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Melliodora: The Art Of Permaculture Living

melliodora
melliodora
melliodora
melliodora
melliodora
melliodora

Clockwise from top: Melliodora kitchen; Su milking the goats; cheesemaking with goats milk; Su and David; the kitchen garden in summer; kid goat. Photos by Kirsten Bradley

If you’ve studied, read or participated in any permaculture- related activities in Australia (or far beyond), then you’ll be aware of Melliodora, the outstanding domestic-scale permaculture demonstration site situated in the village of Hepburn, Victoria.

Melliodora is perhaps one of the best known sites in the world which demonstrates permaculture design on a household scale. But it just feels like a happy and healthy place, with: a garden full of nut, fruit and forage trees, berries, vegetables, geese and goats; mudbrick homes; and lives worth living.

Founded by David Holmgren (co-originator of permaculture) and Su Dennett and their family in 1985, this site has progressed from a blackberry-covered hillside to a one hectare settlement of self-reliance and low-energy living at its best.

There’s so much to take in: mudbrick passive-solar houses; forest gardens; energy-efficient approaches to all aspects of living; water-in-landscape design; and animal systems. It’s hard to imagine the site before, as a scramble of brambles on a bare hill.

David and Su chose the site, on the edge of Hepburn village rather than a more rural location, for a few reasons – as David explains, ‘I didn’t want to become a chauffeur service, spending most of my time driving to and from town for soccer practice, school, music and grabbing bits and pieces’. So finding land where most of life’s immediate needs were accessible by foot or the local bus was a priority for this family.

In addition, the parcel of land that Melliodora sits on was cheap. With a slightly west facing slope covered in brambles, a small seasonal creek running through it, and its location on the edge of town, it was neither urban nor rural, and it needed lots of work to make it pretty. In the 1980s the site didn’t impress most potential buyers. However, from David and Su’s perspective there were many advantages: it bordered a public creek (later to become the Spring Creek Community Forest); they liked the community in the area and the climate; the possible water catchment looked good; and the site couldn’t be shaded out by neighbouring properties’ plantings.

Thirty years later Melliodora has made the most of the site’s advantages, allayed the disadvantages as much as possible, and continues to evolve as a living permaculture system.

Self-Reliant And Connected

David and Su developed Melliodora with self-reliance in mind, but they also wanted to be connected to their community. ‘The principles of self-reliance and personal responsibility have been central to everything we’ve done, from being owner-builders and growing our own food, to homebirth and homeschooling’, David explains. ‘This is not driven by a desire to separate ourselves from society, but a strong belief that it’s through citizens taking more, not less, responsibility for their own needs that the necessary social revolution to a sustainable society can be best initiated.’

With this goal in mind, they have developed many integrated systems at Melliodora. Organic waste from the house cycles through chickens and compost systems, and back into garden soil. The goats graze on brambles, pasture, public land and woody trimmings from the orchard systems, turning cellulose into protein rich milk. The water that falls on the property is caught and stored in various ways, for drinking, irrigation, potential energy and thermal mass. The orchards, nut groves, main crops and kitchen gardens all provide seasonal food supply for the residents. An integrated Community Supported Agriculture and wholefood co-op pickup point, run from the main garage, provides social glue and resilience.

House Design

As with any homestead, the ‘big house’ is the beating heart. A smaller mudbrick/timbercrete cottage is further down the hill, between the two dams; built for David’s mother Venie, it now houses another family. There is also a tiny wooden ’tea house’ above the top dam.

As an owner-builder project, the big house took David, Su and friends two years to complete, and is as unique as its inhabitants. This is not set-and-forget living – although the house is well designed and built, it evolves as they live in it: many small changes and improvements have been, and will continue to be, made as needed.

Passive Solar

In the central Victorian climate getting passive heating and cooling right makes a big difference to the energy inputs, and year-round comfort of a home. The big house faces north, to catch the low winter sun and draw it inside. Solar energy warms the internal thermal mass of the house created by mudbrick walls and floor.

In summer, with the higher sun angle, the line of the roof shades the internal walls to prevent unwanted summer heat entering the house. The western side of the house has a large pergola, covered in summer by extensive kiwi fruit and grape arbours to make a large, cool shady space which functions as an outdoor work, harvesting and living area. In winter, the leaves fall and allow sun and light in to the western side of the house.

Greenhouse

The big house also features a passive solar greenhouse, attached to the north side, outside the kitchen. The greenhouse is a multi-purpose space that brings considerable happiness and yields, in all four seasons. It is used as a heat collector, growing space and mudroom.

In winter the greenhouse lets the low sun in and catches that solar energy to warm the internal garden beds, the mudbrick house wall and the kitchen. The garden beds are full of out-of-season greens and herbs, protected from frost by the clear roof and the slow heat bank provided by the mudbrick wall. This makes it easy to nip out for a few salad leaves or herbs on a rainy winter day.

The end of the greenhouse, next to the kitchen door, functions as a mudroom – providing a warm, dry place to get muddy boots on and off, store coats out of the weather, and transition from the outside to the inside of the house without bringing half the garden soil in with you.

