Living a slower, simpler, more meaningful life

Category: Permaculture (Page 1 of 2)

Changing of the Seasons

I’m astonished to discover it’s winter already. Summer and Autumn flew by. We’ve had a lot going on and at times it’s felt like we were just keeping our heads above water. Or perhaps that’s the wrong metaphor for the hot, dry summer we’ve just been through. Limping through the desert?? Just getting through, anyway. Life can be tricky sometimes, can’t it? We’ve had our fair share of trickiness over the years and I do occasionally wish for a normal, boring life. At this point in my life I’m not particularly fussy or demanding. I’d settle for stability, enough of the basic necessities, good food and simple comforts. I’m not that interested in material things – I’d be more than happy with a healthy body & mind for me and my loved ones, plenty of sleep, sunshine, laughter and hugs. And it’s not like we don’t have a lot of that already – we do. And we’re on track for even more of it, but there are balances and checks every step of the way. Moving to the country has had its pros and cons. A healthy body and mind demand some sacrifices. Not everyone will be happy with the choices you make. Human bodies age. Good food costs more in time and effort that you can sometimes invest, and you don’t always get enough sleep, feel like laughing or appreciate the simple comforts.

On the plus side, my health is improving, the dam is full again, there are enormous parsnips in my garden… and I have a job! I’m a bit late in sharing that news, but I’m happy to report my gainful employment with the Open Food Network. For the last 4 months I’ve been doing about a day a week of customer support work, helping local farmers and producers use this fabulous open source software platform. The OFN is a not for profit organisation that I volunteered with many years back, and did a bit of content work for just before I got sick. Their goal is to make food fair by putting control back in the hands of the people who grow and eat the food. Producers get the tools they need to create a path to market, and people like you and me get to buy it, knowing that our cash goes straight into the farmer’s pocket. It’s a win – win! And speaking of win-wins, I get to work from home, manage my own hours and feel good about making a difference. I also get to work with great people who have a genuine passion for what they do. It’s been the perfect next step in my return to health and the big wide world.

The new work routine has slotted fairly easily into my life. I was worried I wouldn’t be able to manage the commitment, small as it is, but any negatives have been balanced out by the positives. Probably the biggest impact has been my reduced tolerance for ‘leisure’ screen time. Now that I have to sit at a screen for a short while each day, my body complains if I do much more. It’s pretty weird. If I spend too long sitting or working on a laptop, a strange kind of ‘screaming’ feeling rises in my body. It’s hard to describe but feels like a distressing kind of restlessness, with elements of anger or panic. It’s a bit like I’m possessed and something’s trying to get out (me?). It subsides as soon as I stand up and start moving. Usually, one or two hours a day is my limit and if I stick to that I feel pretty good. Given I could sit and research or read all day, it’s a positive thing to be connecting with my body in this way. It feels like my soul talking, telling me what I need to hear – which is move and go outside! Of course this does limit my blog and insta posting, but I know my audience (all 7 of you) will understand.

Season of the winter garden

Winter seedlings starting to emerge, late Feb 2019

Here’s a pic of our winter plantings getting started back in Feb. It’s the first time I’ve raised seeds for winter vegies. We started early but probably didn’t quite get there in time. We should be harvesting by now, but all we’ve got are greens and parsnips. Awesome parsnips, it’s true, but still. We’re following Matt and Lentil’s guide from their book Grown and Gathered but fell a little behind, partly due to procrastination (too hot to go outside!), but mostly because so many seeds failed and seedlings were munched. I think most of the plantings will go to sleep soon, and we’ll have to wait til early Spring for everything to wake up and kick into action. We’ve got broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, peas, snow peas, white, red and brown onions, leek, broad beans and garlic in the ground, all looking pretty good. The beans have been slow to take off and I had to raise heaps of extra brassicas cos they all got munched, and munched, and munched. Anyway the garden looks lush and healthy and I feel happy when I see it out the kitchen window.

Our winter garden today. You can see kale, silverbeet, chard, parsnip, peas, cabbage & rocket.

Here at the foot of the mountain we’re getting more rain than the surrounding towns. It’s misty most mornings and damp in the evening, even on drier, sunny days. It’s been a relief not to have to water every day, though it took a few weeks to get out of my summer habits. I like watering, but I think in a year or two we might install a drip system in the kitchen garden. It’s more efficient and better way to conserve our precious water.

Nature’s seasons

Along with the rains, winter has brought with it a chance to reconnect, slow down and breathe in that fresh, crisp air. I’m feeling stronger, I swim twice a week (in a heated pool, obviously!) and am outside more than ever. I’ve been thinking and reading a lot about ‘nature’ and the fact that we as humans consider ourselves separate to, rather than a part of nature. Now that my eyes have been opened, it seems absurd to me that we stand here and look out at nature, or talk about it as something other than what we are. We ARE nature. We’re made of the same stuff. According to American Science writer Dorion Sagan, our cells live in a unique combination of water and salts that mirrors the composition of the early seas. And it’s not just human cells – all of life on earth preserves the ancient environment of our home. We are part of this place, and it is part of us. When we deny ourselves access to nature, we deny ourselves access to our own identity. We cut ourselves off from our self, our family and our life support system. No wonder we feel lost.

