Widening My Circle

I know I’ve been really quiet since starting the PDC.  One reason I think is became I’m synthesizing so much of my earlier permaculture learning with that provided in the class. Through my previously study, I had a great deal of information. I did a lot of study on my own. The way it is coming together in the PDC (particularly through the order in which the instructors present the information  in the PDC)  is giving me new insights into permaculture beyond the garden.   I think I’m waiting for the new learning from the PDC to catch up with the study I had done.

Secondly over the past month, I’ve determined that this blog needs to have a broader focus; that ultimately I have a broader area of  interest than what I’ve been talking about so far.

My original about me/about the blog statement says:

I am interested in investigating permaculture’s relevance to household renovation, municipal water and waste water system design and the transition economy in an urban/suburban context.

Really I am interested in learning about ways and systems to shift our minds not only toward a transition economy but to a more self-determined economy and consciousness. Permaculture as it is typically defined is a subset of this discussion.

Widening the Circle from Resurrection Fern

One of my earlier and most popular posts talked about the book … and the echo followsThis post  focused on  the way that rural poor people in India, Africa Central and  South America were using “permaculture solutions” to make decisions about and gain greater control over the factors that effect their lives. My focus in this blog thus far has been a focus on permaculture to the urban/suburban context because that’s where I live. Nevertheless the solutions of these so-called “third world” people are of interest because we in  the so-called “developed world” who are interested in permaculture are engaging the same forces as we attempt to make this shift to a transition economy.

Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.  

Albert Einstein

Right now I’m struggling a little to articulate the concepts in my mind fully but know from here on out this blog will be covering a little broader territory. I’m sure I will get clearer as I continue to post.


Moving from Pattern to Details

Well I’ve been on this permaculture home study journey for about 2 months and am about to start my overall design.  I’ve got tons of ideas from my various readings which so far have included:

  • Earth Users Guide to Permaculture, Rosemary Morrow
  • Edible Front Yard, Ivette Solier (from local library) – reviewed in earlier post
  • Perennial Vegetables, Eric Toensmeir (from local library)
  • The Resilient Garden, Carol Deppe
  • about half of Little House on a Small Planet, Shay Salomon & Nigel Valdez
  • and the echo follows – reviewed in earlier post
  • Polyculture Handouts – reviewed in earlier post
  • Gaia’s Garden, Toby Hemenway (from local library)
  • A Forest Garden Pattern Language – excellent resource available from Regenerative Designs.
  • Re localizing Your Urban Lifestyle – excellent resource available here from Joanne Poyourow. I hope to talk more about zones in a later post.
  • How not to play the game – another interesting online article from John Micheal Greer, the author of The Long Descent
  • Online PDC Course – Right now I’m up to the lesson on Soil Ecology

I’ve got a pretty good idea of the various parts of my site analysis, I just haven’t drawn it up yet.

© Copyright Oast House Archive and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons License.

Before moving forward though, I needed to synthesize all of these learning to better find my process of design. To do this, I looked permaculture design using a systems approach. A simple way of looking at a single natural population would be as a renewable stock (the population of say ducks–since I’m reading the Resilient Gardener) constrained by a renewable stock (food, i.e. corn).  On a given amount of land with the goals of raising ducks and growing corn,the main system components I notice are :

  • the amounts of ducks on the land,
  • the number of  corn plants you have,
  • the rate that the duck population increases and decreases over time,
  • the rate that food supply grows  and is harvested over time,
  • the way that the amount of corn available for harvest constrains the duck population,
  • the way that the carrying capacity of the land constrains the amount of corn available,
  • the way that the corn travels to the population i.e. the place where the transfer between ducks and food takes place.

In permaculture terms we call the amount of food harvested (per amount of land),  the yield.  while we call the place where the transfer of nutrients between the ducks and food occurs, the edge.

I can restate the permaculture principles this way:

  • Produce a yield – Be able to generate a harvest of food for the ducks.
  • Store energy – Since energy is stored in biomass, create a stock or storage of both ducks and available corn.
  • Leverage feedback – A person managing this system would not increase the duck reproduction rate, or number of ducks too sharply, they would eat more corn than could be grown over time  and slowly (or quickly)  both populations would collapse. They would need to watch this carefully.
  • Use renewable resources – If  I fed the ducks from a 50 gallon drum (or whatever volume drum) of store-bought dried corn, the duck population would crash when I ran out of food.  If I grow the food, I can support some level of a  sustainable duck population  based on the amount of corn harvested basically forever.
  • No waste – If you consider the duck poop as an ingredient of the compost pile, the poop would make the land more fertile and increase the corn yield.  The system that  consisted of 2 stocks before, would grow to three stocks: ducks, corn plants and compost.
  • Patterns – for this analysis I’m analyzing this duck/food system  using the pattern of a renewable stock constrained by a separate renewable stock.
  • Reciprocity /integration – As this simple 2  function/2 stock system becomes more complex  and integrated (by adding the composting function), it becomes more productive.
  • Diversity – If  I add different types of ducks (or even chickens) or  different types of duck foods,( corn, duck chow, and squash)  to the system, it becomes more stable. If insects destroy one type of food , the others would still remain and be able to feed the ducks.
  • Small and slow – Sharp changes to the growth rate of the ducks or decreases to the harvest rate  for the corn will cause the system to crash. Small and slow changes are preferable. Systems especially living systems can produce some unintended consequences particularly when time delays hide consequences.
  • Embrace change – Over time, natural systems change, growing more and more complex. As more integration occurs, more populations can be added to the overall system increasing the overall yield.

