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


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

Health and Well being Committee

Delighted to have been invited onto a newly-formed committee that Kevin Wright (Engage Manager) has set-up to look at health and well being at the university. Three areas/groups have been developed; body, mind and environment, each with academic, student and professional services representation. I’m an academic voice in the environment group – though there is obviously plenty of cross-over between groups.

An associated ‘health promotion day’ has been organised for the 14th of March at Craiglockhart, where I’ll have a stand to discuss the gardens project’s and permaculture more broadly.

3rd Year Group Projects 2018

I’m working with three groups of students from the School of Computing 3rd year group project module this year. I have two groups looking into hyper-local WI-FI networks so that we can offer up bespoke immersive experiences in both garden sites at Merchiston. Thanks to Stuart Toland (Information Services) for lending a hand. The other group is designing a garden web-app.

3rd year School of Computing group projects
3rd year School of Computing group projects

DIS 2017 Poster Provocation

DIS Provocation 2017
DIS Poster Provocation 2017

From six-thirty to eight on a balmy 12th June early evening I stood by our poster-garden in the Edinburgh Assembly Rooms, George Street and talked to interactive systems designers about the need for digital systems design to do more to address environmental degradation, and the social, economic and spiritual malaise associated with it.

A number of attendees made the effort worthwhile by engaging with our ideas, showing interest in our Merchiston Sustainability Gardens project, and professing similar interests and concerns. There is definitely a core of like-minded souls out there, doing meaningful work around food, natural systems and concern for the planet.

And though, to some extent it didn’t feel like the right forum for my ideas – there was value in being different and the publicity of any event at least ensures you visibility. In actuality, I would say that five or six academics (from early-career researchers to professors) showed a genuine interest in my ideas.

On reflection I think we could have been more provocative, and in the future my intention is to tweak the nose of the mainstream somewhat harder.

The details of the paper associated with this poster are:

Sustainable HCI: Blending Permaculture and User-experience. (2017)
Callum Egan, David Benyon
Proceedings of the 2017 ACM Conference Companion Publication on Designing Interactive Systems Pages 39-43
ISBN: 978-1-4503-4991-8

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.

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.