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THE PERMACULTURE PAPERS — 4: The nineties boomtime

THE PERMACULTURE PAPERS — 4: The nineties boomtime

Permaculture peaks — the 1990s…

…Live Smart. Think for Yourself. Transform the Future

IT WAS THE 1990s and permaculture was on a roll. The hard work of the 1980s was paying off. There was greater public awareness of permaculture, more courses came on offer and were attracting a greater number of participants. The path ahead seemed clear and the movement was permeated with optimism.

You would see and hear this optimism at the permaculture convergences—the biannual gathering of the far-flung permaculture tribe. Unlike convergences that would come with the new century, those of this period continued to focus primarily on the development of Permaculture skills and ideas. They were mainly a means of educating those who had done a Permaculture Design Certificate. An example was the workshop presented by veteran New Zealand permaculture educator, Robina McCurdy, and Joanna Tebbitt from the UK. This took participants through a process based on PLA—the Participatory Learning and Action process (then known by the acronym PRA—Participatory Rural Appraisal) in use by international development agencies and adapted by the two women for use in the planning of permaculture projects.

The optimism among permaculture’s practitioners of the time was based on real achievements—permaculture was riding high on a wave of increasing popularity. The decade brought an expansion into new areas of activity such as community food gardening, permaculture in schools and overseas aid.

Bill and women

It was another of Bill’s talks at the University of Technology, Sydney. The time, the mid-1990s. He had just finished his talk and questions were now coming from the audience. Not many questions; perhaps what he had said would have to sink in a bit before thoughts could arise around it. Many there would not have questioned Bill Mollison anyway, as they were aleady favourably disposed towards his message.

One questioner, though, was a woman sitting in the middle rows of the lecture hall. I don’t recall what she asked but I do recall it was harmless enough and didn’t challenge Bill. It was more a question of clarification or explanation but Bill’s response to that unfortunate woman was such that she must have squirmed in her seat a little.

Whether or not this response occurred more frequently with women remains conjecture, however more than one female Permaculture activist has said that Bill was tougher in his attitude to females. Some said he was a misogynist, though other women said that it was just his traditional Australian male attitude to women.

An example of Bill’s propensity to give the unexpected is the anecdote about his being invited to address a UK assembly of Permaculture people. The audience came anticipating a talk on organic gardening but what they got was a talk about economics and the need for their organisation to withdraw its funds from the Bank of England and invest in something more ethical.

In later years, Bill would wander from the subject while giving addresses though this could still be entertaining. Some said that it produced a reluctance for event organisers to invite him to speak.

Bill was an accomplished public speaker who could draw on anecdotes amusing and tragic to illustrate his point. He was a storyteller and his public addresses during the early years of Permaculture were critical to the popularisation of the design system. They are remembered fondly by those who experienced them.

Gardening with the community

It was a flat field of lawn when the gardeners arrived early on a Saturday morning. A chainlink fence surrounded the patch on three sides and a slope with a sandstone shelf projecting from it formed its northern boundary. The sole item of vegetation, apart from the lawn, was a Camphor Laurel tree growing from the embankment.

The council trucks arrived precisely on nine. The larger disgorged a tray load of organic matter while the smaller unhitched a Bobcat. By three in the afternoon a circular garden and six allotments had been constructed. Randwick Community Organic Garden was a reality.

The garden was the design project of the urban Permaculture Design Course Fiona Campbell and I were running at Randwick Community Centre, a course we offered for the best part of a decade. The students, having completed the design, had become so enthusiastic that they had to make the garden.

This was not the first of Sydney’s community gardens. That honour goes to Glovers Community Organic Garden in Rozelle. It was operating in 1986, a full nine years before the Randwick garden. There have been reports of earlier gardens but none of these have been confirmed and recollections seem to be hearsay rather than first hand knowledge.

Sydney's frist community garden Glovers Community Garden, made its start in 1985 and has served as a place to visit for Permaculture courses.


Others followed Glovers. Sydney-based permaculture designer, Bronwyn Rice, designed and oversaw the construction of Eveleight Street Community Garden, a project with the Redfern Aboriginal community. The Angel Street Permaculture Garden in inner-urban Newtown was built by a team whom South Sydney City Council had refused land in Sydney Park for a city farm. More would follow as community gardening picked up momentum through the 1990s.

Community food gardening had long been practiced in Europe and the US, but it did not get underway in Australia until the first, Nunuwading Community Garden, made a start in Melbourne in October 1977. It was here that permaculture was to play a part, but this was not the part it would have desired. I learned about it from someone who was a member of Nunuwading when it started and who later worked with Rockdale Council in southern Sydney.

“They created a mess”, he told those at the meeting to explore the possibility of community gardens of the permaculturists who joined the Nunuwading garden. “They brought in bits of old carpet and covered the soil with this. It was an eyesore”. Clearly, here was a difference over process and aesthetics. It would not be the last time such differences surfaced in regard to the work of permaculture.

Creating a network

Permaculture continued to play a role in community garden development in Sydney but in a more constructive way especially after the Australian City Farms & Community Gardens Network was set up by Dr Darren Phillips in 1995.

Morag Gamble and Evan Raymond in Queensland, then associated with Brisbane’s successful Northey Street City Farm, and Fiona and I became state contacts for the network. Later, Fiona and I set up the community gardens network website.

Although Darren was not associated with permaculture, the Network was populated by permaculture people from its start and it continues to be so although many community gardeners have no association with the design system. For those managing the Network who are associated with permaculture (not all people in that role are), educating, avocating and assisting the practice of community gardening is how they enact their permaculture.

Some of the community gardens set up with the assistance of South Sydney City Council (now absorbed into the City of Sydney) had notice boards that attempted to explain permaculture and its role. Most of these have now disappeared from the gardens, however most alluded to permaculture as a method of sustainable agriculture or gardening, reinforcing the message that the design system is all about organic gardening. That may change. The 2004 community garden network weekend at Bendigo, Victoria, organised by Melbourne’s Cultivating Community, attracted participants involved in both community garden development and permaculture design, raising hopes for a broader interpretation of the design system.

Permaculture had a design role at Bendigo’s Gravel Hill Community Garden. The garden is different to others in that it produces organic products for the local food market, grows food for a CSA (a Community Supported Agriculture or subscription farm scheme that operates from the community garden) and trained people through the federal government’s Work for the Dole programme. Given permaculture’s association with social programs early in its history, its role at Gravel Hill and at Northey Street City Farm suggested a return to those times when social design was as important as landscape and garden design.

