Rebuilding Community with a Garden

Email us here or directly to permaculture.visions.net@gmail.com Playful image of Smoke signals asking questions. Illustrated by A Sampson-Kelly

Community gardens are a fantastic way to enrich community health, food security, and forge positive relationships. They also empower, upskill, and foster inclusivity. Through the act of shared care we develop social skills and pioneer gentle conflict resolution.

All around the world, from remote towns to highly-populated cities hide buzzing pockets of community gardens. Permaculture design thinking enriching these structures by applying both physical design tools as well as the principle of care of people. Overall, the best approach for community projects like these is to always act with kindness.

Jill Cockram coordinator for Mossvale Community Garden NSW Australia

10 Tips for Starting a Successful Community Garden

  1. Build Support

Successful community gardens usually have a small, but committed team. Long before you start designing the growing space, build a supportive social network of like-minded folk. Luckily, there are many old hands and spades of advice from community garden associations.

Discover the diversity of skills in your team. Some people will have skills in marketing, fundraising, or seed-saving and composting. By learning from one another, skills are transferred to others and this reduces the risk of burn-out whilst increasing the resilience of the whole group.

Remember to keep everyone well informed so they have the chance to contribute, and celebrate the milestones.

Consulting builds relationships and community resilience
Consulting builds relationships and community resilience
  1. Gather Ideas

Community gardens can take on many different shapes but all need access to sunlight and water. Now that you have the support to make this dream a reality, brainstorm what you want it to look like. How big will the grow space be? How will inputs and harvests be handled? Where will infrastructure like communal gatherings, classes, shed and facilities work best? Gathering this information will help to build your group design.

  1. Check the Paperwork

Paperwork isn’t fun, but it’s necessary. You’ll want protection in case someone gets injured while in the garden or distributing food. Look for insurance options provided by parent organisations.

If you don’t want to do all the start-up paperwork, join a nearby community garden that would benefit with your support.

Put Down Roots

  1. Find a Space

Finding the physical space for the community garden might be the most challenging step. Thankfully, you can start a garden in all sorts of environments, from backyards to abandoned lots. Not all community gardens are formally contracted. Some are on private land, generously supplied by a friendly benefactor. Some may be simply on a space owned by a small group of neighbours with a common boundary.

On the other hand, if you plan to lease the space, opt for a contract that runs at least three years. Because many plant varieties take several years to establish. You don’t want all of your hard work to go to waste if you have to relocate in a hurry.

However, don’t despair, relocatable gardens are also possible as long as you factor this into the design.

  1. Recruit Members

Now that you and your team have a vision, it’s time to enlist help from your community! Reach out to schools, hospitals, clubs, and other organizations to see if anyone is interested in getting involved. In addition, be sure to list the benefits and potential member requirements.

Permaculture Sydney Institute PDC design student delivering the group design
Designing the garden for multi-use, minimal impact and optimal use of natural resources

Permaculture Design Boosts Plans

  1. Plan and Design

Firstly, design to optimise the space for shared resources. Instead of everyone having separate plots, separate goals, aim for healthy conversations, and a shared vision.

Community gardens that share the work and harvest have a far greater total yield. Shared spaces build conversations and deeper cultural understanding.

Then, consult the users in the development of the design. Productive designs fit the landscape shape to make use of gravity and natural resources. Moreso, adaptable design encourages ownership and expertise from the users.

Design for multi-use community garden space

Set Meaningful Goals Rather than Olympic Dreams

  1. Meaningful Goals

What do you want to achieve from this venture? What role will the community play in creating resilience in your area? Listening to the concerns of the project members, the wider community and surrounding neighbours fulfills both permaculture ethics to care for people and care for the environment.

Stronger Together

  1. Build Relationships

Community gardens are often started by passionate individuals hoping to create a beautiful growing space. However, relationships will grow further by inviting people to enjoy the garden, even if they’re not interested in growing anything. So, keep the space flexible. Design for flexibility to support a range of uses. Open the community garden to complementary programs such as outdoor yoga, children’s camps, music performances, or poetry readings. The design for adaptability broadens the yield.