Knowing all of this, how do you grow  a more stable population over time? Well, it follows you can (not in any particular order):

  1. Make changes to the system to increase the production rate (of the food).
  2. Make changes to the system to reduce decreases in yield due to losses (like the loss of corn due to spoilage).
  3. Increase the number of functions provided (from raising food and raising ducks to doing these two things plus creating compost)
  4. Increase the number of elements you have in the system producing a yield (from just corn to corn, slugs and rainwater from the roof– all of these would support  the food/duck system)
  5. Substitute local producers for non local ones (to conserve energy)
  6. Substitute renewable producers for non-renewable ones
  7. Increase the  diversity of elements included and products (stocks) created
  8. Introduce small and slow changes to reduce oscillations
  9. Increase stocks over time through succession
  10. Re-consider wastes as “foods” for  other  system elements (View problems as unfilled niches.)
  11. Monitor and reconfigure  edges so that transfers can happen more easily and efficiently
  12. Create and check new feedback loops.

I can use all of these methods to change my suburban property to one based on permaculture principles.  On a given amount of land (my property) with the primary functions of heating, cooling, creating electricity, raising food, recycling and capturing water, for my property I’ll look at:

  • my desired stocks of money, energy, skills, biodiversity and recyclable materials and the yields of these stocks
  • the  elements I’ll use to generate these yields , (like the number of ducks and corn plants)
  • the rates that these stocks are created and degraded
  • the factors that constrain my use  of these stocks (like  the amount of corn available for harvest constrains the duck population).
  • the key locations of the transfers

More about this in Moving from Patterns to Details part 2.

Musings on Polyculture — Part 2

Anyway, here are the musings. For some reason the book The Elephant and the Flea by Charles Hardy came to mind. Hardy talks about the decline in conventional full-time jobs and the  shift to what he calls “portfolio work”, a collection of different bits and pieces of self-employed, part-time, temp paid work and volunteer work.  Hardy says:

“Already, by 1996, in Britain 67 percent o f British businesses had only one employee, the owner and in 1994 so-called micro-enterprises employing less than five people made up 89 percent of all businesses.”

Hardy suggests that we are moving from an economy dominated by large corporations (elephants) to one where portfolio work predominates (fleas). Though Hardy doesn’t say this, the elephants aspire to  a global scope of activities while the fleas tend to focus more locally.

I’ve certainly moved for working for an elephant for the life of a flea. Right now my portfolio of activities include:

  • paid work as non-profit consultant
  • contract work for a specific non-profit
  • volunteer work for a program that one day may turn into a paid position
  • unpaid work on this blog
  • networking
  • creating a permaculture homestead

All of these positions revolve around the interest areas of sustainability and permaculture.

When I worked for the corporation I did one thing, paid work for the corporation.

What’s my point?

  • Elephants are dependent on both peak oil and global capital to survive. They are more likely to collapse should these “petroleum-based fertilizers” no longer be available. They are more susceptible to such diseases as credit default swaps and stock price drops due to global currency fluctuations.   We see that today. As the stock market crashes or Italy (or Greece or whoever) defaults on their debt, the elephants fall.  Main street is only affected to the extent that they have bought into a parasitic reliance on the elephant or the resource systems supporting the elephant. (Rapidly rising oil prices affect us only to the extent that we haven’t invested in renewable energy sources.)
  • Portfolio life requires a different view of networking.  In the corporation, you as the individual tie into the network established by the corporation. This network is basically the energy circulation system of the elephant; the network that keeps the animal functioning. To the extent there is networking outside of the corporation, it is with other elephants – suppliers, regulators, distributors. As a flea, you are part of a  networking ecosystem on your own.  Networking is critical but the network tends to be more multipurpose. Fleas who attend at networking sessions with a lot of representatives of elephants, tend to be undervalued.

Fleas need to create out a local ecosystem composed of a variety of “plants” of various sizes and types: an internet community,meetup groups, traditional non profits and small businesses. Fleas need to seek out enterprises that are either physically local or “conceptually local”, online all revolving around the common theme. These enterprises will offer a nourishing environment with minimal energy expenditure.

