Before You Begin Your Permaculture Landscape Design…
Your Permaculture landscape design will be absolutely unique. While you will be applying universal principles of sustainable design to your property, each property presents a different canvas to drape these over.
Clarify Property Goals
The design is further shaped by the goals you have for your property. It needs to reflect the lifestyle aspirations of the people who will be living with it.
In this important matter, families downshifting to sustainable living need to ensure that all their members, including the kids, have a say.
Indeed, the very success of the design will depend on the motivation, time, financial means, strength and abilities of the people who will be ultimately responsible for inhabiting and implementing it.
It is important that you realistically assess your property goals within what you are capable of creating, and that the resulting small farm habitat that you create will nuture you and meet your lifestyle aspirations.
So what are your aspirations?
A soundly designed small farm can achieve the following in just 3 to 6 years:
- Reduced need to earn through greater food and energy self-sufficiency.
- Sustainable yields of short, medium and long term products.
- Satisfying livelihood providing unique (preferably essential) products or services to the region.
- Achieve the triple-bottom-line of socially/psychologically, ecologically, and economically sustainable living: an aesthetically pleasing, socially connected, unpolluted, unpolluting and productive living environment.
Plan to Work within Local Authority Guidelines
To create a safe and secure legal status on your property, you need to ensure your design does not contravene planning statutes and requirements. A visit to your local government authority and a talk to a town planner is a good place to start.
Any property is subject to zoning and town planning restrictions and guidelines governing legality, placement and design, of easements, buildings, dams, access, distance from waterways, construction, health and sewerage.
There are greater restrictions on what is allowed on a “special rural” (rural residential) property compared with one zoned rural. You may find you need to go to extraordinary lengths to get permission to build a small dam on a 2 hectare property, whereas it is automatically allowable on one of 5 hectares. So check the zoning and associated restrictions that apply to your property early in the process.
Allow time in your implementation schedule to go through the process of gaining proper permissions. There will be application forms to fill out, fees to pay, and weeks to wait for their decisions. It is wise to establish and maintain good relationships with all council employees.
You can grease the wheels and add merit to your application by asking your local government officer what further information is needed and doing some of the research work to provide it. We found this to be the case when recently applying to relocate our building envelope. Ambiguity on the status of an adjacent winter creek was stalling the application, but we cleared it up ourselves by an approach to the state environment agency.
Assess Resources at Hand
Incorporating resources at hand into your design will reduce costs and facilitate its sustainability and successful implementation.
What does your site itself have to offer?
View everything on site as a potential resource that can be incorporated into your Permaculture landscape design: rocks, clay, gravel, weeds, animals, even insects.
What resources can you add to your site?
Your Permaculture landscape design will only succeed if you have the necessary resources to properly implement it. The rate of supply of available labor, skill and cash will determine the character, pace, and priorities of your property plan.
So conduct a realistic assessment of the resources you can apply to your site:
How strong and physically capable are your potential occupants? Though Permaculture systems are low maintenance by design, considerable laboring effort is often required in their establishment. Having to source this from outside the family or household adds considerably to the cost of implementation.
How much of the work can you do yourself? What skills are available in your social network? Can you exchange or barter readily available goods or services for them? What potential is there to capitalize on household skills to create right livelihood?
Given the much higher eventual cost, it is wise to avoid having to pay interest on borrowed money to fund your simple living on farms project.
The availability of cash to fund living expenses and purchase materials and services inputs to the property will largely dictate how and when various aspects of your plan are executed. For this reason early self sufficiency to reduce living expenses should be a priority.
A thoughtful consideration of lower cost alternatives for establishing each element of your design can also reduce expenses significantly.
Begin Stockpiling Resources
Before you even start your Permaculture landscape design process, you can begin to keep a lookout for useful resources. Forage for cheap materials locally at recycle tips, roadside collection days, classifieds adverts, community notice boards and your social network and begin stockpiling! So what are you likely to need?
No matter how unique your small farm design ends up, setting up a Permaculture system of any description will require a good supply of commonly needed items such as plant pots, seed, cuttings, old bricks, timber and roofing.