“The Yield Is Truly Unlimited” Graham Bell

  1. Connect With Partners
Build something to crow about

If we calculate the potential of a project in merely energy terms, the potential yield may look quite limited. But actually, the yield is not just measurable in kilojoules. In truth, a garden yield is not the simple sum of the energy-in subtracted from the energy-out. In fact, biology has explosive potential.

Graham Bell stresses that our yield is unlimited because life has exponential growth.

As a result, the yield from a community garden has the potential to be far greater than the effort invested.

And the social implications are immeasurable.

Furthermore, partnering with local businesses and organizations helps to magnify the yield potential. For example, a local business could regularly supply high-value organic waste (such as coffee grinds from nearby restaurants). Eventually, the community garden requires fewer inputs and the partnering business builds a powerful awareness of the value of their waste. The business owners may decide to use their waste to make an onsite garden.

As a consequence, success grows beyond the walls of the community garden.

Mossvale Community Garden beside tennis courts runs food festivals and farmers markets
Mossvale Community
Garden
  1. Establish New Community Ties

Share your message all around the local area. Let people know there’s a local space where they can grow food and friendships. You may be surprised by how many people want to get involved. If you’re lucky enough to have too much food on your hands, find ways to donate leftovers to vulnerable people.

In the end, community gardens provide healthy food and healthy physical activities. They also offer security and self-reliance in uncertain times. Best of all, these social connections nurture our mental health.

Text Coauthored by Emily Folk

Thanks to contributions from Emily who is passionate about environmental sustainability. More of her work can be found on her site, Conservation Folks, or follow her on Twitter for her latest updates.

Best Permaculture Plants for Beginners

Permaculture Plants Stack into Functional Layers

permaculture plants -Layers of plants in permaculture food forest
Photo by Ace Vu on Unsplash

10 Layers of Permaculture Plants in Food Forest:

Heres a handy list of useful beginner permaculture plants for you to include in your food forest:

  1. Emergent Trees can be existing tall trees on the property, nut trees, and other plants that drop fruit. Select tall trees very carefully because you will not want to climb up to collect the bounty. Good tall species include the rare Davidson plum. Avoid big trees on small sites or in areas where the falling nuts such as a Bunya nut or Eucalpyt branches can be dangerous.
  2. Canopy plants positioned on the sunny side of your home need to be deciduous. Choose fruit and nut trees that don’t block light in winter. They will provide frost deflection and structural support to vines and understory plants below.
  3. Epiphytes include dragon fruit, monstera, and bromeliads such as pineapples. Whilst these are not parasitic, they can weigh a tree down. These provide fruit, trap moisture, and keep the soil organisms fed and watered.
  4. Perennial vines include heavy Grapevine and Kiwi fruit whereas short-lived vines include melons, pumpkins, Choko (Chayote), Basella, and Passionfruit.
  5. Understory trees enjoy shade or the edge of the food forest. Small food trees are less well known in the western world. They include hazelnut, dwarf varieties of apples and citrus, Tamarillo and Coffee. But there is a wide range of lesser know foods such as jabuticaba and walking-stick palm.
  6. Shrubs include perennial Chilli bushes, Blueberries, Raspberries, Tea and a wide range of herb bushes such as sage or verbena.
  7. Herbs and vegetables are well known in the culinary world of the west. They are valuable in reducing soil erosion.
  8. Grasses include asparagus, lemongrass but even banana and bamboo are grasses.
  9. Tubers include potato, kumara (sweet potato), ginger, turmeric and much more.
  10. Fungi include a wide range of mushrooms.
permaculture plants -Monstera Deliciosa
Monstera Deliciosa is beautiful and the fruit tangy and sweet
Photo by Bart Zimny on Unsplash

Starting from scratch?

To get the most joy for your effort, plant a mix of annual and perennial plants. Annual plants will give you joy soon and Perennial plants will surprise you in years to come. Choose foods you know you like and you have seen growing in your neighbour’s gardens. Once you have good water management and some growing skills, branch out into rare food plants.

The most valuable asset is your permaculture design and staging plan. This is created specifically for your food preferences, climate, site aspect, and soil type.

Enhance everything you’ve got. Modifying the landscape to capitalise on natural assets such as rainwater, mulch, and fertiliser will speed up the transition to a food forest. Also, convert all your organic waste into a productive resource.

