Am I the world’s worst student? I started to study the Free Yearlong Permaculture Course by Heather Jo Flores nearly ~ um ~ three years ago and I’ve still only completed 57% of it. 😮 I have to admit I do feel more than a bit ashamed at that and it is truly no reflection on the course itself, which I think is brilliant and jam-packed with resources, information and activities. It’s just that life itself seems to have got in the way somehow with an international house move, new home and garden, other studies and health issues (to mention just a few things) distracting me from the job in hand. If I’m allowed to be slightly fair to myself, I have spent an awful lot of the intervening time putting much of what I’ve learnt into practice and I do console myself that there are many aspects to my life now which reflect at least some of the principles and design approach of permaculture. I decided this week, though, that I really need to apply myself once more so I’ve done the obvious thing and started a new course. Naturally.
Bear with me, it’s not quite the complete lunacy it might seem. This is the Getting Started With Ecological Design Course, a six-week beginners’ course which Heather Jo Flores herself recommends as being useful even to those students already enrolled on other courses. For me, it seems a perfect opportunity to kickstart my studies again, refreshing what I’ve already learnt with the intention of finally getting on and finishing the longer course. As a teacher and student, I’ve always believed that learning is spiral rather than linear, so circling back to re-visit ‘old’ learning isn’t an admission of failure but an enriching activity which serves to broaden and deepen understanding, knowledge and skills. I’ve loved the first week’s classes, especially the hands-on module which has involved choosing a ‘sit spot’ in the garden, observing the life around me and focusing closely on a single non-human species each day with the intention of building connection and empathy. Well, this is right up my street ~ let’s face it, I spend much of my life doing this sort of thing anyway ~ and I’ve chosen to do it without a notebook, simply sitting, watching, thinking, absorbing, reflecting.
With the temperatures climbing here daily so that it’s vests and shorts all the way now, I’ve chosen the relative cool of early morning to carry out my observations. It’s a truly beautiful time of day and as it’s also the best hour to be watering anything that requires a drink, I need to spend time outside then anyway. There is a quality to the light, which doesn’t stay low for long this time of year, that I find totally captivating, illuminating flower and leaf alike in a soft, Monet-esque palette.
When I started the original course, one of my activities was to draw my permaculture ‘paradise’ which was a lot of fun! Then I had to focus on three elements and develop my ideas in detail, bearing in mind that permaculture isn’t about having A, B or C but as an ecological design concept (or science), it’s about connecting all the elements within a system, based on the patterns of nature. I chose to design a composting system, mandala garden and mobile chicken accommodation, two of which I have been able to create and integrate within our property (no chickens, which is a shame). Perhaps one of our best examples, though, is the Love Shack: built from ‘waste’ materials and performing many functions ~ tool store, wheelbarrow park, shelter from heat and rain, rest area, rainwater catchment system, pee bucket modesty hut, plant support structure, plant nursery, animal habitat ~ it is one of the most visited places on the patch, connecting with so many different elements and making our lives altogether easier and more pleasant. At the moment, if I catch the time just right, I can enjoy my breakfast in a patch of warm sunshine, especially lovely now that the rose has decided to bloom for the first time. When it came to choosing my sit spot, I didn’t need to think twice.
What better way to sit and watch the garden go by than tucking into the fresh produce it offers? Like our salads, I love the way my breakfast bowls reflect the seasons and allow me to make the most of the very freshest, tastiest goodies. I’ve granted the hard-working rhubarb a well-earned rest and I’m now enjoying the first of this year’s gooseberries and strawberries. We have an abundant crop of both fruits, the gooseberries are a bit on the small side (dare I say, like many other things, the bushes could do with some rain) but they are packed with flavour and their tartness is perfect when partnered with sweet, sun-warmed strawberries. I’ve already started to freeze stores of both and that in itself proved to be something of an observation and connection moment this week: going down to the barn to find a container for strawberries, I was greeted by several lizards dancing up and down the door and the sight of the incredibly long tail of an incredibly long grass snake disappearing nonchalantly under the chest freezer. Nature. You have to love it.
One of the ‘design’ aspects of our property has been the location of seating and eating areas so that we can enjoy our surroundings to the full at different times of the day and the year; this applies to the house as well as the garden so that not only do we place seats and tables for comfort, warmth, light and practicality but we also work on creating pleasant views through the windows so even in the worst weather, we can still connect with the outdoors.
The outdoor seating thing is very much a work in progress as our time and activities here lead to new observations and ideas. At this time of year, a favourite evening spot is the gravelled area we made where the old shed used to be, overlooking the very young woodland we have planted. It’s drenched with late sunshine but too many weeks of a strong wind in the north-east has led to us discussing some sort of protective structure behind it to provide a bit of shelter on our backs. We’re planning to drive in some stakes, then weave with long hazel whips from the hedges to create what in essence will be a hurdle; some might call it ‘rustic’ but as it will be made completely with natural, renewable materials from our patch and will blend sympathetically with its environment, I’m happy that it’s the right idea.
