It was bandicoots.
One morning in 2000, I came out and every single seedling I’d planted the day before had been dug up. It was the beginning of the end for a style of gardening that had served me very well for over a decade.
I swore, replanted every morning, erected little barricades around newly planted beds, tried all sorts of deterrents, but the problem just got worse. The obvious answer would be a dog to guard the garden overnight, but what makes permaculture important for me are the core values: care for the earth, care for people and fair share. I wanted to nurture the bandicoots, just not on my vegetables!
When we moved here in 1983, this was very degraded farmland – logged, cleared, regularly burned, and grazing just a few head of cattle. There was hardly a breeding population of most species of wildlife. Along with building and gardening, we started planting native trees especially along the creek riparian zone. We avoided cats and dogs, poisons and fires. We carefully managed our water use to leave environmental flows.
It took a very long time to have any effect at all, but then all of a sudden, the wildlife came back. That’s what happens with exponential growth. One day there only a few bandicoots, timid bush creatures rarely sighted. Next day there were dozens of them digging over my garden every night.
(This is off the track, but this lesson in how exponential growth works has had a profound effect on my thinking about peak everything: it won’t be a nice slow, time-to-get-used-to-it process. Doubling means you go from just over half full, to overflowing, in one step.)
For about a year I persevered, swearing, replanting, erecting little barricades. For about another year I despaired. Then finally I gave in and accepted that I would have to redesign my system. It involved a digger and took me weeks to get over!
Thankfully (in retrospect) I had enough foresight to consider that the same path of growth might be followed by other wildlife species. Back then the bush turkeys were still timid bush creatures rarely seen, we were very excited if ever we saw evidence of a possum, bower birds were rare and wonderful. But the redesign took into account their potential too. So the solution was very intensively fenced annual garden beds, with bird wire buried 20 cm deep to foil the bandicoots, chicken wire sides to foil the wallabies and padimelons (with holes large enough to admit the little insect eating birds), and netting over the top to exclude bush turkeys, possums and bower birds.
About the same time, I was questioning the whole concept of organic farming, as opposed to gardening. So the redesign also took that into account. The beds are circular and about 4 metre diameter. I have 7 of them scattered through a larger, more lightly fenced area filled with perennial fruit trees, herbs, and bushes that are less vulnerable to being dug up.
Of course, that meant I could no longer move my chook domes over the beds. I had to devise a new way to use chook-labour. With the garden beds fenced, the chooks could be allowed to free-range. I set them to work making compost by scratching mulch, manure, waterweeds, and any other ingredients I brought in downhill to rest against a series of V-shaped barriers. Each week I’d lift the top barrier to allow them to scratch the compost makings down to the next barrier, then down to the third barrier, where I collected it to use in the garden beds.
The new system lost much of the elegance of chooks self-feeding, clearing, fertilising and de-bugging garden beds. It did, however, allow me to play a great deal more with stacking and using vertical space. I no longer use dwarf varieties of peas or beans, for instance. The southern side fencing of each bed is always a wall of green, with peas, beans, cucumbers, and tomatoes.
That system too served me well for a decade, and moved my thinking about urban and small space gardening systems forward in some really useful ways. But this year, the evolution of the system has reached another milestone.
I very rarely lost any chooks to predators in the domes. The design served quite well to keep out foxes, goannas and carpet snakes. However free ranging chooks were much more vulnerable, particularly to goannas. And over the last few years, the range of predators has increased to include wedge-tailed eagles and quolls, along with some very large carpet snakes. Six months ago the last of my free ranging chooks was eaten, and the last six months have been the longest period in my adult life, I think, without chooks.
Today, finally, I have chooks again. And I’m so happy about it! The new roost is a “proof of concept” at this stage, so it’s a bit bodgie, but I have high hopes it will work and I will have a system that works for another decade, before the next stage in the evolution.