My Permaculture Design Project, The Community Garden and Post-Pandemic Life

Reflections on the journey so far

The pandemic and my permaculture design project have gone hand in hand over the last two years. As both of these chapters of my life are slowly coming to a close, I reflect upon the journey undertaken so far and take some time to savour the final stretch of the road.

permaculture design project
Permaculture design project in action

20th of April: the date when face masks were finally no longer be mandatory in indoor spaces in Spain. The long awaited date seems too good to be true: are we really coming to an end of this pandemic period? Here in Madrid it has been business as usual for a long time, but the mandatory face masks have lived on, the final visible sign of what we have all been living through over the last two years. 

It also seems like a poignant time for me personally as I reach the end of my permaculture design course.  Those that have been following this journey from the beginning, will remember that it was around this time 2 years ago that I started the course, after being recommended it by two different readers whilst being in strict lock-down back in May 2020.

Permaculture Design Course

Here in Spain, we weren’t even allowed out of our houses for a walk for the first two months, which was then followed by a period where each age bracket was allowed out for just a few hours at different times of the day. The first time I went out during my allotted two hours for an early morning bike-ride will be etched into my mind for eternity. I could hardly believe the scent of all the wild flowers that had taken over small patches of green space, the parks and the pavements. Wild nature had come alive in our absence and after so long indoors, it was like an abundant downpour to my parched need for connection to the Earth.

It was around this time that I first began my permaculture design project. I have to admit it was an impulsive decision and I had no real idea about what permaculture design really was. But as I began going through the course material, with its colourful images and illustrations, I intuitively knew that this was the direction I wanted to take my life in. 

I was locked up at home, on a street with only one tree, equally locked up, but I felt like I had finally arrived at destiny’s door. The question was, did I have the courage to knock? 

urban lock down
The lone tree on my street

Dharma 

I wonder what Heather Jo Flores, the course organiser, must have thought upon reading my responses to the application questions that I filled out. Now I can’t quite remember the exact words (maybe it’s better that way!) but I seem to recall that I wrote something particularly cringe-worthy, somewhere along the lines of: “This is my dharma! This is my calling! This is what I want to dedicate my life to! I have to do this course!”.

I couldn’t believe that despite everything happening in the world, I was able to really begin this journey of leaving the city, even though at the time, I wasn’t actually able to leave my house!

Love at First Sight 

Looking back at that first flush of excitement and anticipation, I realise that it was akin to those first few months of a new love affair, when your feet hardly touch the ground and your head is in a pink cloud of romantic expectation. I had no idea about what the course really entailed or what I was going to have to do to earn my certificate or how this course would change me as a person. 

Yet in that heady state, I knew that I had found The One. This was my path and I was sure of it. Memories from my trips to the Azores (where I first discovered permaculture) surfaced in my mind as confirmation. I could hardly believe that now, amidst a global pandemic, I had rediscovered the thing that really made my heart sing; something that felt true in the very depth of bones: permaculture. 

Now, almost two years on and the love affair continues, although it has grown into the mature love of the more settled kind. The initial rush of excitement has calmed into a steady satisfaction that continues to fuel my work on my design project and my dream of returning to the land. 

Personal Evolution 

I have grown a lot in this time. This permaculture design project has taken me out of my comfort zone into new situations, new experiences and new communities. My blog posts about the community garden over this time reflect this. There was only one way that I was going to be able to complete my design for the community garden, and that was to roll up my sleeves and get involved

My design mentor, Jennifer English Morgan , told me recently on one of our video calls: “when you are in the community garden, you are taking the role of anthropologist, designer and community member”. She was totally right, although getting the right balance of three has proven to be challenging at times. 

Boundaries 

At times, I have found myself getting too distracted by the social needs of the group and the desire to help solve problems and offer solutions. The perpetual conflicts that raise their heads like unwanted pimples on an otherwise beautiful face have sometimes made it difficult to focus on my studies. At times, it also has put me off from visiting and doing my observations knowing that doing so would probably mean hearing the complaints of others. 

