Our PDC Grad Interview Series is back!
Our hope is to convey what a life-changing opportunity the Permaculture Design Course can be, while learning more about what first attracted these former students to sustainable design and how they have applied those principles since taking a PDC.
We’re continuing this series with small-business owner Michael Wolfert of Symbiosis Regenerative Systems – read more below.
1) How did you become interested in sustainable design? Please describe to us any moments in your life that piqued your interest in sustainable, regenerative, and holistic systems.
I had a deep feeling of despair in my late teenage years and early twenties. At the time I was mostly seeking ways to reduce my footprint and be an activist for policy change and reform. One day a friend of mine, Joshua Adair, called me up and said that there was a potential scholarship for a permaculture design course. I said, “what the heck is permaculture.” He said “It’s like gardening, natural building, community building and learning to live more sustainably!” and proceeded to give the details of the event. I said I would have to think about it. We hung up. I thought about it for literally 1 minute, called him back and let him know I was really excited to learn about this and incredibly grateful that there was a scholarship because I would not have been able to afford it at the time. I started to do some research and prepare for the PDC, though I still had no idea the rabbit hole I was about to enter.
2) What were you looking to learn when you signed up for a permaculture design course?
I didn’t have many expectations, having just stumbled upon the concept with very little time to consider the implications and the impact they could have on my outlook and life.
All Images © Symbiosis Regenerative Systems 2019
3) Who taught your permaculture design course and when? What did you appreciate about that course, and what would you have liked to have learned more about?
Kirby Fry, Gary Freeborg, Jenny Nazak and Ted Norris.
This course was a real turning point for me. Kirby led the majority of class time and he did a great job introducing me to the idea that we might actually strive to have a positive footprint instead of just trying to eliminate our negative footprint, and that in this practice we could aim to set up positive feedback loops, modeling our designs after ecosystems.
From that point forward, I knew what my driving focus would be. I would try my best to become a mutually beneficial symbiote with my ecosystem. An agent for making connections between the correlating outputs and needed inputs of the systems around me. Nudging ecological succession forward. Taking more responsibility for my family’s needs, consumption, and outputs. Striving to leave a legacy of regeneration in my wake. It’s a lifelong pursuit that I hope future generations will be able to carry forward.
4) What other courses, if any, have you participated in that have helped you to learn more about and implement sustainable design systems?
Working at Morning Glory Farm with Gracie Brousard and Richard Lindley was my first real-world continuing education. These folks were real eco-pioneers and all-around fantastic mentors. I was very lucky to find them and to be allowed to study farming with them. I worked there for nearly 2 years as a farmhand. During this time I lived primarily in a school bus with no running water or power. The meals Gracey would make from the produce they grew and goods they traded other farmers for really opened my eyes to what eating fresh and seasonal produce would be like. they were both extremely patient and kind. I learned a ton about gardening, farming, community building, and being a mentee.
Cypress Valley Farms was my second continuing education course where I worked as a co-farm manager in an attempt to start a profitable regenerative farm. I learned so much from this experience and the property owners that it’s hard to summarize. Some of the main takeaways were to focus equally on the business and marketing of your farm as you do on the growing of produce. Make clear agreements with all decision-makers – 1 hour of energy input here on the front end could easily save 10 + hours of confusion on the back end. Establish a healthy work-life balance and don’t let being a business owner consume and burn you out.
Hill Country Natives was my third continued education course. Here, I worked with Mitch Mitchamore to cultivate an intensive food forest in Leander, Texas starting with 6 inches of topsoil sitting on hundreds of feet of rock shelf. Mitch runs a fantastic nursery for natives and fruiting adapted plants but often says the main yield of his business is education, conversation, and connection. He takes as much time as needed to work with each client personally. He gave me a lot of freedom and trust to come up with experiments and implement them on the grounds at Hill Country Natives. Some days, we would be working at the potting trailer for many hours having wide-ranging discussions and being eaten alive by mosquitoes. I learned a lot about leadership and problem solving from Mitch and a lot about food forests and native plants from the work we did together.
