The Inaugural Right to Food Coalition

We attended the inaugural Right to Food Coalition in Casula, NSW, this week, and met a bunch of passionate people who are very aware of the need for access to food for everyone in Australia.

The latest Australian Council of Social Services (ACOSS) report quoted at the conference indicates that:

13% of Australians do not have sufficient access to food.

It was encouraging to be with so many people who are working on enabling access to food for all.

One of the main lessons from the conference was that while a lot is being done to enable access to food for all, the problem is actually worsening, and, unless a combined whole of government, private, and NGO approach takes place we will see even more people missing out on the basics.

One of the many organisations helping to redistribute good food is Ozharvest who are commencing operations in Western Australia this month. Keep an eye out for their yellow vans.

While this problem can feel, and appear to be, overwhelming, we know that the focused work of many can overcome apparently insurmountable challenges. We don’t have “The Be All & End All Solution” but we do encourage everyone to do what they can.

In our mind some levels of self-sufficiency are a start, but your contribution could be anything. But, it is clear that we all have to do something to contribute towards greater access to food for all. 

Ecological gardens of France ~ Terre Vivante

Ecological gardens of France ~ Terre Vivante

To celebrate their 20th Anniversary, Terre Vivante, an educational garden farm in France held a special open day. Terre Vivante means “living earth”, and I’d wanted to visit ever since one of their lovely little preserving books fell into my hands. There was no public transport to the closest village. Simon and I thumbed a ride from a young couple, who went 15 minutes out of their way to drop us off to quiet, quaint little Mens, and our awaiting Couchsurfing host, Myriam.

It was going to be a blistering hot day. We hitched another ride from the village to Terre Vivante early on, with a lovely older couple who confessed they’d never picked up hitchhikers before.

They chatted with us on the way in, pointing out things to see, and insisting on going out of their way to show us where the restaurant was. It was very important, they stressed, to get there early. The lines would be very, very long from 12pm, they said gravely. They were right. We ate early, and oversaw the long lines smugly for hours thereafter.

The gardens were made all the more impressive by panoramic snow-capped mountains, which did seem all too far away under the hot sun. Huge crowds of eager punters listened to various talks, taking tours, punctuating the schedule with icecreams, beers, wine, du café, and a delicious home-made buffet lunch.

Terre Vivante turned out to be a different model to what we’d been envisioning with Stellar Violets to date. There was no way to visit anymore on a daily basis: it was only open to group bookings. The main revenue seemed to be generated by the publishing arm of the organisation. It all provided food for thought.

Experiencing the beautiful gardens, educational talks and workshops, and the people enjoying it all confirmed our own vision to create a beautiful, inspiring place for people to visit and enjoy.

We’re excited to be creating a place with similar values in our part of the world. Check out Stellar Violets Placemaking to read more about our current aspirations.

Hidden gardens of France that inspired Stellar Violets ~ Jardin Bourian

Hidden gardens of France that inspired Stellar Violets ~ Jardin Bourian

In the wilds of south-west France we find ourselves in the dappled shade of giant oak and ash trees, at the beautiful Jardin Bourian – a community and demonstration organic garden near Dégagnac.

We met one of the Jardin Bourian founders, Jocelyne Bécé, at Jacky Dupéty’s farm. Hearing of our interest to create a version of Terre Vivante in Australia, she invited us not only to visit Jardin Bourian, but also to stay at her beautiful house in the countryside.

As it turned out, Terre Vivante was also the inspiration for Jardin Bourian in the beginning.

Jocelyne told me this morning as we arrived that she and her late husband had had a dream to create “une petite Terre Vivante” – a well-known organic demonstrative garden near Mens, in Isère, France.

The name “Bourian” is inspired by the word “borie”. It means farm in “Occitan” – a completely different language to french, once spoken through the southern parts of France. 

Jocelyne said it was made illegal to speak local dialects when the government sought to nationalise the french language, so people only spoke it in villages and at home. And thus arose a time when it risked being lost altogether. Now, in some schools, it is being taught again, though many of the elders who spoke it fluently have already passed on. Some of the town signs in the region have two signs, for example, “Figeac” and underneath it, “Fijac”. The first word is Occitan. The lower word indicates how to pronounce it! Not an easy language to learn to write either, we’re told.

But back to the Jardin Bourian, now we know a bit about its name…

Behind me, about twelve people sit around the tables where we ate a delicious shared lunch after touring the stunning garden with our host, Jocelyne. They’re learning how to take cuttings. Several people have brought prunings from their own garden for the workshop. It’s a convivial, friendly group who’ve obviously lunched and worked together many times before.

The air is warm, fragrant, and the only traffic I’ve heard go by in several hours was a motorbike. Flowers spill from the garden beds, resplendent with lush green plants, dozens of beds featuring a mix of herbs and many edible plants. 

