Design to Reconnect with Nature

Evidence-Based Design

Evidence now shows that when we reconnect with nature, we become healthier. And, a harmonious lifestyle comes easily when the spaces are well-designed. Designs created with evidence-based research build a better future for people and the planet.

Tobias Volbert shares his passion for inclusive, integrated public spaces the outdoors that are engaging for all ages. Tobias is the founder and spokesperson for the 7senses Foundation. He is a successful urban play landscaper, designing with nature to reconnect people to nature and one another. His team, in consultation with the community, create spaces that have become treasured and celebrated destinations. The spaces are well-loved and vandalism is at record lows.

photo: Robyn Nelson

Unassuming Design

Queensland University of Technology (QUT) is leading research for intergenerational spaces. They view design as a “calculated mix of art and science”. And this mix also works to reconnect us with our environment. QUTs Creating Great Places – Evidence-Based Urban Design for Health and Wellbeing gets the community enjoying nature.

Six Design Theories

Creating Great Places – Evidence-Based Urban Design for Health and Wellbeing champions six theories for design.

  1. Affordance ensures that our design is both aesthetically pleasing and functional. A great space offers cues on how to enjoy using it.
  2. Prospect-Refuge provides opportunities to watch others safely
  3. Personal Space acknowledges different needs for space
  4. Sense of Place connects the space with the broader culture and environment.
  5. Place Attachment accentuates a sense of belonging to a landscape
  6. Biophillic Design provides strong evidence for the psychological and phisological benefits of nature.
Publication by QUT on designing healthy connections with nature

Multi-generational Spaces

Usually, when we go into a park there’s something for everyone but it’s all fragmented. Tobias notes ‘And here’s another thing where I think we can learn so much from permaculture principles’. In permaculture, we value the connections. We seek to integrate components of a design, rather than have each component isolated and unsupported.

Reconnect Playfully in Natural Spaces

To get adults back into the spaces as well we have to make sure it’s playful. ‘The older we get we lose our playfulness’. It is rare for an adult to be seen balancing on a bench or the curb. Unless they work in the circus. Let’s give them a safe space to play a little.

Smale Riverfront Park (photo: Laura Hoevener) Swings for adults and children

Permission to Play

The older we get the less we are welcome in playgrounds. Some play spaces are even fenced off from adults. “If I’m an elderly person and I like to go for a walk. What would be nicer than to have a chat with someone from the young generation?

It’s all about joy of life. They are smiling. Suddenly I smile. Then they ask me ‘what that? ‘It’s the leaf from this kind of tree!’ There is a chance to share. But not so when spaces are fenced off. Our challenge is to create purposeful connections for older people as well and for adults. And to give them freedom to meander through that space.

In this Permaculture design below by A. Sampson-Kelly, the community garden paths are also part of the seating for an amphitheater. The outdoor theatre is a multi-use platform for all ages.

Pathways – The Vital Link

Pathways are really important to get all age groups to experience more green and more blue spaces. Water bodies are tranquil blue spaces. Canopies, embracing green. We also need to include natural shading the experience on the pathways.

Water spout at the top of a ‘gentle place’ where the water flows down the ‘creek’; Imprinted concrete forms part of the sensory path, with hand-carved wooden totems showing Australian flora and fauna.
Source: Our Team | 7 Senses Foundation

Tobias designs secondary and tertiary pathways. He sets up mindfulness walks in the parks. ‘You may end up on a smaller pathway through the park which leads to the playground as well. How beautiful would that be! I have a purpose. It’s not like ‘oh why is this elderly person walking through? He doesn’t have grandkids with him’ let’s design for that – it’s okay!”

“I believe people are fantastic. We need to allow everybody to flower.” Encourage people to freely enter a space. This lets them appreciate nature more. Many appreciate the joy of seeing the kids playing in a dry creek bed, finding little animals. We get to share their enthusiasm. As a result, we adults get excited about nature again.

Building with Cob is playful at any age

Now is the Time to Reconnect

‘In my 20s and I did all my permaculture studies on a spiritual level. I was much more connected to nature, to earth, and finding purpose on this planet. Then suddenly, yeah, you start your profession’. We have to make money. We have kids there’s more pressure. And then we have a lot of roles. We are a husband, a father, a friend, a colleague, or boss. We lose our connection with nature.