I worked for Paige Hill-Oliverio of Urban Patchwork as I was just getting my business started, doing landscaping installation and maintenance gigs in Austin. I learned about being a contractor, spreadsheets, and integrating art into a functional design. Paige does great work and I still enjoy collaborating with her on projects to this day.
Teaching a food forest workshop with Caroline Riley-Carberry, Food Forests For All, three years in a row was a powerful learning experience. We taught people the basics of food forest design and the underlying principles, lead them through a design process, and implemented the design over the course of three days. Some of the results are on display at the Whole Life Learning Center, where a field has been transformed into a thriving food forest that is managed by Caroline with help from the whole life-learners. Seeing the iterations and receiving critical feedback from the systems this course worked to design and install furthered my understanding of food forestry and permaculture in general. Caroline taught me a lot about facilitation and design. I believe some of the initial collaborators that started the permablitzes and eventually Earth Repair Corps first began putting heads together at FFFA 1. I love seeing a ripple effect of positive actions after good people get together and get inspired by a common goal.
I traveled to Michigan to learn from Mark Shepard with Pete VanDyck. I learned from Mark that the economics of large scale permaculture farming are tricky and that you have to be creative and strategic to make your way in this space. I learned that small farmers can leverage their power as co-ops to compete against big ag and revitalize agricultural communities. I learned about designing systems that can be managed by machines at scale in order to compete against big ag without compromising the regenerative metrics of success we strive to meet. I also hosted Mark to teach a workshop at our homestead when we had just started renovating the place and learned not to host workshops until your infrastructure is in good shape. The workshop was a success and I learned more from Mark about his philosophy, and made wonderful connections with local like-minded folks.
I was a participant in TexRex with Darren Doherty, where we learned the Regrarians method of property design. This was Darren’s adaptation of the Keyline Scale of Permanence, based on years of experience designing large scale regenerative properties. This method has been a huge help in systematizing my design process and presenting information to my clients in a clear, digestible package. I learned a lot about rotational grazing, mapping, keyline design and much much more. This is one of the best workshops I’ve ever attended in that I took home more practical advice and methodology than any other, had a lot of fun between classes, and the food was delicious! I gained a ton of inspiration from Darren, Lisa, and the other participants.
I’ve learned from the Permablitzes, and seeing the updates from those systems installed has helped me to have more iterative feedback to improve the designs that I create.
I’ve been running my own permaculture/regenerative design and installation business for nearly 6 years now. We have worked on over 100 individual projects, and being able to monitor these systems gives me even more data to draw on for improving the design, installation, and maintenance methods we use for all things regenerative.
I’ve been living on my own homestead for nearly 4 years and am constantly learning from observing ecosystem succession in outer zones as well as the inner zone experiments and systems we’re running out here. One standard question I have to ask myself when installing a new system is: will I be able to maintain this with my 3 kids in tow or even better get them to help me with it? How can I make this accessible and fun for our family flow? That’s a pretty fun design lense to look through.
5) Have you been able to apply what you learned from a permaculture design course to your life, and business endeavors? If so, please elaborate.
Yes! As you can probably tell from my list above, I dove in headfirst and never looked back.
I’ve been doing permaculture professionally for nearly 6 years. We have 8 full-time employees including myself and a great network of independent contractors we can call on for collaboration. We’ve continued to gain momentum and improve our methods each year. Although it is a marathon of hard work, I love it. The projects we work on, the team we work with and the clients who have chosen to lead the charge in this effort keep me constantly inspired, learning, and growing.
For the last 4 years, I’ve been living on a 25-acre homestead with my family. Even though I grew up in cities and suburbs, as I got older I never really felt like I could relax when I lived in the city. The frenetic energy, constant background noise, light pollution, air pollution, the heat island effect, it all just got under my skin and made me uncomfortable. I didn’t want to raise my kids in a place where we were so reliant on seemingly fragile systems. I wanted them to grow up with the freedom to roam in the woods, get muddy, grow food and see the magic of nature unfold over many years. I don’t know if they’ll thank me for it, but I wouldn’t have it any other way and the turning point was my PDC. Each year we are more self-sufficient as we find our place within this context and ecosystem.
