Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Urban Permaculture and Garden Design v.1

© Transition Frome
Last weekend I went on an introduction to Urban Permaculture course at the Environment Centre. I've been reading about permaculture for 10 years, having found some old copies of Permaculture Magazine in the library of a housing co-op I used to live in. I love permaculture to a ridiculous degree, so this is going to be a long blogpost. Get comfy :)

For those who might not know, here is a page of various definitions of permaculture. It's hard to pin down, in some ways, and people often mistakenly think it is only about farms and gardens. Google defines it thus: "The development of agricultural ecosystems intended to be sustainable and self-sufficient." This is true to some extent, but many designers are now also applying permaculture principles to buildings, communities, and their own personal lives.

I like to think of permaculture as a way of applying common sense systematically and from the start. The idea is that when you're considering making changes to something (be it your business, your garden or your own life) you invest a large amount of time observing what is already there, what constraints are outside of your control and working out what you really want to get from your project. Once you've got a good idea of these things, you start to work out how it can all best fit together so that you design a system that needs minimum inputs from outside, produces minimum waste, and needs minimum work to run.

Image nicked from Wikipedia
During years of espousing the brilliance of this idea to people, I can't tell you how many have said to me "but that's just common sense". Yes, it is, but as I've also heard it said, common sense is not very common. How many of us, when starting a project of any sort, follow patterns set out by habit and previous experience? And how many of us look at the project afresh by first seeing what we have to work with, and what would suit this individual instance best? Not many, I'd wager.

This is where permaculture design comes in, giving us a framework within which to start at the beginning again each time. Obviously our previous experience will provide us with references for what works for us and what doesn't, but it's vital to set this experience in the context of whatever it is that we are attempting. For me, that doesn't come naturally, so I appreciate being shown an alternative way. 

Ooo, get me.

Disclaimer: This is just me daydreaming. Obviously we'll design the garden as a co-op after lots of thorough observation has occurred.

Celebrity pencils courtesy of Poly In Pictures* :)
So, let's have a little walk-through of this gorgeous example of urban permaculture (ahem). Starting at the house, we come out of the back doors into a glazed exterior space. This space is fulfilling lots of purposes. It's an additional area for drying clothes in wet weather, we can bring on plants here and keep tender things which need more heat and attention than they'd get outside. It also provides another link from the living room to the bathroom, and has enough space for one or two people to sit out in. Warm air from this space can also be used to provide ventilation to the living room by opening the windows (which will hopefully become french doors, as indicated here).

Leaving the sunspace, there is a large concrete area. This is already present at the house, and being as it's a lot of work to lift it, I decided to work with it instead. This area fulfills lots of needs, despite being relatively compact. There are raised beds for annual and frequently-harvested perennial crops. A water butt connected to the downpipe from the extension roof provides water for these beds. There's also a herb spiral which is close to the kitchen, with a small pond at the bottom for water-loving plants. This will help to attract more wildlife to the garden. There is also a covered smoking area with a bench under it. In my dreamworld this has a sedum roof, just because I like them (although they're also great for insects). The centre of this area is left as hardstanding so that we can use it for a multitude of purposes; bringing chairs from inside so we can eat out there, doing DIY jobs that can't be done indoors, putting clothes airers out on sunny days and growing extra things in pots, for example. The walls of this space can also be used for vertical growing, and the long kind of washing line which is affixed to poles can run across the whole space.

Moving through the gorgeous trellis wall and archway (the black and wiggly lines on the picture) planted with productive climbers such as hops and kiwi, we come out onto the lawn. This is a social and play space above all else, but it is bordered with productivity on all sides. To the left there are perennial crops in low beds, with trained fruit trees running along the sunny wall.  To the right there is an enclosure for chickens. This has the compost bins in it so as to minimise the amount of trekking about with household food waste we will have to do. People can feed the chickens on their way to the compost bins, and when we clean out the coop we'll only have a short distance to transport the manure/straw mix. Comfrey is planted around the bins so we can cut it occasionally to add extra minerals to the compost. Chickens also love it as a forage food. The rest of their enclosure is also planted with plants which provide forage for them, as are the fences on all sides. This won't supply their whole diet but will hopefully enrich it and make their lives more interesting. The water butt here is for the chickens' water, and to be handy for cleaning out the coop and rinsing compost containers.

