Project update – volunteers, garden tech and potting-up

A lot has been going on these passed few weeks at The Lions Gate.

Volunteer Lions

The Lions Gate flyer
The Lions Gate flyer

After putting up flyers for the project around all Napier campuses we’ve managed to get approximately 30 volunteers with very little work indeed. They’ve already started working with us thanks to the tremendous efforts of our horticulturist and volunteer coordinator Kat Dunlop (the harmonious gardener). Last week around 10 student, staff and external volunteers helped to move around three tonnes of leaf mulch from Craiglockhart to Merchiston!

Tam and his amazing techno watering system

Thanks to Tam Collier (Estates) we’ve been donated a timer-based watering system. All we need is some hosing to get it up and running. Tam has been a mine of information and a great support to us over the past few months. It was he who alerted us to the presence of nearly 20 tonnes of rich leaf mulch he’s been amassing at Craiglockhart over the years. Big up to him.

Gardena Automatic Water Distributor
Gardena Automatic Water Distributor

Plant the seed

Planting has begun in the Keder greenhouse and will continue for the foreseeable. So if you’d like to put your green fingers to work please email We’ve got tomatoes, beans, garlic, cabbage, alpine strawberries, nasturtiums, lettuce and kale on the go already.

Planting the seed
Planting the seed

Silent shredder

Oh, and finally we fixed up our ‘silent’ shredder for the first time, so we can mulch on site. Works a treat and is pretty quiet considering what it does.

Kat using the silent shredder
Kat using the silent shredder

Public engagement award

Delighted to have been awarded £1000 by the School of Computing for a public engagement event planned for late-July.

The proposed open-day involves:

  • introduction to permaculture talk with question and answer session by a leading permaculture author and teacher
  • tours of the sites including foraging for produce to make a soup for a late-lunch
  • demonstrations of AR interactions and other tech systems in-development
  • planting a fruit tree guild
  • an ideas sprint/factory
  • volunteer sign-ups

We also hope to employ a photographer and artist to capture the event. We’re hoping around 40 people will attend. More information to follow as we develop our ideas.


It’s been a challenging process, but Kat and I with the help of the university Health & Safety group have carried out risk assessments and identified suitable insurance certificates to enable volunteer input to The Lions Gate Project.

We’ve also drawn up a Volunteer Policy – with associated forms (consent for use of media, induction checklist and registration document), as well as an evaluation form to gather data on visitor and volunteer experiences of The Lions Gate Project. Thanks to the Research and Innovation Office for supplying an evaluation template that we rejigged for our purposes.

Volunteer Policies and Evaluation Forms
Volunteer Policies and Evaluation Forms

Today, we have three volunteers, Fabien, Lucie and Gabrielle visiting to test the process and help us refine it. Gabrielle and Lucie are kick-starting a similar project at The University of Edinburgh’s Kings Buildings.

Federation of City Farms and Community Gardens

The Federation of City Farms and Community Gardens
The Federation of City Farms and Community Gardens

The Lions Gate has joined the Federation of City Farms and Community Gardens (FCFCG).

The FCFCG provide a strong voice for the community growing sector by:

  • representing project interests to governments, funders and other key decision makers
  • developing new funding streams for members
  • Influencing future policy that has a positive impact on members work

VKRF: Information for Action on Climate Change design meeting

On the 4th September I met in Edinburgh with Chris Warburton-Brown and Nigel White from the Permaculture Association to discuss the design of online resources for the VKRF funded project: Information for Action on Climate Change.

A particularly productive and warm-hearted design meeting that garnered agreement on key decisions concerning the project:

  • Regular Skype sessions on the first Thursday of every month at 11a.m.
  • Nigel to handle the development of the online system
  • Myself to provide UX experience, in the first instance wire-frames of the simplified card-based interface solutions and the broader detailed web pages
  • The need to employ a designer around December time
  • Employing the services of a marketing expert
  • A plan to focus efforts on developing one solution for each of the main climate change challenge areas:
    • Water
    • Soil
    • Plants
    • Food
    • Agro-ecology
    • Buildings
    • Energy
    • The economy
    • Social organising
    • Personal resilience
    • Changing world-views
    • Education

It’s an exciting project with great potential for follow-on funding, possibly via crowdsourcing.

