Our Demonstration Site – Silk Farm

Food Forest Roots

In 1993 we began with an acre of lawn in an arty village community close to the University city of Wollongong.  We wanted to build a rich permaculture lifestyle.  Our children were babes and it took 6 hours to mow the acre of kikuyu. There were large tracts of woody weeds including lantana, honeysuckle, oleander and tobacco plants. And we didn’t know how to catch a chicken, graft a seedling, manage snails or pickle a chilli.

Now we share our abundant produce, delight in the wildlife, share know-how, and support ethical social enterprises. Of course, Permaculture is much more than a food forest. However, the resilience and bounty of the food forest feeds offers many a better future.

Permaculture design is like a bicycle. [Mollison]

The late Bill Mollison

The design process is a series of plans rather than a static end goal. The process is rooted in healthy ethics and working toward to clear vision. We have a vision of what success looks like and each plan works towards meeting that vision. We adapt the strategies and techniques. The whole process evolves in response to feedback from the living system.

Microclimates support rare species

Accidental Pioneers

We were the first in our bio-region, [and possibly the most southern reaches of Australia] to grow Jackfruit, Peruvian custard apple, Lychee, Longan, Sapodilla, Jabuticaba and other tropicals.  We didn’t realise how many firsts we had achieved at the time.  We were curious, adventurous and having fun.

The hybrid Fagao-Rocket Stove
boils 6 pots with just fallen twigs

Since raising our sons on this site we are proud that our eldest is now also a first. He has established an eco-hair salon on our site.

We are just ordinary people having fun trying extra-ordinary things! After 26 years the lawn has been replaced by an abundant food forest.

As the children grew we renovated the home using recycled components, created an environmentally friendly office, and have become an active part of the community.  Our site is notable for its rare fruits, wicking pots and garden beds, solar systems, Chicken Mansion, and Potted worm farms. We are also proud of our upscaled Rocket Stove.

Diversity replaces lawn

Living on the Edge

Location: We are located in an old mining village near the university and industrial city of Wollongong. There is a working mine at the top, a school, a pub, and a small Church with a cemetery. Near here was where Koalas discovered white man. In the great depression, Koalas were hunted to extinction regionally. Recently some have been spotted but the water in most of the creeks on the hill has disappeared due to the impact of long wall mining below. The local mine also is the site of our nation’s first industrial disaster in 1902 where more than 90 workers were killed due to open flame style gas lamps. 

Aspect and Climate: The ideal slope in our climate would be nor-north-east. But this site is sloped to the west with limited solar access or wind. When we bought the site, the soil was severely compacted pasture with some mature orchard trees. Most years, there is good rainfall year-round. Minimum temperature is 4c, Max temp is recently 40.2c.

Site Size: 1 acre (frankly this is too big for a small family and it would be better to be part of an intentional permaculture village). In a nutshell, ours is a sloped, shady, humid and warm site with valley breezes.

Site Analysis and Sectors

In Permaculture design, we do a sector analysis to learn where the different natural energy sources are on the site. From this, we work out what is the best use of the available energy.

Natural Oddities: Fungi and lichen, self-seeding trees including strangler and sandpaper figs carried by a wide variety of birds (wrens, bower birds, Kookaburras, Cockatoos, King Parrots, Owls, Cat-birds and Brush Turkey). The Cockatoos and Flying Foxes are active pruners and eat fruit that is well out of our reach. Some years they destroy more than we welcome.

Native Residents

Occasionally, King Parrots damage delicacies such as snow peas. Wonga Pigeons and Satin Bowerbirds love to eat any freshly planted seeds . So, we now have two anti-aviaries for growing salad greens.

Other residents include Sugar Gliders, lizards, water dragons and larger possums. Flying Foxes come early in summer and eat a lot of the fruits and berries. Other visitors include Brush Turkey, Echidna, Native eastern long neck tortoise and, of course, snakes (including the golden crown), butterflies, frogs and froglets (including Perons Tree frog), insects and spiders. Non-natives include feral deer, neighbours cows, dogs, chickens, mice and sometimes horses.

Site history: The site had a few very large and bountiful plum, peach and apple trees. They were about 80 years old. At the bottom of the garden lies a small, natural wetland, which has been preserved for the diversity value and as a good firebreak. The land use had involved market gardening, cattle, horses and a poultry farm.

Focus on Regeneration

There was a history of toxic sprays used on this site. So, we avoided growing and eating tubers from the soil for the first 15 years. We have managed all weeds (see more about the weeds below) without any chemicals.
Soil type: When we started here the soil was badly compacted, potters clay.  It still is rock-hard in many areas. The acidic soil has been improved by the addition of humus (sheet mulched beds with worms underneath).

Short History of Site:

The original site had a residence for over 100 years. Iunusual-foodst was a ‘dry rainforest’, visited seasonally by Dharawal hunters, mostly men, who prefered not to camp on the mountain.

