Friday, October 5, 2012

Our first Permaculture design courses

We have just finished our first 3 Permaculture design courses at Casalinho and it has been an incredible, extremely intense and hugely rewarding experience.  There were some challenges, from the interesting balance of managing 18 students, Lowarn (our very sociable and energetic 3 year old son) and having any time for ourselves, to the fact that it was all based on another site so that we had little control over the space and facilities provided, to a whole series of different peoples personal dramas and issues which emerged during the course and had to be expressed, worked out and moved beyond… teaching these sort of courses is definitely enriching and a fast track to personal evolution!!  Needless to say though, the learning curve was very very steep at times.  For us, the most important part and the greatest reward was the responses of the students who all said they enjoyed learning with us and were, on the whole, extremely positive about us and our teaching.  Each person’s experience was different of course but some found the course reaffirmed what they were already doing, for others it opened their eyes to a new way of looking at things, some found it rekindled their inspiration and reminded them of their own potential to act and make a change.  Here are a few of their comments….

“It was a great deal of information for 14 days only but a balance between quality and quantity was definitely achieved.”

“Very well explained and enjoyable.”

“A great experience.  Mind opening.  I feel I can now design a permaculture plan and I know where to start, to start my own permaculture sustainable community.”

“It was a joy and an honour to spend the two beautiful weeks with you.”

“Amazing. Inspirational! I think you have changed my life.  Thank you very much.”

“A large amount of info in a very short space of time!  But the quality was high especially in technical details.”
A really marked feature of the courses was the very wide diversity of people in terms of origin, background and previous knowledge.  The nationality list is immense; Portuguese, Brazilian, Australian, Filipino, Russian, English, Dutch, Norwegian, Swedish, Chinese, Hungarian, American, Italian, Belgian, Isreali, Spanish and Scottish.  Luckily they all spoke and understood English, although there was a fair amount of multi-lingual translation going on around the class to clarify terminology and some ideas.
We use different methods of teaching as different subjects are better suited to different teaching styles and we are also in the process of developing the majority of the theory sessions into digital presentations which gives us much more scope for including photos, diagrams and time for group discussion etc. We are still using the white board for some of the sessions and we will always use it at times as it gives an extra freedom to explain points further, give detailed diagrams and create group mindmaps.  We believe that practical sessions are the most clear and effective way to learn this subject and it is best if students can come away with hands on experience of this practical skill which is Permaculture design.  We include various practical sessions throughout the course, it is a fine balance as there is a huge volume of material to cover in the syllabus but we are working towards teaching as much of the course as possible in practical ways.  This will develop with time.  Even still, in these last courses, there were a lot of practical activities and a lot was achieved for the venue including:
  • ·         Swales surveyed and dug
  • ·         Net and pan system dug around fruit trees
  • ·         Herb spiral built
  • ·         Two worm compost bath tubs set up
  • ·         A series of both sheet mulch and synergistic raised beds built
  • ·         A rocket stove made
  • ·         With the experienced help of Nuno Mamede, the adobe brick circular base of a pizza oven was built
Also, every morning, we had a short energiser session which included many different activities and games to wake everyone up, get moving, focus and ready ourselves for a day of learning.  Activities included:
·         Yoga/warm-up stretches
·         Different games, to illustrate ideas and to build group cohesion and trust
·         Circus skills
·         Observation/Site walks
·         Meditation/Inward focussing

The final practical exercise in which all the elements of the course come together, is the creation and presentation of group designs.  In the case of the courses we have just done, the participants were split into three groups and each group, in one and a half days of design time, successfully achieved some excellent designs, expressing each students knowledge and experience gained from the course.  We were really impressed by the high quality of the final designs created in such a short time and found it encouraging that they had all learnt so much.  It gives us confidence in our teaching methods and general approach to the subject.  Below is a small selection of their finished work.  

Our hope is that, next year, we can run some courses here at Foz da Cova.  We are currently building some of the facilities for it now.  We are working on a big 4m3 twin chamber compost toilet, a shower/ bathroom and hydro powered washing machine room.  We are building a really good team here so things are coming along well.
We are also currently arranging to do an Introduction to Permaculture course at Quinta do Sabugueiro, Felgueiras near Porto at the end of this month.  Watch this space for further info.