Whenever I walk outside on our property, or along the walking track in our neighbourhood, I come back feeling more motivated, alive and refreshed. And I notice things. I notice new plants popping up where there weren’t any last week. I notice the dips that are more lush than the higher ground surrounding them. I notice how the water always follows the same path after heavy rain, washing away the topsoil to create the clay track that we humans follow as we wander. Yesterday I noticed bulbs coming up and remembered how pretty they were last year when they flowered. And I notice that winter here is not the same as the winter I’m reading about in books written by Europeans or North Americans.

In the Northern Hemisphere, winter is a time of hibernation for all of nature. It snows, nothing grows, and people take shelter. They rest, consolidate and prepare for the next growing season. Here in this part of Australia, while a lot of common (mostly introduced) plants bunker down and die back over winter, indigenous plants are coming back to life, bursting with green shoots and new growth. It’s actually the hot and dry summers here that indigenous plants need shelter from, and that’s when they bunker down and conserve their energy. Since moving here I’ve come to feel the same way. In the city, disconnected from nature, Summer was a time to play, stay up late and socialise. Here, exposed to the elements, I feel it the way the plants do. It’s just too hot in summer. I need to slow down, conserve my energy and do what I can to stay hydrated. The more familiar I become with the life forms and conditions I interact with on a daily basis, the more I appreciate the enormous disconnect we have with the land on which our feet are planted.

Seasons of the land we stand on

The first peoples of this country had a very different understanding of seasons to the Summer, Autumn, Winter & Spring that we imported from the Northern Hemisphere. Australia is a huge continent with enormous variation in climate – so there was no single seasonal calendar that all Aboriginal people followed. Some of these indigenous calendars were documented, but sadly, no-one asked the people of the Gunung Willam Balluk – here at the foot of Mt Macedon – how they named or recognised the seasons. Or if someone did ask, it was never recorded. We do know that most Aboriginal groups in SE Australia recognised five or six seasons with distinct characteristics that fall roughly around the times that we identify as late Autumn/early Winter, mid Winter, late Winter/pre-Spring, mid Spring, late Spring/high Summer and late Summer/early Autumn. These seasons would have been known for the food sources that became available at that time or the changes in environment or lifestyle they would herald.

Having spent just over a year here on the land, I’m a long way from being familiar with all the distinct seasonal changes, but already I recognise some of the patterns and shifts, and I can see how different they are to the European seasons that we try to squeeze them into. Imagine the greater connection we could feel with nature if we organised our calendar by what our senses perceive from the land we live on? Rather than ignore the flowering wattle and the emergence of bulbs in August, let’s celebrate their beauty. It’s Orchid season now – so why wait til the official declaration of Spring to celebrate new life? When Spring does arrive, and our European trees begin to flower, yes there’s joy in the beauty of the blossoms and the delicious fruits they herald. But also, let’s celebrate the indigenous root vegetables that are ready to harvest. While we busily plant and wait for our European foods to emerge, these nutritious roots are ready to eat now – so let’s have a Murnong harvest festival! In Autumn, how about we focus less on the fall of leaves from deciduous trees, and more on the return of water to the landscape. This is a time to work, capturing water that will soak into the parched soil and bring back life. Lets celebrate the arrival of the rains we’ve been longing for and a chance to heal our thirsty country.

Image of a Murnong Root (Yam Daisy) on the cover of Bruce Pascoe’s groundbreaking book, Dark Emu

Deep Winter

As we move into deep winter, the season of flooding lowlands, we’ll be making the most of softer clay and digging ditches (called Swales) along the contour of our sloping block. These swales will capture rainfall before it runs off the property, slowing the flow and allowing it to sink into the ground. Keeping our precious water in the ground means healthier soils, less watering in summer and healthier, happier country. In a few weeks we’ll clear a lot of the fallen dead wood down in our little forest and have a bonfire. We’ll leave some of the dead wood in place though; logs for habitat and bark and leaves to build the mulch base that’s essential for a healthy soil ecosystem. The cool of winter makes it easier to do this kind of heavy work. For the same reason we’ll use this time to mark out and clear paths which will keep heavy humans off the soil in our native regeneration area and build a fence around the kitchen garden. It’s not exactly a busy time, but there are enough jobs to keep us active and outside; just enough to balance out the hours spent doing my absolutely favourite thing – reading by the fire!

One Year Down

This time last year we had moved into our little pocket of paradise on the edge of Mt Macedon. Thankfully 2019 brings a quieter and slower January, and I’ve had a chance to reflect on the last 12 months and ponder where we might like to be in another. My feet are deeply rooted in this soil and the place speaks to me like no other place I’ve lived. We’ve worked hard to breathe our life into it over the last 12 months. So much has been achieved and yet I still feel like we’re on the edge of a big adventure. There’s so much to learn and do and I swing between feeling inspired at the possibilities and overwhelmed by their enormity.