‘As we age, we can lose our connection to nature. But the youth help us reconnect’

Many permaculture gardens and community gardens serve only one function. But Northey street gardens in Brisbane is a beautiful example of function and aesthetic. It is an intergenerational space that reconnects people with nature.

Northey Street City Farm (@northeystreet) | Twitter
Northey Street community garden welcomes children

But a lot of our community gardens fit only one purpose. We raise, harvest, and tend veggies. Nothing is playful. Control overrules play.

Tobias asks: ‘why not having play activities there? Grandkids would love hanging out there. Because they can swing from trees, talk to elderly people, and asking about the food. ‘Let’s be more creative in our designs.’

It’s about the layers that we apply to a space. We need beauty and function. However, as the designer, we need to step back, take a breath, and ask “did I really look at the sense of place? what else can we achieve? How do we use different layers for all generations?

image from Kompan supplier of play equipment:

Using Layers

‘To be quite honest a child doesn’t care if the spinner looks like a compass or a pirate ship. At the end of the day, the child just wants to spin on it. But providing other layers of information we build more uses. For example, When a spinner (a spinning seat) has an additional layer of information such as an arrow on the ground, it turns into a giant compass. The spinner becomes a guide for direction. A range of new uses appear. And, the game has evolved.

Tobias and his team provide a range of clues about the wider environment. One clue is a living history installation. For instance, information about the indigenous vegetation that grew there is a passive clue that many uses enjoy. ‘A lot of people like that. But if they’re not interested, it doesn’t hurt’. All these clues and stimulations are in there to offer layers of engagement. Every space we design has underlayers designed in it.

“My passion is inclusivity”

Tobias Volbert

Reconnect For Sensory Health

Nowadays, one in eighty people has autism. Also one and twenty have sensory processing disorder. The demographic change shows we have people with dementia we have so many more with sensory high needs in our society. We don’t understand that. Let’s invite health professionals to be part of the design process. Through collaboration, we develop and design spaces that are truly inclusive, truly sustainable. And we build the big vision like permaculture has to have a permanent culture – to have something that grows.

Design the Framework to Reconnect Our Community

The design is not a finished product. It is a start. It is the framework, allowing us to evolve.

As the number of people involved builds, their attachment grows. As a result, there is less vandalism and more community use.

‘Robin Francis did an amazing job there at her village in Nimbin NSW because the people really did buy-in. She got international people coming there, a lot of them never left! Because they felt like part of that community and belonging in there. They came to reconnect.’ recalls Tobias

We now know to get the community involved early in the process. And let them be part of that journey. Then we create something truly purposeful.

Learn more about Permaculture design with us at PermacultureVisions

Oh! For The Love Of Soil

For the love of Soils

Soil animal life is key to sustainability. Professor Stuart Hill redesigns all food production systems to support natural cycles.

Knee-deep in bat guano, Stuart dropped his dream of being a marine biologist swimming in tropical waters. He had met Micridium hilli. Since that day, he has lived in service of miniature soil animals and is still in love with them. But why should we care about soil animals? How can such tiny creatures be the key to sustainability? Stuart throws this tiny but mighty gauntlet at our feet, challenging everyone, including those who practice Permaculture.

“I was pretty horrified because I was in a faculty of agriculture at McGill University and they talked about soils without actually talking about the life in the soil. I said to them ‘you need to include stuff on the life in the soil it’s not a dead system – it’s a living system’

Soil Animal Lessons in Underground World

Early on, organic farming and permaculture, and sustainable agriculture was touted in his lectures about soil ecology. Talking about sustainability was academically radical. But the rebellious, long-haired open-minded students took to soil animal ecology and pioneered sustainable ecological agriculture.

During the 70s, Stuart became fascinated with soil, writing papers. Stuarted created a ‘key’ for the main groups of insects living in soil. These soil animals are mostly the immatures of insects, the babes of the above-ground world. This was a fertile period of discovery for many soil-animal academics.

An early understanding of the food web within the compost pile – supplied by Stuart Hill

Why should We Care about Soil?

We need to care about soils for a number of reasons. First of all, the soil is the source of our food. Soil also supports all the other species on land that we share on the planet. It has a vital role. Agriculture is increasingly industrialised. For many, agriculture is simply a production and consumption system based on nutrients, fuel and numbers. On the other hand, sustainable agriculture needs to be a system of production, consumption then recycle.

Simply put, the waste from the production and consumption must go back to the soil. Then is decomposed to provide nutrients for the next lot of plants for our consumption.

