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

Free trees from the Woodland Trust

I ordered 270 trees from the Woodland Trust earlier in the year and they arrived today. Thankfully they are whips – young, slender, unbranched shoots.

The Woodland Trust provide free trees to community projects – a fantastic opportunity for all to provide much needed lungs for the planet.

We’ll use some of the trees in both the Lions Gate and the rooftop kitchen allotment/orchard as stand-alones and hedging.

The pack includes; Grey Willow (Salix cinerea subsp. oleifolia), Silver Birch (Betula pendula), Cherry (Prunus avium), Downy Birch (Betula pubescens), Elder (Sambucus nigra), Field Maple (Acer campestre), Goat Willow (Salix caprea), Hazel (Corylus avellana), Rowan (Sorbus aucuparia), Oak (Quercus robur), Crab Apple (Malus sylvestris), Dogwood (Cornus sanguinea), Holly (Ilex aquifolium), Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna), Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa) and Dog Rose (Rosa canina). Lot’s of scope for edible hedges, wood harvesting, jams, jellies, sloe gin, christmas decoration and nuts. The trees will also provide windbreaks, wildlife, soften the landscape and lighten the mind.

I’m hoping to utilise them on other campus’s too.

Free trees from the Woodland Trust
Free trees from the Woodland Trust

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.

Merchiston Gardens plans

Between Estates and myself over the past few months we’ve been developing our ideas for interactive permaculture gardens at Edinburgh Napier’s Merchiston campus.

Infrastructural work is soon to begin – adding in a corridor from the library to the Lion’s Gate Garden and some electrical points and plumbing for taps.

The plans below detail our broad ideas at present.

Lion's Gate Garden
Lion’s Gate Garden
Kitchen garden and rooftop allotment
Kitchen garden and rooftop allotment

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.

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.

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.

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.