As promised in my most recent blog about agroforestry, I’m now going to introduce you to what I understand to be the finest example of alley cropping in Britain. The home of Prof. Martin Wolfe, Wakelyns Farm, sits close to the Norfolk / Suffolk border, tucked away down some little lanes. Martin moved there in 1994 and began the establishment of an experimental organic silvoarable (trees with arable crops) system. They chose a place well out of the way because they weren’t sure if it would work or not, but 23 years on that is no longer in doubt. The farm covers 22½ hectares (approx. 55 acres) and is divided into four different systems. Common to all of them are rows of trees running north-south, spaced around 12 metres apart – a distance initially set for the convenience of machinery, but later realised to also be just about optimum for the benefits to the crops at this latitude.
Two of the four systems utilise double rows of Hazel and Willow, both of which are coppiced on a cycle (the Willows every 2 years and the Hazels every 5 years). The double rows ensure that when one row is cut down to the base, it has an adjacent row that still provides shelter to the crops in the alleys. The Hazel and Willow are both used primarily as biomass crops to provide heat on the farm. The crops in the alleys are rotated, with Wheat and Oats the main grain crops currently. Squashes are also grown, followed by clover and a ley grass mixture. Careful measurements are made of yields. One interesting figure is something called the Land Equivalent Ratio (LER). The LER of Hazel with Wheat is 1.3. What that means is that if you grew the same yields of Wheat and Hazel separately as monocultures, you would need 30% more land.
A field of grain ripening in the summer sun is a familiar sight, the promise of food on the table, a symbol of our ingenuity in conquering nature. And yet if we return to that field in the winter we’ll see a very different picture. I live in a little valley close to the coast in Devon. We’re surrounded by mixed farming, some pasture grazing, some arable, and when it rains in the winter the stream that passes our cottage turns brown with the soil being washed off the bare fields.
A significant part of the problem is the ploughing of hillsides, which are extremely vulnerable to erosion –the niche that the ancestors of modern grains naturally inhabited was relatively flat valley floors where water moves much more slowly. This problem was exacerbated when we switched from pulling ploughs with animals to using tractors. Animals can plough on contour, creating a series of mini ditches across the slope that catch rain and allow it time to soak in. Erosion then was fairly minimal. Tractors, by contrast, cannot plough on contour on slopes beyond a certain angle, because they tip over, often killing the drivers. They do however have much more power, so instead they plough up and down the slope – a process that requires vastly more energy to perform – they climb the hill hundreds of times instead of just once – but they don’t tip over. In doing so they create channels that run from the top of the hill to the bottom, which direct water straight down the slope, allowing it to pick up speed and carry much more soil away. Around here we see very little soil left on the tops of ploughed hillsides, something that’s really obvious from a distance on the chalk downs. We really shouldn't be ploughing slopes, but what can we do? Whether we’re designed to eat grains or not, we certainly seem, for the moment at least, to be addicted to them. We’re not going to stop ploughing anytime soon, so how can we make things better?
Originally published in Permaculture Magazine issue 89 (Autumn 2016)
Teacher, author and consultant, Aranya, shares his advice on how to join the permaculture economy
More than half of us in Britain it seems are unhappy in our jobs and yet most don’t do anything about it.[i] Discovering permaculture though can be the catalyst for us to start considering how we might make that transition to the more positive-impact lifestyle we aspire to. At first it may seem that the only available permaculture livelihoods are as a teacher or food grower, but these are just the more visible ‘front end’ of a wide network of interdependencies. While teaching and writing are my passion, I currently still manage my own websites, do my own accounts and convene some of my own courses. I gained those skills out of necessity, but would love to be able to call on them from within the permaculture community to free up my time for the things I’m more interested in. So this article shares some ideas and reflections in the hope it will help bring more of you into the permaculture economy.
Originally published in Permaculture Magazine issue 91 (Spring 2017)
Aranya considers how we might apply a permaculture design approach to the one place we spend our entire life in – our body.
At its essence, permaculture is about meeting our needs, but it does this mostly indirectly, by guiding us in shaping the landscape around us. I wondered, couldn’t we also apply permaculture thinking to looking after our bodies directly?
As long as I can remember I’ve been interested in learning about my health. I ran competitively as a teen and into my twenties, something that led me to explore numerous ideas about improving my fitness. Then I began to experiment with my diet, which led me to discover gardening. Later, when Permaculture came along, it offered me a whole new set of tools in the garden and connected me into a network of inspiring people. That was twenty years ago, but it’s only been in the last five that I began to ponder my own body from a permaculture perspective. I asked myself the question “what has this thing I inhabit, my physical body, evolved to do?” How can I ‘work with my own nature’?
It emerged this week that the symbiotic relationship we've long understood lichens to be is a little more complex than was previously thought. In addition to the fungi and the algae or cyanobacteria (simply put, the former contributes a structured moist environment and the latter photosynthesises sugars from sunlight), yeasts have now been discovered living close to the surface. It's believed their function is to help fend off predators and repel microbes. This news adds another layer to an already fine example of cooperation that I've been sharing on my permaculture courses for a long time now. It is of course just one of a multitude of examples found throughout nature. All multicellular organisms, including our own human body, are clear evidence that working together is a better long-term strategy than going it alone. Our social tendencies express this too on a scale beyond the individual, but our modern society has put us in contact with more strangers than perhaps any time before in our history, bringing with it much mistrust and fear.