Our lack of understanding of cycles in nature has led to a shocking degradation of soil. In our ignorance humanity has harvested produce off the land and then dumped it. We have also trucked in nutrients instead of encouraging natural renewal of nutrients.

Whereas, we must recycle waste. The trucks that took the food to market, need to cart the waste back to the land. All decomposable waste is needed back on the land. Appreciation of cycles in nature is vital. Following this, how do we enable the decomposition and recycling processes, to enable the sustainability of that system?

A Fresh Start

We can foster a deeper understanding of our soil. Stuart urges us to think of this understanding in a similar fashion to our relationship with humans. Forming a relationship with another human requires us to spend some time with them, observe and listen to them. And possibly carrying out small non-intrusive meaningful experiments. And so it is with soil. We need to spend time in the soil.

The Rich Underworld

Last century we got excited about finding life on the moon or on another planet. But, we hardly had any understanding of life under the soil. So, incensed by this ignorance, Howard Ensign Evans named his book Life on a little known planet.

Painting called ‘The Gleaners’ By Jean-François Millet – CgHjAgexUzNOOw at Google Cultural Institute, Public Domain,

Looking out on a landscape, we see cows and wildlife, trees and fields of flowers. However, the amount of biomass and diversity above ground is merely a fraction of the biomass and diversity under the ground. Most of the organisms are invisibly small. Except for the fungi. Some fungi grow as big as the forests and they often extend across the forest and enable communication between plants.

Luckily, this amazing world of microbiological life underground is being managed by the animals in the soil.

Yet, humanity has only recently progressed from a physical and chemical understanding of soil to more of a microbiological understanding. Even microbiology understanding is still scratching the surface. There are a lot more soil microbiologists compared to the amount of soil animal ecologists.

Fortunately, the soil animal ecologists have sought a deeper understanding of the soil. This is because the organisms they study are the ones that are essentially managing that soil system. So, catering to the needs of the animals in the soil builds soil sustainability. In particular, we need to cater to small animals like mites and springtails and small insects and all their relatives.

Soil Animal Dwellings

Soil animals like three types of housing spaces. First up, some like the particles (inorganic and dead organic matter). Others are aquatic organisms particularly protozoa and nematodes love the water film around the particles. Finally, the third zone is the spaces between the wet particles. Here live the microarthropods and their relatives and they’re wandering around up to their knees in water.

Soil Animal Food

The aquatic animals are primarily feeding on bacteria. On the other hand, the creatures in the airy spaces feed primarily on fungi. Fungi grows as a result of the decomposition of organic matter. These creatures browse fungi in the same way as cows, sheep and kangaroos graze.

Soil Animals are Accidental Farmers

These creatures have been farming fungi for millions of years. When we look at a leaf, we see it broken down by a succession of different fungi and bacteria. In particular, the fungi produce spores as well as hyphae. Browsing on the solid part of the fungi are mites, springtails and their relatives.


Each of those different species has a different food preference. As a result, they not only preferentially feed on different food species but they ‘farm’ those different species. They browse on the fungi, eating the hypha and the spores as they nurture and distribute future food products.

Soil Animal collects and distribute ‘seed’

Unlike us, they have a mucus lining to the gut that extends outside called the peritrophic membrane. When they eat the hypae their membrane wraps the poop into a little package. These soil animals digest part of the hypha, like the stalk, but don’t digest the spore. Consequently, the spore lives on to produce more fungi of this preferred species.

The foods they prefer are farmed effortlessly. As the soil animals wander around, pooping, they leave little bits of potting soil with the hyphae and spores.

Speciality Jackets on Soil Animal Harvests Spores

The soil animals distribute spores. Their bodies are covered in designer hairs that target, harvest and distribute spores of their favourite foods. These hairs are highly complex. They’re not just straight and pointy. The speciality hairs pick up the spores of the species they prefer to feed on and distribute them without effort.

This two-fold process allows them to effortlessly distribute spores of their favourite food source. It’s a highly complex system. There will be several dozen species of mites and springtails doing this. Each distributing different spores. Each producing fungi which is needed for the proper decomposition of the organic matter in the soil.

So the key to maintaining soil is returning organic matter, the habitat for soil animals, to the soil. This also enables the fungi to have some food. Furthermore, there is food available further up the food chain. The microarthropods get to have some food and this enables them to carry out their beneficial functions. Above all, the predators get a feed. These include ferocious mites, pseudo-scorpions, and centipedes.

