January 25 and 26, 2019
Written by: Kirby Fry
All Images © Woody Welch 2019
Earth Repair Corps Teams Up with the Multicultural Refugee Coalition
In January of 2019, Earth Repair Corps had the good fortune to host a permablitz (or volunteer perennial garden installation) at the Multicultural Refugee Coalition (MRC) New Leaf Farm near Elgin, Texas.
The property where the farm lies is in the Blackland Prairie natural region of Texas and has black clayee soils. Typically, corn, soy beans, cotton, wheat, and sorghum are grown in this region.
The property is owned by John Beal who leases it to MRC.
Our relationship with MRC began when I received a phone call from Steven Hebbard, their farm manager at the time, during the spring of 2018. I went out to New Leaf Farm for a site visit and was shown a 3.4 acre field where Steven told me that they wanted a terraced orchard and a perennial food garden with the possibility of row cropping annual vegetables and fruits in between the terraces. Steven had been working with Jamie Soma on an overall permaculture design for the entire farm and so I did my best to honor their existing plans and create a system that worked well within their design.
Wandaka Musongera is New Leaf Farm’s current farm manager whom we worked with extensively during the design process and permablitz.
The Design Process
The first thing I did was find out how long and how wide the field was. It was about 500 feet long from top to bottom and just a little over 300 feet wide. Since New Leaf Farm wanted the possibility of row cropping between the terraces we were about to install, we laid out 4 terraces exactly 100 feet apart from top to bottom, with each terrace being about 280 feet long. This is the part of the design process that I call identifying the “known-knowns”, which is a process of elimination. This part of the design process entails answering a few basic questions, such as: What are the objectives of the client? How big is the job site? What is the soil like? Where are the roads? Where is the water for irrigation?
It took us 5 days of surveying, however, to figure out how to lay out the terraces on this field. Steven told me that he would like to have the terraces slope a bit in order to prevent water standing for too long, so initially I set the first terrace on contour in order to establish a baseline and went parallel and down from there. The three successive terraces below the top terrace all have a 0.5% grade to them draining water very gently to the riparian area where the water would naturally leave the field. It was like laying out the terraces on a giant lump of kneaded bread dough though, with lots of humps and bumps, and dips and drains, and was not a simple process. With the help of Lacey Proffitt, we must have laid out those terraces at least 4 different times before getting the design up to my requirements.
Once the layout was complete, Pete VanDyck with VanDyck Earthworks and Design arrived and spent a week on a mini-excavator installing the terraces. I have lost count now of how many times Pete and I have executed such designs and installations together. Five level sill spillways, where the berm of the terraces stops but the swale continues, were installed in order to allow excessive water out during major rain events. The swale, or below grade part of the terraces, is about 7.5 feet wide and 1 foot deep. The four terraces combined can hold back about 5,040 cubic feet of water, or 37,800 gallons of water below grade, right at the feet of our perennial agriculture. It requires a 2 or 3 inch rain event to fill them up. The berms are about 9 feet wide and 1 foot tall and offer the fruit trees we planted a broad tithy garden bed on contour giving the trees a real “leg up” on that clayee soil.
The next design parameter I was given is that New Leaf Farm was interested in perennials that could possibly be used as natural dyes, had market value, and fell within the spectrum of low to moderate maintenance and upkeep. Shortly after the terraces were installed and before the permablitz, MRC was given nearly 30 pomegranate trees that met those parameters and which were planted on the lowest terrace about 10 feet apart. 16 mulberry trees were selected for the highest terrace which are extremely hardy and can be used as a natural dye. 16 pears were selected for the terrace second from the top, and 16 Asian persimmons were selected for the terrace second from the bottom.
Golden ball lead trees, considered a farmers tree, were planted at a ratio of 1 farmers tree per 4 fruit trees between the fruit trees. Farmers trees are native leguminous trees that may offer some or all of the following characteristics – native, leguminous, sugary bean pod and fodder for livestock, deep rooted, dappled shade, and mine for minerals by their root system and deposited on the ground’s surface through their leaf litter.
The mulberry and pear trees were purchased from Flavor Farms out here in McDade, Texas just a couple of miles from where I live. The Asian persimmons were purchased from Bloomers Garden Center in Elgin, Texas. The golden ball lead trees were purchased from Far South Wholesale Nursery.
The Weekend of the Permablitz
Saturday the 25th was a partly sunny and cool January morning. Very fortunately the terraces had already been installed so the main 2 jobs for the permablitz crew was getting 4 water supply lines, each about 100 feet long, to the 4 terraces, and planting about 60 trees. Nearly 30 people showed up that day including the Wandaka Musongera’s mother and younger siblings. Wandaka’s mother provided us with lunch on both days of the permablitz.
To get the water supply line to the middle of the terraces we had to dig nearly 400 linear feet of trenches at least 6 inches deep. This was by far the hardest task we had, and it was interesting to see how the crew got better and better at digging as the day progressed. It also really helped when I spray painted the trench lines for everyone to see and follow more clearly.
