The emergence of project 3929

In 1996 when we bought the house, the garden was neglected. Established exotic trees and retained eucalypts suggested that the owners designed the garden for summer and winter shade, with a windbreak of pines protecting against winter winds. Apricot trees, peaches had regressed to their root stock. Two large apple trees and others had escaped pruning for many years.  The topsoil on the block (3909M2) was shallow and not initially very suitable for growing vegetables. The New England climate is temperate. At 1000 metres above sea-level, frosts can occur between April and early November, severely limiting the growing season. Over the years I planted trees for the prospect of future food, shade and firewood. By 2010 this amounted to 149 successfully maturing trees.

My first interest in environment matters occurred while undergraduate fine-art student living in a bleak urban landscape of Northern England. The Ecologist published the ‘Blueprint for Survival’ (Goldsmith et al. 1972). At that time, I also knew that art students often took an aesthetic interest in food, later confirmed in research interviews (Reader 2000), but when it came to food, art discourse at that time looked little further than Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup cans. As an artist already producing industrial scale works, the ecological dilemma was immediately obvious, but not something I was going to do very much about, initially.

At some point,  I became familiar with the transcendentalist idea of ‘living simply that others might simply live’ and an attendant military training anecdote, that the essentials of one’s life are ‘air every three minutes, water every three days and food every three weeks’. Education in art and design, popular ideas on permanent agriculture or PermacultureTM encountered while working with environment groups and indigenous communities in the 1990s, together with an earlier childhood experience of my father’s allotment in the UK, all influenced a desire to at least try to grow plants, subsidize our way of life, and provide gardening experience for our children.

In 2008, as an off-shoot of an adult education research infrastructure project, I decided to explore The Permaculture Home Garden (Woodrow, 1996) more closely. Poultry in a moveable coup circulated over mulched areas in vegetable garden, followed by cropping - for the first time sufficiently organised to include growing in all year round. The short growing seasons required that I adapt and significantly modify the method suggested in the literature. I now see this literature genre as more inspirational and artistic rather than embedding readily applicable science.

Through a local community centre and Armidale Local Food group (ALF) I encountered other gardeners, and came to see that growing characteristics and methods varied wildly depending on personality, theory, place, pre-existing ecology and soil. From that time I began documenting my garden with digital images, ultimately indexing them through a webpage mosaic, a technique I’d developed during my doctoral research; and so 3929 became a project focus.