I’d like to share a photo update soon. There’s plenty to show, but for now I can tell you there are pumpkins and tomatoes coming along and beans winding their way up trellises. I have jars filled with dried lemon balm, comfrey and chamomile and today I’ve nibbled on wild strawberries, red currants and blueberries straight from the bush. On the other hand I just lost two new lavender plants, I’ve killed more cucumbers and zucchinis than I’ve kept alive and I can’t get a radish to fruit for the life of me. But we can swim in the dam when it’s hot, there’s a perfect spot to sit for every time of day and the chook pen is ready except for a door. On balance I think we’re winning.

I’m pretty well too. Christmas took it’s toll, because of course I did too much, took on too much, ate all the inflammatory things. But I’m bouncing back and I feel like there are new possibilities in 2019. We’ve been chatting in the last few weeks about the best way for our family to have everything we need. This is a conversation that would have been mostly about money in the past, but the shape of things is changing. It’s felt weird not to be earning an income, but honestly I can no longer imagine giving my valuable time and energy to anything that doesn’t nourish my soul or make a difference in the world. Life’s too short and I have too much to offer. Also, the world is changing around us, and I just can’t see the point in going on as we have previously.

The fact is, we’re on a collision course with ecological disaster, and I personally think it’ll hit us far, far sooner than most people expect. Recent reports suggest changes to the global climate could lead to societal collapse within 10 years, driven primarily by failing agriculture and financial systems. I don’t know if that’s realistic, but I don’t think it’s impossible. I certainly think that our children will grow up in a very different world to the one we did. None of us have any experience in making decisions to create happy, healthy and resilient families with this kind of future ahead. I don’t think we can assume previous wisdom will guide us well in the big decisions we make about savings, jobs, mortgages, education or retirement. We’re making it up as we go along and I imagine it’ll look different for everyone. For us in recent years, it looked like focussing on our health, reducing our mortgage and having more time together. In a marvellous turn of events, it also looked like a few acres of land! In 2019 I want to delve deeper into what we might be able create here, in light of where I think we’re headed as a society.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of the home being a centre of production, rather than a centre of consumption. This is how it’s mostly been for human beings, up until not so long ago, and I’m drawn to make it so again. Obviously I’m not alone in this thinking. Plenty of folks have worked themselves to the bone finding out that self-sufficiency ‘aint all it’s cracked up to be. But, I think it’s a mistake to aim for individual or family self-sufficiency today. To begin with, we would each need more land than is available, and most of us are unwilling or unable to embrace the level of hard work and simplicity that true land based living requires. Besides, other some of the early European settlers in this and other lands, most of our ancestors were far from self-sufficient (unless you descend from one of our nation’s first peoples, in which case we’ll have to come back to that, cos I’m trying not to write essays anymore!). Generally, our European, Celtic and Northern ancestors lived in communities, and they were self-sufficient within the broader community. Food, clothing and tools were mostly produced at home rather than purchased from a store, but no one family produced all that they needed. Everybody worked hard within the home and the neighbourhood to produce what they could, and people specialised. That way they could share, trade and help each other out so that everyone had what they needed. Money may still have changed hands, but earning a wage was nowhere near as important for survival as it is today.

Consider what percentage of our material needs are met by our own efforts of production today? What do you produce rather than consume? For our ancestors it would have been maybe 80 – 90%. If we go far enough back, it’s probably 100%. A few years ago I could safely say that I produced nothing. Zip. Zero. I was 100% on the consumption side. Today, the scales are tipping; just a touch, but definitely tipping. I now produce some of my own fruit, vegetables and herbs. I’ve started making tea and medicines and simple home remedies. I make gifts of seedlings and herbs and home cooked meals. We also consume less in the leisure category now, given much of our fun and entertainment is sourced from the land and our imagination. I’d like to see that balance tip a little further. Could we produce 30% of what we need? What about 50%? More?

With the land that we have, we could certainly produce most of the fruit and vegetables our family needs. We could also probably produce things like honey, olive oil, mushrooms, medicines, teas and herbs. By buying in materials from local producers we could also theoretically make soaps and cleaning products, baskets, tools, and even some of our linen and clothes. None of it is particularly complex – no more so than the professional work I used to be paid for. It just takes time and effort. So what if this became my work? Instead of being paid to leave my home and work to buy what we need, why couldn’t I put the time into the production of those goods? If it were possible, surely this would make us happier, healthier and more resilient. We would have less money it’s true, but we’d enjoy doing this work. We’d be stronger, fitter and spend more time outdoors in nature. We’d eat more home grown organic produce, and spend time together producing it. Would it be the best of use of my time? That’s a tough question. I mean, I could certainly earn more money than the value of what I’d produce, but what would I buy with that money, and would it benefit us or the planet to have those additional goods?

