Featured, Permaculture

What is permaculture? The Illawarra, Australia

June 21, 2015
Laura with her permaculture teacher and friend, Aaron Sorenson, on site at a local primary school

I first heard the word “permaculture” in 2010 while staying at La Finca Argayall in La Gomera. Nestled between the mountains and ocean on 1.5 acres of land, despite unfavourable growing conditions, the gardens were lush and bounteous and fed the bellies of guests. I learned this was thanks to the permaculture principles to which they were designed. In 2012 I attended a two-week Permaculture Design Certificate (PDC) course to learn the magic myself. In a word (or two) it was life changing but when I returned home babbling with excitement it was apparent that permaculture was not a common term… “sorry, perma-what?!”

To explain the word more eloquently than I ever could, I asked one of my bestest mates who (sadly for me but fortunately for Wombarra) lives in a small town an hour south of Sydney, Australia. Yoga teacher Laura Hartley took her PDC last year, relished the experience, and is now sharing her knowledge and skills in her local community.

So Laura, what is this permaculture thing all about?
Permaculture is a way of designing systems of living based on those found in the natural world. In permaculture everything plays a part, is valued and helps sustain the whole. Nothing is wasted. Although permaculture has gained most fame for its organic approach to land-care, its principles (of which there are twelve – see here) provide a complete guide for living as a human on this planet in fulfilling ways.

Permaculture is based on three ethics – earth care, people care and fair share. In practical terms, using these ethics leads to beautiful, inclusive, rewarding and healthy ways of living.

Greenhouse supplying the zero-mile eatery at OUR Eco-Village, Vancouver Island

How very permaculture: Greenhouse supplying the zero-mile eatery at OUR Eco-Village, Vancouver Island

How relevant is it to people living in cities?  
Very! The principles of permaculture take into account the differences and variations we experience as humans within society and the environments in which we live. This can mean urban or rural and everywhere in between. Everyone, no matter where we live, can use permaculture for the benefit of themselves, their families, communities and the world as a whole.

Cities have more people living in close proximity to each other so there’s greater scope for people to get together, share resources and have the best of services (think public transport and the internet). There are loads of examples of urban permaculture popping up around the world such as growing food on rooftops/balconies/verges/social spaces, shared work spaces, community and school gardens and urban foraging. The clear advantage to living in the city is having access to people, tons of people!  When people get together creatively all sorts of wonderful things start to happen.

Urban permaculture: roof top growing and an up-cycled plastic bottle greenhouse! (Food from the Sky, London)

Urban permaculture: roof top growing and an up-cycled plastic bottle greenhouse! (Food from the Sky, London)

What was the biggest lesson you took from your PDC?
Going into my PDC I didn’t think I was qualified to be a designer.  I doubted my skills and knowledge and held an oh-so-common mentality that someone else was better qualified to implement change.  One of our teachers got us to think about town planning and engineering.  Although there are innovative designers, planners and engineers, the accepted norm still seems to be based on inefficient practices, cutting costs (and therefore corners). My teacher taught me to be critical of ‘the experts’, to look at the mess folk have made already and have confidence in the fact that I can do better! Really, being open to learning and working collaboratively is the only qualification you need to be a permie (someone who practices permaculture).

What do you intend to do with your permie knowledge?
I’m already involved in my local food co-op, volunteering regularly in the shop and at community events, but since doing my PDC I’ve started volunteering in a local school working in the school garden (aka food forest).  I’m working with a small group of students to create a medicinal herb garden. The living classroom I work in is already 10 years old so produces an abundance of food, including macadamia nuts, olives, tons of citrus, bananas, not to mention all the veggies.  The teacher has always wanted there to be a herb garden too so, as an aspiring herbalist, I was invited to lead this particular project.  I’m thrilled to have a space to develop my knowledge and skills in.

I believe if more young people knew how to grow their own food and feed themselves the ongoing cycle of social exclusion, poverty, addiction, depression (to name just a few social issues) could at least be slowed down. What’s more empowering than having the skills and knowledge to feed yourself and your family? It’s extremely satisfying growing food, knowing where it comes from and what’s been involved in its production but it’s absolutely essential that we eat! Food, feasting and sharing food are key elements in ALL cultures, it simply brings people together.

Volunteers with the Flame Tree Coop, Thirroul, NSW

Volunteers with the Flame Tree Coop, Thirroul, NSW

Is there anything you do differently now? Has it changed your outlook on life?
I’m more adventurous in the garden now. I scatter more seeds randomly and am less controlled about where plants are planted and at what time.  I encourage happy accidents in the garden!  Working and socialising with other local permies, I get given cuttings and seeds for things I’d never have considered growing.

I’m more open to learning from the plants now simply by observing them and watching them through the seasons.  I made the mistake recently of trimming the sage plant in the same way I trim tansy (fairly roughly) and felt like I got a telling off from the wise old sage!  A sage plant demands care and respect.  I’ve since apologised and have been forgiven… the sage is growing back healthily again!

