Observation and Zone Planning: Avoiding the Muddy Trudge to the Back of the Garden

I was quick to start digging soil at my new place. Perhaps this was at the expense of more considered observation. However, time was not on my side – I wanted to get a winter crop in and make the yard look a little more presentable. One factor I was very observant of, though, was solar access. My kitchen garden had to be in a sunny part of the yard. So I spent a week or so monitoring the suns movement through the sky – tricky when you’re at work at day – to determine in which part of the yard I would concentrate my planting. Initially, I was thinking quite close to the house. However, it soon became evident that there wouldn’t be enough sun. Scrap that. Instead, the area I selected was right up against the back fence – as far from the backdoor as you can get.

As I won’t have to do much watering during the short days of winter this will not pose any problems. Any maintenance can be done at the weekends – for there isn’t enough daylight for me to spend much time working on the garden during the week. And come spring, the days will be longer and it will be a more pleasant place to be later in the day.

But what about herbs? I have planted a few varieties in the main beds. They’re doing really well. However, what are the chances of me trudging through the mud at 6pm on a Wednesday night to harvest chives to enhance the evening meal? Very slim indeed. Bland omelettes it will be. Or will it?

This scenario illustrates the logic behind zone planning. Zone planning, according to Mollison “means placing elements according to how much we use them or how often we need to service them” (Mollison, 2011). Well my kitchen garden satisfies that. I need to access it about as much as it needs me to pay it attention. In most situations, the kitchen garden is situated in Zone 2/3. The house – the centre of activity – is Zone 0. Which means there is a Zone 1 somewhere. Perhaps this is where my herbs can go? Mollison says yes. “Zone 1 is close to the house. It is the most controlled and intensively-used area and can contain the garden, workshops, greenhouse and propagation frames…” Deep Green Permaculture is more specific: “Elements that are located in this zone include all the things that you need to access most often, or that need the most frequent attention, such as… a kitchen garden to provide vegetables and salad greens which have a short growing season (time from planting to harvest) and herbs for teas and culinary use…”

But how am I going to locate my herbs in Zone 1 if there is insufficient sun? I put my observation goggles on…

Turns out, just to the right of the backdoor, behind the laundry, the area in front of the rainwater tank gets several hours of sun a day. It is also a nice little microclimate due to the sun heating up the metal of the rainwater tank which then radiates onto the concrete before it. A perfect place for herbs. But in pots they will have to go.

Next on my list was compost. At the moment I am relying on the trench composting method – dig a hole or trench and bury your scraps. This is helping me build soil in an area I intend to expand the kitchen garden come springtime. But again, this isn’t ideal. The area I have been ‘trenching’ is right up the back too. So I don’t take out the compost every day. Much to the annoyance of my partner. But it’s cold and wet and muddy…

Having a regular compost heap or bin in Zone 1 wouldn’t be ideal. So a worm farm is the answer. Deep Green Permaculture is with me on this. Worm farms are a more agreeable method of composting kitchen scraps in Zone 1, especially if the area also acts as your outdoor entertainment area as it does for me, for they are clean, relatively odourless, compact and, dare I say, novel. So they can easily be placed at or near the backdoor. Encouraging you to use it often rather than letting your kitchen tidy bin or bucket become smelly. So that’s the next thing on my list to make – a worm farm.

Until then, some photos of the progress:

Zone 2/3 - Kitchen Garden

This is the brassica bed. Loads of winter veg with some lettuce and silverbeet growing strong. And some radish starting to germinate.

The beginning of my little Zone 1 herb garden. Pots have been chosen for obvious reason - it's concrete. However, this is the right response to my observations. For the alternative would have been to place the herbs in a section of garden bed that simply doesn't get enough sun.

The beginning of my little Zone 1 herb garden. Pots have been chosen for obvious reason – it’s concrete. However, this is the right response to my observations. For the alternative would have been to place the herbs in a section of garden bed that simply doesn’t get enough sun.

Mollison, B. & Slay, R. M. (2011). “Introduction to Permaculture” (Second Ed.). Tagari Publications, Sisters Creek, Tasmania.


Ngarkat Optimism in the Barren and Unproductive Murray Mallee

I’m currently reading a rather dry but illuminating paper called, “The Biological Survey of the Murray Mallee South Australia” (Foulkes and Gillen, 2000). I stumbled upon it looking for literature on native plant species found in the Murray Mallee. Under the “Land-Use History” heading (Foulkes and Armstrong) I found two interesting, if contrasting quotes:

Explorer, Edward John Eyre, speaking of the district to the elusive Ngarkat people: “to the
native the most valuable and productive for here the wallabie, the opossum, the kangaroo rat, the bandicoot, the liepoa [mallee fowl], snakes lizards iguana and many other animals, reptiles, birds etc abound”. To which Foulkes and Armstrong (2000) respond, “This indicates that the standard of living must have been reasonably high.”

This contrasts a rather cocksure statement by none other than Charles Sturt, who laid eyes on the region during his 1829-30 expedition: “[the Mallee is as] barren and unproductive as the worst of the country we have passed through”.

