Here is the course blog from the amazing journey that was Suryalila Retreat Centre with an eclectic group and an amazing dynamic trio of teachers with Itai Goldman and Ja Cobo. Thanks so much to all of you for the learning process and the hands-on work we did to give back to the site and the earth itself. Lots of earthworks accomplished, tree planting, hot composting, and natural building. https://treeyopermaculture.com/treeyo/previous-treeyo-courses/feb-march-2017-2-week-pdc-suryalila-permaculture-villamartin-spain/
This TreeYo EDU article helps to build the context of Earthworks implementation as well as the design and project management of it. It covers my years of experience doing this regenerative technique, however only when the context has been built correctly and the resources are there to complete its implementation. https://treeyopermacultureedu.wordpress.com/chapter-9-earth-working-and-earth-resources/earthworks-best-practices-design-context-building/
To implement an earthwork within a landscape can be a rather simple choice when the correct protocol are in place for its inception. Thus in this article we will look at some of those factors and complement it with design principles that help you to select the right earthwork in the right place from a well understood context. While it’s a simple choice, there are many factors involved and this regenerative technique should not be taken lightly, especially when done with the power of fossil fuels and machines.
After 16 years you notice the change. Yes 16 plus years of on and off management of the forest at my families land, better known inside our circle as the lake, and outwardly as Treasure Lake. My family has owned the property since late 1983 and lies just outside the major metropolis ti-state area of Cincinnati, Ohio. I have seen encroachment of the suburbs from all directions over the years but it never really reached this tiny corner of Boone County, Kentucky, USA. So as the ‘burbs grow, forests diminish, water quality drops, and biodiversity is tormented by the invasion of industrialism. But in those last 16 years at the lake, I have seen Paw Paw patches and spicebush thickets on the rise and big trees keep getting bigger. I have been witnessing the dying of random trees, the sprouting of new seeds of hickory and oak, and the changing mosaic as the ash tree dies out. It’s like the paw paw knew the ash were dying as they began to sprout by the weakening trees and now that the canopy break is in full swing, they are popping upwards rapidly.
16 years I have been wielding hand tools and power tools for managing succession in the 40 acres (16 HA) of forest that surrounds the 15 acre (6 HA) lake. It started with clearing old campsites, left over
from the properties recreational area inception in 1947, which had been abandoned at some point as the property changed hands numerous times. We did this initially so we could party out in the countryside relieving us of the monotony of suburban bars, college town forays, and city nights out. It was me and my brother and friends at first in 2000 before I headed off to Southeast Ohio to get my degree in Fish and Wildlife Management at Hocking Technical College in late summer 2001. In 2001, my grandfather had the lake rebuilt as this 1947 Army Core of Engineers dam had burst in 1992, a tough year for the project. With the lake being built and my spending more time out there and wanting to study nature more, but being so clueless on how, my good buddy Andrew Williamson drug me out of the city on a whim to go and study ecology essentially. The day we moved out there was 9/11/01 by chance.
From there each summer I would come home and apply the things I was learning and study ecology further through my families forest and lake. My whole education was always put through the lens of going back to my families land and making the property thrive and the business of pay fishing more ecological. So I would rally my friends who were quite keen to get out of the burbs for a bit and come and chop down honeysuckle and multiflora rose (“invasives”) and the like to open the ridge tops that jut out towards the lake. These spaces now are the campgrounds we have on successive ridges pointing south on the northern edge of the property. Since then, I and others have been mowing to keep the edge back but it manages to creep in from time to time on these campground spaces. The place really is a jungle in the growing season with its 12 months of even distribution of precipitation and intensely hot, humid, rainy summers there in the Ohio River Valley. I have also been thinning trees on the edges and valleys to augment the forest composition for biodiversity, to cycle biomass, and to obtain yields of poles in particular.
