Yesterday Cintia and I had the immense pleasure of joining a group of about twenty people on a guided tour of ‘The Keep’ in Buxton, NSW. Buxton is a tiny village between Hilltop and Thirlmere in the Southern Highlands (not far from Mittagong where we live) and The Keep is a truly inspiring example of self-sufficiency, creativity, enthusiasm and good old-fashioned hard yakka.
A Forest of Food in Just Five Years!
Judith and Paul Collins have been growing organic food for over fifty years and they have applied everything they have learned in that time to their latest venture. When you look around at the astonishing array of edible plants and animals that are growing at The Keep, it is almost impossible to believe that they have only been here for five years. When they bought the place there was not much here, just a half-finished mud-brick house and a mixture of native and exotic mature trees. Now there is food everywhere you look and they are growing tropical plants like bananas and capsicums in winter in the frosty Southern Highlands. I’m no plant expert but I lost track of the number of times that someone on the tour said, ‘You can’t grow that here!’
There is every type of edible and medicinal plant you can imagine along with chooks, rabbits, ducks, pigs, sheep, a cow, and some fish. They have had a lot of help from travelling WWOOFers (Willing Workers On Organic Farms) but it is still completely mind-boggling what they have done in such a short time.
An Entertaining and Informative Tour
Judith is a real character, she is the plant expert of the pair and an incredible font of knowledge when it comes to growing plants for food, medicine and other uses. She guided most of the tour and her enthusiasm and humour were completely infectious. Paul is more reserved. He is the engineer, builder, mechanic, electrician, plumber, butcher and tinkerer. He followed along, quietly answering questions about the inner workings of things like their Aquaponics system where plants feed fish, fish feed other plants, and both feed the people on the farm. They complement each other perfectly, she dreams up a plan and he puts it into action, with fantastic results.
By the end of the three hour tour I had a head completely full of new information, a big smile on my face, and a heart full of affection for this delightful and inspiring couple.
Judith talked a lot about micro-climates and the many ways they have used the existing features of the site to create pockets for growing plants that thrive in different conditions. I have always thought you needed a cleared area with full sun to grow a successful vegetable garden or orchard but, at The Keep, most of the food is grown under the canopy of mature eucalyptus and pine trees. Both these tree species are known for being allelopathic which means they use chemicals in their leaves (or needles) to suppress the growth of other plants around them. So attempting to grow all your food beneath them seems like a losing proposition. But what I learned on the tour is that the canopy is more important as it saves the plants beneath from getting baked by too much sun in the summer or killed by frost in the winter. As Paul put it to me, they need the canopy and the price they pay for it is that they have to rake up the gum leaves and needles about every six weeks to stop them from killing their food plants. As Judith pointed out, in nature only grass grows in full sun, almost everything else grows under the protection of the trees. This was just one of a thousand lessons I learned in just three hours and I can’t wait to go back for more.
Tours, classes, farm stays, lectures, open houses, etc.
For any readers who are interested, Judith and Paul offer a myriad of classes, open houses and so forth. I can HIGHLY recommend a visit to The Keep or at the very least a visit to their website at earthkeepers.com.au where you can find out about their many educational offerings. There is as much to learn from their approach to life as from their knowledge of Permaculture, Biodynamics, Organics, Natural Medicine and Self-sufficiency.
If you would like to see some more photos from yesterday’s tour I have posted them in our gallery. Click here to visit the Gallery Page and click on any of the thumbnails to view a larger version of a particular picture.
Many thanks to Judith and Paul Collins for sharing their knowledge and enthusiasm and for welcoming us to their amazing place, The Keep.