Urban Permaculture Gets Redesigned

Geoff Lawton Redesigns the Backyard He looks like a rangy cowboy but its not a six gun in his hand that he carries, but a artist’s pad and a felt pen marker. In his mid 50’s and on a hot muggy Monday morning, Geoff Lawton and fifteen Permaculture interns stride into a suburban home located in Lismore, NSW.

The owner turns to me and asks “Who are all these people?” I whisper to her while loading the video camera that these people are all Permaculture Interns from around the world. Canada, the United States and Europe.  They’ve all descended on her little country town to get first hand experience with Permaculture and what Geoff  Lawton has to teach.

Geoff will kill me for saying this, but I like to have a bit of fun with him. “He’s a bit of a Guru!” I murmur to her. Her face lights up. She’s impressed. “Geoff I am so honored to have you here.” she tells him.

We are filming The Urban Permaculture DVD and there are many ways you can do this instructional video. What I was most keen not to do – is turn this video into a home renovation show. The kind you see on television.

I am always keen to try and find the thinking behind the process. I want the viewer to look into the mind of Geoff Lawton and for an hour and half  – figure out whats going on in there. The way he designs a Permaculture system and the reasons why he places a feature in a particular spot. If this video will be of any use to a student or teachers, it must explain why he does things in a particular way and the reasoning behind it all.

Geoff Lawton seated on steps center designs a backyard system

So here we are looking at a suburban backyard and small city spaces. We’re here to find out how much realistic design you can do in the average backyard. Today’s shoot is a long one. Geoff has placed an ad in the local paper offering a free consultancy.

The local paper picked up the story and wrote an article about Geoff and Permaculture and now his phone is ringing off the hook.

“I think we got 18 calls today.” grins Geoff, “This could be a business for someone.”

Today we will look at four backyards and Geoff will design a site plan based on what the owner requires. To not become repetitious we want Geoff to work on different backyard designs. He has chosen four different homes with different character and owner requirements. Home Number One is an already established home on a sloping block with an old rambling garden. The owner enjoys the ornamental flowers but now she wants to grow food.

Geoff takes a wander around the yard and notices a chicken coop at the top of the yard. “Excellent placement.” he says, “The animal nutrients can run down the slope.”

He takes out a compass and looks for true North. “You get a lot of sun over here.” he points. The lady nods.

You can see him thinking but he doesn’t say anything just yet as he looks at another feature in the garden. Geoff carries a little pH soil testing kit and makes a few tests from fertile and infertile areas of the garden.

A brief look around all the four corners of the  backyard and Geoff is ready to film the segment.

Geoff Lawton sketching Permaculture solutions to backyard problems

Geoff sketches out the bones of the property and then begins the design process. He speaks fluidly and assuredly. We have a camera on his face and another on his drawing pad. He sketches very quickly.

Years of Permaculture teaching in front of a white board has honed his skills. The drawing pad gets covered in a series of rhythmic and curly black lines as he outlines his solution.

The students are all quiet and attentive as they watch him draw from the veranda floor above.

Geoff sketches the arc of the sun, the prevailing wind angles; hot summers and cold winter suns; Which trees should be replaced; Which trees preserved. Any water tanks and where they should be placed and of course where the vegetable garden and the angle it should be arranged in. He drills right down to what kind of ground cover would work well in the nooks and crannies of the garden steps.

His philosophy is clear. “If you remove a weed from a spot, you’ll need to replace it with something that you want to grow there.”

Later in the day he tells me, “People don’t realize just yet how much information we’re going to pack into this video.” he says  “This will have more dense information than any of the previous Permaculture DVDs that we’ve made.”

We visit three more sites. An acupuncturist with an empty block looking for a way to grow medicinal herbs at the front door. A carer with a large a load of laundry and a big Hills hoist looking for a way to transform it into a spiral herb garden and a stay at home Dad wanting a sanctuary for his children to play in and a food forest to romp in.

End of Day One and we’ve shot about four or five hours of footage. We’re exhausted. Geoff walks over and grins “Come on over and work on my farm. We’ll have you fit in no time.”

The Urban Permaculture DVD should be finished later in the year.