Woody Welch, a board member of Earth Repair Corps, had his drone up in the air taking pictures of the property, and was himself also taking some really great pictures on the ground.
During lunch on Saturday Steve Moakley, a MRC board member, spoke to us about their mission, Tim Miller gave a presentation on how to plant his heirloom leaks, Wandaka spoke, John Beal spoke, and I also gave a brief presentation on permaculture design.
That Saturday night and early Sunday morning however, it rained hard and limited our access to the field where we were working. We basically had to cart in wheelbarrows all of the trees and soil amendments about a quarter mile along very wet and muddy farm tracks to get them to the terraces. It never ceases to amaze me though how well and how carefully the permablitz crew can plant trees. All of the trees were planted before lunch on Sunday, and by the end of Sunday most of the supply lines had been set and the trenches back-filled.
The permablitz at New Leaf Farm was a great experience and hopefully the beginning of long friendship between Earth Repair Corps and the Multicultural Refugee Coalition.
Written by: Kirby Fry
All Images © Woody Welch 2019
A permablitz is an event where a group of volunteers works together to install a permaculture (permanent + agriculture) garden for a friend, a neighbor, a school, and/or a community garden. The garden can be an annual garden made for annual vegetables, or it can be a perennial garden made for fruit trees and other perennial food crops such as asparagus, brambles, and grapes.
A permablitz can also include installing a rainwater collection system, a gray water harvesting system, and/or building a chicken coop, trellis, or espalier.
How did we find out about permablitzes, and when did permablitzes get started here in Central Texas?
The permaculture community in Texas may have first learned about permablitzes from Dilek Wise, a graduate from a Permaculture Design Course that I helped teach with the Austin Permaculture Guild in 2011 or so. Dilek found out about an organization called Permablitz Melbourne, in Australia, that was helping their community to install permaculture gardens. Permablitz Melbourne had by then installed scores of gardens, and did a great job of documenting their work. They’ve also made some very helpful videos about how to run your own permablitz – a few are linked below.
When I learned about Permablitz Melbourne’s community effort working together to conserve soils and grow food locally, it reminded me of the work I had done as a US Peace Corps Volunteer in Guatemala. In the Highlands of Guatemala, north of Huehuetenango, we built and kept up 5 tree nurseries (each in a different village), implemented soil conservation methods, and planted woodlot trees in those villages, as well as 2 others. After getting out of the Peace Corps, it always seemed to me that we could and should be doing that kind of work here in Central Texas. Permablitz Melbourne demonstrated that indeed such a community effort was possible.
Then, during the winter of 2011, while I was helping to teach a class called Food Forests for All, at The Whole Life Learning Center, I shared with the students of that class what Permablitz Melbourne was up to. The students were enthusiastic and we had our first permablitz at Austin Ecoschool that very next January of 2012. Many of the people in that class have since had multiple permablitzes at their homesteads, and at community gardens that they were associated with.
Photos from our January 2019 Permablitz at the Multicultural Refugee Coalition’s New Leaf Farm
Since 2012 we have had well over 50 permablitzes, averaging about 9 per year, being held from September through May. In 2015 Earth Repair Corps was incorporated, in part, to help promote and run the permablitzes. If we have learned anything over the past 7 years, it is that we are not just building gardens, but communities that garden.
Since I was leading many of these events and heavily invested in them, there were at least six design elements that I tried to include in each and every permablitz.
- Soil and Water Conservation. As I’ve said during many of my talks and classes, soil and water conservation is the cornerstone of permaculture design – that which all else is built upon. Usually, whether we are planting trees or making annual gardens, we build some sort of earthworks on contour such as conservation terraces or raised annual garden beds. These earthworks serve to slow, spread, and sink surface water running off the garden site, make that water available to the plants in the garden, and catch any soil sediments and detritus that might also be running off of the site.
- Perennial Food Crops. Perennial food plants are the key stone of permaculture design – that which holds it up over time. A perennial food crop yields fruit, nuts, and berries year after year, unlike annual food crops that produce for 1 or 2 seasons and then have to be replanted. In Texas we have been planting mulberry, pomegranate, Asian persimmon, fig, apple, peach, plum, pear, pecan, pineapple guava asparagus, artichoke, grape vines, and blackberry brambles.
- Support Species of Plants. Another aspect of permaculture design that distinguishes it from organic farming is that we are creating agriculturally productive ecosystems, so not every plant we establish in a permaculture garden is a food crop. We use cover crops extensively, like clover, winter pea, rye grass, buck wheat, black eye pea, and millet to improve soils, and help vegetate bare soils. Farmers trees like black locust, acacia, golden ball lead tree, Eve’s necklace, and arroyo sweetwood are all native leguminous trees that offer dappled shade, have deep root systems that bring up minerals from subsoils, and many of which fix Nitrogen into soils. Lastly, deep-rooted herbs like comfrey, sorrel, and dock are added to some of our gardens for their soil-enhancing properties.
