Permaculture is about natural cycles of life – a continuous process of beginnings and endings, of sowing and harvesting, of living and dying, of combining the best, and of ….. Taking Care. It also means closing the cycles – end what you have started! I like that concept, as it refers both to natural cycles and to our own human actions. We have almost forgotten in this world where short, fast and constantly changing prevails. Permaculture teaches us to dedicate ourselves to a full cyclical process and taking on responsibility until the end, until a new beginning.That made this permaculture experience at Quinta do Luzio in Portugal so enriching in a true ecological sense.
Ecoproject Quinta do Luzio
Quinta do Luzio, an ecological community-based project north-west of Lisbon, in between the Atlantic Ocean and the nature park of Serra de Sintra, is the place for permaculture in Portugal. Although it was established only one-and-a-half years ago, the farm has already earned its place in permaculture in Portugal. Since the start in February 2012 it has organized several workshops and encounters on permaculture, food forests, mushrooms, and a transition town course.
As in so many other ecoprojects, it is the perfect way of sharing knowledge and having many extra hands to help out with the work to be done. Quinta do Luzio is part of a growing dynamic in Portugal of various ecological initiatives, partially in response to the current economic crisis, hitting the country so hard. Also see the international community-based and gift economy event – Ajudada – held in 2013 in Portugal.
Multilingual, multi-learning, multi …
The founding members of Quinta do Luzio, Afonso, Amandine, Luis and Silvia, gave us the opportunity to learn, work and exchange know-how on many aspects of permaculture and communal living. We were about 10 people from different ages and nations: Canada, France, Belgium, Portugal, Spain, and Switzerland. Also thanks to the excellent English and heartwarming hospitality of our Portuguese hosts, this rich international mix worked out great. A multilingual group always finds the right words for plants, animals, or tools, and if needed in each person’s language – a language crash course as well!
My Cycloasis tour through France taught me that diversity is as vital to the success of a project, as it is to nature. The Quinta do Luzio members have different backgrounds and ages. They combine the work and projects at the farm with other activities outside. This is necessary for a financial basis of the project, certainly in the start-up phase, but also in these times of crisis in Portugal. The project is growing organically and by the end of 2013 it expects to have a core group of about 10 people, by then in the form of a cooperative. Afonso emphases that it is crucial that whoever joins the project is able to develop an (economic) activity which enhances the project as a whole and its local implementation, not to create more of the same or depend on others. Diversity and permaculture go hand in hand.
Our experience started with a party!
What better way to get into the right mood! The week before there had been a course on food forests, so the two groups and many other local friends joined for an excellent meal. When arriving we indicated on a board our learning goals and what skills we wanted to share with others. During these 10 days we also would divide housekeeping and cooking tasks. In the house we got familiar with some of the permaculture principles of living and working together.
After breakfast and feeding the chicken, rabbits and horse we came together in a circle in the warm morning sun for some beneficial yoga and stretching exercises with Amandine. Thereafter, we divided the tasks for that day, according to what each of us wanted to do and learn. There was more than enough to do. Just to give an idea: making fences around the gardens, remove weeds, plant seeds, work on the wood construction and stone walls of the dry toilets and shower facility, construction of a stone path, the phyto purification system (grey water),
watering the plants, painting, and of course the cooking of our daily meals. We had excellent fresh food and ingredients to our disposal and sometimes help from an excellent cook and friend of the project, Paulo. We gave the cuisine a national touch with an unexpected tasteful twist!
How to find out what soil you have?
After lunch we elaborated more on theory and learning about practices. We had an interesting discussion about Dragon Dreaming (by John Croft), a holistic method to set up a creative, collaborative, and sustainable project, using the different skills available, applying learning, and dealing with conflict. Quinta do Luzio also applied it in the initial stages with external help from a facilitator.
We learned how to determine the kind of soil you have on your land. Good quality top soil is vital to growing food and it may take years to achieve that. A simple test: take a large jar, put a sample of the soil in it (about 2/3) and then fill it up with water. Leave it for 24 hours and then watch the different layers. With a simple calculation model you then determine the type of soil; clay, brine or sand, or a mixture. A even simpler way is using a coffee filter. Poor water on the soil sample in the filter. If the water sips through fast it is sand, if it goes slow, it is clay.
In the afternoon we continued the work and sometimes finished with … a beach, of which Portugal has plenty!
In the evening we relaxed, played games, talked, made music, or had interesting cinema under the stars on a large screen. Impressive was the excellent 2013 documentary by Swiss director Markus Imhoof: ‘More than Honey’. It is a mixture of breathtaking microphotography on the bees in their habitat and hives and of compelling story telling on the fight to save bees.
