Archive for the 'Dryland Permaculture Design' Category

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.

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.

Dryland Permaculture Design

At Semilla Besada one of our most useful design tools is Permaculture.   However, it is vital to understand

Grazing animals as part of a natural system

Grazing animals as part of a natural system

 the principles behind many of the widely accepted and applied practices.   The reason is that every environment will respond differently.   For example, mulching in a northern temperate or tropical environment is likely to break down in a season providing fertility and structure to the soil:  in a dryland environment mulching will oxidise on the soil surface and may even create a fire risk.   One of the principles that underpins Permaculture design is natural patterns.   We are encouraged to look at how our local environment evolved:  to discover the complex relationships that existed between the plants, insects, animals, birds, soil microbiology and so on.   When we discover the dynamics in any original natural system, we can learn to integrate our needs without unbalancing that system.

In dryland environments, more accurately described as brittle landscapes, grazing animals evolved harmoniously with all the other elements of that natural system.   In fact, they were a key-player in keeping the landscape healthy and fertile.   In brittle landscapes there is not the consistent year-round moisture to break down dead plants, so grazing animals cycle this material through their digestive systems and obligingly it on the soil surface.   This is then taken into the ground by such creatures as dung beetles, enriching the soil and providing fertility for next season’s growth.

It is insights such as these that are pivotal to Dryland Permaculture Design, and they form part of both the skill-building workshop and week-long residential seminar held at Semilla Besada.

Aspen looking forward to the next skill-building workshop entitled Introduction to Dryland Permaculture.

Dryland Permaculture

Semilla Besada is the first location in Europe that is developing Dryland Permaculture designs that are

Sheep turning grass into fertility

Sheep turning grass into fertility

appropriate to brittle landscapes.   As Permaculture enters the mainstream thinking it is becoming increasingly important that aspiring designers understand the implications of brittleness on their designs.   Unfortunately, no Permaculture Design training includes this important environmental insight or understanding of the Savory Brittleness Scale.  

So, why is it so important?   Setting land aside or leaving things to nature or completely resting land in a non-brittle environment is likely to lead to the development of a forest.   In a brittle landscape, it is likely to lead to the generation of a desert!   This is because there is not the consistent year-round moisture in brittle landscapes to break down dead vegetation and make it available for soil dwellers to take it below the surface to nurture plant life and support soil microbiology.   In the natural systems of old, grazing animals would eat dead vegetation and the microbiology of their digestion would deposit fertility on the soil surface, to be taken underground by creatures such as dung beetles.

If grazing animals are not allowed to play their part in a brittle landscape, then dead vegetation builds up,

Spread of shrubs and bare soil

Spread of shrubs and bare soil

 suffocating new growth in perennial grasses, allowing perennial shrubs to spread.   As their are no browsing animals to prune the shrubs and keep them in good health, they do not live for long.   Unfortunately, due to the lack of consistent year-round moisture there is no decaying dead vegetation on the soil surface to nurture plants above and microbes below, there is simply oxidising material, which is blow away by the wind or burnt by fire, leaving bare soil in their wake.   Bare soil is dead soil, and ultimately with erosion by sun, wind and rain, becomes a desert.

At Semilla Besada though, we have been using grazing animals in a holistically planned way, as part of our Dryland Permaculture design, and the difference between the land we manage and that we do not is striking.   The comparative locations are in the same area, with the same soil, same climate and even the same season, but the difference is startling, as witnessed by the photo below.

Foreground Semilla Besada, background neighbouring land

Foreground Semilla Besada, background neighbouring land

This photo was taken in May, and as the summer set in, the perennial grasses in between the grape vines went dormant (biscuit coloured) but the vines continued to thrive and bring life to the soil.   The landscape beyond, however, became more and more bare, with not even dead plant litter on the soil surface to mitigate the affect of the sun.   All simply because grazing animals were not being managed holistically, resulting in overall degradation of the landscape.

Aspen  heaving a sigh of relief at the arrival of the first rains last night.

Dryland Permaculture Design

Foreground Semilla Besada as compared with neighborouring land

Foreground Semilla Besada as compared with neighborouring land

Permaculture practices developed in temperate or tropical environments cannot be applied to dryland environments without a sound understanding of the principles that underpin them.   Here at Semilla Besada, we discovered this through experience.   When we moved to the Alpujarras in southern Spain, we designed and managed our land along temperate Permaculture practices.   Four years on, we had less biodiversity and more bare soil.   This was definitely not the direction in which we wanted to go!   It was then that we heard of the pivotal environmental insights of Allan Savory, and his holistic decision-making framework, Holistic Management.   We realised that our ignorance of where Semilla Besada was on the Savory Brittleness Scale, and its implications for our farm design and management.

When we shifted our focus from trying to generate a ‘forest garden’ to a ‘grazed orchard’ and introduced grazing animals, holistically managed, we quickly saw the return of Semilla Besada’s landscape to robust health.   Four years have passed and the results of our management is startling when compared with the landscape that surrounds us, which shows increasing bare ground and only supports grasses which are sown annually and fertilised with chemicals.    By contrast the foreground shows perennial grasses, which have been managed with holistic planned grazing, together with a vineyard of over 100 plants.   See the photo at the top.

Aspen

About us

Semilla Besada is the only research conservation farm in Europe, using Holistic Management® for sustainable land stewardship in brittle landscapes. 

The conservation farm in the Sierra Nevada, SpainSeventy per-cent of the world’s landmass is brittle, and it is these areas that are desertifying at a staggering 16,000 hectares (39, 520 acres) a day*.The Mediterranean is such a landscape, and yet certain pivotal insights that are successfully reversing desertification in Africa, Australia and America are unknown here.

For the first time in Europe, Semilla Besada is using this knowledge to faciliate sustainable land stewardship in brittle landscapes.



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