Permaculture Sydney: how it came and went

Permaculture Web—Permaculture Sydney’s newsletter/journal of the 1990s carried news, ideas and useful information for permaculture practitioners.

SHE GOES INTO the room and comes back with a box of old and tattered magazines. Selecting one, she starts flicking through the pages.

“There’s some history here”, Fiona says as we sit around the table this chilly winter afternoon. She reads out the names of people she finds on the pages, names we haven’t heard for decades. Fiona remembers more than I do. She can still tell me who they were and what they were like.

The name of the publication stirs my memory and suddenly I’m transported to a different time with people I last saw many years ago in places I have long ago forgotten about. Places like that garden in Sydney’s southern suburbs.

We take the narrow path to where it opens a view over the woman’s urban backyard. From here we can see the logic of the design she followed in recreating her garden according to permaculture design principles. Below, she talks about the plants she grows and how she uses them.

It is a long ago Sunday afternoon, sometime in the early 1990s. We are on a site visit to this Sydney southern suburbs garden, one of many such site visits organised by Permaculture Sydney. They are popular excursions. Permaculture is starting to become better-known but is still far from well-known.

Somehow, people ready to start their permaculture adventure in productive design find the association. I’m unsure how they do this as the internet is still a good half-decade in the future. This is how it goes as the association moves through its early years, until, eventually, the visits, the educational, the social activities the association organises become fewer as the decade moves on. Permaculture Sydney is running down, its energy largely expended. We have been here before. It is another turning of the cycle of creation and dissipation which Permaculture Sydney travels through over the decades.

I have a poorly-remembered idea that there might have been a small Permaculture Sydney group, more a bunch of people who knew each other, before Robyn Francis walked into the radio station where I did news, current affairs and documentaries. Robyn wanted to do something on permaculture, so we produced a series of four or five minute spots. I scheduled them over the following weeks on the afternoon drivetime program for which I was co-producer.

Robyn was a calmly industrious woman, one of permaculture’s early adopters, one of its pioneers. Recently arrived in the city from the NSW Mid-North Coast, she was then probably in her thirties, softly spoken, and wore her dark brown hair close to her shoulders. Robyn’s quiet determination and persistence would do much to establish a permaculture presence in the city.

Robyn Francis harvests arrowroot at ther Djanbung Gardens permaculture education centre at Nimbin. Over the decades, Robyn turned the bare cow paddock of the nineties into the thickly-revegetated and productive permaculture education centre of today.

A place in the city

It is a Saturday afternoon. I stand on the footpath, camera ready, on the other side of the red tape fastened across the door. A small group looks on. As Robyn stands beside him, a man with a trim grey-beard, his face betraying years of outside work, snips the tape with the scissors he holds. As it flutters aside I press the camera’s shutter release to record Bill Mollison officially opening the Permaculture Epicentre.

Was it 1984? I think it might have been when Robyn set up a new Permaculture Sydney. Starting it from her Petersham home—the highlight when Fiona Campbell and I visited was the banana tree growing in a rubbish bin in the tiny backyard—it was after the organisation moved into the Epicentre that is really took off.

It can be busy here in the Epicentre. Walk in some evenings and there we are cutting and pasting together — desktop publishing is still some years in the future — the Permaculture Sydney newsletter variously called the The Vine, Choko Vine, the Passionfruit Vine and other vine-names. Eventually running out of edible vines, in the summer of 1986–87 we settle upon Winds of Change as a name.

A quarterly magazine is also produced at the Epicentre. I joined Robyn in Melbourne to bring back the International Permaculture Journal. It had been edited by Terry White since 1978 when it was called, simply, Permaculture. Now, Terry wanted to move on into revegetation work. That, 1978, was the year in which Permaculture One was published, permaculture’s dawn year when it first bloomed into the world. Now in Sydney at the Permaculture Epicentre, it morphs into Permaculture International Journal — PIJ — which it will remain until its last edition in the June of 2000.

The Epicentre is the venue for workshops. The conversion of its run-down, small and degraded backyard into a forest garden, as much of a forest garden as anyone could have in Enmore, is underway. Denise Sawyer, who like Robyn lives in the rooms above the Epicentre, looks after the little shopfront where books, Robyn’s herbal creams, seeds and other products are sold. The interest in alternative economics among permaculture people of the 1980s is highlighted at the Epicentre by the presence of August Investments, Australia’s first social or ethical investment business, started by Damien Lynch.

I put the highlight of Robyn’s time in Sydney as establishing the Epicentre there on Enmore Road in the city’s Inner West. Now, the premises is occupied by Alfalfa House Food Co-op, Sydney’s longest-running food cooperative which made its start in the mid-eighties.

