Urban permaculture plus

Dorothy HendersonThe West Australian
Garth Wolfenden, alongside his partner Jamie Arthur, are creating productive environments for people and plants on their urban block in the Esperance suburb of Sinclair, and on their 41ha property at Meckering.
Camera IconGarth Wolfenden, alongside his partner Jamie Arthur, are creating productive environments for people and plants on their urban block in the Esperance suburb of Sinclair, and on their 41ha property at Meckering. Credit: Dorothy Henderson

Fronted by a typical cul-de-sac in the Esperance suburb of Sinclair, there is evidence of a different kind of land use going on within the boundaries of the home of Garth Wolfenden and his partner, Jamie Arthur.

Strawberry guavas, almonds and feijoas dot the border garden bed between the brick-and-tile house and the verge. Along with the olive trees that catch the eye, these plants offer an insight into the thinking of the inhabitants who live beyond them. They provide the privacy desired in an urban setting and, more importantly, they provide food.

As practitioners of permaculture, the couple are among those in Esperance who are leading a quiet revolution — members of a movement that is happening as people embrace more sustainable ways of living, and the local production of good food becomes increasingly important to many.

A tour of the gardens around the home, a place that was once Mr Wolfenden’s grandfather’s house, reveals permaculture design principles in practice. However, they only provide an inkling of the depth of thought going on inside the house.

Not only is this couple developing their Sinclair home as a place of production and sustainable living, but they are working to restore to good health a larger parcel of land far from the sea — 626km away at Meckering.

Aerial photographs of the 41ha Wheatbelt property, named Gunawundai, reveal the nature of the challenge that the couple have willingly taken on.

The Mortlock River runs through it, and like many places it has been affected by over-clearing and over-grazing, with salinity providing an inherent challenge to those determined to rehabilitate it.

“We have had the property for about three years now, and are focusing on restoring the riparian zone with planting thousands of trees, including salt-tolerant eucalypts, callistemon, atriplex, acacias and melaleucas,” Mr Wolfenden said.

Support from Wheatbelt NRM will enable the planting of 12,000 trees on the property over two years.

On this property, the principles of permaculture are also being put into practice, with swales being used on a 12ha site to enhance plant growth, and the erection of a 135sqm roof allowing for the capture of rain diverted to an attached 50,000-litre water tank.

“We also have a seepage dam in this area. Swales are constructed on the contour, trapping water and allowing it to be used effectively,” Mr Wolfenden said.

Meanwhile, in the quiet suburbs of Esperance, garden beds are being developed to take advantage of the protection, light and warmth offered by a combination of factors, including the seasonal position of the sun, brick walls and existing plants, such as the figs in the spring garden.

Garden design key

Devoid of leaves in the winter and enabling plants to enjoy the sunlight during the cooler months, the mature deciduous trees provide shade for the western wall of the house in summer.

Already mulched with six tonnes of locally sourced acacia and pine woodchips and built up with sheep manure and bentonite, layers of newspaper and cardboard, recent rains have ensured that this is becoming fertile ground.

Pepinos, figs and chillies are among the plants already enjoying the sheltered area, which will be planted with more edible varieties.

“This is intended to be our spring garden, and will be planted with mainly annuals,” Mr Wolfenden said.

On the southern side of the house, fruit trees are growing in ground that has been made fertile by the use of mulch. Earthworms have converted the organic material they have been provided into deep, dark, rich dirt that looks capable of growing anything.

“This will be our food forest, with fruit trees growing around an area that will serve as a sun trap, and different layers of food-producing plants,” Mr Wolfenden said.

Vines will grow up fruit trees, and food-producing plants will occupy several layers of the forest when it evolves, providing a wide range of edibles to fill the plates of the land’s owners and those with whom they share their bounty.

The gardens at the front of the house include a swale garden. This is an area packed with plants — a wide variety of herbs, vegetables and flowers provides colour and form that pleases the eye. But this garden bed that is not just eye-catching, it is incredibly productive.

Fed by water caught by the house roof, directed to the ground via a PVC drain and then slowed in its flow by strategically placed rocks, the garden consists of a small area of swales. The gentle ditches run along the contour of the ground and slow the run-off to a usable rate, trapping the rain for use by the plants within the bed before flowing on to the next swale and on to the end of the garden bed.

Rocks placed at the end of the mini-system of swales enable the nutrients washed from the bed to be collected, in a shovel of dirt, and returned to the bed so no loss occurs.

