Heather’s blog of the course

Board member Heather Holm took the 2-week Permaculture Design Course in May 2012. She blogged the content highlights most days as the course went along.

Here are her posts:

Permaculture students arriving

Today is arrival day for the Permaculture Design Certification course.

Students are arriving from near and far with their camping gear.

Last night Graham gave his very interesting Intro to Permaculture talk to about 20 people from the community. It stimulated a lot of thinking and ideas.

Today Graham and Marie-Claire are setting up the classroom, greeting the students, and having a wide range of conversations with those of us who have been onsite.

The kitchen is busy, as Nancy S. and Nancy O. prepare for two weeks of cooking for 20.

As a former school parent, I (Heather) am really enjoying the changing ambiance as the buildings and site take on a whole new energy, purpose and direction.

I’m taking the course, and will be blogging and taking lots of pictures. See the menu: Permaculture > PDC 2012 > Photo Gallery for pictures.

~ Heather Holm

PDC Day 1

We are 14 students in the Permaculture PDC course, and there were others who attended the Intro talk on Friday night who would have jumped in if they could.

It’s a very interesting collection of people, some from the South Shore and some from places like Montreal, the Bahamas, BC and Newfoundland, in come cases via closer places like New Brunswick, Antigonish, Halifax.

There is a lot of passion in the group –  for growing things, for taking actions that actually contribute to healing the world, for finding a better way to grow food and to live, for connecting with a movement of positive ideas that make sense, for living their passion.

Age range varies widely, with a strong cohort in their 20s and a sprinkling through the decades towards “normal retirement age”. Academic backgrounds range widely too.

Some students are getting university credit for the course.

Until last year, the last PDC taught in Nova Scotia was in 1995. Permaculture is popular in places like Australia, where it originated, where farmers get their PDC tuition subsidized and where it is taught in elementary schools, and also on the west coast, in BC and Washington for example. So we are significantly expanding the permaculture movement on the east coast, while being connected to a much larger network of people.

I hope to find time to blog about the course over the next two weeks, passing on some of the highlights.

Abundance is the goal, sustainability is just the path.

Graham Calder and partner Marie Claire Gagnon at lunch with David Cameron at the school.

A spontaneous Graham Calder quote from Day one of the PDC.

Natural systems are abundant. They produce a surplus. Squirrels, for example, only eat about 15% of the nuts they store away. The rest become compost or oak trees.

Sustainability implies just getting by without depleting our resources. It’s just a start; it’s not our ultimate purpose.

Abundance gives us extra resources so we can create art and culture, have healthy relationships, have choices, build strong communities.

By applying the lessons learned from natural systems, we can create abundance too.

PDC Day 2

A few times during today’s class, immersed in techniques for living well on the earth without depleting its resources, the spell broke and I recalled my life and how very far most of us are from that goal. So far, in fact, that for most of us it isn’t even a goal – even though it can be done.

And I despaired for a long moment.

And then I reminded myself of The Blockhouse School Project, and offered gratitude for it and for the small steps that it will help us make towards being self-sufficient.

Given these contours, where would you put your house? Ponds? Driveway?

But jeez we have a long way to go. For example, looking at the contour map on the blackboard at right, if this were your property, where would you situate your house?

Many builders around here would put the house on the highest hill to maximize the view and presumably the price.

But in permaculture, that would be called a Type 1 Error – a basic mistake that would make it hard for the project to succeed – in permaculture terms. Subject to cold north winds, the house would be hard to heat. You would lose the potential to build a gravity-fed water system from a pond higher on the hill – a safety feature in case of fire. The driveway would be steep and slippery and hard to plough. Even the feng shui wouldn’t be good.

I also spent time today contemplating graywater systems that capture and filter washwater from the house to nourish the garden, something I’ve never thought much about before.

My house has a typical septic bed under the front lawn. The lawn is obviously not benefiting from the nutrients in either the greywater or the blackwater mouldering deep beneath it – and according to the septic system’s designer, that is probably a good thing. But what a waste, especially with a garden downhill on the other side of the driveway.

This PDC course is a bit like taking a trip to another country.

PDC Day 3: Patterns

Stalking the wild mustard

Today was less intense than yesterday and rather fun, as we looked for patterns in individual plants and then on the grounds themselves, and speculated on the causes.