To that general list we have added pallets (for storing stuff dry and off the ground), shade cloth, tarpaulins, pvc pipe, steel rods, tires (for our earthship cellar), and steel reinforcing mesh.
Develop a Permaculture Property Design
Apply the principles and practices of Permaculture landscape design to develop your property design. It should, of course, be in accord with the aspirations of the potential occupants of the site, as well as within their financial, social and physical capabilities to establish and manage successfully.
Develop your plan well and stick to it, so avoiding expensive and impulsive sidetrack projects that don’t align with your property goals and aspirations.
Break the implementation of your design into stages, each comprising small do-able steps. Only attempt one stage at a time, and do it thoroughly, before moving on to the next.
So where do you begin? Prioritize what stages to attempt first according to the common sense guidelines described below:
Whole Property Goals
You will need some basic infrastructure in place on your property before much further can be achieved.
Things to Establish First
Successful habitation and development of your small farm depends on early establishment, adequate to needs, of the following essential infrastructure:
Building proper access can be expensive and frustrating. In order to achieve peace and privacy, we relocated our building envelope to the rear of our 5 acre (2 hectare) property.
Putting in a gravel drive cost $4500 for 150 meters in gravel, trucking and grader work. As it was not rolled, it will not be able to take heavy vehicles during wet periods for 12 months, delaying our building plans.
You may be lucky enough to already have good shelter for your family and equipment on your property. If you are starting sustainable living from scratch, like us, you will have to build your own.
We started off with a free garden shed sourced out of a newspaper classified to house our wheelbarrows, spades, fencing materials and cement mixer. More recently we put an old but serviceable and dry caravan on the site to give us somewhere cozy and dry to retreat to. Our next priority will be a large workshop equipped for temporary accommodation down one end, and from there we will progress to building our house.
• Energy supply:
Building requires the use of power tools. Because of this, we will be connecting to the local electricity grid. Our future plans for economic self sufficiency include custom manufacturing from our property, so we have also decided to put 3-phase power on at the same time.
The power line will need to be laid in a deep trench, so no planting of its route can be undertaken until after it is in place. Later, we will establish a completely renewable energy system to supply our house.
• Plant nursery:
A Permaculture property design aims for biodiversity and intense life energy as its productivity is directly proportional to the number of living elements in the system and the productive connections between them. To achieve this you should plan to establish (in stages) from 4,000 to 8,000 plants per hectare.
To do this inexpensively, you’ll need your own plant nursery. Also bear in mind how useful it will be to have seedlings and struck cuttings on the ready for planting on your site as soon as your Permaculture landscape design has been finalized. This will mean getting started on propagating early in the process.
Use species known to be suited to your site
Many of the varieties available from general nurseries are simply unsuited to local conditions. So consult your regional Agricultural department and specialist nurseries to identify varieties that are capable of fruiting in the soil and microclimates on your property.
Choosing vigorous and productive species and varieties for your area can also be achieved by book and internet research, information from regional government, farm and orchard nurseries, landcare groups, local residents and nearby gardening societies.
It is usually much cheaper to buy seed and grow your own seedlings, especially for broadscale plantings of nitrogen fixing pioneer species for dryland situations such as tagasaste, acacia, casuarina and honey locust.
If you intend to buy these ready grown, it pays to order them at least 6 months before the planting season (say by early summer in temperate areas of Australia to be ready for winter planting).
I have also found cuttings and seed of desirable species by foraging in public parks and gardens, for example: stone pine, carob, various species of oak, Euphrates poplar, and basket willow.
• Water supply:
Water self-reliance is critical to self-sufficiency and productivity. Aside from household requirements, orchards and, especially, vegetable gardens use a considerable volume to yield well, and you may have additional needs for aquaculture.
Harvest as much rainwater as possible into tanks from sheds and your house roof. With household greywater recycling, this may be enough to supply Permaculture Zones 0 and 1.
For outer zones, consider potential supplies in the form of dams or bores. Get cost estimates from local contractors and quiz them on likely quality and quantity yields on your site and in your area.
So cost your alternatives for establishing this basic infrastructure and incorporate the best options into your schedule of plan implementation according to available cashflow.