6) Have you had the opportunity to teach, mentor, and/or pass on information about sustainable design to friends, family, or employees?
Yes, I’ve worked with hundreds of clients, taught at least 100 students in workshops, have taught some co-workers, and worn out my mom with my ecovangelism. I’ve also learned a lot from these interactions and continue to meet really cool folks from all walks of life who all agree that sustainable design is a good idea.
Interested in obtaining your certification? Learn more about our upcoming Permaculture Design Course here.
Earth Repair Corps Teaches 2nd PDC at Texastopia Farm in Blanco, Texas
January through June, 2019
Written by: Kirby Fry
All Images © Woody Welch 2019
This past winter and spring of 2019 Earth Repair Corps had the privilege and honor to teach its second permaculture design course at Texastopia near the headwaters of the Blanco River. The design course consists of 72 hours of classroom instruction, group activities after lunch, individual and group design projects which are presented to the class, and a talent show on the last evening of class.
The classroom provided to Earth Repair Corps by Texastopia offers a great learning environment for both teachers and students. There’s comfortable seating and tables, a 4’ tall by 16’ wide dry erase board, a “close throw” projector with a pull down movie screen, surround sound, dimmable lights, and a fabulous air conditioning system. ERC couldn’t ask for more.
The course curricula covers the first 9 chapters of Bill Mollison’s book, Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual, and then goes over specific design systems for the home moving outward from there to the areas closest to the house and then out into the broader landscape.
One distinction of this spring PDC is that we have been making an effort to emphasize the difference between design methodologies and design systems, and so along with methods of permaculture design, Earth Repair Corps has also been teaching Yeomans’ Scale of Permanence 1 and Savory’s Holistic Decision Making Process 2 .
This spring, thanks to the speaking and recruitment efforts of Pete VanDyck, we had 3 members of the Edwards Aquifer Authority (EAA) attend the PDC. Carol Patterson, Mark Hamilton, and Thomas Marsalia all attended representing EAA’s board, upper management, and field technicians. EAA has tens of thousands of acres on the Edwards Plateau in conservation easements that it oversees and is looking to implement soil and water conservation methods that were discussed during class on a model site. Their design project was phenomenal.
Along with many other great students were two of ERC’s partners, Randie Piscitello with Goodwater Montessori Public Charter School, and Jennifer Goode with Texastopia and ERC attended the course and earned their PDC certification.
Class Curriculum & Activities
Our guest teachers included Shelley Belinko who taught about design principles and methods of design, Heather King who taught about annual vegetable gardening, Travis Krause who taught about running a family farm and animal systems, and Peggy Sechrist who taught about Holistic Management and intensive cell grazing.
One of the activities that the class participated in was using the radial laser level to layout two conservation terraces and a level sill spillway above Texastopia’s road leading to the Blanco River. Then, by the time the class resumed the following month, Pete VanDyck and Texastopia had installed the terraces, planted them with native trees, and mulched them with straw. It was a great design process for the class to be a part of.
About a quarter of the way through the course, day 3 or so, the students begin their design projects. This spring PDC we allowed a wide range of projects including group and individual projects, as well as onsite and offsite projects. This gives students the opportunity to work on designs for their own properties, and or work together as a team on site if they do not have land of their own. I was especially impressed with the design project that the EAA team presented for a piece of land that may soon become a lab and working model for soil and water conservation methods on the Edwards Plateau. All students are encouraged to make use of Yeoman’s Scale of Permanence and Google Earth Pro for their presentations.