For example:

  • Only one of the apple trees is in full blossom already. [A different variety? A heat trap at the corner of the property?]
  • Dandelions grow thickly in some places but not others. [Not deep or compacted enough for them? Different pH?]
  • Sheep sorrel and wild strawberries are growing in gravel. [Acidity indicators. Lack of competition? These plants will grow in very little soil.]
  • There’s one patch of wild mustard on the lawn.
  • A deer trail can be seen on the east corner.
  • There are a couple of surprising wet spots. [Bedrock near the surface? Clay deposit?]
  • Different salt-tolerant vegetation at the far corner of the school. [Winter salt drained off the asphalt?]


PDC Day 4: Climate and microclimates

Graham Calder casting a tall shadow

Today’s theme encompassed the broad strokes of world climate as well as the small details of microclimates created by features in the landscape.

Graham emphasized the oversimplification of the hydrologic cycle as it is usually taught in schools, ignoring the fact that 70% of rainfall is the result of transpiration from plants, and not just evaporation from the oceans. Such simplification results in an inadequate appreciation for the importance of forests to global climate.

There can be many microclimates on any property, and there are lots of things you can do to create and exploit them, including controlling the flow of frost, building greenhouses, creating rockpiles and berms, etc.

We explored the property for microclimates that would guide us towards choosing where particular plants would be happiest.

Click to see photo gallery and more information about building the herb spiral.

We were also introduced, via video, to Austrian permaculturist Sepp Holzer and the microclimates he creates with ponds at high altitudes.

Then we built an herb spiral: a compact garden bed that provides a variety of microclimates within a footprint 5 feet in diameter.

PDC Day 5: Water

Permaculturalists design for water before anything else.

Water is the limiting factor in many landscapes. Even in wet places like Nova Scotia it could be, and often is the limiting factor in late summer.

As the climate changes, we can expect water to become more of an issue. Today Graham Calder showed us some ways of capturing, storing and purifying water for plant use as well as for direct human use.

Solar shower runoff swale, covered with a light straw mulch

Permaculture makes extensive use of swales which capture runoff and allow it to soak into the ground to nourish plants. We built a swale outside our solar shower the other day and some of the seeds sown then are already sprouting.

The soil can absorb a lot of moisture if it is in good condition. Decompacting soil with keyline ploughing can reduce water runoff to virtually zero. Other techniques for large and small scale situations can be as simple as raking, or using a pitting roller on large stretches of compacted soil.

Small dams, wetlands and swamps can help droughtproof a site. Earthwork dams across contours can create ponds on a small or large scale. Existing wetlands and rivers are not altered.

Graham said he was keeping his presentation on water pollutants briefer than in previous courses he has taught because it tends to result in “a lot of crying”. There’s certainly enough to cry about, starting with the 62,000 chemicals which were grandfathered in for public use without safety testing after World War II.

A more complex water cycle than the one you probably learned in school - this one includes the effects of the forests.

While this course teaches about how we could be processing our waste, for example, so much more sustainably, reflecting on how things are usually done makes one realize the enormous scope of our errors.

The mechanisms of nature are very strong, however, and leave me all the more motivated to help heal my little piece of the earth.

There are solutions that can be applied on the small scale, such as fungi (mushrooms) that break down toxic chemicals and bacteria and eat diesel oil. There are also home-scale greywater treatment systems for making the best use of the water we have available, rather than contaminating it with what comes out of the toilet.

Large-scale solutions are infinitely more complex, but as human ingenuity is one of those strong mechanisms of nature, there is yet hope.



PDC Day 6: Trees

Graham Calder discussing food forest succession

A stunning relationship between forests and rainfall: trees add 50-75% to the total precipitation in the world.

Moisture moves inland from the ocean only about 100 km. If it weren’t for the forests, the rest of the land would be desert.

So rainwater is like a seed that plants a new and more important part of the water cycle, thanks to trees.

Trees are water pumps that move water from deep in the ground up to the clouds,  propelled by wind and capillary action. When it rains, water gets filtered back to the ground via leaves and stems, washing nutrients to the ground.

I wonder if forests would get more respect if their importance were better taught in schools.

Building a food forest is a long-term project. To be successful, you have to think in terms of succession patterns in nature. By starting with pioneer nitrogen-fixing plants that will be overtaken by the desired trees later, you build soil fertility so that the high-value desired trees, such as apples or pears, will thrive.

The high-value tree is surrounded by a guild of plants that fill many functions. Some fix nitrogen. Others confuse pests, repel deer, mine the soil for minerals and provide a rich mulch, or attract pollinators.

There are many interesting and even unusual trees you could grow in a food forest.

