Part 2 of “There’s an Apex Predator in my Garden”

In Monday’s post I explored the concept that humans are the ‘apex predators’ of the urban landscape and that we can use this privileged status to do environmental good instead of harm – but that to do so, perhaps we need to be more attuned to our own wildness, our own belonging to Nature, and turn on our creativity.


Today I’m looking at the how-to of being an apex predator:

  • How do we find our wild side and activate it?
  • How do we translate permaculture principles into action?
  • How are we involved in the relationships between other organisms in our ecosystems?

Finding our wild side

We live in a consumer society, where all the systems are geared towards working in a predefined and limited role, to earn the cash to buy the goods that are made by other people far away in worse working conditions and shipped globally using fossil fuel and non-degradable packaging for us to use and throw away and then buy more – meanwhile locking ourselves into ever greater debt and reliance upon our straitjacketed work roles to keep the whole merry-go-round going. Hence stilettos and suits and ties.

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So we break out at every opportunity. That might involve the odd weekend away camping, surfing, making sourdough bread or home brewed beer, keeping chooks, riding a bike instead of driving to work, playing guitar, or taking a lunch break or yoga session in a park or under a tree. These moments and experiences can be surprisingly refreshing, keeping us connected at some level to our inner nature and the greater Nature that we’re a part of. Holidays and adventures in wild places take this connection deeper.

We might go a step further and reject some aspects of the routine or the uniform of 9-5 work life. Like wearing desert boots, negotiating to work from home sometimes, or going part-time and spending a day or two each week growing food, making clothes, recycling things, owner-building, living slower and more consciously. A bit less TV, a bit more making from scratch…

Whatever we do to get off the treadmill and provide for our own needs in a more basic, home-grown and handmade way connects us very directly to our own needs for physical survival, health and comfort. Just a drop in income can quickly remind us of these realities.

Those who take a stronger stand for ‘alternative’ (i.e. what were once more traditional) ways of living – e.g. farming, homeschooling, home birth, herbal medicine, human-powered transport, using barter and exchange instead of cash – get a way bigger dose of nature, including human nature. How much courage and energy does it take to choose such paths?!

Fumbling through all this learning about how stuff grows, how to make things, the trial and error process – the stuff some reality TV shows are made of – is challenging but also is a great window.

Permaculture principles into action

Design Principle 1: Observe and Interact

Observe and Interact. Image:

Observe and Interact is the first permaculture principle. I like to see the knothole/head in the tree /person icon for this principle as a window that frames our observations of the natural world.

By spending time engaging with Nature, we turn on our powers of observation. The more directly our wellbeing depends on that interaction, the more acute our observations are likely to be. So food gardening (even as a partial alternative to working to buy food) is a pretty powerful way to get to know the patterns of Nature – e.g. the seasons and the interplay of sun, wind, rain, soil, plants, animals, fungi and ourselves in the garden through the rhythm of the seasons. At first it seems random, chaotic and separate from us, but as we slow down our observations and stretch our memory across the years, we learn the steps of the dance and we can join in to make it more complex and beautiful.

Principle 9: Use small & slow solutions

Use Small and Slow Solutions. Image:

The time I have available to spend in my own garden ebbs and flows. Some seasons I’m living out there much more than indoors, while other times I’m busy in the office, at the market and at other people’s gardens for weeks at a time. Then I can start to feel like I barely know my own patch. The remedy I liked most the last time this happened was to get out into the garden for the first ten minutes of every day, before breakfast. It became a ritual that I really looked forward to. Of course the time grew as soon as I could let it! Within a few weeks the garden was flourishing again and I felt more nourished, creative, organised and happy. That just happens to be an example of applying another permaculture principle, ‘Use Small and Slow Solutions‘. When we’re dissatisfied we’re often tempted to make dramatic or expensive changes or to try and tackle everything at once. But often very small changes can make a huge difference to success, with far less risk. In the garden, ‘little and often’ is such a great mantra for things like feeding worms, planting seeds, weeding and fertilising, turning compost. And here you were thinking that unleashing your wild nature was going to be all bold and dramatic? Well, not necessarily. Maybe sometimes.

How are we involved in the relationships between other organisms in our ecosystems?

As a permaculture designer, my role is a little different from a horticulturist, a landscaper or a landscape architect. In effect, what I’m asking my clients in the consultation process are questions like these…

  • What kind of relationship do you want to have with your garden?
  • How does that compare with your partner’s relationship with the garden?
  • How do you want to live here? What brings you joy in the garden? When do you feel most alive?
  • Who in your family will spend most time here? What do they need?
  • How long have you lived here and how long do you plan to stay?
  • What role might your garden play in your children’s learning and development, or in your connections with your local community?
  • What resources do you already have that you’d like to use here?
  • What parts of this landscape mean the most to you? (E.g. Is there a tree that is the main character in this story?)

And then I get onto the conventional site analysis – you know, checking out the block’s potential (sun, water, slope, wind, soil, microclimates, outlook, etc.). If I get all this physical stuff ‘right’, but I haven’t tuned in to the deeper needs of those key predators who are the custodians of the land, it won’t work as an ecosystem. It either won’t get built at all, or it won’t get maintained, because they won’t love it.

Then, in working on a design and a DIY project guide for implementing it (most often with a view to a family or individual developing the garden over several years), I’m visualising how the ecosystem develops, step by step, with more species being introduced over time as the conditions are optimised for them and as it’s manageable for the apex predators, the people.

grapevine springSo for example, the paths and rainwater tanks and sheds might go in first, along with a native windbreak that also supports beneficial insects and birds; then some hardy, fast-growing fruit trees and vine-covered pergolas to provide fruit and shade and lovely places to hang out and be part of the garden; soon some chooks, which fertilise the garden while providing eggs, and later the more sensitive fruiting plants that needed their tougher allies in place first to create their preferred microclimate.

All of these elements are linked to one another in mutually beneficial ways, just as the house and the garden complement one another and flow together. We set the system up for success by matching the needs and yields of each of the plants, animals and non-living components, especially the people – because all the rest depends on them. A design and a project guide work as shortcuts in the get-to-know-you process between humans and the rest of the ecosystem, so that it can all become productive and comfortable as quickly and efficiently as possible, with a minimum of trial and error. They don’t replace the intimate connection between peak predator and habitat – they facilitate it.

Sometimes we are afraid to take the first steps in our own gardens, worried about getting something wrong or doing irreparable damage. In a manicured (artificial) garden these concerns are perfectly reasonable, but a permaculture garden is intended to be forgiving, resilient and ever-evolving. There are moments for contemplating like an owl in the tree, and then there are moments for just playing in the soil, like when we were kids in a sandpit. I think if we can balance those two aspects of our own nature, we’re on the right track.


Nadja’s Garden provides home garden consultation, coaching and design services around Adelaide with a focus on the edible, organic, fun and sustainable. During May 2016, each new consultation booking comes with a bonus! To book, email

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1 Response to Part 2 of “There’s an Apex Predator in my Garden”

  1. Donna Bartlett says:

    Thank you Nadja. Such a wonderful post! Beautifully written!

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