Final Permaculture Design Course weekend #6

The final PDC weekend took place on the weekend of 5/6th of August 2017 at Garden Cottage, where our three sub-groups presented their designs.

Saturday 5th

First up was John and Morticia with their ‘Stirlingshire golf course permaculture boundary’. John managed to obtain footage of a drone flyover of their site! Morticia Skyped-in from home. A great project, excellently delivered.

After lunch we presented our ‘Lion’s Gate Interactive Permaculture Garden’ – which seemed to go down well too.

Lions Gate Mood board
Lions Gate Mood board

Katrina Dunlop’s Lion’s Gate design analysis (PDF)
Erik Biol’s Lions Gate three projects analysis (Word doc)
Lions Gate design elements (PDF)

Gordon Solway's community mind map
Gordon Solway’s community mind map

Sunday 6th

Graham cooked us all a personalised breakfast. Delicious start to the day.

After breakfast Paul delivered his and Conni’s ‘Guerrilla Gardening’ in Tottenham, North London. An inspiring and radical approach to permaculturing urban waste-ground.

We then had lunch and everyone gave a bit of themselves to the group. There were songs, stories, poems, limericks and games.

We then tied things up and said our goodbyes.

A wonderful experience with some truly fantastic people.

Permaculture Design Course #3

Spring flowers
Spring flowers

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, scattered 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, or if a greater diversity of people worked and lived on it, 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), were led by Nancy 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.

Garden cottage in Springtime
Garden cottage in Springtime

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.

Sunday 9th

Outdoor group discussions
Outdoor group discussions

We started off the session in the living room, everyone sharing a thought about what they’d been musing after yesterday’s session. It’s life-affirming to share these things with fellow ‘travellers’ and there’s a positive feeling amongst the newly-formed German, French, Scottish, English, American and Italian fellowship. Morticia hit on what my research is about when she offered that ‘doing, improves retention – it grounds it’.

We chatted about Thomas Bewick woodblocks, how paradise in Persian means walled garden, the garden as a symbol and example of life lived fully – the Garden of Eden, ashrams.

Pathways to permaculture
Pathways to permaculture

There was talk of a project in England where a local community wanted to improve its relations – so they commenced a ‘year of listening’ after which they discovered that: a) most people knew how to garden, b) most woman made clothes, and c) most people were cash strapped. They built a garden as a hub for their shared activities. So this was ‘garden as commonality’ and garden as ‘tuning in with surroundings’. There was an insight that permaculturists are huggers.

We then moved onto Lao Tzu and the Tao De Ching (something I hadn’t put my head into for twenty years) and how we could use the permaculture principles as ‘a response to problems as they arise’.

Graham then provided further insight into permaculture, noting that in his experience there were three kinds of people interested in it:

  1. people interested in homesteading
  2. people interested in enhancing their existing profession
  3. people who are looking for ‘the answer’

Permaculture is about asking the right questions.

The indoor session ended with talk about Sociocracy – whoever turns up is the right people. We were encouraged to use provocations and the session wrapped up with two questions:

  1. What don’t you have?
  2. And, how are you going to get it?

We had another wonderful lunch and spent the afternoon gardening and sitting around the outside table discussing all manner of things whilst peeling and preserving freshly harvested garlic. Most of this discussion I managed to film.

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.

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.

Permaculture Design Certificate #1

Permaculture Design Certificate at Garden Cottage

Garden Cottage
Garden Cottage

In late January I attended the first of six weekend workshops to gain my Permaculture Design Certificate.

A group of twelve like-minded souls participated in what was an inspiring two-day introduction. Graham and Nancy Bell provided a warm and welcoming atmosphere, and many new friendships were forged.

We surveyed a wide spectrum of the permaculture view, alternating between garden, kitchen and living room, engaged in practical, philosophical and methodological interactions.

I also filmed Graham doing a demonstration of how to graft plants.

By the end of the weekend – everyone was enthused, and the drive home with some fellow participants was one alive with ideas and possibilities.