In harmony with the land

2008-01-03 00:00

“THE best reward for living in a permaculture system is that I can raise my children in a clean environment. They are free to play and to eat anything, and I know that they are not picking up toxic residues,” says Paul Duncan — believer in and implementer of permaculture principles and ethics.

Duncan is concerned about the quality of life and the availability of existing natural resources for all children. “The way we are living now, it’s not looking very good,” he stresses. “We need to live in a manner where we can use our resources wisely so that they can be used again and again.”

Sustainable living is about living within the means of the environment to ensure that natural resources remain viable for as long as all living things require them — including people. It is about putting something back and “it is for the future”, according to Duncan.

He and his wife, Shereen, and their three young children own a smallholding in the Karkloof, just outside Howick, called the Dovehouse. This permaculture haven nestles between vast, monocultural commercial plantations.

The Duncans prefer not to use toxic chemicals or soaps in their home. Instead, they enjoy the natural bounty of their garden to clean and treat any illnesses or injuries. As a result, they are the epitome of earthy health.

Permaculture is about designing ecological human habitats and food production systems. Permaculturists use the land in such a way that they strive for the harmonious integration of their own homes, plants, animals, soils and water into stable, productive communities.

The focus is on the relationship between each of these elements, according to how they are placed in the landscape, and the energy created within this miniature ecosystem. For Duncan, the first step is to conserve water, soil, air and sunshine as the natural foundations for all life. He believes that permaculture is not only about growing food, it is also about propagating medicine for the environment and for people.

“The crux, for me, is that you are creating a mega-ecosystem, linking as many parts to other parts and feeding energy between all parts.

“Everything must link to everything else in as many different aspects as possible — from the plants to the animals and to the people, then to our essential natural resources, and finally even to a secure financial future.”

But even naturalists like Duncan have to survive in an economic context. He produces a wide variety of organic vegetables which he sells in his shop. This fresh produce grows companionably alongside culinary and medicinal herbs such as parsley, oreganum, sage, marjoram, chillies, aloe vera, fennel, basil, lemongrass and more.

Free range eggs are produced by the chickens which scratch the earth and dine on juicy cutworms, slugs and snails. Chicken tractors are moved around the land, allowing these domestic birds to scratch and fertilise the soil in time for planting seasons. Some young chicks are also sold and fruits will soon be available seasonally.

And, while the average gardener complains about “pests”, Duncan sees these as wonderfully necessary insects with vital roles to play. Mixed planting (a bed of spinach planted next to a bed of onions, for example) lessens the chances of infestations of unwanted insects. “I also grow what I call ‘sacrificial’ plants to attract insects from other plants.”

Nasturtiums attract aphids and snails while slugs are attracted to the cool depths of the comfrey herb, from whence they can be plucked by hand. “Traps” for snails and slugs include a jar of beer buried in the soil or wheat bran hidden under a cabbage leaf.

A preparation derived from chillies, garlic and tansy makes an effective spray against bugs without damaging the functioning of the entire ecosystem.

The Duncans’ garden also benefits the people who work there. “We have an empowerment garden,” Duncan explains. His gardeners add their energy to the system and produce home-grown food. They can then sell what they reap and feed their families.

“This has been my vision from the beginning: we need a system of small-scale sustainable organic gardening for the African continent. Hopefully in my lifetime we will be educating large numbers of people.”

On this note, Duncan is a trainer for a national permaculture design course which runs on an annual basis. This hands-on course includes information on ecosystems; permaculture ethics, principles and design; water and wind management; holistic resource management; sustainable technologies and integrating animals into the production.

The Duncans are also starting to run basic courses for people who want to learn about permaculture and implement the principles on a small scale in their own back yards.

• Visit the Dovehouse for fresh vegetables, pulses and grains, seeds, teas, cold-pressed oils, dried fruits and nuts, biodegradable cleaning products, toiletries and cosmetics. Phone 033 330 3554.

Permaculture tips for your garden

• Cut comfrey leaves and place on soil for about a week – this mulch is rich and when it turns to powder it is full of nutrients.

• Vetiver and lemon grass are an excellent green mulch and very easy to grow.

• Broccoli is a slug catcher and one can then pick slugs off and feed them to one’s chickens.

• Khakibos grows easily around “grey water” and is also a useful mulch as it kills nematodes.

• Grow potatoes, sweet potatoes, madumbies, pumpkins and butternuts together during a single season and during the following season grow beans and marrows which replace nitrogen in the soil.

• Use yarrow and pineapple mint along boundaries as a pest deterrent.

• Use cabbage and bran mixture to attract slugs, then remove them by hand for chickens to eat.

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