That, however, was not the conception of permaculture that emerged in the nineties. Social design is today a concept sometimes mentioned by designers and permaculture people but is largely neglected. This I attribute at least in part to what is offered in permaculture courses and to the low numbers of active permaculture people with a background or training in community work. Its partial disappearance has been a loss to permaculture as a social and sustainability technology. The nexus of community gardening and permaculture, however, offers the potential for a type of garden-based training and social centre serving the real needs of society.

Permaculture is something of a latecomer to community gardening. Although there were some permaculture-associated people active in it when the Network was created and even before that (Sydney permaculture designer, Bronwyn Rice, designed and trained people in the Eveleigh Street Community Garden in Redfern), it is only in comparatively more recent years that permaculture people have become involve in any substantial way.

Enthusiasm or poor advice

An interesting product of this involvement has been that a few permaculture trained people, with no experience as community gardeners, no association with the Australian City Farms & Community Gardens Network and no substantial knowledge, gained from involvement, of the needs and practices of community gardening have recently started to offer advice to people wanting to set up community gardens.

Somewhat astounding was a claim made publicly that it was those community gardens in which permaculture had played no part that ran into difficulties or failed. This was a blatant untruth and contrary to evidence. One of the most dysfunctional community gardens I knew of was, in fact, a ‘permaculture’ community garden. This was not due to horticultural reasons but to attitudinal causes which degraded the relationship with both landholder and council. In part, this and similar episodes can be put down to ignorance of council processes and needs within the permaculture movement. Councils are sometimes criticised for being tardy or obstructionist but, leaving aside the cases where that may be true, some in permaculture do not recognise the legitimate opinions of people who have other ideas on what should happen on public land and of council need to take those into account. There have been other cases where the permaculture trained have engendered poor relations with local government and cases where people with no experience of developing a patch of public land or of managing a community green have offered advice. Among professional and local government planner and decision makers, this lack of experience soon becomes obvious and can lead to a poor impression of the design system and its practitioners.

The assumption behind that claim that a lack of permaculture presence leads to community garden failure, apparently, was that possession of a Permaculture Design Certificate somehow provided all the insight into community gardening that was needed to lead their design and construction process. The evidence is that this is a false assumtion, many design courses being deficient in the group and social skills and knowledge that is core to effective community garden design and management.

The problem with this presumption that someone can assist people design and manage something they have never participated in is that poor advice made without direct experience in community gardening (which is substantially different to home gardening) can discredit the design system. Interestingly, in one instance it was a local government officer who alerted me to this.

Also disappointing is the lack of networking by those people with the Australian City Farms & Community Gardens Network, lending credence to the idea held by some working in sustainability and social milieus that permaculture is a world to itself, that groups exist within their own little bubble rather than taking a collaborative approach.

Permaculture goes to school

It was 1995, the week before the national Permaculture Convergence in Adelaide, South Australia, and forty or so people had gathered in the suburb of Black Forest for a three-day intensive course with Robina McCurdy, an energetic New Zealander who had developed an approach to introducing permaculture to schools and to working with children in general.

Robina would later go on to aid work in the South African drylands and, after that, in the Capetown squatter settlement. She then returned to New Zealand to set up the year-long Planet Organic Permaculture and organics training course, the first major initiative in permaculture training since the PDC was first offered.

Robina’s Adelaide course signalled the start of permaculture involvement with schools in Australia, although there had been isolated initiatives before. Some, like the impressive garden at Black Forest primary in Adelaide, with its curriculum and in-service training for teachers, had been developed without permaculture input and is now in its thirtieth year, managed by a local Black Forest permaculture activist and community garden network leader, Kate Hubmeyer.

Permaculture Goes to School was the title of a publication Fiona and I produced following the course. It contained a bibliography drawn up by participants as well as articles.

There was excitement around this new avenue of permaculture activism and Robina’s presence stimulated it. One of her early proteges, Sally Ramsden, was soon offering training workshops around the country. Projects were started in schools.

Fiona and I assisted a primary school in Hurstville establish a food garden. Later, we were involved with Lewisham primary in inner-urban Sydney where we were funded as part of a school grounds redesign team.

Apart from Robina, the most durable and authoritative product on permaculture in schools came not from Sydney but from Brisbane where teacher Carolyn Nuttall developed an edible garden with students at Seville Road State School in Holland Park. Her 1995 book, A Children’s Food Forest, is based on her experience and remains the reference for people interested in the area. Years later, Carolyn co-wrote another book about applying permaculture in schools with Queensland permaculture practitioner and ex-teacher, Janet Millington. It was called Outdoor Classrooms.

Permaculture in schools remained a growth area until early in the new century, but then interest started to dissipate. This was puzzling given the energy evident following Robina’s 1995 courses. The pertinent question is: what led to decline? I have no answer, just a few ideas:

  • New practices require the presence and stimulus of a trainer to provide follow-up and keep the momentum going for some time after it is introduced. With Robina going into international development work in South Africa and Sally Ramsden eventually moving on, the main reference people were gone.
  • Market saturation—there are only so many permaculture people in Australia and only so many of those are interested in permaculture in schools. Perhaps, after Robina’s initial flurry of workshops had caught the permaculture imagination and the follow-up that Sally and others provided, all those who were interested had received training.
  • Permaculture in schools can only be carried out during school hours. If the times allocated by the school do not coincide with the times available to the Permaculture designer, then the activity will not happen. As well, there were only so many schools intersted in the idea.
  • Permaculture in schools is mainly a voluntary activity. The lack of income is a brake on long-term involvement and sustainability.
  • Successful permaculture in school projects rely on integrating training with school curricula to make school kitchen gardens and landscape design more relevant to core school activity rather than being an add-on or hobby activity. This requires the production of training resources such as manuals, a time consuming process for which there is little prospect of financial return unless a grant can be obtained. Without integration, teachers are less likely to welcome something that takes the focus from an already-crowded curriculum.
  • Lack of a media to publicise and sustain the activity. The Permaculture International Journal (PIJ) was the avenue through which people learned of permaculture in schools. The journal carried a number of pages dedicated to working with children in permaculture and Carolyn Nuttall produced a instructive column in every edition. The loss of the PIJ deprived readers of that information.
  • One of permaculture’s weak spots has been a lack of evaluation of its activities. Permaculture in schools is no exception. The absence of evaluation deprives the movement of learning because projects are not documented and, therefore, are not repeatable. Weaknesses and strengths go unidentified; information is lost, the record is bare and permaculture’s ‘corporate memory’ is weakened.

