One Women Takes on Three Acres - A Permaculture Adventure

Colette O'Neill
Thursday, 12th September 2013

An example of how an abundant permaculture garden can be created in all conditions - even wet west Ireland. Colette O'Neill shares her experience.

Eight years ago I changed my life entirely. I had always wanted to live in the country and realise my dream. I took the plunge, right into the deep end, by purchasing a small, derelict cottage, up a stony track, nestled in three acres of wet, rushy, north-facing land in the west of Ireland. It was the month of May, so, as this was Bealtaine in Gaelic, I chose to name it Bealtaine Cottage. My adventure in permaculture had begun. 

My aim was to create a self-sustaining smallholding designed and constructed on permaculture ethics: Care for the Earth, Care for People and Share the Surplus - it’s that simple!

Nature is our model in permaculture. Small things like building a veranda on the south side of the cottage made good sense, allowing me to range freely between the cottage and the land in all weathers and providing a place to hang my coat, store wellies and keep fuel dry for the stove, all ready to hand.

I live on my own, so I needed to hire some help to get the cottage into shape. There was a gaping hole in the roof and no form of heating, other than an open fire. New ceilings and lots of insulation was high on my to-do list. As the work was carried out in short bursts, according to funds available, I started walking the land in periods of lull, making plans in my head. The land was very wet! 

In year one, I hired a digger and driver, who listened carefully and thoughtfully to my unusual instructions. I wanted drains to be dug out that had natural curves to them, that captured the water and moved it gently around the land towards two ponds that were also to be dug out.

I also wanted the earth around the cottage to be removed and replaced with gravel, so that all would be dry and snug... this being Ireland, famous for lots of rain! After all that was completed, I settled into work, planting trees: Trees for fruit, nuts, timber, fuel, birds and shelter. Altogether I have planted over 750 trees to date and there is still room for more.

Planting continued with shrubs, bushes, perennial flowers and soft fruits, continuously filling the empty spaces with whatever I grew from seed, cuttings and gifts. I planted according to what I thought the land could support in that particular place, including a large orchard, as well as many perennials and bushes that all support the developing biodiversity here at Bealtaine. Each year I catalogued the changes as the land returned to fertility.

Growing food includes a continual, all-year round supply from a purpose built polytunnel. Herbs grow really well here in the west and I have developed all sorts of ways of adding them to food, making teas and sometimes just strewing them on top of a hot stove to release the healing scents into the warm cottage air.

I believe that this approach to living on Earth forms the basis of an integrated approach to living with the planet rather than ‘on the planet’.

I installed a second-hand multi-fuel stove in the kitchen, which supplies me with hot water, central heating, a hot oven, boiling kettle and cooking, as well as a place to dry herbs, air clothes and keep home-made fruit wines fermenting.

Most of the fuel is timber and already a good percentage has been harvested from my Bealtaine smallholding.

Permaculture planting is intense planting, the objective being to cover the earth and leave no part exposed to the elements. The effect is incredible and the maintenance is absolutely minimal! Creating a food forest is such a natural thing to do, as this imitates natural woodland. 

One of the big benefits of permaculture planting was the almost immediate transformation for the better, as plants moved through the seasons, dropping their waste upon the earth. What was a monoculture wasteland of sparse grass and clumps of rushes, fast became a fertile oasis. The healing had begun and my main work shifted from planting to maintenance.

My Gift Economy

As I planted, so I harvested... and what harvests they were and continue to be! Jams and chutneys were made by the score and home-made wines, more than I could ever consume, so presents were given to visitors and friends. I enjoy the company of many visitors from all over the world who come to visit Bealtaine Cottage. Indeed, I keep open gardens all year round for people to come and see what is possible. I began writing a blog about Bealtaine and have also developed a YouTube Bealtaine Cottage channel. It is good to share what I do here as an inspiration for people to see what is possible.

Friends sent me seeds. My first ever pumpkins were grown and harvested here. These are particularly good as they don’t grow too huge and will store for up to 12 months. I had to build a pantry to store them and this turned out to be one of the best additions to the cottage.

Another friend constructed a polytunnel for me. This was tailor-made for a rather difficult terrain and is also made more efficient, with the addition of big stones that edge the beds and act as passive solar collectors. I have also created raised beds near to the cottage on top of the gravel, so plants do not have their roots sitting in water, something we’re not short of here in the west of Ireland!

I am always looking for connections and flows here at Bealtaine Cottage. Life on the land is continually evolving and I am forever learning. Adapting to climate change and rethinking old ways is challenging and fun, for everything is possible. Permaculture has a creative effect - it is the art of the possible - and has changed every aspect of my life. 

Colette O’Neill’s blog can be found at: 

Further resources

For more ideas on creating a permaculture garden:

A greenhouse that thinks it's a mini forest garden

A community garden: When art turns suburban lawns into edible food parks

A Nicaragua project: Using experimentation to create acres of multiple fruits for food sovereignty and security

Read Maddy's An original permaculture design principle series to learn more about designing a permaculture garden

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