Nature lover

Dorothy HendersonCountryman

On the side of a sandy hill within the town of Esperance, Irish strawberries, apricots, apples, almonds and limes jostle for space between tagasaste, wattle and other native species.

For 18 years Geoff Tonkin and his family have been at home on a third of a hectare, a property tucked away in a quiet semi-rural cul-de-sac beneath the Esperance Meteorological Bureau.

During that time, a large stabilised limestone dwelling has been built and an inspiring permaculture garden carved out of the native bush. The property stands out among the more traditionally manicured holdings in the area.

A Land for Wildlife accreditation sign hangs on the boundary fence and instead of ample acres of lawn, the land is amply vegetated with bountiful gardens supplying fruit, nuts, herbs and vegetables for family and visitors.

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As one meanders along paved paths throughout the garden and around the house, the dividends of years of devotion to the permaculture cause are evident.

By 1995, Geoff and his family - wife Karen and three children - had built a spacious passive solar home from rammed earth and were using organic gardening principles to produce food.

Then Geoff enrolled in a permaculture design course, run in Esperance by Denmark practitioner David Coleman.

At that time Geoff, who grew up on a farm in Newdegate, was still shearing for a living but he was so inspired by the permaculture philosophy explored during the course that his life changed direction dramatically.

"After that course, I didn't go back to work," he said.

Not long after he formed the Permaculture Education and Research Institute, based at the Parkland Retreat property, and has dedicated his energies to practising permaculture principles and inspiring and encouraging others to do the same.

Now the property is one which is networked with paths and water features, walls and niches providing nooks and crannies where varying micro-climates encourage the growth of a wide range of food-producing plants - like watercress, chives, chillies, tomatoes, silverbeet, parsley, culinary herbs, pomegranates, guavas, almonds, loquats, plums, apples and lemons.

"We have around 200 fruit trees in the ground now but would love to build that number up to 366 - one tree for each day of year, including leap years," Geoff said.

The use of swales, constructed along the contour of the land and trapping water for use by planted trees, and practices like mulching of the sandy ground helped establish the garden.

Native and introduced leguminous plants like wattles and tagasaste served to moderate the impact of Esperance's winds on the fledgling garden, while also helping to build up the nitrogen level in the soil.

Now this permaculture garden looks after itself as the leaf litter from deciduous fruit trees falls to the ground and continues the mulching process, earthworms convert waste into nutritious soil and water is trapped and conserved in a variety of ways.

One of the most important water saving features is a composting toilet which Geoff says is odourless, water saving and produces a useable compost at the end, as opposed to a traditional toilet which uses water, contributes to a huge waste disposal problem and can hardly be considered an asset.

"We have tried to incorporate the gardens into the natural environment," Geoff said.

"Permaculture is a holistic approach to land use and design, based on ecological principles and patterns and aims to create stable and productive systems that provide for human needs in harmony with the land and people."

It is far more than a system of food production. The ecological process of plants, animals, water, weather and nutrient cycles integrate with the human needs and technologies for food, energy, shelter and infrastructure.

"Elements in a system are viewed in relationship with other elements and the outputs of one element become the inputs of another," Geoff said.

Consequently, the design of a permaculture holding does not separate the dwelling or other buildings from the food producing exterior. For example, walls of the house are used to retain warmth for those living in the house and for the plants on the outside basking in the reflective heat.

Rain captured in gutters on the house supplies water for the home and for gardens surrounding it.

Windows allow sunlight to enter appropriately to warm the building when necessary, while also providing light and a sheltered area for seedlings to germinate.

Verandas shelter the house from cold prevailing winds in winter and provide protection for plants nearby. Everything is interconnected and dependent on everything else.

Since the establishment of the institute Geoff has travelled Australia and the world, spending time in India, Ireland, the US, the UK and Europe, learning from others and continuing to spark enthusiasm in others - leading by example.

When asked what advice he would give to people contemplating property development of any kind, he suggested they attend a permaculture design course.

"Such a course gives a person the understanding of permaculture theory, building their knowledge of all the necessary aspects to become fully conversant with design," Geoff said. "Then they will be in a position to make the most of the land they have."

Geoff believes there is no reason why permaculture principles should not be used in the design of every building and property being considered for development. "It should be compulsory," he said. "Passive and active solar design, efficient and effective use of energy and water, food production, waterless toilets - these should all be part of everyday building and development."

Living in a comfortable, self-sustaining home which is warm in winter, cool in summer and surrounded by a garden which produces copious quantities of delicious food - the Tonkins have shown that it is possible to create an Eden even on a sandhill in a coastal town.

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