Ginger: Photo by Eiliv-Sonas Aceron on Unsplash

Did you know? A lot of valuable food plants such as ginger can be grown indoors or in large wicking containers until the soil is improved. Some foods, such as mung bean sprouts, will even grow in a cupboard.

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Growing Food Indoors

A Great Indoor Permaculture Adventure

Growing food indoors is easy, costs very little and gives us immediate health benefits. 

Like most things we do in Permaculture, there are multiple benefits to every action. Growing food indoors cuts our waste and supplies nutritious food. And indoor permaculture also provides opportunities for design practice, mindfulness, and self-reliance. And we can surround ourselves with naturally cleaned air.

Quick Design Tools For Indoor Food Production

Indoor food growing benefits from a these permaculture design principles:  Zoning, Stacking and Mindfulness through Observation.

Indoor Food Zones

When we design a Permaculture project, we set aside zones according to how often we will use something. Items that need a lot of care or provide us with lots of interaction and reward go into Zone 1. The items that don’t need much attention or prefer we ignore them go into the furthest recesses of our space.

Zone 1 – Your Nursery

Rooms with sunlight deserve to be decorated with young plants. The indoor garden ‘nursery’ houses your new seedlings and chitting off-cuts. Growing food indoors is easy if you simply buy plants. However, you can raise a lot of plants without expense by propagating from the foods you buy at the grocery store.

Zone 2 – Shrubbery

Smaller plants include Aloe Vera, spring onions, Peppermint, Ginger, Turmeric, KangKong, Thai Basil, tiny Tomatoes, Chives, Garlic chives (essential for savoury pancakes) and Sweet Potato. Medium size plants include Taro, Monstera Deliciosa and Sugarcane. The easiest plants to grow are those that thrive in muddy water. Sugarcane, Peppermint and spring onions will grow in water.

Position each plant according to how much sunlight it needs. As a general rule, the lighter the leaf of a plant then the more sunlight it needs. Those plants with dark-coloured leaves tolerate shade. 

Zone 3 – ‘Canopy’ Trees

There are some larger plants that thrive indoors. These include Fig, Coffee bushes, Lime tree, Mulberry, Curry Leaf, Banana and Bamboo. Banana plants are quick growing and the leaves are useful to wrap foods. Bamboo is a delightful tea rich in Silicone to make your hair shine. Zone 3 plants need to be back from the window, allowing the littler shrubbery and nursery sufficient access.

Big plants need big pots otherwise the tall plants fall over. However, big pots don’t have to be dragged into the home. Here’s a lighter trick you can use. Keep your larger potted plants in a snug bucket of water and drill a hole in the side of the bucket at the level of the bottom of the pot. There are varieties of wicking pots to try. Wicking pots are heavy because they hold water underneath the suspended potted plant. Additionally, closed wicking pots conserve water and because the water is not open to the air, they do not encourage mosquitos.

Sweet tiny banana grown in Mt Kembla
Sweet tiny banana

Zone 4 – Productive Dark Pockets

Areas in the home that are dark are ideal for ferments, sprouts and mushrooms. South Korea still has tunnels that were used during the war. Each soldier was issued with bean seeds to sprouts whilst they were underground. Luckily, sprouts are more nutritious than the seed by itself

Dark areas can also include an indoor worm farm. However, for good hygiene practices, keep food products such as the mushroom farm in a separate room from waste processing such as Bokashi or worm-farm.

Zone 5 – Keeping a Healthy Wilderness

Dust balls, insects and fungi will still reside in your home. You can still keep the home clean as well as keeping it green. The easiest way to remove bugs is by vacuuming. If you need to spray pests, use Methylated spirits. On the whole, there are fewer pests on indoor plants than outdoors plants. The key to good pest control is diversity. Have a wide variety of plants and avoid monocropping.

Stacking

Stacking your potted plants is a great way to save space and water. Simply put small pots on the surface of larger pots. The smaller pots can drain into the bigger pot, and provide some cooling mulch. The little pots will also enjoy the lift, getting closer to any natural light. If you only have a high window, you can hang pots. As the plant grows you slowly lower the pot. This is particularly useful for growing vines such as grapevine.