Within this area, tomatoes are still ripening on vines, rocket is proffering its mustardy leaves for the picking, and kale and other vegetables are ready to eat — right outside the front door.

“The shade from the house prevented plants like the rocket from bolting when it otherwise would have, and this garden hasn’t been watered since February,” Mr Wolfenden said.

The use of mulch, cardboard and straw in the garden beds has helped to transform the coastal sand into real soil. A bathtub serves as home to an earthworm farm, a special place where the valued worms transform scraps and refuse into rich, humus-laden material ready for plants to enjoy.

Water for life

While any gardener would be excited by the food-producing potential of this patch, permaculture is not just about the production of food.

On this property, thought has gone into the capture and effective use of rainwater, for the home and the garden, with rainwater tanks holding the water obtained from the roof run-off.

“There is the potential to harvest more than 300,000 litres of water a year,” Mr Wolfenden said.

Similarly, consideration has been given to the use of sunlight, both in terms of plantings and in terms of energy, with solar panels trapping and converting sunlight into power.

“The solar power runs the computer, the phone charger, the food dryer ... and because it is not connected to the main grid, provides us with independence if the power goes out,” Mr Wolfenden said.

Food producing, self-sufficient in terms of water and making the most of the energy provided by the sun, this dwelling is just one part of the couple’s commitment to a sustainable life. While the two properties sit apart, they are connected by the shared vision of a sustainable, productive life.

“We aim to use the Meckering property to build community in a small setting. Planting trees to deal with the salinity is the first step, then we will introduce food plants like olives and mulberries, then we intend to run workshops and other activities that will build a sense of community,” Mr Wolfenden said.

But Ms Arthur said prospective plants for the farm went beyond olives and mulberries.

“I’d describe it as a classic drylands operation, which could yield dates, figs, carob, tamarind, chia, quinoa and bush tucker like samphire and quandong,” she said.

“Test crops of classic vegetables like potato, kohlrabi, broccoli and peas have survived well thanks to smart beds, cool winters, and the increased hydration of the soil profile from the swales.”

This desire to share a passion for a productive and simpler life, described as “homesteading” by some, has also lead to the couple opening up their Sinclair home to others. “We have two Airbnb rooms that we offer to people for half the rate of others in the area. These rooms pay for the running of the house, and enable us to offer free accommodation in the form of couch-surfing,” Mr Wolfenden said.

“We hope to have enough projects and development going on that we can support permie interns on occasion at the house too,” Ms Arthur added.

Mr Wolfenden said permaculture was about much more than food production, pointing out that the overarching ethics underpinning considerations included the care of the earth, care of people and to return surplus.

“If we all worked harder to take care of ourselves and our offspring and everyone took that responsibility seriously, and we cared for the earth, for people and returned our surplus in some way — whether through sharing of our time by community building, or in terms of sharing the excess food we produce — then we would have stronger communities able to help those in need,” he said.

Within the walls of the plant-surrounded home, evidence of a sustainable life is everywhere. There are seeds drying on the windowsill in front of the kitchen sink, there is a compost bin and a container full of recyclable materials. But when asked about the steps people can take to live a more sustainable life, Mr Wolfenden pointed to two simple, but essential, actions. “Get rid of the TV and get a bicycle,” he said.

As a health professional with training in occupational health and safety, psychology and nursing, he can see that walking and cycling are not only imperative in a world that needs to reduce its use of and dependence on fossil fuels, but essential activities in a world where so many people are unwell.

He can also see that a home devoid of a TV is one that encourages different forms of engagement, with activities such as gardening requiring people to get outside and participate in their own lives.

With her background as a geologist, with what she describes as a “solid background in science”, Ms Arthur said permaculture had taught people to question everything about agriculture and how people led their lives — including accepted permaculture methods and theories themselves. “Always, one, do the research and, two, run the experiment,” she said.

As they work to ensuring their own lives are productive and in keeping with permaculture, they have developed their own code of ethics. “We have three business ethics to abide by: first, don’t be greedy; second, be completely honest; and, third, have fun doing it,” Mr Wolfenden said.

As the plants grow in the ground at Meckering and in Esperance, the couple is already abiding by the permaculture ethic of caring for the earth, and by sharing their enthusiasm and knowledge with others they are ticking the boxes in terms of caring for people.

“If people want to see what we are up to, they can follow us on Instagram @ejshomestead,” Mr Wolfenden said.

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