Atop of a Fascinating World

“Most people who study agriculture have no idea about these things. And most people in the general population have no idea. Sustainability really means maintenance of life enabling systems. The main life enabling systems…are the aquatic systems and, more importantly, the soil system.” says Stuart Hill

Micridium hilli – possibly worlds smallest beetle

Meet Micridium hilli

Micridium hilli is the Ptillid beetle Stuart discovered in the bat guano during the late 60s, whilst doing his Ph.D. It is probably the smallest beetle in the world. It lives at the edge in the cave between the fruit bat guano and the insectivorous bat guano. This is an interesting phenomonae, particularly in relation to permaculture. One of the aspects making permaculture particularly effective is that it’s a design process that creates fertile edges. So, instead of having a field of all one species, we develop a whole complexity. Complex edges reduce pests and increase decomposition in Permaculture systems.

Soil Animal Kingdom Complex

Complexity is really important in managing the soil. For example, when watering a row of plants it’s really important to only water on one side at a time. So, one side is a bit drier. This enables the life in the soil to choose where to go. This was discovered in sewage systems. where rotating sprays failed intermittently. “We often learn things through mistakes” Stuart remarks.

Listening to Nature

Overruling of living productive systems by engineers has been the downfall of a lot of these systems. The engineer seeks to create a uniform system. But biological systems functions better when it’s a variable system in time and space. You see this particularly in chicken houses. The strategy once was to create uniform temperatures and lighting conditions for the chickens. However, chickens lay more eggs when the light comes on and off and the temperature goes up and down. We are slowly understanding wisdoms of nature.

From Despair to Action

What can an individual do to encourage agriculture to change? Stuart was horrified when he first went to Canada. He saw vast areas of uniform landscape in the prairies, vast fields of wheat. And found the same in America with corn. A study showed we’d lost 60 percent of the organic matter over the previous 30 years. The value of that loss was multiple times the value of the national debt. People worried about the debt but not about the loss of organic matter in the soil.

Farmers and graziers across the prairies were puzzled. They were paid according to how much they could pull off the land. They weren’t paid anything for the maintenance of the system. That’s the challenge facing agriculture. How to find a way to pay for maintenance of the ecology. Consumers complain that it’s more expensive to buy organic food. But they are actually paying for ecological maintenance. Today, consumers of organic produce think “it’s better for my health and I think it’s better for the environment. This is the beginning of a culture willing to pay for maintenance functions. This behavior needs to expand to build sustainability. We’ve got to pay for maintenance.


Redesign for Real Sustainability

In later years, Stuart grew to appreciate psychology and psycho sociology. In all these areas he developed a process of change. He is interested in cultural change to bring about real sustainability. Most change in society was reactive. It is a type of patching up, curative change. This type of change merely enables the existing system to be perpetuated. What he realized is a fundamental change is required.

Redesigning how we do things is a proactive front-end approach. It is multifaceted. Unlike the reactive classic approach with a single solution: a magic bullet.

And this is the same today with sustainability. There are people saying we just need to put solar collectors on our roof. Or we need to have access to gas as an interim energy source. Or we simply need to recycle our wastes and so forth.

But actually, a whole redesign of the system is required. That’s why permaculture is so interesting to Stuart Hill.

Learn more with us today.

Giving the Gift

Chicka Donna and Angels pleased grateful for the egg

Treasuring People and Planet

One gift flows from many intentions. After all, a gift acknowledges the other and acts as a physical reminder of the social connection. But your gift doesn’t have to cost the earth. Even better, give something joyous both for the receiver and their environment.

“When we experience ourselves as givers,
we receive a deep and enduring affirmation of our value to others.”

Brett Steenbarger FORBES
Instrument craftsman in Peru playing wooden flute
Locally handcrafted gifts give three-ways
They give joy to 1. your loved one 2. to your Environment and 3. to the artist and their economy.

Make It Personal

Giving a gift has the power to tell someone “I value you and I know what you like”. The purpose of giving is to enrich the bond. In truth, giving is not so much about the value of the gift. It is more likely that the gift expresses how much you value the relationship. How can we give a gift that reflects what we know they like and not put demands on the planet? One of the safest bets is a paper book about their favourite topic. Ultimately, presents such as books are often reused and in their final stage, they will decompose.

