The Lyttleton Hub

Our reference library and reading nook.

Our reference library and reading nook.

About a month ago, we decided to consolidate our little collective and come up with a holistic management structure. We were deeply inspired by the work of Very Edible Gardens in Melbourne, and the amazing resources they made available online (here) for anyone wanting to apply holistic management to their system.

All members of the collective sat down, brainstormed and came up with a statement of purpose, quality of life statements (eg what we do), and modes of production (eg how we do the things we do).

We talked about ways in which to increase the community outreach aspect of our business, and came up with the idea of the Lyttleton Hub: a space where people can meet up, read from our reference library of books and help themselves to a cup of tea or coffee by donation. This gives locals the opportunity and space to get together, build community connections and allows us to share our massive combined collection of books on permaculture, art, design, craft, preserving, cooperative systems of management and more. We are very excited to have made this idea a reality with a budget of zero dollars. This was possible through re-purposing, recycling material, furniture, whatever we had at hand, and here it is! Come and enjoy the space.

Lyttleton's holistic management structure

Lyttleton's holistic management structure

Edible flowers

Calendula and german chamomile flowers.

Calendula and german chamomile flowers.

After a longer-than-usual break from blogging I am back. It has been a busy month. Organising our backyard permaculture retrofit has been an absolute pleasure. We will definitely be running one again. Such a wonderful way to connect Lawson and Blue Mountains locals and creating local community resilience. We are now sharing beautiful Red Ancona chickens with Ann, Mark and their children, who live two blocks down the road! Their food forest is well under way and they have a brand new vegetable patch, all built by local workshop participants. What a great way of creating circular, local economies!

Now that I have a little more time, I am focusing on my plan to convert the Lyttleton vegetable garden into a vegetable and edible (and medicinal) flower garden. We were lucky to inherit self seeded calendula and borage from the previous owner, but we've expanded our collection by adding dahlias (edible flowers and tubers), aquilegia (sweet edible flower), Californian poppies, rosellas, nasturtiums, violas, zinnias, okra, snapdragons, perennial beans, cornflowers, anise hyssop, mint bergamot, salvias, edible chrysanthemums, german chamomile, red clover, edible sweet lupin, and angelica. The result is an ever-flowering garden, where the buzzing of bees is so loud you may need to speak a little louder...

Shunjiku: edible chrysanthemum.

Shunjiku: edible chrysanthemum.

Common sage flowers.

Common sage flowers.

An Exciting Spring Project: retrofitting a Local Back Yard

Plum tree waking up after its Winter slumber in Lyttleton Gardens

Plum tree waking up after its Winter slumber in Lyttleton Gardens

The August winds are still howling despite the arrival of September. Many exciting events are coming up. I will be giving a little talk on Thursday September 21st about our upcoming "Permaculture in Action: Backyard retrofit" project.

Ann is a local regular in the shop, and brings us her home grown mandarins to swap for produce regularly. When I went to visit her backyard, she mentioned that she had wanted it to be productive for her gorgeous family for years, but being a busy homeschooling mum, she could never get round to making it happen. I tried to think of how we could help, and realised this big back yard was a perfect space to teach and learn about permaculture design. So I thought and thought, and came up with the "Backyard retrofit" project.

It begins with a one day "Introduction to Permaculture" class on Saturday, September 30th. Then, I will be conducting a series of 4 affordable, hands-on weekly Saturday workshops in Ann's Lawson back yard from of October 14th to November 4th (inclusive).

The workshops will each cover different aspects of retrofitting a back yard for sustainability.

They include setting up annual vegetable garden beds from scratch (with minimal soil disturbance), setting up an effective home composting system, transforming an orchard into a food forest, and keeping back yard chickens.

I will be illustrating all of these practical aspects while putting them in a Permaculture design framework.

For those new to Permaculture, attending the Intro to Permaculture session is not compulsory but recommended. I will be talking about the ethics and principles, as well as basic ecology and design methodology.

What I love about this project is that it gives us a chance to share skills, and help a local, single income family retrofit their back yard into a resilient, productive space. Hopefully, people will come away with methodology they can use to observe and retrofit their own back yards.

I would love to expand this project and help more people retrofit their peri-urban spaces in the Blue Mountains. I will be talking about it at the next Backyard Grower Meet Up on Thursday September 21st evening from 6 to 8pm. Come along.

"Permaculture in Action: Backyard retrofit" project breakdown:

NOTE: There is the option of attending all classes in this series for $220, or sign up to individual ones.

Introduction to Permaculture Design
$120 includes tuition, workbook and refreshments.
Saturday 30th of September from 9-4pm
Please feel welcome to bring your own lunch or purchase an organic hamper for $20 to enjoy in the Lyttleton Gardens!

Setting up a veggie patch from scratch
$40 hands-on workshop, bring closed-in shoes, hat, gloves, sunscreen
Saturday, October 14th 9-12pm

Setting up a functional, effective, dynamic home composting system
$40 hands-on workshop, bring closed-in shoes, hat, gloves, sunscreen
Saturday, October 21st9-12pm

Turning a small orchard into a food forest
$40 hands-on workshop, bring closed-in shoes, hat, gloves, sunscreen
Saturday, October 28th 9-12pm

Integrating chickens into your back yard system
$40 hands-on workshop, bring closed-in shoes, hat, gloves, sunscreen
Saturday, November 4th 9-12pm


Nature's Ploughs

Linocut Print of Earthworms by Manu

Linocut Print of Earthworms by Manu

This is what Charles Darwin called them: nature's ploughs. Earthworms and composting worms are my all time superheroes. My research on these gorgeous wiggly beings has been quite extensive in the last month, and I have learned so much.

