Tag Archives: Gardening

a writer’s day

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Life has become more highly ritualised now that production of my doctoral creative artefact – my permaculture travel memoir – has begun to ramp-up.

In the morning, it goes like this…

5am or 5:30am rise. Empty potty (it’s too far to walk outside to the composting loo during the night). Get dressed. Wash face. Boil kettle. Pick fresh sprigs of mint; dodge bees drinking from flowers; brew pot of mint tea. Simultaneously brew a fresh cafetiere of coffee… carry both into the writing studio, place them on the heat-proof ceramic tile on my desk. Back to the kitchen to fetch a mug.

How can I impress upon you the importance of choosing the right mug? Which one today? So much depends upon it – the success of the written word.

Shall I choose this one or that? The green, or the midnight blue Japanese mug… the mottled, sandy-coloured oldies that came with the house… or my favourite, the cream-coloured Korean mug with the picture of the purple and yellow plums on the side?

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Start work.

Three to four hours of generating ‘fresh’ words. I call this process ‘seeding’. It’s how I flesh out the narrative and get words down on paper.

Break. 

Usually about 1 hour, during which I undertake a combination of the following: wash dishes (whilst listening to Margaret Throsby’s midday interview); make bed; browse the garden; eat lunch; prepare the evening meal.

Afterwards I resume work for another 2-3 hours. Time to edit the ‘old’ work I produced last week during my ‘seeding’ sprees. I call this part ‘weeding’, though sometimes it’s more like turning over the compost, trying to make the various elements disperse and break down more evenly. Integrate. Obtain a fine tilth. A perfect growing medium.

The final hour is of gentler, less intensive work. Sometimes it’s note-taking from secondary texts I’m working with: travel memoirs; natural histories; permaculture handbooks; or ethnographies…  This is the most brain-dead part of the day, reserved for things like notetaking or backing-up. 

Eventually, it’s time to finish. How to break the intensity of the day? 

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I try to leave the studio neat and tidy for tomorrow. Coming into an orderly space helps. I neaten the piles of books, pages, pens, drafts and drafts of drafts. They’re piling up. Soon I’ll have to confront them and file them away. When the doctorate is over I’ll probably mulch the garden with the seeding pages. I’ll be eating my words!

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Filed under Doctoral Research, Food, Life Writing, Literature, Permaculture, Uncategorized, Writing

Let There Be Flowers

Richie inspects the overgrown kitchen garden upon our return from England

Richie inspects the overgrown kitchen garden upon our return from England

It has come to my attention this spring how important it is to let annual vegetable plants flower and go to seed. It’s a common habit among kitchen gardeners to remove plants after produce has been harvested, that is, before the plants flower and set seed. The reason being that most of us have limited space in our kitchen gardens and would rather see the precious space devoted to new planting (which represents new yields), as opposed to ‘unproductive plants’ that are past their best.

I write this post with one of mine and Richie’s own kitchen garden beds in mind – the one closest the back door. Because Richie and I weren’t here to harvest the plants during peak productivity this particular bed of mixed lettuce, broccoli, bok choi, kale and rocket has gone to flower.

A  few mature cabbages are the only things that haven't gone to flower in this particular garden bed

A few mature cabbages are the only things that haven’t gone to flower in this particular garden bed

It has been three weeks now since we returned from England. Every day I wake thinking that today will be the day I remove the flowering plants, add them to the compost heap and sew some new vegetable seeds in their place: radish, lettuce, carrot, fennel and basil all do well at this time of year.

But when I step outside and lay eyes on the blossoming tumble-down brassica plants I invariably can’t bring myself to do it. Why? Because the plants are literally humming with bees. Hundreds of them! European honeybees (Apis mellifera) as well as Australian native bees (Tetragonula – previously called Trigona). It’s such a joy to see and hear them at work that so far I have stayed my hand, allowing the plants (and bees) to keep on doing what they’re doing. At various time throughout the day I pause in my work to watch the native bees queuing at the entrance to the yellow broccoli flowers, one waiting for another to exit before making its own way inside.

What harm will it do, I ask, to leave the bed another couple of weeks until the flowers have faded and the seed heads – which have already formed – go crisp, brown and mature? Normally I’d make some attempt to save the seeds, but Richie tells me brassicas cross-pollinate promiscuously, so I’m reluctant to save seeds that might not grow true to type. What bastard children might these inter-species brassica unions beget?

