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At the time, the people around me utilizing the term were involved in alternative building and energy. They were constructing rammed earth houses and looking for ways to harness solar energy. And, every one of them was a gardener.
Since I didn’t understand the term, I asked my sister – the then Education Director at the Solar Living Institute and now the Executive Director of Tricycle Gardens – for her take. Thankfully, her answer brought it down to terms I could easily understand: “Think of it this way:Permaculture is what Mom’s always done around the house and throughout the garden – use what you have to create a system that self-maintains.”
Mom did a number of things that fit into the permaculture way of thinking. When we lived in droughty Northern California, she set up recycled cooking oil barrels to capture water to re-use in the garden during the dry season. We used bath and dishwater to flush toilets. On our farm and later in a much more suburban garden setting, she also made sure we composted every bit of everything we possibly could. We raked mountains of leaves and grass, mixing them with farm animal waste. We hauled kitchen scraps out to the compost heap where volunteer tomatoes out-performed all others. From our extensive veggie gardens, walnut trees, berry bushes and livestock we ate fresh, and we preserved much of the harvest. In turn, the livestock themselves fed from the surrounding land – chickens pecking behind lambs as sheep moved from one temporary field enclosure to another. Along the way, they grew harvestable wool while clearing the underbrush from the surrounding scrub forest. And, from that forest, we harvested the wood that heated our home.
As Practical Permaculture author and ecological designer Jessi Bloom explains, “The classic permaculture answer to everything is ‘It depends’ because no two situations are the same.” She goes on to say, “A big misconception is that it only involves gardening. With permaculture we also design other systems in our lives - energy for heat/cooling, water, waste, etc...”
Ours wasn’t a perfect system. We certainly didn’t do everything we could to move ourselves off the grid. We wanted to be active members of our community. We still shopped at the grocery and hardware stores. We ordered vegetable seeds from catalogs. We grew sheep for wool, but we didn’t spin or knit ourselves. That – along with most of their meat – was a commodity we sold for income. We ran electrical appliances, paid taxes, rode the bus to public school, ate junk food on occasion, and even used the occasional disposable diaper on my baby sister. Our goal was to use and re-use as much as we could to keep our costs down and our overall environment healthy.
Here are some simple ways you can dip your toes into permaculture:
Build your own compost: Bloom suggests we begin by “Creating closed loops systems. You can start by evaluating the inputs and outputs of your garden…are you spending money to bring in fertilizers and mulches, and paying to have your yard waste hauled away? The raw material you are sending offsite can be used after it is composted at home to create the mulches and fertilizer that you need.” So rather than pay twice to have it hauled away, broken down and then brought back to spread on your garden, keep it at home and break it down yourself. Using a home composter will both reduce your costs and reduce the environmental impact of all that hauling, processing and bagging.
Save and recycle rainwater: As a first step in recycling rainwater, try attaching rain barrels to your gutter overflow system. During the rainy season, these can be used to slow rainfall and divert flow slowly into areas of the garden beyond your foundation, keeping fresh water on site instead of sending it directly into storm systems that are often combined with sewers. Then, during drier seasons, filled barrels provide several gallons of free water you can use to keep your garden thriving.
Install plants in their best location: When planting, group plants with like needs together. And, site them based on their requirements for optimal performance. Whenever feasible, work with plants native to your area.
Grow food: Growing food is a great way to close a very expensive loop. It doesn’t matter if you have a very shady or a very sunny garden, there’s a crop you can grow in just about any setting. If you grow more than you can eat, don’t let extras go to waste. Donate to food pantries and swap harvested goods with friends. And, take the time to preserve your goods for winter too!
Build habitat: Use that compost you build to create good soil tilth. This will encourage strong populations of beneficial fauna, fungi and more – all helping keep the environment balanced.
Use the sun: Take advantage of the sunnier spots on your property. Hang up a laundry line to sun and air-dry your clothes. Soak up Vitamin-D for yourself and grow food!
Create shade: Urban development, which often reduces tree canopy coverage, can lead to many environmental over-heating problems. Turn this problem around by planting a fruit or nut-bearing tree near your home. The shade will help you reduce your home cooling costs, keep your poultry comfy and provide food for you and leaves for your compost system.
Veteran garden coach and educator Linelle Russ reminds us:
“The biggest misconception (about permaculture) is that there is only one right way to do this. Instead, I think the beauty of the concept is that you can be extremely creative in keeping everything on your property in an aesthetically pleasing way, even if you are working with a small urban landscape. And, if your original idea isn't the best solution, the results will generally lead you to a better one.”
Many Thanks to Linelle Russ of Seattle’s Morning Dew Gardens, Sally Schwitters of Tricycle Gardens and Jessi Bloom for their contributions to this article. Learn more about Jessi Bloom’s environmental build company, N.W. Bloom here. And, follow updates on Permaculture and her forthcoming book on the subject here.