December 2016: Advanced Earthworks and Food Forest Course: Suryalila Permaculture, Villamartin, Spain

This ten day course was a new format at a new host site set amongst the most complex project management I have ever done (upcoming PDC at same host site in late Feb.).  The moving of earth for water infiltration and planting hundreds of trees, nearing 1000, at a place of water scarcity issues and an already existing yoga retreat center is the rough context.  The course provided an unique opportunity to make moves on a site in its beginning in terms of permaculture development, yet a strong hosting culture built over their five years or so of operation thrives.  For me it was how to combine the two, so that students could learn from this unique time and how the site could get towards its end goal of water security, aesthetic upgrades, and food production increases.

Thus in mid December of 2016 ten students embarked on this journey with me along with Jacob Evans, the farm manager, acting in a support role.  Contributing as well were volunteers and even one day some of the guests of a yoga teachers training got out and planted trees.  The students were a mix of ages and backgrounds and provided an interesting context of many different levels and future goals.  From having their own projects in three different continents to those seeking to become consultants and land managers, this diversity provided a great opportunity to network as well.

Group photo overlooking the barren hillsides of the surrounding area, the need for diversity is obvious
Group photo overlooking the barren hillsides of the surrounding area, the need for diversity is obvious

With that, we began the course by going patterns to detail with the holistic development model of TreeYo Permaculture being the backdrop.  While earthworks and food forests sounds simple, they are apart of an integrated whole that I was trying to communicate with this.  It takes a huge amount of resources to implement such endeavors and setting that context and hammering back on it as we went was vital for me.  From there we went into the observation process that all of this development work hinges upon.  After a great feedback session, we then went into Brad Lancaster’s principles to help further the lens of observation in the coming days.  In the days ahead we coupled this principles and best practices with observation using topographic maps and also how to use low tech surveying equipment in the field for contour layout.  This is always a fun experience to ground the theory out and be able to further read the landscape through an a-frame or bunyip level and some flags.  The the true lay of the land is seen since the “map is not the territory”.  This proved true in the area where we did our work with the machine to sculpt the earth for infiltration as the contour map said something very different than what we found in the field. So the initial schematic work using the field observations without surveying and flags and a contour map proved to be inadequate for a true design.  But the ideas were generated and set the stage of a pattern design being implemented in the field with detail.

Before we got there we did our first hands-on in by creating a small earthwork to deal with concentrated runoff.  After observing the catchment around the dome and all of its impervious surfaces, placing flags where electricity and water infrastructure were below the ground, and then laying a contour line below the gutter shedding water from the impervious landscape, we simply began to dig.  It was a quick burst of energy to get this nine meter swale in as the light of the day was fading in this late fall season.  We combined that with a silt trap, sort of pocket pond, to help increase the infiltration capacity and work around an existing mature Carob tree.  We did the back cut, pulled the earth downhill for the mound, sculpted the mound for a planting space and level, and put in the spillway with rocks in our planned overflow route.  To finish we sowed a cover crop and lightly mulched to get the healing process started from moving the earth.  This swale is the exact kind that I think warrants its addition in the landscape, a very small one, in a sort of zone two placement within this zone 0 of the dome space.  In my opinion, they are not broad acre additions usually, rather this exact context, a catchment area from impervious surfaces artificially discharging a concentrated flow that is erosive over time and needs a landscape intervention.  Put the berm and basin in, and slow, spread, and sink the water.

Furthermore, with the weather having been dry recently at this time, the ground was perfect for digging by hand and by machine.  Thus I had to make a quick decision while looking at the forecast for days knowing that rain was a possibility once again.  Consequently, we moved the digging with the machine up by two days and rushed before the afternoon rains really hit.  This meant a bit of switch of the schedule but after all the observation, understanding of the context of why we would implement such earthworks there, and also calculating catchment possibilities, we simply just went and did it.  This is exactly how I like to operate, do prolonged observation, make some schematic pattern based design, do the due diligence part, and then just get out there and have creative human interaction with nature.  I knew I wanted two swales and two terraces.  Only when the digging began and progressed did we know how exactly that would be manifested.  But we managed to have the swales dug roughly by the machine and our crew doing the finishing work with hoes, rakes, and the like to get the mounds formed equally, put in the spillways, and also sow the cover crop and subsequent light mulching.  Jose Maria, the driver of the backhoe, did a great job of working with us and also using his expertise to make recommendations.  When working with drivers you have to stay on top of them to get done what you want but also concede to their opinions and creativity at times because they have a vast experience and innate knowledge of what the machine can do.  So in the end, we had a small terrace at the top, then a small but long swale, then a bigger terrace, and then a quite big swale at the bottom.  This space, the tractor shed area, is one sort of forgotten and very underutilized zone yet has a lot of hard-scapes that were causing erosion below.  It’s at the very top of the watershed on the property so we went for a bigger implementation there.  It also sits in relative location to an area that will be further developed for camping and caravans.  So the idea with the terraces is to make them dry season social spaces and rainy season infiltration zones.  Overall it turned out wonderfully and in the food forest section we got to implement some of the tree planting in that zone and was furthered after the course as well.

