One of permaculture’s big ideas is makig plants and animals your agricultural labourers. It’s not so much hitching the family Great Dane to the plough as letting your furred and feathered workers, more or less of their own free will, roam through your food forest grazing on weeds and wolfing down snails. Say goodbye to tedious annual seed-raising, planting and hoeing: your self-reliant plants will look after themselves and keep an eye on each other, shading and nitrogenating and breaking wind (if you know what I mean).
Sometimes it works. Our tamarillo, banana, monstera and tumeric plants have formed a chlorophyllerous collective. We have tip-pruning possums, chickens that mow the lawn and do the weeding, rat-catching diamond pythons and bandicoots on a search and destroy mission for curl grubs. This week I even had a local katydid offering to supervise the manufacture of my home-grown pesto.
Unfortunately some of the local flora and fauna seem to have skipped crucial pages of Bill Mollison’s permaculture classics. My custard apple tree, for instance, appears to need assistance to shed its leaves in a timely manner. Really, has it come to this? I spend my precious hours of leisure depilating fruit trees?
Meanwhile in the kiwifruit arbor, lacking both enthusiastic pollinators and RoboBees (yep, New Zealand has them), we’re having to take a prurient interest in the sex lives of our male and female kiwifruit vines. To be honest, my child labourers were about as useful as the diffident insects. I’m baffled. How could standing on the top of a ladder tickling plant reproductive organs with paintbrush fail to entertain?
The sorry state of my home-made kiwifruit planters remind me of another insect labour fail. Termites. What can a permie do with them?
Thanks to our hippie ways, our place is a kind of termite nature reserve, where wood-eating insects can flourish, peacefully ingesting fruit trees and vernacular architecture, without fear of retaliation. It seems, when they tired of consuming ad-hoc structures made of discarded bed bases, they like to break it up by devouring whole stands of artichokes as a kind of palate cleanser.
Termite eat artichokes – who knew? Last year’s gorgeous silver leafed statement in the outdoor room is this year a soggy larvae-infested hole in the ground.
But let’s not lose faith in our insect workforce! We need to reframe this problem. Bill Mollison once consoled someone tending a denuded garden: “You don’t have a slug problem, you have a duck deficit“. Thinking along these lines let’s put it this way: we don’t have a termite problem: we have a woodwork surplus.
When we first arrived here six years ago, we were puzzled by the gratuitous decking around the washing line and the apparently pointless wooden walkway that took you there. Our neighbours said they’d scratched their heads as they watched this expensive folly being nailed together.
The mystery was illuminated by the lingering damp patch by the garden gate. Somewhere between the fig tree and the passionfruit vine, roundabout where the sewage line runs down from the house, there was a persistent and troubling damp patch. RB wanted to investigate. Having experienced the delights of sewage tumbling through another backyard and with a terrifying vision of a poo fountain raining down on my veggie patch, I implored him to leave it to the professionals. But I made the error of leaving him unattended one day after work.
Thankfully I was spared the realisation of my nightmare of e-coli amongst the asparagus. It turns out our damp patch was an old storm water drain, busted through when the some new and exciting toilet was installed in the house. As one does, rather than repair the drain and desoggify the garden, our predecessors just built a walkway over the swampland. What with the convenient supply of moisture, this wooden path has been a fine buffet for the termites over the years.
Thanks to our cellulose loving friends, a short stroll to hang out the laundry had become as fraught with peril as a high-wire walk between two sky scrapers. Collecting a clean pair of undies from the line carried the ever-present risk of a broken ankle or at least the embarrassing prospect of a plank snapping under your weight, a reminder that you may have had too many marinated artichokes on your pasta lately. Yes, I could have fixed it properly with some decent hardwood or a load of treated timber. But that just wouldn’t have been in the spirit of the thing. Instead, it’s become steadily more raddled looking, thanks to running repairs with a random selection of timber found by the side of the road.
But even with my love of hammers and heavy rubbish, I finally had enough. The walkway had to go. Even in 35 degree heat, the demolition job was a highpoint of my weekend. There’s little more viscerally satisfying than ripping something to bits with your bare hands, even if it has been fatally weakened by termites first.
But what to do with the hardwood footings, cemented and bolted in place? Digging them up would be tricky work, haunted by the ever-present risk of a spade through the sewage pipe. And then it came to me in a blinding flash: with a bit of help from our termite tenants, moist soil heaped up onto wood frames would do the job for me.
So now the erstwhile walkway is a (very very slightly) raised bed, fenced in by scraggy aviary wire: yet another addition to the carceral complex that is our garden. As I water the cucumbers and the cherry tomatoes, I’ll be helping our Willing Workers on Organic
Farms Backyards, the termites, demonstrate the second law of thermodynamics.
It’s been a long time since I sat through high school physics. Things might well have moved on in the inexplicable post-Newtonian world. But I can say with absolute confidence that, in our yard at least, there continues to be “a natural tendency of isolated systems to degenerate into a more disordered state”.
If they weren’t disordered in the first place, the termites, the possums and the brush turkeys would pretty soon make them that way. Good work if you can get it, lads!