Stacking is a utilised in our indoor worm-farm. The upper level is a potted herb, the next level down contains the worm farm. At the bottom is a reservoir holding the fertilised water.

Mindfulness and Mental Vigour

The act of caring for something (such as our favourite food plant) improves our mental well being. Seeing the progress of our seeds is a slow yet rewarding mindful exercise.

Best of all, an indoor plant is a gentle reminder of our own need for natural light and regular water. When the plant is happy, the conditions are better for us too.

Design For Catastrophe – FIRE

Dragon of climate change

Building Your Resilient Paradise

We have unprecedented fires raging across Australia. So, we are pioneering new methods of disaster preparation and re-discovering the wisdom of the elders.

Our first priority is to redesign communities and their gardens for safer shelter for all living creatures. Secondly, design to retard embers, absorb the radiation and protect water supplies. Thirdly, find ways to quickly restore food, water and habitat. Ultimately, we create a better design.

If you are planning to build a new home, stop everything now. Above all, design it to be disaster-proof. Set it well into the landscape, have a safe bunker and angle the roofline so embers can fly over and not get trapped.

Re-design your garden to withstand drought, repel heat and store water. Naturally hydrated soils are more resilient to disasters such as drought, flood and fire.

Shock often stuns us into inaction. Design a better future.
You can change your impact starting from today.

Preparation Helps Us Stay Sane

When we design for the worst, we actually reduce anxiety and get to live in a state of pleasant surprise.

Reduce anxiety by planning for the worst outcome. A design for harsh times doesn't mean we must be constantly negative about the future.
Reduce anxiety by design

Deeper Understanding = Better Preparation

Past catastrophes have taught us some methods of preparedness, but not everything. Last year was the hottest year on record for many countries. We are playing by new rules. This is not the new normal, this is a rude start to a big climate shift.

bureau-of-meteorology-chart-shows-how-temperatures-soared this prompts us to design for a cooler future
https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-01-14/bureau-of-meteorology-chart-shows-how-temperatures-soared/11857404

Recent wildfires have set new design rules. These wildfires didn’t come from one direction like a wave of flames. They behaved more like storm clouds: tilting trees, turning them into flame throwers hotter than 1200k. Moreover, fire tornadoes known as Pyrocumulonimbus, shot live embers more than 30km ahead.

Combination of Threats

The Four threats during a fire emergency: Flames, Smoke, Heat and Noise

Ember attack, strong winds, thick smoke, severe heat and deafening noise combine to limit responses during a catastrophic wildfire. Burning roads and fallen trees trap people as they try to leave. In past years, some people have saved their homes by staying to put out the embers after the fire has passed. The intensity of recent fires has shown this to be dangerous unless you have a fire-proof bunker that meets the standard. In addition to the bunker you need enough oxygen, water, masks, food and the nerve to stay.

In fact, you will need food and water for days. The power will be down and you will probably have wildlife to tend and feed on your limited supplies. Best of all, be ready to share your limited resources with that neighbour who rarely talked to you.

Prepare to share your bunker with all your neighbours, pets and rescued wildlife
Get ready to share your safety plans

“Sergeant Shenton described driving through “8 kilometres of inferno” as he tried to make his way out on local roads “with 30 metres of flames on both sides of me. It was just a very poor decision to stay and I would never stay again.”

Prevention is always better than cure. Design a safer future.

Pebbles, a family cat in Buchan Victoria, sheltered in the outdoor pizza oven. His whiskers burnt, but he survived.

The combination of threats are met with targeted actions ranging from containment (in soil-wicking) through to shielding (inflammable thermal mass) and filters (for noise and ash)
Prepare. Alleviate. Recover. Targeted actions ranging from containment (in soil-wicking) through to shielding (inflammable thermal mass) and filters (for noise and ash)

Prepare Then Go

The traditional firebreak is not enough. At a minimum, we need to seal the building completely so no embers can get in. Firstly, the weakest points of a building are the roof and cavities underneath, especially under a wooden verandah. Secondly, shield the house from the intense radiation of the fire using either dense materials (big standing stones), rock walls or reflective shields (foil).

Model of Adobe and Pitt Homes in Mesa Verde
Model of ancient Adobe Homes – well insulated, fire resistant and made with earth. [Mesa Verde National Park]

Fireproof materials include simple materials such as earth. Fire proof homes fit the landscape to hide from the fire.