When the machine was there we also got another couple of swales implemented in a different runoff zone, below the Moonshala hardscape, before the rains really hit that afternoon.  But immediately we could watch that little bit of rain find its way into the swales and terraces and already receive feedback loops on small adjustments that were needed.  Furthermore, swales and terraces were the main earthworks we implemented in the field but we also discussed a myriad of others in my earthworks types section within the theory of the course.  This helped to round out that part of the course before we connected it with the food forest part of the course.

Moreover, having taught the food forest course quite a few times now in a weekend format, I relished at the opportunity to extend that over a four-day period.  It allowed for a greater depth of discussion on the ideas behind it and the implementation in the field.  Thus we embarked on the design aspects of food forest, the layers, the implementation, and the management over the days to come.  The highlights from the field include taking the garden revamp one step further.  With the right side of the garden having had a revamp in September in my last trip there to create sunken beds, we then continued with the mission of making the left part more perennial and able to infiltrate the huge volume of water that comes down the steps to the garden from the vast catchment of roofs and patio above.  So we implemented another swale just below the overflow of a pit garden.  We also implemented another tamarillo pit garden and planted in four anchor species of Kaki Persimmon in the individual tree planting terraces that I use so often.  In a watershed you can have big earthworks like swales and terraces but it is really easy to add the 1-2 meter diameter tree planting terraces along with the guilds.  So that is what we did with that adding in guild plants like rosemary and lavenders.  We still need to ramp up the plant propagation at the site to get more diversity in the site and not burden budgets too much by always having to buy from a nursery.  This whole action in one afternoon helped to solidify the oasis zone in that part of the garden with the earthworks for infiltration and greywater reception.

After reviewing the process of food forest implementation, which was added to a previous review of earthworks implementation, we went further into the vast diversity of plants that can be grown in the mediterranean context.  It is always fun for me cause I am quite a plant geek in that way and have tried to grow a myriad of food forests along the way.  From there we went back to the field with the beautiful opportunity to plant quite a lot in the swales and terraces section of the land that we had done a few days before with the machine. We added anchor species of stone fruits like nectarine, apricot, plum, and peach while interplanting with Eleagnus, lemon verbena, and other support species.  Around each of the trees we also laid compost to help seed the microbes back out and further rehabilitate the site of this heavy disturbance.  We also planted not only the mounds and the toes of the mounds but also the areas before the mounds so that shade could be cast and the lavender could take advantage of the edge by slowly growing downward over the cut edge.  This all helps to make a complete ecosystem and not let the edge dry out in the intense summer heat.

As the days crept closer to its end we kept going with lively discussions and planned lessons.  One of the highlights of the course was “talking shop” at night by looking at people’s projects and giving feedback to each other along the way.  It was quite a nice experience to learn from this diverse crowd and offer what I could as a consultant from a distance.  Most importantly I think these sessions and the course itself helped people to gain more confidence to just keep going.  For sure it did for me as well, while not perfect, the course did allow for a lot of freedom to invent and flow.  For example, instead of going on with tree planting in our last full day, we replenished our dwindling supply of compost through building a quite large hot compost pile.  At this time of the year it’s quite easy to build with all the green material flowing and the leftovers of the summer brown.  It is important in this context of both earthworks and food forest to know how to build and manage a compost pile properly so this hands on brought in some much-needed diversity as well since soil is so foundational in this work.

Hot Compost Pile
Hot Compost Pile

We finished with more discussion, more review, and the goodbyes.  The work didn’t end there with some students staying on, all in different lengths, to help progress the site through earthworks and food forest plantings!  And we turned that big compost pile.  So the lessons of the course,

well, do it, implement, make mistakes but small ones because of calculating and observing.  But don’t get frozen in not knowing enough, read the landscape, assess the overall context, and have the project management in place to make it a holistic implementation. This is the real work of permaculturists, no matter the scale; labour, resources, budgets, timing, and weather form that backbone of project management.  To design is one thing, to pull of a successful implementation through good project management and design in the field through fly by the seat of your pants is another.  In the end we are artists, sculpting the earth, painting with a pallet of anchor species and support, and bringing abundance through creative human interaction.


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