Permaculture Design Course #3

On the weekend of the 8/9th April I attended the third session (days 5 and 6) of the Permaculture Design Course run by Graham Bell at Garden Cottage, Scottish Borders.

Saturday 8th

As per previous weekends, four of us car-shared down from a pre-arranged pick-up point at IKEA. During the journey we discussed the mono-agriculture exemplified all around us, and how we have become accustomed to this landscape as the norm – fields upon fields of just a few crops, grazing animals, managed forestry, small pockets of deciduous trees, a minimal amount of people living on the land, and geometric perimeters of hedging.

When you start to think how diverse this landscape was in the past, and indeed would become if left to its own devices, you get an idea of where permaculture wants to take us – from monoculture to polyculture.

After a warm get-together over coffee the 10 participants (and a visiting anthropology student from France studying permaculture people), Nancy led us on a salad leaf hunt round the garden. We discovered lemon sorrel, ground elder, marjoram, garlic mustard, wild garlic, ramsons wild garlic, lungwort flowers, primrose flowers, kale flowers, lemon balm, fennel, horseradish leaves, ruby sorrel, french sorrel (citrus taste), salad burnet and land cress. We then convened in the sitting room for the background to module three.

Most of the discussion surrounded soil – silt, sand and clay, the mineral fraction that determines the loam. We carried out the classic – soil in a jar with water experiment to determine the loam of the soil at Garden Cottage. We rubbed soil between our fingers, observed it, smelled it, someone even ate a little. We talked about pore space, lazy beds, lightening soil with sand, draining heavy soils with forks, ploughing around contours, the living and dead matter of soil, how organic material improves sand, how humus is ten times as good at holding water than clay.

We mused the surface area of a mature oak tree – 400sq hectares!, and that you can fit 400 oak trees in a hectare – the huge increase in edge that this is.

We then covered – minimising tillage, how digging is counter-productive, how good soil has a crumb, flocculation, calcified seaweed, how worms take minerals into the soil, how mole hills denote worms, how good the soil of a mole hill is and of Charles Darwin’s seminal work: The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms.

Graham then led us onto concerns about the destruction of soils – that, built up over tens of thousands of years are now chronically depleted due to chemicals use, since the geologically tiny timeframe of industrialisation. Interesting to note that of course all farming was organic until industrialisation.

Finally, we looked at earthworms – brandlings, fungi, bacteria, nematodes, bees, beetles and ants etc and how the combination of theses living creatures build a cycle of richness into the soil. We learned how trees communicate via mycelium, and – how permaculture is about creating balanced ecologies – habitats where life just happens.

Lunchtime arrived in a flash and as in previous visits we were fed a wonderful curry comprising the gardens’ produce. In the afternoon we gardened in the sunshine, happily musing and sharing our newfound knowledge from the morning’s session. The day ended with harvesting huge roots of horseradish, cleaning, chopping, preserving in vinegar and returning the small roots to tyre towers to begin again the process. Everyone worked happily together – there was much mirth.

Scotland’s Garden Festival Project

Prototype drawing courtesy of Richard Thompson
Prototype drawing courtesy of Richard Thompson

Very lucky to have Richard Thompson working with us on our permaculture UX exhibit at this years Scotland’s Gardening Festival at the Royal Highland Centre 2-4 June.

Richard is developing the interactive parts of our garden utilising Arduino and Processing.

We’re designing a two metre square garden that demonstrates the main seven layers of a permaculture forest; the canopy layer, low tree layer, shrub layer, herbaceous layer, rhizosphere, soil surface and vertical layer.

Prototype drawing for Gardening Scotland exhibit
Prototype drawing courtesy of Richard Thompson.

The garden will be augmented with a playful interactive experience, that allows people to understand the workings of the forest via digital viewports at varying heights.

Following the festival we’ll transplant the garden to the Lions Gate project at Merchiston campus.

Public engagement award

Delighted that we’ve been successful in our bid for £2500 of public engagement funds for our interactive permaculture garden exhibit at this years Gardening Scotland festival at the Royal Highland Centre in June.

This will enable us to: employ an intern for a two months; get some technological kit; and of course purchase the necessary plants to convey the layers of permaculture in a novel user-experience.

