Category Archives: Biodynamic agriculture

The Nature of Permaculture

Nigel Crawley – Tring in Transition

Permaculture seeks to avoid the problems of unsustainable systems by working with, instead of against, Nature.  For example, current industrial agriculture is an incredibly inefficient system.  It takes ten calories of energy input (mainly from fossil fuels) to produce one calorie of food output.  This is only one example of our current high-input systems that are only possible while we have access to cheap fossil-fuel energy.

The word Permaculture is a portmanteau word originally derived from ‘Permanent Agriculture’.  Nevertheless, due to the universality of Permaculture principles and their application in the design of other human activities, it has since been expanded to ‘Permanent Culture’.

Permaculture is a system of agricultural and social design principles centred around simulating or directly utilising the patterns and features observed in natural ecosystems.  For example, sheet mulching is an agricultural no-dig gardening technique that attempts to mimic natural processes occurring within forests.

The design principles, which are the conceptual foundation of Permaculture, have been derived from the science of systems ecology and study of pre-industrial examples of sustainable land use.  Permaculture practitioners are also guided by an ethical framework of ‘Care of the Earth’, ‘Care of People’ and ‘Return of Surplus to Earth and People’.

The first use of the term ‘Permanent Agriculture’ was probably by J. Russell Smith in his book ‘Tree Crops: A Permanent Agriculture’.  Originally published in 1929, ‘Tree Crops’ was J. Russell Smith’s reaction to witnessing the environmental destruction caused by an industrial agriculture based on growing grains – or, as he summarised, “Forest-field-plow-desert”.  In ‘Tree Crops’ Smith advocates development of a permanent agriculture based on perennial tree crops both for livestock feed and human food.  It’s fair to say that the ideas in ‘Tree Crops’ inspired Permaculture’s early pioneers and are still extremely relevant.

However, the Permaculture movement as we know it today started with an Australian called Bill Mollison.  In 1959, while studying marsupials in their natural environment of the Tasmanian forest, Bill wrote a seminal note in his journal: “I believe that we could build systems that would function as well as this one does.”  He continued to work on his idea for the next twelve years by observing natural ecosystems and the practices of indigenous cultures.  In 1972 David Holmgren, a student of Bill Mollison’s, wrote an undergraduate thesis based on Bill’s ideas that later became the basis for the first Permaculture manual: “Permaculture One”.  Subsequently, Permaculture has spread globally due to Bill’s clever strategy of teaching the teachers via a 72-hour Permaculture Design Certificate (PDC) course.  The PDC is a life-changing two-week immersion in Permaculture’s whole systems view of the world.

Permaculture seeks to minimise waste, human labour, and energy input by building systems.  Forest gardening, for example, is a labour-saving three-dimensional food-growing ecosystem designed to mimic natural forests.

The focus of Permaculture design is not on each separate element, but rather on the relationships created among elements when they are placed together so that the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts.  Within a Permaculture system the resources generated by all the elements are engineered to supply their respective needs, mimicking the complex relationships found in natural ecosystems.  When a certain threshold of this complexity is reached, new beneficial properties start to emerge from the system, such as self-regulation, feedback loops, self-organisation, and resilience. By working in this way we can create a low-input food garden where  nature takes over most of the maintenance work for us.

There are a number of unique techniques employed by Permaculture designers when assembling complex systems including: input-output analysis, zone analysis and sector analysis.  Input-output analysis looks at the outputs of elements within a design and attempts to match them to the inputs of other elements.  For example, one of the outputs from chickens is heat and a greenhouse requires heating on frosty nights.  So why not build the greenhouse around the chicken shed?.  Zones are areas around the main centre of human activity.  Elements in a design that require regular attention are placed in the zone nearest the centre and elements that require minimal attention in the zone furthest away.  A Permaculture sector is any influence arriving from off the design site that you have no direct influence over (e.g. sunlight, wind, water, etc.).  Sectors can either be caught and used, deflected/blocked or left to pass by unaffected.

Above everything, Permaculture is about protracted and thoughtful observation instead of prolonged and thoughtless action.  By slowing down and observing natural ecosystems we can learn valuable lessons that will improve our lifestyles.  After all, Nature, having done 3,500,000,000 years of Research & Development, is our best teacher.


Did you know that there is a local food market in Kings Langley every month?

John Morrish

Just over two years ago, Transition in Kings (TiK), started the local food market on the High Street to increase the availability and awareness in Kings Langley of fresh, local produce.  The aim is for villagers to be able to trace the provenance of the produce and meet the producers to learn more about their local products.  Produce has to come from within 25 miles of Kings Langley and vegetables must be truly seasonal.

