Thursday, December 16, 2010

Wild harvest - bird poo

I was riding my bike down the Yarra to Southern Cross station recently, when this strange structure caught my eye. Closer inspection confirmed my suspicion that this was a pigeon loft. The description on the sign (abridged) states:

"This pigeon loft has been placed here in Batman Park as part of the City of Melbourne's pigeon management program. It is intended to provide an alternative home for the city's pigeons...Pigeons in the CBD have been a nuisance for decades and their droppings cause uncleanliness generally and also damage to city buildings...It houses two hundred nesting boxes for pigeon breeding. Eggs laid will be replaced with artificial eggs intended as a humane way to control and reduce pigeon numbers. Bird feeding around the loft base is permitted to attract birds out of the CBD to this area. Bird feeding is not permitted in any other area around the CBD."

If pigeons roost in here, there must be a lot of droppings. What does the City of Melbourne do with them? I hope they compost them. Pigeon poop is high in phosphorus and nitrogen, making it an excellent fertilizer when composted or brewed into compost tea.
Below a railway bridge

The easiest way to get pigeon manure into your food system is to get the pigeons to fly it in for you. Pigeon coops are used in desert food systems to bring in nutrients for the soil. There's a short descrpition of this on the update to the Greening the Desert video (starts at 6:10).

My eye is now finely tuned to spot these piles of wild compost ingredients. Birds have their favourite roosting spots, and beneath them there is usually a pile of poo.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Pitchfork Projects Christmas offer

I've posted a few specials over at Permaculture consultations or online lessons available until end of December at $50 per hour, and gift certificates are available for any value $5 and over, calculated pro rata. Permaculture consultations are a great gift for both the person who has everything, and the person who has not much at all!

Shorter consultations are ideal for answering quick questions by Skype or email...what do I do about these flies in my compost?...what should I plant this time of year? do I care for this chicken?...what is happening to the leaves on my fruit tree?

One hour consultations enable a focused discussion of permaculture applied to your project, including as opportunities to harvest water, siting infrastructure and designing for as efficient a project as possible.
All gift certificates valid for the rest of 2010 and all of 2011.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Managing gorse (Ulex europaeus) - a permaculture approach

If you're a first generation farmer and you manage to find a dirt cheap property to begin your farming endeavours, there's a good chance there'll be some kind of weed that you'll have to deal with. In our case, it was Gorse, ulex europeaus, a weed of national significance. In permaculture terms, gorse is a pioneer plant. It colonises disturbed ground, and is often seen in erosion gullies, which is the niche it occupies on my property.

Gorse with flower and seed pods
Like most weeds, gorse provides important ecosystem services. A member of the pea family, it fixes nitrogen, its prickly, bushy growth habit provides habitat for birds and animals and its dense root structure helps combat erosion. Given that it is a weed of national significance and in order to maintain good relations with our neighbours, managing the gorse was a priority. Most advice we received was to "cut and paint" - cut back gorse bushes and paint with the appropriate herbicide. Chemical management is not an avenue I was willing to pursue due to the potential effects of herbicide on soil and animal life. A permaculture approach requires an analysis of the species to understand its growing needs, potential harvestable uses and its interactions with other parts of the system.

I initially turned to the Weeds Australia website, which provides a comprehensive manual on the biology and management of gorse. Gorse is extremely hardy and fast growing, and young shoots resprout from stumps and sticks that remain in soil. It was clear that any management required a range of strategies, including grazing, mechanical removal, slashing and competition. By far the most useful and easily understood description of gorse was found at this instructable, and if dealing with gorse, I'd recommend reading about the experience of gorse management there. It has been recommended as a nurse plant to establish forests in the UK, and is eventually shaded out as the trees establish.

New gorse sprouting from pruned branches
As a fuel it burns hot, and living gorse burns readily due to the high concentration of oil in its branches. This makes it a fuel for bushfires in southeastern Australia. Burning is not a useful means of management, as both heat from burning and hot weather encourage seedpods to pop and seed to disperse widely. Gorse seed can remain viable for as long as 70 years. It has some use as winter fodder during cold winters in Europe where it is native, and I have used its spiny branches as a fire starter. The Plants for a Future database indicates some uses for gorse such as soaking the seeds in water to use as a pesticide against fleas, and pickling the flower buds in vinegar to make a food reminiscent of capers. The flowers have a fragance of coconut oil and can be used to make gorse wine.