The evening before the last day of class we held a talent show. Bill Mollison always had a talent show during his PDC’s and joked that if you don’t perform in the talent show you wouldn’t graduate. What I usually experience is students being surprised and a little uncomfortable before the talent show, but really opening up and having a fantastic time during the talent show. Not only did we have several musical performances, but people sharing with us what they are good at, and giving us “how to” demonstrations.
The spring 2019 PDC covered a wide range of topics and hopefully opened doors for its graduates to further pursue those topics. One of the main objectives of the course is that the graduates become better designers and hopefully better teachers of sustainable design. Those of us teaching the class get to make new friends, and support others in their efforts to create abundance through good design.
If you’re interested in learning more about our Permaculture Design Certification and obtaining one yourself, please read more here.
- Using the Scale of Permanence as a Tool for Land Evaluation
- An Overview of Holistic Management and Holistic Decision Making
March 2 and 3, 2019
Written by: Kirby Fry
All Images © Woody Welch 2019
Earth Repair Corps Teams Up with Goodwater Montessori Public Charter School
During the spring of 2017, I ran into Randie Piscitello at the TerraPurezza Permablitz. She had learned online about the work Earth Repair Corps (ERC) was doing with the permablitzes and wanted to find out how ERC could help Goodwater Montessori install a terraced orchard and annual vegetable garden on the school’s campus. Goodwater Montessori Public Charter School is in Georgetown, Texas, and was still under construction at the time of the TerraPurezza Permablitz. I believe that the school opened and began its operations during the fall of 2017.
The Goodwater Permablitz took 2 years of planning and fundraising to implement. This story is a testament of how planning and persistence pays off. Randie and her associate, Heather Pencil, worked together to raise $15,000 for the installation of the garden at Goodwater Montessori. Parents and community members individually donated up to $1,000, and had plaques with their family’s names on them dedicated to the trees we planted and to the picnic benches we assembled during the Goodwater Permablitz.
The end result of this team effort and permablitz might just be that we have created a model farm and garden for all Montessori schools in the United States of America.
ERC and Goodwater Montessori are also planning to have a summer intensive permaculture design course (PDC) on the Goodwater campus oriented towards educators and how to replicate what ERC and Goodwater accomplished during this permablitz. We are filing the paperwork that will enable educators to get Continued Education Units for taking the PDC.
The Design Process
The land that Goodwater sits on is a long and narrow property and is in Texas’ Blackland Prairie. Below the school’s driveway and parking area, a hundred yards or more from Stadium Drive where the entrance is, is a large field that is mostly undeveloped. We were given permission from the school to install a terraced orchard in that field.
I made several site visits to the school before the permablitz in 2019 and that’s when Randie, Heather and I began identifying the “known knowns”. What objectives will be achieved from this garden? What are the measurable outcomes for the school and students? Where is the water supply line? Where is the access? What existing infrastructure would we need to avoid? What is the soil like? Are deer and other animals present that could affect the garden?
Once those questions were answered, we started with a process of elimination, asking where can’t we install an orchard? There is a large engineered detention basin just below the parking lot where the storm water from the campus drains into, so we couldn’t install a terraced orchard there. There is the buried sewer line on the east side of the field where we could also not install an orchard. At the very bottom of the field is a low lying marshy area that was also not suitable for an orchard, so that left us with the middle and west side of the field.
The next issue to consider was how to fence in the garden and keep it safe from animals and other unpredictable elements, the “known unknowns”. Pete VanDyck advised Randie and Heather to look into Critter Fence deer netting, which they promptly did and purchased over 900 linear feet of fencing, materials for 2 pedestrian gates and one vehicle gate. Now that we knew how much fencing we had, we could set the dimension of the garden / orchard. The garden would be 150 feet wide by 300 feet long.
Some other known elements that would be included in the garden were a garden shed, a deck to be used as a stage, 8 picnic tables, and a large area set aside for composting school food scraps and annual vegetable gardening. All of these elements would be at the top of the fenced in area (the north side) leaving everything downhill from there available for the terraced orchard.