Thus I have been systematically and continuously cutting back invasives, as they do coppice. I also have been playing with the canopy to invite our native understory plants like Paw Paw and spicebush to emerge into the sub canopy as I remove their bush and bush/vining layer competitors (again bush honeysuckle and multiflora rose) and sub canopy layers like red maple (native but blankets like an invasive), box elder, black locust, and a bit of elm. The ash is dying because of the emerald ash borer and
of course there are deaths of trees from various reasons including the veracious appetite of the climbers that I let take their natural course as much as I can. My grandfather, before his passing, and also to support a tough economic time for the project, elected to harvest about 25 mature trees. I worked hand in hand with the forester to make sure there was not too much taken and it was done well. This created really large canopy breaks in some areas and altered the composition below as well of course. So in essence, I am making this 40 acres (16 HA) of natural food forest into a more cultivated food forest. I have only planted in a few trees like grafted paw paw, persimmon and jujube. That is an area of a broad valley where we dramatically opened the canopy for the harvesting of black locust poles for stage building for Pollination Fest and other pole necessities. We went beyond that initial harvest in 2014 and continued to harvest that and cycle biomass from youngish box elder to open even more light for the rapidly spreading native paw paw patches. I could have done it all in one year, especially with a chainsaw, but one of the keys I have been finding over these years is to go at a more natural pace by using hand tools as much as possible as to not create too much disturbance and invite another invasive in. In my month stint in late fall 2016, I split my time between a chainsaw, a brush clearing ax, and a japanese timber saw to do the work I needed in the forest. I was mainly going back over patches I had cut two to three years previous on steep hillsides, which needed this next intervention so other understory species besides the aforementioned ones could flourish as well like dogwood, redbud, and muscelwood. It’s a much more interesting forest when these native species thrive and the invasives have their little brambly corners to be the habitat they were intended to be when brought to the continent from Eurasia.
So the species composition has changed over the years and that is the feedback loop of watching the same hillsides and valleys for 16 years. It’s a more biodiverse place now with tons of potential for wildlife viewing of all sorts. So even if some of my agricultural experiments have failed, well the forest keeps on growing. I am excited for this years feedback loop as some of the Paw Paw patches had grown so thick I began to cut them back as to give more space to individual trees becoming much bigger. They spread via rhizomes and if they don’t have enough light they don’t produce much in the wild. I tried this in 2014 in one space near the edge of the lake where a patch was growing with basically an open canopy on this south-facing space. It dramatically increased the canopy space of these paw paw and i just reduced that patch, which had already been reduced in numbers once from 8 main trees and 2 smaller ones, to just 5 trees. There is quite a lot of canopy space for them to fill but i think it will happen quite quickly. I also played with this paw paw spacing and canopy opening in about five other paw paw patches, which are all wild. I am curious to see how quick they grow back into a closed canopy as well and wonder when i will have to thin those as well. Imagine having so many wild paw paws that you have to cut some down. I consider that an accomplishment.
This upcoming year i will spend more of the growing season there and will be doing heaps of chop and drop and adding in a few more grafted paw paw to get more pollination possibilities going. They are cross pollinated so this grafted genetics should help since these large patches are often just one tree that has grown rhizominously for years. One day i will top graft numerous varieties onto these existing wild ones and it will be a paw paw paradise. I leave you with that image. Thanks for reading.
The end of 2016 brought to me an opportunity to lead ten students on a ten day journey of earthworks and food forests. It progressed the students knowledge and skills immensely as well the host site Suryalila Retreat Centre goals. In the end we shaped, mounded, planted, learned, laughed, discussed, debated, and created. More water will infiltrate and when you see a bird land on a tree you planted, well you know you helped to bring life. Enjoy this blog post and an abundant 2017! https://treeyopermaculture.com/treeyo/previous-treeyo-courses/december-2016-advanced-earthworks-and-food-forest-course-suryalila-permaculture-villamartin-spain/
Today marks the day where the sun goes northward in the sky and its angle gets higher in the sky; the light of father sun is born! To honor this day we planted trees, about 70 of them with a dedicated crew. A crew from three continents converged into one spot for a nice afternoon of planting out our water harvesting earthworks. Thanks you sun for all you provide, may these trees grow strong with the coming light here at Suryalila Retreat Centre in South Spain!
