I’m currently studying a Permaculture Design Course (PDC) at Shift Bristol during which we recently visited a number of permaculture sites around the city. It was so inspiring I thought I’d share everything I learned with you, or at least as much as I can remember from the information overload.
Throughout the day it struck me that community projects foster so much goodwill and generosity – people donate their time, resources and useful waste. The projects gain access to funding, and are generally favoured when looking for permissions. Not to mention the host of other benefits like building relationships and local resilience.
Golden Hill Community Garden
Running since 2012, Golden Hill Community Gardens were gifted the boggy land, at the bottom of a large plot of allotments which frequently flooded and had been deemed usable by everyone else. The water table is still only a foot or so below ground (mid-winter), but through adding extensive drainage the site is now an amazing community resource with straw bale house, nature pond, polytunnels, forest garden, fruit, veg, and cob pizza oven.
Accessible & inclusive
They have an all inclusive policy, welcoming everyone, and have worked hard to make the entire site wheelchair accessible. The first time you go you’ll be asked to sign a declaration, agreeing with the principles of the project – to be respectful of others and their work, that you won’t turn up intoxicated.
The ‘Tower of Power’
They have a unique feature called the ‘Tower of Power’, sounds awesome right? Taking advantage of the high ground water, they dug a well, then placed a structure over it with solar panels powering a pump. This distributes water throughout the garden and up to the top of the allotments to share with the other plot holders, as a result the allotment association are so grateful they pay for it’s maintenance.
Straw bale house
The center of community life is the straw bale house, just a few days before we visited there had been a fire, which thankfully didn’t do too much damage but highlighted an important lesson. A fire inside a straw bale wall will burn very slowly in the absence of enough oxygen. The fire started where the wall directly behind the burner and spread upwards in a thin charred streak, thankfully it didn’t spread further. Lucy the full-time worker, described the heartbreak of having to break through the natural plaster which had taken hours of hard work to put on, but it was essential to ensure the fire hadn’t spread. Takeaway lesson – always install a backplate behind a wood burner.
The bale house also had a feature I’ve not seen before – their permission to build depended on it being a temporary structure, so there’s no permanent footing, in theory you could carry it to a new site. They achieved this by elevating the platform and walls off the ground on tires filled with rammed earth.
Feed Bristol, run by the Avon Wildlife Trust, is a community food-growing project with eight acres of land. They focus on educating people how to grow their own food in organic, wildlife-friendly ways, including a food forest, mushroom inoculation, raised beds and poly tunnels.
When they first setup the project they did a clever thing to attract volunteers at an early stage. The first priority was to install the essential facilities – polytunnels, kitchen, and toilets. The rest of the first year was spent making it beautiful, so it would be an enjoyable place to spend time. Our tutor Sarah pointed out that many permaculture projects used to be littered with salvaged waste, waiting to find a useful purpose, which is great, but can leave a site looking pretty unattractive to visitors. This seems to be changing as people realize the need to balance sustainable ideology with the practical need to run a business, or attract volunteers. Don’t get me wrong though, I’m a bit of a hoarder myself when it comes to these things.
Living willow structures
There is a beautiful outside room created by a weaving living willow structure in a circle. In the summer when the leaves are out, it becomes an enclosed space perfect for gatherings. Although it would take some time to grow together and maintain, the cost of willow sticks pushed into the ground and root is almost zero.
A cordwood roundhouse was built onsite by Shift Bristol students. Though it’s close to the motorway it’s walls are so highly insulating that the moment you step inside you can’t hear it at all.
Mike Feingold’s allotment and community orchard
Permaculture guru Mike Feingold is such a generous, eccentric character and I warmed to him immediately. After a welcome of homemade mulled cider and chocolate bananas, cooked over a fire, he first showed us round the community orchard.
Each spring Mike runs pruning and grafting workshops in the orchard, for which he propagates his own rootstocks by a process called stooling. First the tree with rootstock of choice is coppiced, then once it has new growth 6 inches high, earth is mounded up around the sprouts, also known as stools. They then form roots, and later in the season each can be cut off to form the rootstock for a new grafted tree. I always wondered how it was done!
Moving on to his allotment, Mike showed us how he creates charcoal, and explained the many functions it serves: it locks up carbon almost indefinitely in the soil, in a form which won’t be broken down, its porous structure holds onto nutrients preventing them from flowing out of a system, keeping them available to plants, and it’s black colour also darkens soil which means it will warm faster in early season. Charcoal used in this way is often referred to as ‘Biochar’. Another tip Mike imparted, was to add charcoal to chicken coop bedding so that it holds onto the nitrogen rich urine and manure much better, whilst creating compost using the deep litter method.
The no-dig vegetable beds are planted at right angles to the steep slope to retain as much water as possible. The width of each is Mike stride, so he can easily step across them, or lean over a bed whilst straddling it, without ever having to stand on the soil causing compaction.
Mike told us that radishes entirely edible – you can not only eat the root, but also the leaves, the flowers, the seed pods whilst they are young and crisp, then you can save the seeds and sprout them. Sprouted radish seeds are packed full of vitamin C as well as containing vitamins A, B, E and K, are anti-carcinogenic and have a host of other health benefits.
We walked down the path at the side of the allotment where Wineberry vines grow through the fence. Mike explained how he propagates new plants, by pushing lateral shoots into pots of soil, and keeping them submerged with a rock. These then take root and can be chopped off to form new plants, which he often gives away.
You’d think an allotment would mostly be for growing vegetables, or at least food right? Mike tells us that he finds many of its benefits of higher value, I think his priorities were:
- Firstly the mental health benefits of being in nature and although in the middle of Bristol city, you could think you were in the countryside.
- The opportunity to teach others and give them hands on experience.
- Plants and food to give away.
- Fruit (higher value than veg).
Needless to say, the whole day was brilliant and so inspiring that I couldn’t sleep that night with my mind firing off so many ideas. Each site was wonderful, and as they managed to be inspiring in the depths of mid-winter, I can only imagine what they’ll be like in summertime. Overarchingly I was struck by the joy that came from building community and sharing both produce and knowledge with others.
Thanks in part to Transition Bristol and Shift Bristol there’s loads of other permaculture based projects in the city to check out including: Easton Community Garden, Sims Hill CSA, The Community Farm, Bristol Fish Project, Buzz Lockleaze, and many more. If you get a chance to visit any of the projects above I really encourage you to do so.