Sponges – oases of longterm moisture and fertility –

(banana?) ‘circles’ – why limit the function with shape? The term banana circle was first revealed in Bill Mollison’s Designers’ Manual. I can’t understand though, why these wonderful structures continue to be limited by a single shape in the name. I suggest that ‘sponge’ (the term that I use) is more appropriate as it describes the function better: a structure which holds water and nutrient over a longer period, which is available as required by the plants (certainly way beyond bananas of course). A circle may be fine on flat land, but as soon as we create them on slopes, elongating them will serve more functionality, as a mini-swale or u-bund. Or we can wrap it around a corner of a structure, or squeeze it into that angle of the garden. 
Also, to suggest that it need be a metre deep is confusing, especially since perhaps the single most common failing in creating ‘sponges’ is not to have enough organic material to really fill them up, which totally compromises the utility of them as autonomous growing systems. As deep as the material is available is a better rule of thumb. And certainly they are not limited to bananas or other tropical species. Especially in these times of increasing dry times, and increasing thunderstorm excesses everywhere; simply choose the species according to the microclimates represented in sponges
What a wonderful teaching tool too, demonstrating all the Pc principles in one structure! . This video is a light-hearted explanation.






When I first started working/playing with my land in northern New South Wales, fresh from my first workshop in Permaculture with Bill Mollison and Tony (Gehan) Gilfedder, I knew nothing, but was armed at least with the enthusiasm of the vision inspired by Bill’s approach, and the shining example of Tony and Lena’s transformation of a wasted ex-banana plantation into the sheer abundance of a sub-tropical polyculture paradise.


One of the first things that struck me was the simplicity of creating a very complex ecosystem. As Bill has said: “The productivity of a human-designed ecosystem is theoretically almost unlimited.” The greatest limitation is the imagination and capacity of people to recognise and implement naturally occurring processes: observation, deduction, and application.

Here is one shining example, which dramatically illustrates the potential:


Indonesia: Serangan – Turtle Island – is a small island detached from the mother island of Bali by only a channel of water. When the main port harbour of Bali was deepened, the resulting material of sand and coral was added to the smaller island to form an effective breakwater against the fury of the Indian Ocean in stormy weather. The resulting 600+ hectares of land only very thinly regenerated in the first 20 years.


turtle island - almost flat, almost barren


I was contacted to regenerate the barren wasteland of a few hundred hectares where virtually nothing had happened , apart from tufted low grasses sparsely scattered. The surface was like concrete, and although it seemed almost perfectly flat, I was convinced that vast amounts of water must run off every year on that impervious plain, to be lost in the ocean.


From my studies stimulated through Permaculture, I felt that there would be a fresh water lens under the surface. The island ‘peaked’ at barely 8 metres above sea level but a bore confirmed brackish sweet water at slightly over 6 metres depth.

'fresh' water lens at 6 m.IMG_4323 copy

We found brackish water (slightly salty) at 6.5 metres – just 1.5 metres above sea level


Having carefully patterned the area with a laser level, I had an excavator create rough (but perfectly horizontal) swales, overlapped to ensure that not a drop could be lost to the extent possible. After one evening of thunderstorms, this was the result:

bali- every rain without swales, this organic material would be lost, and the process of regeneration slowed copy

After one thunderstorm event: soil and organic material deposited where there there seemed to be none.


Looking around, it’s easy to find vegetation that actually grows in such harsh conditions, even when it seems to be only sand and coral, as hard as concrete. There are always niches, such as small hollows in an almost flat landscape. In such places, seeds are deposited, wind-carried or rain-driven organic material collects; germination takes place with the species able to survive and grow, even in harsh conditions: a succession of regeneration begins.


Taking careful observation of all the species which grow in similar conditons, the selection of plants to use becomes obvious. Creating niches to encourage the growth accelerates the process rapidly. Groundcovers are vitally important, creating conditions of shade and lower temperatures to improve the conditions for the shrub and tree species, and providing new microclimates for a greater variety of species. Birds and insects and animals have food sources to encourage their arrival, and they bring more diversity and fertility as they feed and defecate.


The root action now opens up the soil further, so that more water is absorbed into the soil, carrying whatever dust and other organic material, creating soil quality which could not exist before. The whole desolate landscape begins to transform.


Wherever we plant one tree or shrub, we plant several companions, especially legumes and groundcover species, to add to the biomass and create an ‘oasis’ of abundance in the desert that surrounds. Now the action can really begin to explode.

creating oases IMG_4212 copy

Planting guilds – never solitary species


These guilds have ‘intelligence’; they ‘seek’ water, following it down as the top layers dry out, providing a fertile welcome for any other seeds, attracting wildlife which add to the fertily as well as depositing more seeds, greater diversity. These begin to join up with other ‘oases’. Regeneration gathers pace.

complete grndcover -smNow the environment has completely transformed


take-off - smA forest begins from the desert


The need for planting rapidly decreases as the new species arrive to occupy ever-newer niches. A geometric growth succession takes place as soil multiplies, becomes more sponge-like, moisture is held, the temperature stabilises, atmosphere more humid and welcoming.

 Raising the water table DSC00924


The water table has risen dramatically, by as much as three metres; roots have three metres less to seek a constant source of fresh water, and all the while, the increasing root matrix holds more water, more nutrients.


The whole ‘wasteland has become one vast network; a single organism. We should never plant single trees or shrubs. Group plantings become companions. Companions become oases. Oases join to become clusters, and the clusters unite to become a forest. Imagine this multiplied across the whole planet: the effect on the climate; the moderation of extremes; the storage water and nutrient; the availability of food, shelter, resources, activity, employment. Life quality for all beings.