In summer the greenhouse is deep in large green leaves: cucurbits, tomatoes and other vegetables, rising high to shade the greenhouse roof and the house wall beside it.

Overhead misters keep the greenhouse pleasantly humid on dry summer days, and also provide a valuable moist buffer-zone for the house as part of Melliodora’s fire plan.

Energy Efficiency

Apart from these design features, Melliodora has many other examples of low-tech, energy-efficient living, including power generation, water harvesting, food preservation and storage, not to mention the home office that allows integrated low-energy livelihoods.

One of the simplest low energy solutions is the cool-cupboard in the kitchen. This draws cool air from the cavity underneath the earth floor, then channels it up through the cupboard (and past the cooled food) and out through a flue above. This is a completely passive, food-cooling unit, powered by the tendency of air to rise as it warms.

Wire baskets in the cool cupboard contain everything from homemade ferments of all kinds, vegetables, condiments, leftover meals and homemade goat’s cheese. Thanks to tight-fitting doors, the cool cupboard’s internal temperature is kept separate from the ambient kitchen temperature; its contents sit happily at an average temperature of 10 °C in winter, and a maximum of 17 °C in summer. A small bar fridge in the kitchen keeps the fresh goats milk – from daily milking – at 4 °C; everything else is kept cool, but not cold. This is an excellent compromise for an energy-efficient home-based food system.

The house also boasts a cellar, full of preserves, storage crops, food preparation gear and other things that need, or benefit from, being kept cool, but are not required daily in the kitchen.

The kitchen garden, although not often thought of as a food preservation unit, is actually one of the best. If managed well, you can have fresh salad greens and other vegetables stored in the ground or on the plant, and only harvest as you need them! About ninety per cent of the vegetables needed for the household at Melliodora are produced right outside the door.

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melliodora

Clockwise from top left: harvesting honey; the greenhouse in summer; the kitchen garden in summer. Photos by Kirsten Bradley

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Water

Melliodora’s water design represents a pragmatic approach to available resources. When designing the house, David wanted to make the most of the town-water connection as a backup system for resilience, especially in the fire season because of its excellent head pressure.

A small rainwater tank behind the big house collects rainfall off a small section of the roof, and provides drinking water for the house, through a separate tap in the kitchen.

The majority of the rain that falls on the house roof, and the roof of the second studio building on the property, collects water in two large ferro-cement tanks that were built on site. This water is pumped by a solar pump to a header-tank uphill from the house, and is used for washing dishes and people.

Melliodora’s two dams spill from one into the other, via a series of silt traps and small ponds. Dam water is pumped by a solar pump up to a second header-tank, and used for irrigating vegetables, fruit and nut trees across the property. The top dam’s catchment includes hard surfaces from the surrounding township, and fills quickly in a short downpour.

The second dam fills from the property itself, and from the overflow of the dam above. In turn, when the system is full, the excess water spills passively down to Spring Creek, next to the property.

Home Economy

Every aspect of Melliodora is set up with the household economy in mind, rather than the monetary economy. Self-reliance is key, and the house and its integrated and surrounding systems are designed accordingly.

The food needed is grown, raised, collected or milked, as best as can be managed. Some foods are plentiful, some are not, most are highly seasonal, and no foodstuff is assumed. The menu changes daily, and markedly, throughout the year.

Ideas gaining popularity now, such as no-waste living, have been a given in this house for decades. There’s no rubbish bin in the kitchen: paper is used again, or stored, or composted; all jars and tins are re-purposed; all organic scraps are eaten by something on site. Meals are made at home, and taken along when adventures await beyond. Everything that’s needed and can be sourced second hand or from junkyards, is. There’s no left-over packaging in this house.

The small amount of plastic that does make it into the house is usually re-purposed to wrap and package wholefoods to be sold at the weekly co-op. It all goes around.

Heating energy is sourced from the sun, and from sticks collected on the property or at neighbouring places. Things that break, are fixed, if they can be. Things that break easily, or cannot be fixed, are generally not brought into the system.

It’s in these ways, plus many other small and large habits and behaviours and systems, that the home economy at Melliodora functions. Very little money is needed for daily life. Much living, doing and making, gets done instead.

David talks about his aspiration of ‘living in place’ – of a life spent learning the local country, the signs and systems, the climate, the ground. Of not always going far away, to other things. Of giving thanks for what is, and adapting to what is not. And designing; always designing. It’s a style of living, and a possible future, for all of us to consider.

Thanks to David and Su for their insights and help. There are many great resources available that break down, in detail and step-by-step, the design, construction, and establishment of this special place. If you’re interested, start with ’Melliodora’ Hepburn Permaculture Gardens: a Case Study in Cool Climate Permaculture 1985–2005 (Holmgren Design Services 2005), a fabulous and detailed overview, available in hard copy and ebook form. Head to holmgren.com.au for this and other resources, both digital and print, on Melliodora, permaculture design, designing for bushfire and much more.

Kirsten Bradley runs Milkwood, an Australian permaculture skills enterprise that has just taken up residence in the studio at Melliodora.. She pickles whatever she can get her hands on, and writes hopefully useful things at www.milkwood.net

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