Sustainable Gifts

Recycled Birdcage with a wicking garden
Our Recycled Birdcage with Garden
  • Valuable antiques preserve and honour of the craftmanship. These items will be loved again and again. Antiques are both valuable and durable. They have character and are rare. Even more so, they can an intriguing life-story and the recipient becomes part of the next chapter of the story. There are many amazing pieces of history that need a good home, to be dusted, polished, and treasured again. We don’t need to buy anything new when there is so much stuff from the past crying for understanding and care.
  • Fossils and other historic items need care, you can give these to a friend who will exhibit and value them or you could give a gift of membership to your local museum.
Fossils are treasures
  • Handmade jewellery. For example, Columbia girl makes jewellery is from dried fruits and fruit peel.
  • Handbag or shoe decorations or tags made from nature
  • Bookmarks or spectacle holders made from a recycled necklace

Memorable Experiences

  • Tickets to a museum or for a show (there’s little wrapping or waste, simply pop it in a hand-made card). Incidentally, this is a great last-minute gift.
  • Hire a ride in a vintage car, this is especially good for people who need a special outing but can’t go out for a long period.
  • Photos from their childhood, family members, and travels look great when presented as a small non-plastic poster or collage.
Handmade bespoke earrings at the MONA
  • Hand-made photo frames
  • A real razor blade, not a disposable one.
  • A hamper of luxurious essentials such as under-arm de-odorizing rock salt crystal or natural perfume oils
  • Hiking socks and hikers wool are great for preventing blisters
  • Handkerchiefs or cloth serviettes instead of paper tissues. These are amazingly good finds in the op-shops and markets – You can find some still in their packaging and of very fine quality linen.
  • A silk pillowcase to prevent hair from getting knotty in bed
  • A silk eye pillow with dried herbs and calming oils
  • A basket of homemade ecologically sound cleansers.
  • Cosmetics and toiletries made from natural ingredients and not tested on animals.
  • Their favourite home-cooked meal frozen in a glass resealable serving dish, ready for a weary day. Include the recipe in a card.
  • Food says I love you especially when it is their favourite food
  • A hand made scarf/bow/tie or cloth jewelry bag.
  • A hand-made musical instrument or clothing
Jabuticaba - a decorative shrub with yummy fruits for a gift
Jabuticaba – a decorative shrub with yummy fruits

Homely Gifts

  • A live potted Christmas tree, that can be planted out after Christmas. This could be a native pine. Alternatively you could pot up a large chilli plant full of chillis (for a Summer Christmas – southern hemisphere). Why not dress up a shrub that is full of flowers such as a rose (to make rose syrup and other delicacies)?
  • Homemade preserves and chilli sauces
  • A Packet/s of seeds. OR make a surprise packet out of mixed seeds (check they are all edible in case they are mistaken)
  • Subscription to a seed saving group, soft technology magazines, organic gardening magazines, rare fruits association etc.
  • A donation to a charity such as Tear or other like the organisation on the recipient’s behalf.
  • Hand-made compost bay.
  • Worm farm made from found materials. The Potted worm farm looks great with a plant on top and you can water it whenever you pop over.
  • A non-disposable lunch kit with a thermos or drink bottle, lunch box with separate compartments so no wrap is required, cloth serviettes. You can add a few fasteners to make a cloth serviette into a durable, washable wrap
  • A fountain pen and coloured inks
  • A cup to carry everywhere
handmade gift - tree decoration
Handmade Christmas Decoration
  • Cloth nappies and a pledge to help hang them out.
  • Energy-saving equipment
  • An eco-tour or eco-holiday voucher (you can offer to take them on a bush-walk or holiday or their choice)
  • A voucher to an eco-hair salon
  • Durable garden tools
  • Books on organic gardening, composting, herbs and flowers, native species
  • Field guides on birds and local reptiles
  • Solar charger for phone – this is great to take on a hike, in case you get lost!
    Also, include a flint or even a little survival kit
  • A garden pond with optional solar powered fountain
  • A fruit dryer
  • A yoghurt maker
  • Rechargeable batteries with re-charger.
  • A tent and small, efficient camping equipment. To encourage clean bushwalking and adventure.
  • Dried herbs and flowers from your garden and instructions on their use as a tea.
painting of woman with a potted plant gift
Plants are pretty gifts