Gorse occupies an area of about 1000 square metres on our property of one hectare. The gorse forest was at least 15 years old when we turned up and was almost impenetrable as gorse is so prickly. The area it occupied was at the bottom edge of our property, far from the house and bounded by two neighbouring properties. We designated this area a permaculture zone 4/5, with potential development as a woodlot or wildlife zone. The land is fairly flat with some steep banks leading into a stormwater gully. This meant that it would be possible to get into most of the area with a tractor to slash the gorse back. Our management plan would begin with slashing, and we intended to promote competition by planting fast-growing and productive local indigenous species. In this way we could utilise the features of gorse that promote forest establishment, including their nitrogen fixing capacity, while providing competition and eventually shading them out once our trees and shrubs are established. We got our local machinery man on the job, with the instruction to try to maintain as much of the wattle and other plants that had self-established amongst the gorse.

Wattle emerging through the gorse
Slashing the gorse forest
We bought a couple of goats to graze some of the areas that we couldn't get to with the slasher, particularly the steep banks of the gully. The goats have been mildly successful at keeping the gorse down, but they tend to prefer eating other things when available. They have been most useful for eating back the new gorse shoots before planting occurs, but once new plants have gone in, the goats have to be kept out of the area. 

New plantings along edge of gully where gorse has been slashed
The steep banks of the erosion gully have also been cut back by hand. It was decided not to attempt to pull out gorse by the roots here, as they were doing a good job holding the soil to prevent erosion. After cutting back the branches, the banks were planted with prickly wattles, including Acacia verticillata (Prickly Moses), Acacia genistifolia (Spreading wattle) and Acacia paradoxa (Hedge wattle), to provide a similar habitat for native wildlife.

Where gorse has been slashed, deep mulch of gorse needles remains.
I've been regularly checking the progress of plants and keeping an eye on the gorse resprouting. Where the gorse has been slashed, the gorse needles are providing a thick layer of mulch for the new plants. There are some areas where gorse is vigorously resprouting from the root system and others where the plant seems to have been killed. During mid-winter as the ground was so damp, it was not too hard to pull up the entire root of some of the larger plants by hand. In spite of the long tap root, the plants would squelch quite easily up through the mud. I removed about three large plants this way, but began to regret it, as manual removal of the entire root system greatly disturbs the soil.

Where the root system was entirely pulled out, the soil is very disturbed.
Gorse has long tap roots. The length of root shown was entirely underground.

During Spring, Yorkshire fog, a pasture weed, came up everywhere that the gorse had been slashed. Rosemary Morrow describes Yorkshire Fog in the Earth User's Guide to Permaculture as being caused by increased light and ground disturbance after tree removal, which is indeed what we have done by slashing the gorse.
Yorkshire fog growing where the gorse was slashed.
It's evident that no matter how you approach it, gorse management is a long-term process. Having the large stems and branches slashed to ground level has allowed us to keep any new growth trimmed with the mowing attachment on our small tractor. Following advice for most weed infestations, we are following up the initial work by moving from areas of least to greatest infestation and beginning upstream in the gully and moving down. All the same, it's frightening to see how quickly some of those branches resprout. I'm interested to try soaking the seed for flea control for some of our animals but need to find further information on how to safely go about this. It's ironic that you can end up developing the closest relationships with the plants that cause you the most trouble. The crash course in local indigenous species has been most beneficial however and I'm glad to say that these are growing very well indeed.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Solar Cookers and Grass Roots Education at the Barefoot College

It's hard to believe that a year has passed since we visited the Barefoot College in Tiloniya, Rajasthan. Desperate to break off from the tourist trail, we travelled by bus from the Pushkar camel fair, onto a train from Ajmer to Kishangarh, then jumped into a jeep for the last leg to Tiloniya. Tiloniya is a tiny town, and the train stops only once a day. There is no problem finding the Barefoot College, especially if one of the residents has jumped off the jeep with you.

Set up in 1972 by Bunker Roy, the Barefoot College is a home-grown NGO with a beautiful philosophy and effective world-changing approaches. The barefoot concept was best summed up by resident, Ram Nivas, who told the story of the beginnings of the Barefoot College radio station. A local man, Raju, had discovered upon rewiring his transistor, that it was able to pick up the signal from his cb radio. Experimentation led him to set up a local radio station, Raju Radio, which featured local news, reports of missing water buffalo and musical requests from the community. When the media bureaucracy got wind of Raju Radio, operating without a licence, they shut him down. Raju now works at the Barefoot College radio station, in a studio lined with recycled egg cartons for soundproofing. He is the classic example of a Barefoot engineer, with minimal schooling, a head for innovation, using what he has available to create useful tools for his community.

