For most of my life, except for periods spent at remote Royal Air Force sites, I have lived in cities or city suburbs. At the end of March 2011 I decided that in the absence of any better, possible or imminent alternatives and because the rental lease on my current home (I had been there for 8 years) had only a couple of months to run, I needed to make a fairly swift move that would take me in the direction of the sort of life for which I have been looking since becoming aware, in the few preceding years, of the need to prepare for an energy descent future.
During that time I had also retired, collected my superannuation savings (such as they were), obtained a Permaculture Design Certificate (PDC) on a course run by the well known and slightly infamous co-founder of Permaculture, Bill Mollison, and the less infamous but becoming very well known around the globe for his Permaculture expertise and flair, Geoff Lawton. In my search for somewhere to go I initially looked for vacant rural land and/or an old (and cheap) property with some land on which I could practice for a degree of self-sufficiency. I found neither, that I could afford to buy. Rural Land and properties were either too expensive, too large, subject to flooding (thankfully the long drought broke around that time and many of the places on my list were under water), or what I was wishing to do ie. live on and work a remote piece of land, was not something that local zoning requirements would have allowed. I had also toyed with the idea of buying a mobile home and following the sun, as many new retirees now do, but that lifestyle did not fit well with my new philosophy for the future.
So, as I said earlier, in March 2011 I gave up looking for somewhere to purchase (until some future time when hopefully land & property will be more accessible ie. when the bottom has fallen out of the market) and searched for rental properties in fairly remote areas within Victoria. The very first place I actually went to look at I fell in love with, signed a lease and moved in within a month. It is an old country cottage situated near the bottom of a long deep gully through which a creek flows. It has hills that rise at least 100 metres on either side of the creek.
All the time I was waiting to move into my new home I was wondering how I was going to cope with living in the country as someone who had spent all of his life in cities or suburbia. How was I going to cope with spiders and snakes and who knows what else? What was it going to be like living on tank water and a thousand other questions? However, the powerful arguments that drove me on were that I was going to have to face this at some time in the future as cities become less safe and possibly outright dangerous and probably uninhabitable places. On top of these concerns, when I finally moved in I found that there was no telephone line to the house. It had been part of the infrastructure destroyed in the last bush fires. Neighbours assured me that there would be no landline internet even when I did get the phone fixed. There was no television signal as the local distribution mast was only analogue and was about to be switched off as Australia moves into the digital age. There were also no postal deliveries to properties in the area. This place was part of the 2% of Australian homes that don’t get mail delivered. It has to be picked up from the nearest general store. I found that there was no filtering of the rainwater collected from the roof to the water tank. There was no heating in the house except for a combustion stove which I had/have no idea how to use and the heating cycle of the reverse cycle air conditioner was not working. Last but not least, there was currently a mouse plague in the area! Despair! What had I done? How was I going to live like this?
I have of course either come to terms with or have (or will eventually) overcome all of those terrors, and others, including the occasional unpleasant but not lingering odours from (I think) a wombat who lives underneath the house. I have settled in and I am loving it. Wouldn’t want to live anywhere else and I am hoping I will be able to stay here as long as I need to. I have the phone on now, landline and a mobile. I have ADSL internet, also a mobile wireless internet if I need it. I have access to the government provided satellite television service VAST covering all free-to-air channels, for what that is worth. I opted to purchase electrical radiator heating on the basis that I would pay for 100% green energy electricity and eventually set up an off-grid solar power system that I can take with me if I have to leave here at some stage and that to some would extent offset my heating bill.
I fully realise that none of these things are sustainable in the face of many future possibilities but at least I had made a start and was positioning myself for taking any further steps that may become necessary.
All the time I was settling in as described above, I spent a considerable amount of time observing my surroundings, the weather, the vegetation, the wind, the sun, the flow of water across the land, the wildlife. Using Google Earth/Maps I drew up a plan of the property, marking the contours. There is a 12 metre fall from the road access at the top of the property to the creek flowing along the bottom of the gulley. The place had not been lived in for several months before I moved in and the land had become very overgrown so there was plenty of outside work to do while I was busy observing. The top third of the property had been landscape designed by a previous owner and as I was a renter there was not a lot I could do about that but it was in any case part of the charm of the property. That area included a mature grapefruit tree and a peach tree as the most useful plantings and also a small frog pond. I have made mental notes that I will interplant the area with some more useful varieties at some stage.
