Going Bananas –

Get Some Real Banana Bread

One of the greatest challenges for building a sustainable culture is learning to eat what the climate and soil want to grow and not forcing it to produce what our culture is accustomed to eating.  During the recent ‘Hunger Period’ when Cuba was is economic turmoil, the locals grew food on street corners and in government city farms. The power of that community was celebrated yet Cubans hung on dearly to a cultural remnant called white bread. Bananas grew everywhere during that time and still they grace street corners because nobody needs to remove them. (See tips below on how to grow or remove them).

Home-grown Special

Given that most people around the world can grow bananas and most can keep hens or quail for eggs (if you can keep a cat or a dog, you can find a way to keep quail). Imagine growing and cooking pancakes from your own garden on your home-fuelled stove.

Green Banana Great Cooking

Bananas, green or yellow, make a great flour.  In addition, it is gluten-free and full of nutrients. Real Banana Pancakes are super easy. Basically use two eggs for each banana and add milks or spices to your tasting.

Use It or Share It

In our warm temperate permaculture garden we have designed some micro-climates that the bananas love. And best of all our bananas ripen in winter! Winter is usually a lean time our food forest so this abundance is enjoyed. We have thousands of bananas which we readily share. but now we know how to use up the green banana, we can enjoy more of the crop.

The other abundant crop here in winter is from the Rocoto Chilli trees.  No typical western recipe springs to mind to combine these two delicious resources. Green Banana + chillis = Cayeye and Cabeza de Gato (Colombian Mashed Green Plantain) with home-made Salsa on the side. Yum.

Green Bananas of any variety can substitute for plantain in most recipes. If you want a quick and yummy snack, you can make green banana crisps. simply slice the green banana, salt it then fry it.  This fast food will keep for weeks because it dries out crisp as it cools.  Alternatively, you can dry your bananas in a solar dryer.

Want A Banana Beer With Your Banana Fries?

The passionate and experienced researcher, Bruce French, has studied the amazing array of produce from rare and under-appreciated food plants. Before you get into the beer, find out more about the benefits of a range of banana ferments.

There are many recipes out there for banana beers. Most use a cereal crop such as maize to get it going, but anything once living will ferment. If you are keen to make pure banana beer beware it just may take a few conventional beers prior to get the stamina to like it.

Bananas are Tough

In all honesty, in good soil and mild climates, Bananas are hard to remove. If you need to remove them simply dig up the pups to give to other people, cut the main stems with a bread-knife, cover the area with an old tarpaulin, you can cover that with mulch and potted plants for a year.

Did you know?

Did you know that the banana stool is not a tree? Bananas are a herb. In fact, it is the tallest flowering herb.

Bananas are more than just a lunchtime companion. Every part of the banana is useful. For permaculture designs, the banana is a great erosion stabliser, good to grow on fast eroding banks and in gullies and shallow or intermittent water courses to slow the water down. They have a tendency to travel slowly over the years because the new pups need to grow in the shelter of their parent. Each mature banana stool will only fruit once so you can chop it down and feed it to the poultry, or a worm farm, use it as mulch or garden edge. With some practice you can cut tall fruiting stems whilst keeping the stem vertical. This way,  the bunch is not damaged as you chop. This also means you don’t need a ladder to access a big bunch.

Design To Exclude Wind

The biggest thing that will limit your crop is wind. Wind rips at their leaves, reduces the local moisture available to their roots and can spread disease. Bananas love sun-traps. In your permaculture design, sun-traps have multiple functions.

Sadly, the main threat to commercial Bananas worldwide is disease. So, check that you are not violating agricultural restrictions. These restrictions are there to limit the spread of disease.  The modern banana was predicted to become extinct by 2020, but we can all help turn that around by choosing unusual, organic and less than perfect varieties when we shop. Diversity is the key to our resilience.

And Wait, There’s More!

Nothing need go to waste from a banana plant. The leaves can be used for fencing, temporary roofing, bedding in the hen house, even as a compostable umbrella. Many people cook foods in the leaves and big leaves are a beautiful throw-away platter.  It is also possible to make paper out of the banana fibers. This video shows a school girl making banana paper.

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Top Permaculture Trees

How Can We Compare Trees?

photo taken at australian tropical foods nursery QLDAre you searching for your ultimate tree? Do you want the highest yielding, easiest to grow, most multi-functional, resilient, long living, best tasting fruit, most nutritious fruit, best timber, not-too-tall tree with fruit has no pests or disease? The search for perfection was at its height centuries ago. Our ancestors had done thousands of years of genetic selection.  But then, in the industrial era, mankind settled on a bland diet where “75 percent of the world’s food was generated from only 12 plants and five animal species”.