Our ancestors of course understood the security value of living in groups, but there's a point where size does matter. This is what Robin Dunbar taught us - that when groups get beyond 150 or so there are more people than we have enough time to have regular contact with and it's that interaction time that builds trust. So if you have more than 150 friends on facebook, well, if you're like me, many of them are still strangers aren't they? They may share interests with us, but those occasional virtual interactions don't bond us in the same way as those we enjoy face to face.
Teaching currently takes up about half of my year and involves a significant amount of travelling, albeit mostly in Britain. The average number of participants on my courses is twelve. Some might study this behaviour and suggest I could be more efficient. Economic logic recommends that I book a large seater venue, forget about providing food or accommodation and market that one course intensively. That would give me plenty of time to spend at home and involve the least amount of my time in sharing what I have learned, Such a strategy would keep the costs down for participants too. So why don't I choose to do that? Why teach so many courses to smaller groups of people in so many places? Well I can answer that question with just one word - Diversity.
Those of you already familiar with the principles of permaculture will know the word well. Life succeeds for a number of reasons, one of them being its ability to adapt to a wide range of niches. No opportunity goes untaken for long. By applying the secrets of life's success to the things we do, we can create better, more resilient systems. Let's start there. A monoculture might seem like an efficient way of growing a lot of one thing, but it's actually a very fragile approach. We have to input a lot of energy and resources to grow crops in such a way. Permaculture systems are much more diverse, if one thing doesn't do so well in any given year there are others that will. Running one course a year only sounds like a good idea until something goes wrong, then it becomes a disaster. An 'all your eggs in one dropped basket' situation.
Originally published in Permaculture Magazine issue 81 (Autumn 2014)
Mobile phones have rapidly become part of our daily lives and most of us now carry them nearly everywhere we go. Nearly three quarters of us in the UK now own a smartphone1 and these can do so much more than just make calls. With on-board hardware such as a GPS receiver, camera, microphone and accelerometer these devices can, with the right software, do remarkable things. As a permaculture designer my preferred tools for gathering site information and making maps are still pens, pencils and paper, but I also now appreciate the new and powerful tools that my ‘phone’ provides. In this article I’ll introduce you to a few of the apps that I’ve been finding really useful.
Recording site observations
Perhaps where the smartphone really comes into its own is out in the field. Even if I don’t have pen, paper & clipboard with me I can now record a lot of what I see and hear on my phone. In addition to the standard camera and video options, both of which I would always make good use of especially if surveying a site some distance from home, there are apps that can overlay extra information. Up until now I’ve used a Sun compass to identify the sun’s path through the year and this is a great tool, but it has its limitations. Firstly they’re only made for 50˚north, which is fine for Britain, but less useful at different latitudes. It also indicates the rising and setting points on a flat horizon, which we rarely have, so I end up having to guess how the surrounding landscape affects this. Sun Surveyor offers much more precision. It uses GPS to locate itself and then shows you the path of the sun (and moon if you wish) on any date you choose. You can view this information as an overlay on a satellite image or, if you buy the paid version2, through the camera. It’s so useful to be able to move the camera around and see where the sun crosses the horizon and even take a photograph with this information overlaid.
Having been introduced to this idea by two different people in the same week earlier this month, I thought I’d give it a go. Not much to say really, other than it’s easy to do and the pea shoots taste great. A no-brainer for winter flavour and nutrition. These few pictures tell the story:
Originally published in Permaculture Magazine issue 74 (Autumn 2012)
Location! Location! Location?
A good friend of mine once described to me a phenomenon which may be the biggest curse of the modern plant collector. It’s what happens when people return home from their local garden centre with that plant they just couldn’t resist and go looking around the garden for a gap to put it in. Mmmm… sound familiar? He appropriately calls it ‘gap gardening’. Perhaps we might substitute ‘local garden centre’ with ‘Martin Crawford’s catalogue’ or some other specialist supplier, but the temptation can still leave us with trees and plants that we bought on a relative whim. I’ve certainly done it and I suspect you may have too. So in my final look at the design process I’m going to describe some of the tools and methods that permaculture offers us to best place and integrate the many different elements into our designs.
Nature of course does its own kind of gap gardening, no niche is ever left unoccupied for long. Wherever an opportunity arises, something will make a home there, but of course these plants and animals will be the very ones best adapted to live in those conditions. Plants often arrive as seeds and have to compete with others to take that territory. Nature of course is very abundant and the strategy of seeds is to throw a huge amount at the landscape knowing that only a few will ever grow to maturity. That’s a strategy we can only model if we save our own seed, but Fukuoka did just this very successfully, scattering seeds around his orchards and allowing the plants to show him where they most wanted to be. Most of us don’t have very many seeds to risk though, and even an established plant will struggle in a site unsuited to its needs. This is where some permaculture planning bears fruit.
Originally published in Permaculture Magazine issue 73 (Summer 2012)
Having looked at the value of a clear design process in the last issue, we’ll move on to the process of effectively surveying a site. Of course, there are many things we might design using permaculture and that site might be a physical one like an area of land or it could be organisational like a business. In either case we’d essentially be studying relationships and their current level of effectiveness, in order to figure out some improvements. The greatest challenge I think for most of us is to give this survey stage sufficient time. We live in a society where we’re encouraged to have everything as soon as possible, so it can be difficult for us to find the patience to simply observe and record without immediately having lots of ideas to make things better. Some of these ideas might be good ones, but we often completely overlook possibilities that we haven’t encountered before. So one of the most important things I think I do now is to help people to slow down…
By taking the time to observe, we begin to notice things that weren’t immediately apparent. These things are often the key to plugging energy and resource leaks that others had overlooked. And those observations will get you invited back to give design advice next time.