This compliments the hundreds of other we have planted int he last two weeks with the earthworks and food forest course that finished! thanks to all involved!
One of the most striking things I took from Brad Lancaster’s book and workshop, was a quote from Mr. Phiri, the Zimbabwean land regenerator he sites in his intro. My Phiri said, “You got to plant the water before you plants the trees.” This makes so much sense especially when you look at the principles such as energy cycling and accelerating succession. The management of cycles is paramount in permaculture and if we don’t complete and leverage cycles then other cycles fail. For example here, if we complete the carbon cycle in some degraded areas by mulching around already planted trees yet fail to complete the hydrological cycle, then its impossible to keep that soil built on site. When I say completing the hydrological cycle I mean making sure that water infiltrates as much as possible instead of erosive runoff. This is the normal pattern of current land management but we can only hope that by doing this vital work of cycling water into the ground and upward through building soil and growing a diversity of plants, the land will turn to an oasis. With this proof the local rural crowd of southern Andalusia, Spain might be inspired to learn more.
Thus since arriving 8 days ago we have been full on with project management, project implementation, and designing next phases of implementation. A design is one thing but the myriad of complexities of enacting that design into a project management plan is another. I do recommend highly for all permaculture designers to take a project management course. I took one when I finished my small business management degree 5 years ago and it has helped tremendously. This currently entails a big group of volunteers mainly focused on olive harvest is balanced with the inflow of other labour, materials, budget, and the weather. But with the team of the Wizard, Jacob Evans, managing in the field and Jon Valdivia helping to manage as well in the inflow of materials, we are ticking along.
Since I arrived the grease trap was installed to create the greywater system in the garden as water is the ultimate focus of this project. It will require diggin’ a few more pit gardens and getting the pipping finished. A tremendous amount of water is now being diverted into the landscape instead of a septic tank. We did install a valve in case we want to put that back in the septic if the system ever gets overloaded. However by having five circles, multiple elements for the important function of receiving greywater, we should be just fine. And the top pit garden next to the stairs provides one more function, which is the capture of a rainwater torrent that cascades down the stairs from the large catchment area of impervious surfaces above the garden. Also in the garden the greens have been rolling out, cover crop is growing nicely, and more seeds being sown. We are also planning the next phase of garden development that will come up in our earthworks and food forest course. We will perennialize much of the rest of the garden that hasn’t already gone under the sunken and raised bed system on contour.
In the course ahead we will also be reviewing the keyline system we have now implemented in what has been known as the wheat field. It will gain a new name soon as we convert this patch from a leased monoculture to a diverse, alley cropping system. The alleys will be for pasture mainly but after some years of soil building we will also use parts of the alley for field crops. The rows of trees with be five wide with a food forest style approach to their diversity and layout. Its a fun pallet to play with and now that the field has been ripped it’s even more evident how beautiful the field will look in the future with these rows of trees and animals in between. I was quite surprised to see the quality of the soil in the valley part of the landscape so we will make a move for planting pioneer trees this year. We were contemplating to start next year but in this section we will do this initial push to accelerate succession beyond just the keyline operation. Furthermore, we used a subsoiler of one of the workers of the retreat centers father. A lovely elder he is and was happy to enact our “drawings” on the field. He always seemed to have a smile on his face when I approached even as the rains started as he finished on a cold sunday morning.