Situated in the Rajasthan desert, Tiloniya receives an average of 400mm of rainfall annually, all of which falls in a period of four days. In the last few years they have received little more than 200mm annual rainfall. Across Rajasthan water issues are at crisis point. With years of drought, well water is increasingly brackish and the water table is rapidly sinking. Barefoot College is working on this in a number of capacities. The entire college is situated on underground water tanks which collect thousands of litres of water annually. This was the only place in India in which we drank the water directly from the well, with no further purification required. They are implementing education programs on rainwater harvesting in villages through puppet shows and theatre. The puppet workshop was a sight to be seen. There were puppets of animals, political figures, there was even a puppet of the founder, Bunker Roy in the mix.

One of the most impressive of their projects is the solar barefoot engineer program. While we visited, a group of women from African villages without electricity were spending six months training as solar engineers. They would return home to set up solar electricity workshops to run solar lanterns for their villages, with the capacity to wire and repair any part of the system that broke down. This is all funded and run by a home-grown NGO in India and it works. It works because the people setting up and maintaining the systems have both the skills and the interest to keep it going. Impressed yet? There are a number of other programs running across the College. A recycling workshop uses paper and other recycled materialss to create toys, tools and bags for the Barefoot College gift shop. I particularly liked this simple maths tool that was used in one of the evening school programs.

My favourite program by far at the Barefoot College was the manufacture of solar cookers. Three times a day I sampled the meals cooked with the solar cookers, experiencing the joy they created through sight, smell and taste along with an appreciation of their engineering. The solar cookers are constructed from materials that are readily available at the local marketplace. The mirrors are individually cut from glass and painted with reflective paint before being wired onto the frame. Recycled bike cogs are used to create a clockwork system that allows the cooker to follow the path of the sun from morning to night.

The parabolic shape of the cooker focuses the sun's energy onto the cooktop for cooking rice and stews in pots or frying in a pan. Every now and again I'd walk across the path of the focused rays, forgetting their power. Ouch, hot! Sensibly, the specifications for building these cookers was written to scale on the floor of the workshop, (see pic below right).

These cookers are manufactured for sale by women at the Barefoot College, creating both livelihood and an alternative to cooking using wood-burning stoves.

Not much food is grown locally, due to the dimishing rainfall in this area. All grey water at the Barefoot College is put into groundwater recharge, and the overflow from the well is channeled to a small pond for water buffalo. A local tree, Babul, which I later identified as Babul Acacia Nilotica also has medicinal properties. A very spiky tree, I saw the branches wrapped around trees in the college to protect them from grazing goats.

The Barefoot College also runs a small hospital which places great value in preventative homeopathic medicine and a shop selling handcrafts by local artisans. We heard a lot about Neem and its medicinal and dental uses. The Barefoot College provide accommodation and three meals a day, along with chai in the evening. There is a comprehensive library on site which is the perfect place to laze around on those hot Rajasthani afternoons. They'll show you around all their workshops and there is much cricket and fun to be had in the evenings if you seek it out. For 2000 rupees per person per night. See more at their website.

Babul branches protecting tree from goats

Thursday, October 14, 2010

APC10 - and the Atherton Tablelands Permaculture Bus Tour

Where do you usually have lunch? I pondered my regular lunchspot, an alternately frosty or dusty stoop off my front porch, while sipping on tropical fruit smoothies and snacking on flowers at the Botanical Ark. Three weeks ago in the wee hours of the morning, I flew into Cairns for the Tenth Australasian Permaculture Convergence. What followed was four jam-packed days of presentations, design processes and meeting the elders and newbies of the permacultural movement in Australia and overseas, set to the backdrop of tropical rainforest in Far North Queensland. Alternately inspired, exhausted and enthusiastically manic, I spent four days refining my introduction to strangers from "I run a permaculture consultancy business in Central Victoria", to leaping from from a haybale stating "I'm committed to excellence in integrating permaculture, literacy and numeracy, running workshops from my place and interactive theatre", during Robin Clayfield's Leaps of Faith session. I made good on the interactive theatre soon after, see below...

It's not easy to coherently write about all the mind flutterings that overtook me during the Convergence. I was regularly scribbling good ideas in my notebook as they came to mind. One idea, however, kept coming back to me, in the form of a permaculture principle, "Use edges and value the marginal". The people that I was most drawn to were working on the edges of permaculture, following their passions and integrating permaculture into the things that got them bouncing out of bed in the morning. From Cecilia Macaulay's balcony gardening and share house permaculture, to April Sampson-Kelly's online Permaculture Design Courses to the Garden at the End of the World, I got most inspiration from those people working through different media, in far-off places, or finding their own niche within the movement.

