Sometimes a real treat lands in your lap. I had seen on the Permaculture magazine Facebook page that an organisation called Grundtvig was offering EU sponsored trips to Malta for a permaculture course centred around Bahrija Oasis, on the west coast of the island. I followed the links and got the last place on the course. After some heavy paperwork I also secured a grant for the full cost, including travel and subsistence.
Over 11 years a man called Peppi Gauci has transformed what was basically a barren and windswept rocky outcrop, into an oasis of nature (and culture) using permaculture principles. With water and wind management techniques, swales and berms, composting and recycling, the site has been built into a life-sustaining centre that feeds not only himself and his family, but also trades food with restaurants and individuals. It is a model of food production which some of the local ‘monoculture farmers’ fail to comprehend due to their continued extortion of the environment. Farmers, it seems, may be the last people to understand what permaculture can offer.
The steep sides of the valley in which Bahrija Oasis sits, give a terraced garden with new discoveries at every level and turn. There is an underground reservoir built into the landscape, pools with Koy and Mosquito fish conserving the precious water, carefully constructed wicking beds that value every drop. Many trees have taken a hold there. Screens of harvested local reed cut the wind and help the plants with the adverse conditions of strong wind and low water.
During my visit in March the landscape was alive with wild plants and flowers - the ever-present prickly pear, vetches, huge, white thistle flowers, bright-yellow daisies, masses of star-shaped borage flowers, swathes of fennel leaf, trumpet shaped sorrel flowers, wall pennywort, ivy-leafed toadflax, campion, giant periwinkles, billions of sun-coloured flowers alive with black bees. After a long British winter it was like a trip to heaven. The edible flowers are diligently picked and packaged for the local restaurant trade.
We also saw harvested yams and onions left over from last year, all sorts of sprouting seeds and wheatgrass - another commercial venture. In the vegetable garden further down the hill there were crops of kohl rabi, broad beans and herbs, edible greens of several types and more wicking beds waiting for a crop. Amongst all the growing things, goats nestled into a shed made under a rocky outcrop, Neanderthal looking chickens, chattering ducks, even geese roaming at will, screeching what appeared to be ‘Bahrija, Bahrija’. Quite how Peppi has trained the geese to promote his Oasis remains a mystery. But all the life here shouts its name. Every inch of the place is alive in this place where nature shares its yields with people.
In some ways it was a shame to have to go indoors to the geodesic dome at times and learn about the theories of permaculture, but it was worth it. Peppi led us in an educational experience to understand permaculture systems, concepts of yield within a human and natural context, patterns in nature, biodiversity and co-operation. We looked at scale, micro-climates, stacking and edge effects and structuring the process of ‘permaculturing’ a place into zones and sectors and plant and land types. We learned about the hydrological cycle, swales and berms, composting, fertilising, pollinating and soil structure. We constructed and used a bunyip and other practical exercises out in the warm, Maltese sun. We took trips out to the cliffs nearby, to see erosion on a beach, an adventure into the politics of Maltese bird trappers and to the silent city of Mdina.
There is something beautiful about people who are environmentally aware. They see what is going on around them. As a result the interactions between people on this course were soft-edged and gentle. There were no big ego’s demanding attention. There were four of us from the UK, two French people, two from Norway and one from Holland - all there with help from the EU Grundtvig grant (which has now changed its name to ECORYS Lifelong Learning Programme). With the information from Peppi and the other students in Malta, I have returned home determined to convert my garden to a permaculture space and now I know just how to approach it.
Want to learn more about permaculture? Read editor, Maddy Harland's series: What is Permaculture?
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