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Earthsong is founded on the two equal and complementary systems of cohousing and permaculture. While broadly speaking cohousing is concerned with the relationships of people with each other through building design and organisational structures, permaculture could be described as the relationships of people with the natural world of land, climate, plants and animals.

Permaculture (permanent agriculture) is the conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems that have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems. The concept was developed by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in Australia and introduced with their first book 'Permaculture One' in 1978. It has subsequently flourished throughout the world as a powerful worldview and system for applying human intelligence and ingenuity to work with the natural order - another win-win strategy. It has evolved to encompass strategies not only for agriculture but for a more permanent, i.e evolving but sustainable, culture. While much of standard agriculture can be seen as a linear system, beginning with resource input and ending with productivity and waste output, Permaculture aims to create a closed loop where the needs of one element are met by a surplus in another, where waste from one aspect becomes a resource in another. When designing by Permaculture principles we look at the whole system to identify the needs, effects and surpluses of every element of that system: humans, animals, plants, water, climate, and soil, and weave them in together to grow a flourishing, self-sustaining system.

This is done through observation and design, placing species together which enhance rather than compete with each other, imitating and enhancing natural overland flows of water, recognizing and creating microclimates to support different species, placing often-required plants within easy reach of houses and those requiring only seasonal harvest further away. No two systems will look the same as each is in harmony with its specific situation; land, climate, species, and culture.

Permaculture Design at Earthsong

Permaculture principles are applied at Earthsong in many ways, from the site design and water systems to the productive and edible landscaping, native bush and orchard areas. Buildings are sited to work in with the natural contours of the land and the direction of the sun for passive solar design. The overland stormwater system follows the natural slope of the site to create flourishing water gardens and absorb the rainwater into the soil.

Areas of lawn are less common than productive gardens at Earthsong. Gardens flourish all over the site, from the large common vegetable gardens and orchard to individual gardens around the houses, and small areas tucked beside the path or around buildings. Edible plants co-exist with natives and ornamentals, giving a vibrant eclectic flourishing mix enjoyed by people, birds and beneficial insects alike. Grape vines shade houses from hot summer sun while producing sweet grapes. Even the overland stormwater channels are productive, with watercress, puha, banana palms, and berries.

No organic waste needs to leave the site but is highly sought after to nourish the many gardens. At Earthsong we use a variety of methods to turn food scraps and weeds into rich fertile compost. Large wooden compost bins live in the teardrop garden and are tended by our "compost queen" for re-use on the common gardens. These are not hidden away but take pride of place in the centre of our neighbourhood, for easy access by all residents and as a visible reminder that decomposition is a valued and necessary part of a healthy cycle.

Some households have their own smaller compost bins for domestic use. Many residents use the "Bokashi Zing" system of anaerobic fermentation using EM (Effective Microorganisms) for food scraps. Others have worm farms to handle the cooked and/or mushy food waste. Large windrow compost heaps on spare land on the front of site are useful for breaking down larger material.

Management of the System

In 2003, after the first residents had settled in, we worked with Robina McCurdy to create a permaculture plan for the whole site.

While some areas have since changed focus, this gave us a good start in overall planning of the site and implementation is ongoing. The Permaculture Focus Group maintains the overview of the productive areas within Earthsong, and manages the implementation of the overall vision. Specific plans for different areas are brought to the focus group for discussion and agreement, and for larger efforts the focus group may call for a working bee of members.

One half of the Earthsong land area (or 6000 m2) is common open space (with another 20% of the site in private gardens around individual houses), and we use a system of guardianship to tend the common areas. Common land is divided into management areas and residents nominate themselves to be guardian of one or more of these, often areas close by their homes that they pass every day and thus have a greater awareness of. Larger areas such as the teardrop garden and the orchard have several guardians.

While a lot of the planting, weeding and even harvesting of these areas is done by the guardians, their role is primarily to take an interest in that area, seek agreement from the Permaculture Focus Group for what is intended, and call for assistance with major planting and tending from other residents.

Intrinsic to permaculture is the use of non-toxic organic methods of soil fertility and pest control. To support this ethic our Body Corporate rules prevent the use of non-organic pesticides and products within the neighbourhood. Some residents use biodynamic methods of making fertilizing preparations and spread them throughout the neighbourhood for the benefit of all.

A fully-fledged permaculture system requires animals as valuable parts of the system. Unfortunately our small land area prevents us considering any other than very small animals! We have beehives on the site, and are learning the skills required to keep them healthy given the existence of the fatal varroa mite in New Zealand. Wild ducks are both a boon and a nuisance.

While they have decimated our snail population, they are also rather partial to strawberries and tender seedlings. Our attempt at raising chickens ended in a massacre by local dogs one night, but plans are afoot for secure but portable housing for chickens that will greatly enhance the diversity of our system.

As we develop our gardens and bring more and more areas into production, we are gradually increasing the amount of food grown on site. It is unlikely we will ever approach self-sufficiency in food given the density of our neighbourhood, and that has never been a goal - instead we are linking in with surrounding areas with our local organic vege coop and plan to forge relationships with local organic farmers. We do however grow a surprising amount of food in a small area, including most of our summer fruit and vegetables and salad greens all year round. The satisfaction of picking your dinner fresh from the garden is matched by the highly nutritious and delicious taste of home-grown food, and the lush gardens contribute to the beauty of our neighbourhood.