Working smarter, not harder is a good way to create a resilient, high-yielding garden. And simple observation is the stepping stone for smart design.
To observe and interact is the first of David Holmgren’s 12 permaculture principles and arguably the most significant. It’s nearly impossible to create a resilient permaculture system without careful observation. Nature is a living, breathing ecosystem and the only way to truly understand it is to get out there and immerse yourself in it. Permaculture educators Angelo Eliades and Kat Lavers share their insights on how observing and interacting with their backyards over the years has led to the success of their renowned permaculture systems.
Use Your Senses
The best way to understand observation is to think back to how you saw the world as a child. For Melbourne-based permaculture writer and Pip contributor Angelo Eliades, his childhood curiosity to experience nature firsthand led him to develop a distinct eye for detail.
He says if we can all learn to see our garden in a similar way, using childlike curiosity to see the potential rather than the problems, then we’re going to be open to using all of our senses – rather than just our eyes – to get a good understanding of what’s happening around us.
Think of the avid birdwatcher who will often rely on hearing a bird’s call in order to catch a glimpse through their binoculars. Likewise, if you were to assess the moisture content of your soil, it’s much easier to dig up the dirt and feel it with your bare hands.
It Should Be Effortless
Another thing to take note of is that you don’t really need to schedule a time to observe your garden. Rather, it is something that should occur naturally whenever you go outside. Kat Lavers, a permaculture designer and educator living in Melbourne’s inner-north suburbs, explains how observation is embedded into her gardening.
‘Most of my observation happens without deliberate effort, over a cup of tea or when watering,’ she says. She explains how a permaculture garden, when designed well, will encourage the gardener to observe with ease. ‘Having things in the right place, which permaculture really emphasises, enables observation to happen seamlessly and almost unconsciously.’
One example of this is through permaculture zoning. A well-designed garden should have the things that require frequent attention closest to the house, such as a kitchen garden bed, compost bin or chicken coop. In the furthest zone, you will have elements of your design that need less of your attention, such as large, established trees.
Another way to encourage effortless observation in your garden is by using materials which encourage the process. In her permaculture garden, which she calls The Plummery due to the large plum tree dominating her small backyard, Kat has incorporated a quail aviary into her design. The aviary has been cleverly built with a glass door recycled from a shower screen to make it easy for her to keep an eye on them.
‘Without even thinking about it, we are observing what is going on in the aviary. If there’s any kind of disturbance or behaviour which is not calm or relaxed, we know that there’s something afoot.’
A resilient permaculture system is a well-connected one. When you venture out into the backyard, try to observe how different elements impact one another. This means looking beyond the aesthetics of your garden and focusing your attention on how things function.
To the untrained eye, a dandelion flower might seem like an unsightly guest in a garden that needs to be removed. But when you take a step back to observe how it fits into your system, you’ll notice that dandelions not only attract bees, they also grow in areas of poor soil, helping to aerate and loosen the soil with their long tap roots.
For Angelo, his background in botany has given him a unique perspective on how insects play a role in his garden. During the spring season, Angelo will spend time following hoverflies to see which flowers they are attracted to. Hoverflies are beneficial insects that not only support pollination, but also prey on aphids and other pests. ‘Some of the flowers they go to are completely unexpected,’ he says, because unlike bees and butterflies, hoverflies have small mouthparts which means that they can only retrieve nectar from certain types of flowers. ‘Some ornamental daisies seemed to be very attractive to them, and the native Tall Daisy (Brachyscome diversifolia) drew lots of hoverfly activity.’ This is a great tactic to find out which flowers will work well in your garden to bring in beneficial insects.
Consistency Is Key
Once you have incorporated observation into your gardening routine, the next thing is to stay consistent.
According to Angelo, ‘you don’t truly know a plant until you spend the cycle of four seasons observing it.’ Taking the time to notice your plants throughout the different seasons will help you to understand which species cope better in different climates. Australia is a vast country that faces diverse weather conditions, so it’s important to build a permaculture system that suits your local climate, whether that’s temperate, arid or tropical. Even within each climate there’s enormous diversity, and each garden will will have areas where it forms unique microclimates. By being able to create and identify these areas, you’ll often be able to grow things which otherwise may not be completely suited to your particular climate.
Paying attention to how your trees crop throughout the year is also important. Kat Lavers had spent several years observing her fruit trees in order to create a system that suited her harvesting requirements.
‘In the first round of planting fruit trees, we very quickly learnt how many plums one large well-fed and watered tree can produce, and it was too much for our little household,’ she says.
While some trees crop generously, not everything that goes into the garden will survive or necessarily suit your needs, so it’s important to pay close attention in the early years, taking note of when things crop and for how long.
‘It’s been helpful to plant in stages because with each round, it’s become more carefully designed so that the fruit trees are cropping at different times of the year.’
Embrace Trial And Error
Acting without careful design will risk you dealing with a range of issues in the long run, while observing alone will get you nowhere. When reflecting on her successful permaculture site, Kat emphasised the importance of making mistakes in order to build a resilient garden. ‘You won’t get it right the first time. It’s alright to try things and make mistakes.’
Another emphasis Kat points out is sourcing low-cost, upcycled materials when trying new things in a bid to both combat waste and determine suitability.
‘If I have a new design idea, I mock it up and create an impermanent version of it so I can find the perfect location for it. The most common building blocks are things like bricks, chicken wire, milk crates and food-grade buckets that we source from restaurants.’
When teaching permaculture design, Kat discourages people to create a fully detailed design in one sitting. The reality is that things change as you implement it.
‘Observation happens all the times while you’re implementing,’ she says. ‘It’s a continuously looped learning and designing process rather than a flow through that happens just once.’
Just like the first principle of permaculture says, by taking the time to engage with nature, we can design solutions that suit our situation.