Rocket-broccoli: brocket?

Bok-choi-kale: kak-choi?

Which brings me back to the ethics of the matter. Is it best to replant the flowering brassica-bed ASAP? This would ensure a steady supply of garden produce and would mean we don’t have to succumb to buying produce off the supermarket shelf. Or, should I leave the bed in question alone until all the plants in it have flowered and are dead? Perhaps I could go part-way, removing, say, half of the flowering plants, thereby freeing-up half the space in the bed for new plantings?

Keeping a steady supply of fresh produce coming from the garden into the kitchen is one of the priorities of kitchen gardeners

Keeping a steady supply of fresh garden produce coming into the kitchen is one of the priorities of kitchen gardeners – here’s one of Richie’s famous multi-leaf and herb salads

When I find myself in one of my more compassionate moods I wonder if removing plants before they’ve reached the natural conclusion of their lives is ‘right’ under any circumstances? Is killing a plant mid-cycle in any way similar to slaughtering an underage animal – a yearling cow or a calf raised for veal? And just as importantly, don’t we have an obligation, as gardeners, as human-animals, to share our garden produce with other non-human animals once we’ve received our ‘fair share’ of the produce – with bees for instance?

I suppose what I am saying is that I don’t rightly know the answer to any of these pesky questions. But more than ever, I feel there should be a place in Richie’s and my garden for vegetables that are flowering and setting seed – for them to stay in the ground until they effectively ‘die’.

The more wrinkles I get and the more grey hairs appear on my head the more I think it’s artificial (dare I say ‘unnatural’) to see a garden full of plants in their prime – no ‘unsightly’ or ‘old’ plants in view. To me, it’s the garden-equivalent of going to a party or a club where  over-thirties aren’t permitted entry. What fun is that?

In the name of diversity, I reckon it’s nice to nurture garden beds where babies, adolescents and geriatrics are crammed in together: creating pleasing variations in texture, colour, size. Inclusive multi-generational gardens serve a spiritual as well as an ecological function – seeing plants growing old and dying reminds me in a gentle way that I too will gradually stiffen, grow old and die. My body, like the bodies of the elderly plants in my garden, will return eventually to the soil, replenishing the earth, providing fertility for something else to grow.

The beautiful and decorate casings of dried poppy seed heads peak through the fence in a Norfolk churchyard, England

The beautiful and decorate casings of dried poppy seed heads peeking through the fence in a Norfolk churchyard, England – isn’t it time to live in the presence of death and dying, both in our gardens and in our own minds?

Personally, I think it’s time to live in the presence of visual evidence of death and dying, and to celebrate the entire life-cycle of plants, human-animals and non-human animals from birth to death, start to finish, AND that we should grow food not only for ourselves but for other beings who have lives and minds and bodies of their own to sustain, for instance, bees. Which is why the flowering lettuce, rocket, broccoli and kale plants persist in our garden and are flowering right now as I write, and why the bees continue to be their favourite customers.

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Home & Away Part 1

Is it me, or are the desire to travel and the desire to garden at odds?

The reason I ask is that I find myself faced with the quandary of wanting to travel and wanting to settle (literally cultivate a home and garden).

Inside me, the hunter/gather and farmer/settler archetypes coexist in uneasy, sometimes antagonistic relation.

Me: the muddy boots of a permie (permaculture gardener) and the worn backpack of a bona-fide traveller. Eeck. A walking contradiction?

Me: the muddy boots of a permie (permaculture gardener) and the worn backpack of a bona-fide traveller. Eeck. A walking contradiction?

Not an ideal scenario, right?

Over the past few years I’ve attempted (with varying degrees of success) to harmonise my desire to travel with my desire to garden: I’ve gardened whilst dreaming of travel, and have even gardened whilst travelling, albeit in other peoples’ gardens (if the latter appeals to you I suggest you look into becoming a WWOOFer – a Willing Worker on Organic Farms).