Winding our way down the garden we can see more beds surrounding the dwarf apple tree, which also provides a nice shady spot to sit in. The shape of the beds means that all parts of them can be easily reached without ever having to stand on the bed. Also, wiggly is good. Past the apple tree there is a secluded spot just for the bees, which is gated to keep small children and dogs from bothering them. The fences of this enclosure are planted with climbing soft fruit, and inside the enclosure there is lots of insect-friendly planting which will hopefully help to give us a good reputation amongst the pollinators.

Blimey! Well now that you're here, please accept my congratulations on making it through this lengthy ramble! I hope you enjoyed walking through our potential future garden as much as some of you enjoyed walking through our potential future house in Cassian's last post. When dreams become reality, I promise we'll keep you posted :)

- Hannah

Further disclaimer: I was wary of doing a design for any aspect of Labyrinth, because it would be missing the important survey and analysis stages of the design process (which I realise I've just touted the importance of, but bear with me), but I felt that the contribution to my enthusiasm for a house which I have previously not been mad keen on outweighed this flagrant hypocrisy on my part. Also, everyone else wanted to see if I really could squeeze all the stuff they wanted in ;)

I got the orientation details and the size of the garden from an aerial photograph online, and added to that my observations from walking past the back of the property many times. The dimensions might be terrifically wrong, but let's imagine they're not, and then appreciate just how much you can fit into a fairly low-maintenance urban garden.

* Poly In Pictures is Cassian's web comic. Peruse it to see more work by these rather accomplished drawing implements. 

Monday, 27 February 2012

Housey plans

This morning I was perusing our Future House pinboard on Pinterest. (Leave a comment if you want to join Pinterest, okay? I have invites.) It occurred to me that such a site is so inspiring and at the same time a place to put reminders of ideas. Sure, I might see a picture of some keys bent into key hooks on some other site, but then I'd forget. And then when we needed key hooks in the new house, I'd have forgotten, so I'd just go out and buy some boring normal key hooks. This is why Pinterest is amazing. If our house turns out anything like even some of the things we've pinned, it's going to be incredible. I hope the new house has the internet.

Anyway, let me show you round Labyrinth of Dreams.

Walk through the front door.

(pin / source)

Hang up your keys.


Grab something to eat from the pantry.

(pin / source)

Walk past some nice walls or something, I don't know.

(pin / source)

I just wanted some pretty colours on this blog post, shush.

Grab a book from the pipe bookshelf...

(pin / source)

... and sit down on the sofa to read, plunking your food down on the coffee table.

(pin / source)

(I think we shouldn't have these in the communal spaces, due to they will get full of tat, but that would spoil this story so I'll leave that out.)

Nip out and play in the greenhouse for a bit.


Then when it gets late, grab your pyjamas... 

(pin / source)

...and head to bed.

(pin / source)

Thursday, 23 February 2012


Since Radical Routes have opened up the question of what qualifies as radical social change and how much we should do, I thought I'd show you what I've been doing. This is at Chester Zoo with my mum. I am even radical when I'm on holiday, that's how dedicated I am.

Also, I got my mum to join in. I suspect she is naturally radical and that's where I get my genes.

I've also been getting loads of companies and organisations to change their forms and things re: gender via a small-but-active armchair activism blog MxActivist, and many are starting to include gender-neutral titles Mx and Misc on their online forms. It all feels like a snowball just starting to roll down a wintry mountain, gaining weight and momentum as it goes.

It's all going into this wiki, particularly this section here on UK acceptance.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

We accidentally a house.

So, you know that last blog post where I whinged at length about the trials and tribulations of locating a suitable house? Ignore it. And me.
Look how happy he is for us!

