Permaculture helps cut your footprint and grow your food.
When Kat Lavers moved into her Northcote home, she named the property after its big old plum tree. Ever since, she and her housemates have set about transforming the rest of the block into an urban permaculture demonstration site, aiming to show how much of our needs can be met on a small scale.
“The Plummery is less than one tenth of an acre – about 400 square metres – and that’s including the house,” she says. “Once our design is fully in place, we’ll be providing all our salad, eggs, honey, water and electricity, plus a really good supply of our fruit and veggies, and lots of mushrooms. We’ll also process all our organic wastes on site, using technologies like a home-built composting toilet and lots of compost, chooks and worms.”
Ms Lavers didn’t chance upon a suburban oasis. Instead, such abundance comes from careful planning and design based on the principles of permaculture. The word is a contraction of permanent culture or permanent agriculture. “It’s about creating human environments that provide for our needs without requiring massive inputs of resources or producing a lot of waste,” she says. “It’s common sense, but it’s uncommonly applied: designs and behaviours that can exist generation after generation.”
For example, in her house, a greenhouse outside the back door will serve many uses: a space for seed propagation, mushroom growing and hot climate plants, as well as a sunroom for drying laundry and warming the home in winter.
“For me, permaculture is real sustainability – it’s not just changing a light bulb or using a reusable bag,” Ms Lavers says. “I only started learning about it in 2006. I’ve made a big transition in a short time so I feel like it’s possible for many people to do the same.”
Rick Coleman runs Southern Cross Permaculture Institute in Leongatha. He says there’s nothing complex or mysterious about permaculture. “In a nutshell, it’s sustainable design. It’s like playing chess with life, moving the pieces around so they operate best in your system.” That can mean anything from the smart placement of your garden beds to taking advantage of the way soil stores water.
“Every property has some sort of a slope. If you understand where the water flows, you can slow it down, block it or divert it into certain trees so it all stays on the property,” Mr Coleman says.
Good designs link the needs and functions of different parts of the system. “Chickens are the best example,” he says. “They can do all your composting, clean up food scraps, and provide fertiliser and eggs. If you have two garden beds, the chickens can scratch out all the weeds in one, fertilise the area and eat all the bugs. Then it’s ready for planting and you move them into the other one.”
For now, most suburban blocks produce little and consume a lot. Permaculture not only seeks to reverse that, but also establish stronger local networks – it’s the basis for community building movements such as Transition Towns and Permablitz. “You’re going to produce lots of healthy, home-grown food, consume less power and save your dollars. And you’ll also start integrating into the community,” Mr Coleman says.
“You can start simply. Hand a bag of beans to your next door neighbour, and it’s on.”