Me WWOOFing in Central Italy - labors spent in service of anthers' garden

Me WWOOFing in Central Italy – labours spent in service of anothers’ garden

Although my heady months of WWOOFing during my overland odyssey from England to Australia in 2012-2013 were extraordinary and deeply rewarding, there was something that dissatisfied me, generally, about my experience:

I never stuck ’round long enough to reap what I had sewn.

The nature and manner of the type of travel in which I was engaged (long-term, multiple-country, terrestrial, low budget, low carbon) was such that no sooner had I settled down and begun to develop feelings for a place, than it was time to move on.

And on…

And on…

And on.

By threading one WWOOF to the next I finally made my way overland from England to Australia, via twenty-one countries. The entire journey took seventeen months to complete and is remembered as a series of falling in love with places, and then having to leave – learning gradually, and with distance, to let them go.

The good news, I discovered, is that as a species we’re admirably well-adapted to love broadly and widely, deeply and long. The understanding that I have cultivated over the course of my hybrid travel-gardening adventures is that humans are polyamorous in terms of their relationship to place: that they can belong to many places (and cultures) at once.

Mine and Richie’s beloved first-ever kitchen garden at The Patch, England

As I write, it occurs to me that one of the reasons I regard travelling and gardening as incongruous (and I admit, I haven’t decided outright that this is truly the case) is that gardening is something you do at home. Traveling, on the other hand is a practice you practice ‘away’ from home. Insofar as practices go, gardening and travelling share the characteristic of being place-specific. It just so happens that the places in which they occur are thoroughly incompatible, even opposite: home & away respectively. Continue reading

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SEED… new beginnings

Richie

There comes a time when even the most devoted travel partners go their separate ways. After 20 months of conjoined aspirations, Richie and I are separating (temporarily!) to pursue individual learning pathways; acquiring skills, gleaning knowledge and shaping up for a abundant and diverse future together here on the Sunshine Coast.

Richie’s bitter complaints that the final leg of our overland journey from England to Australia lacked a permaculture-focus are finally being laid to rest. As the photo attests – Richie’s not only turning Australian but he’s turning Australian in a very perma-way. Today he’s off to experience what may be the most memorable perma-experience of his life: one month WWOOFing with Geoff Lawton at the Permaculture Research Institute of Australian in the Channon, Northern NSW.

While I’m beefsteak-tomato-red with envy, I have my own work cut out for me. It’s application time. Time to put my money where my mouth is. Yep, that writerly PhD that I fled to England (via India) to avoid in 2007 has returned to haunt me and this time, I aint’ gonna turn and flee.

This time, I have a story worth writing: mine and Richie’s story. A travel story. A permaculture story. An earth story. A story about seeds, ideas, social change, friendship and the beauty of the natural world. The encouragement and feedback I’ve received from you, the readers of Typo Traveller, have helped me to believe that the world is ready for SEED: a permaculturee travel memoir, and I’m ready to write it.

I’m currently in the process of writing a proposal and approaching supervisors to oversee the work. While Richie’s digging swales and tweaking irrigation systems, I’ll be writing literature reviews and pawing through old university transcripts for evidence that I’m a hardy, worthy, creative, credible PhD candidate.

In the meantime, if the writing becomes too much, and I find I need a break, there’s my parents’ potato patch to water; an ageing shed to pull down; Augustino corn to hand-pollinate; dill to plant; sourdough starter to feed; kefir to culture; my sisters’ herb garden to cultivate… and the beautiful Sunshine Coast hinterland to re-explore.

Did I mention books to read – Waterlog, Bird Cloud, The Wild Places, The Old Ways, Permaculture Design by Aranya: A step-by-step guide, Do Travel Writers Go to Hell…?

Bon Voyage lover-brother, Richie, go well! ‘I’ll see you soon…’

p.s Sorry about the photo, I couldn’t help myself! 😉

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Qiāng watchtowers of Suopo

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As we stepped carefully across the rotted timber planks of the bridge separating Suopo village from the south side of the Dàdù River the strain and hardship of the past few months began to disassemble. There’d been few opportunities lately to feel as free and unburdened as this: no visas; no language barriers; no early starts; no borders; no rucksacks; no interference – not today.

