Friday, 24 March 2017

Community permaculture: Shared meals connecting neighbours

One of the things I've learnt living here in the Crystal Waters community is, if you want to see something happen, get involved and make it real, and stay positive - and always add some food, music and fun! Creating a vibrant community and place to live is not about waiting for things to happen, to be served - rather, it is about actively contributing and supporting good ideas.

Thank you to the wonderful group of neighbours who have recently started this new community meal initiative. Now, every Friday night, our community is invited to get together to share a simple meal cooked using produce from our gardens. Some people volunteer to cook and set up and the rest of us pay a $5 donation (kids and volunteers free). The role of cooking and organising will change each week - for different flavours and to avoid burnout. To simplify things even further we all BYO cups, crockery and cutlery.

Having a casual chat with neighbours over some simple and delicious food is such a great way to stay connected with the community and to get to know people who've recently moved in.

The kids have a great time too racing around together - tonight, getting absolutely soaked in the beautiful rain that has finally come. There is even a disco room for them.

This new community meal idea being started by young people who grew up here, and have moved back after being years interstate or abroad, and other newer community members. It's fabulous. I've been here for around 20 years, and the different sorts of community meals hold some of my favourite memories of this place.

There's so much going on here in this village of 250 people - it's impossible to go to everything, and that's not the point. People create activities and events together based on interests and needs.  We have music events, celebrations, bushwalks, workshops, playgroup, cafes, markets, bakery days, yoga, art groups, music groups, choir, tree planting days, gardening days, movie nights, and soon a games cafe with a super-sized chess set and much much more.

People care is a central part of a successful permaculture project and a nourishing neighbourhood that cultivates community and connection to place.

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Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Community gardens: learning and action for positive change

I love community gardens and get involved with as many as I can. I love meeting with garden activists, sharing knowledge, and checking out innovative food garden ideas.  Particularly I love them because they are fabulous centres of community action for positive change.

Community gardens are so much more than growing food (this of course is centrally important!). Amongst other things, they are places to grow community and connection to place, and to cultivate a local culture of eco-living in urban and suburban areas. 

I've been leading permaculture workshops in community gardens and centres around my local region and the world for over two decades. These are great places to learn about growing food and living simply. I love getting hands on and practically exploring how we can grow an abundance and diversity of healthy food with ease - sharing practical skills we can take back to our own gardens and keep passing on - and making great friends along the way.

I spent last weekend at Lupton Park Community Garden in regional city of Maryborough - here's a short clip showing the gardens and what we were doing there....

I led four workshops which were free for the members of the Lupton Park Community Garden in Maryborough, QLD Australia. The community garden group ( organised sponsorship from the local government, the Fraser Coast Regional Council, to run the event.  

Community gardens are wonderful places for learning about growing food and living sustainably in urban areas. Ever since I was part of the team that set up the Northey Street City Farm in Brisbane in 1994 ( I've been passionate about the social, community and environmental benefits of community food projects.

To help connect and spread these projects further, I joined with others around the country back in the 1990s to form the Australian City Farms and Community Gardens Network (ACFCGN). It now has a website full of excellent information and an extensive list of projects around the country. ACFCGN also organises events and gatherings of community gardeners, city farmers and school gardeners. (

Next weekend I'll will be leading my weekend Introduction to Permaculture workshop at Northey Street City Farm and will post a short film about the gardens there soon after. The workshop is full again which is wonderful, and I'll be leading another there in Spring. In the meantime, I'll also be opening my garden for a series of one day Permaculture Life workshops in winter. 

My newsletter will let you know when my next series of courses and programs open. You can subscribe here: 

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Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Making rope from garden fibres

We tried our hand at making a little rope this weekend - a super useful skill to have - the kids were enthralled - simple, purposeful and fun. 

Natural plant fibre ropes are biodegradable and strong, and many plants in the garden can be used, for example:

  • Banana
  • Lemongrass
  • Lomandra/ matrush
  • Bulrush/juncus
  • Acacia bark
  • Hibiscus bark
  • Agave
  • Yucca
  • Flax
  • Nettle
  • Straw
  • In cooler climates than here, also plants such asWillow and Maple
Homemade ropes may not always be as strong, but they do have so many uses:
  • for biodegradable plant ties
  • for constructing bamboo trellises
  • for preparing some basket making fibres
  • to create materials for weaving seats (one of the most comfortable chairs I've sat on was a woven banana fibre seat top)
  • for a washing line
  • for making cubbies
  • for a skipping rope
  • for lots of children's games and activities
  • craft
  • gift ties
  •  ...

While I was teaching permaculture at a community garden last weekend, my family was off exploring nearby Hervey Bay by bicycle.  A definite highlight for them was the Hervey Bay Historical Village and Museum where they learnt how to make the sisal rope from Agave sisalana fibres (above) and hear how rope fibres were extracted from various plants. The kids also tried their hand at de-kerneling a corn cob and watched a treadle-powered wood lathe, and a blacksmith at work.  They were fascinated.

