My mum has had an allotment for a while, she likes the idea of it and likes to grow her own food, but found it hard to get down there often enough to make it work. This led to a spiral of erosion of not putting enough time in and so things not working and it all becoming a big extra stress and burden. As I had not long ago done my permaculture design course and wanted to have a go at putting it in to practice and because I am always on the look out for good, personalised, low cost presents I offered to do my mum a permaculture design of her allotment for her Christmas present (2012). This suggestion went down well and so the process started.
My mum lives in Buckinghamshire in a small town and the allotments are 20 mins walk/5 mins drive from her house. She actually only has half an allotment. The person who originally had the other half was enthusiastic about permaculture and after many complaints from the allotment committee he got asked to leave because his allotment was too messy.
My mum’s job is running an eco-centre at the local school, it was only established a couple of years ago and so they are in the process of getting a veg garden up and running there.
Design Framework evaluation: SADIMET
I used the SADIMET design framework for this design as it was the one that I had been taught on my PDC, so had some supporting resources for and also I knew it was orientated towards land based designs.
I found that the SADIMET framework worked well for this kind of design, but I did not have enough knowledge or information available to me to be able to implement it properly. Some phases definitely worked better than others; the Analysis and Implementation sections did not really feature much in this design!
Tools used evaluation
|Client Interview||Got lots of useful information||I didn’t really pay full attention to everything I found out|
||Not easy to incorporate into a write up||It works for some people and not others, particularly important to remember with clients|
|Hand drawn base map||
|Reflective questions||Helps to structure and focus my reflections||Do they leave room for flexibility?|
||Shared permaculture library? eBooks?|
- Handouts from my PDC with Sector39 – Mostly outlines very little practical detail
- The Earthcare manual by Patrick Whitefield – very useful for helping me to get my head around the ‘permaculture’ of allotments, I didn’t make full use of the design advice section
- The Plants for a Future online database – See reflections in table above
- Permaculture Design: A step by step guide – Lots of useful information I wish I had had at an earlier stage in the design.
Information on the content of the design is written in this format.
Reflections on the design content and process are written in this format.
I started the process by carrying out a Client Interview with my Mum. Unfortunately I do not have an exact record of the questions I asked and the responses, but I know that I put them together from the information in the handouts from my PDC as well as a little bit from the design section in The Earthcare Manual. They were based around assessing vision, resources, constraints, time frame, values, observed experiences and leaks. I carried out the Client Interview fairly informally at my Mum’s house, sitting on the sofa and we probably had tea and cake although I cannot remember for certain! I asked questions and then wrote down the answers.
A lack of recording means I cannot so easily learn lessons from this Client Interview.
When reflecting on this design whilst reading Aranya’s book I realised that he recommends doing the site visit first, so that you can ask about questions that arise from that and also you can see the site fresh, before getting influenced by the clients opinions. It was already too late from me on this though as I had talked to my mum about the allotment before.
I didn’t specifically think about the people care element of the Client Interview, but as it was informal it was fairly good anyway.
We then went down to the allotment and I carried out a basic survey as well as helping my mum with some tasks that needed doing. I forgot to take down any useful surveying tools apart from a pencil and paper so I did a basic sketch map from eye and then paced out a few of the distances on the site. I also noted down what was growing where at the time and my Mum’s views on whether they should stay there or be moved or would go altogether. I also had more informal discussions with my mum at this point.
I didn’t even try and convert my stride to distances I just drew it up using the stride numbers as a metric so that it was the correct ratio. This however, caused problems when designing and drawing the final design up as I was then trying to work out how many beds I could fit in and didn’t really know. Hence it didn’t quite fit in reality! So lesson – always measure properly! I didn’t even do a soil test or ask my mum much about the soil..
I didn’t take any photos at this stage, which is frustrating as I cannot now remember what it was like. Lesson – take lots of photos!
I took all of this information, restructured it and did some very basic analysis on it and then drew it up into a basemap, which you can look at below. I then presented this to my Mum and asked her to check whether she agreed with it and whether there was anything that she wanted to add. You can just about see the additions written in a different pen. My mum found it useful to see the information analysed and written down in this way as it made it easier to see the whole picture.
Having now read Aranya’s book I realise that I could have done a much more sophisticated analysis of the functions of the design and converting them to SMART goals or similar would have been useful in further clarifying what we were trying to achieve and letting me measure that progress now.
Design (or Decisions)
For the design stage I started by reading the allotments section in The Earthcare Manual, which was a very useful starting point. I wrote lots of notes of relevant points.
I found it quite challenging to know where to start as it was a fairly blank canvas and relatively uniform, no slope, very little shade, similar soil throughout. I attempted to ‘zone’ it, but found this challenging, concluding that they areas around the paths and shed were Zone 2 and the rest was zone 3. I also decided that I should try and include some zone 5 in the design.