Looking forward to working with the Grow Observatory, the Permaculture Association and the Red Shed Nursery to realise this exhibit.

SICSA Future Cities: The Economy of Collaboration

Parrot Flower Power Plant Monitor
Parrot Flower Power Plant Monitor

On Thursday March 2nd I attended the SICSA Future Cities: The Economy of Collaboration workshop at The University of Dundee organised by Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design’s Mel Woods, Nick Taylor and Drew Hemment.

The workshop was well-attended and included the following presentations:

  • Dr Mara Balestrini – Citizen Sensing – Making Sense H2020. IAAC, Barcelona and Ideas for Change.
  • Dr Drew Hemment – City Verve – Bottom up and collaborative approaches in the UK’s most recent Smart City IoT Demonstrator in Manchester.
  • Dr Nick Taylor – Grassroots Innovation around Community Technologies in Ardler, Dundee. ESPRC Hacking for Situated Civic Engagement.
  • Dr Katarzyna Sila-Nowicka – Smart Data Collection by Citizens. Understanding of the data, related privacy issues and possible applications. Urban Data Centre, University of Glasgow.
  • Ingi Helgason – The MAZI project: developing a Do-It-Yourself toolkit for creating local community wireless networks. Centre for Interaction Design, Edinburgh Napier University.
  • Cat Magill – Mediating a collaborative design process in the Engergy for All Project. Research Associate at University of Edinburgh and Edinburgh Living Lab.
  • Alan Dobson and Andrew Kesterton – Smart City notes from a Small City, Dundee City Council.

Some interesting points from the talks include:

  • the shift from data to the use-case
  • cities cover three per cent of the earth’s land but output 70 per cent of the pollution
  • co-city, fab city, the bristol approach, the city commons method, smart kids lab, making sense, city sensing stations
  • the problem of the accuracy of sensors
  • makers, hackers, tinkerers as focus
  • the use of inventor kits, harnessing common knowledge, neighbourhood scale, DIY tech
  • how do you signal what is actually going on to participants?
  • cityverve, faultlines
  • research in this area is anti-disciplinary – practice-led
  • this kind of research positions itself as a touchpoint between critical art and user-acceptance
  • urban big data centre, energy data for all

In the afternoon we broke into groups and looked at critical challenges. Our group tackled collaboration and co-design and how art & design may contribute to acceptance of ‘smart behaviours’ (a term no-one was comfortable with). We thought a lot of the problems stemmed from: the cognitive complexity of the technologies; the perceived value of the outcomes; the often top-down methods used; and the dynamics of particular communities.

Following the workshop the organisers were kind enough to give me one of the Grow Observatory ‘Parrot Flower Power Bluetooth wireless plant monitor’ sensors to test (see image). They’ve apparently bought thousands of them for their project. So in the coming weeks I’ll be helping them calibrate the sensor and also personally be critiquing it.

Permaculture Design Course #2

Garden cottage pond
Garden cottage pond

On the weekend of 25th-26th February I and a group of ten other ‘agents of change’ got stuck into PDC 2 at Graham and Nancy Bells’ Garden Cottage in Coldstream, Scottish Borders. Garden Cottage is the oldest food forest garden in the UK (26 years mature).

An early start on Saturday, picking up ride-shares at Barnton and IKEA, for kick off at 09:30. The journey takes about an hour.

Garden cottage snowdrops
Garden cottage snowdrops

On Saturday we focused on capturing and storing energy – potential, kinetic, entropic. We perused yields (true yield = outputs minus inputs). We looked at reduce, reuse, repair, recycle and the need to produce fertility in the soil. We talked about; choices; Earthships; biological, mechanical and chemical solutions; Diggers and Dreamers, grafting apple trees onto hawthorn hedges, William Lindsay Renwick, the Jean Pain Way, and patterns.

Lunch was a delicious curried combination of produce from the garden, after-which Nancy and Graham’s son Sandy (a trustee of the Permaculture Association) took us walkabout – noting inputs and outputs. The day ended with Graham asking us a couple of questions to muse:

  • What resources do you have?
  • What do you still need?