It was around 20 years after the little forest garden was planted at what was then the Permaculture Epicentre that I made this photo. The trees planted by Robyn Francis and others protrude high above the fence.


It is 1986. Robyn is leaving Sydney. Denise and horticulturist, Francis Lang, take over the coordination of Permaculture Sydney, but all too soon they, too, pack and go. Their destination? A new type of community in the hilly Sunshine Coast hinterland. Here, they establish new lives at Crystal Waters Permaculture Village. Here, Francis and Jeff Michaels set up their Green Harvest horticulture supplies business. It soon outgrows their garage and they move the business to nearby Maleny, where it remains.

Bereft of their energy, Permaculture Sydney starts to wither. It is now the interregnum, the time between the old Permaculture Sydney and its reinvention.

Jeff Michaels and Francis Lang in their Crystal Waters garden.

We must remember Steve Ward when we talk about permaculture’s emergence in Sydney. Steve did a Permaculture Design Certificate with Bill Mollison. He lived in Bundeena, on the edge of Royal National Park on Sydney’s far-southern edge where he produced Village Voice, the local newspaper.

It was some time in the 1980s that Fiona and I accompanied Steve and his partner to Northern Victoria, near Seymour I think it was, to the Down To Earth Festival. Earlier, in 1984, we were in Nimbin for the Aquarius Ten Years After festival where AASC — the Australian Association for Sustainable Communities—was launched. AASC was a national organisation. Back in Sydney we set up a local unit.

Our project was to produce a press clipping service called Evidently, an A3 size, tape-bound publication. Flip it over and you have Sustainability, all the sustainability news clipped from the print media. Steve also put together a hand-lettered bioregional guide listing relevant organisations.

Evidently/Sustainability, the Sydney press clipping service of the Australian Association for Sustainable Communities.

The concept of bioregionalism gained currency in permaculture circles in the nineties. It came to be included in Permaculture Designer Courses as a new way of looking and landscapes, ecologies and regional economics. I don’t recall if Steve Ward was with us that night we met with US bioregional activist, the late-Peter Berg, in Lurlines Permaculture Cafe in Annandale, but I do know Robyn Francis was there.

The TV stimulus

The Sydney Bio-regional Resource Guide, another AASC Sydney publication. Artwork by Steve Wrad.

A new decade dawns and something significant in the story of permaculture is about to happen as television beams an ABC TV, four part series called The Global Gardener into the nation’s living rooms. It is hosted by none other than permaculture’s iconoclastic co-founder, Bill Mollison. It is 1991.

The series, later rebroadcast, boosts permaculture into mainstream society. It’s hard to overestimate the impact of The Global Gardener. Permaculture courses fill, including the three month, part-time urban Permaculture Design Certificate course Fiona and I run and that is recognised by UNSW as a substitute for the university’s general studies course.

Before Global Gardener there was another ABC TV production that also focused on permaculture. In Grave Danger of Falling Food, too, caught the imagination of those ready for change.

Rebirth beckons

In inner urban Glebe, in an old terrace house just off the intersection where Ross Street meets Bridge Road, two people are ready for new ideas. As Brad Nott and Ian Mason watch In Grave Danger of Falling Food they are so inspired they hatch an idea. Why not set up a permaculture association and call it Permaculture Sydney?

Neither were associated with Permaculture Sydney or with permaculture at all. Brad works for an IT corporation in the newly-emerging digital industry. Somehow, he and Ian — Ian is a landscape architecture student at UNSW — make contact with Fiona and I. Our first meeting is in the upstairs living room of their Glebe terrace house. Fiona remembers…

“Brad Nott and Ian Mason revived Permaculture Sydney in the early 1990s after seeing the ABC TV series on permaculture, In Grave Danger of Falling Food. The series was hosted by permaculture co-founder, Bill Mollison.”

In later years Brad worked at the Centre for Appriopriate Technology in Alice springs, then moved to Aldinga Arts Ecovillage in South Australia. Ian I last heard of living in the town of Aldinga.

“Russ and I joined Ian and Brad and started producing the new Permaculture Sydney’s Permaculture Web newsletter, a print publication… this was before the internet so print was the only option. Published seasonally, it ran to 16 pages. We produce it using Pagemaker software on an Apple Macintosh Classic, one of those early machines-in-a-beige-box with its little 23cm monochrome screen. Winter 1991 was the first edition. It succeeded in attracting subscriptions. Russ, who was a journalist, edited it.