After a dry spell that featured quite warm temperatures the last couple of weeks, a solid but not too intense delivered autumn finally. With 22 degrees C (74 F) just a few days ago, the growth of green had been stunted for sure. The garden actually needed a bit of water and the regrowth of vegetation was slow to say the least. Autumn here in the Mediterranean zone feels like spring to me coming from a humid temperate climate. The earth is awaking with the rains and with water being my main design consideration, it was nice to see and experience this nourishing rain. So when the rain came I of course didn’t sit inside with a cup of tea rather went out in the rains and very intense winds to see the patterns of runoff. With the amount of dry lately, the earth was quick to soak this resource up. Of course however impervious surfaces shed huge amounts of water and start the erosion cycle. The driveway is fed by roofs above and create a cascade of erosive water down the driveway. This is a major design issue to address in the coming days to put it into french drains and getting it circulating in the keyline system. One day we hope to hold that in tanks for storage for crop irrigation. Moreover, there was other spots of erosion from impervious surfaces that we will continue to design for infiltration. So from now until the course starts in less than three weeks will be dedicated a lot to designing these systems in. We will take Brad Lancaster advice, start at the top and work our way down. Make them small to start with. Observe and continue to implement as we receive the feedback loops. Plant, mulch, repair the soil biology. Phew a lot of action is coming! And so excited to do it, share it, and enact the vision that was created from the first time I came here in March. And I finish by asking you, how is your hydrological cycle? Ours is still being fixed, much work to be done to reverse climate change.
Here is the first article from my online book in the Temperate Chapter and its on season extension. It’s a particularly fun detail of living in the temperate zone as we need to use immense creativity and exact planning to really push the sustainability envelope around food production in these four season zones. From microclimate to crop diversity and appropriate technology to name a few the articles gives some strategies and techniques for enjoying abundant living. Header art by Karsten Hinrichs.
With the heat of the summer raging on there in Southern Spain and me coming off my most intense teaching schedule of a summer thus far, I spent 12 days at Suryalila Retreat Center in Mid September 2016. As opposed to the first time when it was winter consulting and the second in the summer doing more project kickstarting and training, this time it was a blend of it all, better known as project management and design. In the summer, my second trip, we formed a great team for manifesting lots of positive changes in the field, which included Jacob Evans of Wizard Permaculture. He was hired on to be the farm manager and we were joined by Jon Valdivia of TheOpenDream project for my third stint there. With this constellation we were focused much more on the elements of the design fitting within the big picture of the project, but, of course we manifested some great change in the garden.
With the water crisis still dragging on there at the project, the summer heat, and the fading of summer energy, we all were looking forward to the rains coming and some relief from the brittleness of the climate. With that context, many, and I mean many decisions were on the table to address this water issue amongst a plethora of other interconnecting factors. The time there for me was about taking a step back and manifesting more parts of the design that I simply never had the time before to accomplish. Even still I work remotely to forward this plan, which is complicated with this projects complexity. But this is what it is about for us dedicated Permaculturists who live an nomadic life of sorts, moving around to contribute where the will and energy is there. To really forward a project out of the dust of the legacy of poor land and water management is quite a work but very doable with a vision and the sound design/ project management plan.
Thus with the design process we went back to the vision and had another session with Vidya Heisel, the founder of the project. It echoed what she had said in March, my first trip, but as the project was ballooning we wanted to just check if anything new had come up or what flavors were being added. Being a yoga teacher herself, the theme of education is definitely there and the desire to make a magical space for the guests to be immersed in also came in quite strong. The vision also connects to the farm-to-table/shop model as there is a big input of food that goes through the kitchen into the stomachs of the staff, guests, and volunteers. It’s quite a holistic vision in the end and we are doing our best to make this come through with our blend of the how and what to design and manifest. The why is set and the work to bring this forward continued with deepening the general land design and bringing detail to patch designs. (vision= why, how, and what)
One of the main questions that came up was how are we going to fund this development? Jon had shown up only the day before me as a volunteer for the next three months in more of an IT support role. That quickly changed as he was quite resourceful at looking for funding opportunities under Vidya’s assignment of this. He found lots of avenues and we are still exploring more of them since a non-profit for the permaculture education side of the project is being set up. We really want to show a viable model of production to the local and bioregional community since it is, in general, unprofitable and surely unsustainable farming. But the subsidies from the EU prop this chemical monoculture up and our tax euros are actually going to ecosystem degradation. And honestly its very alarming at what you see there with the desertification. We want the locals to get on board as well not just permies who are already into this and we hope the Sustainable Rural Development Funds can help us build the project and communicate it. More on the desertification will be in a coming blog, but indeed, the time to press play on a regenerative agriculture is now.