Permaculture in practice
Permaculture uses natural ecosystems as a model for growing food. It is not an exact science, nor has a ‘right way to do it’. You can make it as simple or sophisticated as you like. It refers to the living knowledge and a set of principles applied to local circumstances, understanding the interactions between plants, animals, insects, microbes and organisms. The trick in permaculture is to design around what is available and apply ‘methods’ in such a way that you work with nature rather than against it. The trick is: have nature do the work! One of the key elements is creating a rich and healthy soil for plants to grow on. This reminds me of what Josine Cardon from their splendid urban permaculture garden in Belgium told me: “Women got involved in gardening as soon as they discovered that digging was not desirable”.
Multifunctional reed fences
During the experience we learned to make a fence of reed. This versatile plant was largely available on the land. It really is multifunctional. We made fences around the food gardens. Firstly, it protects the crops and young trees from the strong wind from the Atlantic Ocean and it avoids that they are covered under the sand carried with the wind. Secondly, it keeps unwanted animals out from the gardens.
Thirdly, the way we constructed these fences was to keep other animals within the fence so they cannot escape. In permaculture animals have a useful role to play in gardening. At a first stage a horse and chicken are brought in to work the soil. The horse then eats the green leaves from the reed, as it easily grows again. So, no maintenance on the fence and free food for the horse!
Furthermore, the animals leave manure which enriches the soil. Then at a later stage, pigs will ‘work’ the soil within this fence before the actual planting and sowing will start. At a later stage when the crops are growing, chicken can also be kept there for eating snails, etc. without running of.
Amandine taught us all the tricks. We learned how to harvest the reed – a ‘simple’ movement with the hands is enough to break it near the root. It is easy when you know how to do it! Then dig a ditch, place some strong reed poles and horizontal support and then start filling the ditch with reed that is cut at the length you want. First place the big ones and then fill the gaps with each time smaller once, until you get a nice dense fence.
Construction of dry toilet
Another large project was the construction of a dry toilet and shower facility. This was built with local woods and stones. Old building techniques, such as wooden joints were used. Afonso and Luis taught us many tricks on doing this and also how to work with equipment.
For instance: sharpening tools, making the joints, polishing the wood, preparing the cement with the right mix of sorts of lime and sand (depending on the flexibility needed in a wall and its place in the building), as well as how to choose the right natural stones and rocks and place them properly.
This meant a good notion of how to place them firmly without wriggling, and how to fill the holes in between the rocks with cement and finish it with a wet sponge, but also not too wet.
And as Luis reiterated, to prepare the place you work on before starting the work and clean all the equipment afterwards. I can tell you, you don’t want to use a cement mill the next day that has not been cleaned properly!
The learning curve
This permaculture journey at Quinta do Luzio made me realise again how important these experiences of living, creating and working together are for all of us. Besides the enormous knowledge you gather by putting it into practice through working on the land, construction works, cooking, etc. it is a perfect way to get to know the other, as you live so closely together.
In this ‘micro-climate’ you learn very fast about people’s biorhythms, who is a morning or evening person, the need of each person for comfort, cleanliness and convenience, how people react to self-organisation, who comes up with fun things, likes sharing, who avoids doing tasks, such as cleaning (or doesn’t see the need for it!), who takes initiative, who is skillful with tools and equipment, etc. It is also interesting to see how fast a sense of common and togetherness emerges in such a short time.
Food was central – you learn about a person’s eating (and smoking!) habits. By the way, I am surprised by the large number of smokers on the ecoprojects visited so far! We had interesting discussions regarding health effects of food, the influence of our education and the psychological needs behind our eating, smoking and drinking habits. For some, the fact that we ate so healthy (local and organic, the project is not yet self-sufficient) and all meals were prepared by ourselves was a discovery, or even a confrontation. Particularly those who are used to supermarket products and prepared meals. Changing food habits and with that a life style is a process in itself!
A permaculture experience on such a project is a steeper learning curve than any degree. The know-how, and the people of Quinta do Luzio had a lot of that, is immediately put into practice and involves all aspects of real life. It relates to the way we live together, we respect the earth and use its resources responsibly, the way we plan and design our living environment wisely, treat others with respect, and take on responsibility for our own actions.
But most of all, this permaculture experience was fun! Connecting to people from different walks of life and using our body (I felt all my abdominal muscles again making the reed fence!), mind and heart.
Rede Convergir is a website with a user-friendly map where you can find interesting ecological and transition town initiatives all over Portugal, complete with descriptions and contact details (in Portuguese).
A video with Bill Mollison on permaculture.
David Holmgren with the 12 principles of permaculture.
The 100 best titles on permaculture & homesteading books.