Wasting nothing in the living landscape

In my previous piece for this column, I mentioned the dilapidated raised beds I was restoring at my family’s smallholding in Somerset, and the comfort I took in the principle ‘small and slow’

Now, a few months on and the beds are looking good but they’ve reminded me about another permaculture principle, ‘produce no waste’.

This concept holds that there is no such thing as waste in nature; everything feeds everything else or serves a purpose. It occurred to me while weeding out thick, healthy dandelion roots that they could be used in tinctures to make medicine for my family. The same with the nettles – their roots can be tinctured and their tops added to curries and soups or made into tea.

My thoughts turned again to the no waste principle after researching different materials for the edging of the beds. We’d recently dismantled an old shed and had masses of old corrugated iron lying around. These sheets have now been transformed into sides for all the raised beds, so that the real soil-building efforts can begin. They look quite 1940s in style, but vintage is all the rage these days apparently!

I recently had the pleasure of visiting the Centre of Alternative Technology (CAT) in Wales for a course on rainwater harvesting and ecological sewage treatment, as part of studying for my diploma in Applied Permaculture Design. If there is a way to turn human waste into resources then the compost toilet seems the definitive tool!

It was a great week, learning about the cycles of nutrients and how off-grid systems, such as reed beds to treat wastewater, can provide multiple functions in terms of also benefiting wildlife habitat and biodiversity. I hope to use what I’ve learned in redesigning our ageing pond to bring it back to life.

As well as the enjoyable time at CAT, I also had a life-changing experience recently, in the form of a talk by renowned permaculture designer, teacher and author, Patrick Whitefield. The talk explored the ‘living landscape’ – how we can read and understand what we see around us.

Patrick presented a series of photographs illustrating his observations of how trees were certain shapes due to their microclimates or management for example, or why certain plants grow in one spot. Ever since, I’ve been seeing the whole landscape with new eyes, as a system that is stealing my attention day and night while I try to consider all of the different processes of social and ecological change that contribute to how the land is shaped.

Observation is key to permaculture design and at Brook End I’m keeping a daily diary of everything I see; recording the weather, birds, plants and flowers, noting the stages of their growth and of course their beauty. This is part of a ‘full cycle analysis’, watching Brook End through all the seasons so that when I develop a good working design, I can encompass all of these observations. My decisions will then be well informed so that I can ensure components are best placed to reduce work and maximise nature’s efforts. Why walk to the other side of the smallholding to pick salad when I can have it in containers right outside our kitchen door?

I didn’t realise when I began learning about permaculture that it would effect the way I see the world quite so much. When I understand a connection between a single specimen and its community of plants, I realise both are benefiting from their relationship. But it extends beyond plants. Through the inspiring journey of Richard and Michele from the Impermanence Project or the international networking tool of Permaculture Global for example, we can appreciate the benefits of solidarity in human communities too. Slowly, practitioners are building connections all over the world, hopefully bringing us all one step closer to a permanent culture that supports all life.