Prayer flags, nimble and translucent as bat’s wings, threatened to take off in the wind. Gazing at them I was reminded of the weeks we’d spent, four years ago, walking between the villages of the Nubra and Indus valleys in Ladakh, and rejoiced at the persistence of communities, the world over, who live and work in harmony with nature. Continue reading

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Breaking crust

The farmhouse, Momavlis Mitsa

Saturday morning in Argokhi. There is work to be done: water butts to fill; pigs to feed; floors to sweep; tea to brew – but there’s no hurry. I sit on the steps cracking hazelnuts, listening to the sounds passing up and down the lane on the opposite side of the above-head-high metal fence. I hear ducks squawking, the lazy turning of cartwheels, neighbours fussing, the crank of the timber grape press, and the occasional sound of apples falling from the tree. It’s mid-autumn. Every warm day between now and Christmas is worth its weight in gold.

Working on Momavlis Mitsa (Future Earth) farm in Argokhi has ameliorated the discomfort of waiting for visas in Tbilisi. Instead of sitting like ghosts in some disembodying hostel, milking the wifi and kicking stones down Marjainishvili on the way to the Metro, we’re working outdoors, using our lungs and hands to lift things, fix things, bake things, grow things.

Creating new raised beds

Richie and Sam adding rotted compost to the soil

In the garden we’re asked to do things we’d never do at home, in our own garden: pull weeds, hoe earth, turn soil, plant monocultures and raise new beds without mulching them. I bite my lip as Inken, the 18-year-old longterm German volunteer, instructs me on how to break the ‘crust’ that has formed on the surface of the soil due to successive phases of watering and sunshine. We work the hoe forward while simultaneously walking backwards down the aisles. I wonder if I’m disturbing the roots of the small plants, and why there are no bugs or worms in the soil.

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12 Principles of Permaculture

Let’s get things straight. ‘Permaculture’ is not gardening. It’s the conscious design of “landscapes which mimic the patterns and relationships found in nature, while yielding an abundance of food, fibre and energy for provision of local needs” (David Holmgren). In short, it’s a design system for creating human settlements that function in harmony with nature.

Now we’ve got that settled, let’s travel in time to Malin Hermitage, Transylvania: home of Philippe, Adriana, 7 donkeys, two dogs and one cat. You’ve arrived in time for the commencement of the 2012 72-hour residential Permaculture Design Certificate (PDC), taught by Pascale and a motley crew of 7 facilitators (representing 4 different countries).

Malin Hermitage, Romania

Donkeys!!!

19 students are in the process of arriving. You know no-one. You know nothing, only that you’d like to live closer to nature, developing the skills and habits of mind that will help you materialise an abundant, connected and self-reliant future. Maybe you’re a student, an activist, unemployed, a builder, an engineer, a mother, or a grandfather – perhaps you’re none of these. The point is, you’re here to learn. So let’s get started.

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12 PRINCIPLES OF PERMACULTURE

  1. Observe and Interact
    By taking the time to engage with nature we can design solutions that suit our particular situation.
  2. Catch and Store Energy
    By developing systems that collect resources when they are abundant, we can use them in times of need.
  3. Obtain a yield
    Ensure that you are getting truly useful rewards as part of the working you are doing.
  4. Apply Self Regulation and Accept Feedback
    We need to discourage inappropriate activity to ensure that systems can continue to function well. Negative feedback is often slow to emerge.
  5. Use and Value Renewable Resources and Services
    Make the best use of nature’s abundance to reduce our consumptive behavior and dependence on non-renewable resources.
  6. Produce No Waste
    By valuing and making use of all the resources that are available to us, nothing goes to waste.
  7. Design From Patterns to Details
    By stepping back, we can observe patterns in nature and society. These can form the backbone of our designs, with the details filled in as we go.
  8. Integrate Rather Than Segregate
    By putting the right things in the right place, relationships develop between those things and they work together to support each other.
  9. Use Small and Slow Solutions
    Small and slow systems are easier to maintain than big ones, making better use of local resources and produce more sustainable outcomes.
  10. Use and Value Diversity
    Diversity reduces vulnerability to a variety of threats and takes advantage of the unique nature of the environment in which it resides.
  11. Use Edges and Value the Marginal
    The interface between things is where the most interesting events take place. These are often the most valuable, diverse and productive elements in the system.
  12. Creatively Use and Respond to Change
    We can have a positive impact on inevitable change by carefully observing and then intervening at the right time. Continue reading

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