Yesterday we enjoyed checking out the lovely job our friend Simon did of implementing a simple VEG Chook system and enclosed veggie patch we designed...

Here's the (very simple and quick) design:

The chook house

Simon inspecting the wicking beds

The enclosure (temporarily enclosing Dan & Simon's two little girls)

And a little youtube of how it all finished up - nice one!

For the next little while, each month we will introduce you to a different VEG team member, kicking off with Will Pullin. 

VEG’s Dan bumped into Will in 2009 when they found themselves digging swales together on a permaculture project in southern Uganda (See the project blog and a youtube).  Sweating away in the tropical heat, Dan made a mental note along the lines of “this guy works harder and with more enthusiasm than anyone I ever met, imagine if he would come and work with us in Melbourne!”

Will in Uganda last thing 2009 showing some locals around (VEG's Dan is the skinny guy on the left)

To VEG’s great fortune this mental note translated into reality and Will moved to Melbourne to join VEG in early 2011.

Will has been integral to VEG ever since and we don’t know what we would have done without him.  Will is the most punctual person we know, despite often having ridden his bike over 40 km to get to work, sometimes days after completing a triathlon (where he tends to be near the front of the pack).  He never forgets his irrepressible smile, and brings enormous care and attention to all he does.  You can see a youtube of Will talking through VEG job here and some more below (the last of which has had over 5000 views!).


Alongside Matt Missen (aka the missen link), Will (aka willpower - sometimes we say with Will's willpower we will prevail ;-)) currently manages the bulk of VEG’s edible garden implementation projects, working Tues-Thurs each week.


The 1000-Watt Smile!

He makes a mean chook system and is increasingly designing & quoting the jobs he manages.  Many of our customers have enjoyed Will’s presence in their garden, and are regularly amazed with what he can achieve in a day.  The only difficulty we have had with Will is trying to get him to stop for more than 10 minutes for lunch!

On a job threading water pipe through a pergola...


Matt, Dan, Will & Carey from VEG'S Implementation Division

Will plans to return to his native Newcastle in a year or so, and we are delighted to be exploring some rather exciting ways we can continue to work together closely, but more on that some other time.

In addition to being the high-energy ethically sourced super food in the VEG muesli bar, Will has worked for some years with the Port Phillip Eco-centre in St Kilda where among other roles he has helped manage their veggie garden and revegetate a park under western gate bridge.  On Sunday July 14 2013 Will will be running a Veggie Gardening Workshop at the Ecocentre. If you are in the St Kilda area get on down there, do some learning, support the event and support Will!

Thanks Will for being part of VEG and for lifting our bar with your commitment, integrity, humility and unlimited positive energy.  It is an honour to have you with us on this stretch of the journey, and having the chance to work and grow together with you will without question be one of the best memories of the VEG experience some day, far in the future, when we look back at all this from our rocking chairs.

Note: When we run out of team members to profile we are going to move onto some of our customers, so be warned!


Some more youtubes of Will at large

We have just put up a bunch of new courses - beginners guide to chooks, VEG intro to organic veggie growing, and yes, that's right, back by popular demand, a new Viva la Ferment Fever workshop in Melbourne! Hoorah! Also our spring permaculture design course is filling up pretty quick - is only about 4 spots left so don't say we didn't warn you ;-). As for Adam's edible weeds walks, well they take the cake for our most popular course - edible weeds being all the rage these days! But seriously edible weeds taste better in the context of a good chook system, a great veggie patch, some kick-ass ferments in the kitchen, and of course some permaculture design skills under your belt...

Here's a short clip with some of our just-finished PDC participants talking about the experience, followed by some of our favourite photos from the recently finished first ever VEG Permaculture Design Certificate (PDC).  Thanks Bek, Lex and especially Amanda Leach for your wonderful shots.  

The PDC was an overwhelmingly positive experience for us (and for the participants)!  Registrations for our Spring PDC are now open! Starting Sept 20th.



Yesterday Dan from VEG moved his portable poultry netting (sourced from our friends at HeenanDoherty as ChookNet). At a relaxed pace he moved 50 metres of fence in 10 minutes.  The beauty of this stuff is that you can easily change the size, number and shape of your chook runs at a whim giving you huge flexibility in managing your system.  Check it out here:

In the youtube Dan doesn't mention that if you want to you can electrify graze net to keep out foxes and bears etc. In Dan's case he prefers not to risk zapping his kids so just locks the chooks up in their VEG Chook House at night: see his cheap trick for doing so from the comfort of his lounge room here.

