Thursday, November 19, 2009


The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness
John Muir

I have been reading and watching anything I can lay my hands on that would help me design my first food forest. Geoff Lawton’s film “Establishing a Food Forest (the Permaculture Way series) was the most helpful.

He explained that we are to learn from nature and think of establishing a forest in terms of time, and a series of plantings that come and go until the final forest bio-system matures.

Leave land alone long enough and in many areas it will revert to forest. Damaged land will always start with pioneer plants that will start repairing the land; often these will fix nitrogen. Annual and perenial weeds would cover the earth. Within the protection of these weeds small plants would start to grow: small bushes and shrubs would begin to cover parts of the land and dominate. Finally pioneer trees such as the Acacia (nitrogen-fixing) would start taking hold. Leaf drop and attraction to foraging wildlife would enrich the soil. And so the beginnings of a forest would be born. This succession can take decades but will eventually result in a mature forest.

A forest is self-sustaining; the perennials and annuals are self-seeding and self-sowing. Forest litter deepens over the years to form a wonderful mulch filled with all the micro and macro-organisms needed to bring about sustainability. The soil is undisturbed and life in the soil increases fertility. The bio-diversity of nitrogen-fixing plants, plants that give mulch, plants that attract wildlife and beneficial insects with food, and plants that create habitats, all help develop the forest into a highly beneficial eco-system that in its complex integration is more than the sum of its parts.

We can mimic what we learn in nature and even speed up the process to some degree with more deliberate guidance than nature gives. Digging a swale on contour, to catch rainfall, and then planting it up on the swale mound with nitrogen-fixing plants is a great beginning to our forest. These are relatively short-lived but help condition the soil for those trees and plants we wish to see established. Interspersing these quick-grow plants with valuable and desired young trees to get started will speed up the forest succession process.

He also described how forests are a series of layers. These multiple layers of vegetation maximise health, sustainability and productivity in a forest. Seven distinct layers have been identified. This diagram by Graham Burnett best explains this:

It is also important to understand the structural functioning of a forest. Patterning of plants is not in a neat orchard style but more a clumping together of plants with each part a little different than the next. This has been found to attract more bird-life and greater levels of predatory insect-life than a regulated mono-patterned orchard that has these same seven levels integrated. With a more natural planting there are many more micro-climates created and bio-diversity is in increased. Different plants will be able to take better care of themselves when grown in the little niches created by this mimicry of nature’s forest systems.

Increasingly we are starting to understand more of the soil dynamics that go into increased fertility of the land. Not only above ground, but also below ground, multiple layers of root depths and soil utilization can effect a happy crowding of plants that benefit each other, instead of competeing by contending for the same soil nutrients and requirements. Combining plants in terms of root patterns that are beneficial creates more intensive use of the soil without bringing harm to the plants. A monoculture needs plant spacing for a plant to survive but this is not natural or optimal in terms of plant health and productivity, and all the benefit of land cover, shading, increased moisture, pest protection, and complex soil chemistry is lost.

I have to quote Bill Mollison here; not only because it tickled me to read it, but because his point of view in terms of productivity is accurate:

“We should not confuse order and tidiness. Tidiness is something that happens when you have frontal brain damage. You get very tidy. Tidiness is symptomatic of brain damage. Creativity, on the other hand, is symptomatic of a fairly whole brain, and is usually a disordered affair. The tolerance for disorder is one of the very few healthy signs in life. If you can tolerate disorder you are probably healthy. Creativity is seldom tidy.

Tidiness is like the painting of that straight up and down American with his fork and his straight rows. The British garden is a sign of extraordinary tidiness and functional disorder. You can measure it easily, but it doesn’t yield much. What we want is creative disorder. I repeat, it is not the number of elements in a system that is important, but the degree of functional organization of those elements – beneficial functions.”

A food forest cannot be some regimented plan that totally disregards the value of all nature has to offer in terms of bio-diversity and multiple integrations in complex and varied structures.

I am not aiming to plant a lot of trees and call it a forest, but multiple sets of random ecologies that integrate into a self-sustaining corporate biosystem; a tumbling cascade of colour, texture, highs and lows, with precious “weeds” and other productive plants between, until every part is bursting with life and productivity.

Until next time,

Geoff Lawton’s film “Establishing a Food Forest (the Permaculture Way series)
Bill Mollison: Transcript for a Permaculture Design Course.