PDC Day 7: Soil is Alive; Dirt is Dead

“The Nation that destroys its soil destroys itself.” (Franklin Delano Roosevelt)

Soil is alive. Dirt is dead.

It’s a viscous spiral that starts with tilling and ends with dead dirt, eroded land and polluted waterways.

Annapolis Valley field, Medford

A teaspoon of healthy soil contains billions of bacteria, fungi, protozoa and nematodes.

Tilling kills micro-organisms in the soil, resulting in a temporary rush of available nutrients from their dead bodies.

After a few years of tilling, the loss of soil fertility becomes obvious.

So we add fertilizers, which kill off healthy bacteria that support and protect plants.

The plants weaken without these allies, and become more vulnerable to pests.

So we use pesticides, which destabilize the life around the plant, opening up space for weeds.

Heavy clay soil in the wet east end of the property

So then of course we use herbicides to kill the weeds, but now the soil is dried out and lifeless so it doesn’t hold water and we have to irrigate.

So now we’re depleting the water table just when we’ve become more vulnerable to drought.

But wait, there’s hope. Fields can be rejuvenated. And within a few years, they can be restored to fertility, so powerful are the natural processes that have developed over millions of years, much longer than Homo sapiens has been kicking around.

Keyline ploughing is a technique of decompacting soil without turning it over. It allows the ground to absorb water that would otherwise run off. A diverse grass mixture is planted to restore life to the soil. In a few years the field will be ready for a swale system designed to retain rainwater, and a polyculture food forest.

A compost tea can be applied to restore bacterial life to the soil. This tea is made with high-quality compost and actively aerated as it is brewed. It can be sprayed over a wide area.

There are methods of making compost that is teaming with life to inoculate the soil with microorganisms.

A well balanced soil will naturally resist the forces of acidification so that lime need not be applied.

Similar techniques can be applied on the home scale. Mulch is the answer to many questions. Mulching increases reproduction of soil microorganisms, which increases their poop as well as their die-off, all of which adds fertility to the soil.

Loamy soil just inside the woods

We collected soil samples from several spots on the property and found sand, silt and clay in different places.

The soil on the east end of the property, which is perpetually wet underfoot, is clay, as Graham suspected. It will lend itself to different treatment and features in our permaculture designs for the property.

Stay tuned for that!



PDC Day 8: Humid Cool to Cold Climates

This is our climate type, but it’s useful to understand how it is distinct from other climates, such as tropical climates and hot, dry climates, so that we can appreciate the benefits and particular challenges it presents.

Humid cool/cold climates run from the Mediterranean to the Boreal forest. They have wet winters, frosts, and heavy humus accumulation from deciduous forests, resulting in thick, lush soils. Spring melt and runoff through watersheds to the ocean must be dealt with.

Fruits and berries are small, compared with large tropical fruit. Worms aerate the soil and decompose organic matter, whereas in dry climates ants carry out these functions.

Housing has to be solid and insulated to protect from cold as well as precipitation.   Most mammals hibernate in winter, and humans need to store food and cycling the diet to adapt to the seasons. Our diet is quite diverse.

With high rains in spring and fall, and wet winters but summers that are often dry just when our crops need water, sustainable settlements need to retain and store water while preventing loss of soil through erosion.

When drainage is poor, acidity can develop in the soil. High acidity makes heavy metals soluble and restricts availability of some essential nutrients.

Rolling landscapes with lots of rounded hills and valleys are typical of these climates.

My Danish grandparents, on their Nova Scotia farm

Before the “green revolution” when everyone started using fertilizers and pesticides, a set of farming practices had developed that involved the plough, shedding livestock in winter, long crop rotations, manure on fields, silage and stored hay for the winter, growing root crops and grains – the kind of farming I associate with my Dutch and Danish immigrant grandfathers, who also had access to fertilizers and pesticides, and one of them died young as a direct result.

Our climate has required that humans be inventive and resourceful in order to survive in it. Permaculturalists are finding new ways to build thriving landscapes that mostly maintain themselves, while healing the earth in the process. It is amazing how land can be rejeuvenated in just a few years when we work with nature instead of against it.

Compacted soil can be revived with three years of keyline ploughing which allows rain to soak into the soil without actually turning the soil over. Swale systems and ponds can store and distribute water while preventing flooding and erosion. Mulch and fungi help rebuild the soil’s fertility.

Smarter home building can make life more comfortable in all seasons. Proper situating of the house in the landscape, orientation to the sun, good insulation and building materials can make a house very inexpensive to heat. Deciduous vines and trees on the sunward side of the house can reduce heat in summer.

