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Julie Firth: Drylands Permaculture Farm


Photos by Ross Mars

Julie Firth has created a permaculture oasis near Geraldton, Western Australia. Although not a true desert, the area clearly has a dryland climate, with annual rainfall as low as 200 mm during drought years, summer temperatures reaching well over 40 °C and relentless wind gusts of up to thirty kilometres per hour. It has taken careful design and thoughtful placement of features to allow things to grow there.

Julie is originally from New Zealand, and was working in the mining industry in WA when she bought her three hectare property of degraded land about ten kilometres north of Geraldton. Not long after buying the land she undertook her PDC with Bill Mollison and Jude Fanton in New South Wales, and immediately started to transform her property with renewed vision. So began her inspired development of the Drylands Permaculture Farm, and its associated Yilgarn Seeds and the Drylands Permacuture Nursery.

The property is designed in zones: intensive gardens close to the house, through to revegetation projects, and with dryland plants towards the outer boundaries. Shade is crucial, and there are sheltered walkways in all directions. Various structures or plants are used to delineate one zone from another, including archways, lippia herb lawns, strawbale seats, sculptures and fences. Other innovative structures used include: clay floors, sandbag garden edging, bottles and cans to fill gaps in walls, and recycled building materials.

Most of the site is densely planted so that the understorey and internal plants – such as guavas, citrus, tropical almonds, figs, medlars and mulberries – are protected from strong winds. Outlying plants are less dependent on water, and this is where you will find jujube, pomegranate, cactus (mainly Cereus spp.), marula, kei apple, Natal plums, lebbeck (Albizia lebbeck), and some thorny African plants that are well-known survivors in drier areas. Climbing succulents such as dragon fruit are found on trellis structures around the property. There are lots of chickens, ducks and geese, and a few emus in pens along the southern boundary.

With water in such high demand, the 200 kL rainwater tank is reserved mainly for the nursery – for plant propagation and seed raising. More tanks are proposed, but with decreasing rainfall it may be difficult to harvest more water off roofs.

Despite the harsh environment, Julie makes a living from her property, from plant and seed sales, farm tours, consultancies and occasional seed collecting. She has also established a charity called the ‘Drylands Foundation’, with a mission ‘to inspire and empower local communities with the practical knowledge to implement ecologically sustainable development principles’ in dryland environments. She plans to continue developing the farm: in 2017 she will add a large common room with an ablution block and three B & B cabins.

The Drylands Permaculture Farm is an inspiring property to visit. It will feature as one of the highlights of the northern tour during the 13th Australian Permaculture Convergence (APC13) in Perth in October this year.

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