thinking “I want to do more stuff for myself, I want to be responsible for myself, I want to grow my own food, I want to store my own water” which is all well and good but it’s handy to have that holistic worldview to fit the pieces to understand why some things work and some others don’t! A number of people thought that permaculture’s time has come over the years, but maybe now it has arrived.
Nevin is a PA professional member and social media volunteer. Sign up as a PA member here and help us advocate for permaculture solutions. Members receive a great range of discounts on events and resources which will assist with building your permaculture skills and knowledge. If you have skills to share and would like to volunteer with PA, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Read Nevin and Linda’s blog Under the Choko Tree
Watch Nevin’s talk on heat and sustainability innovations, organised by Penrith Council.
Read Retrosuburbia’s case study of Nevin and Linda’s site
Watch his feature on Gardening Australia in 2018