I researched some direct solutions to some of the challenges, such as how to prune raspberries. And I did a mind map of possible ways of blocking some of the leaks and addressing some of the challenges.
I then pulled together all of the different ideas to see whether there was an obvious starting point. In the end I just decided to go for rows of straight beds, as one of the things my Mum was worried about was the allotment looking too unconventional or messy. I decided that these were best made by digging out the paths and heaping the soil on to the beds (I think mostly because it was something permaculture people did, not because I had a proper understanding of why it was a good idea) and using the recommended spacing of 0.6m paths and 1.2m beds so that you can reach to the middle of them.
Another main decision I made was to suggest growing more perennial vegetables, because they ultimately require less work. As neither I nor my Mum had a great knowledge of them I did quite a lot of research on different possibilities in the Plants For a Future (PFAF) online database and compiled a big list of possibilities, with a little info on how to propagate, when to harvest and what bit to eat! I put this information as well as a link to the PFAF fact sheet on each plant into a spreadsheet for giving to my Mum. I also tried to find a list of possible suppliers for these.
I put together a (very short!) factsheet on polycropping. I intended to put together a factsheet on raspberry care, but I didn’t manage in time for Christmas and then it never happened afterwards.
I drew up my design by hand and explained the reasoning and more land-based parts of it in mind maps around the edge. I chose this method because I wanted it to look pretty as it was a Christmas present and also because I enjoy drawing!
It was quite challenging doing this design as I didn’t have very much growing experience myself so I was trying to work it all out from theory. Due to this it was probably not that ideally suited to being productive! I was aware of this limitation at the time, but as it was my Mum I didn’t think she would mind too much being a guinea pig, and she had more of the experience in growing veg than me anyway. In hindsight I should have either used my mum’s knowledge and experience more (and got over the fact that I didn’t want to show her the design before Christmas!) or structured the design so that she could make use of her experience within it. I think I did try to do the latter, but it didn’t work very well!
I also gave my mum a no-dig gardening book for Christmas that I found in a charity shop, because I hoped that that would explain better than I could some of the techniques I was suggesting.
I put together a (rather brief) implementation plan (below), but it was more a list of tasks to do and I never managed to put times against it.
Implementation Plan provided to client
- Prune and move raspberries into lines (see info sheet)
- Strawberries – take cuttings, clear and replant (when?)
- Make the paths and beds
- Mulch – get inert organic matter and newspaper, mulch potato bed & perennial veg beds
- Get dogwood cuttings, beautiful flowers and wild flowers
- Transplant salad/ herbs
- When need to plant annuals??
I wasn’t really very clear on how to go about implementing it and therefore I didn’t put much detail into the Implementation plan. Breaking it down much more into tasks and dates, would probably have helped in keeping the momentum going and making the design easier to follow.
I also went and did a couple of hours with my Mum in early January to help to get it started. I remembered to take photos this time, which show the context of the site as well as the start of the paths we were digging out and filling with straw.
After this I had little involvement, due to moving to Shropshire and therefore the implementation was left to my Mum.
The parts of the design that my Mum did implement were:
- Dug out half the paths and lined them with straw (12th Jan)
- Moved some of the raspberries (12th Jan)
- Dug more channels to make the annual veg beds and planted potatoes (using mulch method), carrots, beetroot, beans and chard. (spring)
- Sowed wildflower seeds near the Jostaberries (spring)
- Planted some flowers for cutting (spring)
- The perennial beds still had onion and garlic in them, so weren’t dug or planted
- Put down paving slabs for the path, although without spaces for herbs as she didn’t want to have to weed it (summer)
I did not provide any guidance or plan on maintenance and as it was not fully implemented it did not get to the maintain stage.
In order to evaluate the design I started by reading through Aranya’s book and reflecting as I went along on what I could have done to improve this design and the design process using my new knowledge.
This is a summary of my reflections:
- I spent very little time observing the land and I didn’t really find much to record
- I didn’t measure the site properly so it was awkward to construct the map
- PASTE would have been a useful tool to use
- More detailed zoning and sectors would have been useful. I did it very superficially, as I didn’t have the instructions necessary to do it properly.
- I didn’t do a detailed analysis of the functions
- I would have benefited by converting the functions to SMART goals or similar
- I didn’t include much detail in the design as I was unsure myself, but this left my mum with too much unknown and uncertainty meaning the functions weren’t properly fulfilled
- I could of tried designing using the scale of permanence, so water first.
