Observe and Interact is one of the Permaculture Principles promoted by David Holmgrem. One interpretation of this principle is that we observe what we see around us, and then use that information to help us to create or modify systems in our designs. However this only touches the surface of what Observe and Interact can help us to do. I try and use this principle with everything that I do Including my reading and research. This post is about the conventional use of the Observe and Interact principle, and will be followed by Observe and Interact -Part Two, which will focus on reading and research.
Information Gathering = Observe
In order to create efficient systems, we need information. Whether that’s Site survey information, Client survey, or just being open to what you see around you. However that’s really only the beginning. Just storing that information, or passing it on without processing it, adding value to it, is of little use. We need to turn that raw, unprocessed information into something useful, new, more valuable.
Analysis/Evaluation = Interact
In order to make our observations useful and relevant we need to take it, and process it. Comparing what we have observed with what we already know or believe. The more raw and processd information that we have access to, the easier it is, but it is also helped by a touch of creativity and imagination.
Observe and Interact – Eleagnus Ebbingei
Chicken Scavenging System
In my Chicken Scavenging System design, I wanted to include an evergreen shrub, preferably one that could tolerate some shade. One of the possibilities was Eleagnus Ebbingei. As well as being evergreen, it is a nitrogen fixer, provides bee forage, and edible fruit. One of the facts to come out of my research was that it didn’t like cold wet sites (an observation), which was exactly the type of site that I wanted it to go into. Having experimented with other trees that supposedly would struggle in my conditions, I decided to try them (Interact). I planted out three potted plants back in 2011. All three were planted out in the Forest Garden. Two in front of a swale bank, that would provide a touch of shelter, and one down in a frost pocket. This last was in conditions almost indentical to the planned planting site. Two winters have gone by, and all three plants have coped, and grown.
Observe and Interact – Rabbit Browse Damage
A couple of weeks ago I went into the Forest Garden and noticed that the rabbits had eaten all of the Eleagnus Ebbingei that they could get to.
The snow had allowed them to reach over the wire guards and they had eaten the plants back almost to bare twigs. In the picture above you can see what the whole plant should look like at the base, and then bare stems all of the way up to the tips.
The simple example of Obseve and Interact here would be that the guards need to be taller, and wider to keep the rabbits out. It also highlighted that rabbits like eating Eleagnus, and that it is one of the few plants that I have that retains it’s leaves over winter. The interaction comes with what can I use this observation for?
The first point that comes to mind is that as wild rabbits eat this plant avidly, domesticated/meat rabbits should do too. So Elaeagnus could be grown as part of a rabbit production system, providing some of the roughage that the rabbits need in their diet at no cost. If we have seen and thought about (observe and interact) rabbit food, perhaps the same plants could be used for sheep and goats. I suspect that they would relish this fresh nutrient rich source of fresh food, but it would need to be tested. Goats are best protected from harsh winds. Eleagnus ebbingei is an evergreen, so could be planted around the outside of a goat pen. This would provide a windbreak that could be cut and fed to the goats. Particulary useful as the leaves are likely to be high in Nitrogen (it’s a nitrogen fixing shrub), which would help to maintain milk production.
When a nitrogen fixing plant is browsed or pruned, it self prunes it’s roots, allowing some of the nitrogen that has been collected for it to become available for other plants. Therefore using it as a food source for livestock will also lead to it providing some additional Nitrogen for the plants that it is located near to. If we want to create an edible windbreak for livestock, especially for winter production, we could plant the Eleagnus with another potential fodder crop that retains it’s leaves during winter. One that comes to mind is hardy bamboo. Whilst a running bamboo might overpower the Eleagnus, a series of clumping bamboo plants would provide valuable winter forage, add to the shelter, and would benefit from the surplus nitrogen. Both plants would create an ideal habitat for chickens in a chicken scavenging system, with the hens gaining from the shelter and shade of the plants, and potentially having access to the livestock area, where they could aid in pest control in the goat yard.
Observe and Interact – One key to successful Permaculture
I started out with quite a mechanistic view of how good permaculture designs were assembled. Now I find that Observe and Interact is one of the permaculture principles that drives and informs what I do.