Saturday, February 11, 2012

Planting our hopes for the future.

Planting Fruitful Abundance
The best answer to all our concerns for the world of tomorrow
Enriching our lives and the planet with every day that they grow

Now is the time of year (in the northern hemisphere) when trees are at their most dormant and it is the best time for them lay down their roots.
In the last days we have started to plant our first 21 fruit trees on these long abandoned lands which are now in our care. We now have plums, pears, cherries, figs, persimmons (the hard, non squishy type), apricots, lemons, hazel nuts and we planted out the cuttings for a golden willow dome with our son and the rest of his friends in the kids' club.
We have been lucky enough to find a local nursery that sells bare rooted trees which, for all except the lemons, is often a better way to go as the trees are forced to quickly adjust to their new soil conditions rather then getting stuck in their potted (and often over fed) nursery soil. It is also usually cheaper to buy them this way.
The most important thing with this method is that you get them in the ground as quick as possible and in the mean time you keep the roots moist (but not drowned), covered and out of the frost, we covered them with regularly dampened cloth and lent them up a slope.
Another great thing to do with bare rooted trees is if you have any mushrooms near by making a mycelium broth and dipping the trees in this just before planting. To make mycelium broth carefully pick mushrooms from the local area, not pulling them out of the ground but cutting them off at ground level - this is important as will leave that variety of mushroom to continue growing and doing its valuable work in that space. It doesn't matter which type of mushrooms you add but just be sure to wash your hands well afterwards if you are unsure about which mushrooms are edible. Place the mushrooms in half a bucket of water with some sugar and leave for a day, stirring occasionally. Top up this bucket of water when you are ready to plant and dip each trees bare roots into the mixture immediately before planting. Fungi are hugely important to the health of the soil. They act like the immune system in our bodies, building resistance. They are also crucial in the decomposition of dead material into nutritionally rich plant foods which become readily available and turn back into living matter. Some fungi even envelope the roots of the plant creating strong symbiotic relationships. These are called mycorrhizal fungi and act as the "legs and teeth" of the tree, going great distances to seek out the specifically needed nutrients then secreting acidic compounds breaking down even rock minerals and using the mycelial network to bring nutrients back to feed the tree.

As for soil amendments and fertilizers, over the years we have tried many different organic strategies but, unless the soil is particularly poor, we have learned that minimal intervention is best, not putting anything under the soil near the tree but rather observing nature and the way she builds soil from the top down. We have given each tree a variety of feeding, moisture retaining, sheltering & weed excluding materials on top of the soil depending on the needs of the tree in their specific siting. It sounds more complicated than it actually is, I'll talk you through some of the materials and their functions and you'll start to understand:
Worm castings contain all the ingredients of beneficial life in the soil as well as worm eggs... these are the workers that are going to take all the good stuff down to the roots.
Cardboard (ideally mycelium broth dipped) is a great way to repress invasive competing weeds (eg grass, bramble), it retains some moisture and also acts as a carbon source that goes well with some manure on top.
Manure (we use horse) is high in nitrogen and other important minerals (ensure however that the animals haven't recently been treated for worms)
Rotting wood, acts as a water reservoir, is a good slow releasing carbon, is a source of mycelial life and creates habitat for insects and reptiles.
Mulch, this can be any nearby, ideally non spiky, plant (we used broom as we have a lot) this goes around, but not up to, the base of the tree and shades the soil, keeping in moisture and warmth, creating an ideal environment for decomposition and growth of soil life.

Stones are microclimate moderators, they keep a cool damp spot that harbours soil life underneath in times of sweltering heat and act as a sponge for the suns heat when frosty weather comes. In this way they are also great habitat for all sorts of insects, lizards and snakes.
Few actions that we can take will last beyond our lifetimes,
Fewer still can make as positive an impact as to plant a tree.
This simple act, that in this time,
Feels like the best thing we could do.
If we all were to plant one tree for every year of our lives
Imagine the forests there would be 100 years from now.