Our Winner Is…

Mulberry Cheesecake with edible flowers

We like abundant tasty fruit from shady, low maintenance trees. Our favourite is the Mulberry (it is a shrub in cool climates).  The branches are pliable and strong weaving material. In spring, we use the branches as barriers to stop the chicken digging up our seedlings. We also make hiding places for the chickens to escape dogs or foxes during the day. It apparently has edible leaves, (although we haven’t been hungry enough yet to taste them). They make good fodder for poultry and cattle.  The timber is useful and we use mulberry as fuel in our winter fires. The Mulberry tree is very tough. It can be coppiced or pollarded and happily conforms to the shape you desire. It is self-propagating in a mulched garden and forgiving of most vandal attacks in a city-scape.

A Yummy By-Product

mulberriesMost Mulberry trees are not used for sericulture anymore (its primary farming role).  The Mulberry was carefully genetically selected for over 5000 years to feed silkworms. The biggest advantage of this fruit for our site is that these fruits do not succumb to the destructive native fruit fly. Other wildlife, especially the water dragons, love eating mulberry and will climb the trees or patiently wait for the fruit to fall. Lucky, there is plenty to share.  Be careful not to hang your washing overnight near these fruits because the droppings from flying foxes or birds will stain your clothes. Which brings us neatly into another function – Mulberry makes a fabulous natural fabric dye.

Conservationists warn against ‘Hardy’ food trees

King parrot eating pears

If you live in an area close to fragile native forest, the Mulberry isn’t your ideal candidate because the birds will eat and poop the seeds and it could possibly displace some of your native trees. But if you live in the city and trees are in short supply there, you can enjoy your visits from the birds and know that any food you grow in the city takes pressure off existing native forests which are being felled to make way for farmland.

Prefer Amazing Taste or Amazing Packaging?

pearsMulberries are sweet and juicy. But why are they not in the shops? They have a big commercial flaw. Unlike some berries, the mulberry requires dexterity to harvest it and the fruits perish quickly.  Today, most consumers choose to buy apples (often these have been stored for years).  But we could simply stop and reach up to pick the fresh fruit that grows on the corner outside old Aunt Dolly’s house.

Multi-function: a Key Permaculture Principle

What-I-love-about-treesEach Element in the design should be used and positioned to perform a range of functions. Each plant in a permaculture design provides food, timber, mulch, shelter for the garden and house, soil conditioning, water harvesting and more.

top10 trees at silk farm NSW AustraliaBeautiful FRUIT Trees:
“So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this and this gives life to thee.”

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Get Cracking On An Egg

What good is in an egg?

Are eggs good for us and for the planet? egg n sproutsThere is a lot of debate about this and there is evidence to show that even some medical practitioners are confused about the nutritional value of eggs.

Eggs are a nutritious food. They contain 11 different vitamins and minerals in good amounts…They are also one of the few food sources of vitamin D, a nutrient many of us lack – putting ourselves at increased risk of conditions ranging from brittle bones to cancers.”

Eggs  keep you fuller for longer. This helps us go to work with a contented tummy. Go to work on an egg was an advertising slogan used by the United Kingdom’s Egg Marketing Board during the 1950s as part of more than £12 million it spent on advertising. Lets put the advertising  aside and have a look inside the modern egg.

Don’t hens produce methane?

Most land-dwelling animals, including us humans (dare we say?), produce some methaneOver 60% of total CH4 emissions come from human-related activities. [1] old_chook_n_chicks
Most people blame the cows. But are chickens contributors too?

Cows don’t have teeth to break down their food.  Cows have hardened gums, they rip at their food, drink a lot of water and then ferment the grasses in their guts. They produce ferment in their gut to increase the nutritional value of their very fibrous food. They have 4 stomach chambers to be really sure that the ferments create nutrition for them before the food is wasted.  Cows burp a lot of methane. 

Cows are vegetarian whereas chickens are omnivores. Like cows, hens don’t have teeth either but they peck tiny, almost-readily digestible amounts of food every time. The hen has a stomach like a dinosaur – she eats a bit of grit and this helps grind up the food. Hens need less water per volume of dry-food than cows, so they have less ferment.  Hens love meat in their diet as easy protein and they love to be part of a rich web of life (bugs, ants, worms, beetles and more).

Poultry are not fussy ‘foodies’

Hens will eat food-waste, garden pests chicken reap Permaculture visionsand the less palatable proteins [yucky stuff].   Hens (if trained from early life) will eat most garden weeds, food scraps, snails, insects, small snakes and moths. Sadly, they will eat small frogs, worms and beneficial insects, so we need to fence them out of areas where you will be nurturing wildlife.