One bed shows a number of plants from which we derive textile dyes, including indigo from Nimes. “From Nimes” in french is written “de Nimes (pronounced Neem)”. And so evolved the name for a global fashion phenomenon, cotton ‘denim’.

The garden demonstrates different methods and approaches to organic gardening, including various kinds of mulch, composting, mounds, Ramial Chipped Wood and dry composting toilets. The goals are social outcomes and demonstrating huge diversity, rather than production. There is also a children’s club called “Les Petits Jardinieres” (The Little Gardeners). The maximum is currently set at six children, each with their own 1×1 metre garden bed, and a shared bed beside it.

In the beginning, Jocelyne tells me, a charity was seeking ways to occupy young people in the summertime, and thought they could create a garden. Having not idea how to do that, they approached Jocelyne’s husband, who agreed to participate on one important premise: it had to be organic. 

Three years on he had created a lovely garden. At this time, the charity decided to give up the project. So, what to do? The keen gardeners created a charitable organisation of their own, and now have over 100 members, who pay 10 euros a year to be part of the group.

A highlight is the Butterfly Garden managed by Teneke Aarts. It has a combination of nectar plants and feed plants for larvae. We’re here at the best time of year for it and it is absolutely beautiful. I’d love to create something similar at home with a nod to Jardin Bourian.

And yet another lovely feature is “le plessie”, woven garden bed edging, either dead or living. Dead ones last about three years and the living, obviously need water, food, and pruning to continue in good health. Willow is ideal for creating these and we look forward to experimenting at home.

Our heartfelt thanks to the gardeners at Jardin Bourian, for their kindness, warmth, and hospitality. A special mention is due to Jocelyne, for inviting two strangers to stay in her beautiful stone house, and giving us the opportunity to discover, and become deeply inspired a very special community garden.

Meeting Jacky Dupéty & making soil with Ramial Chipped Wood

Meeting Jacky Dupéty & making soil with Ramial Chipped Wood

On a research trip in Europe we met with a french farmer named Jacky Dupéty, living in le Lot in south-west France. He creates living soils using an agro-forestry technique called Ramial Chipped Wood (RCW), or in french, le Bois Raméal Fragmenté (BRF).

What does Ramial Chipped Wood involve?

RCW involves chipping early winter prunings of deciduous hardwoods, and mixing them into the topsoil.

Small, chipped branches put high-protein, nutrient rich lignin into the soil in a form accessible to fungi, that then distribute the nutrients throughout the ground, for the benefit of plants and animals.

This is not just a soil conditioning process. It is potentially revolutionary, because it actually results in the creation of soil.

Once the wood is chipped and on the ground,  the work is done in situ by the fungi, plants and animals themselves. The same thing happens in a forest, though obviously the time scale is expanded out greatly.

Where did RCW originate? 

The method originated in Quebec, and RCW is still in early days of practical research. Some, like Jacky, are thoroughly convinced of the method’s efficacy.

Jacky reported growing many vegetable crops with very little water, with particular success with tomatoes. Water was only applied when temperatures rose into the high 30s and 40s. He showed us some beans he’d recently sown in RCW-improved soil (pictured below). They had not been watered at all, and it hadn’t rained.

We still have much to learn about fungi, the different effects various hardwoods would have on the soil, and what plants would then thrive in this modified environment.

Where to learn more

Research papers by Professor Gille Lemieux, who we met soon after Jacky, make for interesting reading. Try The Hidden World that Feeds Us: the Living Soil.

Originating out of our home of Western Australia, there’s a worthwhile Facebook group facilitated by Richard Noonan called Ramial Chipped Wood and WoodChip Composting.

While visiting Jacky, we happened to meet Jocelyne, co-founder of the educational community garden, Jardin Bourian, where they’re also experimenting with RCW. Jocelyn’s home turned out to be like a fairytale, and Jardin Bourian itself, deeply inspiring.

“Stand back, she knows what she’s doing.” Pretty sure I wasn’t fixing the chipper in this moment but let’s just say I was.

Jacky having a laugh with Jocelyne, who generously offered to host us in her fairytale home, and introduce the hidden garden she founded with her late husband, Jardin Bourian.

Meeting Dr Reckin & making “Terra Preta” fertile soil

How to make Terra Preta soil, or “From silica alone to 73 elements” with Dr Jürgen Renkin.

For some reason I expect to meet a tall, serious, imposing German man. We open the gate and descend into a verdant, diverse food garden. Jürgen is there by the front door waiting for us, smiling sweetly. He’s shorter than me.

“That was what the soil was like when I moved here six years ago,” Jürgen began, pointing to a small bare and sandy patch of earth not far from the from door.

“There was only one element present – silica. So I had to add the other 72.

“It’s very easy. Anyone could do it.”

He’s a twinkly-eyed, all together charming fellow. To begin to make Terra Preta, one needs biochar. Jürgen has obtained some already, and starts by showing us how to pulverise it.