Worms have hearts. Up to five sets of them. Their blood contains hemoglobin like ours. Their skin is very sensitive to light, which is why they like to live under sun shades made of decaying leaves and organic matter. Their 'teeth' are sand and rock particles inside their super powerful, muscly gizzards, which grind up organic matter.

What do they eat? Bacteria, fungi, nematodes, protozoa and organic matter: where there are earthworms, there are all of the above. Everything you need in a thriving soil food web. This alone makes it worth jumping up and down when you see them in your soil, but wait, there's more.

Soil passed through an earthworm has double the amount of organic matter it had before it went in. An acre of good soil contains two to three million of them, which can move about 18 tons of soil per year, over and over again. Doubling, tripling, quadrupling the amount of rich organic matter in your soil.

Worms also have special enzymes inside their gizzards which unlock chemical bonds chaining up nutrients. In other words, once these nutrients have traveled through a worm, they are finally in a form that plants have access to and eat. 

There are something like 7000 species of earthworms. Composting worms, such as the red Wriggler Eisenia fetida, prefer to live near the surface of soil, under leaf litter or mulch (or in your worm farm) in cool, moist, dark, oxygen-rich environments with a good amount of accessible food.

Deep-burrowing earthworms like Lumbricus terrestris are the ones that create horizontal or vertical tunnels going deeper underground, leaving space for oxygen, water and plant roots to easily penetrate the soil.

Their sensitive skin means they move out when synthetic fertilisers and glyphosate herbicides are used, subsequently leaving a gaping hole in the soil food web. No more worms, no more good microbes, a bit like the Brown Barbaloots moving out in Dr Seuss' The Lorax.

We need to look after these burrowing, shredding, wiggly, five-hearted beings with all our might.

August Winds

Most Blue Mountains locals are familiar with 'August winds': intense North-westerlies that sweep through the Mountains, tunneling down sides of houses and alleyways.

Lyttleton garden is currently suffering from a nasty case of August winds. Our little veggie patch has garden beds contouring a downward slope along the side of the shop. Strong winds tunnel down the hill, eroding the soil, drying it out, reducing it to powdery dust.

We luckily have a load of beautiful ready compost started by Cam a few months ago. I find myself adding a nice thick layer of it every week in August on the most affected garden beds at the top of the hill. I cover it with an aged, heavy woody mulch, as sugarcane or straw would instantly be blown away.

I began working on this garden exactly one year ago, and worriedly asked some locals if it was always this windy up here in Lawson. "Aaah, the August winds," they replied. Cam and I were eager to start growing things in this slopey garden, but also realised we needed to observe and interact with it first. Luckily the winds subsided in September.

I'm still learning this space one year on, and am plotting to take some lavender cuttings from my garden plants for us to strike tomorrow during our propagation workshop. We will be making our own propagation mix by mixing our sifted home made compost with sand, coir and worm castings from our worm farm. My lavender cuttings will be super happy in this mixture.

When ready, they will act as insect-attracting, fragrant windbreaks on the North Westerly side of Lyttleton garden. Hopefully in time for the next August winds.

Life webs

A rain-soaked spider web in Lyttleton Gardens.

A rain-soaked spider web in Lyttleton Gardens.

After you've been looking after a productive garden for some time, a wonderful thing happens: you get to the point where you are confident enough to sift through the myriad of information (and misinformation) out there, and realise that you have understood living systems enough to trust yourself.

My personal "aha" moment happened after reading a book by Jeff Lowenfels entitled Teaming With Microbes: The Organic Gardener's Guide to the Soil Food Web. I was intrigued by the term soil food web. I'd heard of food pyramids and graphs, but was drawn to the idea of a food web. It makes so much more sense. After all, all living things are inter-connected and inter-dependent. We've lost sight of that a little bit, often choosing a more symptomatic approach to many issues.

I looked into the person who initially came up with this term. It was Elaine Ingham, Doctor of Soil Microbiology at Colorado State University. The Soil Foodweb Institute, founded by her in 1996, has been helping conventional farmers 'rehabilitate' their soils, and switch to growing organically and regeneratively. She worked extensively in this field in Australia, and started the Australian branch, Soil Foodweb Institute (Australia).  The Soil Foodweb International website contains a huge amount of free information and research in the field, which I really recommend to anyone interested in the science of growing things.

Without getting to scientific about it all, it's important to remember that soil is populated by squillions of living things, which directly or indirectly depend on plants and plant roots to obtain food. In turn, plant roots depend on them to eat. Bacteria and fungi make nutrients bio-available to plants by converting them to a form plants can eat. It's a swap system!

Synthetic nutrients are plant fast food, as they are already in a bio-available form. So, what happens when we feed our plants synthetic fertilisers? Well, essential living things like bacteria and fungi move out. They are no longer needed by the plants and don't like the salts in fertilisers. In turn, there is no food for earthworms, and their predators, and their predators' predators, and so a mass exodus happens. All life in the soil disappears. The web of life is broken and plants become junkies, fast food junkies. The soil becomes "dirt" as Elaine Ingham puts it. Lifeless, erosion-prone dust.

This is why growing regeneratively is so important. You are a custodian of all the living things in your soil. Feeding your soil homemade compost, worm castings and aerated compost teas makes sure there is food for everyone in the web, with very little need for external inputs. Try not to disturb it too much, as the earthworm will aerate it for you. Pitchforks are relatively worm-friendly if used appropriately.

Let's get something straight though, the process of building living, healthy soil takes time and patience. Keep piling on that organic matter and remember you are feeding many living things, which in time will multiply. After quite some time, all that work pays off and you will have to do less and less, as the web will be complete and self-regulating. What a wonderful, joyful prospect that is for a budding grower of things.

Soil food web diagrams from the Soil Foodweb International website.

Soil food web diagrams from the Soil Foodweb International website.