In the end, our family needs at least one income. We may never be able to produce or acquire all our basic food needs without money, and then there are bills and train tickets and medical costs and school fees and various luxuries and consumables that we (currently) choose not to let go of. The ideal arrangement would be to share the earning between Scott and I however, so that we can both spend time on production in the home. Right now Scott can’t do as much on the property as he’d like because he works five days a week out of the home. Given I’m here all the time, I’m the best person to focus on production, but my limitations are different. I’m held back by strength, practical skills and at the moment my health. Truth is, Scott could probably contribute more than I in terms of pure production. He’s stronger, fitter, and he can dig and lift and cart heavy wheelbarrows all day. He can also build structures with power tools, repair pumps and install irrigation systems. But he’s quite happy earning an income for now, and I’m the one stuck at home with a barrowload of enthusiasm, fewer practical skills, and limited energy!

The answer of course is to simply begin. We are in a great position to work towards the ideal, in which we’d both bring in income and both work on the land. For now though, Scott has a great job that he enjoys, and that covers the consumption side of the equation. I have the time and enough spare energy to put some of it production, and we get to spend weekends together as a family. That’s a pretty good start. My biggest job this year will be food production and practical skills development, but there are other dreams bubbling away in the background too. I want to work more with herbs over this next phase of my life. I’m embracing my inner witch, with tonics and salves and strings of drying herbs everywhere. I’ve been deeply immersed in reading, learning and playing with ideas around connection to land and place, and how this plays into the feminine mysteries, working with nature’s cycles and stepping into our power as women. One day I will work with women and herbs and stories and ancient wisdom. Marrying the mythology and stories of our ancestors with the indigenous wisdom of this land is a thread I tugged on in 2018, and the more I pull, the more magic it reveals. Who knows where the unravelling will end. I hope one day to have something to share, though what format it will take remains a delicious mystery for now.

These mysteries may one day translate to paid work but in the meantime I’d like to start shifting the money responsibility away from Scott so that I can get his skills (and company) at home a few more hours a week! I’ll never go back to corporate work, and for the moment I’ll need something flexible and pretty low key, but I think 2019 might be the year to step back out into the world. I feel ready to give it a shot. The tricky thing will be finding something that’s both meaningful and low stress, and ideally that I can do from home! I wouldn’t dare risk my newly recovered health on a long commute and high pressure deadlines that push me back over the edge. I’m sure it’s not impossible and I’ve already started having some conversations – who knows where that might lead. I’ll keep you posted. I’m excited by all of these projects and explorations. Summer is in full swing and there’s food to harvest and winter crops to plan. The wheel of the year rolls on and as much as I’m enjoying the abundance that sunshine brings, there’s a part of me that’s already secretly longing for winter to roll back around so I can sit by the fire and knit again!

Winter in the Kitchen Garden

In the last post I wrote that we built vegie beds at the end of summer in our proposed kitchen garden space. It was a last minute rush, as I’d pretty much ruled out having the energy to get it done and maintain it over winter.  Then all of a sudden we had a burst of enthusiasm, and decided to get something in so we could learn what works. So one day in early Autumn, we decided to throw it together. There was no time (or budget) to build raised beds and we didn’t have much in the way of materials, so we bought in a little bit and scraped together what we could.

This was the spot. It was a lush green ‘lawn’ in spring, but had become dry and sad looking by the end of summer. The aggi pipe was here when we moved in so a few half-hearted efforts were made to direct laundry water onto it over summer, before giving it up as a waste of effort.

This area is really sheltered on all sides. It’s on the south side of the house (house is to the right of the above photo, opposite the pergola) but set far enough back from the house that it still gets heaps of sun (or so we thought…)  To the West we have that big pergola, the carport and lots of tall trees behind. On the South side is the neighbour’s fence and more trees, and on the East side are some low shrubs looking out to a big open area that is also pretty sheltered on all sides by trees. It’s the perfect spot for a kitchen garden. Close to the house, warm and sunny, sheltered from North and South winds and, with the addition of one fence, will be completely enclosed from troublesome pests (though not possums, as we’ll be inviting them in via the trees and fences.. hmm)

The whole process of building and planting these beds took a few hours over two weekends. To begin with we cut what was left of the grass down as low as possible with a lawn mower and gave the ground a deep soaking:

You can see the bushy Limelight Acacias along the back in the above photo.  We’ll replace those with Feijoa bushes one day, hedged behind a low fence, with a gate at the end of the path – hopefully a job for early Spring.

Next we covered the whole area with flattened moving boxes, to provide a weed barrier, and threw grass clippings and weeds on top so they wouldn’t blow away while we sourced straw, compost and manure.

The following weekend we got a small load of a mushroom compost/soil mix delivered from the local nursery and laid it out in four raised beds. We later realised the beds weren’t high enough, so we sacrificed the furthest bed and added the extra soil to the other three.  Just around the corner was a place with an aptly named ‘Poo and Plants’ stall out the front of their house, so we picked up a few $5 bags of well rotted manure, which you can see Scott spreading here over the beds:

A couple of hay bales were thrown in the boot at a local roadside stall and we spread it over the cardboard for paths and then again over the beds as mulch once the seedlings were planted. Next time we’ll be more careful about our hay bale choice, as these bales were full of grass seeds and gave us a nightmare of weeding all through winter.