It was about six months after I moved in, actually during the Spring season (March for us is the start of Autumn), that I felt any degree of confidence that I knew enough about the place to start any sort of planting or earthworks. There was not much I could do over winter anyway as being up in the mountains and at the foot of a deep gully the place does suffer from overnight ground frosts after clear winter days. I did however, take the opportunity to construct a cold frame to allow me to start early with raising plants from seed next winter. I have to say that my first attempts with planted seeds in this frame were not a great success. Hope for better results next year.
I had three things I wanted to get stuck into straight away, but which to do first? Because I could not see myself completing any of them in a short timeframe I decided to do all together. In some ways I think this was a cop-out decision as I am not always good at finishing things and with three projects on the go I had every excuse not to do so again …if the need arose. As it happened, all three got finished and I am very happy with the results.
I started by setting up a Zone 1, no-dig, raised bed garden on a cardboard base, to grow vegetables, consisting of two 5m x 1m beds separated by a 60cm walkway. This was positioned on one of the few mostly flat areas available to the back of the building just a few paces from the rear entry steps to the house and with the long sides of the beds facing north to obtain maximum sun. Because the property is at the foot of a deep gully we get about 1 hour less sun a day than most areas. I positioned the garden so that it could be extended at either end if I wanted to do so. I later extended the garden a further 2.5 metres at one end to make an area for climbing plants, beans/peas etc. and after the first growing season added a similar area at the other end. That first season I regularly harvested from this garden zucchini, lettuce, spinach, kale, tomatoes, pumpkin, and strawberries. Other crops, capsicum, chillies, broccoli, cucumber and carrots did not do so well as the others but this is all part of a learning process for me and I expect there is much room for improvement in future seasons.
All of the above images were taken in a period of 4 months from late winter to early summer.
At the same time as preparing the vegetable garden I dug a swale on the far side of the property, just below the landscaped garden area, for capture and calming of the downhill rainwater run-off. The purpose of this work is to nurture and assist growth in what will become a Zone 2 food forest or orchard depending on how it turns out.
While digging the swale by hand I came across tree roots both crossing and along the line of the excavated area. These I left in place until I had reason to do otherwise. I am pretty sure they belonged to dead trees burned in the previous years bush fires. I have since removed them. On completion of the earth works the whole area was planted with a cover crop of pea, oats and vetch and covered with a layer of grass clippings and sugar cane straw. I was pretty happy with my work when completed but anxious to see how well it fulfilled its stated purpose. I didn’t have long to wait. A few days after completion we had some heavy rain and sure enough the swale almost filled and then slowly drained away over a day or two, through the ground as it should do. It didn’t quite fill to overflow the sill I made for that purpose and it hasn’t done so since that rain event either so I guess I somehow luckily more-or-less correctly estimated the right swale depth for the slope.
The cover crop was left to grow for about two months and when it started to come into flower was chopped and dropped as green mulch and the area planted with mostly fruit trees and shrubs (Apples/Pears/Berries) plus Yacon and Sweet Potato.
The third project I initially undertook was to make a herb spiral. I did cheat a bit as I built it on a slope so it looks rather higher than it actually is from the low side. That seemed the correct place to position it anyway, just at the foot of the back stairway to the house. No offsite materials were used to make the spiral, only small rocks that were lying around on the site. Even through irregular Summer rainfall the herbs grew well in their first season.
A point to note is that I have not so far needed to water my vegetable garden or the food forest site and I only water the herbs a little if they start to droop. I think this has been the case because I make a point of not planting out, or applying straw mulch, until after a fairly heavy rain event. This seems to give the plants a good start in soil in which the moisture is successfully retained by the mulch between rain events.
Not everything has been a total success but I remind myself that this is a learning process for me. Just before Spring I planted a patch of Quinoa, a mountain grain from South America which requires cold ground to germinate. I thought to myself, I am in the mountains and we do get frosts over Winter. However, there were no more frosts so I think I must have left it too late for this crop. Not a single seed germinated. But, life is full of surprises. Later, in Spring, I discovered that one of the trees that marked one end of the failed rows I had planted, is a Ginko Biloba tree. Someone before me had the foresight to start off something that may be very useful in the future, and isn’t that something yo which we all should aspire?
One final lesson I have taken on board through this experience is that I have learned to pace myself. I used to go full tilt at things, putting all my energy into doing whatever was needed. Even up to a couple of years ago. But now, in my mid-sixties I find that if I do that on one day, I am stuffed and unable to do anything for a couple of days after. So, I now limit my physical efforts to about an hour or two a day or if I really need to finish something on a particular day, I take a good long break to recover before continuing the work.