As well as the public record of permaculture in schools, the practice has faded although a small number of permaculture-trained people continue to receive grants for the work and those like Leonie Shanahan in Queensland continue to do innovative work. There are now signs that a conjunction of community gardens and schools may provide the stimulus the field needs for its revival. How that eventuates remains to be seen but servicing schools is proving a successful field of activity at Northey Street City Farm and other community gardens which are becoming involved.

Local government in Sydney, in a few cases, is investigating working in schools on permaculture-like projects although there is no reference to the design system in their work and those responsible for the activity often have no knowlege of permaculture in schools as it was developed in the 1990s. The work is the responsibility of new local government positions such as that of Sustainability Education Officer, a role that also entails working with local institutions, business and the public.

The importance of mainstream media

Bill Mollison stands amid the mulch and shrubs of his garden… the image cuts from one showing the bare grounds when he moved in to an image of the garden in full bloom… the camera pans… the bearded figure crouches… he places a sheet of newspaper as a weed barrier and mulch layer on the soil then addresses the camera: “This is the best use for advertising… for bad news”, he says. Surveying his garden, he turns to face the camera: “I would like to run this all the way into Murwillumbah”.

This was Mollison at his best, the entertaining teacher who used humour to make an important point. His face, with its trim grey beard and suntanned and wrinkled skin appears that of a knowledgable father figure passing on wisdom. It is how Mollison appeared on ABC TV in a video production entitled In Grave Danger of Falling Food. Like the broadcast of Heartlands a few years before, the production, by Julian Russell and Tony Gailey, attracted wide attention. It proved very important in bringing permaculture before an audience larger than it could ever have achieved by itself. No media organisation has been more important to permaculture than the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation). Through television and radio, the national broadcaster brought permaculture to a broad, national audience. Max Lindegger, Robyn Francis, myself and others have received coverage on a number of ABC radio and television networks.

For television, Bill was the iconoclast, the boldly outspoken elder unafraid of ruffling egos… good talent in front of the camera. Yet, despite this outspokeness, Bill could get a point across quite successfully. David Holmgren at this time was still developing Melliodora, his central Victorian property, and although he did appear in public with increasing frequency it was Bill who attracted the cameras and who retained his prominence as the unofficial, unelected ‘leader’ of the permaculture movement.  David’s time would come, but not for a few years.

In Grave Danger of Falling Food was a one-off programme that attracted the public’s attention but had less impact than the later four-part production, The Global Gardener, a series that looked at permaculture overseas and in Australia. Consisting of four, 30 minute segments: tropical, arid land, cool climate and urban permaculture and filmed in Australia, the US, Europe, Africa and India, Global Gardener was the most successful of all the video productions about permaculture. Destined to be rerun twice on the ABC, community-based permaculture associations and teachers—most likely in breach of copyright—have made use of the videotape as an educational tool.

This last point bears some reflection because it highlights a dichotomy in permaculture education. Teachers—and I am generalising here—would often not hesitate to make use of copyright materials in courses, yet within permaculture there was a strand of thought that was protective of intellectual property. I recall one case in which the use of a permaculture educator’s photographs was denied to another educator as she planned to use them some time later in her own publication. There was an early emphasis in a few cases of asserting copyright of permaculture designs for properties. The reality was that under the Copyright Act those designs were already protected, suggesting a lack of understanding of copyright that was to surface some years later. The assertion of legal rights regarding private intellectual property could appear contradictory for a system that sought to push the thinking envelope when it came to design for sustainability.

Global Gardener pushed permaculture before prime time audiences and can be credited with filling permaculture courses after it was first broadcast. This we experienced in our Permaculture introductory and design courses in Sydney and the phenomenon was experienced by educators elsewhere, too.  If anything boosted the prospects of the design system during the decade, it was this production. Unfortunately, as the transition was made from videotape to DVD, Global Gardener missed out. Apart from pirated copies transferred to DVD, the series is all but lost to permaculture educators.

Over the longer term however, it was permaculture’s own media, the Permaculture International Journal, that deepened understanding of the design system. The journal brought people together in a community of interest and engendered a common identity. The PIJ, first under the editorship of Robin Francis and later Steve Payne (at the time of writing, editor of ABC Organic Gardener magazine), continued to fulfil its valuable role as networker, news source and educator through the decade of the 1990s. Originally available only through subscription, the magazine later became a mass market journal available through newsagencies and it was one of permaculture’s success stories through the design systems’ growth spurt through the 1990s. Little could those eagerly awaiting the arrival of their subscription in their letter box or scanning the magazine racks in the newsagent in search of the latest edition imagine that this was the PIJ’s final decade.

Spreading the message by type and print

Bill Mollison and Reny Slay released their 1991 book, Introduction to Permaculture, just in time for what was to become a growing interest in permaculture. Bill’s Permaculture—A Designer’s Manual had appeared in 1988 and was more a product for the trained permaculture designer. Introduction to Permaculture was a basic text aimed at the general reader.

Like the Designer’s Manual, the publication of Introduction to Permaculture was timely. There had been no popular exposition of permaculture since Permaculture One and Permaculture Two back at the end of the 1970s. Now, with public interest increasing, a new introductory book was just what was needed. Introduction to Permaculture would go into reprint by the end of the decade and it remains in print today.

Unlike books, video productions are ephemeral and are soon lost unless distributed on videotape or DVD. Fortunately, the ABC had the good sense to sell the videotape of In Grave Danger of Falling Food. This made the production available to a wider audience and to those not near a television set when it was broadcast. The ABC also marketed copies of The Global Gardener, the 1991production by the team which had made In Grave Danger of Falling Food.

There were other productions by permaculture videographers in the ’90s but these were not made for broadcast. A series of short productions came out of Crystal Waters ecovillage as a means of explaining the place. In 1995, a videotape was released about the work of Carolyn Nuttall’s permaculture in school project. Entitled A Children’s Food Forest as was her book, the tape was less useful than the book released the following year.

