The Permablitz

I’m a creature of habit. And in a permaculture program like this one, centered on observation and tied to the seasons, I notice the rhythm of my routine expanding and contracting to fit the days: a year of breaths measured in the cycles of nature. Now in the waning days before the winter solstice, we’re facing that thing we’ve collectively looked forward to with excitement and a bit of trepidation – our final design presentations.

For the final piece of our Permaculture Design Methods, Process and Mapping class, each of us has been paired with a community organization in need of permaculture design assistance. In the classroom, exchanging ideas while hunched over sheets of vellum paper, I’m struck by the differences between our partner organizations: schools, a restaurant, a farm, a neighbourhood group; some urban and others rural; some for-profit and others not. Likewise, the design approaches we toss around run the gamut from small to large-scale water- and energy-system installs, to silvopasture and alley cropping proposals, to simple touches like rounding off the ends of raised beds to catch the eye of passers-by.

The rear seating area at the project site is currently covered in road base; the proposed design calls for mulching the pathways with wood chips in order to build soil. Some of the existing raised beds will be replaced with longer-lasting ferrocement beds; others will be raised by roughly one foot in height and planted with fast-growing annuals.

One of my classmates was paired with a fledgling farm market near the Victoria airport. Located on an acre and a half, the enterprise has evolved into something of a buy-local hub, with a brewery, bakery, and bistro sharing space with orchard trees and a parking lot dotted with garden beds and roaming animals. More beds spill behind the building into the café’s rear seating area, supplying much of the produce used for the bistro’s daily offerings.

But the site is decidedly hot and dry – formerly home to a dairy farm, and then a plant nursery, most of the grass has been replaced somewhere along the way with chalky road base that captures and holds the heat from the Saanich sun. On this flat expanse of land it makes for a proper heat trap. The current owners reported that their annual greens suffered this summer, and on our first visit the young fruit trees planted in a ribbon along the front fence were looking limp.

(L-R): A bridge next to the pond at the south fenceline, leading towards the proposed hops hedgerow; chickens scratching in front of their trailer; the new brewery operating at the project site.

There are some shady pockets: a clutch of raised beds on the east side of the building, a stout rear storage shed that casts a generous shadow, and a large overhead trellis that calls out for some vining grapes. But on the whole, it’s Mediterranean plants that will thrive here. My classmate suggests some: Desert king figs, olives, and kaffir lime would perform well if given some winter cover. A cold-hardy yuzu (Citrus junos) or some stone fruit trees planted in pots would appreciate the microclimate behind the building. Herbs like sage, thyme, rosemary, and lavender are good candidates for a garden here, too.

Because the site has high foot traffic during business hours (and in order to facilitate ease of maintenance and harvesting for the staff), my classmate proposes maintaining the wide pathways between the raised beds, but sheet mulching the area to build soil and retain moisture rather than keeping the uninviting road base. Raising the existing beds by a foot or so will permit soil, mulch, and needed amendments to be added before some resilient, carbon-sequestering edible perennials are planted.

Discussing project options over coffee and yerba mate in the outdoor seating area.

Ferrocement beds like those we saw at Chris Adams’ permaculture oasis earlier this year would make for a longer-lasting solution, and could be installed strategically at the most highly-trafficked areas; fitting some of the raised beds with polyethylene hoops and shade cloth would provide a wider range of growing options (and happier plants). The horizontally-oriented beds can be planted with fast-growing annuals like sunflowers, beans, and peas; and the hot-weather herbs – along with cacti and succulents – would make good neighbours from an adjacent rockery garden.

The property is fenced and gated, although some stretches of fenceline are leaning wonkily and there’s evidence of deer browsing near the Himalayan blackberry at the front pond. My classmate suggests a native-species hedgerow along the west fence: June plum (Oemleria cerasiformis), red-flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum), and snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus) are variously edible and medicinal, and could be interplanted with deer-resistant species to ward off wildlife visits to the interior of the site. Hedgerows bring other benefits, too – as we learned this past spring from Jude Hobbs they can reduce cooling costs, buffer traffic noise, and attract insects and beneficial pollinators. They can also diversify income streams for the business by providing a source of food and medicine, and wood and flowers for selling or propagating.

Pulling grass back from around the crowns of young fruit trees in the orchard area, with the finished result after mulching shown in the centre.

But it’s the area around the front fenceline we’re especially interested in – we’ve decided to permablitz this spot. A permablitz is a day-long work party, and for this one we plan to lay some of the groundwork for my classmate’s design. He’s identified the front fenceline as a good candidate for trellised hops vines: useful for the on-site brewery, they’ll be helped along by the roaming goats, who will weed the area by grazing but will leave the hops vines alone (a tip he’s picked up from his brother the brewer).

Perhaps possessing some hops-related intuition, one of the goats stands up on the roof of its enclosure to survey us as we arrive on the morning of the permablitz. The hops hedgerow will provide shade for adjacent blueberry plantings, but further back from the fence is the orchard of slightly sad-looking saplings, still heat-stressed from the summer. To start the day, we pull back encroaching grass from the crowns of the trees, and ring them with goat bedding and a generous layer of wood chips. Companion plants like comfrey, dandelion, and yarrow can be planted in this mulch under the trees’ driplines – we did the same thing early in the year at Tiny Tree Farm, and their orchard produced abundantly this summer.

Lunch at the permablitz: soup, spaghetti, and salad, with bread pudding for dessert.

After an amazing lunch, provided jointly by the bakery and bistro, we’re back at it for the afternoon. I spend some time laying on my side, disentangling morning glory from the vining hops along the fence. An area arborist dropped off a few yards of alder chips the day before, and we soon wear a rut in the grass from shuttling wheelbarrows of chips from one end of the orchard to the other. At the end of the day, we look over our work, tired but well-fed and content. It’s a small start, but there’s a lot of promise here at the bustling market in the shadow of the airport.

A goat surveys the permablitz activity from atop its house.
The “orchard walk” area after the student-led sheet mulch is complete. The young fruit trees received a ring of bark mulch, and will receive companion plants such as comfrey, dandelion, yarrow planted alongside them.

Words and photos by Dylan Roberts, a student in the Permaculture Design and Resilient Ecosystems Diploma at Pacific Rim College.