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