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.
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.