I then created several renditions of the design on Google Earth Pro, and finally laid it all out on the ground during the winter of 2019.
Laying out these terraces was pretty straight forward. The 150 foot by 300 foot garden area was relatively flat with only a 2 or 3 foot drop in elevation over 300 feet, which meant that we could lay out the terraces in a way that made the most sense for maintenance and access. Five, 100 foot long terraces were laid out perpendicular to the east and west fence lines. Two 140 foot long terraces were laid out close to and parallel to the west fence line, which would serve as an evergreen privacy hedgerow between the school’s property and the church next door.
Once the wet weather broke and the site dried up, Pete VanDyck with VanDyck Earthworks and Design showed up for a week with a mini excavator to begin installing the terraces. The soil was still somewhat wet, and the earth excavated from the swales came out in large clumps. He did a great job though, and the terraces ended up being quite gentle and smooth. The bottom 4 terraces had a slight grade to them, less than 1.0 percent, and had a check dam and a level sill spillway installed in each one of them to hold the water back but then to also allow the water to exit the swales during significant rain events. As it turns out, almost half of the uphill surface water runoff from the church’s lot to the west drains directly into the highest orchard terrace and subsequently cascades into the terraces below. The swales are 7.5 feet wide, 1 foot deep and ended up spanning 500 feet in all. They will hold 2,250 cubic feet of water below grade, or 16,875 gallons. A 2 or 3 inch rain will fill them up. The berms are 9 feet wide and 1 foot tall and yield very beneficial raised beds for the trees.
The two terraces that we had planned which were parallel to the west fence did not get installed because the fence line was so overgrown with brush (mainly gum bumelia, hackberry, and juniper) that we did not have time to clear it before installation. Instead, after the fence line was cleaned up, we ended up planting the evergreen hedgerow trees on grade.
Another task that Pete and I took care of that week was excavating 1,000 linear feet of trenches and setting a 1 inch water supply line. The water line was connected and set, and the trenches were backfilled before the March 2019 permablitz took place.
I sent Randie a list of trees that I thought would be suitable for the site. She looked over the list and pretty much took it from there. There is a little bit of everything in this garden – citrus, loquat, mulberry, apple, plum, peach, pear, chickasaw plum, fig, pomegranate, and pineapple guava.
The trees were laid out in a fruiting calendar configuration – that is they were grouped together and planted based on when they would bear fruit, with the earliest fruiting trees planted at the top of the orchard and the later fruiting trees planted at the bottom of the orchard.
The lowest terrace was used as a native woodlot demonstration plot where we selected oak, ash, maple, elm, hickory, and more.
The evergreen hedgerow along the west fence line is where chose to plant the evergreen loquat and citrus (meyer lemon, Satsuma orange, and kaffir lime).
The Weekend of the Permablitz
There was a huge amount of planning and preparation that went into getting this permablitz ready, and even though a colossal amount of work was done prior to the permablitz, there was still even more work to be done during the permablitz.
Thirty cubic yards of chipped tree mulch had to be moved by wheelbarrow 100 to 200 linear yards down the field to the orchard. The west fence line still needed to be cleared and cleaned up, and all of that brush had to be moved out of the fenced in orchard. An 8 foot wide by 16 foot long stage was built on Saturday by Chris, the father of one of the students, and 8 picnic tables were assembled. Several raised beds with wooden 2” x 10” borders around them and trellis between them were also built.
It seemed like planting the trees was actually one of the easier tasks.
Perhaps, at least for me and a few others, the biggest chore was setting and installing the Critter Fence. Scores of “ground sleeves” had to be pounded 2 feet deep into the ground, 15 feet apart, in which the the vertical fence posts would be inserted. We got all of the ground sleeves set, as well we built the 2 pedestrian gates, but it wasn’t until after the permablitz that Randie and Heather got the actual deer netting up and built the vehicle gate.
Thank goodness for Mason Dillard, a licensed irrigator and recent permaculture design course graduate, who showed up before, during, and after the permablitz to help install the irrigation system. He installed 12 zones of irrigation, providing bubblers for each tree, and drip lines for the annual garden beds.
