Archive for the ‘permaculture’ Category

Old friends in Adelaide, and new ones in the Huon Valley kept asking this question optimistically all through 2011. Recently they seem to have stopped, perhaps giving up because we had to ruefully admit each time, that nothing was happening, nothing at all. Moving to Tasmania and away from family & friends, getting new jobs, and starting our lives all over again was even more financially and mentally challenging than I had imagined, and it seems we’ve needed a year just to settle in.
 I’m grateful that we didn’t stress too much about progress, because I can look back on a year in which we rose to new challenges in our jobs that have stretched and rewarded us, tried to be as useful as possible to our new community, made new friends, learned a lot of new skills, worked at local markets, attended workshops & courses, truly appreciated our stunning new surroundings, and even acclimatised a little. I started teaching Yoga classes to a very different sort of crowd from the one that turned up to my Adelaide classes (equally wonderful….just different). In August I found a great part-time job which I was very lucky to get within the Valley, but before that I worked in bits and pieces on various properties & farms and was able to observe things that really helped with our own plans. It can be just as valuable to observe what doesn’t work as it is to learn what does work, and I’m very glad we’ve left our block, and our soil, alone until we’re sure of what to do.

Hay & tall-growing pink clover, looking down the hill to the North


 It’s easy to forget that Permaculture is not a set of rules or prescribed techniques, but an intelligent way of thinking, responding and acting in your own climate and environment, sustainably and adaptively. In other words, just because lots of Permaculture books describe swales, that doesn’t mean that swales are compulsory, it just means that they are one of the many tools that may be useful in some soils, in some places. On our particular block, and with our particular soil, and our climate and rainfall, I think not. In fact many of our plans have changed and adapted after a year of gathering local knowledge and observing our block, and others, in all seasons.


So I’m glad we waited, learned and planned, but I’m also very happy to say that finally, something is Happening…a 130 metre gravel driveway. I know this may not sound as thrilling and exciting to others as it seems to us, but after all the research, planning, soil testing, saving pennies, thinking and discussion, this is the first practical step in our grand plans, and the next time someone asks I will be able to say, “Yes! There IS something HAPPENING on the block! We’re having a DRIVEWAY!!!”  And as they carefully back away from my maniacal over-enthusiastic grin I will feel the warm glow of satisfaction that only someone who has something actually Happening on their block can feel.

Stuff turns up...something is finally happening.


We’ve met and spoken with a lot of people who have developed their blocks from scratch, and I really admire the resourceful and multi-skilled types who do absolutely everything themselves, including buying an excavator and learning how to drive and maintain it so that they can build their driveway entirely alone. Mainlanders who have moved and stayed here tend to be a hardy lot. I know a man who once built a stone house with boulders which he moved and placed individually with his own solitary bare hands. However, we moved here to be a part of the community, and to us that will often include working hard to pay local, highly skilled people to enable them to do what they do best, and to go on doing it. Especially in a local economy that is undergoing a lot of stress and change. We definitely want to be as involved in building our block and house as our abilities and energy levels will permit… but at this point, we don’t feel the need to bask in the glory of laying every piece of gravel by ourselves. So we asked around and were referred to Wally, local genius of driveways, and legendary Dam Man. One look at our site and he suggested we change our plans slightly to sweep the drive around for the least amount of ongoing maintenance and he also knew how to make sure that all the run-off will go into the dam site.

Driveway in progress, looking down toward shed

The driveway will enter where the farm gate already is, head north-east directly into the block toward the future house site, and then veer left down to the big shed.
Our fabulous new driveway will enable us to make some repairs to the shed and store things in it (like straw bales for our future house’s walls). Initially we thought we’d live in the shed for a while, but even if we had a compost toilet, we could find no way of inexpensively meeting grey water recycling regulations given that the shed is not only at the bottom border of our sloping block and very close to the neighbour’s house, but also right next to the block’s most natural site for a large dam. No room for a reed bed system or even just a septic tank with the hill steeply rising from our side of the shed.