Focus on this news instead: we put in an offer on Labyrinth and it got accepted.

Sorry, what?


*get up again*

The long, short, and medium length of it is that we couldn't come to a decision about the two houses currently on the table. Between Labyrinth and Run-of-the-hill, we had two abodes that none of us really loved. We wrangled, we debated, and still we had no idea what we wanted to do, if anything.

And then we looked at the maths. Not the intense sort of maths that Sven's brother can do with his eyes shut, but the simple, hard-to-avoid, obvious sort that involves noticing that one house had 2 more potential rental rooms, more communal space, was the same price or cheaper, and didn't need 10k spent on it to be habitable.

That's some pretty convincing maths, even for a romantic like me. So convincing that although I couldn't bring myself to say yes to offering on Labyrinth, I couldn't block the decision either. In the end two out of the five of us stood aside. It's thanks to the joys of consensus decision making that we all felt that our opinions had been taken into account, yet still managed to acknowledge the more negative feelings of some co-op members, and productively arrive at a decision. Yay consensus.

Anyway, now comes the busy bit. There are solicitors and surveys, valuations and business plans, and all the other gubbins I am too excited to think of right now.

Wish us luck, and expect more blog posts. Finally, this could be it.

- Hannah

Monday, 20 February 2012

The Eternal Quandary

Things have seemed quiet here recently, but we've actually been busy busy bees. The last few weeks have seen a Radical Routes gathering, several house viewings,  the loss of one member, and one member losing an internal organ. In a planned fashion, obviously. Even I'm not that good at misplacing things.

We've been to see Run-of-the-hill again, and also, somewhat surprisingly, Labyrinth. This latter visit was mainly prompted by it dropping in price by 15k, which Sven pointed out made a rather large house come in at a rather good price. I'll admit that I was never keen on Labyrinth, but agreed to visit again with as open a mind as I could manage, as did the rest of our (now slightly diminished) co-op.

These two houses are quite different, and none of us are in love with either of them. It's so strange how houses can evoke such an emotional response, but the fact still stands that we have to make decisions based on both emotional and practical reasons. Practically speaking Labyrinth is a brilliant choice. It's got extra space to allow for future co-op expansion, and the potential to make space available for small community groups and gatherings. The communal space is a good size, and more sensibly arranged than it would be at Run-of-the-hill, and it appears to be in reasonable nick.

Emotionally speaking, for me at least, Run-of-the-hill is more appealing. It's much lighter, it has more garden, and it sits on my favourite hill in Swansea. I can't say more for it than that, which I realise is ridiculous. I do wish I could be as practically minded as Sven, at times. The funny thing is, I asked about the head/heart dilemma on Facebook, hoping to get some bossy replies telling me what to do, and got a tonne of replies from various homeowners saying that you should always follow your heart. Clearly my friends aren't a very practical lot.

So this week we will get together and sort out where to go from here, if anywhere. We'll keep you (sporadically) posted.


So, what else? 

The winter Radical Routes gathering was held by Gung Ho co-op and Birmingham Bike Foundry. It was in an awesome building called The Old Printworks, which was utterly massive and full of interesting corners for the kids to clamber in. Cassian, Joe, Mattie, Finn and me went along, and had a good, if cold, time. Cassian mostly did the childcare so that me and Joe could go to lots of meetings. I even chaired one, which was nerve-wracking but good. Hopefully I'll get to do more of that in the future. 

This was Mattie's last gathering as a Golem and his first as a Cornerstone. We are all gutted to see him go, but I know he'll have a great time in Leeds, and Cornerstone have gained a wonderful housemate. Although it's quite a big loss to our little co-op, it's great that we'll still see each other at Radical Routes, and soon (hopefully), there'll be a co-op house here for him to visit us at.

The other (rather unexciting) news is that I had my gallbladder out. Luckily it's all healed now, and the fantastic thing is that the co-op - and friends beyond - swooped in to help while I couldn't lift Finn for two weeks. Mutual aid ftw :D

- Hannah