A Permaculture Adventure

Permie in the Patch, 2016

When I was a kid, growing up in the 1970s on the outskirts of London, there was a TV sit-com that I adored. A quirky, optimistic show with wit and warmth, in the best tradition of British comedy. It was called The Good Life, with Felicity Kendal and Richard Briers.

It was the story of an irrepressibly resourceful couple in a snooty middle-class suburb of London, who absconded from the rat race in pursuit of self-sufficiency. How I loved that show, and the curiously romantic idea of ploughing up one’s lawn to grow potatoes and keep a brace of pigs …

Australia-bound for the Good Life

When my wife and I moved to Australia in 2002, we finally had the space to pursue our own Good Life (sans porcine companions). We were keen to grow a significant proportion of our own fruit and veg.

Our block is modest by traditional Aussie standards — about 640 square metres (765 square yards). Still, it’s large enough to accommodate the entire terrace of six houses, including gardens, that we lived in back in Oxford, England.

Not all of that area is cultivable land, of course. There’s the small matter of a generous-sized house slap-bang in the middle of the block. A long, gently sloping concrete driveway descended from the street and wrapped around the house, enabling vehicular access to the garage under the living area.

The driveway still descends, but not very far, as we dug up a section in 2007 to accommodate more garden beds. The erstwhile garage is now two rooms — a laundry cum craft room and a store room. These modifications should give you an inkling of where our priorities lie. Not with sparkly-clean automobiles.

Once was a driveway, 2007
Productive space, 2010

Our mild coastal climate and the block’s sunny, north-facing aspect mean that we can grow anything from cabbages to oranges; avocados to asparagus; figs to rhubarb; olives to … oh, I don’t know … onions … okra … yacon? At any rate, most edible plants that thrive outside the tropics. In due course, a hen-house and five Pekin bantam hens came along, too, followed by a beehive. Then another beehive …

This really ought to have been enough for two adults in, notionally at least, full-time employment.

Except that’s not how I roll. When I’m into something, I’m really into it.

Beginnings of the Patch

Susan and I were founder members of the local garden produce swap, meeting once a month to exchange surplus produce, gossip and know-how with other local growers. Consequently, we got to know a whole bunch of other keen gardeners. They included a lovely couple, Jill and Michael, who lived on a two-acre block in neighbouring Drysdale, about 4 km from our home.

Part of their block was taken up by a vineyard, but there was a 600 square metre, rectangular patch of grass down the end farthest from the house (a rambling and beautiful former rectory) which had been a horse paddock and now was just, well, a paddock.

Upon hearing that we were on the look out for more land (having just failed to purchase the vacant block next to our home), Jill and Michael were kind enough to invite us to enter into a ‘land share’ agreement with them. We would cultivate their spare land and share the produce with them.

This, in early 2011, was the beginning of the eight-year adventure that we christened ‘The Patch’.

The Patch as a blank slate, 2011

We were free to grow anything we wanted on the land, within reason. There was no infrastructure: no power and no running water; nowhere to store tools.

We built a timber shed, with a shady veranda made from our old garage door. We installed a 2,000-litre rainwater tank, constructed a four-bay compost system (such opulence!) and set about digging out the tenacious kikuyu grass and blanket weed which covered the area.

Compost bays under construction, 2011
Bijou residence, 2012

At the beginning of 2012, I did a two-week residential Permaculture Design Certificate. I returned with a whole bunch of new ideas and skills to put into practice.

For instance, I had learned that hot-composting methods, if applied carefully, could turn pretty much anything organic into nutritious compost. That included two-metre high piles of uprooted kikuyu and blanket weed. All that is needed is a little science, a lot of muscle power and a few sacks of shit.

Working the land

Damn, I was fit in those (relatively recent) days. Fat, but fit.

As I don’t drive, a morning’s work at the Patch began with a four-kilometre hike or (mostly uphill) bike ride. And ended with the same in reverse, thankfully downhill. Sometimes before breakfast.

The annual vegetable beds and the perennial trees and bushes could only be watered by hand, filling watering cans from a gravity-fed standpipe connected to the tank. I can still remember how many cans it took to water each bed.

I mowed the remaining 200 square metres or so of kikuyu with my beautiful, hand-forged Austrian scythe. (I just love the rhythmic movement and that swish.) Then I raked up the neat windrows of mowings and wheelbarrowed them to the compost.

Getting into the swing of things, 2011

When a batch of hot compost neared 70˚C, it had to be turned — all 3 cubic metres of it. With a hay fork. Sometimes I had three batches on the go, simultaneously.

This was my workout: three times a week, year round. In wind and rain or 30˚C heat. No wonder I cancelled my gym membership.

Permaculture in action

This blank patch of grass allowed my fertile imagination, a decade’s experience in organic growing and my Permaculture reading free rein. Some ideas worked brilliantly; others sort-of worked; some, like my combination Hügelkultur and contour-swale hazelnut grove, just never quite did what I wanted.

Some, like the Edible Forest Garden inspired by David Jacke’s designs, were simply beyond the capacity of one keen gardener to execute in the time available.

Still, the results were impressive, if I say so myself. A few photos at this point will be more eloquent than mere words.

Tomato Queen, 2012

Down to earth with a thump

Sadly, this level of effort was not sustainable in the long term.

At the beginning, Susan and I had been equal partners in this enterprise. However, fairly early on in the piece, she had to scale down her involvement because of back problems.

This turned into major surgery: a lumbar laminectomy and spinal fusion in late 2013, after a year of reduced mobility and debilitating pain, meant that Susan had to sit frustrated on the sidelines for a couple of years while I slogged on. Other surgery followed. Any hard manual work or heavy lifting became out of the question.

I was also pushing myself beyond my limits. Shoulder problems (chronic rotator cuff tendinitis in both shoulders) from 2018 onwards meant that I could no longer keep the dreaded kikuyu at bay. That stuff evolved in Africa to be grazed by herds of wildebeest. One bloke and his scythe weren’t a match for it.

Then, too, our involvement with music was becoming greater. Susan and I had started a band with four friends: monthly gigs, weekly rehearsals and daily practice meant that there was less time for the Patch.

As my visits became less frequent, I started to feel guilty about how ragged Jill’s and Michael’s garden was looking, yet to resent the time I was spending on a futile battle against nature.

We reluctantly — but with great relief on all sides — formally ended the Patch adventure in 2019. Many lessons had been learned, many happy hours spent, much glorious organic produce grown.

Thank you, Jill and Michael, for your generosity and trust.

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