Our Permaculture site has been in implementation since mid 1993. we started when a drought broke and our seedlings were old enough to plant out. Most of the upper garden beds are the zone 1 and 2 mixed herbs and vegies under orchard trees. These garden beds were made using Esther Dean’s no-dig method without soil. These method helped combat Kikuyu an invasive grass as well improve the heavy soil structure. 

The lower section has a steep slope but still we used sheet- mulch. By the 10th year, the trees were mature enough to survive the next drought without any hand watering.

Our Mud Map of Permaculture energy sectors
Our Mud Map of Permaculture energy sectors

Once we had implemented half our original plan the system had evolved to show more potential and new challenges. We were moving into a dual existence: expansion of the implementation and some maintenance of the established area. Shade and food was created in just 2 years which gave us quick rewards. In 2006 we embarked on a solar passive extension of the house. The new shape of the house formed a nurturing windbreak and suntrap and immediately the Mangos were able to hold their fruit better.

The Layered Food Forest

King parrot eating pears

The existing mature canopy species of this site included: winter citrus and summer prunus fruits, a large Sycamore and Pines, Red Cedar, Grevillia Robusta (to be removed as fuel), and Kurrangong. 

layers of vegetation in food forest

After 26 years, the existing tall trees are the emergent trees and palms, the canopy is mostly Mulberry (now 5 different varieties) which we use for fruit and silkworms. Tall grasses include Clumping Bamboo (7 varieties) and Bananas (dwarf, yellow, sugar and red). The remaining trees vary in height. They include Blackbean, Davidson Plum, Eugenia, Gingko, Maple, Mango, Coffee, Avocado, Jackfruit, Wax Jumbu, Finger Lime, Olive, Tamarillo, Tamarind, Carob, Canistel, Pomegranate, Jaboticaba, Persimmon, Lilly Pilly, Malaysian Apple, Custard Apple, Guava, Native Rosella, Paperbarks, Fejoa, Lychee, Quince, various Figs, Longan, Babaco, Irish Strawberry Tree, Ice-Cream Bean, Jak Fruit, Bunya nut, Apple, Chestnut, Macadamia, Green Sapote and Mulberry.
Shrubs include Hibiscus (edible flowers), Tea trees, Camellia sinensis (Tea), Lemon verbena, Lemon and Aniseed Myrtle, wormwood, various Sages, lavender, hazelnut, native raspberry, lychee, JabuticabaUnderstorey plants include: loganberry, strawberry, raspberry, blueberry, arrowroot, taro, Yacon, clumping Bamboo, sugarcane, Monstera, and mixed salad greens. tomatoes, spinach, lettuce, and Asian greens. Living Mulch plants include: warrigal greens and sweet potato.  There are numerous bulbs, Peruvian ground apple, jerusalem artichokes, arrowroot, potatoes, onions; and culinary and medicinal herbs, low sage, lovage, aloe vera, mints, cardomon, tumeric, rosemary, lavender, lad’s love, rue, wormwood, bromeliads including pineapple, ferns, and native palms (including walking-stick palm) and orchids. Water Plants include: taro, watercress, water celergy, kang kong, water chestnuts, lotus. Climbers include Passionfruit, Kiwifruit, and Epiphiliums (Dragon Fruit), different varieties of grape, and choko. Smaller tropical species are thriving in micro-climates. Much of the surplus is given to workers and their families. There are some mature trees that will be succeeded by edible species. The wood is used wood turners, as garden edging or as fuel in our wood-stove uses their timber. The most prolific food plants are: chilli, tomato, mulberry, sweet potato and grapes.
Our Special Interests: In the early years there was a strong emphasis on rare and heritage non-hybrid breeds. We support Seed Savers Australia. Now the system has become more self-seeding and self-governing. We have some unusual species to share such as Custard apple (Annona cherimoya sp.).

Integrated Pest Management:

Ducks helped control snails in the early years, but we have learned that they are very vulnerable to dogs. Geese deter dogs. The other pests are cabbage moth and Stink bugs on citrus which are controlled by hand and the use of Neem oil.  Fruit fly requires yeast baits and the chickens to eat infected fruit. After years of struggle to combat fruit fly, Bill Mollison suggested that we “simply grow what fruit fly don’t eat” and that works for us. The Chickens are trained at a young age to eat specific weeds.  Liquid manure in made in big recycled drums and it converts the most invasive weeds such as Madeira vine into liquid manure.

9 year old Ginger and her brood

Old chickens are welcomed on our site to let them retire gracefully. An old silkie hen: Ginger was 9 years old when she suddenly decided to have chicks.

We also pick and use the leaves and tubers of invasive vines as bedding in the poultry houses. Our geese eat grass, deter foxes, cats and dogs during the day but they require strong protection at night.  We have some recent problems with Deer eating young trees so we now protect the young trees with wire, solar powered electric fencing and covers of stinging nettle and Lantana off-cuts. Beautiful birds often eat our fruit but we have plenty to spare.