As for permaculture magazines, Permaculture Edge, started by Permaculture Nambour Association, had by the mid-90s gone to Permaculture Western Australia for continued publication. For years troubled by an erratic publishing schedule, the magazine made its final appearance at the 1996 international convergence. While it may have been possible to revive the publication it would have required a substantial investment in design, content development and marketing. Nobody had the energy for that.

Meanwhile, PIJ had become available from newsagents, a move that took it to a wider readership and placed permaculture further into the public eye. Financial viability had always been a challenge and now, to pay for national distribution, advertising took on greater importance.

In Victoria, in the rural town of Castlemaine, a quietly determined redhead named Joy Finch was about to launch a new magazine, Green Connections. More modern in presentation than PIJ, the magazine would compete with PIJ on the newsstands. It reported permaculture and a mix of associated material but, despite the appeal of Green Connections, PIJ maintained its loyal readership and the two were to coexist for a time.

Other permaculture titles released in the 1990s include:

  • a book on permaculture design by West Australian Ross Marrs, The Basics of Permaculture Design
  • You Can have Your Permaculture and Eat It Too, a combination permaculture garden design manual and recipe book launched at the 1997 Perth Permculture Convergence by Maleny (Queensland) based permaculture educator, Robin Clayfield.

A new teaching manual

In 1993, Blue Mountains permaulture teacher and international development worker, Rosemary Morrow, set down her approach to permaculture design in the Earth User’s Guide to Permaculture. Like Mollison’s Introduction to Permaculture, her’s was a book aimed at newcomers.

Some preferred Rosemary’s book to Bill Mollison’s Introduction to Permaculture, but despite its popularity among teachers it did not displace Bill’s book from its pre-eminent place—Mollison’s name had cachet when it came to credibility though Rosemary had more than enough of that too.

After Rosemary’s book went on sale the story circulated that Bill had objected to it because some of the content was similar to his own work. This was due to a misunderstanding by Bill and the Permaculture Institute that copyright protected ideas as well as content. Bill later admitted this when he moved to trademark the terms ‘permaculture design’ and ‘permaculture course’. Copyright protects only a particular expression of an idea, not the idea itself. Bill could not stop others writing about permaculture and elements of it that he had developed.

To make Earth User’s Guide to Permaculture more useful to permaculture teachers, in 1997 Rosemary released the Earth User’s Guide to Permaculture Teacher’s Notes. This was something Fiona Campbell, Sydney permaculture educator Sue Doust and I worked on.

The 1990s were a bumper year for permaculture publishing and Australian titles were complemented with other from the UK. It was the publishing glut that preceded the drought.

The attrition of teachers

By the late-1980s teaching had become a growing area of permaculture activity, not least because there were few other outlets for the skills picked up in permaculture training—no employers were advertising for permaculture designers.

Teaching was, and continues to be seen by new PDC graduates as an opportunity to develop a livelihood. This is seldom the reality. Setting up as a teacher of permaculture demands a lot of commitment and expense in developing a set of teaching resources and acquiring teaching equipment. With the new accredited permaculture training, becoming a teacher involves the expense of acquiring a certificate in workplace training and in meeting other costs. This is a barrier to all but those very serious about their teaching and serves as a filter of those less committed.

At times, existing teachers have been reluctant to assist those who aspire to teach. Teachers jealously hold on to the instructional materials they develop and newcomers are soon disabused of the notion that existing teachers will be happy to share their resources. A number of trainers have been asked for assistance by would-be teachers, usually in the sharing of teaching resources, but this has—privately at least—been met with a firm negative response.

The teaching of permaculture has been a boom and bust phenomenon. By the end of the 1980s a number of teachers had established themselves along the eastern seaboard and were offering the PDC and associated courses on a regular basis. It was a good start and was to be reinforced by greater student numbers whose interest had been stimulated by mainstream media coverage and, to some extent, by the distribution of PIJ through news agencies. But within a decade permaculture teaching would run into its own limits to growth. With the exception of Robyn Francis in Nimbin and Jeff Lawton of the Permaculture Research Institute, most of those offering PDCs in the 1980s and the 1990s have now left teaching:

  • Lea Harrison ceased to offer the PDC in the early 1990s
  • Jude and Michel Fanton stopped offering permaculture education and instead developed specialised courses in seed saving from their Seed Savers Network premises in Byron Bay
  • the Gravenstein’s offered farming-oriented permaculture design courses in southern NSW and Victoria but dropped out of teaching
  • Southern Highlands Permaculture in NSW used to offer the PDC on a part-time basis
  • Action for World Development, a Sydney-based development education organisation, offered a part-time design course in the late-1990s led by permaculture activist Jill Finnane, as well as short introductory courses; that ceased with the closure of the organisation
  • Bronwyn Rice was a horticulturist and landscape designer who offered a part-time PDC in Sydney in the early 1990s and who taught in courses organised by Pacific Edge; she has since dropped out of the permaculture scene
  • the van Raders, who live on tropical North Queensland’s Atherton Tableland, ceased offering the PDC in the late-1990s and withdrew from their national presence within the permaculture milieu
  • Pacific Edge offered a longer, part-time, urban-oriented PDC through the 1990s after starting in teaching with Rosemary Morrow and in the permaculture elective of the TAFE horticulture course in Sydney; they continue to offer shorter, urban-oriented permaculture workshops and courses through local government.

There are many reasons why people move into and out of permaculture teaching. For some, teaching is only a part-time activity and the demands of their regular employment take precedence. Others try it the way children dip their toes into a swimming pool to see how cold the water is, then withdraw when they realise that there is little financial reward for a lot of work. Some fade away in the face of competition from established teachers. All learn that organising quality courses is very time demanding and is something they do not have the knowledge or skills to teach all by themselves. Often, it’s the simple application of the concept of time, financial and energy return on investment that leads to people first trying teaching, then dropping out.

Few seem to develop a realistic business model and base their decision to offer teaching on assumptions and guesswork. Some simply offer courses because they have been motivated by their own training.  Most of those offer only a few courses before they drop out of regular teaching. Then there’s the all-important question of the level of demand for permaculture design education, something that has proven variable with only the established teachers riding through the periods of low demand.