Turtle regrowth DSCF8707 copy


This metamorphosis is in a monsoon tropical environment, with high humidity, hot and alternately very wet and very dry. Soil can be created, from nothing, at a very low energetic or financial cost. Biomass is the key to fertility creation and maintenance. The air we breathe is almost 80% nitrogen, one of the key building blocks for vegetal growth.


This transformation is very easily possible over a vast area of many millions of hectares of ‘wasteland’. Soil is not necessary, since it is biomass and niches for water and organic material to deposit and expand. We can very significantly accelerate the natural processes, simply by following the natural processes and examples which we find everywhere. Observation is the key, and sensitive deduction from the patterns which reveal themselves.


In more temperate climates, the dynamics are different: the soil quality is more important, soil creation slower, fertily creation is more important, through creating and providing composts, manures, fermentation processes to accelerate regeneration. However, the basic principles are same: Observe, deduce, respond, as active participants and accelerators of Nature’s abundance.


ARUNACHALA – PDC December 2017

Arunachala 1989                      –                  now and on….



December 4 – 20, 2017

“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
Howard Thurman

Permaculture Design Course (internationally recognised curriculum)

This course, offers practical solutions to many of the issues facing the world. Above all, it is an inspiring response to taking steps necessary to change the world from its current trajectory towards increasingly disastrous environmental and social problems. Become an architect and activist for positive change, rather than a passive victim of what may seem to be an inevitable downward spiral. It is NOT.

Permaculture is a design system for creating sustainable human environments. While Permaculture deals with plants, animals, buildings and infrastructure (water, energy and communications), it is not about these elements themselves, but the relationships we can create between them by the way we place them in the landscape.

With Permaculture, we harmonise the characteristics of a landscape with the characteristics and needs of the people using the land. This harmony will invariably have its own beauty, yet we can enhance the aesthetics by careful and imaginative selection of species. Beauty that not only nurtures the soul, but supports the bank balance by having low maintenance costs.

Following the internationally recognised curriculum plus current innovation both technical and social, we treat both physical and human landscapes to evolve empowering responses to current challenges.

The course is dynamic, challenging, instructive, and fun. It will most likely change the way you see the world around you, and your role in it, forever. The course is active and highly participatory.

“The aim is to create systems that are ecologically sound, and economically viable, which provide for their own needs, do not pollute, and are therefore sustainable in the long term.”                               Bill Mollison

The Venue.

Will be divided between our land bordering on the Samudram Ery (large monsoon lake) immediately south of Arunachala, 5 km from town, and the nearby Annamalai Reforestation Society Permaculture Demonstration Farm, which I designed and helped to establish 25 years ago. There will also be field visits during the course.

The Facilitators:

John Button and Francesca Simonetti


John(Australian): I’ve been working and playing with Permaculture for 35 years, designing, teaching and implementing in many parts of the world, in extremely diverse climatic, topographic and cultural situations. I’m passionate about my work-play, and absolutely believe in our collective capacity to create a wonderful, abundant and just world. I am determined to play an active part to achieve that dream.

From 1989 to 1997 I co-ordinated the Annamalai Reforestation Society greening of Arunachala, the first successful reforestation action on the mountain, as well as wasteland regeneration sites,  the Permaculture Demonstration Farm, educational programs, a huge nursery in the main temple.

Francesca (Italian): I’m an agronomist and counsellor, with more than 15 years of professional experience. I have worked for public administrations, public and private clients, in various sectors, such as: landscape design, phytopathology and valuation of existing trees (VTA Visual Trees Assessment), environmental assessment, montoring of forest and agricultural plants, environmental education and creative workshops for children.

Together we create a rich team, integrated and stimulating, that unites professionalism, passion and broad experience, to serve for a present and future more conscious and sensitive.

Our method of design is based on the principles of Permaculture, adapted specifically for each situation, including climate and culture. The specific quality of each landscape and the people associated with it, necessitate individual consideration and response.

We welcome the opportunity to work with anybody who shares our confidence and dreams for a better, juster, healthier world, characterised by inpiration, support, self-empowerment and love for each other and the glorious world which we share.

Contact information:





Sicilia Integra – turning the migrant ‘problem’ into a dynamic solution.


Floridia, Region of Syracuse, Sicilia

This program feels like a great direction for transforming the mass migration situation into a truly evolutionary step towards integration and win-win for everyone. We’re creating a large demonstration site together on community land that will be a self-funded didactic centre producing high productivity vegetables, fruit and fish, cleansing town water currently polluting the local river system and turning it into vast volumes of biomass and ultimately animal fodder. It will be a model of excellence which can modified and duplicated all over the planet wherever the migration situation is seen as a ‘crisis’, and turning it into an indisputable asset for all.

Already the expressions on the faces of the largely conservative local population, have noticeably changed towards an appreciation of watching local and migrant youth working together to create a beautiful and productive farm on what was wasteland laying idle for many years. More poetically, the site is the original entrance to the town, where the communal laundry basins, where animals once slaked their thirst coming and going from working the fields. Abandoned for decades, these open basins are metamorphosing into gardens and fish ponds as the newcomers honour the past at the same time as they contribute to a fresh and dynamic future.


We passionately love our work, which is designing, teaching implementing projects and consulting on the basis of Permaculture and our broad life experience.

However, computers are not our forte. We are trying to remedy this short-coming, but it is still a work in progress, so please bear with us while we hone this craft too.

Thank you for you patience, your forebearance, and your sense of humour!