“If it’s too chunky, it won’t work. It needs to be the right size for the worms.”

Jürgen has designed a simple machine with a spinning blade and small electric motor. To pulverise well, the biochar must be dry, and Jürgen also adds dry wood shavings to aid the process.

Within five minutes we have a ground bucket of biochar/wood shavings.

“Now, come with me.”

Jürgen sets off toward the back of his garden, past a patch of the most beautiful comfrey I’ve ever seen, with flower spikes reaching a metre and half tall. Thriving strawberries spill onto the narrow path and his nursery of densely planted fruiting trees are some of the healthiest I’ve ever seen.

We stop beside a few neat, low, rectangular-shaped compost piles. Pulling aside a bird-net, Jürgen carefully disturbs a clod of earth with his hoe, to reveal black earth and the fattest worms we had ever seen.

The piles, he explains, are a potent mix of chipped and spliced wood innoculated with biochar, microbes, stonemeal, and a special kind of clay found in France. He doesn’t add green waste, believing it unnecessary. That, he says, is used elsewhere (and where, we never did have time to find out. I believe he makes comfrey teas and the like.)

The soil and the plants speak volumes for his method.

Jürgen demonstrates how to prepare woodchips for making Terra Preta using a specialised machine that can both chip and splice.

“The machine is expensive, about 1500 euros. It’s worth it – I couldn’t make soil this quickly without it”.

Jürgen passes a large bucket of woodchips through the machine up to 6 times to ensure they’re cut finely, combining it with the biochar/shaving mix in a wheelbarrow afterward.

Wood is poetry for the soil.

This is an old German saying that Jürgen likes to repeat.

In the context of his black Terra Preta soil and thriving plantlife, it rings powerfully, beautifully true. Jürgen was invited to Australia back in 1994 to visit the progressive Yoeman’s, who’ve published the book, Yoeman’s Keyline Plan. He had it on top of a pile by his bedside table. He also uses the same principles of the Terra Preta Sanitation system put forth by our Berlin friends, Gregor Pieplow and Dennis in their documentary, Undune.

Our special thanks to Julian & Jessica for hosting us Eberswalde, and making this valuable meeting possible.

Electric Dream Come True: 100% Electric Farm Ute

Electric Dream Come True: 100% Electric Farm Ute

Living in Electric Dreams: How it feels having built a 100% Electric Farm Ute

To start off, there’s a fun little button between the seats that you flick to green or red. Green means forward, red is reverse.

I feel so Marty McFly / Back to the Future every time I do it! Never mind the giant red “Isolator” button, which looks like if you hit it, you’ll be ejected right out of your seat!

Now that’d make those boys at the Manji Speedway across the road sit up and take notice. Maybe. Anyway, hooray! Stellar Violets’custom built 100% Electric Ute is going like a smooth, silent electric dream come true.

I wouldn’t say I was “into cars”, exactly. We were contemplating what project we could do for Stellar Violets Living Museum back in 2012. At some point in our researching, it seemed that the efficiency and environmental benefits of electric motors made for a worthy route to explore further.

We wanted a ute, but there weren’t any commercially produced EV utes in the world, yet. If we wanted one, we’d have to find a way to build it.

We soon unearthed an electronics genius. Rod Dilkes, of EV Power, Margaret River, who along with his offsider, a talented maker/fabricator named Jamie Pardoe, agreed to our project. These guys are seriously skilled. When I speak of their genius and talent, I don’t do so lightly. After many works work, we got the green light in February to take it to Perth or the engineer’s stamp of approval. Green: that’s the go forward button, remember?

Taking a newly converted, unregistered electric vehicle a long distance takes some planning, and some guts. Never mind the energetic heckling from my Uncle Ray, who was very much amused by it all.

“What happen’s when you run out, you gonna call me? Better get a generator for the back,” he quipped, laughing heartily.

We had an idea how far it could go. Rod reckoned 170kms, and if we travelled slowly, maybe a little further.

We had to take the ute to Perth be get it assessed by an engineer. As it happened, at the time, a bosom buddy Catherine Marriott had recently moved to Binningup, about 30kms north of Bunbury on the coast. How convenient! By modest calculations, we could drive from our place in Manjimup to her – just – before needing to charge!

“Donnybrook”55% battery left, 98kms down,”I reported, typing furiously. I was like a spy, or pilot, or something. Cruising down the highway in a 100%, smooth, silent, electrified utility is amazing. You actually feel like you’re gliding.

“37% and 133kms down, turnoff from Dardanup Bunbury bypass, looking good.”And then we were turning off to Binningup, 28% charge left, first leg to Perth down, success was ours, we knew it but we couldn’t say it until we were plugged in at Catherine’s, safely, deliciously chargin’up for more…

“Captain’s log: 156.5kms down, 27%. Mission complete. Deploy the electric cord!”