Natural Gifts

  • Natural wool or angora sweaters, scarves, hats, gloves, socks.
  • Hand-made baskets, natural fibre washing baskets, paper waste containers, pot plant containers, picnic baskets.
  • Canvas, string or cane shopping bags, ham bag.  Retrofit a supermarket cloth bag with a favourite fabric pocket sewn over the logo as well as a bit of elastic inside. These bags are often too wide and floppy.
  • Potted kitchen herbs in organic potting mix (you could make this yourself).
  • Edible house plants such as sugar cane for hot spots, mint, shallots, monstera vine.
sprouting jar and seeds - a homely gift
Sprouting Jar
  • Gift voucher for nursery plants or environmental products and courses
  • Beeswax or remade candles.
  • Homemade preserves.
  • Hand-painted recycled glassware.
  • Organic Christmas Cake or other special treat.
  • A homemade Christmas wreath of grapevine and other home grown materials.
  • Blankets (cotton or wool) suitable for the lounge and living areas.
  • recycled material turned into Cloth kitchen washers/cloths/ car washers etc. You can simply cut and hem the edges. Young Dark Emu - great gift
Young Dark Emu – Great gift for children, science and history


Children today are wanting action. Not only do they like action toys, but they also want climate action. Give them less plastic and a cleaner world.

  • Redeemed toys (repainted bicycle, trike, scooter, rocking horse). Use safe paints, preferably organic paint products. These items could be antiques but beware of the toxicity of old paints and any loose parts.
  • Homemade cushions and bean bags with environmentally friendly safe stuffing.
  • A wooden loom and natural fabrics for weaving.
  • A dolls or action figures tent made of recycled fabrics and stakes.
  • Science and Environmental History books such as Young Dark Emu
  • A homemade backyard swing or tree house, a rope climbing apparatus
  • A small gardening kit, tools, and seeds
  • Wooden or cane furniture.
  • seeds for novelty plants such as giant pumpkins.
  • Roller skates or bicycles to encourage energy efficient travel.
  • Recycled or re-used paper fastened as a book.
  • Craft books
  • Weather-proof boots
  • Be wary of giving Pets. Check that the parents want one. Hens, Guinea pigs or Rabbit in hutch will help to mow the lawn
Antique music machine

Re-useable Wraps

Have you noticed how much the packaging is enticing? Some children would rather play with the cardboard box rather than the toy inside. Wrapping doesn’t have to be ripped apart and strewn all over the floor. Start a new tradition of beautiful wrapping that is also part of the gift. Here are some beautiful wrapping ideas:

A Sari is a great wrap for large presents. It can be worn as a dress (it doesn't need sizing) and can be used as a curtain, a tablecloth and much more
Multipurpose Saris and scarves make wonderful gift wraps

Wrap gifts in Re-useable materials

  • Children’s Artworks
  • unused photocopied music scores
  • Material Shopping bags
  • Beach towel
  • Tea towels
  • Hand towel or handkerchief
  • Biodegradable (linen or cotton) tablecloths
  • Sari
  • Beach wrap
  • Scarf
  • Beach towel
  • Picnic rug
  • Natural Fibre placemats ie. Bamboo
A famous antique pearl earring - great gift

When the Festivity has Passed

Feasting Without Waste

Eventually, the time comes to start clearing up and the environment is often burdened. On an average day, in the western world, one-third of all the food grown is simply thrown out. Additionally, the wastage compounds at times of feasting and merriness. At these times, the food wastage dramatically increases. There are, however, simple ways to reduce waste and provide plenty of healthy and delicious meals.

  • Plan your menu
  • Write a Shopping list
  • Measure your serving sizes or let people serve themselves
  • Store Food Correctly
  • Upstyle the leftovers turning them into curries, pies, lasagne, and sauces.
  • Feed old leftovers to your chickens, the worm farm or soldier-fly farm.
Giant pumpkins – a popular novel hobby.

Super Trees – How Great Can They Get?


Feeling powerless right now? Go hug a super tree. Feeling like doing something positive? Go plant a tree. Want to work out where is the best placement? Do our Permaculture Course. Every tree is a complex organism. It works all its life to provide clean air, healthy soil and a diverse community. But even more amazing, meet the trees with superpowers.

A ‘Super-tree’ produces flammable nuts, has leaves that can burn wet, produces abundant fruit, supports a web of life, grows large enough to live in, provides timber that never rots, survives thousands of years, supports a wild-life of fungi underground, and holds steep slopes on mighty mountains. Many can regulate the temperature around them by moving liquids up and down the trunk, dropping leaves, and expiring vapours to cool the air. Remarkably, some trees can communicate through their root systems for miles underground. Mature trees can even send out warnings and protective chemicals to protect younger trees.