I'd missed seeing this, so back at home the children keenly taught me how to make the rope, demonstrating the method with a piece of used paper - a good way to get used to the technique. It worked really well and made a lovely soft twine (see picture above).  I can imagine this would be great for craft work. 

We're keen to have a go using plants from our garden. I think we'll begin with banana and hibiscus. The bananas need thinning and when the rosellas have finished flowering I will have lots of stems available. 

Banana fibre (Image: ecouterre)

It would be great to have something like the 1911 rope-making machine, but we can manage without it. To make the paper rope, we tightly and evenly twisted 3 lengths of fibre. We then twisted the three lengths together - twisting in opposite direction. That's it - if twisted together consistently, the rope will stay together. Just whip (lash with thread) the ends and voilĂ !

The key thing to explore now is how to best extract the fibres from the garden plants. A local Aboriginal woman showed us how to simply roll the plant fibres of lomandra to make rope, and the historical centre showed wire brushes that helped to process things like banana.

For more details on rope making, I recommend googling homemade rope and natural cordage. There appears to be lots of information about there. Like everything, you just need to know to ask the right questions! Having said that, I'd love it if you someone could personally recommend some great instructions for the whole process - from harvesting and processing the fibre.

This activity reminded me about the Transition Town Movement which also encourages people to reclaim and remember traditional skills. Founder, Rob Hopkins, called for a Great Reskilling Movement. A great way to get together in the local community to keep useful skills alive and being passed on. Worth checking out, and perhaps finding ways to seek out and share your knowledge locally.

Maia was asked to be the assistant during the demonstration at the historical centre. What a useful machine - 100 years old.

Maia's rope.

Monday, 20 March 2017

Permaculture gardens for early childhood health and education

A group of West Papuan visitors came over to my place today to explore ideas around working with children in the garden - for better health and well-being.  We had a great time talking, tasting and smelling our way through the garden sharing stories, ideas and ways of using plants.

This was a group of early childhood teachers. They are here in Australia to explore ways to improve children's health and nutrition in West Papua; to take a look learning opportunities for children (through food gardens makes such good common sense); and importantly exploring micro-enterprise ideas too.

My 9yo son Hugh took this picture while we were in the garden talking about hardy perennial foods and growing garden medicines. Because they are homeschooled and get involved in the groups I host, my kids get to meet amazing people like this and learn more about the world and different cultures. I love that they are growing up being aware global citizens!
Together the West Papuan early childhood group and I explored my permaculture garden talking about how learning, food growing, health and nutrition, and local enterprise can be woven together through the establishment of robust polycultural food systems. Young Monty was delighted to welcome them here and sent them away with lots of his drawings and paintings as gifts.

Out of focus image, but clear joy in connecting today.

The International Development program of University of the Sunshine Coast are hosting them for over a month and brought them up here today to explore my permaculture garden and garden-based education ideas. Over the past 22 years I've worked in over 20 countries with groups such as this - and particularly women and children. It's been a while since I taught in Indonesia and my Bahasa was very rusty (thankfully an interpreter cam with them) - I am determined to get back into the swing of it. Back in 1999 I led a women's permaculture design course in Indonesia with participants from one end of the country to the other - West Papua to Aceh. 

Looking at the issue of health and nutrition, particularly for children and women is critical. West Papua has the highest infant mortality (70-200/1000) and maternal mortality rates (4.5/1000). NGOs working in the area say malnutrition is the major underlying cause. More than 20 per cent of people living in the central highlands experience some degree of malnutrition and less than half the children under five are said to be well nourished. (

I was absolutely delighted to welcome these wonderfully warm and knowledgable women, and men, here this morning. I just wish they could have stayed longer and we could have had a big cook-up together from the garden, and the chance to share more. We had just got started!

My heart is still singing, and my motivation to continue this work fuelled immensely.

Friday, 17 March 2017

Tulsi: bee bush, food, medicine and habitat - a great permaculture plant

One of my favourite plants in our polycultural permaculture kitchen garden, a mini food forest, is this perennial basil, holy basil or Tulsi (Ocimum sanctumbecause it has so many beneficial uses for us and the ecological system of our garden: 

  • it is very hardy, drought tolerant and low maintenance.
  • it is almost constantly flowering which attracts pollinators and other beneficial insects
  • its dense form provides protection for small birds that help with pest management - picking of bugs from other plants.
  • it is a beautiful in-garden hedge with aesthetic structure.
  • it provides a year round supply of flavour and nutrients for all kinds of meals - from it's leaves and seeds.
  • the flowers are attractive as table flowers, but they are also edible, the scent they release into the room promotes clear breathing.
  • it provides a year round supply of garden medicine - for coughs and colds, to fight infections, ease congestion and headaches, improve digestion and strengthen the immune system.