Permaculture Principle: ‘Integrate Not Segregate’

cartoon duck 003
ducks and chickens like to forage

Hens want to be integrated. Their natural habitat is not a hot shed with wire fencing. Through good design and management we can reduce our own work-load (chickens will clear and eat the weeds, distribute their fertiliser and focus where ever we drop a little food for them). Of course there is a delicate balance between protection and freedom. Protecting your chickens from dogs, hawks/eagles and foxes needs to be balanced against allowing them self-determination especially in severe weather events such as wild-fire, floods or high wind.  Through intelligent design, we can provide choices for the chickens. We can offer them several protective day-shelters, water sources and safe night-time housing.  Chickens are woodland creatures, they love to hide in dense scrub, eat berries as well as insects and make baths out of dry dusty soil at the base of large trees.

Not all eggs are the same.  eggsBut even the battery-laid fresh egg is still good protein. Not all hen lifestyles are the same.  In a permaculture design, the hen is a valuable tractor, pest controller, live entertainment an incubator and companion.

The hen in a permaculture design serves a lot more functions beyond egg-laying. When birds are not stressed by over-population, enjoy a healthy diet and feel secure, they can lay for years. Some birds have been known to lay eggs after decades.

Here is a way to integrate chickens into a complex web-of-life and suits a small garden.


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Silk – The Fabric Of A Forgotten Culture

Recently we sent a request to advertise our Silkworms in a local agricultural newsletter. We received a curt rejection stating:
‘Silkworms are just pets for children…What do Silk-worms produce anyway?” 

Actually, Silkworms produce a lot more than just their famous Texan-Horn-and-Silk-armchairhigh value fabric which is strong, beautiful, soft and insulating.  Silk-worm pupae are also edible and the worms produce neat pellets of fertiliser.  Agriculturally speaking Silkworms definitely are ‘childs-play’. They and their hardy food source, carbon-building Mulberry trees, are very easy to grow and harvest. Silkworms are probably the most domesticated protein source on the planet.  The worms grow to 70 times their body size in just a few months. They are easy to handle using simple tools and require no fancy farming machinery.

chinese-pedlar-ming-dynasty-chicago-museumSilk was one of the first agricultural products known to man. The silk route facilitated trade from far eastern countries to the middle east and Europe as early as the dark ages. Whilst silk was quietly being made by farmers for Royal families in Asia, European hunters were chasing the brutal undomesticated forefathers of sheep, cows and horses.  Silk is still considered one of the best fabrics for high fashion products such as suits. In Asia, the trade secrets are heavily guarded and recent technological innovations have made it much easier to process the silk.

Why has Silk been forsaken?

  1. Fossil fuels now produce silk-substitutes such as nylonchicken-finds-worm and synthetic polyester.
  2. Fossil fuels have also changed the way we farm. Fossil fuels enable farmers to cheaply transport, shear and process high fibre yields from larger animals such as sheep.
  3. Many small products like silk, tea, cacao/chocolate and coffee beans are labour-intensive and hard to mechanise.

What’s So Great About Traditional Knowledge?

Gene’s can be altered but not created. Why let any genetic material be lost forever? Many people have fought to retain valuable genetic material in the hope that this genetic material will be valuable for future generations. Furthermore, it is easier and cheaper to keep producing living seeds than to store them in a seed-bank.  Bio-security controls also make it risky to move species from one bio-region to another. If you have a genetic strain in your bio-region , this strain has probably adapted to your area and could be hard to replace even if you were able to import it from another region.

In the same way we are losing gene material, we are also at risk of losing traditional knowledge.  Many ancient crafts, techniques and recipes are distant memories.

One of the most powerful principles of Permaculture is to build diversity. By encouraging diversity we broaden our options and we foster resilience in our own designs and in our community.  Silk farming is one little example of thousands of years of research and living in harmony with nature.

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Still Not Digging It – no-dig gardens

No-dig gardening is not just the easiest way to convert compacted crusty sub-soil to lush gardens full of food. Nor was it simply the best way for us to combat an acre of vigorous grasses that grow more than 2 meters high up and over our young trees. On a global scale, No-dig gardening is the best way to grow food without releasing any carbon into the atmosphere.

Martin Crawford understands the power of no-dig gardening in his food forest. He has a beaut book Creating a Forest Garden: Working with Nature to Grow Edible Crops”

No-dig gardens at Permaculture Visions demonstration site.
No-dig gardens at Mt. Kembla Permaculture Visions demonstration site.

Learn more here about the no-dig gardening method we used over the past 20 years to build our food forest.

