Designing a Community Orchard with Permaculture

Tamsin Westbrook
Monday, 21st September 2020

Tamsin Westbrook shares her journey into permaculture and how she has used her Permaculture Design Course with Shift Bristol to create a design for the orchard area at Combe Grove.

At the beginning of 2018 I had no idea what permaculture was. But I did have an important decision to make. I had been running my own business for five years, both my children were now in school and I felt it was time for a change. I wanted to do something meaningful, to be active and outdoors and to work alongside others. I was at a loss. I couldn’t afford to go back to university, and I didn’t know what other options were available to me. I decided to wind down the business and volunteer my time on a nature reserve until I figured out what to do next. I learned a lot during my time there. Mostly how important it is to work as a team and how much time and effort land management can take. After a few months of doing this I told a friend about my predicament and she gave me the details of a place she knew of and that they were looking for apprentices. 

Combe Grove Permaculture is a team of ‘Land Stewards’ who look after 64 acres of land belonging to a charity called the Elmhurst Foundation. The charity bought the Combe Grove property, just outside of Bath, in 2017 which has a hotel, retreat center and gym facilities. The charitable aims of the Elmhurst Foundation are to create high quality apprenticeships across the business, create a destination for health and wellbeing and extend their charitable reach into the local community. The permaculture team are responsible for increasing biodiversity across the site, obtaining a yield and improving the environmental performance across the entire business. So, I got in touch, had an interview and they offered me a position as an apprentice Land Steward. By the start of 2019 I was working towards a qualification in horticulture, with the added bonus of being part of a team which shared the same values as me with an ambition to grow food, build soil and create a space where nature can thrive.

As the word ‘permaculture’ was in the name of the organisation I now worked for, I decided I ought to find out what I could about it! I set about reading Bill Mollison’s Introduction to Permaculture and was fascinated by the ideas and drawings within. I learnt about the principles of permaculture and asked if I could present what I found to the team, some of whom, like me had joined in order to learn. I attended the Permaculture Convention at Hill End and was astounded by the amount of ways permaculture can be applied beneficially, not just to the land, but to your way of life. After this I went on an introductory course with Sarah Pugh at Shift Bristol. She was such an easy going, informative and inspiring woman that I knew I wanted to study my PDC with her as my tutor. During lockdown, Shift Bristol was offering an online course. It meant I could complete all the learning from home with no worries about travel or childcare. It was a no brainer. I signed up immediately! 

Every Tuesday evening, I settled down to meet my new online ‘friends’ (something I had not expected to happen through Zoom) to learn from the wonderful Sarah and other tutors she brought in for their expertise. The virtual fieldtrips were surprisingly fun and inspiring. We were able to ‘visit’ so many different places and ask our host questions - East Devon Forest Garden and Grow Wilder were particular highlights for me! When the time came to choose our design projects, I asked my manager if there was a project we could work on within the overall permaculture design for Combe Grove. He suggested we could work on the orchard design situated in the old paddock – a south-facing gently sloping area at the southernmost part of the property. 

The entrance to the 'paddock'

We are in Somerset and this is apple country after all! But even more so, we are a permaculture site, so any orchard needs to be multi-functional. Our ‘client’, my manager, wanted the orchard to have a community function and to apply agroforestry techniques to the establishment of the orchard. I put the idea forward to people on the course and we ended up as a team of three to produce a design to fit the bill. The challenges were more than just putting into practice what we had learned with Sarah - working as a team during lockdown isn’t easy! We had meetings via zoom and fortunately one team member, Steve, lived locally. He put down camera and sand traps so we could survey what wildlife we had. He also happens to be very practically minded and so came up with ideas and designs for harvesting water, irrigation and constructing a pond. Steffi, our other team member conducted research on edible plant guilds to go under the canopy and visited a local apple tree nursery. I worked closely with our client, collated all the information and presented our design to the course group at the end of the course. 

Working together had a lot more benefits than challenges. We were all able to work to our strengths and this meant we came up with a considered, detailed and well-presented design. We were able to discuss ideas and challenged one another. We all remembered different points that had come up during the course and how to include them. The orchard design itself is multi-faceted with a community area, swimming pond incorporating an irrigation system, a yoga deck, compost loos with a willow overspill and plenty of space for planting not just apple trees, but pears, sea buckthorn, elder and much more. Sarah was supportive throughout by providing a framework for us to work to and giving us the opportunity to discuss and ask questions during our teaching sessions. But overall, as with most things in life, we got out what we put in. We worked hard on this project and I feel this was reflected in our final design and presentation.

Soil testing is important when starting on a new site

The next step is to implement the design and we hope that by the end of 2021 our orchard will be taking shape. By completing my PDC I now have the confidence and knowledge to implement this. You can take permaculture as far as you wish in any direction you choose. And this was reflected in the range of brilliant design projects by the people on my course from whom I also learned a great deal. I’d really like to thank Sarah and Shift Bristol for being so fantastically inspiring during a challenging time. For adapting so quickly and offering me and so many others a chance to learn about permaculture and its practice in so much depth and detail. Thank you!

Useful links

Creating biodiverse community land

A model for community permaculture projects: Whistlewood