Things to Do Next
Initially restrict both the number of animals and their range to a minimum. This will free up areas for establishment of climax plants and systems. As these gain maturity and grow beyond potential damage by livestock, animals can be added on a seasonal or “as needs” basis.
• Soil conditioning:
Before successful plantings can hope to be effected, soil should be conditioned to improve its ability to meet plant needs.
Conditioning may include green manuring, soil nutrient and base element (pH) balancing, introduction of nitrogen fixing plants, and mechanical aeration to correct compaction.
• Erosion control:what are causes soil erosion
Erosion represents a loss of your most important resource – your topsoil. Identify any erosion on your property and its likely cause. It may be:
o Overgrazing-induced sheet erosion.
o Downslope water erosion along tracks, gullies or fencelines.
o Wind erosion of unprotected flats and sands.
Erosion control needs to be completed before major plantings and may require:
o Earthworks to divert water to well-vegetated watersheds and into useful storages (graded banks), or slow water speed down slopes (swales).
o Realignment of fencelines and access tracks to cut across rather than down slopes.
o Fencing to exclude animals from sensitive areas.
o Planting of high risk areas (e.g. slope >18°) to perennial vegetation.
o Rock placement in erosion gullies to slow water speed and collect silt and organic material.
o Planting of windbreaks to slow wind speed.
Earthworks can be expensive but are very intrusive on the landscape so should be completed early in the implementation of your Permaculture landscape design.
Such earthworks can include building site preparation, dams, swales and level sills, graded banks, seepage interceptors, riplines for planting into, riplines for paddock aeration, and graded access ways.
• Pioneer plantings
Before any planting commences, all earthworks, soil conditioning and erosion control must be completed. A water supply and reticulation system capable of meeting the needs of your plants and animals must also be in place already. Fencing to exclude stock and protect plants is also paramount before any stock is introduced to the property.
Once these elements are in place, the first broadscale plantings will be of pioneer species selected to perform many functions in your design: fire retardant barrier, nitrogen fixing, soil stabilizing, orchard tree supportive guild member, bee fodder, livestock and poultry fodder, wind break or diverter, privacy screen, frost barrier.
Start at Your Back Door
The highest priority at the start of establishing simple living on farms is to completely develop your property nucleus: Zone 0 – your house, and the small area around it – Zone 1.
You may be tempted to scatter your efforts over your whole property from the outset, but don’t be! Broadscale improvements will spread your energies thin, and thus have a higher chance of failure due to inadequate preparation, supportive infrastructure (e.g. soils and water) or management. Losses are not only demoralizing but expensive!
A well developed property homestead or nucleus will provide comfortable shelter, aesthetic enjoyment, and improved performance by its occupants.
Early establishment of a small homestead garden will furnish early food self-sufficiency with organic fruits and vegetables, bolstering your finances and health.
Restrain your homestead garden (Zone 1) to:
• A compact vegetable garden:
A small garden affords intense management (protected, manured and watered) and will thus be highly productive. Four square meters (or 44 square feet) of such a lot can provide 40 to 60% of your food needs.
• Critical orchard trees:
Select perhaps 10 reliable and high performing orchard trees that will yield your family’s self sufficiency requirements in oil (e.g. olive), storable fruits, citrus fruits and nuts. Multi-grafts and dwarf varieties, as well as espalier and pergola trained, these need not occupy a large area. They can also be placed to improve the microclimate of your homestead, shading it from hot afternoon and morning summer sun. Most are deciduous, meaning they shed their leaves in winter, allowing the winter sun to warm your homestead.
Establishing Outer Zones
Establishing outer zones is best done strategically and in stages. Commercial plantings are best first attempted as a small trial, and then extended to up to 10 reliable plants to keep the work involved in harvesting, processing and marketing manageable. Stagger commercial plantings using varieties and species that fruit and harvest at different times to spread the workload and promote even cashflow.
A concept critical to the timing of introduction of pioneer plants, climax plants, fencing, and domestic animals to create a system that provides sustainable yields in the short, medium and long term is the principle of succession.