One of the major issues leading up to and during APC10 was the call for a national representative permaculture body for Australia. Robina McCurdy, Robin Clayfield and Rowe Morrow, some of the best facilitators I know of, ran a participatory workshop to develop a needs analysis for the nation. The results are posted here. I came away from the Convergence, disappointed that there wasn't more of this. At APC9 in Sydney in 2008, there was ample opportunity to participate in workshops. Rowe Morrow's Water Workshop had hundreds of people brainstorming solutions for water issues for a number of types of human settlements, including small towns, cities, country/urban fringe, drylands, etc. In all, at APC10, I spent too much time sitting on my backside watching powerpoints, a common problem with conferences, but from a permaculture convergence I expected more. The first opportunity I had to participate in a presentation saw me bouncing off the walls. I made a personal commitment that next convergence I will only attend if I also present a workshop.

APC9 Water workshop: Source unknown
I made good on an earlier personal commitment involving what I called, for want of a better term, 'interactive theatre'. I had decided before the convergence to take advantage of any future opportunities to facilitate dance events. The final night party of the Convergence was scheduled, with Costa, TV's gardening guru, as MC I put my hand up to run the Interpretive Permaculture Bush Dance. Loosely based around a traditional bush dance, with some permaculture principles thrown in for good measure, it culminated in a spiral of dancers being dragged into a vortex screaming, "This is so much fun!". Suffice to say, it went off, and I am now addicted to the power of telling people what to do on the dance floor.

Lastly, one of the most exciting features of a Permaculture convergence is the tour that inevitably follows. The APC10 post-convergence tour took us through dry savannah of Mareeba and back to the tropical paradise of the Atherton Tablelands. So many things I haven't seen before, eggplant trees, green ant highways and creative approaches to cracking coconuts (see below right).

My deepest gratitude goes to permaculture elders Rowe Morrow and Phil Gall for their graciousness and effusive generosity. It's always humbling to meet those for whom you have so much respect and for them to be willing and happy to give so much of their time. Further opportunities to rub elbows with heroes, Robina McCurdy and Robin Clayfield on the bus tour, sounds captured below.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

From the archives: make a chicken coop from farm junk

A couple of years ago I made my first foray into raising chicks. With a borrowed incubator we started incubating our first batch of eggs just before our chickens got broody themselves. After three weeks, we had eight chicks being raised by their mother hens (the country chicks) and seven chicks raised by us in a brooder (the city chicks). We set up a skype account and camera to keep an eye on the city chicks while we were working away from home.

They grew up quickly and it soon came time to relocate the city chicks to the chicken run outside, but we didn't expect the country chicks and their mothers to be too happy about sharing their coop. It was decided, then to let them get to know each other slowly across the chicken wire and construct a new coop in the 'forage zone', where I'd planted amaranth, oats, and some sunflowers and sorghum that had come up from a handful of chicken grain I'd scattered around. Having just come across the work of Patrick Dougherty, I decided to put my fibre craft skills to work and weave them a new coop out of whatever materials I could find on the farm. Finding some fencing mesh attached to galvanised posts on the scrap metal pile, I wired it into a semi-circular shape, weaving wisteria prunings in and out of the grids. The plan was to make a wattle and daub structure, an earth building technique in which a mixture of clay and straw is daubed onto a woven wooden lattice, called the wattle.

We mixed straw with mud dug out of the dam until it felt about the right consistency, roughly a 50/50 mix of mud and straw. Then a team made it into patties to be daubed onto the wall by builders.

Stick perches were put in place before the daubing began, and the clay and straw layer was slowly built up onto the wattle.

The big people help the small people work in tight corners

As some of the branches were thick, it was difficult to get a tight weave in the wattle, which resulted in troubles getting the daub to stick in places. As it dried, we kept an eye on any clay that dropped off and fixed up small gaps with more daub.

 After the clay had dried the coop was roofed with the lid of an old water tank, which sat on the top of the posts, allowing some cross ventilation at the top of the wall. This proved to be a much better coop than the corrugated iron coop the country chicks grew up in, staying cooler in the heat and providing a lot of choice in sticks for the chooks to perch upon. Two roosters lived in comparative harmony in their separate coops, sharing the same forage zone by day and retiring to their different coops by night. Contained in a fenced in enclosure, this open structure worked well. However, I'd love to build a fox-proof elevated chicken coop for our orchard like this one from the Planet Repair Institute.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

'Tis a Mighty Swale

One of the major assets of our property is a storm water culvert which brings storm water runoff from a number of roads nearby. Water begins to flow through the culvert whenever we have rainfall of more than 8mm. After 25 years of water pouring through, a large gully has been washed away, and this is one of the places in which gorse has found a niche.