"The Fire Torment" by A Sampson-Kelly
Termites know how to build for cooling and fire-protection

Putting this knowledge together, we see a recurring theme: design with knowledge of the landscape.

Design Link

There is design link between passive housing, earthship technology and permaculture design practice. Passive housing insulates the home completely. Earthships connect with the dependable underground earth temperature.

Smart design looks different. It is possible to have a safe home. Fire safe homes fit the landscape, and positioned for good natural insulation and winter warmth.

Earthships are earth coupled, insulated and built with recycled materials. Author looking out of an Earthship in Taos New Mexico
Naturally warmed and cooled Earthship in Taos New Mexico

Re-Design or Retrofit Your Shelter

Design for bushfire resistant, earth sheltered house at Narwee
A bushfire resistant, earth sheltered house at Narwee, created by Baldwin O’Bryan Architects, which won the Bushfire Building Council 2015 Innovation Design award.

There are excellent designs by architects to reduce or deflect threats . These designs create homes with a smaller impact on the environment, and lower costs to build and use. Above all, they are durable and resilient.

Re-design Your Habitat

Forest Mitigates Climate

Forests mitigate climate. In fact, street trees help cool the hottest city in the world.

But during extreme fire threats, many people think if we remove the forests, we remove the threat. The common reaction is to increase back-burning, pull out shrubs and clear land with machinery.

But the truth is, the forest is one of the most important tools we have to fight heat, hold water in the landscape and fight climate change. Getting rid of the garden is not going to help keep the temperature down or maintain moisture. People who had only grass around their homes had it burst into flames. A home surrounded only by rock may be more fire-proof but it will also be extremely hot, devoid of wildlife. Jane Goodall warns about the dangers of humanity being divorced from nature.

Australian aboriginal people have specialised fire management techniques called cool burning where the fire extinguishes itself, and the grasses and trees are not structurally damaged. Not all the area is burned at once, it is burnt in small strips at a time. Even insects can escape the burn.

What Plant is Truly Fire-Retardant?

For years people have talked of ‘fire-retardant’ plants. But, anything that was once alive, will burn in extreme temperatures. As the fire intensity rises we need to re-design food gardens, add radiant heat blocks (these can be mud-brick or cobb walls). We also need more areas for wetlands. Surprisingly, wetlands and boggy soils sequester greater amounts of carbon than forests.

Design to quell embers. Living much can also be edible. Sweet potato has edible tubers and the fleshy leaves are edible.
Sweet potato has fleshy leaves that are edible

We have to question everything and, due to the urgency, we need to collaborate. Whilst we know “Plants with high moisture or salt content and/or low oil content will burn more slowly“, we must now devote funds and time to plant research.

Can succulents and living ground covers help extinguish embers? Lets explore further how deciduous trees with low oil content absorb radiant heat at these unprecedented temperatures.

Consult with your community to prepare and respond to a warming future.
Community Consultation

Involve Your Community

Members of your community doesn’t have to understand the likeliness of a catastrophe for you to help to prepare for them. Consultation builds better preparation. Help your community to find ways to prepare that are simple and effective. For some people, this means trailing ideas, for others it means facilitating conversation. For researchers, it means building the body of knowledge for survival.

Coordinate a working group to help prepare homes helps the elderly and less-abled. Prepare to act when others are busy elsewhere. Some preparatory works, when booked by a neighbourhood, cost less than for individual home call-outs. Furthermore, community consultation enables us to develop strategies for local adaptation

every successful individual knows...achievement depends on a community

During a disaster, a resilient community is able to:

  • reduce the negative effects of hazards on people, ecosystems and property
  • Establish coping mechanisms in stages (safe zones, evacuation centers, temporary accommodation and long term recovery support

After a disaster, a resilient community is able to:

  • recover from the hazard with minimal disturbance to the health (including mental health) of the people and animals
  • rebuild a functioning community system, including power, water, food, fuel, health and education provisions
  • develop from experience
  • design with experts and in consultation with community

Design builds security for a community and the natural world that supports them.

Paul and Padma at International Permaculture Conference in London
Collaboration is vital for survival