It was a red capsicum that changed my life and instigated a ‘tree change.’ Having suffered digestive issues for a number of years, it had become almost unbearable by 2009. It’s a long story, and if you want to know more you can check out “How a Red Capsicum Changed My Life” but essentially I had an inbuilt chemical receptor in my gut, and eating conventional (chemically grown) produce caused me enormous pain.

One night I mistakenly ate a red capsicum that wasn’t organic, and for twelve to fourteen hours, it felt as though my abdomen was on fire. I remember sitting in the courtyard the following morning and having one, terrifying thought:

“If I’m ever going to feel safe eating anything again, I’m going to have to learn to grow my own food. Organically.”

I had no idea how to do that. Not on the scale I was foreseeing. I’d grown lettuces and rocket, herbs and the odd, very sad looking tomato in pots, but never anything that would feed me enough for dinner.

It was time for some education, and it was in the Sunshine Coast libraries that I started.

I attended an “Introduction to Permaculture” talk presented by the wonderful Bruce Molloy at Kawana Library, followed by “Raising Seeds” presented by the vivacious, dramatic and delightful Rosina Buckman at Beewah Library. I volunteered to help Rosina with her presentation at Nambour and Kawana and learned more each time I listened.

I was instantly interested in learning more about the clever design, commonsense principles and productive systems I'd heard about Permaculture. I asked Rosina if it would be worth my while to take a Permaculture Design

Course and her emphatic “Oh, yes dear!” convinced me to sign up for Geoff Lawton’s PDC at his farm in The Channon in New South Wales. But family issues arose and I had to cancel my place. They held my deposit, and a few months later a new course was advertised, this time taught by Geoff and the one and only Bill Mollison, co-founder of Permaculture and professional larrikin (my phrase), at Melbourne University.

In between times, I’d begun attending Permaculture Noosa meetings on the third Thursday of every month at the Cooroy Hall and learning more and more from its members. I was blown away by the wealth of knowledge we have in our community. My mum, my partner Chris and I visited Liz Hanson’s place and saw the abundance of food growing on her Permaculture property. My feet were getting itchy to start my own.

But as an artist it wasn’t going to be easy to find somewhere affordable. I’d never owned property before and so became my best friend. I searched up and down the coast, as far south as Coffs Harbour and as far north as 1770. After a few months and a conversation with Chris that perhaps we were putting our lives on hold trying to find the right place, I was about to give up. But I’d already arranged to visit a little town I’d never heard of with a real estate agent the following day and so we drove to meet him, more out of curiosity than any expectation we’d find a suitable home.

Well, as life goes, we did find the right property. It had a dam, lots of open space and sunshine, and a little two-bedroom house. It’d been a rental for so long it was cosmetically run down, but we figured we could use our creativity to liven the place up with new paint and nice furniture. After some negotiation, (my wise Uncle coached me through each offer, playing the bargaining game until we reached a price) it was mine.

Two months later we moved in and began the internal renovation. Chris had heard Geoff Lawton speak at a Permaculture Noosa meeting and decided to do the PDC with me in Melbourne. So we put off doing anything in the garden, except composting, until after we’d finished the course.

The two weeks in Melbourne were a total delight. We loved every minute of it. Bill was unbelievably politically incorrect! His stories had me laughing so hard I had to hold onto my arm rest to steady myself. But in amongst the shocking forthrightness and cheeky misdemeanors were little gems of wisdom. He’s a man who has observed nature and come up with some simple, commonsense principles that use nature to do what nature does best. But he’s also observed humans and seen what their needs both physically and socially are. Then he’s interwoven the two, along with co-founder David Holgrem, to create Permaculture.

We came home fired up to begin the garden. I am wondering if I have gotten stuck in the design stage. I’m too afraid to make a mistake, if it wasn’t for Chris’s enthusiasm.

What I didn’t realize was we’d immersed ourselves in enough information and seen enough other gardens to know some basic principles. For example, we knew to make the first veggie garden right outside the back door, so it was convenient to get to.

I also think now, in hindsight, you can’t really do anything wrong in gardening. It’s all part of the journey of learning, and basically, if you’re eating something from the garden then you’re doing something right. Better to be in that position than paralyzed by fear that you’ll do something wrong and still be buying all your greens from the shops.

I’ve written about some of the projects, pitfalls and laughs we’ve had along the way, and posted them on the Permaculture Research Institute’s website. You can read about them here

Now, as I write this, it’s June 2011, and my fingers are freezing on the keyboard. It’s been seven months since we put in the first no-dig garden and I’m consistently astounded by the amount of food I’ve been able to grow. I go to the shops maybe once every three weeks and eat at least one meal from the garden daily.

It doesn’t actually take that much to grow a lot of food. The most time consuming thing to do is designing the garden and then implementing the design. Maintenance and upkeep probably equal the time I spent in the aisles of Coles each week in the past. So I’ve lost nothing in terms of time and gained the healthiest, freshest produce right outside my back door.

I’m still getting used to looking inside a pretty much empty fridge and realizing I don’t have to go to the supermarket. Most of my food is outside, waiting on the bush, vine, branch or plant, waiting to be harvested and eaten right away. Now that’s what I call fresh and healthy. And as for my health, it improved 80% and keeps getting stronger all the time. Gardening rocks!


• Educate yourself any way you can. I heard the Dali Lama speak in Brisbane, and his answer for almost every question from the audience about how to deal with a life was to find further education. Whatever problem you face or difficulty that arises; find someone who has overcome that problem, has created a life you’d like to live, or mastered the skills you need, and learn from them.

• So in terms of living as organically as possible, increasing your self-sufficiency, and becoming more sustainable, use the resources around you. If you live on the Sunshine Coast, attend the many free talks you’ll find listed in Green Journey; sign up for courses that interest you and will teach you what you need to know as you grow your skills; join community gardens in your area; attend Permaculture meetings; and sign up for my free newsletter ‘Sprout’ for regular tips and useful resources.

• And … have fun along the way!!! I firmly believe this ‘green journey’ is a journey worth taking.

Author's Bio: 

Organic gardener Nicola Chatham shares tips, videos and fun stories in her acclaimed free weekly newsletter Sprout!.

If you want to grow your own organic food at home, have more fun in the garden and create abundance in your life, join Sprout! and get your FREE guide 'Discover Your Green Thumb' now at