A few fallen logs were dragged up from the woodland, and cut to make edges, seedlings planted and mulched with the extra straw – et voila – three winter garden beds:

 

It was 27th March before we got these beds planted. In Bed 1 we put broccoli, Bed 2 was beets and red cabbage, and Bed 3 was cauliflower. A few weeks later on April 13th we planted garlic.   As we’d sacrificed Bed 4, I squeezed the garlic in on the ends of Beds 1 and 3, with the rest popped in pots and around the edges of herbs.

So what did we learn? Well, I’m really glad we went to the effort, cos the first lesson we learned was that the front third of each bed was in shadow for most of winter.  You can see a bit of shadow from trees in the top left of the above photo.  This should have alerted us to where the sun would be by the time it dropped low in the sky by mid-winter, but we chose to simply leave the first 1/2 a metre of each bed unplanted and hope for the best.  Next year we’ll move the beds up another metre again, and plant something shade tolerant along the front. Maybe greens or mint.

I also spent a lot of early Autumn picking green caterpillars off the Broccoli & Caulis. I’m not sure if they did much harm, but I might try Dipel next time – we’ll see! (It’s apparently ‘natural’ but I’m still reluctant to use it). Apart from that we basically did nothing to these beds over winter. Whenever I walked past I pulled out a handful of grass that arrived courtesy of our hay bale mulch, but that’s it.

Here we are nearly 6 months later:

We’ve just finished a rush of broccoli that we had to eat fast as they were all going to seed at once. I’ve pulled one beetroot just to see if anything was happening (it was delicious, but tiny!) and there’s no sign of any cauliflower. The garlic in Beds 1 and 3 looks a bit yellow, probably from the wet (or frost?), and the red cabbage looks like it might be on track, but we’ll see.  My fairly amateurish guess is that we probably got the cauliflower and broccoli in too late, and with the unseasonably warm spring, things haven’t had enough time to mature before bolting. The garlic won’t be ready for another month or two, so I’m not sure how the damp will have effected it, and it remains to be seen if we maybe planted baby beets or if they’re going to grow some more!

So many lessons!

   

 

Designing our Permaculture Garden

It’s six months since we settled here on Gunung Willam Balluk country just outside Macedon, and many hours have been passed blissfully imagining the garden paradise we’ll co-create here with Mama Nature. My explorations have taken me on a fascinating journey of discovery about the nature of this land before white colonists wrested it out from under the people who had cared for it for countless millennia. How might I find the right balance between allowing the land to return to it’s natural state and creating a productive garden that can feed and support my family and community? The people of the Gunung Willam Balluk who lived here at the foot of Mt Macedon certainly found that balance, but they were operating within a like minded community of widely dispersed clans that worked together to protect and gently influence an ecosystem that covered all of the surrounding land; in fact the entire country from coast to coast. I can only influence what happens on my two acres. There’s no hope of me recreating that kind of balance. So what’s the next best thing?

Left to itself, what would this patch of cleared, degraded land return to?

 

I’ve read that, left to its own devices, land will always return to forest. It’s a nice idea. But in a changing climate, with bushfires a real and frightening risk out here, I’m not sure this is a good thing. Not for us certainly, and perhaps not even for the land. There are many who argue for the planting of mostly indigenous species, and I don’t disagree, in principle. But as we step into the unknown, facing an uncertain climate and the inevitability of energy descent, I have to question if two more acres of indigenous forest is in anyone’s best interests. Possibly I would think differently if I knew more about indigenous plants, particularly edible and medicinal ones. This is something I definitely want to learn more about, but I know it will take time and experimentation.  Ultimately I keep returning to permaculture; a sustainable system that produces food and supports people while simultaneously regenerating the land. Permaculture allows for native species and habitat regeneration, but also makes space for food gardens that are predominantly European. Most importantly, a permaculture system is designed to mimic nature, being self-sustaining and requiring minimal human intervention or external inputs, especially once established.

What would Ningulabul, the last head man of the Gunung Willam Balluk clan think of permaculture, I wonder? Would he and his family consider it a worthy compromise, given the limitations we face as caretakers of this small patch of fenced, degraded land? I’d like to think that our attempts to create a self-supporting system that can feed a family while regenerating the soil would earn a nod of encouragement at the very least. And if we can create a small, flourishing ecosystem on our two acres, perhaps that might inspire others around us to try it out. It’s certainly worth a try.

I still love the idea of a forest, but in our case we’ll be moving away from indigenous species for around 80% of the canopy.  Our forest will be a little more fire retardant, deciduous to a large extent, and a lot more edible.  My garden folder is overflowing with sketches that range from highly structured kitchen garden to barely managed food forest. The end result, I think, will be something in between. The vision is a lush, productive garden with winding mulched paths and surprises at every turn. Fruit trees will be planted in guilds, not straight lines. Each tree will have it’s own little ecosystem of species that attract bees, improve the soil, provide nutrients and mulch and offer protection from the sun and wind. The result will look more like it was designed by nature than by humans.