Special Tree Powers

Trees provide Fuel, Food, Oils, Forage, Structural, Conservation, Carbon sequestration, Soil managers, animal barriers, and Fungal & Microbial habitats.

1. Energy

You don’t have chop a tree to get fuel. Solid fuel from trees sometimes falls naturally. The windfalls include flammable leaves, cones, nuts, fallen branches, harvested sap, and resin

David Holmgren writes that solid fuels are the most useful energy resource globally. We can plan for their harvest, they are easy to cut, require little training to use, convert easily to energy, are hard to steal or vandalise, and renew themselves.

a Chinese kang uses small twigs to cook food and heat the bed
The efficient Kang uses small windfall twigs to cook food and heat the bed in the next room.
Rocket stoves and gasifiers also use windfalls rather than lumbar.

Eucalyptus leaves have the power to burn whilst wet. Even more amazing, diesel and petroleum trees have nuts that burn like candles. Meet the Brazilian tropical rainforest tree Copaifera langsdorffii commonly known as Capaiba (Tupi Indian word cupa-yba). It is several powers. This ‘diesel tree’ is also a soil-enhancing legume. The resin is tapped sustainably like maple trees. Another, Pittosporum resiniferum, provides a form of n-Heptane.

In the end, most trees produce woody material suitable for the generation of BioGas fuel. This means alternative wood-based fuel is available without killing trees. Coppice or pollard instead of felling.

2. Food

Malay apple - giant lillypilly
Giant Lillypilly – Malay Apples

More than 80% of the world’s food species came from the rainforest. Fruits, nuts, tea, coffee, chocolate and alcohols such as cider come from the bounty of trees.

The permaculture food forest usually intercrops fruit and layers of nut trees. We use strong food trees to support vine crops and short-lived trees act as nurse trees to maturing species. Tall evergreen trees are positioned in the shaded corner of the orchard and often used as wind-breaks.

3. Oils

Herbal, medicinal, culinary and cosmetic oils come from trees. These include Eucalyptus, Pine, Olive, Avocado, Walnut, Pecan, Almond, Cashew, Macadamia, Frankincense and Myrrh and Neem.

Teatree is a hard-working fungicide (ok, it’s a shrub but deserves a mention.) Coconuts are not really trees either but they are tall, fragrant, yummy and an excellent make-up remover.

Furthermore, tree oils such as Tungoil (Vernicia fordii) when mixed with the natural cleaner and thinner Limonene (oil of citrus fruit peels) is a beautiful floor polish and useful for coating and preserving woodwork.

4. Forage

Fodder is an excellent food for grazing animals. The art of fodder planting almost forgotten conventional farming. Many trees provide excellent, nutritious fodder for animals. Fodder from trees is available during dry years. Fodder trees can be grown as living fences,(applied at Avonstour) hedges or as shade trees in the corners of paddocks. The tree roots can extend deep into subsoil, mining minerals that grasses may not reach.

Cattle browse and shelter beside fodder trees. Their manure is happily filtered by the abundant layers of forest shrubbery and leaf litter beneath. Forage Examples include: Oak, Poplar, Acacia aneura (Mulga), Albizia Julibrissa (Leguminous, deciduous, fast growing, regenerates) Dodnaea viscosa (Hop bush).

Above all, fodder trees provide food, shade, windbreak, pollution filter and living fences. Forage Examples include Oak, Poplar, Acacia aneura (Mulga), Albizia Julibrissa (Leguminous, deciduousfast growing, regenerates) and Dodnaea viscosa (Hop bush). Better still, plant a guild of native trees to support wildlife and local fungi.

This Boab tree has a front door. Australia has few deciduous native trees. The Boab has multiple uses. It is long-lived, deciduous and stores water through dry seasons. It is also medicinal and most parts are edible including the powder in the seedpods and the yummy fruit.

5. Structural Trees and Timber

Hay fork made from tree branch

Many trees grew large enough to shelter a traveller. Plato wrote about trees in his homeland, Greece, that were too big to put his arms around. Few large trees remain there. Shipbuilding claimed most of the great trees of Plato’s era. But still today, trees war and poverty continue to destroy trees.

Throughout the eras, material from trees has provided us with complete houses (roof shingles, frames, and plastered wattle walls), canoes, ships, furniture, garden tools, the first cars, musical instruments, cricket bats, rainboots, clothing (silk, rayon, viscose) and much more.