A favourite garden tea of mine is: this tulsi, mint, lemon myrtle, lime, turmeric, ginger & a dash of honey. Delicious. If I am feeling a little croaky, this certainly helps a lot.

Tulsi is very easy to take cuttings from, simply trim a section, remove the bottom leaves and plant directly into good soil, or put in a jar of water until roots form. I must have given away hundreds if not thousands of cuttings from my plants over the years. Giving herb cuttings is a great idea - sharing the abundance. Most herbs need to have a regular good trim anyway.

More coming soon about this amazing plant...

(Image by Evan Raymond, taken in our garden yesterday)

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Five super easy leafy greens: simple, hardy & abundant

We all know that eating our greens keeps us healthy and strong, and that the best greens are the ones you eat within moments of harvest. 

Summers around here can be a real challenge for growing the standard greens without water stress, sunburn or insect attack. 

To avoid the heartache and toil, I encourage the perennial leaf greens to flourish in an edible kitchen garden polyculture. These plants need little water, little care and several parts of them can be eaten.

Simply by embracing a wider range of food, you could suddenly have more food than you could possibly eat growing in a small space.

I love this simple way of perennial food gardening. 

Brazilian Spinach


These are the five greens that I talk about in this short film:
  1. Surinam Spinach (Talinum triangulare): shoots, leaves, flowers
  2. Brazilian Spinach (Alternanthera sissoo): leaves and young stems
  3. Sweet potato leaves (Ipomoea batatas): stems, young and mature leaves
  4. Cranberry hibiscus (Hibiscus acetosella): young shoots, leaves, flowers
  5. Pumpkin leaves (Cucurbita maxima): young shoots, leaves, flowers, plus of course the fruit, the seeds and the skin.

Surinam Spinach



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Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Are teabags toxic and can I compost them?

Around the world, it is estimated that 2 billion people drink tea every morning.  Americans consume around 80 billion servings of tea a year and British people consume around 60 billion (96% of these are tea bags). 

What happens to all those tea leaves and tea bags?

Well, after making a cuppa, most people seem to toss the tea bags or tea leaves in the bin. In the UK apparently tea is one of the largest 'avoidable food wastes' in bins. Britain alone throws out 370,000 tonnes of tea bags and tea leaves each year. I am assuming that a similar type of figure would apply to Australia (proportioned to population size).

Can I compost teabags?

Tea bags could be thrown in the compost - or could they?  I used to think that the paper ones were fine, but now I find out you probably need to tip out the contents and bin the bag! Who except the most dedicated person is going to do that?

There are different types of tea bags and it seems that a small percentage of them are actually biodegradable.

Quite a lot of 'premium' tea bags are now made of nylon, rayon, thermoplastic or PVC  and cannot be composted. These tea bags by the way leach when hot water is poured on them - so avoid them, also because these plastic teabags are definitely not biodegradable. 

Nylon teabag pyramid - non biodegradable.

You'd think you'd be safe with the old paper version, but sadly most paper tea bags are also plastic infused, making them only 70-80% biodegradable. Also in order to stop some tea bags bursting open, many are sealed with a strip of heat-resistant polypropylene plastic.

Interestingly, paper tea bags are typically not made from wood pulp but from the fibres of a plant called abaca, similar to banana.

Unless you buy from an environmentally-friendly company which uses unbleached bags, most tea drinkers consume clean, white tea bags that are the result of intensive chemical processes. 

Many paper teabags are also treated with epichlorohydrin to strengthen the paper bag in water. 


Here's a couple of facts I found out about epichlorohydrin:

  • It is a compound mainly used in the production of epoxy resins. 
  • It is considered a potential carcinogen by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health2 (NIOSH).
  • Epichlorohydrin is used as a pesticide.
  • Dow Chemical Co is one of the largest producers of epichlorohydrin. Dow is the company responsible for the Bhopal Disaster in India -was the worst industrial disaster in human history. Twenty-five thousand people died, 500,000 were injured. The Dow Chemical Company is also the second-largest producer of toxic chemical waste in the U.S. 
  • It is also found in coffee filters, water filters, and sausage casings.

Worse still, when epichlorohydrin comes in contact with water, it changes into a chemical which has been shown to cause cancer in animals, and also been implicated in infertility and suppressed immune function1.

Chemicals in tea growing?

In addition, it's a well known fact that many tea companies use pesticides in tea agriculture. A report from Greenpeace released in 2015 said that 34 pesticides were found in typical tea.  This is not great for your health, but it is also atrocious for the health of the tea workers. Check out this report from the BBC . 

(Source: Essential tea)

What to do?

  • Buy loose leaf, fair trade, organic tea and then you can happily drink and afterwards compost the used tea leaves or add them to your worm farm.
  • Choose unbleached, untreated paper teabags
  • Grow your own teas - blog coming soon about this
  • Use a teapot, a plunger, infuser
  • Make or buy reusable muslin tea bags

Loose leaf organic, fairtrade tea and homegrown tea are the best options.
Some extra links: