Dryland Permaculture Design

Medierranea mountainside

Mediterranean mountainside in winter

One of the tenets of Permaculture design is to mimic nature. Nature creates complex communities of life, in a dynamic and responsive relationship. Despite development, biodiversity loss and desertification it is important to try and ascertain how nature would have created her community of life in any dryland environment before making any design decisions. There is enough research and anecdotal information available to provide a basic portrait of any area in which we may be designing.

Although, every Permaculture designer knows this basic tenet, it is amazing how many of us make the assumption that what works in a tropical region in one country will work in a dryland area in another. With great goodheartedness and enthusiasm, we uplift practices which mimic nature in quite a different environment and apply it, without modification, to another ecosystem. We make assumptions that mulching and composting are universal ‘good things’ and import these practices to regions all over the world without ever asking “What natural system are these from?” and “Has the area in which I am implementing my design evolved in the same way?”.

Nature has an infinite collection of location-specific community designs.

Norwegian sheep farm in autumn

Norwegian sheep farm in autumn

They are dynamic and continually responding to change. These communities have evolved with certain resonances which are unique to them. When we apply a natural practice from an entirely different community, without knowing how and why it evolved that way, and the impact it is likely to have on its new host community, we are liable to create an ill-judged design.

A simple example is the instance of a Mediterranean farm which applied the practice of mulching trees to all those within a flood irrigated area. One year, the farm was burnt out by a bushfire. Those trees that were not irrigated and mulched, were burnt, but survived and resprouted the following year. The mulch around those trees in the irrigated area, however, was dry and provided additional fuel for the fire. It increased the temperature of the fire around the trees, and kept it there longer, with the result that all the trees were killed.

Mulching is something that nature does in temperate and tropical environments, where the consistency of year-round moisture is such, that dead plant material on the soil surface breaks down quickly. From there, it is taken below the soil surface by other organisms to provide nutrients for soil microbes and plants and to build a healthy soil structure.

In parts of the world that have low, inconsistent year-round moisture with a period of drought during the growing season, it is a different story. Dead, dry plant material that accumulates on the soil surface does not break down in the same way, and if left unmanaged will suffocate the potential for new growth, resulting in loss of biodiversity and movement towards desertification. How did a dryland natural community evolve? What can we learn from such a system? How does that impact on Dryland Permaculture design strategy?

The answer to these questions is given in the residential Dryland Permaculture design seminar, the first of its kind to introduce students to tools such as the Savory Brittleness Scale and specific insights into how dryland environments evolved naturally. The next seminar is scheduled for 17th -24th April 2009.

Aspen signing off and ,hoping to see you there.


Holistic Financial Planning

the farmhouse in early spring

the farmhouse in early spring

When we first came to Semilla Besada, we had already decided to use 40% of our capital to buy the property and 60% to develop it. Out of the 60% we budgeted not only for development but also for 10 years of living expenses for a family of three. This would enable us to devote all our time and energy to developing the farm, and we thought that 10 years was a realistic time period. After 4 years, we had lost 3 years of that time. Why was this?

Moving to another culture can have unexpected surprises: in England we enjoyed an organic, wholefood diet, but in Spain this type of food cost three times as much; unlike England, it was impossible to get a quote for an entire project, only an hourly rate, which meant that when projects overran so did the costs! However, when we incorporated holistic financial planning from the Holistic Management framework, we recouped those 3 years within 18 months!

The key factor, which is not part of normal financial planning is capping expenses through planned profit or savings. Once we had initiated the process, we could easily recoup our lost time. The added bonus has been that through continuing to use this method of financial planning, we have also bought ourselves an additional 3 years of time!

Aspen signing off, looking like a cat that got the cream!

Andalucian Blue Natural Behaviour

An Andalucian Blue hen

An Andalucian Blue hen

At Semilla Besada it has been fascinating watching the natural behaviour of the chickens.    There is the social order, the language, and the differences between the sexes.

For instance, most of us are used to the phrase ‘pecking order’, which originated from observations made about the way in which chickens organise their community.   Those with the most confidence become dominant in the flock, and they maintain their position by pecking any other chicken of lower status.   The older chickens will dominate until younger ones gain in confidence and start to move up in status through challenging the dominance of the others.   Sometimes a hen never seems to move off the ‘bottom rung’, as was the case with our first ever mother.   Although she was the largest bird in the flock, she had a sedate personality, except when it came to protecting her young, and always seemed to be pecked into the lowest status.   When a hen becomes ill, she will also lose her status and may never regain it, even if she recovers.

The cockerel is the most dominant member of the flock, and will use the action of mounting (mating) the hens, to enforce this dominance.   He can protect about 10 hens effectively, and will be constantly rounding them up, and mounting them to re-establish their membership of his flock.   A cockerel can mate up to 30 times a day, which has implications for flock size and management.   If a cockerel mounts a hen too often, he can cause feather damage which results in the hen having bald patches on her back and sides.

Chicken language is also complex.   The cockerel will have a range of sounds which mean anything from “I’ve found a tasty tidbit” to “Be on the alert”.   He also uses a different sound when approaching a hen to mount (mate) her.    The hens have a general language, and sometimes will develop their own signature which enables me to recognise the different hens.

However, when they rear their young, they make a regular, single note call to ensure that the chicks always know where they are.   The chicks, similarly, are always ‘cheeping’ for the same reason.   When the mother finds some tasty piece of food, she will make a excited, repetitive single note call and all the chicks will hurry to where she is.

As the chicks grow up, the conventional way to determine the sexes is by the size of the comb that develops on the ‘forehead’ of the bird.    The larger the comb, the greater the likelihood it will be a cockerel.   However, after about 10 weeks, the cockerels develop a ‘trilling’ call which is very appealing and quite song-like.   It is only after they are 6 months old, that they begin to crow.

Of course, this behaviour relates to the Andalucian Blue chicken, and there maybe variations between the breeds.   A useful book about the domestic behaviour of domestic animals is entitled simply that:  The Behaviour of Domestic Animals by Baillière Tindall and Cox.

Aspen signing off from Semilla Besada, on a sunny winter day

Acequia (irrigation channel)

At Semilla Besada, we still use the irrigation system that was laid down by the Moors in the 11th century.

David clearing debris from the acequia

David clearing debris from the acequia

Some even say that this method of bringing water from the river to dryland farms was developed by the Romans.   The Spanish word for such a channel is acequia.   The name of the acequia that we use is the Encinillas and runs along about a 6km contour of the mountain to our land.   Above this system is the Acequia Alta, and below the Acequia Mescarina.   Most family farms will have water rights that go with the title deeds of the property.   We have 6 hrs of water rights each week, but this drops to one and a half hours in the height of the summer, when there is water rationing.

The use of this irrigation system has been in place so long that, everything now relies on its continuance in order to survive:  the plants, the springs and the people.   Each week David will go up to the river and open and close sluice gates in order to bring the Lanjarón river water into the Acequia Encinilla.   This channel is used by 6 families, although at one time there would have been about 50 families using this system, and a lot more water.   Once the water is running in the acequia, David will walk ahead, clearing any obstacles to ensure a swift passage to our land.   Once it reaches the area called El Pecho, it divides into three:  one channel continues to Semilla Besada, the other to our goatfarmer neighbour, Paco, and the other to the reservoir of an English neighbour some 3kms down the mountain.

Using this system highlights the need for co-operation and consideration.   Without Paco’s 36hrs of water rights, we would never get irrigation water during the summer drought.   It takes anything up to 4hrs for the water to reach our land, which is greater than our allocated water rights’ time!

Cotinus coggyria (Venetian sumach, Smoke Bush)

Smoke Bush flowers

Smoke Bush flowers

The perennial nursery at Semilla Besada, has trialled many hundreds of dryland plants over the years.   One, which has established well is Cotinus coggyria, otherwise known as Smoke Bush or Venetian Sumach.   It is a large deciduous shrub from southern Europe and Asia.   It’s mature height is normally 5m, and here it has reached 3.5m in 9 years.   It produces pink, plume-like flowers in the summer, and red leaves in the autumn.   Traditionally it has been used in the tanning industry and a yellow dye can be obtained from the shoots.   It is a good bee and hedging plant, and likes full-sun and a well-drained soil.   It is hardy to -23C.   We have found with deep watering over the winter/spring months, it needs no futher water during the summer drought.

www.holisticdecisions.com website updated

Just to let all of you avid readers out there that we have just uploaded a new version of our website.

Entry page for www.holisticdecisions.com

Hopefully it simpifies navigation and makes it clearer what we do and offer.

Please check it out at http://www.holisticdecisions.com and let us know any comments that you may have, positive or negative!



Drying Mushrooms

One of the benefits of having grazing animals is the edible field mushrooms (Agaricus bisporus) that

Preparing mushrooms for drying

Preparing mushrooms for drying

appear in the grassland in the Olive grove.   Grasslands evolved with grazing animals, as did many other diverse plant and animal life, and field mushrooms like the conditions supplied by grassland and grazing animals.

Eating a freshly picked, naturally grown, organic mushroom pretty is a gourmet experience which we relish in the autumn.   However, an important part of living sustainably at Semilla Besada is preserving produce for winter use.   Selecting the best specimens, we simply wipe the cap and remove only that part of the stalk that cannot be cleaned.   The mushroom is cut into slices about 5mm thick and placed on a drying tray, which is then placed in the outside drying frame, or on top of the dutch airer in the kitchen.   Once dried they are stored in glass jars.   They will last throughout the winter and are a wonderful addition to soups and stews during the winter.

Aspen signing off on a misty autumn day in the Alpujarras