 

Imagining the lush wetland this might one day become. View back up to the house from below the dam in mid-summer.

 

A more traditional gardener might deem it messy, but nature doesn’t do straight lines or bare earth. In my vision, fruit trees drip with plums, apples, pears and peaches, nasturtiums wind up their trunks and bees hum around clumps of lemon balm gone to seed. Next to the house a fenced, potager garden will be more structured, with vegetable beds lined up around a central lemon tree. This space will be more intensively worked, with vegetables and herbs on seasonal rotation, and espaliered fruit trees and berries providing an edible border. It won’t be as tidy as a traditional kitchen garden, because well, that sounds like a lot of work! We’ll be using the guild philosophy here too, focussing on companion plants and allowing nature to creep in and do what it needs to. But ultimately this is a food garden with a job to do, so it will take a little more oversight than the food forest. Between the kitchen garden and the food forest, a giant mulberry tree shades a lush green clearing surrounded by edible hedges that explode with berries of every variety. Pergolas dangle grapes and kiwi fruit, vines wind up posts and tangle with pumpkins, and culinary and medicinal herbs flow over the edges of paths. Down the back, hazelnut trees encircle a lily pad strewn pond that supports a thriving ecosystem of wetland plants and animals. Beyond that a shady pocket of indigenous woodland supports local wildlife and the return of delicate native orchids that used to grow wild in the area.

Magnificent huh??

Of course, at some point one has to land back on solid ground, and with my health placing significant limitations on what’s possible right now, we decided to start small. Funny that!  First we had to prioritise a few things that would make living here more comfortable. This included clearing the stormwater drain that overflows and threatens to flood right through our front door every time it rains. We also needed to block up breezy drafts, install a slow combustion wood fire and fit window coverings that insulate from Macedon’s frosty winter. After many hours of research and investigation, we installed a Nectre wood heater (SOOO good) but are still procrastinating on window coverings and other matters of insulation. Breezy drafts will be addressed in the next few weeks. The stormwater drain was partially unblocked but now we need the guy with the expensive high pressure hose solution to help us out; currently pending budget allocation!

Meanwhile I’ve been scribbling away on a garden plan and figuring out what our priorities for year one would be. The plan is a work in progress, and will probably continue to be indefinitely, but the main sectors have emerged and it’s starting to look like something we can work towards. Here’s a picture of what my planning process looks like.

It’s pretty fluid, and I’m not quite ready to firm up those pencil scribbles. It would be great to have a fairly locked in plan by the end of the year, at least in terms of the main sectors, though of course things will continue to shift. There were a few things we knew we wanted quite early on, so here is what made the Year One wish list:

Year One Wishlist

  • Plan the Garden (will this ever end..?)
  • Clear trees that pose a fire risk close to and overhanging the house
  • Clear trees that block winter sun to the northern house aspect
  • Clear blackberries from around the house and cut back the giant bush that we’ll keep to harvest from
  • Burn the enormous piles of branches and pruning that we inherited with the house
  • Prune the ornamental grape on the northern pergola and train it to block hot summer sun
  • Create a composting system
  • Build a chook pen and get chooks!
  • Build a fence for the Kitchen Garden and create four no-dig winter vegie beds
  • Build supports for espaliered fruit trees in the Kitchen Garden and plant bare rooted stone fruit
  • Plant a lemon tree, a fig and a mulberry
  • Make a start on the food forest with bare rooted apple, plum and pear trees over winter
  • Remove a Honeysuckle Grevillea and Limelight Acacia from the proposed herb garden space
  • Cultivate the herb garden for potted herbs that moved with us from the city
  • Dig swales (trenches) to capture storm water that currently runs off the sloping block
  • Have beds and soil ready for Spring vegies and herbs in the Kitchen Garden
  • Plant hazelnut trees around the dam
  • Plant reeds and other filtering water plants in the dam and establish a fish species that will eat the yabbies

So how did we go?

Halfway into year one, we’re mostly on track with what we wanted to have done by this point. A lot of the jobs are not much fun in winter, so we’re mostly hibernating til the warmer days of Spring. The garden plan is partly done and will continue to evolve. We’ll probably have to let go of a few winter jobs that we’re running out of time on. I don’t think the dam improvements will happen this year, and hazelnuts are looking like missing the cut for now. The espaliered stone fruit might also come in year two. But all things considered, I think we’ve done alright!

In the very first days on the property Scott and our new neighbours made short work of the two 6 metre high pencil pines that completely blocked sunlight from the main living areas. Scott gradually hacked his way through the blackberries and a variety of scruffy trees overhanging the north side of the house.  It was slow work with a succession of secateurs, handsaws and borrowed chainsaws. Finally Scott’s dad come to visit and immediately went out and bought us a proper chainsaw of our own. Thanks Vince! That said, it’s massive, terrifying and I will never use it.  More than happy for that to be a man tool..