Beyond that we were really fixed on phases of implementation, which in essence is a fusion of permaculture design and project management. Since development speed and direction is largely based on resources available and budget, we had many questions to follow through on to make them answers. It’s still not finished but when working from patterns to details and getting to know a new bioregion it truthfully can be a bit slow. But I am thankful I had the opportunity to be there for 12 days, an extended period honestly for me, and learn more about the nuances of the land and the project itself. So we are getting closer to exact placement and numbers of trees, exact dimensions and placement of earthworks, and deciding exactly our steps forward with the wheat field conversion into the keyline alley cropping system.
We did also get out in the field and make some moves in the main garden and overall landscaping. First was the harvest of the butternut squash that we had put in exactly three months earlier when I was there leading the crew the last time in June. We had planted two oversized raised beds with sunken mini
pits filled with horse or alpaca manure. It’s amazing at how beat up these soils are and when we implemented these beds in June, we beat them up further with tilling. But despite that they are very productive due to the clay content and limestone base rock. It’s actually quite astounding that they still produce after all the years of mistreatment but it shows natures’ will for life to flourish. These two beds literally produced wheel barrows worth of squash.
Furthermore, with those beds cleared and a few others, in a visionary flash, I decided we were going to manifest some beds on contour, sunken bed style not raised. I really didn’t want to make them raised but was feeling a little stuck in the planning of this garden layout stuff amongst all the meetings and design work. But I got out there with some flags to mark the hedgerow we will be planting in the fall and began the process of space definition. From there we measured contour and got an idea of the lay of the land. With this image of the flags on the land, I had the vision and implemented the first bed as time was approaching for our help to come through on many projects around the place including the garden. That help came through a new initiative at Suryalila known as the karma yoga session of the final day of the three week teachers training course. And well they came through as I had eight students/graduates, all women by the way, come and help implement the sunken bed terraces that sprung out of my mind in that flash. We all had our tools and rhythms and just kept going parallel to the bed before because of the fairly even and gentle gradient. It was amazing how quickly we got through so many beds. We only really worked for an hour and half but got the vast majority of the implementation done. Over the next few days they were finished by the crew and we added a few raised beds as well to balance the winter time production as well.
Another hands on project we manifested when I got there ties into the larger landscaping and water cycling mission that we have there. Having already implemented three banana circles the last time I was last there for the greywater of the new outdoor showers and seen their success, we went again with the pit garden greywater design. The day before we did this we were at the local nursery purchasing and planning more fall purchases and we found tamarillos, which I had been asking for the last time we were there. Apparently they are known as tropical tomatoes with the translation, but they had five and we snatched them all up. So we implemented a nice sized Tamarillo circle leading the water from the composting toilet hand washing station inside the pit. We propagated the cana lily which has grown quite quickly on the banana circles showing natures abundance that in just a few months we already had extra planting material. It ended up coming out really as a standout feature and after the transplant shock wears off they are sure to end up looking fantastic! (read more about Pit gardens/ Banana Circles here)
And as those days passed after my 36th birthday, we just kept going deeper and deeper with the funding process, talking how to communicate the projects incredible depth, how to get research accomplished through it, how to reach the locals and on and on. The details are emerging, the pattern is pretty set, and we extend out to audiences to contribute by volunteering, to sign up for courses, or contribute in anyway possible. The Sahara is coming folks and we need a massive green belt to stop it and we hope Suryalila can be a shining example of the power of ecosystem regeneration powered by Permaculture Design! It takes a crew to do such a thing and a big shout out goes to Jacob and Jon, the rest of the volunteers who were again a great social real-life network, and to the management and staff team. And thanks Vidya for holding this vision and letting me be there to contribute to this endeavor.
I will be back in mid November sometime to prepare for the Earthworks and Food Forest ten day course. With the observation of the rains movement on the land, the last tweaks to the design will be made. We will have the trees all lined up. Compost will be finished by then so we can spread some microbes. The gardens will be green and verdant again as Jacob and Neil work hard to plant them out now. So I look forward to sinking water, planting for biodiversity, reseeding the soil food web, and many other facets of the TreeYo Permaculture Holistic Development Model.