“The second edition, Spring 1991, carried a report on a Permaculture Sydney members’ visit to Ted Trainer’s Pigface Point property in south-west Sydney, with its examples of intermediate technology. Ted was a UNSW lecturer in the school of social work whose course was built around the argument popularised by the Club of Rome book, Limits To Growth. His riverbank property with its DIY water management and renewable energy systems was popular among the small number of sustainability-minded people at the time.

“That edition also reported on the association’s visit to Rooty Hill Resource Farm in Western Sydney. That was Phil Arundel’s project to convert an old, commercial fruit orchard to permaculture management. We also visited James Adam’s permaculture establishment at Narara and Jack Everett’s place up the road. There was a visit to Judith Collins’ Earthkeeper property at Thirlmere.”

In the days before the internet, a print newsletter or journal was the main avenue for organisations like Permaculture Sydney to establish a presence. That is why so much effort was put into producing the publications. It is also why a premises in a high visibility location, such as the Permaculture Epicentre on Enmore’s busy main road, was important. Once an organisation had a newsletter and a premises, even a well-known monthly meeting venue such as Permaculture North had in Lindfield, it could attract people. Word of mouth was the other way of attracting new people. Then, we couldn’t explain how that worked. Now that we have Network Theory, we can.

“The December 10, 1992 end-of-year get-together at Penrose Rural Co-op was really successful”, Fiona recalls as she flicks through an article in Permaculture Web. The Co-op was an intentional community started on the Southern Highlands by Sydney University architecture students in the 1970s. The event attracted 80 people from a range of permaculture groups — Permaculture Sydney, Permaculture ACT, Southern Highlands Permaculture.

At a permaculture event, the late-Ralph Long (left), a Southern Highlands farmer who adopted permaculture ideas, sits with Godfrey Davies, a builder and resident of Penrose Rural Co-op. Godfrey later moved to the NSW Mid-North Coast.

“It was a networking event pulled together so permaculture people could get to know each other. We toured the mudbrick homes with their solar and wind renewable energy systems and saw the start of a circular, zone-one food garden. The invitation advised people to bring their swimmers as there was a big farm dam, to bring food for a picnic and an axe to cut down a christmas tree to take home. The Co-op had a bit of a weed problem with radiata pine spreading from the nearby plantation.

“We saw site visits as a way for people to learn about permaculture and to be inspired to start their own projects,” Fiona continued.

We took our permaculture design students to the co-op for the first and last weekends of the course. Builder, Godfrey Davies took them through building design, including the large timber yurt he built. Suzie Edwards led a session exploring the work of organisational thinker, Edward de Bono.

“Creating public awareness of the organisation was seen as the most important step at the time. That was the purpose of putting energy into producing Permaculture Web. There was a section of short news pieces called Droppings and stories ranging through the full application of permaculture from the garden to building design, community economics and what is today called ‘social permaculture’.

“We were doing social permaculture well before it was given a name and popularised. Maria and Richard McGuire, professional facilitators, ran a facilitation, group dynamics and decision making course for Permaculture Sydney members. Later, they offered it as part of our urban Permaculture Design Certificate course because we saw interpersonal relations and the need to make effective decisions to be crucial to successful permaculture projects.

“There was a seasonal planting calendar and a seasonal bioregional calendar advertising, among other events, site visits and workshops as well as walks led by Russ, such as that to Curracurrang and along the Wallamurra Track in Royal National Park. As well as introducing people to the national park, the walks were to learn about the ecology and have a good day out in the bush. Russ worked part-time in the national park as a ranger and bush guide.

“Michael Williams produced the crossword puzzles for Permaculture Web, and through the nineties we published a lot of stories about permaculture and economics… permaculture economics, that is… LETS and the like… ethical investment. There was substantial interest in economics in permaculture at that time. We also ran a video open day at our place to watch The Global Gardener, the video series which was so important to boosting interest in permaculture in the nineties.”

What about mutual assistance in permaculture, people helping each other to get started? Permablitz is thought of as the first mutual assistance scheme in the permaculture world. It wasn’t. What was, was called PermaNet. It was the initiative of Permaculture South, an early 1990s offshoot which remained affiliated with Permaculture Sydney. Its first PermaNet project was construction of a mandala garden with a truck tyre pond at centre at the McGrath house in Hurstville.

Groups and contacts

The 1994 spring-summer edition of Permaculture Web listed the organisation’s team as:

  • Sue Smith
  • Doug Bailey, an anthropologist with an keen interest in ethnobotany who with his Javanese wife created an ethnobotanical food forest in inner urban Marrickville long before they discovered permaculture
  • Nigel Shepherd, then a student of geography at Sydney University who would later try to found an inner urban cohousing project, Inner Pod, though the attempt was unsuccessful
  • Angus Campbell, who would later try his hand as large scale worm farming
  • Bob Logan
  • Fiona Campbell, working in local government and at the time producing a manual for the council’s development control plan to guide energy and water efficient house and garden design, and in which permaculture ideas played no small part
  • and me.