We got Rhett the Tree Man out and spent an enlightening few hours discussing the relative merits of every tree on the block with him. What an incredible source of knowledge he was, and so generous with his time. Rhett’s most valuable advice was, with the exception of dangerous or fire risk trees, to wait a full year before deciding what to clear. Within weeks, a tree that I had been planning to sacrifice in favour of a promising deciduous sapling, burst into colour with the most incredible display of bright orange flowers I’ve seen. Thankfully that fella will be staying on!  We still haven’t had Rhett back to lop the 6 – 8 big eucalypts that overhang the house, but that will definitely be done before Summer, along with a couple of giant pines that block light and retard growth underneath their canopy. That will leave us with a good supply of mulch ready for making paths and a bit of firewood to supplement next winter’s biggest expense. Luckily local regulations allow us to remove pines, as well as any trees within 10 metres of the house.

Burning last year’s garden waste

As soon as fire restrictions eased up we had a giant bonfire and worked our way through all the branches and prunings that had been left behind by the previous owners, as well as all the prunings we’d already accumulated ourselves. A lot of smaller garden waste is in a giant compost pile in the utility area behind a shed, but I wouldn’t technically call it a composting system. We still use our black plastic compost bin for kitchen scraps, but when the weather improves I hope we can set up some proper bays and start producing compost a bit more effectively for our pretty significant garden needs. As for chooks, the jury’s still out on on whether they’ll be here in Year One.  We really want them and their yummy eggs, but we need to find time to build a chook house and pen, or convert an existing shed (currently the preferred option). With Scott working full time, and me not so handy with a hammer – yet – it might have to wait it until it reaches the top of the list.

Sheet mulching a patch in the Kitchen Garden at the end of Summer.

I’d almost given up on the kitchen garden for year one, but over a couple of big weekends in Autumn we managed to throw together four no-dig garden beds and get in seedlings of broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower and beetroot. A few weeks later I popped some garlic in the ends of the beds, around a potted lime tree and anywhere else I could find good soil!  Scott pulled out the ugly acacia that was gracing the sunniest spot in the garden, and we got a delivery of compost and planted parsley, garlic chives, lavender, rosemary, sage, oregano, marjoram and thyme.

Scott up a ladder, pruning the unruly grapevine

When the leaves had all dropped on the grape vine Scott got to work on pruning and I’d say it’s about halfway done. The massive overgrown blackberry by the dam still needs pruning. This will be a huge, not so much fun job. With luck we’ll get that and the grape vine done before Spring overtakes us with new growth – quickly approaching!

 

 

 

A few weeks ago we picked up our bare-rooted fruit trees; 2 apples, 2 plums, a crab apple and a fig. It’s a small start, but we didn’t want to bite off more than we could manage right now. As it turns out, it’s just as well we didn’t get more as the weather has been awful ever since. Eventually we bit the bullet and went out in the freezing rain to dig the holes. When I say ‘we’ I really mean Scott.  I shovelled a bit of soil and gave instructions, but I am nowhere near being able to dig holes just yet!  Next year maybe.

Alexa though, pulled on her gumboots and got stuck in, digging more than her bodyweight in heavy clay and jumping in the holes which rapidly filled with water. We crossed our fingers that the trees wouldn’t drown and got them in, and then went back out the next weekend and hauled them out of the quagmire; just like quicksand to the kids’ delight!  Most of our mini orchard has now been replanted a good 30cm higher and hopefully will stay above the water line.

While we were out there, Scott got started on digging a swale that sits just above the food forest to capture storm water and hold it there while it soaks into the soil, rather than running off.  We’ll observe it in this week’s rain to see how it works before filling with mulch.

I’ve been recording all our progress and will share more stories and pictures soon. With the slim, windswept forms of our baby fruit trees visible out the window, a real productive food garden is starting to feel like a real possibility at last. I’m so excited to see the vision emerge and I think I may burst with joy the day we harvest the actual fruits of our labours. Can’t wait to share it all with you.

 

The BIG change we always wanted to make

I called this blog Slow Change because it was going to be the story of how my family and I made small, slow changes to our life. It was all about slowing down and living as though we had bought a little house in the country and were living the simple life. Even though we hadn’t, actually. Even though circumstances made it impossible for us to buy that little house and create that idyllic life of country simplicity. My dreams of kitchen gardens, orchards, home made jams, freshly baked bread, lush green views, fresh air, and above all financial freedom were not to be realised.

Faced with this disappointment, it dawned on us that there was still plenty we could do to slow down and live simply, without actually moving anywhere. Thus I coined the term slow change to represent the small, slow changes we would make to find pockets of peace and simplicity in our otherwise fast paced city life.  That was exactly what we did, and it made for a nifty blog name, but I did end up feeling like it was just a positive spin on a massive compromise – what I really wanted was that little house in the country dammit!