When the present owners bought Redbournbury Mill from the Crown, the mill had been unused since the 1950’s.  At this stage the mill was well preserved, although it did need considerable repairs.  It was almost unique as a historical record of an early Victorian water-mill.  From crop to crust, Redbournbury Mill supplies the bread for the market.  There is a fabulous selection of breads freshly baked on the morning of the market at the mill using their own stone-ground organic flour which is milled using French Burr stones.  The mill bakery was built in 2005 within one of the barns in front of the mill.  Bread baked at Redbournbury boasts the lowest possible “food-miles” with the grain grown, milled and baked all within two miles of the mill.

Hazeldene Native Rare Breeds Farm nestles in the folds of Asheridge Vale (Buckinghamshire) barely a mile from Chesham.  The 70-acre farm has been run on traditional principles by Liz and Steve Bateman since 2006.  All livestock is naturally reared and allowed to exhibit natural behaviour.  Beef comes from English Traditional Hereford Cattle which is a very rare breed with only 1000 cows alive.  Lamb comes from Oxford Down Sheep and pork comes from British Lop Pigs which are the rarest of native pigs with only 300 sows alive.  Bred from a Cornwall and Devon pig in the 1880s, they are very docile, good mothers and produce excellent pork and bacon.  At the market, as well as the meat for sale, you will often smell burgers and sausages cooking, all of which have been made on the farm.  The giant Scotch eggs are a particular village favourite!

From Wobbly Bottom Farm deep in the Hertfordshire countryside comes a gourmet range of soft and hard goat’s cheeses made in small batches from milk produced fresh on the farm.  The farm is run by Alan and Angela, who have been developing and perfecting their cheese-making craft since 2003.  Today, Wobbly Bottom’s freshly-made products range from a simple, creamy soft goat’s cheese to cheddars infused with a delicious range of extras, including tangy root ginger, real ale and mustard, and cracked black peppercorns.  What makes Wobbly Farm special is that the people who milk the goats are also the people who make the cheese.

Vegetables are picked fresh on the morning of the market from the TiK growing area at Rectory Farm.  TiK volunteers tend the land according to organic principles with no artificial weed killers or fertilisers and plant and harvest the vegetables less than a mile from the market, so not even a food mile!  What’s on offer depends on the season, but it will always be completely fresh.  Our produce is supplemented with watercress from the River Chess in Sarratt and local eggs from Willowdene Farm.

Michael Youngman has been making honey for many years in Langley Hill and he sells his full range of local honey at the market.  A special, and unusual, treat is the ivy honey which can only be made in certain years when there is sufficient ivy pollen in September.  It has a very distinctive flavour and has a number of health benefits.

It’s a challenge to source fresh fish within 25 miles of Kings Langley!  But while the fish comes from further away, we know that is it very fresh from the sea in Grimsby and tastes just how fish should.  Derrick Cheers drives down early on market mornings to be with us with his wonderful fresh fish.

There are a number of other stalls that change from time to time and we are always delighted to welcome new stallholders so, if you would like to have a stall with local produce, please e-mail John Morrish, the Market Manager:

We hope that this brief article has enthused you about the benefits of local produce and that we will see you soon at the market.  It’s the third Saturday of every month from 9am to 1pm on Kings Langley High Street outside where the Sorting Office used to be.

Hot Composting of Vegetable and Garden Waste

Gareth Goode – on behalf of the Transition in Kings Food Group

Last year I decided to attend a weekend-long composting course.  I’d never, in 4 years of composting at my allotment, achieved a hot compost pile.  You hear about people making compost within 6 months, in time for the next growing season.  I didn’t really understand what you needed to do to achieve this.  Well, now I do – and I want to grow abundant and vibrant veg for myself, and at Rectory Farm.  So, I’d like to share with you what I’ve learnt about composting, ready for the next growing season.

Every household should be composting their waste to help reduce transport costs and CO², and to save the financial cost of buying compost from the garden centre.  I once read a short article and it basically said ‘you prune your garden and put the waste in your green bin; you pay for it to be taken away, then, in the summer, you go to the garden centre and (at great cost) buy it back again’.  What a crazy world we have made!

I hope this article will encourage you to question how you treat your waste and to turn it into a valuable, and rich, garden material that your plants/vegetables will love.  Perhaps this will make the idea of composting worth ‘having a go’ or help you to improve it, if you’re doing it already. Transition in Kings food group would welcome you to join in nurturing the vegetables we grow at Rectory Farm, Gade Valley Close, which can be seen opposite Taylors Tools.