By the late-1990s the market for permaculture education had reached saturation and too few students were leading to teacher dropout. At one stage there were four teaching venues between Nimbin and Crystal Waters; too many, it turned out.

A new cohort of permaculture teachers emerged in the 1990s:

  • Morag Gamble and partner Evan Raymond started teaching after they moved from Brisbane to Crystal Waters ecovillage where they expanded their offerings through their organisation, SEED International (Sustainable Education and Environmental Design)
  • Naomi and Rick Coleman started to offer the PDC through their organisation, Southern Cross Permaculture Institute, from their rural property in Gippsland, southern Victoria
  • the PDC was offered by Dick Copeman who was then based at Northey Street City Farm in Brisbane.

Training appears to still be available at times through the Permaculture Association of South Australia and in Perth, Western Australia.

Permaculture Melbourne seems to have opted out of teaching although an association of permaculture teachers has emerged from the organisation. Rosemary Morrow, in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, offered a course in the late-1990s and continue to do so.

David Holmgren started to offer permaculture courses in the 1990s after he set up his smallholding in rural Victoria. Bill Mollison still teaches on a occasional basis, sometimes in Tasmania and occasionally as a guest teacher in the USA.

Reaching the natural limit

In Sydney, Fiona and I first taught the PDC with Rosemary Morrow, initially in the Pittwater region then on the Central Coast. After that, Rosemary left to work on projects in Vietnam and Cambodia. People would call, asking if we were planning to teach more courses. No, we were not, we would tell them. But why not, we thought?

Rather than the 14-day intensive format in which most PDCs were offered, we followed Rosemary’s example by offering a part-time course on weekends. The course grew to more than 100 hours because we found the 72-hour format developed by Bill Mollison too short for practical, participatory learning. We also added a segment on people skills, group skills and planning skills because we had found them conspicuously lacking in permaculture training.

Earlier, we had taught introductory courses for a community college and managed to fill them, thanks to The Global Gardener. Permaculture education was enjoying boom times but we eventually passed the introductory courses over to one of our students who had expressed an interest in teaching.

Courses were now offered in most states but by late in the decade competition had left only the Crystal Waters crew, the Permaculture Research Institute and Robyn Francis’ Permaculture Education as training providers in the Northern Rivers district. The market in the region ‘rationalised’ to the maximum number of providers it can sustain. Teaching reached a point of statis the boundaries of which, by 2003, were defined by a market no longer expanding sufficiently (if at all) for newcomers to set up. Now, with accredited training, there is again the chance to expand the numbers in training and to financially sustain the sometimes shaky incomes of the teachers.

It was only last year that someone emailed me, asking advice on moving to the NSW country where they hoped to earn a livelihood teaching permaculture. I suggested, as delicately as I could, that they consider other livelihood options. Then, in 2011, a woman who had completed her permaculture training said that she was going to set up an enterprise offering edible landscaping and a commercialisation of the Permablitz model. I ticked off in my mind how many businesses I have encountered offering edible landscaping over the yeard, recalled that a friend who is a professional landscape architect and who has integrated permaculture design into his work still does not attract sufficient business from that area, and wondered how the voluntary Permablitz participants would take to an attempt to commercialise their activity. I said nothing of this because I want to encourage entrepreneurialism in permaculture design.

New beginnings, new endings

I remember that morning. It was sunny and warm as the four of us climb into Julia de Brosses’ ageing green Kombi, her sometime home on wheels, and motor out onto Showground Road past the tall clumping bamboo that marks the entrance to Djanbung Gardens. A right turn takes us down Cullen Street through the still-quiet town of Nimbin—is this a town of late risers or are we just setting off early? Here, the murals on the shopfronts are somewhat faded, much like the memories of those seemingly-far-off days of 1973 when the Aquarius Festival resurrected from its rural backwater slumber this one-time dairy town on the decline.

A couple minutes is all it takes to traverse the town and descend towards the bridge that crosses the stream on whose bank stands the old building now serving as town cinema and home to a recording studio. Then its down into second gear to wind up the hill and follow the hardtop through a picturesque farming landscape backed by steep ridges clad in the dark green of subtropical rainforest, all the way to Uki.

I had spent time in Nimbin before, sometimes attending Robyn Francis’ post-PDC specialist, week long courses or visiting friends who used to live at nearby Mountaintop, a district of scattered farms atop the ridges to the immediate south of the town. I say ‘used to live’ because, like others who were attracted to Nimbin’s alternativeness, they grew unhappy with the changing culture as it evolved over the years and set off for the coast. There they’ve lived ever since, in three locations all up in what appears to me as a type of nomadic home owner existence. I think they’re happy now, living in a hamlet of the Pacific Highway to the north of Byron Bay and some distance inland of Brunswick Heads, or at last I think they should be.

There’s not much to Uki where it nestled below the dominating volcanic plug known as Mt Warning so we drive on in the direction of Murwillumbah. Where the Uki road meets that traversing the Tweed Valley we turn left—inland—forsaking the sparse flights of the town for the town of Tyalgum. Here, if its a hot summer day and you have the inclination, you enjoy a cold beer below the sheltering awning of the hotel. Once, I had come over the road that comes into town here from further out in the Tweed after spending the with friends living in their large house-ified farm shed on their small rural parcel below a banana plantation. They had a fine outlook, their northern horizon the grey-green forested ramparts of the Border Range. This was inspiring country in its ruggedness and juxtaposition of farm and forest, hill and mountain… the sort of place that might have inspired poets of the Romantic era.

It was into just this sort or country that Julia took the Kombi, turning in the opposite direction at the intersection and following a short section of hardtop that narrowed into an all-weather gravel surface.

We approached the low, timber building through a garden whose soil was covered by a sprawling green mass of sweet potato and whose canopy was the foliage of low-growing legumes and fruit trees. Emerging from this, we entered a large teaching room. Here, we knew, students would gather to learn permaculture from the man who started it. As one explained, sitting here listening to Bill’s anecdotes was wearying in the heat of the subtropical afternoon but it was what he said that kept you awake.

We were on our first visit to the farm that was the Permaculture Institute. The setting was spectacular… rolling terrain set against the steep, jagged slopes of forest-clad mountains which formed a rampart along the edge of the ancient volcanic caldera . Set amid the cleared terrain at their foot was the Institute.

