August 2014: 9th 2 week PDC Portugal: Terra Alta

A principle that guides us in our permaculture design and management of systems is accelerate succession and evolution. When this concept is examined through the lens of a two-week PDC at Terra Alta, this evolution occurs not only on the site but within the inner landscape of all. Problems turn into solutions and as we work with the nature inside each one of ourselves, transformation occurs. This was a special PDC for the group experiencing deep levels of succession within their knowledge around permaculture and relation to self and community.

Accelerating Succession
Accelerating Succession


Thus the August PDC, our ninth at Terra Alta, left all of us changed forever. The site also had projects furthered including the camino das fadas and food production zones on the land. With 28 participants and a solid crew of permies, which mostly was past students willing to give back once more, we furthered the biodiversity objectives through soil building and earthworks. We furthered the work

White Sapote with lots of young new growth
White Sapote with lots of young new growth

of the July course with more earthworks giving us better access, planting space, and soil and water retention. We cycled vast quantities of biomass from chop and drop of on-site materials. Meanwhile we also hulled huge volumes of horse manure/ straw mix from off site to build the soil in the terraces and sunken beds that we implemented in 2013 August PDC. We have figured out that to truly grow quality crops in this extreme of Mediterranean climates, we must build soil for at least one year. This builds the organic matter % thus allowing us to lessen our watering time and the microorganisms have built-in a level of succession that allows a more complete nutrient cycling. Also Bill Mollison’s assertion to break from zones to a certain degree in drylands was made very apparent by how much biomass we were able to cycle from the streamside and in-stream vegetation. With summer management of chop and drop and watering from our life-giving spring, we have seen one foot (30 cm) growth on our trees like the White Sapote (Casimora edulis). We give much thanks to the spring and all the helping hands for this part of the hands-on.



Other hands on projects included building hot compost piles which in truth didn’t get so hot because of the lack of high nitrogen. Piles often don’t get flipped enough, including our July pile, so I was trying to be very conservative as to not need to flip the pile so often. However the addition of more high nitrogen was needed to really make the piles start to cook. It’s a fine balance to bake a good cake but adjustments are being made so they break down effectively for future fertility. Now our compost on the camino is burning as the adjustment was made after the course including more water.  This shows just how many functions our unique water system at Terra Alta is!


Another fun feature of every course that we do is the plant propagation session. With ambitious plans ahead for planting out terra alta more extensively before the fall rains, we have been active early in the year to get more of our in-house plants propagated. This horticulture technique is a must so we feel great about sharing this in our courses.  Plus we got lots of vegetables planted by seed like kale and cabbage, roots divided like lemongrass and comfrey, and cuttings like Mexican Mint Oregano and Pepino Dulce.  It’s an important horticultural skill that we are happy to pass on for sure.


Another project we worked on was creating straight row garden beds to increase our staple production.  Put at the bottom of the land in terms of slope and also creak-side next to a stone retaining wall of the stream, these beds should be great food producers.  We intend to install drip irrigation thus this shape and placement will facilitate more food production in a lower maintenance fashion.  It was truly amazing to see the process unfold in such a short time with digging, mulching with green and brown material, and getting the beds set for fall plantings.


Concurrently with the garden bed making, we also made tasty krauts during our fermentation section. We have found that this really supports the kitchen crew at the end of the course after the short fermentation and having this processed food ready to go easily.  By the end of the course, they are tired but the helping hands of these 28 helped to manifest some nice super foods, full of flavor, nutrition and pro-biotic qualities.  It’s a topic Bill Mollison was very passionate about and we are happy to share this great food processing technique that is a low-carbon preservation technique and support local foods.

As always, a cob session happened in this course as well and we were blessed to be able to work with Barbara from Canya Viva this time.  It’s always nice to have guest teachers and to bring in Barbara’s expertise in the field was really great.  Thus to create even more ambiance on our chill-out and stardome terrace, we made a nice curved shape cob bench following the contour of the land under an old pear tree.  We had to haul lots of stones for the foundation up the hill but again good team work came through to accomplish such a big endeavor.

We also made a field trip to the beach to try to do the fun 3D landscape design exercise in the sand that I came up with in the July course on the fly.  It was a beautiful glistening day and we all needed the break after the tough hands-on of building and the experience in general so we headed down to Praia de Ursa.  The walk there is quite magical, winding through the diverse vegetation with some shortened by the intense sea breezes from being on the tip of the western most point in continental Europe.  Upon arrival, we found the beach nearly all gone because of high tide and simply enjoyed the raw power of the Atlantic.  It even almost swallowed up all of us and a very nice camera in the process but all that was swallowed was lots of sea water by myself. HA!


Furthermore, as Terra Alta grows as a host site we use more and more the field to show and explain AnitaAdvImageconcepts, which really helps the students learning. We got to see how the site changes through hands-on but our walk and talks on things like systems and tree biodiversity also allows the students to see how much the site has improved over the years. It’s a really special field school for that and we look forward to the next phases over the coming year and seeing how the site grows organically and offer that as a further example of Permaculture.

After receiving the feedback from the July course we made some nice upgrades to the stardome and got even more inspiration during this course to improve.  it was a great space to share again with the students.  We continued to use interactive exercises along the way to bring the material alive including our classic charades exercise to enact principles and review their integration in design. By bringing them alive through theater, students see the space and time interactions. Most likely the principle they acted out they will never forget in their lives.

We also continued with our international network of communities Design project in this PDC.  Through taking even more steps to direct the students in each design time and synching it with the schedule, fantastic results were achieved with a lessened feeling of stress. We again saw some really creative ideas and the ongoing theme of education centers shows that teachers will come from this course.  We still highly believe in this international community and creating resilient designs that include social dynamics.  After all, what is a project without a vision.  Thus we embark on highering ours at Terra Alta and TreeYo Permaculture.

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