6. Wildlife Habitat – Our Bank of Genetic Capital

The conservation of wildlife habitats makes good economic sense as well as ethical sense. Healthy forests as a bank of diverse genetic material. Most of the plants, insects have not yet named. Their potential lies undiscovered. Surviving forests require nothing from mankind except respect. They are a self-supporting bank of unknown resources.

Humanity may be able to create clean air, water, soil, and mine more nutrients. But we can’t recreate genetic material.

If, and when, we did discover how to recreate genetic material, a lot of creativity, science, and energy would need to be invested. It is cheaper to safeguard the genetic material existing today.

Flowers grow on the slender tall trunk of Davidson's Plum  a recently discovered bush tucker superfood
Davidson Plum – a recently discovered superfood

7. Carbon Sequestration

holding a seedpod. These illawarra flame trees are sprouting out of a single pod.
Self replicating resource

Trees are the cheap. They work day and night as long-term storage units soaking up excess carbon. They help mitigate or defer global warming and slow climate change. But recent research is showing that some trees are hitting their limit of absorption. This startling situation demonstrates we need more trees to combat the growing climate crisis.

Long-living trees are excellent guardians of carbon. Many trees live thousands of years (including olives) however, clonal colonies of trees have the potential to be immortal.

The oldest known clonal tree is Pando, an 80,000-year-old colony of Quaking Aspen. Unfortunately, the tree releases sequestered carbon when it dies. So, we need long-living self-replicating plants.

8. Soil Management

Trees hold the banks of steep slopes, trap centuries of silt, create their own rain and micro-climate. Forests release particles that seed the clouds to help make rain. In the garden, this process of soil enrichment can be accelerated with Huglekultur, Synergistic gardening, and Biochar.

Garden Mounds with Wood

Austrian, Sepp Holzer, pioneered Huglekultur for raised beds. The wood in the base of Huglekultur mounds holds moisture, builds fertility, adds height. This provides more surface area for intensive gardens growing vegetables and herbs. Similarly, Synergistic garden mounds, developed first by Emilia Hazslip, can also incorporate wood. Position mounds to harvest rainwater, deflect frost, create various microclimates, and slowly move the water through the system.

Schumaker College has raised garden mounds as pioneered by Emilia Hazelip

Soil Enrichment with Wood By-products

Biochar, formerly known as Terra preta, is low temperature-carbonized biomass commonly made trees. For thousands of years, it has been the lifeblood of native south-American intensive agriculture. They convert lumbar into a habitat for the accelerated growth of soil micro-organisms. Activated charcoal also sequesters carbon.

Biochar can be made as a by-product of heating the home. We make biochar in our fuel stove using a loose lidded container inside the firebox or by covering the flames with ash before going to bed. Ash from the fire is separated from the charcoal. We turn the charcoal into biochar by crushing it in a bag when cool then adding it to the compost toilet mass.

Ash is another value byproduct. It is an excellent source of insulation material. Or it can provide valuable nutrients and pH modification to garden beds and poultry house floors.

9. Animal Barrier Systems

Hedging is natural fencing and
habitat for natural pest controllers

Hedges are the strongest, longest-lasting, and most durable fences. Nature is free and choatic. But not all hedges need to look messy. In fact, when the edges are neat, most people think the garden looks tidy. Few people look inside a hedge. Behind the scenes, diversity thrives.

Hedges can be trimmed to sit up off the ground, allowing small creatures to pass underneath but block out larger animals, people, and cars.

Hedging in England is an art form, with quirky regional variations. In Dartmoor, the trunks of young trees are half-cut and pushed horizontally. Similarly, each sapling gets half-cut and tipped onto the previous sapling. In time, the side branches start to grow upright. This method makes a thick and durable fence providing habitat for wildlife such as insect-hungry birds.

10. Fungi and Microbes

Incubation converts tree sugars into energy. Paul Stamets shows how mushrooms can save the world by providing a usable energy source for domestic and commercial systems.

Lichen and Moss on a chainsawed tree in the exquisite Tarkine forest NW Tasmania
our top trees: mulberry, fig, limes and lemons, guava, bananas (actually a tall grass), Grape vine (hangs in the macadamia trees, Hibiscus, tea tree (these are just shrubs but big in our eyes, lemon and aniseed myrtle. (excellent tea)
Our top ‘trees. ok, they aren’t all trees, but they are big enough to win our praise.

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