Our evenings sitting there this week have also brought home the way that nature responds to what we do. The huge swathes of uncut grass are full of the buzz of insects; when the robins have moved off, dragonflies perch on the hazel sticks that are marking the young trees, their gauzy wings backlit by sunlight and ready to dart off in search of prey; the ‘table’ that Roger made from an old cherry tree that bit the dust has become quite a hotspot for courting sawyer beetles, whose antennae are something to behold. These are an interesting visitor to the garden as they are normally associated with coniferous woodland but the dead cherry log seems to be very attractive to them; they are very busy, restless creatures both on the ground and in the air so that the only time they have stayed still long enough for the camera was when they were in the act, so to speak. Given all the mating business with the ladybirds and minstrel bugs last week, I’m wondering if my blog is turning into one of those classic David Attenborough wildlife documentaries of old. Without the off-camera commentary, of course.
My renewed studies, combined with reading Vivre Avec La Terre, have reminded me of the three permaculture ethics: people care, Earth care and fair share (the latter being very open to interpretation and debate). For me, they embody a prevailing sense of empathy, generosity and compassion, characteristics which human beings are admirably capable of but sadly, all too often can be reluctant to display. A couple of weeks ago, we went to a local plant and seed swap; I love the idea of these but having never been to one before, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I gathered together a couple of boxes of plants ~ vegetables, flowers, annuals, perennials, the lot ~ and bagged up masses of seeds, mostly of reliable and/or interesting varieties I’d saved from last year. An hour spent labelling everything in two languages was a pretty interesting exercise on its own!
At the swap itself, the idea was to leave brought items on a table (or give a donation to charity) then take whatever was fancied from other people’s offerings. It was a fascinating study of human behaviour as much as anything else, particularly those people who hovered nervously around their donations like market traders and found it difficult to walk away! I had no such qualms and had a fine time nosing about and chatting to other gardeners, including an elderly French lady with a mischievous twinkle telling me all too graphically how to deal with the slugs that would inevitably attack the morning glory plants I’d picked up. I was drawn to a plant labelled menthe coq, mainly because it didn’t look remotely like any ‘mint’ I knew, although the leaves were wildly aromatic and I was assured that it makes a wonderful tisane. On getting it home, I discovered it is in fact costmary (Tanacetum balsamita), also called alecost, bible leaf and mint geranium; it’s not a mint (or geranium) at all but a herb with an interesting history which is the kind of thing I love. I’ve planted it in the potager between the rhubarb and soapwort, a sunny spot where I hope it will thrive.
I’d imagined that any plants being given needed to be properly potted with good established roots but many people had simply dug clumps of perennials out of the garden that morning and brought them along; in this way we gained a couple of iris of unknown colour and some day lily roots to add to our collection of attractive edibles. The lady organising the event had opened her nearby garden to swappers, leaving a pile of tools, pots and newspaper so people could help themselves to a root of anything they fancied (with a gentle and wholly understandable plea not to lift whole plants); she had also left bottles of sparkling wine and glasses on various tables. Such generosity and trust, I wonder how many gardeners would be prepared to do the same? Her garden was beautiful, overflowing with wisteria and drifts of perennial cornflowers and in every space, masses of a dainty but obviously thuggish white comfrey whose flowers hummed with bee life. We lifted a root so tiny, no-one could tell we’d been there, and it’s looking very happy planted in the ‘wild’ flower border, the perfect complement to the pink variety that grows so well here.
All in all, it was an interesting and enjoyable event and now I know what to expect, I shall get busy potting up more bits and pieces for next time. I think sharing in this way is so important at many levels: it brings together people who can swap not only plants and seeds but ideas and experiences, too; it offers the chance to collect plants suited to a particular bioregion whilst at the same time, dabble in new and different varieties, perhaps with an eye on climate change; it helps to fight the worrying decline in genetic diversity, safeguarding heirloom varieties and encouraging the activities of landrace gardeners; it diverts waste into a useful resource, especially packets of seeds that have not been used or plants heading to become green waste; it supports autonomy and resilience, weakening the reliance on often expensive and environmentally-unfriendly commercial plants and seeds; it teaches us how to give and receive without money changing hands, more difficult for some than others; it brings home the balance between give and take rather than take and take; more than anything else, it reminds us what it is to be human, to join together ~ however briefly ~ in a common cause which is of mutual benefit to all involved. People care, Earth care, fair share . . . it’s very simple, really.
Giving away garden bits and pieces doesn’t have to be part of an event; I have been sharing and swapping with friends and family for years and there is always something wonderful about the giving and receiving of little slips of roots or a few seeds in a paper twist, the anticipation of good things to come from someone else’s thoughtfulness and generosity. The pink comfrey in the photo above is a case in point: we currently have several large clumps around the garden, all of which came from a root given by a friend in Asturias (for which, at a later date, we gave a rhubarb crown in exchange). Sadly, Brexit means I can no longer legally exchange things cross-Channel but I have still been able to give plants and seeds to others and have a number of lovely gifts to grow this year, including some ‘special’ seed potatoes, cuttings of perennial kales and Vietnamese coriander, seeds for Majorcan pea beans, a Greek variety of aubergine and two Finnish heirloom tomato types so rare that it feels like a huge privilege (and weighty responsibility!) to be trialling them in a warmer climate. Please, please let the blight stay away.
Back to my studies and my morning observation sessions have officially come to an end as I move into the second week of lessons, yet they will continue, of course. I can’t help myself, really; there is so much out there to excite my senses, provoke curiosity and wonder and give me food for thought, so much to learn and reflect on, so much to admire and inspire me. I end up with far more questions than answers but that is surely what learning is all about? I’m very happy that the whole ethos of this course is based on getting out there and, quite literally, getting my hands dirty. Fine by me. Who knows, I might even manage to finish this one on time! 😉