Local permaculture contacts were listed as:

  • Bundeena—Chris VanVeen (a landscaper)
  • Northern Beaches—Pauline Shelldrake
  • NW Sydney urban—Sally Ramsden; trained by New Zealand permaculture and community development worker, Robyn McCurdy from Tui Community at Golden Bay, Salli later went on to lead workshops around the country on working with children in permaculture.

Over the decade, Permaculture Sydney birthed a number of regional permaculture associations:

  • Permaculture South, based in The Shire, Sydney’s southern suburbs
  • Permaculture North, set up by Permaculture Sydney members Christine and David Leese when they wanted an association closer to where they lived on the northside
  • Permaculture Inner West.

The groups ran their own programs and, with the exception of Permaculture North, remained affiliated with Permaculture Sydney.

The spring 1992 list of Sydney region permaculture groups and contacts included:

  • Northern Beaches/Elvina Bay — Karren Peterson
  • Bundeena—Chris van Veen
  • Permaculture North—David and Christine Leese (the Leeses later moved to the Southern Highlands)
  • Permaculture Sydney
  • Permaculture South
  • Rooty Hill Resource Farm in Western Sydney—Phil Arundel.

The summer 1993 listing added:

  • Permaculture East
  • Pittwater Permaculture, the renamed Permaculture Elvina Bay.

Elsewhere in NSW:

  • Permaculture Hunter Valley
  • Trevallyn Permaculture in the Newcastle region
  • Permaculture Milton on the NSW South Coast; Pam Gray was the local permaculture contact
  • Permaculture ACT
  • Permaculture Central Coast
  • Permaculture Southern Highlands.

The list illustrated how permaculture entered a sustained growth phase in the early 1990s.

Local permaculture educator, Fiona Buning, ran a permaculture for urban dwellers workshop at Palm Beach in 1993 or 1994. She later moved out of Sydney. Fiona and I stepped into permaculture education at this time:

  • we were invited to run a part-time Permaculture Design Course for Permaculture Central Coast
  • later, Fiona handed over to Chris van Veen her landscape design and introduction to permaculture courses she ran for an adult education organisation in the southern suburbs
  • we retained the Introduction To Permaculture course we ran for the adult education organisation in the Eastern Suburbs
  • in the nineties we started parttime employment as landcare educators at Calmsley Hill City Farm, a program run by teacher, Mary Bell, which also employed Eric Bedford, a farmer and one-time agriculture minister in the NSW Wran Labor government
  • we ran our three month, parttime Permaculture Design Course through the decade, which included a LETS system that was active through the course and run by course participants as a means of learning-by-doing; a social permaculture topic led by professional facilitators, Richard and Maria Maguire from Unfolding Futures; international development led in part by Jill Finnane from Action for World Development, who taught permaculture in Sri Lanka; an intermediate technology segment led by Tullaloc Tokuda, who later went to live on an intentional community in India; and a community economics topic led by Sue Doust (Sue and Louise Gore lived in a flat in the Inner West where they built a raised vegetable garden on concrete and directed sunlight into it by strategically-placed heliostats—mirrors that reflected light into the shaded garden.

Coming home

It is 1993, autumn.

A home. Permaculture Sydney has a home at last. It is in an old military admin building on Bundock Street, Randwick, in Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs. By this time, the Permaculture Epicentre has gone, the premises taken over by Alfalfa House Food Coop.

Randwick Community Centre sounds a grandiose name for the old fibro and galvanised iron building. We have a room there and share the building with AidWatch, the overseas aid watchdog, Vietnam Veterans Association and Sydney LETS, a Local Exchange and Trading System startup led by a Canadian, Michael Linton, who first developed the LETS community trading system in Canada and whom, with John Dobbins, is planning a metropolitan-wide cashless trading system.

Now, Permaculture Sydney has a place for workshops, meetings and events. Later in the year the Alternative Technology Association organises a successful seminar on energy efficient housing design at the community centre. Fiona and I will soon start to teach our urban Permaculture Design Course here. Out of that will grow Randwick Community Organic Garden.

In the spring of 1994 Permaculture Sydney is experiencing steady growth after Brad and Ian launched the new organisation under the old name. By this time, Brad has left Sydney to work at the Centre for Appropriate Technology in Alice Springs. Later, he will move to South Australia to work in the organics certification industry.