The no-dig garden made with cardboard provides:

  1. protection from erosion for the soil
  2. moisture trapping (if laid carefully in reverse-tile pattern).
  3. evaporation barrier
  4. carbon and organic matter
  5. worm-food
  6. composting of a waste that is often sent to landfill
  7. weed-control and conversion to worm-food
  8. food without killing soil micro-organisms
  9. habitat for soil fungi

On the down-side we do need to be careful to remove all plastic-wrap, ties and tape attached to the cardboard as this is a real threat to small animals and reptiles.

Jerusalem Artichokes sunning to improve sugars
Jerusalem Artichokes work in the no-dig gardens to break heavy soil and provide food.

Join us in an upcoming practical workshop on no-dig or simply learn with us online.

Vegie Patchwork

“Vegie Patchwork” is the new “Vegie Patch”


Many a well-intentioned gardener has set up a vegie patch out the back, out of view. And unless they like to visit this patch everyday to escape the household and find peace or to talk to the insects, they forget their “vegie” patch. Sometime later they look amongst weeds to find huge zucchinis, an old pumpkin and tough old beans.

Most vegetables in a “vegie” patch do not actually need full sun unless you are situated in a cool climate. Some plants may like full sun but most will cope in dappled light regardless of your climate. In fact, many areas now are overexposed to sun and the plants struggle to survive in the hottest part of the day. 

Experiment with your various light conditions for different plant species. Forget about the conventional vegie patch and start thinking about perennial plants mixed with annual plants. The areas with vegetables will become beautiful flowering gardens blending with your orchard trees.

Re-educating Our Palette

Imagine a culture that sets sail for a new home. It takes with it just some basic food supplies (bread, cheese, ham, butter and marmalade) and some seeds. Who would imagine that 500 years later this outpost would become a spirited, independent country but still dependent on those simple few foods? The colony that Spain once founded half way around the world in Cuba, is still consuming mostly bread, cheese and ham yet it cannot grow wheat, has few diary cows and is economically restricted due to the USA embargo.

April and (left) Vilda Figueroa (right)

Cuba’s ‘dietary dislocation’ is typical of most nations of the western world. Most of us are eating food that is not indigenous or able to be grown easily in our bio-region.  Re-education of the palette is the single biggest hurdle for permaculture.

We can all grow a vast array of foods, every home can have abundance of fruits and vegetables yet still we have a world population of hungry people who find it difficult to try new foods. In addition to this we have an epidemic of western families who have lost much of their cooking skills in just a few generations. The recent cooking-skills loss follows the loss of gardening skills and other crafts from our heritage.

Vilda Figueroa (a qualified bio-chemist) and Jose Lama (an engineer) founded the Proyecto Communitario Conservacion de Alimentos in the 1990s. http://www.alimentacioncomunitaria.org/ is an organisation that strives to show people through their television and radio programs and hands-on workshops that they can easily grow and process native foods such as Cassava/Yucca. We were lucky to have a private meeting with this amazing couple during our visit to Cuba for the International Permaculture Conference.

The main processing technique is simple and inexpensive: wash, peel and thinly slice the cassava (and do the same for many other foods), put it in a solar igloo covered with fly netting for just 3 days to let it dry out. Put it in a blender to turn it into flour.

They also teach about ferments and fermentstress the importance of nutrition in permaculture teaching. There is wealth of information in a project such as theirs.  The success of their project is that they have trained  many others and are generous and kind. They have trained farmers to value-add to their products, families who enjoy the better foods and children in schools who have been inspired to try new foods and rediscover ancient foods.

My main mission was to learn what they are doing in their project, how their project became so successful with so little funding and to get some practical answers to old nagging questions that I had. Primarily, I have always wanted to know how do we grow more carbs in an intensive urban permaculture garden? Bill Mollison talks about never needing carbohydrates in our diet. He argued that “carbs are just to fill us up” but I am not happy to give up on carbs, I think permaculture needs to meet the mainstream diet at least part of the way and integrate carbs in the food forest.

In Cuba I found an answer to my quest on how to grow more carbohydrates. We can simply grow more root crops and starchy fruits such as plantain (savory bananas).  Vilda and Jose showed me how we can easily dry them as chips with a solar dryer and then put it in a blender or crush it to make flour.  This also suits gluten-free diets. Vilda has developed the secret of using whisked egg white to help cakes rise.
I also had another question about Cassava/Yucca. I had heard that it was lower in nutritional value than wheat, but, as Vilda pointed out, Cassava is very easily digested and so the nutrients become available easily. At the permaculture convergence I saw farmers showing slides of their crop with tubers bigger than a man’s thigh! that is an impressive amount of food per plant. Cassava has a far greater food potential than Cubans may realise and I hope they develop a taste for their native food before fast food chains claw their way into the country and demand potato and wheat.



