Milkwood’s Introduction to Permaculture Course

Following on from the recent feature on Milkwood Permaculture, Home Journal writer Kate ventured out to participate in their two-day “Introduction to Permaculture” course. Sharing her experience with us, Kate learnt how to apply permaculture principles in her own home and garden.

Day 1

The popularity of publications like Organic Gardener and workshops like Milkwood Permaculture’s two day Introduction to Permaculture Course show how a growing portion of the public is becoming interested in self-sufficiency and sustainability. Incidentally, those are two words that Nick Ritar hates. Ritar, Milkwood’s co-founder and head teacher, gets us all to anonymously write down our expectations of the course on bits of paper, which are then mixed up and read aloud by other members of the group.

The first card reads, “To become self-sufficient and sustainable”. Ritar laughs. I think he senses the chagrined ripple that goes through the group, as everyone thinks guiltily of having written the same thing on their cards. He explains “If you were married to someone, would you say, ‘We’ve been together for ten years and I love her so much, everything’s going perfectly – I think it’s sustainable”. He wants the discourse that the public uses to describe their relationship with the environment to shift away from the sober eeking-out of resources. Ritar says “Rather than sustainability, wouldn’t you rather have joy, and laughter and abundance?”

Although Ritar deprives us of those precious buzzwords, he gives us something better in the concept of abundance. The current language of enviro-discourse is centred on having less, using less and often smacks of guilt and deprivation. It dawns on me slowly that there’s something different about Milkwood. Ritar is an ebullient, charismatic teacher who instead gives his students a sense of how much they have to gain.

On this sunny Saturday morning twenty-three people and myself have gathered into the kindergarten room at Alexandria Park Community School. Over the course of the two days we learn about the many incarnations of Ritar. He was a software architect for Telstra, a full-time artist and an engineer before he began Milkwood.

We learn about the major principles of permaculture, which include ‘Observe and Interact’, ‘Catch and Store Energy’, and ‘Obtain a Yield’. Ritar stresses this point especially. He explains that the reason so many community gardens fail is because there is insufficient need for the food that they produce. At best the food supplements what people are already buying from ‘Colesworth’ as Ritar calls it.

One solution he proposes is that a community garden can be used as a kind of nursery, which grows seedlings to be distributed to the gardens of people in the area, so that a greater yield is produced. Whatever the need is, Ritar says, first isolate it and then build to it.

He asks everyone to make a list of the ten types of produce that we each eat most often, and then gives detailed instructions on how to grow them. This exercise is typical of Ritar’s pragmatism. Rather than making whimsical lists of exotic sounding fruits and vegetables from seed catalogues, he asks you be realistic about what you actually like to eat on a daily basis, and then work towards producing it for yourself.

The other term that Ritar dislikes, self-sufficiency, is because he feels it puts too much pressure on individuals, when it’s more savvy to build up the support and resources of a community, or a network of like-minded individuals. Websites such as Local Harvest have been established to facilitate these kinds of networks. Having that kind of support also helps a gardener stay on track.

Day 2

Today is much more hands on. We pull apart a worm-farm in the community garden, study the garden’s fishpond in the context of aquaponics and learn about natural beekeeping and mushroom cultivation. For “no real cost at all”, Ritar says, one can set up a mushroom log that produces restaurant quality shiitake and oyster mushrooms (though best to take Ritar’s course for more detailed instruction in case something unwanted crops up).

He also has some unexpected tips, such as advocating having wasps in your garden. Juvenile wasps voraciously hunt aphids, caterpillars, cabbage moths and other common herbivorous pests that love to feast on the efforts of early permaculturalists.

We learn why you should never put citrus (or garlic or onions) in your worm-farm; worms eat bacteria and so when any anti-bacterial materials are introduced, the food source of the worms is compromised.

For beginner gardeners he doesn’t recommend growing onions and garlic (“They grow too slow”), but says sweet peas and snow peas are “beginner’s gold”, and are good lolly replacements for kids. He also says, “Anyone who is not already growing scarlet runner beans is nuts… they are the most rewarding plants you could possibly grow”.

If you’re just starting out and don’t have a lot of space, Ritar says that “leafy greens are the first thing to go for”. “If you can’t grow silverbeet, just give up… what they need is a shady spot, crappy soil and for you to totally ignore it”. He recommends planting silverbeet to test whether a shady spot in your garden is too dark to grow something. “If it won’t grow, then nothing will”. Ritar’s strongest recommendation is to grow ‘fat hen’, for the table (and also to feed to chickens). It’s a flavoursome leafy green with an extraordinarily high protein content.

By afternoon teatime yesterday, I had felt a slight sense of disappointment. I was hoping I’d be elbow-deep in kale with butterflies flitting around the worm-farm by now. Over the course of the evening though, it dawned on me that it’s a combination of impatience and a romanticisation of permaculture that leads to failure.

Today, as yesterday, we have morning and afternoon tea breaks with fresh fruit provided by Doorstep Organics. Myself, and a small group of people taking the course, are sitting on the daycare couches and chatting about food security and street food. One person proposes it would be a great idea to plant fruit trees on all of the city’s streets. I say, “But on an urban street fruit trees would make a mess, people who slip over on the rotting fruit, the fruit would fill up the gutters and clog the drains…”. Despite my comment, everyone else agrees it’s a great idea, and makes some other suggestions in the same vein.

While these people’s intentions were good, I felt dismayed at the cosmetic and sentimental solutions they proposed to complex problems. This is why Nick Ritar’s contribution is such an important one. His logical, unsentimental approach to problem solving is refreshing, and relevant to the problems that impede both rural and urban people from making the most of their land.

What’s unique about Ritar’s approach is that he’s not an enviro-apologist; he is not apologetic about being human, about having human needs, or wanting to have fun and abundance in his life. One of the essential aspects of permaculture that he mentions is, “finding the right place to put your deck chair, so that when you’re drinking your gin and tonic you have just the right amount of sun hitting you on a Saturday afternoon”.

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