  • Portfolio life is less secure, at least initially. Hardy says:

“Many will choose to live all their lives as fleas, valuing the freedom of independence over the dubious security of employment.”

I’ve found this to be true at least initially. But once you set up the network ( like once the mixed vegetable garden takes hold), it should require less energy to maintain, be more resistant to the shocks of rising oil prices and produce a greater yield.  This portfolio life is another strategy of the finance and economic petal of the permaculture flower.

Musings on Polyculture — Part 1

Musings on Polyculture — Part 1

Yesterday I stumbled on the concept of mixed vegetable gardens courtesy of Anni’s Perennial Veggies. First let me provide a little background. In the natural ecology of the forest we can see a structure.

Woodland Structure: Offwell Woodland & Wildlife Trust

Ecologists name seven layers: the vines, grasses, ground level plants, the herbaceous layer, scrub, small, low trees (sub- canopy) and large trees. (canopy) This system which encompasses a variety of plants is a polyculture as opposed to a monoculture where only one species is dominant.

The forest garden tries to emulate this concept by establishing a variety of food producing plants which replicate this pattern of the diversity and layering of plants in the forest.  The mixed vegetable garden replicates this pattern of plant diversity and  levels using traditional annual vegetable

Anni's Polyculture courtesy Anni's Perennial Veggies


The Permaculture Association UK  has developed instructions on this method of planting which they say was originally developed in Nepal and have adapted to UK conditions.  Toby Hemenway’s book, Gaia’s Garden lists a few polycultures.  This Mixed Vegetable Garden pamphlet  identifies  plants by  plant families and layer and encourages you to develop your own polycultures.

UK Permaculture is currently running tests to assess the benefit of this approach in the UK.  Planting 12 crops: onions, kale, beans, peas, corn, spinach, beets, radishes, lettuce coriander, rocket (mustard greens) and marigolds, they suggest you:

  • sow your onions in the ground and start your beans and kale indoors in march (UK planting times)
  • plant your peas outdoors and start your corn indoors in April
  • plant out all of your transplants and sow all the other seeds in May.

You sow basically once and then pick everything as it comes in. I’ve been thinking about my fall garden and so I kept searching for the fall planting times for the cool weather crops using this mixed gardening method. There is no fall planting! You plant  the lettuce and greens in March and harvest through the summer until October without a second planting (!!!) Like in a forest, the shade from the canopy and understory protects the ground cover.

That’s almost unbelievable to me here in Georgia . I’m guessing that the UK is part of the temperate deciduous forest biome just like we are here in the southeastern US.  I’m in hardiness zone 7, most of the he UK is in hardiness zone 8 (another surprise .  I would have guessed it was much cooler.  A little research shows that the metro-Atlanta region has more rain than the UK and is a little cooler.  Central GA  does have much more sunshine, almost double the annual hours of sunshine in the UK.]

In summary, with the mixed vegetable garden:

  • the work to sow the garden is less than with a traditional garden
  • the polyculture is more resistant to pests and diseases
  • the polyculture has fewer weeds
  • the yield is greater than that of the traditional garden

This is something I really want to try next year.

Also see Musings on Polycultures pt 2.

Tear Out Your Front Yard!

I just checked out a copy of Ivette Soler’s book Edible Front Yard from the library Friday.  The book is not specific to permaculture though the idea of tearing up your front yard and turning it into a garden definitely is consistent with permaculture principles.

edible front yard

Photo courtesy: the edible office

(I read somewhere today that permaculture is not so much at set of technologies as it is a way of thinking about how these technologies go together. If I read this in your blog, comment to me and I’ll revise this sentence to credit you appropriately.)

I got a chance to skim through the book at lunch. Here’s a few of the big ideas I picked up:

  • Beauty. In a suburban context, your neighbors may not be too happy if you tear out your front yard and it lessens the property values of all of the surrounding houses.  Try to keep your front yard garden neat and design it to be beautiful.
  • Edible Annuals and Perennials. This book really does provide great suggestions of  very attractive edible annuals and perennials for the front yard; what they are, how to grow them and how to use them. She looks at both plants we are used to eating and invites us to “expand our edible palette” by planting some non-traditional edible plants. The pictures are great.
  • Edibles for shade.  I really liked this list (though short) because my yard has lots of shade.  She also talked about tree removal and pruning. This is an issue that not too many people talk about in the permaculture community. For me it also is a dilemma for a suburban garden. Do you cut the trees in your yard to provide more sunlight for your garden?  What do you do with the wood? Mulch it?  That really seems like a waste of a valuable resource.I’d really be interested if others have other ideas for reusing tree trimmings in an urban/suburban context, other than as fuel or lumber.
  • Edibles for winter.  Here in the southern US we should be able to stretch our growing season  well into the winter months.
  • Removing and reusing lawn plants.  This was a concern I had as I consider converting my yard to a permaculture garden.  How do you reuse the plants?
  • How-To’s. Starting about a quarter of the way through the book Ivette provides some great how-to’s.  I was most excited by this section of the book.  Here’s some of her suggested projects:
  • A lettuce lawn. I might try this in my back yard where I have a lot of shade.
  • A tri-fold trellis screen.  This is a multi-function screen that provides privacy while staking tomatoes, peas or beans.
  • A corrugated metal raised bed.  I love this.  I have seen so many of these corrugated metal beds in permaculture videos but had absolutely no idea where people were getting them.  Ivette tells you how to make them. Her suggestion is to place them in the strip between the street and the sidewalk.
  •  A simple compost cage.  Again I love this. I have been