The place was a scattering of buildings across the landscape, one an old timber farmhouse of the architectural style developed in this climate which housed those staying on site. There was the teaching centre, a low timber structure with a little guest room above, a large farm dam whose closest edge had been shelved as a flooded garden for water crops, a hillside carved with the curve of swales to intercept and infiltrate runoff and along whose lower lip young mango trees battled for their survival amid the rank, tall grasses that thrive in this moist, hot climate, a banana circle microcatchment, an large kitchen garden complete with a squadron of chooks and, downslope, the structures of the Commonworks. It seemed impressive although a little on the sprawling side in its coverage of the landscape. The kitchen garden was perhaps the best maintained component of the Institute’s lands. It was prepared for planting by chickens kept in polypipe and wire mesh domes that were moved from garden bed to garden bed.

This was permaculture’s big brave experiment of the time. Here, promoted by the display ads in the Permaculture International Journal, permaculture design courses would attract students. I expect some were by the mythology that had accumulated around Bill Mollison. It would be difficult to argue that this mystique did not exist, but it was less a creation of Bill than that of his admirers. Occasionally the term ‘guru’ would unthinkingly be applied to him, however that was an appellation that Bill resisted and, thankfully, it never caught on except by some outside of the movement, mainly journalists writing about permaculture for whom the term was a general one used to identify any leader figure and which signified, if anything, journalistic laziness in researching the role and attitudes of leader figures. Bill was a natural teacher who had become a de-facto leader due to the force of his experience, insight and knowledge, not a guru.

Here, 20 or 30 minutes along the dusty road from Tyalgum. Bill made the upland farm his home when he left Tasmania in the late-1980. He brought the Permaculture Institute with him, wrenching it from its natural homeland far away on the windswept grasslands outside Stanley. On his 2.5 hectare subtropical block he built a house for himself and an office for Tagari Publishers, the business that published and marketed his books. Bill lived in the large brick house and two others lived on site, one of whom I knew if my memory serves  me well, as Marylin. She managed Tagari but I don’t recall what her partner did there. Later, they moved into a farmhouse when the Institute purchased the adjoining farm, the one where the Permaculture Research Institute was founded. I don’t know why they left—someone said there might have been a falling out—nor do I know why Bill quit stanley for this place that would be home to him and the Permaculture Institute for the next decade or so.

When he returned to Tasmania at the end of his subtropical soujourn, Bill took the Permaculture Institute back to its homeland and set up at Sisters Creek, back again on the Bass Strait coast not all that far from Stanley. Now under the control of Geoff Lawton, the farm housed the Permaculture Research Institute which set out to aggressively promote its permaculture design course and attract a small voluntary workforce of changing make-up. Doing this was not simple altruism so that people could learn about permaculture farm life. It was critical to the continuance of the place.

The Commonworks—a good idea ahead of its time

Once settled on the land, Bill set about planting the 2.5ha to a mix of food-producing and native plants. This is the garden seen in the video production, In Grave Danger of Falling Food, as it was soon after Bill moved in. It quickly grew into a food forest and the garden developed into a large plantation of coffee trees, understorey to a forest of tall leguminous trees that formed a shading canopy high overhead and cast the understory not a cooling gloom. Visiting the Institute one day, we walked into the dim light of the coffee forest to be set upon and stung by squadrons of voracious, aggressive mosquitos that were more aggressive than their malaria-carrying brethren I was to encounter in a cocoa plantation in the Solomon Islands. We stayed in the dim confines of that shaded coffee patch until we could cope no longer.

When the adjoining farm went on the market Bill’s wife of the time provided the funds to buy it. Here, he set up a new organisation, the Permaculture Research Institute (PRI). The PRI was to attract students and interns through the decade or so of its existence there below the ridges of that ancient shield volcano. It seems that the place garnered something of an international reputation for some of those making their way along the hot, dusty road from Tyalgum were not Australian. The place became a node on the international permaculture circuit, if such a thing existed.

One of the PRI’s innovative moves was the attempt to set up a ‘Commonworks’, an imaginative scheme that would use the new property as the venue for livelihood projects. Individuals would set up their own projects and pay an amount to PRI for management services such as water supply and roads. The idea was reminiscent of the microenterprises that international development practitioners set up in developing country villages.

A large dam was excavated for a fish farm, a slope terraced for a tropical fruit orchard, bamboo planted for the food and cane market, a large free range chicken yard fenced, an extensive vegetable garden established on the river flats and a ‘chinampa’ system, a series of flooded ditches separated by agricultural strips, was excavated. Modelled on the ancient Aztec chinampas of Mexico City, fish could be farmed in the flooded trenches and crops grown on the soil strips between them. When I saw the chinampas in use, guinea pigs were being kept on one strip (they are eaten in parts of South America; I didn’t find out of they were on the menu at the PRI) and flowers were planted in another, presumably for the cut flower market though the quantity growing at that time seemed to be far too low to provide a regular supply to the market and there was no indication of successional planting to provide a constant flow of production.

Over the visits I made to the place I never learned that the flooded chinampa trenches had been stocked with freshwater table fish, nor did I see the agricultural mounds fully planted to a crop. It was as if a good, innovative project had been stated then partially abandoned for some reason. Maybe I simply was not there when it was in higher production, however I never came across any news of its full use. Maybe there was insufficient labour to operate the system or maybe no ne had taken it on as a commercial enterprise.

The next time I next visited PRI, I found the system undergoing an algal bloom. The last time I visited, the chinampas had fallen into disuse.

There’s no doubting the innovative thinking behind Commonworks and credit must be given to the Institute for its boldness in attempting the enterprise. The Commonworks project appealed to the permaculture imagination, including mine, not that I saw myself taking up one of the agricultural opportuities there. The knowledge that such a thing was being tried I found inspirational enough and I am fortunate to have visited the Institute when the experiment was in progress, for it was a truly inspirational thing.

Those leaseholders engaged in the land-based enterprises did not live on-site but travelled from their homes to tend them. Standing there by the big, edible-fish pond and looking out over bamboo aboretum and market garden I wondered about how often they would make the journey… two, three times a week?  I wondered too about the cost of doing this in terms of time and fuel, though petrol then was a lot cheaper than it is now. At best, I realised, these small farming enterprises could be only a part time income stream when they got going, assuming markets existed. I have no idea if a financial feasibility study or a business plan was ever developed.