- The design needed more interconnectedness between elements and systems
- I struggled with placement of elements and the guidance in this book would have been very useful
- I didn’t spend anywhere near enough time on site to ‘vision’ and be imaginative
- Did the design miss the whole point? That you should focus on zone 1 first, so should have suggested just growing veg in garden?
- Could have involved my mum more during the design process so she understood the evolution of the design and could feedback on it, I was limited in this though by my definition of a Christmas present having an element of surprise!
- The illustration of the design did not include any context, for example a map of where the water supply is, a map of where the allotment is in relation to her house and other key locations.
- I should have only designed using systems that I was familiar with or should at least have taken this more into account and not attempted to proscribe them
- The implementation plan should have been much more detailed and contained more options and guidance on decisions.
- Creating regular realistic goals would have helped to build and keep momentum
I then carried out a kind of evaluation and debrief interview with my Mum. I put together the questions for this through reflecting on the client interview questions, the functions of the design and also just considering what I was trying to find out. We did the debrief when we were on holiday together, which worked well as we were both relaxed and removed from the situation.
The results are summarised below.
What have you done on the allotment since Christmas?
- Dug out most of the paths and raised beds and put straw down
- Planted more perennials, cutting flowers and wildflower patch
- Moved some of the raspberries and strawberries (still lots to do)
- Put down paving slabs for the path
- Grew various annuals
- Spread compost on certain areas
- Use it in such a haphazard way, often just turn up without prior planning
- Always stressful as never have enough time & feel not doing enough each time
- Watering is the thing that doesn’t happen which is essential on that soil
What yields have you gained?
- Very successful onions and garlic – used onions a lot in salads for lunch
- Strawberries good on edges of raised beds as hanging off – ones that hadn’t been moved failed completely
- Lots of chard – but get bored of it, it was tough and bitter and it went to seed
- Blackcurrants and gooseberries very good, but couldn’t get to as too much in way and bushes too close
- Don’t use much of herbs
- Comfrey in the wrong place, didn’t have time to use either
- Horseradish went bananas and I never used it
- Orache too bitter (using as salad, supposed to cook)
- Love sorrel, but found out contributes to arthritis so have stopped eating
- Not wowed by salad burnet
- Dahlias did quite well, but earwigs in them pooed on the dining room table!
- Not using stuff I produce due to lifestyle
- Small yield of salad potatoes, beetroot, cabbage, leeks, courgettes, beans and sweetpeas
- Cabbages grew beautifully until the caterpillars got them
- Raspberries failed as usual
- Invested in daisy for cut flowers but didn’t do well so going to take home and plant in garden
Any things you would change if you did it again?
- Clear out/refresh all of the raspberries and strawberries
- Manure it
- Growing potatoes on top of the ‘raised bed’ didn’t work too well as too dry
- Get the water butt working
- Put more asparagus
- Cover the cabbage
How was the design process for you?
- Method of going visiting allotment was so random that didn’t implement properly
- A full implementation plan would have been good
Have your needs or the context changed?
- Can’t utilise the veg that I grow, as essentially live on my own in terms of eating and very erratic eating plan
- Struggle to find the crops that work and that I will enjoy eating
- Almost sure going to give it up because don’t like wasting what grows, frustrated at what fails and added stress
- Doing all this somewhere else – now up and running at school
Whole Design Evaluation
What was challenging?
- Trying to design a land-based system without much experience of growing. This was especially true, because I had the deadline of Christmas to work to which meant I couldn’t spend ages researching everything in detail.
- Knowing where to start on essentially a blank canvas.
- Designing for a situation, which was arguably destined not to work due to the context it was within.
- Trying to retrospectively put together a record of what I did.
- Knowing where to go for the information I needed before I found my way into ‘the permaculture system’.
- I found the PFAF website very difficult to use and get useful information out of. I felt it was aimed at those already in the know and I didn’t have the underlying depth of knowledge to assess whether plants were suitable in the design.
What went well?
- I followed the SADIMET design process to the best of my knowledge at the time.
- I produced a design, which addressed many of the leaks and attempted to create a more diverse and resilient system. It was definitely an improvement on what was going on before.
- Going through the process helped my mum to clarify what the issues and challenges were, so even if she didn’t take action to address them she knew they were there.
- I also learnt more about perennial plants and polycultures through my research.
What would I do differently?
- Because I did most of this design before I started my diploma I have not got as detailed a record of what I did as I would like. However, there is still a lot that I can and have learnt from this.
- Fully understand a technique and it’s purpose before putting it into a design – not just putting in ‘permaculture things’ for the sake of it.
- Do a much more thorough survey of the site at the beginning.
- Be sure that I am designing the right thing. Paying attention to the ‘why’ of the client’s vision and their motivations without getting limited by their ‘what’.