In the foothills of the magical and mystical mountains of Grazalama, Andalusia, Spain, resides a retreat centre focused on Yoga and personal growth; Suryalila. A second branch of their vision, complimentary to this, is the desire to regenerate the land using Permaculture and agrocecology as the way forward. I, Doug Crouch, through a contact of a past student, first laid foot on the land in the late winter of 2016 as a consultant/ designer. I saw the land green and knew the brown that was coming, which was confirmed in my second arrival in 2016 for 2.5 weeks in June.
In those winter days of cold and sun and rain I was hired to do three days of consulting, which was intense as always, but with the scope of the project even more so. Water issues were addressed, food production desires expressed, and a plan delivered. I had the fortunate ability to watch what just a medium rain storm was producing in terms of erosion and runoff especially as the driveway collected a huge volume of this. As I watched the verdant green hills propped up by artificial inputs all around and even on the leased wheat field, I dreamed of what was and imagined what could be. The terrain on the southwest facing valley is soft enough for keyline and with not one tree in the wheat field itself, I knew this was the way forward. It takes integration of course, putting the microbes back out, planting for biodiversity, which all hinges on ecological design and project management. Well its the TreeYo Holistic Pattern of Development.
From there I contacted my keyline mate Jesus Ruiz with his vast experience in Iberia and in fact globally. We started to hammer out a plan for the keyline operation in the wheat field, which builds off working with each other in a few locations in Portugal. Concurrently I began next steps of enacting the bigger picture plan including social and economic factors. The first step was to secure a long term farm manager who could interpret the plan and be there day in day out to manifest it. Without it, the energy of the consulting often fails and the lack of continuity reduces production. At that time, a British chap wrote me asking if I knew of any projects in Europe to get involved with to further his permaculture experience and knowledge. After stints in Spain and Latin America and with his passion exuding, I was able to get him lined up with an in interim position that can lead to full time employment if both parties are happy (Jacob Evans).
Jacob and myself met up with a group of enthusiastic volunteers in early June 2016 to take the next steps with pattern plan I had come up with. The details come through in the field, I feel, so I was very pleased that I was given the opportunity to come back and contribute so much all the while receiving heaps. Besides Jacob, the mainstays in the garden were Julien from Mexico and Rosa from Malaga, Spain. Both had experience and a passion to learn and work hard so we made a great team. We were joined after a few days of getting things started and making some town runs for materials and plants by another wave of volunteers. Less experienced but nonetheless just as excited to be there. We breathed life into the garden with digging, planting, seeding, weeding, composting, nursery work, and spreading from there into other parts of the land to do landscaping and greywater.
Beyond a general garden cleanup and crop turnover we took on several projects. My role in this time in the garden was to communicate what I was seeing, what the vision for the space could be, and what strategies and techniques could be used to reinforce the principles and ethics of permaculture.
Like the PDC’s I teach, one of the first things we did was build the standard cubic meter plus hot compost pile. As we were cleaning the beds to do crop turnover, we were able to obtain a nice yield of green material biomass. Along the way we had also been searching for a diversity of brown material, which in the mediterranean climates at this time of the year is pretty easy to find. We coupled that with straw, some food scraps, and some horse manure to build our pile. It was a great team effort and we worked hard at chopping, soaking, and layering the material to get the right ratios. Over the next few days we began the observation part for temperature and moisture. It wasn’t kicking off so we turned and added moisture, which I am finding is a quite common thing to do in the first few days in a pile in the Mediterranean despite the soaking of brown material. It still wasn’t kicking off so we had to add alpaca manure that also had urine on it to really get the heat coming. We also found that by always keeping the pile covered with a tarp, we could keep out the winds that were cooling the pile, which seemed to be unusually intense for the time of the year. After making these adjustments we had to turn it three days later, right on schedule. It takes a bit of time when you first enter a new site to dial in the to compost pile as the materials and time of year always change things.
