Dennis's garden -underlying concepts and ideas

This relates to Dennis's garden in North Nowra, written January 2014. For earlier information, go here.

Photo of salad greens etc in raised bed Spring 2013salad greens, spring 2013

On occupying the property in 2008, Dennis tilled out all the grass and tilled in cocopeat and composted chicken manure. Some trees were planted, some allowed to grow from seed naturally. Intensive efforts at building a food forest did not begin until 2012. Some soil improvement, some elimination of pests and seed had been achieved by running chickens for several years, but life had variously prevented consistent attention to getting the garden energised. Leave goats free for a couple of months and they will forget you, ditto a garden.

Neveretheless, there is an underlying question about giving freedom to a garden versus exercising control over it.

A great number of people seem to wish to design a garden, plant it, and then control it, keep it the same. This is boring... and limits the experience and the productive output.

Natural systems evolve. Plant health depends on complex ecology, complex ecology comes with evolution of systems and diversity of plants and other organisms.

So this garden, now subject to more input effort, more assistance with natural progress, is a mix of control and natural progression. Human food production necesarily involves interference with nature to rob produce for humans. In a natural system there is also a need to put back as much or more energy as is lost by being eaten.

In several recent years, with more chickens than I could need or control (I now have three, quite enough) and with their occupation of a large run from which they could escape, ground level plants, planted seedlings or naturally reproducing seedlings were lost too often to happy chooks (chook is an Australian word, gender-free, that includes rooster, hen and chicken). There are competing natural forces out there and intervention is necessary to tip the balance in favour of complexity rather than single species domination.

This is an organic garden. In nature, there are about a million bacteria associated with every millimetre of plant root. In chemical agriculture, that natural population of the rhizosphere is likely to be depleted and unemployed. My concept of 'organic' is concern for the soil such that over generations of plantings and harvestings the soil will improve rather than be exhausted.

This is a permaculture garden, you can find lots of information on the web about permaculture. Begin with these thoughts:

• the idea comes from Australia in the 1970s. It relates closely to and is less well known than the notion of 'sustainability' which acquired importance with the 1987 Brundtland Report.

• Sustainability has suffered as a concept by being used to describe far too many things and never had an immediate meaning in most people's personal lives.

• Permaculture has direct bearing on personal life, a notion of 'permanent agriculture' and 'permanent culture' ... but has suffered for a long time by being all too often linked less with practical living than dancing with fairies at the bottom of the garden, in popular minds.

• Permaculture is often thought of just as a way of gardening, but the design principles relate to human habitation generally, involving energy planning and budgeting for human work as well as gardens and houses. Mollison's Designer's Manual is astonishingly rewarding and practical reading, full of provocative ideas, good agronomy and inventive engineering.

So in that context, my house and living become part of the growing forest landscape, for pleasure and ecological development and complexity. When being innovative, some things won't work and I will try to be honest about that in this record. Everything works a bit, it's important to know which bit is worthwhile and what to do to make the most of it.

In the garden (or growing forest) these permaculture-derived principles guide me:

  1. Change is normal, desirable, to be watched for, exploited, adapted to.
  2. Diversity is valuable as a resource to know what works in what conditions; some things work in some seasons, some work better in others. And if there is a significan shift to a warmer climate, it's useful to have elements of design relevant to that.
  3. Diversity is also valuable to minimise diseases that arise in monoculture and to maximise complexity of the system.
  4. The system can be usefully described as consisting of elements which serve functions in relation to each other and the whole system. While this is part of permaculture design, it was also a core learning for me as an anthropology graduate 50 years ago.
  5. Every element should serve multiple functions. Every function should be supported by multiple elements. These notions are fundamental to robustness and adaptability. I leave that to be pondered for now, examples will arise in describing bits of the garden.
  6. Even is a suburban block there are multiple climate zones to be observed and exploited, for comfort, pleasure, plant productivity.
  7. Life is most vigorous at boundaries. Boundaries between different kinds of vegetation, paths and roads and water are very important and likely to be vigorous.

    Photo to illustrate 'zone' produce:

    You visit hens for eggs once a day, though you will also bring them weeds, grass and kitchen scraps at other times. The hens are next to the compost in zone 2, healthily away from the house, but close enough to aid security from predators.

    The omelet demands fresh herbs, from zone 1, fetched easily just before cooking, for absolute freshness.


    produce from zonesWhen laying out a permaculture design, there is a concept of zones: in Zone 1 are the herbs and lemons etc, essential for quick runs from the kitchen; and so on to zone 5 with cattle etc on a farm. In town or suburb the same notion applies, most usefully in thinking about energy budgets. We allocate sunlight and water and food variously to plants according to merit, we consider propiquity, ease of access, etc, in terms of human energy. If the system needs to be complex, the human tasks need simplicity and ease.
  9. This is really my own point: it becomes truly worth doing if it pleases the eye and warms the heart and sometimes makes you laugh.

I offer finally these thoughts of Japan's farmer-philosopher Masanobu Fukuoka in his One Straw Revolution... page 150 of this pdf version accessed 8 January 2014. I lean towards achieving what he refers to as 'broad Mahayana natural farming, in offering a Buddhist way of explaining. I am not a Buddhist but I think these thoughts relate more widely to life. See especially the last paragraph:

... among natural farming methods two kinds could be distinguished: broad, transcendent natural farming, and the narrow natural farming of the relative world [this is the world as understood by the intellect]. If I were pressed to talk about it in Buddhist terms, the two could be called respectively as Mahayana and Hinayana natural farming.

Broad, Mahayana natural farming arises of itself when a unity exists between man and nature. It conforms to nature as it is, and to the mind as it is. It proceeds from the conviction that if the individual temporarily abandons human will and so allows himself to be guided by nature, nature responds by providing everything. To give a simple analogy, in transcendent natural farming the relationship between humanity and nature can be compared with a husband and wife joined in perfect marriage. The marriage is not bestowed, not received; the perfect pair comes into existence of itself.

Narrow natural farming, on the other hand, is pursuing the way of nature; it self-consciously attempts, by "organic" or other methods, to follow nature. Farming is used for achieving a given objective. Although sincerely loving nature and earnestly proposing to her, the relationship is still tentative. Modern industrial farming desires heaven's wisdom, without grasping its meaning, and at the same time wants to make use of nature. Restlessly searching, it is unable to find anyone to propose to.

The narrow view of natural farming says that it is good for the farmer to apply organic material to the soil and good to raise animals, and that this is the best and most efficient way to put nature to use. To speak in terms of personal practice, this is fine, but with this way alone, the spirit of true natural farming cannot be kept alive. This kind of narrow natural farming is analogous to the school of swordsmanship known as the one-stroke school, which seeks victory through the skillful, yet self-conscious application of technique. Modern industrial farming follows the two-stroke school, which believes that victory can be won by delivering the greatest barrage of swordstrokes.

Pure natural farming, by contrast, is the no-stroke school. It goes nowhere and seeks no victory. Putting "doing nothing" into practice is the one thing the farmer should strive to accomplish. Lao Tzu spoke of non-active nature, and I think that if he were a farmer he would certainly practice natural farming. I believe that Gandhi's way, a methodless method, acting with a non-winning, non-opposing state of mind, is akin to natural farming.

When it is understood that one loses joy and happiness in the attempt to possess them, the essence of natural farming will be realized. The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings.

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