Whatever you have available to compost, whether it is kitchen/garden waste, vegetable waste on a farm level (like at Rectory Farm) or animal manure on a farm, the principle is the same.  The first thing to know is simple, that a composting pile is a living thing and that almost every living thing needs oxygen and water.  The second important factor is the carbon to nitrogen ratio (known as the C:N ratio).  Creating a stable environment with food, oxygen and water, for life to thrive, is what’s needed to enable the bacteria, fungus, and actinomycete to work efficiently.

C:N ratio

Carbon to nitrogen ratio can be quite tricky, especially when composting non-kitchen/farm waste. What you’re looking for is 30:1 C:N ratio.  Almost everything that goes into the compost piles has a mixture of carbon and nitrogen.  However, if you are composting kitchen waste, then generally it’s the right mix.  Carbon is known as ‘the browns’.  These are the woody materials, like branches of trees and plants.  Nitrogen is known as ‘the greens’: these are the leafy materials, like leaves, soft flower stalks and grass clippings.  See the table here for more information.

cn ratio


If you can squeeze more than a few drops out of a handful of compost, then it’s too wet.  Too much or too little water will also change the temperature and could either cook the pile by getting too hot (>70°C), or cool the pile by allowing in too much rain.  When the pile gets hot and the decomposition works quickly, the pile will dry out and will need rehydrating.  Too much moisture will cause the oxygen to be pushed out, under the weight, and cause it to go from aerobic to anaerobic digestion.

Anaerobic digestion is when the pile smells putrid.  A prime example is the compost bin in your kitchen.  When it is full, it is heavy and smells awful.  This type of bacteria does not need oxygen; they work much more slowly and at a lower temperature.  They produce a foul smell like rotting eggs; they lock up nitrogen and make it unavailable to plants.  However, aerobic digestion is favourable, as the by-product of the microbes (bacteria, actinomycetes & fungi) creates heat. Therefore, aerobic digestion produces heat and that sweet, earthy smell.


So, let’s touch on layering, Layering is the long-term, cold-composting method.  When someone tells you to make your compost pile, and then to sit back with a glass of wine and let it work itself, well, unfortunately it’s not that simple.  This will likely result in having anaerobic bacteria and locked up nitrogen, and may introduce unwanted pathogens into your garden.  It may not smell any more, as the decomposition process will be over by the time it looks like compost.  It might even help your soil structure, but when growing vegetables, it is important to get the nutrients in the soil and in Hertfordshire, we really need the nitrogen.

With a free-standing pile (see picture), you can monitor the process more easily.  Turning is done ‘on the spot’, to get air into the pile, if it’s too compact and lacking in oxygen, or if it needs opening to rehydrate.  So, a little intervention is required; with a few hours input a year, you can make earthy-smelling compost, rich in humus, aerobic bacteria and fungus.  This can be ready for when you need it, before the next season.

By making a hot pile, the process is quicker and it activates actinomycetes which form the humus.  Also, more waste can be composted, eg citrus, thicker woody garden prunings and tough leafy waste.


What it will look like and when to take action.

So, during the process you will notice a few changes.  The top sagging indicates that decomposition is taking place, so check inside that it’s not too hot or dry, as this would kill the microbes.  The fungus will look like white dots on the wet woody material, towards the end of the decomposition process.  The actinomycetes look like small cobwebs around the dark material.

If the pile is too wet, then you’ll need to dry it out. This can be done by adding dry wood chips (small pieces about ½” diameter), and it’s good to have these available to hand in case you need them.  Although wood chips are high in carbon, it won’t be available to the pile at this size.  Sawdust, on the other hand, is very high in carbon, about 500:1, so use it sparingly.  Straw can be used, but be aware of the increased carbon.  Cover with something waterproof and ideally breathable.  At Rectory Farm we have some proper compost covers available, at cost price, from £25.  Come and see us from 10-12am Thursdays and Sundays.

If you have the right mix, then your compost will generate heat, this is the activity of the microbes hard at work.  So, your heap should get up to 60°C.  If it gets too hot (>70°C), then there is too much carbon and action is required to cool it down, ie break it apart and remix it.  The heat will also have reduced the moisture content of ideally 60%, and more water will be required.  You’ll have to spray the inside of the heap and mix together.  If it’s too cool, then it’s lacking in carbon and you’ll need to add something like straw (straw has a ratio of about 70:1).