Likewise on a community level there are many things we could do differently to reduce use of fossil fuels and make life more pleasant in our humid cool/cold climates.



PDC Day 9: Dry Lands

Dusty African road

It has been a very long time since I tried gardening (unsuccessfully, except for monster zucchini around the outdoor shower) in a hot, dry climate, so the material in this section didn’t “sink in” as well as that of the Humid Cool and Cold Climates the day before.

Which is the problem in those climates: you have to work hard to let every possible bit of rain sink in and be productive. Instead of raised garden beds you make sunken beds. You plant shade trees and create cooler microclimates around them where other things will grow.

You harvest rainwater and graywater as much as you can (at least I did that right!). Water is the key limiting factor, not sun.

Permaculturalists in hot, dry climates use swales, but they plant in the ditch and walk on the berm, the opposite of what you would do in a wet climate.

And miracles are possible. Here is a remarkable example from Borneo:

PDC Day – what?

A flurry of shovels as we learn about digging swales

Apologies, Gentle Reader. With the end of the course coming up, I’ve been staying later at the school to work on the final assignment which we’re doing in small groups: to create an overall design concept for the Blockhouse School property itself, so haven’t had enough time for posting here. Tomorrow is the last day of the course. After that, I hope to catch up with my reader’s digest version of my course notes.

Designing the Blockhouse property seemed impossibly daunting when the course started, but we got our feet wet, so to speak, coming up with designs for a new community park in Chester Basin.

Because that park-to-be is a smaller piece of land, and we had less information, it was easier to take the plunge and put the concepts we’ve been learning to work – on paper at least.

So now we’re old pros – not! Let’s just say that it is most reassuring to know that our ideas will be going into a pool from which Graham and the project’s directors will be drawing the best to create the final design.

I am amazed at how things I would never have thought of by myself emerge out of our group’s discussions. So I’m really excited about hearing what the other groups have come up with.

It has been a very, very engaging course. The course material itself is paradigm-shifting.

The people involved: our talented instructor Graham Calder and his partner Marie-Claire Gagnier who helps keep things organized and teaches yoga and goal-coaching on the side, the students with their wide and deep range of backgrounds and talents, the volunteers who have been helping with food and keeping things going; everyone has been united in getting deep into the material and bringing it forward into our new project. The energy has been awesome.

While some are soon going home to Newfoundland or Montreal, several others live in this area and will want to stay involved with the project, so we’ll have a core of people to carry the design forward, lead work days, and show others what we’ve learned. So if you’d like to be involved just let us know and we’ll keep you in the loop.



PDC Day 10: Earthworks

Permaculture is labour-intensive in the beginning, but saves work in later years. By moving the earth around a bit according to a well-designed plan, we can control the elements somewhat – water, wind, sun, frost – so that they make life easier in the long run. It’s a lucrative retirement investment plan that also yields big dividends for the earth.

Swale with ditch and berm

In our climate, swales are the most common permaculture earthwork. You might think they are just raised beds as you see in many gardens. In fact, they are carefully engineered – but don’t be daunted because they don’t require fancy equipment and they don’t require an engineering degree to execute!

A swale consists of a long shallow ditch and a low berm built from the soil taken from the ditch. It can usually be dug by hand – though doesn’t have to be.  Swales collect rainwater and runoff, and spread it out along their width, encouraging it to seep into the soil to nourish the roots of the plants growing on the berm. The ditch can be filled with woodchips and inoculated to grow edible mushrooms.

Slate close to the surface challenged our strongest efforts to level the ditch. Maybe it's time for the heavy machinery!

Swales are built on contour. That means they follow the lines of equal elevation that you see on maps. We learned some different ways of marking the contours on the land.  You can be sure that we’ll be running workshops on basic surveying and swale digging, passing this knowledge on, so stay tuned.

Stakes in the grass mark the contour as measured by students using the A-frame level, while Graham sets up the transit level.

The most precise measurement is the level at the bottom of the swale. It must be absolutely level along its length so that water doesn’t pool in one place.

The other major earthwork used in permaculture is the pond (called a “dam” in Australia where these ideas originated). A pond can serve many uses, from fire safety to gravity fed irrigation to micro hydro to raising fish and ducks.

Graham went into much interesting detail about kinds of dams or ponds, where and how to build them depending on the contour, and construction techniques.

If you are planning to do permaculture on a large property, you should definitely study this issue further.  Water control should be designed before road access and house site are determined.