I’ve also become much more conscious of my use of resources such as water, electricity and petrol.  We live in a rented apartment block so it’s not practical to redesign our plumbing so that all our waste water gets used in our veg plot.  However we can control the amount of water we use, recycle it wherever possible and turn off unused lights and electrical switches.  I’ve recently changed my electrical supplier to one that uses 100% renewable energy and plan on changing my bank to one that invests in sustainable practices instead of one that funds coal seam gas exploration.

What advice would you give to anyone wanting to learn about permaculture?
Start by doing whatever you can in whatever time you have.  It’s really important that you do things that truly interest you otherwise you’ll simply lose interest!  Also, because Permaculture is based as much on collaborative principles as it is on organic land-care, it’s essential to work with others and get involved in ‘community’.  One of the most valuable lessons for me is that I don’t have to be good at everything.  I love gardening, baking, fermenting and learning about the medicinal properties of herbs but am not such a great designer or builder.  These are skills I can practise and learn but until I feel confident doing this side of things then I can work with and learn from others.

There are so many intro sessions, day workshops and short courses available, the best thing to do is to try lots of different things… just get started!  Local libraries are a great resource as well and youtube has videos about how to do just about anything!  Do It Yourself, whatever interests you, you can!

It’s easy to watch the news, look at the negative effects of globalisation and feel completely overwhelmed and powerless.  Permaculture is a system that gives individuals permission to make change for themselves.  You just need to start.

An outdoor kitchen, the heart (and heat) of any gathering

An outdoor kitchen, the heart (and heat) of any gathering

What other permie stuff is happening in your area? 
There’s so much around here, I’m really lucky! To name but a few:

  • Permablitz the Gong organise community gardening days where residential gardens get transformed by an army of willing permies.  Once you’ve partaken in three Permablitz days you qualify to have your place done.
  • The Flame Tree Community Food Coop has been open for five years.  It’s a shop run by its members and sells organic, local and ethically-sourced food in bulk as to reduce packaging and waste (and cost).
  • The Hidden Harvest crew use food that would otherwise be wasted to produce culinary feasting events whilst raising awareness about food waste.
  • The Port Kembla Community Project is an umbrella organisation that oversees incredibly inspiring social enterprises such as Green Connect (urban sustainability, food security and job opportunities) and Tender Funerals (not-for-profit community based funeral service).
  • Wild Rumpus is a creative social enterprise that promotes doing-it-ourselves and community skill-sharing through workshops and local makers markets.

* Lead photo: Laura with her Permaculture teacher and friend, Aaron Sorenson, on site at a local primary school.

Featured, Permaculture

After the pumpkin droops: Walthamstow, UK

October 31, 2014
Urban Witch Hex

Massive thank you to Hayley Johns — yoga teacher, original Urban Witch crew and guest blogger this week. She rocks. Nuff said.

The lovely Katie kindly asked me to write her Samhain blog post as a guest, she knows I love this time of year. Definitely, one of my favourite holidays. Now, I do love to party, especially when there is a bonfire involved, but I thought I might talk about what happens after the pumpkin starts to droop!

Unlike some, I actually get excited by the prospect of the darker nights that come, following the 31st October. I do not begrudge the Winter, for I see it for what it is, rather than an endurance race back to the glory of high Summer, hunkering down and battling on, with my coat pulled up and my hat pulled down. I instead look at it as a time of deep nurture and protection. I look forward to coming back indoors, being able to light the fires and set my home aglow with candles. Eating slow food, sleeping more and fattening up. It is a time, or almost non-time, where we get to stop.

From the 31st up to the 21st December, everything gets to sink back; me in to the couch with a blanket, some animals in to hibernation and the vegetation in the earth.

Sleep Dalai Lama

Ok, I am fully aware, I can’t stay holed up on the couch until Spring. Yes, we gotta work, we gotta care, we gotta feed. But having an awareness (that all important word) of the shifting rhythms of the year is a deeply empowering thing, even when we are living in cities. Looking at the world through the lens of sustainability even when looking at ourselves.

Whatever we take, we have to put back in. Whether, it’s our expended energy of Summer or nutrients from the earth. This ability to move to a more closed loop system, whether that is the way we feed ourselves, treat ourselves and our community.

I have a yoga class on my schedule that operates a little differently from the rest, something that was all the rage a little while ago, a Donation class. We’ve been running it about six years now and the idea is that people pay what they can. The many nourish the few that can’t pay, the busy times sustain me financially and the cost of the space we rent when times are leaner. There is space in that class where my students share, retreat, replenish their own energetic bank account and expend them when the time is right. It is to date, my most popular and my most SUSTAINABLE endeavour. It’s scary putting it out there like that. I know. But, it’s like it has it’s own energetic flow, just like that loop, the wheel of the year, just like us.

So this time, this non-time, from here until 21st December, when our light returns, let the dark nights spark your imagination, in this rest time, focus on what you might need to replenish. Physically, emotionally and energetically.  Where in your life might you need to aerate your soil and fertilise! Or even plant some new seeds, that you can sustain through the frost and let bloom come Summer.

