Robyn Francis tells her story of how Djanbung Gardens came into being.
My vision was to find a suitable piece of abused land to regenerate — to create an oasis of abundance and biodiversity as a living classroom for permaculture, an experiential learnscape where all the principles taught would be an everyday reality to bridge the gap between theory and practice. I dreamed of more than just my own little patch of paradise – my ultimate vision included some form of ecovillage and opportunities to engage with a proactive bioregion and wider community.
I had been teaching and designing permaculture internationally for 10 years before embarking on this adventure, plus the prior experience of 10 years of gardening, homesteading, small scale organic farming and community development before launching into permaculture as a full-time vocation. In my extensive travels I took good note of what worked and what didn’t work. All of this helped inform my choice of location, property and the final design of what is now Djanbung Gardens.
I enjoy a challenge, and the opportunity presented here in Nimbin had the perfect mix. I had selected my preferred bioregion in the NSW Northern Rivers, and was looking for land to create a permaculture education centre when I was invited to design a community title near the village of Nimbin. The development, Jarlanbah, became the first permaculture ecovillage in the state of New South Wales. Adjoining Jarlanbah and on the edge of the village was a 2.16 hectare (5 acre) cow pasture which the owner offered to sell me for a reasonable price. I could tick every box on my wish-list for the ‘perfect patch’ and it was an open slate, a bare, degraded cow pasture – a blank palette to design, to build, grow and manifest my dream.
Now, almost 20 years later, the vision continues to unfold and has provided inspiration to the many thousands of visitors and students that have come here to learn and contribute to the process.
One of the challenges I set for myself was to create as many different systems and examples of permaculture applications as I could, given the inherent constraints of size, topography and climate. A definite benefit of being in this part of the subtropics is that one can create diverse microclimates and stretch the boundaries of climate limitations, particularly in respect to plant systems.
The land is in the bottom of the Nimbin valley where the cold settles at night, thus in winter we can experience some frosts. The lowest, frostiest area I’ve utilised to grow a range of cold and warm temperate fruit and other trees in an open canopy orchard. These include olive, fig, Nashi pear, Japanese plums, quince, low-chill apples, pecans, plus birch and oak. This system also includes 18 varieties of citrus, which enjoy a little frost to boost the sugar content of their abundance fruits in winter. At the other higher end of the property, just above the keyline, I’ve created a frost-free environment using dams and tall tree legumes to support a selection of topical and subtropical fruits like mango, banana, jakfruit, starfruit (carambola), wax jambu, coffee and sapotes.
In the vegetable garden we have the best of all worlds with essentially three growing seasons throughout the year. In autumn and through winter is the ideal time for all the European and temperate vegetables like cabbages, cauliflower, carrots, kales, mustard greens, beets, onion, garlic and lettuces. Spring is hot and dry, so perfect for Mediterranean and tropical dry season crops like sweet corn, squash, zucchini, beans, okra, gourds, cucumbers, eggplant, peppers, tomatoes and time for establishing the tropical vegetables and tubers that thrive in our humid wet summer season including taro, cassava, yakon, turmeric and yams.
Animal systems are integrated with plant production systems. A small flock of ducks manage the temperate orchard, fertilising the trees, reducing pests and eating back the grasses and herbaceous understory. A flock of heritage chickens are located next to the vegetable garden to process weeds and crop residues into eggs and manure for the compost. Two very spoiled and friendly pigs, Polly and Pudge, are our main poo-producers for the compost heaps, and take care of food scraps, windfall fruit and relish many plants that we don’t eat like Canna edulis leaves, mulberry and bamboo leaves and weeds. The pigs have been trained to come and sit for treats which enables me to take them for walks to clean up windfall fruit in the orchard and food forest, and to plough up several pig-proof-fenced main crop beds where we grow tubers, pumpkin and other hardy crops.
The water systems have been designed to manage water from the highest to lowest point of the property. A small dam in the highest point provides gravity-fed water for the gardens and animals, as well as supporting the microclimate for the tropical food forest. The copious quantities of surface run off rainwater during our wet season are directed along swales and network of drains throughout the system. A lotus pond collects runoff from the carpark and driveway. In the lowest part of the property and large gully provided the ideal situation for a substantial dam holding approximated 2.5 megalitres of water, my drought ‘insurance’ and natural swimming pool. The large dam is also designed to maximise its natural aquaculture potential with flowering waterlilies adorning the edges to provide habitat for native fish.
Attaining a balance between the exotic food plants and natives is important to achieve ecologic integrity in a permaculture system. To this end, appropriate natives have been planted throughout the systems for habitat, function and yields. Our local rainforests are home to an exciting diversity of fruits and aromatic plants that I value in the kitchen; Riberry, Davidson plum, native tamarinds, finger limes, lemon and other fragrant myrtles, macadamia and lillypilly. Twenty percent of the property is devoted to an integrated zone IV-V forest of native timber, firewood, fruits (bushfoods) and rainforest plants. This area is also designed as a wildlife corridor and habitat.
The wildlife here is abundant. One of the great rewards as the systems have matured has been seeing the diversity of wildlife come to share this little paradise; over 80 species of birds plus wallabies (small kangaroos), bandicoots, echidna, 6 species of lizards, a cacophony of frogs and 5 species of snakes.
Bamboo is another passion, so I now have numerous mature productive clumps of 14 different species of quality construction and crafting bamboos.
The built environment embodies permaculture design principles through passive solar design, appropriate technology and social considerations. The main building has an earthbrick classroom, generous verandas, a commercial kitchen and office. Accommodation for students and interns is in 3 charming old railway carriages placed in a U-formation as a suntrap around a central courtyard. One carriage hoses the student kitchen and bathroom while the other two have bedrooms and bunks. The courtyard opens onto an entertainment area with fire pit, wood-fired barbeque and cob oven. The carriages provided a place for me to live during the initial years until the main building was constructed. The residence is still a works-in–progress and being built in stages. While Djanbung is connected to the grid, with the focus on energy conservation plus an array of grid-feed solar panels, our energy use and bills are exceptionally low.
Rainwater is collected from the roofs in rainwater tanks with a total capacity of 95,000 litres for all our potable water needs in the kitchens and bathrooms. There are two composting toilets and one flush toilet for disabled access – the latter flushes with dam water. I received a Rivercare 2000 Award for the constructed wetland wastewater system that treats the greywater from the carriages – it was the first such system to gain official approval from local government and health authorities in the state. The main building has a blackwater wetland treatment system and flowforms for tertiary treatment.
Djanbung Gardens is also home to Permaculture College Australia (PCA), a non-profit vocational and community education provider which runs the courses here: PDCs, advanced courses for permaculture teachers and designers, community programs in sustainable living skills and community outreach programs. The main focus is providing full-time Accredited Permaculture Training (APT) which leads to nationally recognised vocational qualifications in permaculture. The gardens also offer occasional placements for interns and volunteers.
I still occasionally travel overseas to teach PDCs and advanced courses, but am happiest here in my habitat at Djanbung Gardens, doing as much of my ‘office’ work as I can on my laptop swinging in the hammock looking out on my edible landscape and watching the wallabies munching on the marsupial meadows beyond the taro patch.
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