I spent 4 amazing months from January 2009 interning with Geoff and Nadia Lawton mostly on their farm in the Channon NSW, Australia, but I also got to travel with them to some other locations as well.
Zaytuna Farm has been in the hands of Geoff Lawton for 9 years, though he reported to me that he has spent a good portion of that time away, teaching and doing those amazing projects you can find out about online. Still, what has been accomplished here is amazing. There is a system of swales and dams that drought proof and provide a seemingly infinite amount of irrigation for the developed 30 acre half of 67 acres. Roof tanks provide all the drinking, kitchen and bathing water, heated by the sun. An off-grid solar system provides electricity. All gray-water is purified through a reed bed system and a compost toilet handles the human waste while the chooks, worms and compost pile process the rest of the organic waste. I’m told that there have been a lot of additions since I was there, including new buildings, earthworks and gardens.
There is a small kitchen garden and larger main crop garden where we were harvesting corn, malukhiya, (orchorus olitorius), amaranth, and okra. Four dairy cows provided more milk than we could drink and the chooks are quite productive as well. This is obviously a lush place and enjoys the sub-tropical climate of northern New South Wales. There have been extensive food forest plantings throughout the site. You can walk through and see the progression from day one plantings, put in with seedlings from the large on-site nursery, to the maturing 9 year old trees. When I arrived, the Feijoa were just kicking into full production, yumm! And I haven’t talked about the buildings or world class permaculture courses happening here.
I’ve had a couple great moments of epiphany. One was the first time we put in a new patch of food forest. Geoff describes himself as a serial over-stacker, but I understand now the reasoning. Here’s how it goes: Take a 10 meter circle, freshly chicken tractored and mulched. Its free of weeds and full of nutrient. Put in 2 or 3 main canopy target fruit trees, plus a couple under-story fruit trees. The 3-6 main pioneer support trees, all nitrogen fixing, fill out the tree planting. But its not done yet. We add a couple shrubs and lots of bushy perennial garden herbs, plus a scattering of annual garden veggies and lots of cuttings of perennial vines and low perennial cover plants. Into this goes a bunch of pioneer tree seed and a full planting of an inoculated annual cover crop. There is little room for weeds to get into this system, both in space and in time, as one species succeeds the next. By the time the annual cover crop dies off, the perennial vines and plants will have had time to establish.
But, as I came to realize after spending more time on the farm, the system still needs attention at various key points in its evolution. Water is an obvious one, but what I found most fascinating was working in an older food forest system doing “chop and drop”. The pioneer trees shoot up and take over the canopy as the slower more valuable trees come up underneath. At key times in the season you wade into this jungle-like growth and start cutting. Watch out! It may look like a machete is the best tool for the job, but its about precision. Its a chop and trim of all the pioneer trees, back to sticks, and a drop of all material at the feet of your target trees, some of which are hidden in the rampant cover crops and vines. Any weeds that manage to infiltrate get the same treatment. When we began the first chop and drop the forest looked pretty good to my untrained eye, lush and thick. The chop and drop seemed a bit severe. I was hesitant at first to cut away big trees and healthy vines. But what happens is a rapid acceleration of the system toward something that is both beautiful AND productive. As their tops are cut, the nitrogen comes off the roots of the pioneers, and the canopy is opened for light to flood the slower trees underneath, which had been benefiting from a warmer, under-the-canopy, micro climate through the winter. The heavy mulch helps keep back any weeds and provides another slower burst of fertility as it breaks down.
The lesson was really emphasized when I did a “chop and drop” on a system that had been under-stacked, not enough things planted in the beginning. This section of food forest was more open and maybe a bit more “standard” in that the trees were planted far apart as if to accommodate their future, mature size. However what this creates is a vast number of unfilled niches in the landscape. The weeds go rampant and are difficult to cut back. If after all that work a target tree is lost to insects, frost or just isn’t a good choice for the site, there isn’t anything to fill its place in the system. Without perennial cover crops and pioneer trees to take up the niches it is “weeds” that come right back and then you have to battle or come up with other ways to control them. My thinking on what is a weed has changed entirely, after all the “weeds” are just working hard at a job that nature wants done. Its up to us to include in our design plants that do jobs that nature needs, shade, fertility, and erosion control, that also have benefit for us.
Another highlight of my permaculture studies was a week of travel with Geoff and Nadia to the area west of Canberra. As I hope one day to be able to read landscapes and do permaculture design I jumped at the chance to go traveling with Geoff and observe as he did 4 different consultancies and an Intro course. It was interesting to see how much of the consulting was starting right at the beginning, looking at water, swales, dams and access. Systems that at Geoff’s place were already in place and functioning so well that it was easy to overlook the huge amount of design and work that had gone before.
I also enjoyed the chance as an intern to watch and interact with new students as they arrived and took their PDCs or other courses. Being able to give them a tour of the land and explain some of the systems felt good and really helped me see how much of the learning I was getting was more of a slow-soak, just from working on the land everyday. Discussions with other students around the dinner table and in the field were rich and often shed light on areas where I was missing a connection or not seeing things clearly.
However, it was the quality of the courses and classroom learning that got me firmly and quickly established so I could understand and participate in the land and farm. There was so much going on all the time that opportunities to learn something new or hone old skills were never far away. It is great now, several years later as I prepare to teach my first PDC, to revisit my notes and experiences and feel a solid foundation of permaculture understanding that was formed during my internship at PRI.