On April 14 2013 VEG's first-ever PDC group visited Dehesa Felix, which is the small farm property of Darren J.Doherty, Lisa Heenan, and family, near Bendigo, Victoria, Australia.  As part of the day moving around the property, Darren explained in very easy-to-understand language his understanding of how we can go about building soil with grasses and animals as co-partners.  We transcribed some of what Darren had to say and make it available here with his kind permission.

Darren (saying 'what up', and) speaking to VEG PDC group April 14 2013 (Photo credit: Guenther Andraschko)

“…how it works is that your plants make your soil.  What happens is that each of these grasses when it’s living or alive is taking sunlight, mixing that with carbon dioxide, and then splitting that up and turning it into water and turning it into oxygen and turning it into sugar – carbohydrate.  Now a lot of that sugar is being let go by the plant, because the plant is gardening for itself.  It has a microbial community, which it is responsible for feeding.  That’s the whole co-evolution of all of this, that you’ve got these plants, which are getting rid of this excess carbohydrate, in the form of polysaccharides, excluding that out of the root system, and then feeding that to the microlife in the soil.  So it’s a sugar party down there.

Then, as I call it, underground composting occurs – a mouth eats that juice, and then it excretes it.  It’s in a liquid form, so it gets excreted as very broken down carbon, very stable, which is called humus.   That’s the sort of thing that’s going on in here. So we want to encourage grasses as they’re the most efficient at doing that, because they don’t hold onto it – they don’t make a tree. Like a tree, it’s doing this, but most of the carbon it’s storing is in the tree, or in the root system, about 50 percent actually. That’s why when you dig up trees you don’t have much soil underneath them. 

Photo credit: Lex Richards

The great agricultural or cropping regions of the world were not forests. They were perennial grasslands, by and large, or savannah country.  So we’re using grasses and I’d invite you to do the same.  Like a lot of people will cover their grass – they’ll come in and they’ll sheet mulch it or something like that, over a very large area, and then still don’t have much soil.  Then they bring in carbon.  So the best thing for you to do, is if you need an instant garden make a no dig. You don’t need a very big area to do that, to get the area you need for your own vegetable production and consumption, but for the rest of the area, if you’re trying to improve it, actually enhance and promote grass growth.  You will not get any better carbon sequestration and soil building system than perennial grasslands.

Now you can do this with your lawn. If you have a lawn out the front and you go ‘okay in two years time I want to put in a fruit tree,’ or ‘I’ve been to see Dave Jacke’ and you’re all excited about forest gardens, you want to put a forest garden in.  Well what you need to do, is you need to build some soil, because at the moment you’re running around with the lawnmower and you’re doing like what a bloody kangaroo does, or someone overgrazing with cattle does, you’re keeping the root system short, because there’s a direct relationship between the root system depth and the leaf height.

So if you only have grass that’s this high, it’s like having a house that needs ten kilowatts of power, and you’ve only a got a five kilowatt system.  So you’re in deficit, in energy deficit.  It’s the same with grasses. If you keep your grasses low, well then you keep your root system low, and that’s what causes you soil to be shallow, and for it to be compacted.  So, the best thing for us to do is physically take out that compaction, you can do that with your garden fork, or one of these broad forks, you can find these patterns like we have here, you come in with your broad fork, give it a little lever back, it’s slow, but your area is small.  Take out the compaction, then let your grass grow.  You let it grow, don’t mow it til lit comes to flower.  All the weeds growing in there, don’t pay attention to what’s in there, it doesn’t matter what type just let it get to flowering.  What happens is, when you let a plant get to flower, Yeomans said when you graze or cut grasses or pastures at that stage, then you stem the reproductive urges of the plant. So what happens then is that the plant goes into some kind of shock.  You go from having big, full, pumping leaves, and full production system of carbon, liquid carbon going into the soil, into the soil, to nothing.  Because now the plant’s going into the survival.  An animal’s come along and eaten it, it’s like just getting rid of all those solar panels, therefore the leaves aren’t there to support all the roots.  So the roots fall off, and what happens then? You get 'underground composting' as I call it.  All of the organisms in the soil then get into all that stuff, and then convert that into some sort of organic carbon.

Photo credit: Dan Palmer, near Whakatane, NZ

So then, this is the really critical part, is that you have got then let that recover.  Normally, if you don’t have irrigation, it might not recover, because the rain stops and there’s no water to keep life recovering so that’s the end of it and it comes up next year.  So that’s what we do, we keyline plow or broadfork, let the grasses grow up, cut them, mow them, eat them, and then, come back the next year and do the same thing but now, when we take out the compaction the root system is following the loss of compaction and the plants are starting to exhibit their physiological potential.  Of all these plants here very few of them are exhibiting their physiological potential, because of compaction, or other limiting factors.

