More on Permaculture

We never really talked some of the cool things we saw and learned at Mara Whenua about permaculture and I recently realized that many folks don’t know what we’re talking about when we tell them we spent a week at an awesome permaculture ‘farm’. So, I thought it’d be worthy of a blogpost since Bruce & I are really keen on this concept and are planning to take a few Organic Growing/Permaculture courses at the Christchurch Polytechnic Institute – can you see the two of us going to school together?

Yvonne leant us two binders when we arrived– one contained various drawings and illustrations of Mara Whenua’s permaculture ‘zones’ and associated write-ups about what was planted where, what time of year things got done, and what future plans were for the property; the other contained about two years worth of permaculture articles that she wrote for the ‘From Seed to Saucepan’ series in Growing Today magazine. Both contained a wealth of information.

Highlights of what we absorbed:

Zones: When designing your various gardens & orchards, etc, it is important to design them into various locales according to their respective needs of immediacy. For instance, a garden of herbs, greens, and veggies would be considered a Zone 1 and should be placed within steps of your kitchen/household. Yvonne had four beds in continual rotation a mere ten steps from the house. In them she had planted about six different types of salad greens, various herbs, silver beet (swiss chard), zucchini, and a handful of other veggies. She rarely cut off a whole head of lettuce; instead she would just pinch off a few leaves from various bunches to satisfy the requirement for the evenings’ dinner salad; this allowed for optimum preservation of her lettuces. She also had a couple of swan plants – these are attractive plants for the monarch butterflies of which some were always fluttering about. A few stalks of tall droopy headed purple amaranth added to the biodiversity as well as the visual palette. Amaranth is a grain but she liked to steam the leaves as greens.

Her Zone 2 area of various fruit plants were planted along walkways from the house and along the driveway. This allowed for optimum picking as it suited one’s needs. For instance, the kids often gorged themselves on fresh-plucked ripe fruit as they walked up the .7 km (.42 mile) driveway where they were dropped off by the school bus each weekday. Yvonne had plantings of peaches, figs, apples, pears, grapes, lemons, limes, and mandarins and probably more. I think she had about 100+ fruit trees all spread out around the lower levels of the property.

Another thing which could be considered a Zone 2 or Zone 3 area was the subtropical fruit garden. In order to create the heat/climate for growing these types of plants, one can create a suntrap with pond. A suntrap is a small microclimate: a hollow area of land and/or surrounded by trees facing the sun that gets extra warm. Add a pond on the north side (facing the sun here in the southern hemisphere) to reflect additional sunlight onto the plants and serve as a thermal buffer to temperature swings and you’re good to go for growing tamarillos, bananas, taro, sugarcane, arrowroot, lemongrass, papaya, cherimoya (custard apple, mmmm!) and the like. They had a couple of man-made ponds around, many of which had not been successful in holding water, and she talked about the need to drain a few of them and put in a clay base or a ‘plug’. However, one of them was doing ok (this was the area we spent three days working in to mulch all the plants).

Zone 4/5 areas are for long-term growing projects like nut trees, which you might visit once or twice a year, and for creating your own forest for future lumber needs. They had plenty of areas up in their hills where they were growing luscitanicas, various varieties of eucalypts, native puriri trees, and some bamboo.

The average person would likely never be dealing with Zone 4 or 5 areas; there’s enough to do with your Zone 1-3 gardens! Nature abhors a vacuum, and so do permaculture growers. Bare soil is a no-no, but during parts of the year you don’t have main crops growing. ‘Green manures’ sound nasty but are quite the opposite. These plants don’t stink! By keeping the soil covered, they suppress weeds from growing. Grow these plants in wintertime and use them as mulch for other crops by cutting them down at the peak of their nutritive value and just leaving the remains on the ground. Blue lupins, mustard, oats, barley, wheat, broadbeans, sunflowers, and buckwheat make good green crops. You would cut these before they get to the point where they can be harvested for the food they produce, instead recycling their nutrients back into the garden. Most of these plants are ‘nitrogen fixers’ which means that they supply much needed nitrogen to the soil.

I read a lot about plant propagation and what’s needed to grow lovely fruits. Peaches, apricots, loquats, quince, persimmons, and tamarillos are self-pollinating so you can get away with only planting one; others, like apple trees only need one other variety around; kiwi plants need a male and female. Some plants require three or more different varieties in order to pollinate (and thus grow fruit).

So much to learn! We read articles on vining plants (grapes, passionfruit, hops, blackberries) and the best ways/areas to develop them; ways to use animals (pigs, cows, chooks (chickens)) as natural ‘lawn mowers’ for your orchards or garden beds; we talked a bit with Yvonne & Wayne about animal control (ie: trapping possums and killing rats), a much needed task in order to preserve the kiwibirds and also other plant and animal natives which would otherwise be destroyed. Possums are notorious for eating the leaves and hence killing certain types of native forest trees and they have been known to drive away bird species by getting to their nests and eating the eggs.

This is a serious problem for the whole country and while up in the Coromandel region recently, we read about an organization which is proposing to build a fence across the peninsula so that they can eradicate the evil pests once and for all and keep Coromandel pest-free! Now, I can’t quite see myself trapping and killing possums quite yet, so it was enlightening to talk with Wayne, a self-professed pacifist, about his experience of how he has reconciled the need to kill possums for the greater good of the forest and kiwibird.

Wayne and Yvonne have researched the most humane way for eradication. There are no good ones for the rats-the current variety is a blood thinning poison that appears to be a rather awful death and persists in the ecosystem to boot. They’ve used an experimental poison that has better characteristics but it’s not commercially available yet. The thing for the possums is a “leg hold-trap” which doesn’t outright kill them, only traps them so that you have the dubious pleasure of taking a bat to their little heads as they “play possum” when you check your traps each morning. This has the virtue of giving you a nice warm possum body from which you can pluck the fur to sell on to an outfit that spins it with wool to make a fabulous high end fabric. We asked Jarra how long this took when we ran across him lugging a sack with a little spot of blood on the bottom, and he said, “three minutes.” He also said he “didn’t have the time” to do this. I can understand why.

You can also use cyanide for the possums, a natural poison that does not persist in the environment, so I felt a wee bit better about this potentially-unpleasant-future-task in my life. Bruce has visions of us catching possums and outsourcing the tanning process so that we can make our own possum clothing. We’ve been to a couple of possum shops and possum fur sure is soft! Possum blankets, possum rugs, possum slippers, possum bathrobes… but I digress. That’s the ill-conceived reason why they were released into this environment in the first place-to give New Zealand a fur trade. When the world fur trade collapsed, so did the human predation on the possums, which is when they started destroying entire forests.

On top of all this, we read, talked, & learned about various mulching techniques, composting food and human wastes, greywater recycling and much, much more. You can now see why we were so exhausted each day.

But we’re eager to get our hands dirty and implement our new found knowledge ourselves. One of our first projects when we get to the house in Christchurch will be to prepare the small garden bed for the winter so that it will be ready for planting when we return in September. This will consist of doing a newspaper/sawdust mulch and the wheels are already spinning about sourcing a big pile of sawdust (shouldn’t be too hard since it seems that every other town is processing lumber). We’ll also be taking inventory of the plants & trees currently in the yard and seeing what we can do to improve the soil and get a few small fruit trees planted.

This is all very exciting! Permaculture rocks!