Experience the best teacher in the garden

This article was written some years ago for PIE — Permaculture Information Exchange — the journal of Permaculture Melbourne.
WHEN ‘Woz the PIE baker’ asked me to write something about experiential capital a few years ago, I was stumped. So I looked it up online and then, over coffee and a leftover honey cake I had an idea. Why not write it by telling a story of something that happened?
That story starts with my partner, Fiona Campbell’s Forest Gardening courses. Fiona is Randwick City Council’s sustainability educator and she uses the Forest Gardening and Organic Gardening courses to build the forest garden area of the Permaculture Interpretive Garden, a combined city park/edible landscape/education garden. Out of this courses, participants go away with take-home skills sufficient to get them started in their home or community garden.
Kim was one of the students of the latest Forest Gardening course and, like many, when she started she knew little. She had, however, completed Fiona’s Organic Gardening course and this gave her some basic knowledge. Forest Gardening is intended to be a follow-on from that course.

Participants including artist Linda Cairnes (left) and Permafund’s Virginia Littlejohn (centre) add compost to a young citrus tree in the forest gardening course at Randwick Sustainability Hub.

Kim persisted through the six Saturday afternoons of the course, participating in discussions and small group activities inside the community centre to comprehend the intellectual part of forest garden design and maintenance, then joining the group in the garden. Here, she joined the other students in improving the sandy soil with the addition of compost and biochar. Seeds and seedlings were planted, watered and mulch added.
Then… nothing. A couple classes went by. When Kim and the other students visited the garden you could see the disappointment they felt at the lack of plant growth. It seemed their hopes for a flourishing garden were to be dashed… there were glum faces… all their soil preparation, watering and planting had been for nought. Their expressions betrayed their frustration.
The following week Kim burst into the classroom and she was excited. “Oh… the garden… the seedlings… they’re up!”. Last week’s disappointment had turned to elation. The seedlings had undergone a sudden growth spurt.
I saw Kim again about a month later. “That was a great course”, she told me. “I learned so much… learning about observation in the garden, how to consider sunshine and shade in thinking about where to plant seedlings, how to design for easy maintenance… then understanding what we were doing and going outside to do it”.
“And those sunflower seeds we planted in the swale… they’ve come up and they’ve grown so fast, but will the parrots get the seeds when the flowers form, I wonder?”.

Look > Think > Act

Kim has now set out on her own permaculture adventure around the country and what has inspired her to do this was the blending of intellectual learning, the ‘what’ — with practice in the garden, the ‘how’. It’s the blending of these things that makes up experiential capital and makes people more competent and confident in their own abilities. We can see experiential learning as making use of the Action Learning sequence of Look > Think > Act.
But… there’s one more thing that empowered Kim in her new abilities and that is an essential part of learning in gaining experiential capital, and it as this: all of her intellectual and practical learning was done in the good company of fellow students who shared their knowledge with each other, what some call ‘social learning’. And, it had that other essential quality of all experiential capital-building — fun.
Oh, yes, the sunflowers Kim and the others planted did flower and the parrots didn’t eat them.

Seeds: save your own, says Jane

Story by Russ Grayson, October 2015

At Randwick Sustainability Hub, the educational component of Randwick Community Centre,  Jane Mowbray’s seed saving workshop taught participants how to produce their own seed rather than rely on distant seed companies

inner west seed savers

Workshop leader, Jane Mowbray, of Inner West Seedsavers.

THREE HOURS is really too short a time to learn about seed saving, but what a packed three hours it was.
There was Jane Mowbray, horticultural educator, Inner West Seedsavers‘ originator, president of the Australian City Farms & Community Gardens Network and retired teacher who still likes mathematics. There she was leading around 23 people through the intricacies of this unusual practice of saving the seeds of the plants we eat… our veges and herbs.
First, we checked out how plants are structured. That’s a rather clever piece of DNA-encoded bioengineering that grows specialised parts that work together to allow the plant to recreate itself plant after plant, generation after generation.
[pull_quote align=”center”]…bees are the mobile part of the garden that spread plants through fertilising them…[/pull_quote]
We all know about leaves — the solar arrays deployed by plants… the biochemical converters powered by photons streaming from the sun that convert carbon dioxide and water into biological energy and the oxidising gas known as oxygen. But what about the anthers, petals, styles and stigmas? Who knows what they do in this great dance of botanical life? Well, Jane does, and now all at the workshop does too.
Jane demonstrates winnowing — a process that separates the heavier seed from lighter chaff by gently blowing across the seed.

Jane demonstrates winnowing — a process that separates the heavier seed from lighter chaff by gently blowing across the seed.