2 little ringtail possums

Planting and Harvest Plan

We plan for continuous tree planting of endemic species as well as new varities of rare edibles. At first, we would plant at the rate of one plant per day. Most weeks we would start new beds, each day we could collect food. Now, we rarely plant new plants, sometimes we might start some new seed in pots and every day we can find something to eat in the garden. We often share produce with friends and relatives. Often other people share with us in return. After just a few years implementation there were over 60 different edible tree species and varieties, over 160 different edible and medicinal species and varieties of herbs, bramble berries, vines, shrubs, and tubers.

Yoyo Plants

Each new planting get watered daily for a week, then once a week for a month, then once a month for a year. This is our approach to test for suitability and hardiness. Some plant species did not thrive with our YOYO  [Your On Your Own] approach.  Perhaps they were not given the ideal micro-climate and the soil was probably inhospitable. But many plants did thrive including the rare tropical and bush-tucker plants. The native orange shrub and native raspberries are comfy.

After 25 years the soil was finally black and friable.  The garden beds had risen with organic matter. The edges on the gardens needed to be fortified and there were new plantings of shade-tolerant plants. We were pleased to learn that a lot of bush-tucker plants like shade. These plants helped to fill the understory.

‘Weed’ Management and Uses

Our definition of a weed is a plant that “does not respect diversity”. These weeds include Madeira Vine (which can collapse whole areas of rainforest), coral trees, Kikuyu and turkey rhubarb, lantana, croften weed and non-native wandering jew (white flowered).Fleshy invasive plants such as Madeira vine and grass are controlled well by chickens.

Recycled Tarpauline Gardening

Paul has noticed that lantana keeps Madeira vine out. Woody weeds such as Lantana are manually removed and replaced by shrubs to keep soil and wildlife protected. Invasive trees such as Privet and Indian Coral tree have strangler figs in them, have been ring-barked, lopped and the branches piled up off the ground. We have used fire in the stumps to finish them off.  We re-use all removed material either as ash, liquid manure or fuel. We do not export material. Weeds work well to mine minerals so we keep our mineral on site.  We have found various uses for invasive plants. Most woody weeds such as lantana and privet are cut and burnt in the fuel stove. Some are dried in raised piles on top of tarps so they can’t seed, then later used as mulch. Fleshy plants are put into the poultry house – nothing survives in there! We weave a tent of woody weed branches (not when they are in seed) to protect young seedlings from the chickens and Wonga pigeons.

Our Fuel Stove heating system

Our Fuel Stove and our hydronic heating system are our only domestic heating. Here is a picture showing some of the features.

our fuel stove

One of the most important developments for us in using a fuel stove is learning how to reduce effort in providing fuel. We cut and stack the wood only once. We cut dried branches with either our electric chainsaw (we use 100% green electricity) OR a drop saw, we position our bins so the fallen piece falls directly into metal bins. When the bin is full, we place a lid on top and when we required we dust down the bin, and trolley it directly beside the fire. We use old decorative copper fire covers to cover the ugliness of the bins. This method ensures that we stack the wood only once. We have bought metal bins whenever we have found them at recycled shops. Some cheap steel bins need to be stored under cover to reduce possibility of rust.

Our Hydronic Heating System

Solar hot water is piped through radiators to warm the house in the shoulder seasons. excess hot water could be used in an adsorption system for air conditioning.Our hydronic solar heating system

Our Solar Cooking

Even though we are solar challenged, we get enough sun to cook on sunny days, the temperature in the oven gets up to 115 which makes the best porridge, Curry and Italian sauces. We love cooking with the Solar Oven, you don’t have to monitor it much, except to rotate the oven because this is a basic model. We don’t have to stir, it requires no cleaning (only once did it boil over) AND it never burns! It has no moving parts to break down and was made in India. We bought it years ago from Rainbow Power.

Who Manages the Site?

April and Snowy

The regular work involves animal care, mulching, planting, cuttings, grafting, seed management, harvesting. But as Ted Trainer said, it isn’t work when you’re having fun. Most of the site management is done by April Sampson-Kelly, sometimes by Paul and Ryan and occasional student workers. All maintenance and harvesting work is part time and average of just 3 woman/man hours per week. There is little heavy work as the garden is designed to be worked by less-able and small persons.  Heavy work such as tree management is contracted to professionals.  Paths run mostly along contour, they are covered in recycled terracotta and only require raking.  Garden edges are recycled bricks, pavers and fallen logs.  The paths can accommodate large carts.  Materials are light and transportable. There are ramps rather than steps wherever possible. Some workers have been students who have studied with us in our limited work-learn exchange program.

Enjoy on-site training and short courses here through Permaculture Wollongong Institute. Study a full Permaculture Design Course with our online teaching/courses.