It’s amazing how the same landscape can mean such different things to different people from different backgrounds with different interests. It still happens today. When I tell people about the Mallee a pained look casts over their face. “How boring”. “There is nothing there”. “It’s dry and lifeless”. Perhaps. But, once upon a time, the region was foraged and hunted by a small, but well-fed tribe of aborigines. They saw something in it that the Europeans didn’t. And lived there, in relative peace, for 40-50,000 years (Foulkes and Armstrong, 2000). Mind boggling number, isn’t it?

Source: Foulkes, J. N. & Gillen, J. S. (2000). The Biological Survey of the Murray Mallee. Biological Survey and Research Section: Heritage and Biodiversity Division: Department for Environment and Heritage, South Australia.



Observe and Interact: On Buying a Shed and Camping

Observation is the first principle of permaculture.

Writes Mollison:

“Collecting a large set of observations on occurrences, or samples of a set of phenomena, and sorting them on the basis of likeness-unlikeness (by establishing systems and system boundaries, categories, and keys to systems).  This process often reveals common characteristics of diverse elements, and leads to an understanding of common traits, suggesting (by analogy) strategies in design” (Mollison, 1979).

Writes Holmgren:

“Good design depends on a free and harmonious relationship between nature and people, in which careful observation and thoughtful interaction provide the design inspiration” (Holmgrem, 2002).

All the other permaculture principles and techniques rely on this one principle. Without observation, one does not understand their situation.

I am working through this principle at the moment–not that observation will ever cease. I am working out exactly how I ought to interact with my land. I want to build a house and have gardens but where should I place that house and the gardens? Where’s the best place to build the house to keep in cool during long, hot summers? How might I deliver nutrients and water to the plants? Conventional thinking doesn’t require us to go through this phase–at least not to a meaningful degree. You can effectively plonk the house where you like, and the garden, and tweak it with an array of inputs until you get the result you’re after. Place the house in a spot that gets thumped by the hot afternoon sun? No worries, air conditioning will take care of that. Place the fruit and nut orchard above the dams? No worries, an electric pump can keep it irrigated. Permaculture is about creatively solving problems. Out of the box thinking.

The first piece of my design will be applied in the coming weeks and it is the result of careful on- and offsite observation. You see, the scenario isn’t constrained to the block of land. It also encompasses state of mind, relationships, time, location, and monetary costs. The first piece will be a storage shed-cum-camping hut. I have settled on a 20’ shipping container. The reason I chose a shipping container is:

  1. Versatility–it’s essentially a watertight metal box that can perform, to quote Mollison (2011) again, “many functions”;
  2. Cost–a secondhand 20’-er costs about the same as a similar sized garage that would require a lot more work to place onsite;
  3. Environmental–I liked the idea of reusing something with a relatively high level of embodied energy rather than buying / building new; and
  4. It will double as a storage unit down here in Adelaide, which I can use to store salvaged building materials I acquire and then transport up to the block when it is full.

These reasons all stem from observations I have made of the situation. You will note, most are offsite elements. What about onsite? Well the key things I have had to observe are to do with the siting of the container. Fact is, my analysis confirms that I do need a storage shed. But how to site it? I have observed things such as where there is habitat and vegetation, where the water runs and pools, how intense the sun is in particular spots, where the cool spots are, and access for delivery. Sure, it could be placed under a big tree for shade but what about delivery, because there are other trees in the way? And what about the bushfire risks? And what about having a nice northerly aspect for winter solar access? I have settled on the spot that will cause the least amount of disturbance as possible, and will provide the most benefit. This spot is relatively open and clear with some protection from the hot afternoon summer sun. Further, there is space to build shade if required. The container will have the closed end facing north, the doors facing south onto the road, for easy receipt of materials I may need to store. The north end I will turn into a camping hut. I will line, with stud work and insulation, around 1/3 of the container and install a large window overlooking the view and to benefit from the winter sun. Shade from the summer sun will be provided for by a structure covered in edible climbing plants like grapes, passionfruit and choko. A large rainwater tank will be placed to the west of the living space to provide further insulation against the hot afternoon sun. The west side is also a prime candidate for some straw bale treatment. Not only to improve insulation, but as a way of learning the ropes–a non-structural project that I can stuff up on is probably the best place to start.

The fact that I want to have a comfortable camping space on the block comes back to observation. I realise this project is going to take a while. The straw bale house is at least a year off. In the meantime, I want to have the ability to visit the block as much as possible and observe a lot and interact a little. To not afford myself this ability would potentially see me rushing into things without having a good understanding of the situation, which could compromise the quality of the design and overall experience. Some weekends–I can picture it now–will see me head to the block on the Saturday morning bus, and just sit there and look and listen, before coming home to the grind on the Monday morning, having learnt a lot.

The observations I will make–that I am making now, too–will aid in making educated decisions and respecting the land. And it will make the whole experience a lot more intimate.


Holmgren, D. (2012). “Essence of Permaculture: A Summary of Permaculture Concepts and Principles Taken From ‘Permaculture Principles & Pathways Beyond Sustainability”. See: http://holmgren.com.au/downloads/Essence_of_Pc_EN.pdf

Mollison, B. (1979). “Permaculture: A Designers’ Manual”. Tagari Publications, Sisters Creek, Tasmania.

Mollison, B. & Slay, R. M. (2011). “Introduction to Permaculture” (Second Ed.). Tagari Publications, Sisters Creek, Tasmania.