Heather managed to have all of the meals, breakfast and lunch on both days donated. She was also instrumental in getting many other materials donated including all of the lumber supplies from McCoy’s, and garden supplies from Lowe’s. The local retail community really came through for this event! All we had to do was ask them in a professional and nice way to help out.
This permablitz required a lot of planning, fundraising, and hard work, however, I believe that the yields will be exponential symbiosis and abundance.
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.
Permablitz at Proffitt Ranch, Marble Falls, Texas – 2018 09 29
The Permablitz season has officially begun. We kicked it off at the Proffitt Ranch in Marble Falls during the last weekend in September.
Photos by Kirby Fry
Here is the crew, fencing in a 75′ x 130′ annual and perennial garden. Both drip and sprinkler irrigation systems are being installed.
Image 1) The site the day before the ‘blitz. It was mowed and prepared for layout – a very nice, clean slate for us to work with. Great job Proffitt family!
Image 2) Same site, same time of day, a day later, permablitz now taking place. We hand dug nearly 500 linear feet of trenches for irrigation in just one day. The soil was a loamy sand that was a breeze to dig in. This is a trench for an irrigation line that will have 8 overhead sprinklers along it, watering an annual vegetable garden. There are five 3′ wide by 120′ long garden beds.
Image 3) The calm before the storm. Materials and tools dropped off yesterday. Rained on at least 2 or 3 times today. The showers though didn’t stop us for more than 20 or 30 minutes.
Image 4) Simultaneously installing the fencing and irrigation systems as thunderstorms rumbled over us.
Image 5) One row of sprinkler heads set.
Photos by Woody Welch
One the second day we finished setting the irrigation lines, shaping the garden beds, installing 2 pedestrian gates, and getting the seeds and vegetable into the ground.
Our next Permablitz will be at Zanzenberg Farm in Center Point on October 13th and 14th. Hope to see you there!
Written by: Kirby Fry
Razorback Shovel Long Handle Round Point – R248S LHRP
Earth Repair Corps, Interview with Pete VanDyck – 2018 06 20
By Kirby Fry
K: Pete, it has been my honor and privilege to work with you.
I believe that we first met during a permablitz maintenance event at Kealing Middle School around July 9, 2014. Since then, you have stepped up and filled some very essential roles for the sustainable design movement in Central Texas.
My gratitude goes out to you, and to EVERYONE else implementing best design practices.
Please allow me to ask you six or seven questions.
- How, and or why, were you drawn to regenerative design systems?
Thanks, Kirby. Yes, we did meet at Kealing Middle School and this is actually a photo from that day, good documentation there! Wow, I can’t believe how time flies! At first I was just interested in working outside with the land and plants, but I also had concerns about my own health, the health of society, and the health of our environment which made me want to look deeper into natural systems. It was the same as many other folks who find this path – it usually happens from either a health issue due to poor nutrition, environmental conditions, or being hurt in mainstream society. I was sort of all three. Permaculture Design has opened my eyes to the answers for all of these problems and since then I have been more focused than I had ever been in my life.
2. How did you first learn about permaculture and sustainable design in Central Texas?
After being stationed in San Diego, California for six years I finished my contract with the military and began searching for a new career. During my time there I had developed a skill in finding the right people to help me accomplish my goals. Really all you have to do is find the highest source of knowledge that you can and learn from that person. So I went seeking out Mr. Kirby Fry, who seemed to be that person when I moved to Elgin, Texas. I think I found out about the maintenance blitz at Kealing Middle School through Facebook. I first learned about Permaculture from Ben Falk’s great book “The Resilient Farm and Homestead”.