Sunday, November 1, 2009


“When we design for permanence, we go generally toward forests,

permanent pastures, lakes and ponds, and non-tillage agriculture.”

Bill Mollison

I have been giving much thought about how to begin establishing a food forest. I have come to the conclusion that before I can plant a forest I have to consider how I would provide enough moisture to sustain that forest. Here is where design comes in. Ditches along contour curves [swales] are the first pre-requisite, but water storage points, even off contour, are valuable too.

We need to store water where it is most useful. To store it at the bottom of a hill where it needs to be pumped up is least useful. However with a water source like a river or dam at the lowest point there are some interesting options available that are very sustainable. A spiral pump that turns with the flow of the river and lifts water to a top tank in order to create a head to get a ram pump started is something I am looking into. I do not like the water waste of a ram pump, but if this were to be fed into irrigation ditches at the riverfront there would be no waste. I would need to get as much head as possible out of the spiral pump to have the ram deliver further uphill to where I need it.

The spiral pump is a simple but fascinating technology. As can be seen by the historic Wirtz pumps in these 1842 drawings, it is a simple design. It is the only easy way I have discovered so far to lift water from my river using the power of the river. A waterwheel would be quite beautiful, but sudden flooding of the river would probably carry it away and something like that would be expensive to keep replacing. If it could be lifted from the water during the rainy season that would be good; but the project becomes even more difficult with this criterion. A spiral wheel can be made quite simply by coiling water-piping into a wheel shape with the centre fitted to a special joint to join with the outlet pipe; a joint that can allow the wheel to turn while the outlet pipe does not. Paddles on the side of the wheel use the river flow to turn the wheel. As it turns the mouth of the wheel scoops up water and then air, water and then air, round and around as it goes. The air is compressed inside the wheel the nearer it gets to the center and then shoots out of the exit pipe up the hill. Pretty neat. If I can get some bamboo I could even make the wheel structure with it and bring costs right down should it need replacing if carried off by flooded river banks; much lighter to lift the wheel out to prevent this too.

Rain is also a very valuable resource. We need to capture it before it runs to the lowest point, and then filter it through a bio-system in as many useful ways as possible, before it runs off and is lost. We need to get close to the source and re-direct the flow. How much rainfall there is, is not as important and how much we put the water to use when it does fall.

We need biological as well as mechanical storages. With rain water we can store it or let it leave. When it leaves and goes to the rivers it is lost to the sea. Fresh water is a valuable resource; it takes precipitation to get it to us. Many other water sources are contaminated to some degree or other.

I have had the idea of digging beneath my planned pathways in order to pack rocks with spaces for water storage. I need the rocks underneath to brace the path without getting into expensive construction techniques. With these stable rock beds under the main pathways I could just put the hose-pipe into a down-pipe, fill it up and move to the next storage point under pathway. This would ensure direct seepage downhill into the soil, exactly where I need the water – at the roots. Plenty of mulch on top could be wetted down to keep the roots of shallow plantings happy and cool too, but the extensive irrigation often needed to establish fruit trees would be avoided. Rainfall catchment into these underground reservoirs could be directed from up hill too, with some sort of stone and pebble filtration at the entrance to prevent soil and debris accumulation Piping laid from a fish dam at a higher level (already in place) to the entry points of these stone reservoirs, could also be engineered to increase water and nutrient filtration down into the precious soil of the food forest. This whole idea was all largely inspired by an article written by Mr Brad Lancaster when he interviewed a simple man in southern Africa with a powerful story.

Mr Zephania Phiri Maseko of the former Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, is known as the man who farms water. We learn from this very enterprising man that it is not so much the amount of rainfall that matters, but the way it is directed from the source to fulfill as much usefulness as possible, before it runs downhill to the valley. He learned to harvest the rain so effectively that he created a food garden on dry-lands. He wanted to create a Garden of Eden, and he definitely achieved just this.

Mr. Phiri found himself without a job and 2 wives and children to support. He told his story to Brad Lancaster, who traveled a very long way to hear it. Mr Lancaster found Mr Phiri sitting on the porch reading his Bible, and there began a most interesting interview. He took Brad Lancaster to his three hectare family landholding and explained that after he lost his job this was all he had along with his Bible. The year was 1964. He turned to his Bible for direction on what to do with this very dry piece of land. He read in Genesis how Adam and Eve had everything they needed in the Garden of Eden. This Garden lay between two rivers; the Tigris and the Euphrates. He did not have this benefit but decided that he needed to create his own rivers. His land faced north-northeast which is an advantage in the southern hemisphere. Frequent droughts and a lack of equipment and capital made his dream of a Garden of Eden in his own backyard seem nigh impossible. He faced an enormous challenge. But without the promise of any work on the horizon it was this, or starvation for him and his family. So when it did rain he spent time observing what happened to the water; and thus began educating himself in rain-harvesting. He became so successful that he now supplies all his water needs with rainfall alone. It took 30 years but he now has his Garden of Eden and is teaching his neighbours, and many visitors from all around the globe, his methods.

