Permaculture Workshop Experiences – Keys to Success in Community Projects

I presented the Introduction to Permaculture workshop on Sunday 29/3/15, hosted at Bellevue Heights Primary School, and it included a visit to the school’s developing garden, which has been designed and set up by Permie Pedro Design and Chris Day of Every Day Sustainable Living in consultation with the school community. There were nine participants including three staff of the school (two teachers and one SSO with an active involvement in the garden) and six other community members including a community garden coordinator, a horticulture student, a park ranger, a beginning gardener and two university staff.

Apart from exploration of the school garden, the workshop covered:
• An introduction to the ethics and principles of permaculture as described by David Holmgren
• An overview of some key elements in site capability assessment
• Brief introduction to how permaculture design aims to mimic the complexity and stability of mature natural ecosystems
• An interactive exercise to illustrate how we can “integrate rather than segregate” elements of a typical suburban garden
• Information about Permaculture Design Certificate courses and learning materials
• A strong focus on community permaculture projects, using the example of Hulbert Street in Fremantle (see Shani Graham’s TEDxPerth talk, “Take a Street and Build a Community”), and inviting participants to work in small groups of their choosing to develop a vision for the kinds of projects that interested them.

In the small group session, participants formed three groups:
• School staff focusing on strategies for further developing the school garden and expanding it to include a community garden
• University staff focusing on developing a new community garden with input from university, business, council and local residents
• Four individuals developing strategies to each engage their own friends and families with local food-focused sustainability gatherings

We had a lively discussion including learning from the experiences of Hulbert Street, the Bellevue Heights school garden and the Happy Patch Community Garden – what worked well, what obstacles and limitations were encountered and what’s needed to keep such projects progressing. Participants applied their observations to their own projects and considered which of the permaculture principles and ethics seemed most relevant to the stages they were at – e.g. using and valuing diversity, integrating rather than segregating, care of people, producing no waste, and implementing small and slow solutions.

We tried to identify some keys to success in bringing people together and making worthwhile things happen in our local communities. Below are some of the things we felt often helped.


  • Food – especially wood-fired pizza as the cooking experience is irresistible.
  • Traffic-free zones – community emerges more naturally in a cul-de-sac or other places where people are more welcome than motor vehicles.
  • Drinks – aside from its potential negative effects, alcohol is still a useful ingredient in social bonding. Home brewing is also a great shared activity.
  • Fun – groups need a healthy ratio of fun activities to ‘work’ tasks, otherwise it’s all too hard!
  • Actively approaching neighbours – we talked about the value of going knocking on doors to ‘borrow’ something (e.g. a dinner ingredient) – opening up connections.
  • Small scale and local – the sense of being a small enough group to know everyone helps projects to feel ‘safe’ and people to feel that their privacy and security is respected.
  • Low cost – at least some events need to be free so that everyone can participate.
  • Regular scheduled meetings and events such as swaps, to keep up the contact and momentum.
  • Some skilled volunteers (e.g. practical/trade skills, grant writing, group facilitation, technical abilities, professional contacts) and some way of knowing who’s who and what they can do (skills register, project coordinator, booklet etc).
  • Willingness of people to pitch in – being part of some existing community group helps! (e.g. school, church).
  • Visibility – making tangible changes to a place that community members can’t help seeing regularly.
  • An administration team, so that the hard work (especially the slow bureaucratic stages to get started) is shared and individuals are not too easily overloaded.

It was great to see the level of engagement that occurred in group discussion, and most participants indicated in their evaluation that they found the sharing of ideas useful and enjoyable as well as the more formal teaching. Suggestions for future courses included having more practical / hands-on / gardening / outdoor activities, more detailed information on permaculture garden design, and a closer look at real-life example designs (plans and photos). There was a lot of interest in the short practical workshops that I’m offering over the next few months as well as courses at the Food Forest including this year’s Permaculture Design Certificate course.

As we had a full schedule already and had to skim over some topics very lightly, it seems that it would probably require a two-day course to cover both home garden design and community building to the depth that would be really satisfying for everyone. This expanded scope would probably need at least two teachers/facilitators and would only be available to those who can take a whole weekend away from other commitments and can afford a more expensive course. Worth trying sometime? I’d be interested to hear people’s thoughts.

Many thanks to all the participants, to the school staff who attended for their generous help around the venue, and to Bellevue Heights Primary School for hosting and sharing their lovely garden for our event.

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