So we slowed down, and we really did make a lot of changes. These days we cook and eat differently, shop differently, spend our time differently and ultimately value time and people over money and things. We grew a few vegies and learned a LOT about what not to do in the garden. I didn’t make jam, but I did bottle tomatoes and make kombucha. We also ditched a whole lot of nasty plastics and chemicals from our lives and started buying bulk organic food, at least some of the time. As it turned out though, that nifty blog name was more apt that I could have realised back at the beginning.  We hit a fair few roadblocks along the way to change, and the pace of change was certainly slower.. and bumpier… than we anticipated.

Some of the tough stuff we experienced distracted us from our slow lifestyle for a while, but ultimately placed us even more firmly back on the slow bandwagon in the end. Scott found out he had rectal cancer, so we went through all of that and came out the other side. We had some crazy Ketogenic diet times with Beck’s epilepsy before we got his seizures under control. I burned outgot diagnosed with various tedious things and stopped working.  We realised we couldn’t live on one salary, so we sold our house and moved into a rental for a year. I didn’t get better, ended up with some more diagnoses and had a hysterectomy. It was an exhausting, overwhelming few years, full of ummm….. opportunities for growth and…. valuable perspectives on life!

And so, there we were. Cashed up but homeless, living in a little house in Melbourne’s Inner North surrounded by another family’s furniture. A family that would be coming home soon, so we REALLY needed to make a decision about what was next for our little family. How WOULD we live on one salary indefinitely while I rebuilt my health and embarked on a totally new career path? How could we balance financial stability with happiness and good mental and physical health. How on earth could we manage to keep slowing down and living in alignment with our values to create the life we’d dreamed of?

And then… OH MY GOD WE DID IT!

We bought the little house in the country.  Look!

Exhibit A: Little house in the country. Ignore plastic bag in foreground (who put that there????).

 

Yes we did! Well OK, the house is actually not that little. But it’s most definitely in the country, there is definitely enough land for a kitchen garden and an orchard and trees and fresh air, and there has definitely been some bread baking going on*. We’re not quite as financially free as we might have liked, but we now own a home with the potential to support all of the dreams we can possibly dream up and a few more besides. So it’s a done deal. We moved in over the holidays and spent a few weeks juggling around getting it painted, which meant we finally had the house to ourselves on the first day of school. And now here I am, a week later, alone in a fresh, white, quiet house, with (almost) all our furniture, quite a lot of boxes and absolutely no plans. Bliss! A couple of days ago I felt like writing for the first time in quite a while. This is what I call an exceptionally good sign.

In other news I’ve been pretty exhausted. House hunting, moving, school holidays and just getting our new place set up has really taken it out of me. It’s been non-stop for 3 or 4 months and through it all I’ve only just kept the fatigue at bay. It’s that old familiar story of running on adrenaline, then hitting the wall as soon as you stop. Not the best approach when you have adrenal fatigue, but it was kind of unavoidable under the circumstances. I’m still feeling optimistic about recovery, and really it’s all been leading up to this moment. Now I can finally stop, walk in the garden, breathe the fresh air, rest when I need to and simply take the time I need. I can already feel the rejuvenating effects of this place; this place that I’ve dreamed of for so long. Finally here! All the pressure of striving and planning and problem solving has finally dissolved and I feel relaxed and hopeful. A lot of things have fallen into place, and even though there’s still plenty to work out, there’s time for everything and I’m not in a hurry.

I don’t know when I’ll have the energy to get back into running my women’s circles. I really loved holding space for women, but it was shocking how much energy it took from me. I had to put that, and all my other plans, on hold so we could get through the moving process. Now we’re here and it looks like I need to go back to square one and start my recovery again. It’s oh so frustrating and tedious to have so many plans and so little energy. I’m getting better at sitting with it though, and I’m getting better at recognising that I’ve stretched my limits and putting on the brakes before I go over the edge. I’m a slow learner – but hey it’s all about ‘slow’ change right???

Anyway, I hope to be able to continue sharing the journey with you. I don’t know what the next year will be made up of. I might be focussed mostly on my health and recovery, or I may be well enough to continue my Reiki journey and begin working with women again. I hope to be able to share the transformation of our beautiful 2 acres in the Macedon Ranges and share some of the ups and downs we experience as we re-connect with the land and discover how we might breathe new life into it.  It’s something I’m approaching on multiple levels. I’ve started sketching out a plan for the property, using all those permaculture skills that I knew I’d use one day. But also I’m wanting to sit and breathe and connect with the spirit of the place and feel what it wants from us. I love wandering around this little piece of paradise and discovering all the surprises the garden presents as it changes every day. I may have to start an instagram account, cos I would love to share all this colour and wonder with you. Check out just a few of the little details I’ve enjoyed this week:

Anyway, watch this space. There’s plenty more to come. You can sign up to receive emails when I post updates, because you really can’t rely on Facebook to let you know these days. No doubt you’ll have noticed that I post pretty sporadically so there’s not much chance of it becoming annoyingly spammy. Or if, by some strange turn of events I become a prolific sharer, you can easily unsubscribe. Thanks for coming along on the ride with me.

 

*I never said I was the one baking. Thankfully Scott is the resident baker around here, and I just get to eat it 🙂

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