From the top he used rocks to loosely build low walls along contours to interrupt the rapid down flow of the rainfall. From this he directed the water to unlined reservoirs built with hand tools and hard work. Both he and his 2 wives worked at this. The top reservoir he calls his “immigration centre” for this is where the water is welcomed onto his farm and directed to where it will live in his soil. Over time he discovered that if this first reservoir filled three times in a season then enough rain would have been directed into the soil for storage to last him two years. He explains that the soil is like a tin and should hold all water, but where erosion has formed into gullies the soil leaks the water. He proceeded to plug these leaks.

His second reservoir is used to direct water to a ferro-cement tank for household use; and all outgoing greywater is drained to an underground cistern to feed the water into the soil.

He discovered that the government had put huge swales above his property to prevent soil erosion. These swales were placed slightly off contour to direct the rushing water away from the land to a central drainage; however it robbed his land of much needed moisture, thus making it unproductive. Mr Phiri dug large “fruition pits” at intervals down the contour until the contour came to his property line. These would fill with water one after another and slowly filter into the landscape long after the rainstorm. He grew thatch grasses around these pits to prevent them collapsing by erosion. The thatch he used for building and to generate some extra income.

He has many thriving fruit trees growing along swales to provide fruit, windbreaks and shade. They have no special attention beyond the rain and the water that Mr Phiri “plants” in his soil.
The rising ground water held in storage brings this abundance. He said to Brad Lancaster: "I am digging fruition pits and swales to plant the water so that it can germinate elsewhere. I have then taught the trees my system. They understand it and my language. I put them here and tell them, 'Look the water is there - go and get it'''. He uses no ridging or basins around the tree but expects them to reach out and find the water.

He also grows a wide diversity of edible crops to give him food security; if some crops do not provide his needs, others will. Only open-pollinated seed is used and this is collected to be sown the next year. He uses nitrogen fixing plants abundantly. One plant that he favours is the pigeon pea which he uses for fodder and mulch. He said he discovered that fertilized soils do not hold water well to the detriment of the plants, but when manure and nitrogen-fixing plants are used the plants thrive year after year. “Fertilised soil is bitter".

I love how he describes water: "Water is like blood - it is always attracted to the wound. Gullies are wounds. Blood goes to the wound to coagulate and heal it. It does this with gabions and swales where the gully is filled with fertile soil". For this reason he dug his three wells at the bottom of his land so that all water harvested and percolated into the soil would find its way eventually to these “wounds” he has created and fill them. Even when his neighbours wells dry up, his don’t; including wells dug deeper than his. Only one of his wells is lined and equipped with a hand pump to provide water to the house. The other two are open and lined with rocks – no mortar –to allow the water to go where it will. Only in times of extreme drought will he draw from these wells to water annuals in a nearby field. Below these wells a wetland has developed and has made the lush growth of a banana forest possible. He also has three reservoirs here to farm fish. He grows reeds, sugarcane and preferred grasses on and up to the banks ofthese reservoirs; a wonderful resource in terms of fodder for his livestock and also superb filtration of the seeping water, that fills the dams, for the fish.

Mr Phiri believes he has created his own Tigris and Euphrates rivers underground and they surface in his reservoirs. In his own words he describes the last thirty years: "Sure, it's a slow process, but that's LIFE. Slowly, you implement these projects and as you begin to rhyme with nature soon other lives will start to rhyme with yours".

Mr Phiri has created the Zvishavane Water Resources Project to teach his techniques. He has impacted so many that even CARE International in his region use funds to implement his methods to teach how to grow food rather than give away food. At schools he has changed dry dusty water deficient landscapes into lush gardens where he has taught teachers and students to implement his methods. The Zvishavane Water Resources Project is always in need of funds. If you'd like to help write to Mr Zephania Phiri Maseko, ZWRP, PO Box 118, Zvishavane, Zimbabwe.

Until next time,