Sunday began with observations of the morning – then we dived into needs – identifying over 50. We also covered weather, windroses, Ekman Spirals, The Orchard Collective, Jonny Appleseed, wind turbines, Incredible Edibles and a whole host of stuff about quick growing plants; sycamore, gorse, broom, willow, alder, blackthorn, sea buckthorn, rowan, ash and salads that do well over winter – land cress, salad burnett, leaf celery, ruby sorrel. We touched on vernalisation, Swedish craft colleges, chicken tractors, parks, and the Gorgie Farm Seed Swap.

Garden cottage canopy
Garden cottage canopy

Lunch was a fabulous mix of veg from the garden (with a meat option for the non-veggies) with lots of baby/micro leaves on the side, kimchi and a selection of seeded breads, followed by an apple, marzipan and nutmeg tart. Yum.

The weekend drew to a close with lots of discussion and the over-arching sense that we need to capture carbon (plant trees), and halt the damage being done to the continental shelves (clean-up the seas).

There’s no course in March but we return early April, eager to take things further.

Pot Art

Pot Art
Pot Art

David Benyon and I are writing a ‘provocation’ for the Designing Interactive Systems – Space, Place, Interface (DIS 2017) conference in Edinburgh 10th-14th June at the Assembly Rooms.

Our ‘poster’ will be a fruit tree guild in a pot that will demonstrate the idea of companion planting and the layers used in designing permaculture gardens. The exhibit will act as a gateway to our research, and we’re hopeful that we’ll have some interactive aspects available too by then – maybe one of the GROW Observatory’s soil sensors and some audio-visual-haptic experience.

Our research concerns blending permaculture and user-experience, and the pot-garden is a prototype of our larger work at Edinburgh Napier’s Merchiston campus where we’re developing a full garden space along these lines.

Gardening Scotland 2017

Gardening Scotland 2017
Gardening Scotland 2017

Very pleased to announce that we’ve recently managed to secure an exhibitors space at the upcoming Scotland’s Gardening Festival, 2-4th June 2017 at the Royal Highland Centre.

We’ll be exhibiting in the palette garden area with a permaculture guild augmented with various interactive technologies.

More details to follow when we have them….

GROW Observatory

GROW Observatory
GROW Observatory

Nick Taylor (University of Dundee) from the GROW Observatory EU project attended our workshop on Sustainable HCI – Insights from Permaculture Workshop back in September 2016.

The GROW Observatory is “a citizens’ observatory for growers, researchers and decision makers.” and I’m attending a SICSA workshop they’re running on March 2nd around grassroots smart cities, which includes speakers from GROW and Making Sense (a related EU citizen sensing project).

We’re also hoping to be a part of the GROW Observatory’s pilot campaign. More details to follow…..

Merchiston Gardens

Lions Gate Garden looking north.
Lions Gate Garden looking north.

The Lions Gate Garden project with its associated kitchen garden off-shoot continues to progress and pull in stakeholders and interested parties.

A meeting has been scheduled for 9th March involving Properties & Facilities, Information Systems/Library and the School of Computing to move the project further along. The idea is to embed our project within the grander plans for Merchiston, along the Creative Campus theme.

We’re also hoping to work closely with the design department on lighting and haptic interactions, and on the design of specific garden elements, such as pots, markers, touch-points, bird-boxes etc.

Kitchen Garden space looking east
Kitchen Garden space looking east

Our ideas are gaining traction. That is, to provide spaces for students and staff to unwind, learn, experiment, entertain, play and perform, within a permaculture garden setting that has novel, engaging, fun, thought-provoking, digitally triggered experiences to hand, if you so wish to engage with them.

Key to the success of the project is an outward-facing approach. We’re keen to make the edges of the project, transitional zones where university meets public, and to foster close-working relationships with local communities, businesses, charities and individuals.

Merchiston Gardens plans
Merchiston Gardens plans

I’ve been spending necessary time within the two campus spaces to get a feel for their particular environments and to allow the creative juices to flow. Drawings, photographs and notes are accumulating at a fair pace now, and along with the extensive reading I’ve been doing on permaculture, garden design and sustainable HCI (I’m building a library wall at home to accommodate all the texts), and the 15 years of expertise I have in user-experience practice (and even longer association with media production) – new ideas are beginning to emerge from the ether. Exciting times ahead.