- Soil Amendments. Many of our soils in Texas have been eroded and do not have the available mineral content nor the organic matter in them available for agricultural crops to flourish. Bill Mollison was an advocate of adding soft rock minerals to soils to provide crops with needed elements, including soft rock phosphate, agricultural lime for calcium, pelletized sulfur, green sand for potassium and magnesium, and trace minerals. We also add a slow release organic fertilizer in the hole of every tree we plant which is inoculated with mycorrhizal fungi, and beneficial to the roots of most plants.
- Drip Irrigation. Fruit trees in Texas need supplemental water if they are going to flourish and be productive, even when they are perched on a berm just below a swale. The most efficient way to deliver this supplemental water is with drip irrigation. I have become a huge fan of Ewing Irrigation here in Central Texas. Each fruit tree needs about 4 gallons of supplemental water delivered to it every other day from May through early October, or for about 5 months.
- Mulch. At the base of each tree a heavy mulch should be applied annually. Wood chips from trees seems to be what is most readily available for us here in Texas, though if you look around to the north of Austin, from late spring through the summer, wheat straw is available. A good mulch cover will help to keep soil temperatures cooler than the ambient air temperature, suppress weeds, and slow down the evaporation of soil moisture which can be significant under the Texas sun and winds.
Photos from our September 2018 Permablitz at Proffitt Ranch in Marble Falls, TX
The costs for a permablitz can range anywhere from $700 to $4,000 and is usually paid for by the host site. A commitment from the host site is also needed to finish up any tasks that were not completed during the permablitz – finishing up the irrigation system seems to commonly be one of these tasks. The host site is also expected to provide volunteers with lunch during the work days.
Participating in a permablitz is a great way to meet like-minded people, learn more about sustainable design, and (after attending 3 permablitzes) have a permablitz at your home.
The permablitz schedule is announced on our calendar.
Written by: Kirby Fry – All Images © Woody Welch 2019
Read our 2015 post on Festival Beach here.
Three years after the design and installation of the Festival Beach Food Forest in Austin, Texas, Woody Welch and I had the pleasure of revisiting this amazing parkland food forest. The trees and plants were doing exceptionally well, a wheel chair accessible decomposed granite walkway has since been added, along with several other mulched paths and park benches. Woody got his drone in the air and was able to take some amazing shots of the site showing just how close the food forest is to the center of Austin, Texas.
- In late October of 2015, Earth Repair Corps partnered with Festival Beach Food Forest and Tree Folks to assist with the installation of a food forest in a public, highly-visible green space just north of Lady Bird Lake and east of Interstate Highway 35 right in the heart of growing Austin, Texas.
- The Festival Beach Food Forest team, Pete VanDyck, and I spent days surveying this site with laser levels and landscaping flags. First, we found the lowest spot on the site and then marked contour lines every 6” and up from there in elevation. What was revealed by that survey was that the park is shaped like a shallow bowl with a large drain passing through the middle of it that drains almost all of the water from Festival Beach Community Gardens and the apartment complex parking lot adjacent to the community gardens.
- Three conservation terraces were installed above and out of the way of the drainage system, 2 on the north side of the food forest and 1 on the south side. A tree boomerang / berm was built up with Geo Grower’s “berm builder” soil around one of the prominent live oaks, and 2 large berms were built up with the same material along the park’s perimeter that would eventually shield the site when planted from the automobile traffic along IH 35.
- Here is a good aerial shot of the Festival Beach Food Forest. Festival Beach Community Garden is right next door to the food forest.
- During this most recent visit, I thought that one of the most successful design elements was the hedge row planted on the perimeter berms. The Arizona cypress trees, and sable palms (both evergreens) had at least tripled in their size, and in just three years were doing a really great job of sheltering the park from the interstate highway.
- Another one of my favorite elements is the fruiting calendar that was planted on the longest terrace on the south east side of the park. If you’re standing in the center of the food forest and looking at the terrace, from left to right you will see – loquat, mulberry, peach, plum, apple, pear, pomegranate, and Asian persimmon. That is the same order that they will fruit throughout the calendar year.
- A new addition to the food forest since the original planting, olive trees.
- Underneath the live oak tree with the tree boomerang below it, I noticed a lot of beautiful native Texas plants had been established. Here is a shot of one of my favorites, sweet almond verbena.
- Also in full bloom, not too far from the sweet almond verbena were several loquat trees. I don’t think that I’ve ever really experienced the fragrance of loquat flowers before, they smelled wonderful. The loquats’ flowers had sure gotten the attention of the honey bees on this warm sunny winter day.
- The visual rock stars of the food forest were the arroyo sweet wood trees which were still holding on to their fall leaves.