This has been a good lesson in personal boundaries: What are my limits? What are my needs? Sometimes I have trespassed the former, to the detriment of the latter, meaning that I got behind on my design project and paid the consequence later with stress and worry. As a solution, I have taken to visiting the garden in the afternoons rather than the mornings, when there is less chance of this happening! 

urban community garden
Spontaneous get-together

Challenges 

The changes taking place in my personal life, with all the changes to my social circle and my work have also made it difficult to focus. Despite the enthusiasm and excitement I felt in the beginning, the rocky waters of 2021 were not conducive to focused study and I regret that I haven’t been able to get more done sooner. 

However, considering the events of the last two years I think I can forgive myself! It is again a question of limits and available resources. Sometimes you can do more, sometimes you can do less. We aren’t machines, as much as our industrial growth culture makes us out to be, and we shouldn’t expect ourselves to behave as such. Sometimes you can only do what you can do and I have had to learn to accept that. 

That being said, I am on track for graduation within the next month and I am very happy to have got this far! Everything is finally coming together and the finish line is in sight. I have completed all the observations needed, done some in-depth analysis and now it’s time for the fun part: the design!

Design

What am I going to do with all this information and understanding I have gained over the last two years of being involved in the community garden? Time to get creative and come up with some solutions. For this I will go back to my stakeholder interviews that I did, and all of the analysis that I have done since then.

This design process has two sides: the physical, land based design and the social systems design. As you may have guessed, the social systems of the design takes precedence in the community garden. As I have seen over the last two years, without a strong social system, the community garden doesn’t function well. Indeed, as Heather Jo points out in the course, most permaculture projects fail, not because of land-based problems but because of the social problems that can occur within the communities that created them. 

Finding my Niche 

Social permaculture is a recent development in the permaculture world, since previously, more attention was given to the physical aspects of creating sustainable systems (food, water etc). One of the reasons I have really enjoyed this course is that they give equal focus to the social-systems, as it does the land-based systems, awarding each a separate certificate. 

I have to admit, my knowledge of growing food, making compost and the like is not my strong point. My experience with this is limited and since my only access to land is the community garden, it is difficult to really develop a deeper knowledge in this area without a growing space of my own. Social systems on the other hand comes a lot more naturally to me and is plenty abundant in the community garden. 

The thing that I love most is that permaculture draws together all of my life experience so far, both academic and professional as well as what I have learnt from my travels around the world. In a world in which we often separate and segregate different parts of ourselves according to the roles we play, it feels good to have found something that unifies all aspects of myself in a real, tangible and holistic way.

Ready to Move On

Now that I am coming to the end of my permaculture design project and with the hard work done, it is tempting to rush through this final design part in order to get to the celebration. I feel as though I have been talking about this permaculture design project for so long, that I am almost sick of hearing myself talk about it!

“Enough already!”, I want to say. “Let’s get this course done and dusted so I can close this chapter and move on to the next one”. I am losing patience with myself and this process, it seems. 

However, I have allowed myself to take some time away from it over the last few days in order to savour this last stretch and give my creativity a bit of breathing space. What kind of creative solutions can come from the stress of pushing myself beyond my limits just to get it officially finished a bit sooner? 

Would it not be healthier and more enjoyable to take the pressure off and get a bit of joy and play into the mix? 

urban wild flowers
Wild flowers close to the library where I have been studying

Self-Care 

So instead, I write this blog post and let the creative solutions brew. A trip out of the city to the mountains is also good fuel for inspiration. That way I can come back to the project feeling fresh, motivated and inspired to put 100% into the design and finish the course feeling happy and proud, rather than tired and burnt out.

Hiking in Madrid

As I write,  I am reminded of the permaculture principle “slow solutions”. Somewhere I have read that rushing is considered to be a form a violence in many indigenous cultures.

Time to slow down. Time to reflect a little. Time to appreciate the path walked so far.

Rest, recharge, renew, refuel, re-inspire, reward. 

And then, back on the road.

In the direction of my dreams I will boldly go.

https://www.permaculturewomen.com/permaculturedesigncourse/

Credits

A big thanks once again to my readers Lorna and Aurélie for sharing this course with me back when I first started this blog 😀

What have you been working on over this pandemic period? How have you changed and evolved? Let me know in the comments below!

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Olivia Grundy

Join me as I transition from the city to the country, following my hearts desire for a more sustainable life based on respect for the Earth and all the creatures in it.

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