So when it comes to things like couch grass for example, couch grass, bent grass, kikuyu, all of these species, are all rhizome species that love compacted soil. Love it.  So as you take out that compacted soil do you think it’s suitable for the couch anymore? It’ll still be there as a component, but what now happens is you get a succession to other species which can then dominate the couch, or the kikuyu, or whatever else.  So you’ve got to change the way you think about these things and work very much with succession – it’s a really important thing to get your head around and to use these techniques to enhance that prospect. Because isn’t so much of what we want to do here about establishing potential? Or enabling potential? In all of us, and all of our systems etc? So once you understand things then you can do just that.

So that’s what we have done in part here.  We haven’t used any animals unfortunately… One of the reasons we like to use animals because instead of this getting cut, and diesel being burned, this gets cut by a mouth, a non-mechanical mouth, it goes through another composting, then comes out as this beautiful compost… Cows are fantastic; they are the best soil-building co-partners there are. The reason why is that they are so inefficient.  The reason why is that the bigger the animal the more inefficient it is. The most efficient animals are the smallest. So bacteria are super efficient. They need very little energy, so their energy ratio is much more efficient. That’s why algae for biofuel production is going to be so much better that any of the plant based stuff, because you’re dealing with very very small organisms, they’re very energy efficient. 

Photo credit: Dan Palmer, near Whakatane, NZ

When you get a cow, a cow is a bloody big animal, it is two square metres, and a cow eats between 9 and 20 kilograms of dry matter per day, 75 percent of which comes out its bum. So it doesn’t absorb a lot, cause it uses so much energy just to stand up. Like an elephant, my god, such an inefficient animal!  A cows drinks between 40 and 80 litres of water a day.  So where does that go?  Can you see the method in our madness here?  If we’re concentrating these animals, and we’re moving them around, what have I just done?  I’ve watered it with liquid manure!  What if I feed the animal minerals?  Everyone here you’ve had vitamin capsules, you go, and you can smell your minerals that you haven’t absorbed [in your urine]!   These minerals now because they’re in liquid they are biologically available.  So you start to do this, this is why I’m very excited to have animals, because I now know I am going to have this really big boost in mineral cycling that’s going to happen here, whether it’s a guinea pig, a rabbit, a cow, a sheep, or whatever, you’re going to have this happen. 

Now you all realise that poultry don’t pee, because they have a cloacha.  So their poo and wee is mixed together.  So it’s a bit of different thing – you won’t get an irrigation system out of a chook.  But goats, cows and sheep are all ruminant animals, they have multi-chambered stomachs, and so they are very adept at reprocessing quite poor quality materials, and then the manure that comes out the back is of a very high quality.  The cows are the best because it doesn’t roll away. 

Now imagine I had ten cows, and the grass was up a bit higher, say we are in spring time and the grass gets to about 60 cm.  I have this little area fenced off and they are in here for one day, what’s it going to look like at the end of the day?  It is going to be covered in manure, and urine everywhere, magnificent concentration of cycled biomass and water that I’ve got from this site.  Then what happens?  I’m in the next cell. What happens here now? What’s the succession that follows?  Flies are going to come in, all the bugs, dung beetles will be here, birds will be here, stacks of magpies and goodness knows whatever else. They’ll come. 

Photo credit: Dan Palmer, near Whakatane, NZ

We’ll bring the chickens three days later, because at that stage the maggots have formed – the fly larvae from the flies they have come in and deposited.  No we’ve got a protein feast for the omnivore which comes through.  What does the chicken do?  Scratches!  Right so it scratches all of those large (manure) masses down, and spreads it.

Photo credit: Dan Palmer, Heathmont, Victoria

Like a farmer gets a harrow behind a tractor and breaks it all down. We don’t need to do that we can use a partner called a chicken.  So they’ll do that. Now what happens?  All of those particles get smaller, the smaller the particle the quicker they’re going to be reintroduced to the soil.  We are going to accelerate therefore the whole process of soil creation here once that occurs so I’m pretty excited about that”

Darren J Doherty of HeenanDoherty speaking to a VEG PDC group April 14 2013

In permaculture design we are keenly interested in how water moves through a landscape, and how we can intervene in that movement to increase the duties of water in the landscape and ensure it is a positive, life and soil building presence rather than an eroding or destructive presence.

Anyways, yesterday Dan was hanging out in his backyard when he noticed a beautiful water harvesting and directing lanscape nestled within the bark of an old oak tree:

David Holmgren checking out the oak tree a few months back. Note the very productive loquat producing in heavy shade underneath the oak!

Thanks to Darren for this short clip explaining a little of what our upcoming holistic management decision making and permaculture two-day workshop (June 1st & 2nd) hopes to achieve and who it is relevant for (anyone interested in either permaculture or holistic management).

