Destruction, Exhaustion and Rebuilding

Judith Collins talks about loss, recovery and exhaustion. She writes about what she has learned from fire tornado, how the water management in the initial design aided the recovery and what plants rebounded.

Judith Collins wrote the first Australian book about companion plants. She has regularly appeared on ABC radio around Australia and gave hundreds of talks and tours of their fabulous gardens. Their property was an early example of keyline irrigation and permaculture design. Many university students in Australia and internationally have learned from the site. Here is their story and how your can help gofundme

Together she and her life-long partner, Paul Collins, narrowly escaped the fire tornado that ripped through the highlands of New South Wales, Australia. In her own words, Judith shares what she has learned through the recovery and rebuilding stage. But now they need to clean up the property ready to sell and move into a retirement home. and their energy and finances are depleted.

Self-sufficient life destroyed by fire tornado

“In December 2019 the black summer bush fire destroyed our sustainable lifestyle.  Without prior warning the wind turned speedily.   The property was attacked by fire on  three fronts. A day earlier we had a well-equipped plan to stay and fight the fire. But It was a waste of time. Because we had  only minutes to escape.

On our return to the property the scene looked bleak. The mud brick walls of the house were standing.  Gone was the roof, the slate floor, stain glass windows and everything that we owned.

Gone was the processing  shed  where we preserved and stored the harvest.  The  Freeze Dryer, apple press, sausage maker and cheese making equipment , were reduced to a pile of twisted metal. Stored preserves, could not be seen amongst the  tonnes of broken glass.  

Also, dead animals lay everywhere.  Hand reared quail, guinea fowl, ducks and chickens had perished.  As did the milking cow, sheep and pigs. The food forest and veggie gardens were reduced to ash. Stored seeds went up in smoke.  Tools and machinery were contorted and made useless.   Surprisingly our bank of forty solar panels had escaped the fire.” The panels were still producing electricity.

The garden has begun to recover with their care and good bones in the design

Firstly, the dream to be self sufficient became reality

“In 1969, I attended a free public meeting on Global Warming. A teenager  in a room filled with academics and retirees.   Little did I know that my life was about to change forever and set firm on a path of sustainability, self-reliance and community education. 

Soon afterwards I met Paul. A first year engineering university student who embraced my  self-reliant lifestyle plan.  We married (young).

Following this, for fifty years we have avoided consumer shopping through a  well planned twelve months harvest of fruit , vegetables, spices, herbs, grains, eggs, milk and fish stocked dams. We also did our own building, maintenance and repairs.

Then the fire destroyed our lifestyle and stole years of its creation.

We wanted to get back to living on the property and to resurrect our self-reliant lifestyle.  We cleared debris to expose the concrete base of a shed. In just five weeks Paul erected a new shed, installed power, water, toilet, shower, washing machine and kitchen. At this point we began to take stock of the personal reality we faced. The ageing process and health issues had reduced our work capacity. So did, the mammoth task  of reconstruction and repair.  As a result, all of these issues called for new thinking and for design adjustments.

Their once abundant food forest was baked by the fire tornado

Good Design Aided Recovery

Heavy rainfall had shown us that the hard surface water catchment system and dams were working.  Swales delivered  water to dead gardens.  So, we fenced the area to protect it  from wildlife and to watch and learn about plant rejuvenation.


  1. An intense bush fire burns every plant.
  2. Some plants recover and produce food a year later.
  3. Grafted plants die.  Root stock survives.
  4. Very few native food plants recover.
  5. Weeds become valued as soil quality indicators and fixers.
  6. A Compost Heap  burns on the surface and keeps earthworms safe within.
  7. Self sown and fast growing trees such as Robinia  and Paulownia after easily destroyed by bush fire. But in two years, will recover rapidly.  Providing there is plant shelter and flowers for the birds and the bees.
  8. European trees are much tougher than native trees in a fire. 
  9. Soil can burn 20 to 60 cm below the surface through tree roots.
  10. Bees hives cannot survive the smoke. The bees die in situ.
  11. Bird life is sparse
  12. DIY skills make disaster recovery easier.


These plants were burnt to ashes with no sign of existence  or  life. But following some rainfall, they sprung to life.

Herbs: Hellebores, ajuga, parsley, tarragon, comfrey, yarrow, angelica, lavender, french sorrel, onion and garlic chives, Lebanese cress, thymes,  lemon and lime balm, lemon and lime verbena, garlic, tansy, wintergreen, wood sage, calendula, violets, santolina, oregano, curry bush,  herbal iris, soapwort, bedstraw, dyers chamomile, arrowroot, perennial basil, vanilla herb, Mexican sage, vanilla, grass, self-heal, golden seal, speedwell, heartease, mints, wild strawberries, curry leaf tree,  African geranium spice, Peruvian passionfruit marigold, Thai basil, lovage,  scented (cooking) geraniums, mugwort, southernwood, wormwood, catmint, pineapple sage and fruit salad sage, lemongrass, pregnant onion, curry leaf tree, bay tree:

Native Foods:  Midyim berry, kiwi berry, native mint, native geranium, davidson’s plum, Lilli Pilli.

Midyim By Zaareo – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Fruit/Veg: Banana, olives, pomegranate, cherry guava, custard guava, Irish strawberry tree, Rhubarb, thornless blackberry, raspberry, marion berry, avocado, loquat, passionfruit, banana passionfruit, mulberry, nashi pear, seed-raised nectarine, lychee, strawberries, Monstera deliciosa, capsicum, sweet potato, asparagus, silverbeet, potato, quince, elderberry.

Miscellaneous: Abelia, photinia, coprosma repens, marguerite daisy, paris daisy, african daisy, flowering quince, shrimp plant, nandina, forget-me-knot, flowering bulbs, iris, heritage roses, may bush, cycad, buddleja davidii,  jacaranda, crepe myrtle, canna, succulents, strelitzia,  dwarf bamboo, agave, bromeliad, seaside daisy, plectranthus,  japanese red grass, agapanthus, native hibiscus, daphne, umbrella tree, salvia, lipirope, fish fern.

The recovery plants offer a wonderful mix of food, flavours, medicine and flowers not only to be enjoyed by us, but also the birds, the bees and beneficial insects.

This list of plants closely resembles many of the plants that have nurtured the human race for centuries.”

ground cover recovering

How you can help Judith and Paul

So now, one of their interns has set up a gofundme page where you can donate to help Judith and Paul move into comfortable retirement quarters