Looking toward the house site

Since we’ve been offered another year’s very reasonable rent in a warm place, and after weighing up the financial pros and cons, we’ve decided to keep renting, keep the shed as a storage space for scavenged building materials, and channel all our time & resources into a small straw bale cabin which will eventually become guest accommodation when we build the main house.

Wally's excavator


We had to remove two trees for the driveway, one of which was split and had deteriorated sometime in the past anyway. We’d like to use the trunk of the other one in our future home, in some decorative way. Wally simply nudged these big trees over with his huge excavator.


Small person discovers that using a large heavy chainsaw is not as easy as it looks...but has fun trying.

Next on the agenda once the driveway is done: harvesting the hay on the block; a few basic repairs to make sure the shed roof is completely water-tight; finalising our concept of the house and cabin and getting a local designer to draw up plans; and sourcing some straw bales and pre-ordering them for next season (luckily the farmers are predicting a much drier summer – the last one was too wet for build-worthy bales). Also on my wish-list is a small dam toward the top of the block so that I can make a start on planting and irrigating some blueberries, and a poly-tunnel. I’m planning some gentle soil amendments, Soil Foodweb -style, as recommended by another genius local from the other side of the river, soil scientist Letetia Ware…but I’ll leave that story for another post.
A chance to see a sort of soil profile where the excavator has been past

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In April this year (2010), after a few years of careful research, we bought an 8 acre block of land just outside of Geeveston in the Huon Valley, Southern Tasmania. We’d been visiting my brother and father in Tasmania for years and the idea of living there became more and more appealing. We both wanted a rural lifestyle and a milder climate than the 40 degree celsius summer days we get in Adelaide. Tom is a water person who loves big rivers and open ocean, while I love tall forests, mountains, green hills, and growing food. Many areas of Tasmania offered all this and rural land was much more affordable than in South Australia.

The beautiful Huon River

However, it took a few years to find the right area and then a few more to find the right piece of land. Luckily, I’d attended an excellent Permaculture Design Course (PDC) with Graham and Annemarie Brookman at the Food Forest in South Australia, and this helped us define what we personally wanted…

We wanted a northerly aspect to make the most of the sun – particularly important, and sometimes hard to find, in the hilly Huon Valley where Winter days are short. Our block faces North in a sort of diamond shape.

Looking down the hill to the Northern corner

We wanted decent soil and rainfall – permaculture can of course be practised anywhere and helps people to make the most of any conditions, but if you have a choice, it certainly makes life easier to have growing- friendly conditions. We have 800ml rainfall a year and room for dams. Our soil is a clay loam, just a little on the acid side which is not a negative (easily managed and increases potential nutrient uptake of plants – not to mention great for growing berries, yum!).

We also wanted to be located within a friendly community. It wasn’t until I did the PDC that I realised how important a sense of community is to me. In fact this is the main influence on our decision to settle in the Huon Valley (apart from how stunningly beautiful it is). I’d spent time in Hobart and also Wynyard with relatives, but I’d never stayed in the Huon Valley. We had ridden a motorbike along the coast once , and passed through on the way to some camping further south at Cockle Creek so we knew the area was stunningly beautiful. When I did some internet research and noticed there was a strong permaculture community, and then friends I’d done the PDC with moved there, we decided it would be a good idea for me to spend some time Wwoofing in the area (Wwoofing = Willing Workers On Organic Farms) to investigate further.

I remember driving down from Wynyard in the North where I’d been visiting my father and stopping at the Huon river. I was a little early to meet my Wwoofing host so I got out of the car and sat down for a while, looking at the river. I had a sudden sense of rightness and belonging I really can’t describe. The place just grabbed me by the ankles and held on. When Tom arrived to spend some time, he felt the same way about the place.

