Permaculture Training in the Desert
An article by Kirsten Grant (Women’s Centre Coordinator, Paupiyala Tjarutja Aboriginal Corporation (PTAC), Tjuntjuntjara, WA) published in Remote Indigenous Gardens News, June 2014
When I first mentioned the idea of running a permaculture course through the Tjuntjuntjara Women’s Centre many of the ladies looked a bit confused. “What’s permaculture?” they asked.
I remember opening my mouth to explain and then stopping. The in-depth theory and ethics behind this holistic style of gardening were unknown to me; all I knew was that you looked at all the elements that would affect your garden site. This included the site’s annual rainfall, prevailing wind and sun, was it hilly or flat and how would all that affect different plants from flowers to vegies, native plants and fruit trees.
We talked at length about those elements and the ladies started to get interested.
Tjuntjuntjara is Australia’s most remote indigenous community, located smack bang in the middle of the Great Victoria Desert in WA. Our nearest town, Kalgoorlie, is an eight hour drive away on unsealed roads, and the next closest community, Oak Valley, is six hours away.
Alex McClean, Manager at Arid Edge Environmental Services in Alice Springs, ran the course in Tjuntjuntjara. He explained permaculture like this:
“You are working with nature, not against it. Instead of cutting up the land like they do in agriculture, or arranging it just so it looks nice in as in horticulture. Permaculture looks at all the elements.”
He said the most useful aspect of permaculture is its contribution towards sustainable communities describing this as including food production, shelter, access to water and energy sources.
“But also considering meaningful employment, access to land in a sustainable way and the social and cultural strengths.”
The main ethics are care for the earth, care of people and a fair share, so whatever your garden produces is shared out fairly. There are also twelve design principles which Alex taught us as we built the garden. These included observing the site, using recycled materials, setting up a compost bin (with dog-proof cage) to reduce waste and companion planting. This we did within the vegie patch and around our young fruit trees to keep away pests and introduce more nutrients like nitrogen into the soil.
We started off with some interesting soil testing experiments, half filling some old jars with soil from three sites around the garden area, then topping them up with water. Alex advised to leave them for a few hours to a day to let the soil separate. In no time though, we had results. The jars mostly confirming what we already knew about the soil in Tjuntjuntjara – that we have a lot of clay with a bit of sand. During the ordering process and discussion of the site from afar Alex and I had discussed the high levels of clay present in our soils. Alex said as long as we had gypsum it would be fine.
“To help break up the clay,” gypsum was sprinkled over the clay layers in our soil mix, which also contained sand, compost mulch and coconut peat made from the husks of coconuts.
Tjuntjuntjara woman Anne Baird was integral in every stage of the creation of our garden.
“I can’t wait to see what all the natives look like when they grow up,” she said, smiling. Anne, 29, grew up in Tjuntjuntjara and is glad there will be more trees for shade, as it gets very hot in summer.
“Sometimes 50C and hotter.”
The work was hard but we all pitched in together and managed to plant five fruit trees, including two oranges, a mandarin, lemon, and a lime, plus a native garden including some bush tucker plants like kalgurla (bush banana or pear). We added native companion plants around them for protection and added nutrients.
Soon we will plant irmangka-irmangka (eremophilia alternifolia) used in bush medicine and soap, plus some wanjanu or quongdong. Hardy natives that will provide much needed shade and wind breaks around the Women’s Centre will include kurrajong, various eucalypts, wattles, saltbush, acacias, mulga and many more.
“Working in Tjuntjuntjurra was fantastic. It was really a pleasant surprise to turn up in such a remote community to find the Women’s Centre buzzing with activity,” Alex said. “Of course there were challenges too, remoteness being the biggest one. Making sure I and all the equipment arrived in the right place on time was quite a feat, one I certainly couldn’t
have achieved without the support of PTAC and the Women’s Centre’s dedicated staff.”
He said gardens can thrive in the desert. “This garden has been designed to be as hardy as possible – it uses local native species as much as
possible, grows veggies and herbs in a water
efficient, self-watering wicking bed, and includes automatic reticulation to ensure more exotic citrus fruit trees get the right amount of water.”
He said at the end of the day, the success of a garden will depend on whether the people in Tjuntjuntjara feel they own it enough to be able to give it the care it needs. “It could be that success might mean a thriving garden at the centre, or thriving gardens at people’s homes.”
It was definitely worth the six months it took to organise the six day course with Alex. We now have the beginnings of an amazing community garden and a much deeper understanding of how to care for it. Local men and women have been involved in the design, layout, choice of plants, troubleshooting, and much more throughout the whole process.
Together, we built fences, installed an automated reticulation system, completed one raised vegie bed using recycled tin and planted it with mixed lettuce, spinach, garIic chives, spring onions, beans and parsley. We have another vegie garden ready to go in the form of an old water tank. Everyone was particularly excited about establishing our fruit trees.
All this in just six days. Now Alex has gone home to Alice, and the rest, is up to us.