Furthermore, with a not very efficient spring turnover of the garden, we also had some space to do some earthworks to turn the garden over. It allowed us to convert some of the raised beds with plants going to seed and using precious water to sunken beds, a drylands technique. Thus we pulled a few scraggly beds together at the bottom of the garden to implement the sunken beds system with keyholes as well. We first created the berm around the top and bottom and slowly made our way through the bed seeing where exactly keyholes and cross paths should go. We used the old arm reach technique combined with stakes to do the layout. We tilled first to do this implementation work as the ground was rock hard. The plan is with all the beds to use the tiller one last time to reshape the beds and then keep that machine out of the garden. After forming the pathways and shaping the sunken beds, we then added organic matter to help heal from the digging. We have access to aged horse manure compost from the horses on the land, which proved to be a great resource. We then covered that with straw and waited for our basil transplants to get just a bit bigger before we put those out into the sunken beds. Also along the lines of sunken beds we created a butternut squash field by tilling a different section of the garden and forming large raised beds. However we didn’t just plant on the raised beds rather created craters for planting seeds. The craters are sunken beds essentially and we did an experiment with one of the lines getting alpaca manure, while the other line got the horse manure compost. From there we did watering two times a day to get them to sprout but just before I left the first ones were emerging.
As always in the TreeYo Pattern of Development, a nursery was kickstarted to supply the biodiversity aims. It was small steps but understanding the way to work with our available materials to make a potting mix is always a fun challenge. Each site is different and it is one of the ways permaculture doesn’t allow for rubber stamping development. We mainly focused on propagating succulents and seeding some vegetables. With everything during my time there, some was training was necessary on techniques like cuttings but it allowed us to get to our goals quickly. The ridge that houses the buildings, the pool, and the glamping tents as well as the main yoga dome have had some landscaping begin around them. However, it needs more and the succulents also help with reducing fire risk around this very important infrastructure. Thus we did quite a focus on the succulent category for propagation especially since the mediterranean herbs were in flower making it not the best time of the year to propagate them.
Connected to the nursery was trips out to a local nursery to plug into what they sell and establish relationships. We did that a couple of times to pick up some plants for the banana circle greywater we implemented. With some new outdoor showers being finished when I arrived, the greywater system was the next step so they could open. So we did the standard design but a bit simplified until the fall when more plantings could be expanded. We bought bananas from nursery, the Canary Islands cultivar, as well as some cana lily plants. Both we did root division on to further propagate the suckers that we got. With that in mid we got pretty good deals on the plants. It was a tough implementation as the ground was rock hard again so we used the tiller to open the soil after the layout with stakes and ropes. We then dug the pits and formed the circular raised bed. From there we integrated some compost into these beds and did the planting one fine evening. Each of the three circles got five or six plants depending on the diameter and its surroundings as we were working around other plantings. We filled the middles with quite a bit of organic matter as the design calls for and to be further carbon filter. Once planted and the outlets from the showers dug and secured, it was time to let everyone know to use those showers so the bananas could be supported. Was fun work for sure.
Even with all the hard work abounding, we did manage to take a day off with whole volunteer crew to the amazing forest of Grazalama and its surroundings. It was a nice gesture for sure from the management crew so we could all spend some time away from the work together in a beautiful natural setting. We left one morning with perfect sunny weather to go to the forest and spring fed river to have a shaded walk and swims in the abundant pools. The forest there is supported by the mountain that rings out the most moisture in all of Spain. In fact it reminds me a bit of Sintra, Portugal but Sintra is planted and this one is much more wild. It was a perfect recharge and we even had time for some afternoon drinks in Grazalama town.
To finish, the last few days I stepped away from being the garden manager so Jacob could further step into that position. Each day, we as the garden crew, were having lots of planning meetings under the fig tree in garden to keep the train going. This allowed me to go back into design mode, to help get the next phases of implementation underway. The fall will see the keyline rips put in now that Jesus has done his work in the wheat field with the initial layout. From there the land regeneration process in that part of the land speeds forward but also continues elsewhere with more earthworks, more tree plantings, spreading microbes through compost extract, and planting the fall garden. Part of this will come through me spending more and more time there and also running courses. In the fall we will be hosting a food forest and earthworks course that will allow for others to learn from the developments on the land in this crucial moment. Also in the late winter 2017 we will be running a two week Permaculture Design Course (PDC). Having taught this course all over the world, I look forward to this next journey of facilitating this course there. I also look forward to integrating more and more into the community life there and outlining further opportunities for learning with the permaculture world.
Click the links to the courses below!