My time spent Wwoofing in Franklin and getting involved with the local market, a quiz night, wooden boat restorers, and the Permaculture Association gatherings made me feel even more at home as I met friendly, encouraging, welcoming, like-minded people, and I knew then that it might be possible to make the challenging move away from family and friends in SA.

We realised that local knowledge is invaluable so we asked for, and received, excellent advice, such as which Real Esate agent is a bit dodgy, or whereabouts the fog is pea-soup thick in Winter.

This year during a winter visit, we were even lucky enough to meet the couple who used to own our property when it was an apple orchard. They planted very effective windbreaks with native gums and blackwood . The trees mark out a drive, and divide the block into one large rectangle with two separate paddocks on the Western side; the upper one long and narrow, the lower one wider.

The Northwestern side paddock

For our purposes I’d have preferred the windbreaks to be just around the outside edge of the property, with no separate paddocks, but we’re reluctant to take out the mature native trees and start a windbreak from scratch. On the Eastern side there’s a long windbreak of pines planted by whoever used to own the property on that side – not native, unfortunately, and with some Hawthorn we’ll eventually remove. We have power and water at the boundary.

The block has quite a slope – generally about 15 degrees all the way down to the Northern corner. There is an enormous old apple shed that is placed as if it should be on the neighbour’s property but our boundary actually extends out around the shed to include it on our property. It’s common in the valley to have these strange angles and little shapes of land that poke out from otherwise straight boundary lines, perhaps a legacy from the division of large acreages shared or sold between family members and neighbours. It’s a great shed, with Tasmanian oak flooring and walls & roof in reasonable condition, and we thought we might live in the shed for a while while we built a house on the property. However, its position means it gets no sun, water probably gathers beneath it often in Winter, and it’s only a stone’s throw from the neighbour’s house.

After some discussion we agreed that we’d take a rental property for a year, enabling us to live in comfort while we settle into the community and into new jobs. 

The next step is to design our block along permaculture principles and plan our house. We welcome ideas, input, and suggestions, so please leave a comment if you have any inspiration or hints for us.

Looking across the main paddock

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RudolphWhen I found out that chooks can dig, weed, and de-pest the vegie patch as well as laying eggs, I wanted some. Specifically, I wanted a chook tractor; a bottomless, easily transportable chook home that could be moved anywhere in the garden where a crop had been harvested and the soil needed preparing for the next crop.

Chook tractors are popular in permaculture designs because they can fit so intelligently into the whole system, with great benefit to both chooks (they LOVE weeding, eating bugs, and digging) and humans (I am less suited to digging, or weeding, or de-bugging and prefer to have a cup of tea and watch the chooks do it). So when my husband Tom asked what I wanted for my 35th birthday, I said I wanted a chook tractor, and being the lovely man he is, he built me one.


I wanted the chooks to be healthy and happy, so I researched their priorities, which are:

  • Earth to scratch around on and dry dirt to bathe in.  Chook tractors are floorless, so this is easy.
  • Chook friends for company. Chooks have strong social needs and become stressed in a group of more than 20.
  • A high place to roost and feel safe at night. Their rainforest dwelling ancestors roosted as high as they could in trees, away from predators on the ground.
  • A quiet, sheltered place to nest.
  • Some shelter from rain and sun, as well as opportunity for fresh air and some sun.
  • Clean water and a varied diet of seeds, protein, grit and fresh greens.

The chook tractor also needed to be very light-weight so that I could move it easily and regularly around the garden to give the chooks access to fresh ground and food. This is the main reason Tom decided to build with PVC piping. From a permaculture perspective, the unsustainabilityof this product is a disadvantage. However, his priorities were making sure I could lift it around myself (I’m small), and ease of building with inexpensive materials. It needed to be light enough for me and a friend to actually lift up and over permanent structures like low brick walls and bushes that our landlady may be quite fond of. We were also influenced by the use of  PVC in Linda Woodrow’s Chook Dome design from “The Permaculture Home Garden”. Hers is designed to fit into a mandala garden, but I needed a rectangular base because my garden has some rectangular beds bordered by concrete paths that were laid down long before we lived here. An arc shape seemed the logical choice to provide a high roost and maximum base area.

Building the Chook Tractor

Tom built the base with “sewer pipe” size PVC, because it’s ultra-violet resistant and strong enough to make a heavy-duty base. Right angle PVC corners connected the sewer pipes into a rectangle. He then built 6 ribs out of 20mm conduit to make the arc shape. The ribs were fitted into holes in the base drilled with a 20mm spade bit and fixed with PVC glue.chook tractor doing frame from inside

The ribs were fixed into shape by two more long pieces of conduit attached along the sides. These side pieces were fixed into place on the ribs by wire threaded through drilled holes. The ends of the side lengths were glued into an extra 2 holes drilled into the base. This made the structure stable.

chook tractor pre-door











A horizontal piece of wood was fitted to the PVC with wire, to form the top of the door frame.

Once the rest of the door frame was built, the whole tractor was ready to be covered in chook wire mesh.

chook tractor facing door

 chook tractor fastening wood to PVC




We got the smallest size mesh we could, to keep mice and small birds out. The frame itself went up very quickly, and then tying the wire mesh onto the frame was the most time-consuming part of the project.

Two dowel roosts were attached to the conduit PVC up the back, one higher than the other. This allows the chooks to choose their roosting spot according to their pecking order, and to be able to reach the higher one from the lower one. The door is hinged from the top to open outwards and shut closed with a bolt that goes into the base.

Even though we live in the suburbs, many people’s chooks have been killed by foxes, so it was important to fox proof the tractor. Following Linda Woodrow’s advice we lie a skirting of extra chook mesh along the ground around the base. A fox or dog will try to get to the chooks by digging under the base, but are put off by the feeling of mesh under their claws. I just attach this extra skirting to the tractor withsome pegs or slip it underneath the base, and it’s held down on the ground with a few bricks. We haven’t lost any chooks so far, and it’s been four years.

The chook tractor holds four chooks very comfortably. For a nesting box, I used a large old wooden tea crate that someone was throwing out, and I provide straw for them to make a nest in it.

A friend donated an old car tarp, which is fantastic because it reflects the heat of the sun as well as offering protection from the rain.

chook tractor in situ with beans

I throw in straw regularly in wet weather to soak up any excess moisture, because chooks don’t like wet feet. In fact if I feel like being entertained I throw in a half bale of straw and watch the chooks use it as a trampoline, tear it apart, throw straw over eachothers’ heads, and generally have a wonderful time with it. Eventually they dig it through the ground along with any kitchen scraps they decided not to eat, along with their manure, and after they’ve moved on to the next spot it all becomes rich compost mulch. After a few weeks’ rest to age the manure and let the worms come back, it’s ready for planting and the vegies love it. So do the chooks!

When it’s time to move the tractor, I can just lift it up a little from inside, and walk the chooks over to the next spot. I only need to find a helper and take the chooks out if it needs to be lifted up and over something, which is rarely. When I start moving the fox proof skirting, the chooks know it’s time to move and they get very excited at the prospect of fresh bugs and greens. In the heat of Summer the chook tractor is placed beneath shady fig and pomegranite trees, and in Winter it’s oriented to face the sun more.

Some things we’d do differently next time

This was our first experiment in housing chooks. It’s done well in all kinds of weather, from frosts, wind, rain, and extreme UV, but it is starting to come apart a little in one corner where the UV glue deteriorated, and eventually the base cracked away from the corner-piece due to UV damage. The side pieces have been fine, but the base needs to be made out of something more sturdy and UV proof (it would still need to be light though).

It would be great to have the fox-proof skirting somehow permanently fixed to the edges of the base with hinges, so it can just be pegged up when moving the tractor and let down when the tractor’s in place, but again any extra weight would be an issue.

chook tractor in situ behind sunflowers




I would love your ideas, comments, suggestions or questions, so please feel welcome to comment below.

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