Commonworks got off to a good start. Vegetables were planted, terraces were carved on a sunward, north-facing slope and a tropical fruit tree orchard established. Edible fish were introduced to the big pond and an Asian-style, pivoted scoop net constructed to harvest them. It seemed that there was optimism around his new adventure in livelihood creation. Still… I did wonder about scale… was the market garden on the creek banks large enough to produce a reasonable financial return… would the big pond yield enough fish… were there enough tropical fruit trees being established to generate the level of income that would make the enterprise worthwhile? Somehow, as I stood there and looked, the enterprises seemed a little too small.

Stimulated by reports in PIJ, there was a lot of interest from the permaculture community but for reasons unknown to me the initial enthusiasm for this pioneering venture faltered and it later collapsed. The stated intention of identifying the most appropriate bamboo species for shoot and cane went unfulfilled. In the city I was distant from the realities of the enterprise but news of its closure came as a disappointment. I think this had something to do with my long time interest in how livelihoods could be spun from something like permaculture whose major success at the time seemed to be as a hobby or part time activity based on food production in home gardens.

I visited the PRI site, or Tagari Farm as it was known, a number of times. After speaking with residents and interns I formed the opinion that even when they numbered as many as 15 they were still too few to effectively manage what was a large site and to implement new works. Apart from a tractor, little farm mechanisation was in evidence to make up for the labour shortfall.

Most interns seem to have found their time at PRI to be rewarding. There was, however, an undercurrent of complaint that they were  merely free labour. A one-time resident told me that this was the perception of some. The size of the property and lack of mechanisation was motivation enough, I realised, for having an intern labour force simply to keep the place maintained even if not to expand its works. What was suggested to me was there was not the return in the form of learning for the amount of work done and that the arrangement may have been a little exploitative.

Whatever the circumstances might have been, change came in 1997 when Bill decided to return to Tasmania and take the Permaculture Institute with him. According to a past resident of Tagari, he left Tagari Farm, now headed by Jeff Lawton, to pay the $2000 monthly rent. If this is as reported, it’s likely behind the aggressive advertising of permaculture design courses and internships that appeared in the page of PIJ. A high throughput of paying students and the labour of interns would have been critical to meeting costs. The impact of this intensified program on other training providers in the region is unknown, but it could not have helped them greatly.

Later, I learned that local government was making tenure at Tagari Farm difficult by insisting that the farm contribute to roadworks. Eventually it became too much and, in a move that surprised and disappointed many in permaculture, Tagari Farm was put on the market. Suddenly, something iconic was gone and permaculture, somehow, seemed the lesser for it.

In 2001, the PRI acquired land near the village of The Channon, twenty minutes drive from Lismore and just over the range from Djanbung Gardens. The first design courses were offered there in 2002.

Like so much in permaculture, no evaluation of the Commonworks project was made public and no evaluation may ever have been made. Project monitoring and evaluation are not permaculture’s strong points. There is no accessible record for the permaculture community, no learnings drawn from experience.

The future of Commonworks was in the future as we turned Julia’s Kombi onto the dusty road to Tyalgum and retraced our journey back to Djanbung gardens in the fading light of that warm summer’s day. Little did we know we would not visit the Institute again.

A grand experiment

How do you judge the success or failure of an enterprise like the farm and the Commonworks? I won’t attempt to judge, partly because my visits to the farm were few, partly out of respect for those who tried to make a go of the place and partly out of respect for Bill’s vision for the place. All I have with which to make sense of the experiment are my own observations and what people, some of whom stayed and worked there, have told me.

My take is that the farm and the Commonworks were one of permaculture’s boldest experiments. They were an experiment of a type and scale that has not been attempted since. Had the Commonworks succeeded it would have scaled-up permaculture, thus answering a criticism that would later be levelled at the design system.

I wonder if there was suffcient research into markets and distribution for their products by those taking up the Commonworks leases? These were sometimes new crops, like bamboo, which would have justified time spent in market research. Walking around the site the thought occurred to me that the scale of the enterprises might be rather small for commercial success. An additional factor might have been at play here—that of proximity to markets and workforce, both basic considerations in the establishment of businesses. Commonworks microenterprise owners did not live on site and Murwillumbah, the region’s major urban centre, was the good part of an hour’s drive eastwards, maybe more. Factor in time spent developing and maintaining the microenterprise, plus time spent in travel and you have something of a disincentive. At best, the Commonworks could offer only a labour intensive, part-time source of income.

There was also the scale of the Institute’s farm property and the fact that labour or farm mechanisation might have been in too short a supply to both develop the site and to carry out the necessary maintenance.

Like much of Permaculture’s history, knowledge of the Commonworks and the farm has faded and is probably unknown to many of those joining the movement in recent times. Without documentation of the enterprise being easily available, any sense of the continuity of permaculture as a phenomenon extending through 35 or so years of contemporary history, and of Tagari Farm and the Commonworks being part of it, is at risk of being lost. It remains only in the fading memories of those who participated in the venture or who visited it.

The handing over

We were sitting in the morning sun that Sunday, the low hill the small crowd occupied sloping gently downward a stage. It was a quiet morning as most of those around the town of Nimbin probably are. On this, the last day of the 1997 Permaculture Convergence at Djanbung Gardens, we were about to hear something unexpected.

Bill appeared and was surrounded by well-wishers. I approached and shot off a series of images on my Nikon, one of which was of Bill in a classic ‘hero’ pose that I took from below head height. Bill, grey beard, blue shirt and wide-brimmed hat gazes off into the distance as if looking for some elusive promise just over the horizon… as if waiting for permaculture to rise above that horizon to illuminate a world hungry for change. This image has been used by a number of permaculture organisations, without permission of course, though that doesn’t bother me. It was an unplanned shot, one of those opportunities that present themselves for a fraction of a second and without any planning by the subject or photographer. It remains my favourite image of Bill, seeming to epitomise his quality of character and his focus on the future.

Bill chatted awhile, posing for photographs with different people and I shot off another frame as he laughed. Then, he climbed onto the stage. Standing there, he was quiet for a minute or so, looking out at those gathered on the slope. He started to talk about permaculture, what it had been, what it was… and then the unexpected happened. Bill announced his retirement. He was returning to Tasmania and would withdraw from teaching.

