Sometimes in life a spark is needed. Sharing happens, layers reveal and evolution occurs. Sparks hopefully lead to ignition and through a simple weekend course in a small atlantic island, well hopefully that spark catches on the island and the TreeYo network. It was a food forest course, well attended weekend and free Friday night talk, a beautiful sharing in the classroom and field, and installation pieces artistically crafted known as the layers and process of developing a food forest.
Thus the layers of the food forest are simply not just plants. A huge human effort layer of attracting people to the course, coordinating the workshop, getting the plants from nurseries and wild propagation, and getting mulch materials are just a few of the steps before a course can even kick off. It was our first time working in Madeira, new climate, new host site, new context but things flowed quite well.
Madeira is a subtropical island with a variety of climates depending of course on what side of the island you are on and also altitude. In the south near the capital Funchal and off to the west, the subtropics are quite obvious with sights of bananas on amazing terraces everywhere. Around is home gardens often mixed with patches of veggies, tree crops like Annona, Mango, Passionfruit, and sugarcane to name a few. The island gets more rain than the mainland and definitely stays warmer in the winter in these lower lands in comparison to the continental climate of mainland interior Portugal. It is blessed with volcanic soils and an innovative canal system of water allowing access to water for agriculture.
However the farm we were giving the course at, 5ª Natureza, was at an altitude of 700 m making it more temperate in its feel but frost still was nearly never seen. Thus the tamarillo plantation that was installed some years ago via a government grant has produced but not quite well enough to be profitable and was a perfect location for food forest retrofitting. The grant came with one hook, agronomy engineers had to help with the installation which reinforced the monoculture model and not conducive for integrated systems that permaculture hinge upon. With the Tamarillo plants struggling, bringing the diversity might just be what they need on this north facing hill that is subject to intense winds and low levels of light during the foggy winter and low sun angles. With the design quickly done, plants procured, and things organized we moved into this exciting weekend.
Thus on Friday night I gave a free lecture on food forests to open the course and also to involve others from the island who were unable to commit to the full weekend. It was held in a hip part of town and the island is getting fresh waves of this designy energy which was nice to see. This new development also helps to support bio agriculture as one of the new stores within the renovated market was an organic shop which sourced local veggies and fruits. We had a good crowd there on the talk with about 35 people, which was a great turn out especially with it being the holiday season. Madeira is famous for its New Years fireworks show and I have to say it more than lived up to its reputation.
From there we launched into the weekend where 18 students registered making the course fully booked as we aimed to keep the numbers small to match the host site capabilities. The first half of Saturday was mainly theory based but also gave us a chance to practically examine the landscape allowing for the design process to unfold including this observation stage. We showed these factors of north facing aspect and explained the flows of energy through this beautifully terraced land. Also in the classroom the principles behind food forest came through which easily include the following:
- Small Scale Intensive (plant and time stacking)
- Diversity (Guilds)
- Multiple functions for each element
In the afternoon after we looked further out in the Tamarillo field of how we designed in the field this retrofit, we began to dig and plant. First we demonstrated tree planting and also the associated guilds in front of everyone slowly. This gave the students confidence to break out into groups and begin to install the anchor trees and shrubs as well as the guilds. We worked through the installation all afternoon which focused on removing the sod layer in the straight rows of the Tamarillo orchard as to give a proper planting space for the new tree crops. The land had been terraced four years ago within an already existing terrace for these straight rows. Over time they had eroded thus making the sod layers removal an opportunity to reterrace the land within these rows. It made crafting the guilds interesting as to accommodate more of a rectilinear space as making it more of an organic shape was limited by the fact that there was a micro-irrigation system which followed the straight lines.
But with over twenty people digging and mounding, planting and guilding, seeding and mulching with both green and brown as well as watering, we were able dramatically alter the space with a minimal impact. The tamarillos should also proposer because the essential monoculture of just this shrub and herbaceous layer was altered. Additionally heaps of organic matter were added as well as compost extract the next day. Most importantly the human layer was active, communicating, sharing resources, coordinating and working hard to integrate the knowledge into the body.
The next day brought us deeper into the theory including recapping the design process and revealing some of the plant pallet available for a place with such a unique growing climate through the context of layers. We also recapped our work out in the field from the establishment phrase by again examining our work from the day before to really reinforce the holistic permaculture pattern of development. On that Sunday we also talked about the management of the systems which of course heavily involves chop and drop as to fertilize systematically as well augment the canopy when need be.
Thus our Sunday implementation focused on another island wide important design known as a pit garden inspired by the banana circle that Mollison presented many years ago. Having built numerous of these around the world both with bananas and other anchor plants to suit the climate and context, we were excited to get three pit gardens installed. Imagine the whole of the island having banana circles on them instead of the monoculture system that reinforces the use of harmful chemicals. After walking on a banana terrace on the southwest coast days before it was obvious just how destructive the common culture of bananas on the island are. Driving through them you can even see the dwarfed bananas have trellises to hold them up showing just how poor the soils have become as the organic matter was erased. The banana leaves were scrapped to the side and burned while a cocktail of chemicals is used in the industry. Remember the floods of Funchal in 2012? What if the island was covered in banana circles? What if it had a full hydrological cycle?
Well the farm now has a banana circle, a tamarillo circle and blueberry circle. The blueberries may prove to be the next big crop there as the soils are quite acidic and the low winter soil temps lend itself to this temperate fruit. In fact I see the farm moving more towards small fruits and who knows maybe even a pick your own berry farm. The groups worked really hard on the digging and creatively enacted guild implementation. This showed the knowledge of the day before sinking in.
The course ended with this but hopefully a spark was lit. Talk of further collaboration on the island among fellow permaculturists and bio agriculture abounded. A spark was lit within us for sure to continue our collaboration with Joana Martins and the farm and hopefully be apart of a revolution that changes the islands nickname from banana island to food forest island.