About four and a half years ago I wound down my employment in preparation for the arrival of my first child. OK, technically I was still writing the last grant’s final report four hours into labour, but that *was* wound down, honest. I’ve spent the time since as a stay-at-home-mum with (now) two small children. I did a little volunteer work here and there with the local Transition Towns group, which was fairly focused on food security, and with Sustainable House Day which I loved for seeing the way living environments could be so well designed to just work. I’m very fond of things that just work and that don’t involve the equivalent of pushing water uphill. So I talked with a lot of people who were actively thinking about the same sorts of questions I was, about things they were trying to make their gardens sustainable, the crops that were working for them, the big ideas they had both old and new. Chicken tractors, wicking beds, heritage seeds, permaculture design, microclimate design, community greenhouses, preserving by fermenting, straw, worms, compost – anything that came up.
I received some admiration for my then-garden, which amused me a little. It was a balcony garden in a second-floor flat, and by the end of living there I’d spent six years building planter boxes, carrying soil up flights of stairs, schlepping water back and forth, juggling plants and positions. So it was quite impressive, with four fruit trees and all kinds of giant or tiny leafy flowering fragrant edible things, a real testimony to what a balcony garden could be. But once the kids arrived I really didn’t have much time to spend out there any more. Well, I did, but I never knew when I was going to get it. And, well, Melbourne weather. Outdoor time’s unreliable. So the garden began to thrive on neglect. I’d always been a bit low-maintenance anyhow, and I must have done mostly all right at getting good plants in the right places, because things did keep growing for me. But I’d wistfully think of not having to water, and spent quite a bit of time imagining what hardware I’d connect into the downpipes running just…there…mere…centimetres…from…the…plants… if only I wasn’t renting.
It helped that the last two summers there were quite wet. Really wet. I have photos of my daughter wading down the road in January with water up to her knees (ok, she was not yet two, but still). Our suburb was in the process of transitioning from old houses built by migrant families forty years ago to renos and new townhouses being bought up by young professionals who’d suddenly realised that being twelve minutes from the CBD was convenient. The new townhouses all had cookie-cutter gardens stamped in front of them, looking just like a brochure. I used to cringe at each new one installed, remembering the riot of thriving life that had been there before. It was with some satisfaction I went out the day after a rainstorm and saw three of the gardens floating away. Literally. That side of Melbourne is on clay, and the builders hadn’t done any soil care, just stuck a few plants in and put coloured mulch around them. The rain couldn’t absorb – it simply lifted the plants and mulch and carried them off. Up til that point the local soil was only a back-of-the-mind thing for me, seeing as I was working with potting mix myself. But when someone next mentioned building wicking beds and how theirs was growing vegies so much better than the top-watered beds, I started thinking. I’d been in charge of an underground tank installation, actually two. One had been simply a pit dug into the soil, draped with a clay liner and filled with gravel (over a couple of specialty support structures that ensured easy filtration and pumping). Our dams on the farm had had clay linings. It occurred to me to wonder if you could build a wicking bed directly into our local clay soil. Maybe not as easy to manage as a raised bed, but there seemed no reason why you couldn’t build the water storage directly into the bed in some way and effectively need no additional water during a Melbourne summer.
I’m not sure how I made the next jump. It might have been finding an old public letter from the early 20th century that promoted building irrigation systems on the Murray River as something suitable for the modern man and not just for savages. I was trying to imagine the mindset then, of quite literally not believing in irrigation, as compared to what I know of the Riverlands now. And I found myself asking how we humans had solved the problem of keeping crops alive earlier. Before electricity and fossil fuels. Maybe even way before. Carrying water is a very old job, and the Archimedes screw has been around for millenia, but surely there’s more possibilities than canals and ladles. Especially as I knew some of our oldest cultures had met their downfall from salinity due to poor agricultural water management. So I started looking at very early agriculture, to see what we already knew – why reinvent the wheel? Most of my searching was fruitless. I looked at crops that didn’t need summer water – but mostly, summer crops did. I followed the trail of the apricot tree across three continents six or eight thousand years ago, and it matched the development of irrigation techniques. Wheat and other grains slowly developed in lands that were naturally and seasonally flooded by rivers, and when those floods weren’t available we either planted in winter or built canals from rivers and made our own floods. The rivers themselves got their water from mountains, which gave runoff and snowmelt all year round. Which is lovely, but not translatable to Australian conditions. So I started looking harder for techniques that didn’t involve having a handy river. That just, like the farm I grew up on, used the rain that landed there.
I found a fascinating tale of hereditary hydrological engineers in one of the desert cultures, who built underground aqueducts from distant mountain ranges to supply towns with water and cooling and who passed on the knowledge and skills from father to son. But that still needed mountains. I finally hit paydirt with the Nabateans. The culture that built Petra. They were a trading culture who lived in semi-arid to arid conditions in an area that was between several other wealthy cultures. Nobody else could survive their deserts, so the Nabateans made plenty of profit carrying stuff back and forth. But they didn’t trade for their own food – they were self-sufficient. Despite having only two short rainy seasons a year. There’s still not a lot of info available on their agricultural techniques – more is known about the cisterns they used for town and travel water supplies because those are still partly intact. But they were manipulating the soil, both subsurface and at soil surface, to hold the water needed for a year within reach of the plants’ roots, and to catch and channel said water to the holding point. As with permaculture, it comes back to the soil. They had a particularly good kind of soil for it, nothing like what we have naturally here. But I began to think the effects might be reproducible.
Since then I’ve watched for and hoarded every bit of information on the topic that I can. Eventually I learnt the phrase “dryland farming”, which connected me instantly to all the research and learning and recorded information I knew had to be already out there on the topic of farms that are only watered by seasonal rainfall – and it’s a huge field of research. Huge. I still feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface of what’s known. I keep studying crops and crop types, different systems that people have tried, methods of water redirection and catchment. I dip in and out of permaculture info – a lot of it assumes more mild conditions but there are people practicing it in arid lands and in drylands – including just up north in Geraldton. I follow African agricultural scientists online and listen to their work. I’ve got a couple of soil science books to begin learning in more detail how to use the soils we’ve got and how I might want to reconstruct them here or there. I’ve also begun experimenting in my new back yard, building water-holding beds into the ground below some of my key plantings, seeing if I can use in-ground soil structures to help crop trees and other plants survive our scorching summers. Perth is kind of built on aquifers, which is how any plants survived in this backyard at all while it was a rental for several years. So I’ve had some interesting conversations with water/hydro people here about watering options. There’s a long way to go. But in my reading and studying I became convinced that building a drylands permaculture-style food forest that operated as a system to catch and hold water and to provide microclimates that suited crop production was entirely possible. Not only that, but that it should be tried.
So I am.