I was unsure whether others assembled on than hill realised what he was saying, but I guess they did. Was what seemed momentus to me not that to them? Did they realise that this was a point of change in permaculture, an inflection point, a departure from what had gone before?

This, I realised with some amazement, was a farewell speech. Bill explained that he was handing over permaculture to those assembled there, to its participants. It was a transition point, a moment of significant change and, in its own way, a moment that moved us emotionally.

Later that day, someone commented that they would believe Bill had retired when they saw it. As it turned out Bill’s retirement was not quite what it seemed and he went on to offer the occasional PDC at the Permaculture Institute’s new property at Jacky’s Marsh, Tasmania, and to teach an annual PDC at a Melbourne University with Geoff Lawton.

A decade fades

And so the 1990s played out. Permaculture initiatives rose, some to persist, others to fade.

After more than 20 years of growth, permaculture had surged to a peak of participation and public interest only to experience something of a decline of sorts in the decade’s later years. Reduced media attention contributed to this, but there must have been other factors at work as well. There is little information about just how widespread this decline was or whether it was just down to a faulty impression that it was occurring. In some places participation in permaculture remained high… whatever decline there was must have been regional.

Overall, the nineties turned out a growth period for permaculture. The positive achievements of the times included the:

  • establishment of education and demonstration centres such as Djanbung Gardens
  • growth of Crystal Waters ecovillage and the teaching of permaculture and other courses there
  • establishment of the Coleman’s teaching centre in Victoria and their business, Southern Cross Permaculture Institute
  • the rise and decline of Tagari Farm and the Commonworks
  • the establishment of permaculture teaching as a livelihood
  • the Seed Savers’ Network, that went from strength to strength
  • the start of a continuing growth period for community gardens and the birth of the Australian City Farms & Community Gardens Network.

During this time, permaculturists became involved in schools, community garden development and overseas development assistance, a practice stimulated by the Permaculture Global Assistance Network (PGAN) set up in Melbourne by Adam Tiller and others.

Moves into the international development sector include:

  • a permaculture presence in Kosovo, thanks to the Permaculture Research Institute, after the conflagration in the Balkans
  • Amy Glastonberry from the Seed Savers Network spending time working in East Timor following that country’s bloody battle for independence from Indonesia, and Lawrence Machkenzie’s time there later with a local permaculture NGO being established and LAwrence producing a permaculture manual for East Timor
  • Tony Jansen being given an award by Permaculture International for his work with the Kastom Garden Program in the Solomon Islands; the program had made a start in 1995 and was to continue as one of the longest-running, perhaps the longest-running project involving unbroken input from people trained in permaculture
  • PGAN and its work with an urban agriculture training project in Havana
  • the publication of Getting Ready, a book for aspiring overseas aid workers produced by a number of us associated withAction For World development, an educational organisation that faded with the decade and with which prominent Sydney permaculture educator and author , Jill Finnane, (Jill later wrote From Lawns To Lunch, an exploration of home garden food production in Sydney) was closely associated.

Like so much else permacultural, PGAN, too, was gone by the end of the decade. Permaculture activity in international development, however, has been sustained on an individual basis through the efforts of people like Rick Coleman and Tony Jansen with his work in the Solomon Islands/PNG. Fiona and I continued—and still continue— our sporadic work with TerraCircle Inc that only and I set up after APACE abandoned agricultural work in the Solomons. No Australian permaculture NGO  (Non-Government Organisation) like PGAN has emerged to further its potential.

As for the permaculture press, the PIJ struggled through successive financial crises and by decade’s end was approaching its final edition. So too was Green Connections, Joy Finch’s magazine that she produced in Castlemaine, Victoria. Permaculture would soon be a movement without a voice.


As I sit writing these lines so many years after the events I describe, I look down at the book I am using as a mouse pad and see there, emblazoned across its back cover, the statement:

“Live Smart. Think for Yourself. Transform the Future”.  

I move the mouse aside and pick up the book to look up its publication date, and there it is: The Whole Earth Catalog, 1994.

This large volume was a product of the same decade as permaculture’s expansion and its experimentation with more ambitious projects. In it are are the ideas, the tools, the technologies that empowered people in their new ventures, in their search for new ways of doing things that would make better neighbourhoods, better regions, a better world.

I flick to the contents pages in search of a word, a P-word, an entry on permaculture but I find none. There are the components of permaculture, but not the term itself. My disappointment at not finding an entry on the design system is offset by finding numerous entries on all of those things that make up permaculture as an approach to whole systems design.

Then, out of curiosity I turn to the index pages. I scan down… entries starting with ‘pa’… then down to the ‘pe’s’… an there, occupying just a single line, is the word I seek—’permaculture’. I flick through to page 97 and at the top of column one is the entry: “Permaculture. This is the book everyone was looking for 20 years ago… the one that explains how to grow food, fix broken land and devise a better society… and this is followed by a couple Mollisonian principles and a photo of the Designers’ Manual. I stop and reflect… let’s see… the Catalog was published in 1994 and it says they this is the book we needed 20 years before that… back in 1974…

1974—the time of intentional communities, the birth of the organic gardening movement, the popularisation of Frtitz Schumacher’s concept of Intermediate Technology, the peak of the ‘alternative’ movement, one year after the Aquirius Festival in Nimbin, two years after Australia quit the war in Vietnam, three years before the publication of Permaculture One. Have we really been looking for solutions all of that time, I ask myself? And have we found them? Then I recall how different today’s world is from that of those times, how the solutions we need now include those we sought then but include so many more, so many novel and new challenges to meet. I wonder if permaculture can help us in this most important of quests, that for our common future and the future of our children and grandchildren and I think, yes, the design system still has much to offer, especially if we tweak it here and there, discard what is outdated and integrate new ideas, new tools. We adapt ideas that appear at one time and adopt them to fit new circumstances… ideas like permaculture, we can make them new again.

Making things new again… I put the book on the table and notice below that statement about living smart, at the bottom of the page, the Whole Earth Catalog’s last words…

“It’s all new again, because the world is all new again”… Harold Rheingold.

Comments (1)

  • Michael Hoag
    September 2, 2018 at 11:49 pm

    Marvelous! Thank you so much for sharing this perspective on this history. “History” is certainly a tool and pattern that Permaculturists should add to their “tool box,” should we want to design better action.

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