This satellite pic shows the course the gully runs and the growth of gorse around it. The main swale bisects the water course and now directs water across the property on contour.
The first priority was to more effectively use the water currently running straight off the property and to slow it down to help with the erosion problem. This led to a design for the mainframe swale, running on contour at the highest point that traversed the longest line across the property. This was partly determined by looking at contour maps, to help decide where we would begin surveying. Online contour maps promised a level line that ran from one far corner to another, beautifully traversing boundary fences and sheds. However, there's nothing like getting outside with a laser level or A-frame... and while pegging it out it began to look somewhat different. South of the gully the swale would run just where we wanted, but on the north side, it ran into the boundary fence. We opted to build the south side swale and come back to the northern paddock at a later date.

Digging the swale at the end of summer, the ground was too hard for the bucket on the little tractor. First the pegged line was ripped a number of times and the loose earth was scooped and piled on the downhill side of the swale.

Scoop and dump ... scoop and dump
Levels were checked by hand by moving along the swale with metal tubing and a spirit level. Constructing swales seems to have a magical meteorological effect... I'm not the first to be rewarded by rain the day a swale is dug. Water is the ultimate spirit level and indicated the need to dig a bit deeper at the bottom end.

The top side of the swale was planted with a variety of acacias - blackwood, black wattle, lightwood and wirilda in the mix. The last thing to do was to make a bridge to the lower paddock.

After years of drought, rainfall this autumn and winter has been constant. The swale has been full since April, resulting in waterlogging in the paddock below. When it came time to plant bare-rooted fruit trees, we decided to mound them up to prevent them drowning. As it turns out, the bottom end of the swale is somewhat higher, which means the ground below is less damp, and a good place to plant cherries, peaches and apricots, which are more susceptible to waterlogging. When things dry out again, the plan is to deepen and widen the swale. Having thought in terms of water scarcity for so many years, I didn't account for how much water would be coming through that culvert. 80mm fell in 24 hours in August, blowing out the walls of small ponds we had constructed to slow down the remaining water that travels through the gully.

This represents a major challenge. We're grappling with how to deal with the force of the water flowing through that small channel in big rain events. There's also a concern about contaminants coming onto the property that have washed off the roads, particularly for the two small dams scheduled for future works. For the time being, the big rains are cleansing, washing up an assortment of rubbish and old bottles that have been thrown in that gully for countless years.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Pitchfork Projects

 I've launched a new website over at and am now offering services both on the ground and over Skype. So now you can contact me for permaculture design and advice wherever in the world you are. Designed for people who want to be hands-on with their own projects, and are seeking design advice, solutions or ideas on how to move forward with their objectives. I also offer tools for teachers and parents on using the garden as a tool for learning language, literacy and numeracy.

Business card designed by Andrea Shaw.

P.S. I didn't realise at first, but that's our place on the card! Look at that!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Our Place

In September 2009, I spied online what looked like my dream country place. Low price tag, enough land to play with and most amazingly an old house that looked to be in a fairly liveable condition. Tim and I had agreed upon what we wanted for our budget: a watercourse, even if only running in winter, a shed or basic structure, close to a train line and suitable for m permaculture wants, food growing and a few animals.

What we got: An old house with town water and power connected, storm water outlet running onto property, plenty of sheds, old pigeon coops, a couple of old pear and plum trees.

Challenges: Storm water coming onto the property had created an erosion gully that had been overrun with gorse for the last 20 years. The property had been overgrazed and then neglected for years. Rubbish, car parts and broken glass were strewn everywhere. The first focus was on cleaning up and using whatever resources we could find in sheds and strewn about.

We started work to retrofit the house for energy efficiency, attack the gorse forest without the use of chemicals, utilise the storm water more effectively to tackle the erosion problem and find the pipes that bring mains water to the house.

A lucky resource was the years of pigeon poo that had collected in the pigeon coops over the years. It was old, dry and very dusty, but a fantastic resource. I set to work almost immediately to start composting the pigeon poo goldmine. I used the Berkley method, and made a pile using a a mix of straw, newspaper and pigeon poop. This I turned after four days and then every second day til 18 days had passed. Check CSIRO's publication 'Composting - Making Soil Improver from Rubbish' for a guide to mixing your materials for the right carbon/nitrogen ratios, downloadable here.