PDC Day 11: Aquaculture

The previous day’s discussion of ponds in the landscape segued easily into looking at what can be grown in them. Many of us got rather inspired by the idea of raising multiple species of fish and plants in a pond.

Muscovy duck

Bodies of water being three-dimensional, they can be enormously productive. Some of the basic permaculture principles for land production apply: the productivity of edge, where an irregularly-shaped pond provides a wide variety of habitats for both aquatic and terrestrial species; the integration of plant and animal culture, such that ducks, for example, contribute to the nutrients available to fish and aquatic plants and vice-versa; the stacking of different levels from waterfowl to floating plants to mid-water species such as prawns to bottom feeders such as catfish.

It is very important to use native species in an open system. Tilapia, a warm water fish, can be grown in a closed hydroponic system with tanks, but if a few eggs escape – e.g. on the feet of birds – they can devastate the local ecology downstream.

Blueberries and wild rice are among possible species to grow along the edge of a pond.


Duckweed, a tiny floating green plant,  fixes nitrogen and is high in protein. It’s invasive or abundant, depending on your point of view. Duckweed can be used in both wastewater treatment and biofuel production – at the same time.

Smoked fish is another high-value product we could produce with our own smokehouse.

Fish farming near Port Mouton, NS

Ocean fishing is broken. By taking the biggest fish, we have forced an unnatural selection for smaller and smaller fish and shellfish. Trawlers routinely dump huge loads of bycatch (species they aren’t licensed to harvest) that end up in decaying piles at the bottom of the ocean. Raising huge monocultures of salmon in crowded aquaculture cages near the shore requires feeding them food they would never normally eat, and treating them with drugs that cannot possibly stay within the cages.

But humanity does not have to stop eating fish. It is possible to grow fish sustainably on a small, local scale using the lessons of permaculture.


Local food suppliers for PDC

Another gorgeous salad, spreads and bread.

Food for the Permaculture Design Certification Course in May 2012 was sourced as much as possible from local suppliers.

The acquiring of much of the fresh food was a way for some members as well as other local growers and producers to show their support for the Permaculture Couse in particular as well as the Blockhouse School project in general.

Some gave what they could, others provided key ingredients to many a tasty meal. Some contributions were so abundant, such as Rumtopf Farm, that they surpassed my wildest dreams. Wanda should be crowned our Garden Goddess extraordinaire — at least that’s how I now refer to her at the Lunenburg Farmers’ Market. I know she had much support from her son in the picking of the delicious greens and amazing Bordeaux Spinach.

This is the main list of suppliers that are their own growers or producers, in no particular order:

Georgia Barnwell’s amazing gluten-free raw bread

Quite an interesting mix of products and a great snapshot of the sources we have here not only in Lunenburg County but in our backyard of neighbouring counties!

Thanks many times over.

~ Meredith Bell

PS: If we missed giving you credit here, many apologies. Please leave a message below and we’ll rectify it.

Kitchen facilitators: Thank you!

Georgia Barnwell slicing up her amazing gluten-free, flaxseed-based raw bread from her food dehydrator

Food being integral to permaculture, during the PDC our kitchen was like another classroom where students and volunteers experienced working with and eating food that was sourced as locally as possible, and shared recipes and ideas.

Many volunteers from the community helped out with preparing meals and sharing their knowledge. They are listed below. (If your name should be here, let us know!)

On behalf of all the students, organizers and instructors, many, many thanks to the following people who gave so generously of their time and passion:

  • Nancy Sherwood
  • Meredith Bell
  • Nancy Owen

    Apples dehydrated on the spot

  • Georgia Barnwell
  • Melanie MacInnis
  • Kate Sanderson
  • Paula Cheal
  • Helga Gruner
  • Maurice Gave
  • Jeanette Poirier
  • Carla Silver
  • Brenda Marita
  • Elli of the North
  • David Young
  • David Cameron
  • Monika Wildemann


Dips. (Photo: L. Fawkes)

Larone's lunch. (Photo: L. Fawkes)

Bread students have garnished with edible flowers

Our Permaculture Design

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Here it is! Our Permaculture Design for the Blockhouse School property.

The final assignment in the PDC course was to come up with a plan for the property that would take into consideration the elements that had been taught. Fourteen students generated lots of ideas.

During the Advanced Design workshop following the PDC, instructor Graham Calder, three students (Jennifer Constable, Jane Morrell and Madeleine Bradette) plus Heather and David for the Board met to identify the most applicable ideas and position them within the overall picture in both time and space.

A few days later we produced this image and a pile of notes which you will find here: Our Permaculture Design.