Turns out some of these flowers are edible… and you don’t have to cook them. Nasturtium, borage and others were quickly named by the botanically savvy. Then there’s pollination which is a function of these flowers.
Permaculture co-inventor, Bill Mollison, used to say that birds were the mobile part of the forest. They spread seeds, expanding the forest and replanting it after disturbance. I can’t disagree with that, thought I would say that bees are the mobile part of the garden that spread plants through fertilising them and, at the same time, producing a runny, semi-liquid carbohydrate known as honey much beloved by that other forest-and city-wandering species, people like you and I.
Jane passed around some scented pelagonium flowers and some flowering herbs which were dutifully sniffed and explored by the workshop participants with the magnifying lenses issued.
[pull_quote align=”center”]…it’s amazing what you can grow from your spice cupboard…[/pull_quote]
“Fantastic to grow”, exclaimed Jane, holding up as twig of coriander, ” …though it can bolt to seed… I understand there is a non-bolting variety available now”.
Someone asked about sources of seeds. After mentioning seed companies selling non-hybrid seeds that will reproduce true to type she said that ” …it’s amazing what you can grow from your spice cupboard… don’t underestimate this source… anything that is a bit old and out of date you chuck it into your garden and maybe a quarter, maybe half will germinate”.
This is the book — the manual — when it comes to seed saving, says Jane. The Seed Savers Manual can be ordered from the Seed savers' Network at seedsavers.net

This is the book — the manual — when it comes to seed saving, says Jane.
The Seed Savers Manual can be ordered from the Seed savers’ Network at seedsavers.net

Extracting seed the wet way

It turns out that seeds can be extracted wet or dry. It’s less an option for any old seeds than a process for particular seeds.
Tomatoes, for instance. Jane demonstrated how you can scoop the pulp containing the seeds from a tomato, put it into a jar and add a little water then let it stand for a few days. The frothy stuff that appears on top is nothing to be alarmed at, said Jane, that’s produced by fermentation and that’s a good thing. When the seeds separate from the gunk they are filtered out and laid until dry on a piece of tissue paper placed on a plate. They keep for maybe three years so there’s no need to rush out and plant them immediately.
Dry seed extraction is a lot easier, as people found when curcubit pods were passed around. You simply break the pods and out tumble the seeds.

Our seeds — how viable?

Jane recommends seed viability testing for schools and teaching children because it demonstrates that mathematics is an everyday part of our lives ” …rather than something we torture children with”.
The maths comes in when you test your stored seed to see how viable it is — what proportion of the seeds are likely to germinate and grow. This is important for seed you have stored for some years. It isn’t hard to do this and even the maths is manageable because most of us walk around with a mobile phone with a calculator app in it..
Here’s how:

  1. Take a plate… you know… from the kitchen.
  2. Layer several folds of tissue paper over the plate.
  3. Write the type of seed it is you want to test viability of, where the seeds came from and the date on a corner of the tissue paper; use a biro.
  4. Moisten the tissue paper — don’t flood it though.
  5. Count out a number of seeds, say 40 to 50 for small vegetable and herb seeds and spread them over the moistened tissue paper on the plate.
  6. Fold the tissue paper with the seeds over itself and place in a plastic bag.
  7. Set aside.
  8. After a few days carefully remove the tissue paper and plate from the plastic bag and make a count of the seeds that are germinating; you might do this every day or so for a week or more depending on the type of seed.
  9. Now, find your calculator app, key in the number germinated and the original number, find the percentage button and press it; now you have the percentage of the seeds that are likely to germinate were you to plant the seeds; practical maths.
  10. If it’s only a few you might be better emptying your seed container into your compost bin or tossing the seeds into the garden for the birds.
Seeds in germination testing.

Seeds in germination testing.

The biodiverse garden

[pull_quote align=”center”]…someone mentioned how cities were very biologically diverse places, with their extensive range of exotic flowers as well as natives and food species…[/pull_quote]
Lettuce, coriander, radish, borage — these are all flowering plants that attract bees and beneficial insects, said Jane, who recommended planting them in all gardens. They add to your garden’s biodiversity. On hearing this someone mentioned how cities were very biologically diverse places, with their extensive range of exotic flowers as well as natives and food species. That’s good news to bees and other insects, it turns out, as they aren’t all that fussed about where it is that the plants they visit come from.
In raising biodiversity Jane linked the microcosm of the home garden to the macrocosm of the biome, the suites of plants, animals and the geology that characterises a region, what we sometimes call the biogeology. It is made up of all those ecosystems we and our insect, animal and plant colleagues inhabit — the bush, the farms, the coasts, the cities. Making links like this contexts small initiatives and improvements, such as the plants we establish from our saved seeds, in their bigger contexts. Doing that is important because it shows that we can all do something that is positive and good.
Jane has led the seed saving workshop before and, as always, it is popular. I’m sure she’s destined to lead many more.

Recent workshops in the classroom-in-the-field:

Workshop introduces renovating the permaculture way
A new classroom for Randwick