Boosted by In Grave Danger of Falling Food and The Global Gardener, Permaculture Sydney’s membership is increasing in a way which parallels the growth of permaculture in other states and cities. It seems the design system’s time has come.

The fading

Steady growth. This is how it goes for permaculture Sydney through the decade. Until it starts to fade.

In its first iteration Robyn Francis focused on education as a role for Permaculture Sydney. In its second iteration the association had an active program. Why, then, did it start to fade away as the final years of the decade approached?

I know of no specific reason, however I put it down to the lack of new people prepared to assume a role in running the organisation. Those already doing that were burning out, a common occurrence in voluntary organisations. With few newcomers, the work of running the organisation and producing the newsletter fell to fewer people. Permaculture Sydney was becoming tired.

Organisations like Permaculture Sydney were what built permaculture through the 1980s and into the following decade. It was in them that the practice of permaculture was based. A way to think about their role is as stepping stones leading to what permaculture has evolved into today.

With the approach of the millennium, Permaculture Sydney winds down. Then it is no more.

In the years to come others would assume the name. During its expansion period when it was the only permaculture organisation in Sydney, Permaculture North resumed the name as it decentralised into regional groups: Permaculture Sydney South, Permaculture Sydney West and Permaculture Sydney North. It was like a reprise of what Permaculture Sydney did in setting up regional groups in the early 1990s. Of those, only Permaculture Sydney West and Permaculture Sydney North remain. Now, they are supplemented by Permaculture Northern Beaches.

Two other permaculture organisations rose and faded quickly. Permaculture Hills To Hawkesbury was led by an energetic woman who did one of our PacificEdge Permaculture Design Courses. Permaculture 2000 recognised its numbers were too low for it to remain viable and amalgamated with Permaculture North.

That wasn’t all that happened. Conflict arose in Sydney when a regionally-prominent permaculture practitioner took exception to Rotary hosting a talk by Bill Mollison. Fiona and I found out about it when someone from Rotary called to discuss an incident with the permaculture woman who, they alleged, was disruptive and seemed to think she had greater rights of access to Bill than they did. Thankfully, the incident faded into the timeline of the decade.

Around the end of the first decade of the new century a few local people tried to start a new organisation based in Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs — Permaculture East. Its attracted a good number at the start and focused on people’s home gardens, however it, too, went into decline as key people left.

That is how it went over those years as Permaculture Sydney faded and reinvented itself. People came and went, there was the exodus first of Robyn Francis, then Denise Sawyer and Francis Lang as Crystal Waters called them to a new life in the rural subtropics. They are still there. Fiona and I, too, were forced to step out to care for aged parents. The lesson from these departures is that when key people leave, organisations suffer unless effort is put into finding capable replacements. The catch is finding those people. If they are not there, the organisation goes into decline.

A rough theory

What accounts for the ebb and flow, the appearance and fading of groups like permaculture associations? I have no cohesive theory, just a few rough observations.

The inability to find people ready to step in and replace those leaving an organisations is a key factor, I think. Organisations, like those early iterations of Permaculture Sydney, are started by energetic and enthusiastic people with a mission to spread the word and the practice. Their departure from an organisation leave a vacuum which is not always fully filled by the people stepping in.

How its practitioners position permaculture in the social marketplace for ideas might have something to do with the appearance and fading or permaculture associations. If it is not popularised as a realistic solution to some trend in society it is liable to be ignored. Ideas have to offer utilitarian value to grow.

Interpersonal conflict is another factor although it didn’t figure in the fading and rebirth of Permaculture Sydney. It has in other organisations, including those in permaculture. New people come in, and when they gain the confidence of those managing an organisation they can displace some already there. Yet, it is often those already there who are the experienced stayers. The newcomers are often around for only the short term.

“To every thing there is a season”—maybe what is written in Ecclesiastes is right. It’s about timing. Just like waiting outside for a consistent set to come in and riding its swells, perhaps the time has to be right for an idea, for an organisation to rise and prosper. The broadcast of The Global Gardener opened a season of rapid expansion for permaculture and its organisations. Then the season closed as did the associations. Maybe it has to do with the tides of economics and politics on which ideas and organisations rise and recede like flotsam upon the sea. Maybe it’s about the social vibe at the time.

Where are they?

As we sat talking that afternoon, Fiona asked a question that has been asked by others over the years.

”What happened to all those permaculture places that featured in Permaculture Sydney’s program of site visits? Maybe Judith Collin’s is still there. Ted Trainer is. Penrose Rural Co-op is still there. The rest? They’ve gone. Disappeared.

“And those people too. We know where some are and we are still in sporadic contact with a few. And what about the members of those permaculture associations? Did they continue with their permaculture? I guess we’ll never know”.



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