We did a design for Ken and Jenny in Rosanna a few years back now (view larger version of design here):


As you can see a core theme of this design is serious fruit, vegetable and egg production.  Here is a photo shortly after we finished installing the VEG Beds. As an aside, underneath these vegie beds is a large swimming pool that forms part of the summer cooling system for the house. Interesting stuff and a great way to make use of a swimming pool ;-).

Anyways, getting to the point of this article, of the seven raised beds we put in (all about 4m long by 1.4m wide by 40cm high), one was wicking.  A few weeks back Ken and Jenny got in touch letting us know that the production and the reduced work of the wicking bed was so substantial that they wanted to not only have us convert the six non-wicking beds to wicking, but they wanted a further five wicking beds installed.  They said that the wicking bed has effectively not required any watering except in the hottest weather when it needed a weekly top-up.  Healthy veggies with weekly water during the extremes of a Melbourne summer is a not bad gig!

There is a lot of interest in wicking beds lately, and so we thought we'd talk through the technical details of what we did in this case.  Think of this as more as a guide to some of the things you need to think about as opposed to a rigid template to copy.  We actually usually do wicking beds slightly differently, but in this case we decided this was the best solution.

Here we are getting started on retrofitting the existing six non-wicking beds to be wicking...


And getting into it...

From left Matt, Michael and Will


Here is the plumbing assembly we used in this case.


Moving in closer let's go through what's happening here.  So the pipe sticking up in the air is both the water inlet pipe you use to top up the bed when the reservoir of water beneath the soil runs low, and you can use to visually inspect the water level.  Now let's go through what happens when you stick a hose into the end of the pipe sticking up and turn it on.  The water flows straight down the (55mm diameter) pipe, around the 90 degree bend and straight into 50mm diameter slotted aggy pipe. Slotted as in full of holes, designed to leak like a sieve.  This aggy pipe will sit above the rubber pond liner we put in next.  The pond liner in turn will sit above the white pipe running along the base of the bed.  

This pipe is an overflow, designed to take excess water from this, and two other beds, to the fruit trees in the adjoining orchard (with water our philosophy is waste not want not!). We can do this with gravity, as the beds are slightly higher than the orchard. As the water continues to flow, however, the pond liner, and the basalt fines (little rocks) about to be within it, will start to fill up (as per the next photo).

When the water level reaches the height of the tee-piece you can see, the reservoir is full, and any further water (including surplus rain) then exits via the tee-piece overflow pipe, and on to the fruit trees. This means it is impossible to overfill the bed (and drown any veggies in it)...


Here you can see the rubber liner, the basalt fines, and the water level just before it starts overflowing. Ideally you want to be between this point...


And this point, when the water starts overflowing....


In this next photo, with the wicking reservoir installed, we've simply rolled out a layer of geotextile landscaping fabric and then started refilling the bed with soil.

Within 24 hours the water (and the minerals in the basalt dust amongst the fines) had started wicking up into the soil and the beds were lovely and moist, ready for planting.  In this case we had a water/basalt layer of about 15cm and a soil layer of about 35cm.

In case any of that wasn't clear, for your interest here are some old plans of a slightly different past method we have used, with a drainage option which is a bonus if you can swing it (over time the water can get a little over-nutrified so good to be able to dump it then start again):

And a link to some older blog posts on fixing a damaged wicking bed, a community wicking bed install we did (see part two here), a permablitz where two VEG wicking beds were installed, and one of our first-ever wicking beds back in 2010...

Also if you want some guidance or a hand to build wicking beds, then you need only ask.  We have seen many cases of people putting a lot of effort into wicking beds only to find they turn out to be leaking beds, so we really recommend getting your head around the critical considerations first, and if you are making more than one, try it out for a bit before making the others.  That said, have fun and good luck on your wicking adventures!

On April 14 2013 the current VEG PDC group spent the day with Darren J Doherty of Heenan Doherty at his family's Dehesa Felix property near Bendigo.  Here are a few photos from our visit...

We arrived on the evening of April 13th just in time to set up tents before grabbing a bite (thanks Carey & Jayney!)...

And enjoying the campfire...

In the morning we starting with some physical movement with Peaceful Warrior and support team member Lex...

Before a bit of brekky...

Introductions, then an introduction to the property and the day's topic of water from Darren, including the statement "if you invite water into your property, you want it to be a controlled guest."...

Before some strolling, scratching, and sniffing...

Around the property, which is about two years into development...

Checking out tree establishment strategies (for more info see this youtube)...

Humanure treatment system...

Young tree systems (with portable shade until the trees get bigger!)

And beautiful house dam...

Leaving under a double rainbow after a wonderful day of learning from one of the best in the game...