No Dig?


No Dig Gardens Are Easy.

We built our 1 acre garden completely by no-dig because it was covered in invasive kikuyu, the soil was heavily compacted and DDT had been used on the site previously.

For best success with no dig garden beds always start on a stable edge and can be extended rather than beds in the center of a grassy area. A stable edge may be a footpath, another garden bed, an out-building, a wall etc.

No-dig gardening was pioneered by Esther Deans, she wrote fabulous book in the 70s about No-dig gardening and she came to visit our site and although we do it slightly differently because we don’t use hard edges, she encouragingly approved! All our edges in the garden are relocatable to allow us to expand the garden and use the previous garden bed as a stable edge.

1. Start of a new no-dig garden: soil is hard clay.

2. Cardboard flattened and soaked.

3. Straw and pockets of compost or soil for plants are added.

4. More paths form a mandala, sticks on top to deter chickens, cloches made from bottles.

5. Two years on, the soil is improved and plants filling all the spaces. No-Dig garden beds on flat land are easier than on sloped land.

Start your garden from a stable edge forming a garden that can be extended rather than siting your garden beds in the center of a grassy area.

No-dig beds on flat areas:
1. Collect a lot of newspapers and cardboard, I like to leave them in packs outside to get wet in the rain.
2. Flatten the area and dig out the strong weeds such as clumping grasses. Clear the edge (a brick wall, a shaded or weed-free area) place paper then cardboard securely into this edge, overlap all the cardboard about 10 inches. you can establish a stable edge to fight grasses with larger plants directly in the soil like arrowroot, or lemongrass and shrubs.
3. Plan a neat edge (you can lay the hose or some string for temporary guide, then step back to the center of your planned garden start laying cardboard in the center and work around this center overlapping in a fan shape until you have the bed filled with cardboard, circular beds are far more weed resistant than square.
4. Once you have the edge defined neatly in cardboard, no pieces sticking out too far, place rocks or pots onto this edge.
5. With a sharp spade cut next to the edge into the lawn so that runners are severed (we found this vital for kikuyu)
6. Cover the entire area with mulch; keep covering it as mulch becomes available.
7. Let the mulch mature. If you have abundant water this can be speeded up a bit with watering.
8. Check for weed growth in the beds BEFORE planting any plants.
9. If there is grass coming through, scrape back the mulch and plaster this area with paper and cardboard. Increase the thickness of mulch too. Wait again!
10. Finally, when you have checked that the old lawn beneath the new garden is dead, you are ready to plant you seedlings and trees. In our garden we have to wait 18months. If you don’t have this amount of time to wait, plant only annuals and repeat the process (steps 1-9) after harvesting your fruits (e.g. Melons) and vegetables. Planting into your garden is truly the fun part – insert your little seedlings with just a handful of compost or soil, mulch up the plant. You can add a rock to increase condensation harvest to the seedling. Keep the area watered in early period as these plants do not have rising moisture from the soil.
No-dig beds on sloping areas:
We re-use hesian sacks from food factories to ensure it doesn’t have a store of toxins in it.

1. We kill the weeds by smothering with cardboard covered in carpet or just straight carpet.

2. Dig out the strong weeds such as grasses from your stable edge place paper then cardboard securely into this edge,overlap all the cardboard about 10 inches.

3. Do not start in the center, start at the top as the cardboard slips pretty badly when you walk on it. AND you want the overlap to trap any rain water, not shed it as with roof tiling.

4. Lay your cardboard with good overlaps and work on a shape that ends in a secure contour (ease of mowing around). I have found that drooping, and weeping plants on this edge keep the weeds from running uphill.

5. At intervals, lay sticks onto the cardboard ON CONTOUR these help hold the mulch.

Continue with steps 5 – 8 as above.

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Prunings and Cutting Your Time

This week one of our Mulberry trees was over ambitious and bore a heavy crop. The wind came and broke a branch. So now we have feed for the poultry (near-ripe mulberries and leaves), and mulch for the garden. Some people might chop it all up where it falls, then cart it to where you can use it. prunings_Permaculture_Visions1-682x1024We move it first then cut it up as it lies where we need mulch, the leaves fall to make mulch and the stems and branches are propped up drying ready to use as fuel later. We can cut it to size for the living room fuel stove or if it is slightly too long we can use it in the office combustion stove or if is too long for there we can pop it in the pizza oven. Nothing is wasted in the garden. Even weeds become liquid manure.