    old and newly started compost piles, july. left pile is enclosed with chicken wire, right pile is not contained at all.

    making compost in a chicken wire cage that I just prop up any old way.  Ivette’s design is easy.  I went a picked up some horse manure from the local horse farm earlier this week to amp up my second compost pile of this growing season. I may try to upgrade my compost cage this weekend.

All and all the book is a great addition to the permaculture library.

P.S.  The compost cage upgrade didn’t happen over the weekend.

… and the echo follows, Permaculture North and South

Yesterday I attended a lecture in Atlanta  by author Nic Paget-Clarke. Nic’s new book entitled … and the echo follows was the basis of his lecture.  Both the book and the lecture explored the relationship between food and democracy. For over 15 years, Nic has been involved with farmers, peasants and farm collectives worldwide as the publisher of the web magazine, In Motion.  The book compiles photographs, stories, interviews and learnings gleaned from his work.

Democracy in its true sense allows people to collectively make decisions about the factors that affect their lives.  Nic has observed that people interested in achieving greater democracy were often involved in food production.  Both farmers and activists for democracy are concerned with the same three things, land, diversity and culture.

The book examines the contrast between 5  pairs of opposing global forces in pictures and through interviews:

  • Agribusiness and the Green Revolution vs Agroecology
  • “Free Trade” vs Food Sovereignty
  • Central Government Control vs Autonomy
  • Alienation vs Connection and Creativity
  • Vertical Integration vs Networks of People

Nic Paget-Clarke

Although Nic never used the term permaculture, much of his talk was about the global movement toward agroecology as a reaction to the negative impacts of agribusiness and the green revolution.

The technology he calls agroecology is very much akin to permaculture.  Before the lecture I had never heard the term before but since learned it is a science that applies ecological principles to food, fuel, fiber, and pharmaceuticals production. The system seems to be grounded in agronomy and focus on farm rather than household production.

Connections with the Permaculture Flower

In reviewing my notes on what he said and trying to think how I would connect his discussion to permaculture materials, I realized that the permaculture flower would be a good way to look at some of the concepts he presented.  According to the Permaculture Principles website:

(The permaculture flower illustrates that) the permaculture journey begins with the Ethics and Design Principles and moves through the key domains required to create a sustainable culture. The evolutionary spiral path connects these domains, initially at a personal and local level, and then proceeding to the collective and global level.

The key domains it names are:

  1. finance and economics
  2. health and spiritual well-being
  3. education and culture
  4. tools and technologies
  5. building
  6. land and nature stewardship
  7. land tenure and community governance

Holmgren has identified a few specific fields, design systems and solutions associated with each domain within the  wider view of permaculture.

Looking at them now, these  solutions are obviously those that the people of  Europe, North America and Australia primarily use. These are the parts of the world where permaculture seems to have been most strongly embraced up until now.

Nic’s presentation focused on domains 1, 3, 6 and 7 from the points of view of farmers and peasants in Africa, South America, central America and India as well as family farmers in North America. The strategies he covers in the book and their associated domains of influence are:

  • Opposition to so-called “fair trade” agreements and agroecological farming  – Domain 1 (finance and economics)
  •  Art and other creative culturally-based  strategies to combat alienation, the connection between food and culture and  equality of women – Domain 3 (education and culture)
  •  Seed saving and food sovereignty (Rather than growing an export crop for money and then buying imported food; the food you need to eat is grown locally.) – Domain 6 (land and nature stewardship)
  •  Agrarian reform, land ownership, local autonomy, cooperatives and networks – Domain 7 (land tenure and community governance)

As this blog continues I’m hoping it will continue to be a place to capture global permaculture strategies not just northern ones. Listening to Nic’s lecture let me know how much this permaculture movement (under whatever name you call it) is a global one . The forces, the effects of which are so clearly identifiable in the global South are also impacting us here in the North.  This book provides valuable food for thought as we all try to add permaculture to our lives.