Hayley Yoga
Hayley’s donation class is every Monday at 7pm, URC Church Hall, Walthamstow, London.
For details and more classes see

Featured, Permaculture

Upcycled fashion: Victoria, Canada

October 2, 2014

Fast fashion is a problem. On average, UK consumers send 30kg of clothing and textiles per capita to landfill each year, and in North America around 85% of textile waste goes directly to landfill. Many synthetic products do not decompose, while woollen garments produce methane as they decompose and contribute to global warming. Then there’s water pollution from textile dying, emissions as goods are transported from factories in Asia to high streets in the UK and malls across the States.  You get the picture…

One principle of permaculture is “waste is a resource”, and I was lucky enough to bump in to charismatic Canadian designer and founder of the League of Extraordinary Designers (quite appropriately at a landfill site in Victoria, B.C.) — Tracy Yerrell —who is embracing this principle and transforming consumer waste into clothing and jewelry, with her fashion line Fused.

tube bella earrings

How did you start making upcycled fashion?
I’ve always been an artist and I’ve worked as a graphic and interior designer for 30 years. When my granddaughter Ambria was born three years ago, I started making her clothes with organic fabrics and designs inspired by my travels in Europe. My daughter didn’t want to dress Ambria in run-of-the-mill Winnie the Pooh gear, so I made babywear with an edgier, skater, grungy look – and before I knew it, I was taking orders from my daughter’s friends! My line of clothing for children, Baby Boss Rules, was created soon after, which I sold at Bastion Square Market in downtown Victoria.

I found the majority of my customers were young, environmentally conscious parents who loved the kid’s clothing but were asking if there was an adult range too. These were creative, ‘outside-the-box’ individuals who weren’t shopping for generic, mass-produced clothes. So I started an upcycled clothing line for adults in response to market demand. This is how Fused was born.

What materials do you use?
A few years ago I came across a necklace made from re-worked bicycle inner tube. I was immediately drawn to this medium and was inspired to make my range of earrings tube.bella.

It got me thinking what other mediums can be used? What else can be done?

The idea to use fabric from upholsterer’s sample books to make fascinators came to me like a lightning bolt. They can be worn in the hair, pinned to hats or clothing. I love exploring the possibilities of green design. I took silk screening courses with Smoking Lily and Andy MacDougall, and apply my designs to upcycled fabrics. I make jewelry and clothing that’s unusual, innovative and one of kind. I’ve never felt more creative!

I source materials from anywhere and everywhere. The criterion is the quality, as it has to be good for many more years. I use fabrics by reputable labels that are well made to begin with. I go to second hand shops when they have sales, and friends will also offer me unwanted clothes before they take them to the charity shop.

fused dress

Why is upcycling so important?
The problem with fashion today is it’s so disposable. We live in a society where we can buy products cheaply and throw them away when we fall out of love with them or the newer, trendier version is on the shelves. It was only a few generations ago when women made their own clothes and owned a few quality dresses that they would care for and repair. The culture of fast fashion is wasteful and extremely damaging to the planet.

We’re experiencing the reality of the effects of climate change now, and if we don’t change our behaviour as a global community soon we are in very serious danger. As a parent and grandparent, I want to make a difference, and as a designer it’s my responsibility to create solutions to the problem of consumer waste; to educate and explore what can be done.

What are your tips for giving old clothes new life?
With my family, I’ll take cuttings of beautiful fabrics from clothes they can no longer wear, or from baby clothes, and use them to make new skirts, kid’s clothes, t-shirts or even quilts. This way our memories are an on-going thread woven into the fabric we wear. If we have a personal relationship with something we’re more inclined to take care of it. It becomes less disposable.

When you create something that is wearable art it becomes more valuable, at an emotional level. It means more than something that just covers your body. Innovative design has the power to change the current status quo of disposable fashion.

What upcycling examples inspire you?
I’m inspired by what I see happening around the world every day and have faith in our human capacity to innovate with waste materials. From street people in Brazil smelting old aluminium cans and moulding them with palm leaves and bamboo into beautiful stools, to incubators for babies made with old car parts. Cuba is a shining example of creativity and innovation, born out of necessity. They’ve kept cars from the 1950s working and are leaders in the environmentally friendly pesticide movement. This is producing generations who share the mind set of sustainability and working with Nature. I know people who collect waste from commercial dumpsters for materials; there is no limit to creativity!

Fused_Tracy Yerrell

What is the League of Extraordinary Designers?
I believe that to accelerate the shift to sustainable fashion, we as designers need to work together, to springboard off each other’s ideas and think bigger than working in competition with each other. I started the League of Extraordinary Designers as a way to bring designers producing work from upcycled materials together. It’s a platform for us to share and talk about ideas, as well as mentorship program for young designers to learn more about working with the medium of consumer waste.

We are launching with a fashion show in Victoria, B.C. on 14th – 16th November. As designers we love a challenge, and the mandate for the League of Extraordinary Designers is “show me what you can do with garbage.’ Just because clothing has been something else before doesn’t mean it can’t be beautiful or meaningful. Upcycling is about creating gorgeous, funky, fresh and lovable pieces that people want to keep forever.

Victoria in three(ish) words
Exquisite natural beauty, culturally rich and creatively diverse.

See Tracy’s upcycled collection at or email her at for more information.

*Statistics taken from Ethical Fashion Forum, and