3. What are some important site selection criteria for a homestead or a farm that we should know about?
It’s very important to find a place with the capacity for redundant sources of water. That includes good wells and room for ponds and rain tanks. Access is also important – why buy land if half of it is inaccessible? Access can often be an afterthought when buying land, many folks figure that they’ll just be able to figure it out and everything will be fine. This can really throw a wrench in the gears when you are building a house and construction trucks cannot get to the building site, or the poor access keeps washing out, or roads are too muddy to cross, etc. I like a short road that’s high and dry, easy to maintain, and reliable.
The best place to put a road is on a ridge, so when you are looking to buy that property with the long easement that crosses multiple gullies my advice is to find a better one. I also like properties that are 20-50 percent forested. Trees make everything so much more comfortable in Texas, but I never advise buying fully forested properties. We ought to stay out of the brush and help reforest the land that needs the help. It’s also important to have a good solar aspect. Western facing hills can be brutally hot in the summer; I often find the biggest trees on the north side of the hill. Hills facing northeast seem to be the most comfortable in Texas for plants, people, and animals. I provide very reasonable pre-purchase assessments for anyone buying property. I can save people years of heartache with this service and I don’t think anyone should close on a property without getting professional eyes on it.
4. What are some important skill sets that we should know about in order to design a sustainable homestead?
It’s so important to find the right community. Getting a Permaculture Design Certificate is a really fantastic place to start. That way you learn how to think, instead of what to think. Then each person finds his or her own niche from there. Not everyone has to be a farmer or designer, we still need builders, teachers, medical professionals, and all the other important services. Equally important as the skill sets themselves is the person’s ability to apply their skills within the new paradigm we are creating through regenerative design. Designing a sustainable homestead really takes a vast amount of knowledge, having that community of like-minded individuals makes everything much smoother.
5. Please share with us some of your “hard knocks,” or what to avoid scenarios, that you may have encountered along your path.
Moving towards a regenerative lifestyle is not easier, it’s just different and can often be more difficult, but the rewards are great. Avoid long narrow properties; these usually cannot be sustainable or regenerative. Although long and narrow properties usually provide great return on investment for real estate investors, the shape of the property makes it awkward to properly place elements of a design in a way that is beneficial to the new landowner or the environment. Avoid long narrow access easements. Flash flooding is probably the most destructive force in Texas, stay out of the lowlands and keep dry. Seek professional advice as often as possible to find the cheapest and most effective solutions that will save money in the long term.
6. What are some of your aspirations for regenerative design in Central Texas?
I would like to see the re-hydration of the entire state of Texas so that our springs and rivers always flow year round. I’d like to achieve 100% ground cover 100% of the time on every project I am involved with. I think this great state we live in could become a beautiful work of natural art that is rich, abundant, and secure for generations to come. This is why I created my website, www.droughtprooftx.com. Other than that I just want to live peacefully and be a good example to others.
K: Thank you, Pete for your love of the land, your love of all life, and your love for wanting to do to help create agriculturally productive ecosystems.
Explosive abundance my brother,
Kirby Fry, Earth Repair Corps
Pete VanDyck, Tony Truong, and I have been working with Randie Piscitello in Leander, Texas getting ready for our upcoming permablitz this November 18th.
Anyone who has land in the Georgetown, Leander, Liberty Hill, Cedar Park area could learn a lot about what to do with an eroded hill side covered with cedar trees.
This permablitz is a textbook case of how to install a terraced orchard in the Hill Country, enrich the local forest, and stop soil erosion.
This 25 degree sloped hillside must have been cleared 20 or 30 years ago and then either grazed by goats or completely abandoned. There is absolutely no top soil remaining, and the only place organic matter is collecting is underneath the larger cedar trees.
We have opened up 8 strips on contour each about 120′ long where we will build conservation terraces with an excavator, and install a perennial food garden as well as attempt to enrich the local woodland with farmers’ trees and native fruiting trees.
There are about 960 linear feet of terraces that we are about to construct and then plant with 48 fruit trees and 16 farmers trees, and then irrigate during the next permablitz.
This may be the most exciting design that we install this permablitz season.
Please come if you can. We will absolutely need all of the help we can get.