Category Archives: permaculture

4 Dimensional Design: Multiple Functions

Almost everyone is familiar with the concept of multi-tasking. In this busy, busy world, it seems to becoming more and more prevalent. While I am not an advocate of texting while driving, I do see merit in being efficient with one’s time, as long as efficiency goes hand-in-glove with effectiveness. William McDonough and Michael Braungart do a good job of explaining the difference between what they call eco-efficient and eco-effective. Their book, Cradle to Cradle, is highly recommended.



I won’t try to improve on their excellent insights, but I would like to give an example of efficient/effective 4 dimensional permaculture design in action. (For those who have forgotten, TIME is the 4th dimension.) This is one of many 4 dimensional designs interacting on our property, but it illustrates the concept well.

Snails love overnighting within the agapanthus but because the caycuya grass has overgrown it is difficult and time-consuming to find them to feed to the ducklings. In this sense, the caycuya is seen as a ‘liability’ because it makes the process less efficient. Further down the page you’ll see how we turn it into an ‘asset’.

Agapanthus overrun by cacuya grass.

Now we could give our ducklings free range to find the snails themselves, but we have dogs in the neighborhood and no fencing out the front. So for the time-being we are offering escargot delivery services.

Escar-to go

Gardeners and physicists know that the process of squatting down and then standing up takes lots of energy. Part of being a lazy gardener (explained in a future post) is designing strategies that don’t require squatting down, and the other part is doing as much work as possible while your squatting before you stand up. With this in mind, as long as we’re squatting down to hunt for snails we might as well pull all of the caycuya we can comfortably reach. The large snails are placed in a pail and the grass is piled beside it. (The small snails are set free to be harvested another day.)

Waste = Food

When 12 to 15 snails have been harvested and all the caycuya within reach has been pulled, the job is done. until the nesting feeding time. The snails – liability to our gardens – are turned in an asset as duck food. The caycuya – also a liability to our gardens – is turned into an asset as a carbon neutral, hand-harvested, organic mulch. As a matter of fact, caycuya can be transformed from a liability to an asset within milliseconds and millimeters.

John the intern hard at work his very first day.

This is efficient/effective design because the snails are harvested on an as-needed basis. They stay fresh and grow best where they are. Why over-harvest and have to store them in a container?

The multi-tasking while squatting makes efficient use of the human component of the system. Since the caycuya poses no immediate threat, the job can be spread over a week or more taking only 5 minutes at a time.

And in the end, we’ll have free food for our hungry trio, free eco-mulch for our garden, a tidier front section, and the stage is set for quick and easy snail harvest the next time around.

Grow little snail, grow!

From a permaculture perspective, this illustrates the principle that every element of a system should serve multiple purposes. In 4 dimensional design, that element is the act of squatting down. As explained above, that single action serves multiple functions.

In my opinion, 4 dimensional design is not well understood or embraced by many permaculturists. It is something small that can make a big difference in a world of rising energy and food prices. What do you reckon?

Peace, Estwing

Willow Update

It has been nearly a month since we started our willow pollarding and pega pega experiment and we thought it might be time to give you an update.

You might remember that our Christmas Willow was a single branch that we had brought indoors and kept in a bucket of damp sand.

About two weeks after Christmas we brought the bucket and branch outside and removed all of the foliage. We were hoping this would encourage the tree to put its energy into creating roots and new buds, rather than trying to heal the older foliage.

We left the branch outside right near our tap, so we would remember to water it regularly. And two weeks later…

Success! We think. There appear to be healthy new buds forming on the branches. We haven’t probed into the sand, but my guess is that if we did, we would find new root buds as well. We’ll leave this little guy in the bucket until it has some more significant foliage and then will transplant it out to form the first part of our living-firewood-shelterbelt-fence.

The mother willow is doing even better than the cutting. In just four weeks the place where we did our major cutting has gone from this…

To this…

That’s a lot of growth! Now we need to decide if we want to keep all of these new branches and have about one dozen small branches, or trim them, to encourage the tree to put its energy into just one or two. My gut tells me to trim the new branches back, and leave two, but I don’t want to stress the tree too much. Any suggestions?

Eating Us out of House and Home

There is an expression in permaculture that goes something like “You don’t have too many snails, you have too few chickens”.

Well, we don’t have a snail deficiency, we’ve got a baby duck surplus.

Our ducklings have just about doubled in size in the week that we’ve had them. Part of the goal of having ducks was to have a protein source that we did not have to buy food for, making small gains in self sufficiency. We thought we had tons of snails. In fact we were crunching them underfoot walking up our driveway after a late night out two weeks ago. But the recent cairina moschata population boost has put a bit of a strain on our small backyard eco-system. Our normal go-to spots for snails have been picked dry by the need to feed our ducklings’ insatiable appetite.

So, after some internet research we have begun improvising some snail traps. Most people use these traps to lure snails away from their garden beds. We are hoping they lure snails out of their summer hiding places, and into an easy collection point.

Here is an example of the bricks and damp cardboard method.

And here is the toilet paper tube cluster method.
From past experience we know that the beer method works well, but we’re a little afraid of the effects of intoxicating our wee babies just yet.

Ducks cannot subsist on snails alone, even when they are eating 20+ per day. So we are supplementing their diet with another resource we had in abundance, seedy grass. We were using grass to line the bottom of the duck’s inside home, an unused bath tub, and found that they really liked eating the grain from the tops of the grass. Thanks to a preoccupied scyther our yard was a veritable sea of waving amber grain, or as the duckies see it, a sea of food waiting to be harvested.

This is pretty perfect since every grain of grass seed is one more future weed waiting to invade our garden beds.

So far the ducks are proving their worth by ridding us of two potential problems, and converting them both to fertilizer. As William McDonnough says “Waste = Food”, or in this case, waste = … more useful waste.

Have you found any good waste = food solutions lately? Pass them on.

Did I mention Permaculture?…

Permaculture has lots of definitions. Many are confusing. None are comprehensive. This is mine:

Permaculture is a system of ecological design that seeks to recognize and maximize networks of beneficial relationships, while minimizing or eliminating harmful or wasteful relationships.

To those new to permaculture, such definitions may be more confusing than helpful, but to those familiar with it, heads nod in recognition.

Permaculture is not a set of ethics to quote or a list of principles to memorize, but a way of seeing the world. It is holistic design in four dimensions. Training your brain to see interconnectedness is not easy if you’ve spent 13 to 17 years in Western education. Certain learning “disabilities” make it much easier if the aforementioned decade and a half have not beaten those ways of knowing out of you. I’m lucky enough to have such learning [dis]abilities.

Left: learning disabled mind, Right: learning-abled mind

It is about time we pointed out that our eco-thrifty renovation includes the entire 700 square meter section that was more or less full of rubbish and invasive weeds when we arrived. The holistic design includes establishing wind breaks, building soil fertility, planting fruit trees and a large vegetable garden, tractoring chooks, coppicing for fire wood, planting native trees, constructing a large sun trap, retaining water on the property, and integrating the indoor and outdoor environments.

Here is a photo gallery of some of these initiatives so far.

-M.C. Estwing