Thursday, July 28, 2011

Permaculture as a key to my Better Life

Five years ago, I started out as a beginning gardener, armed with a copy of Mel Bartholemew's Square Foot Gardening and my mother's accumulated wisdom from a lifetime of practicing the craft.  But gardening really is a gateway drug -- it's bound to lead to stronger stuff, if you delve past its surface.  The past year or so has opened me up to the great world of permaculture, a different system of producing food and, ultimately, organizing your life.  It is about learning to produce more while consuming less, freeing up ample time to share with your family, friends and community.  If you're not really familiar with permaculture, read on and I'll share an overview, as well as why and how I integrate it into my life.

An Ethical System

One of the things that drew me to permaculture is that, although engaging scientific methods of hypothesis, trial and observation, it is at its heart guided first by an ethical code.  This allows its practitioners to approach the world from a more holistic and less reductionist starting point.  Masanobu Fukuoka, author of The One Straw Revolution (a short, wonderful book on what Fukuoka called "natural farming") took this argument even further -- he said that it was really pointless to try and figure out why or really how nature did what it did -- you saved a lot of time if you just focused on what it did.  More on that point a little later....

Permaculture's core ethic is, like most things having to do with it, simple in words but extremely complicated in practice.  According to Bill Mollison, author of Permaculture: A Designer's Manual the "prime directive" of permaculture is to live a life in which we take responsibility for our lives, and those of our children.  There are three additional guiding principles of how to pursue this end:
1. Care for the earth
2. Care for people
3. Minimize consumption of resources

Now, I'm aware that some people may look at that last point and take offense, saying it is in their right to consume what they want.  That's anyone's prerogative to look at things that way.  However, permaculture actually opens a path to more -- more food, more health, more time to spend with the people you care about.  I'll expand on this last point in the final section of this piece.

Mimicking Nature

Permaculture takes its cues from nature.  Permaculturalists don't want to control nature, they want to take advantage of the things that it already does much better than we can.  The key to this approach is to observe nature and take note of its patterns.  For instance, think of an open field coming to a forest's edge.  Where is nature the most varied and active in that setting -- in the field, in the forest, or where the two meet and overlap?  It's the transition zone that has the most action, the area that permaculture calls "edge".  One of the goals in practice is to try and maximize edge throughout your system.

Biological diversity is at its peak in these edges -- therefore that's a condition that we want to embrace and encourage in permaculture as well.  We want plants and other life forms, such as fungi, worms and insects to be able to take advantage of some of the natural ways that they help each other.  Allow nature to do the work for you.

Observation provides the key to knowing what combinations work and which ones don't.  Some of these are counter-intuitive.  To revisit Fukuoka, he found that even a blight that commonly took out 20% of his rice crop every year, because it cleared the way for the healthy plants to produce even more while also encouraging stronger seeds for next year's crop -- resulting in harvests that equaled or surpassed those of his chemical-and-petroleum farming neighbors.  This brings me to the last, but most important feature of permaculture -- the benefits.

Getting More from Less

Permaculture is about production.  For me, it is a tool to use to make my bridge to freedom, because it does more from less -- allowing me to cut loose from reliance on too many outside systems.  The term that Mollison and most others use for this is yield.

Yield in permaculture is a greater matter than just how much money you spend in a year compared to how much you make.  In line with the third principle (see above), it takes into account resources used.  For most of modern farming, this means that petroleum and chemicals have to be considered for their entire production chain.  This demonstrates how inefficient our current systems really are.  Permaculture, instead of looking for outside inputs, tries to "close the loop" in as many ways as possible.  By closing the loop, I mean recycling materials through natural processes so that "wastes", instead of being discarded, instead become useful "inputs" that boost our yields. 

We can try to mimic these systems in order to encourage faster development.  A healthy soil is key to a good permaculture operation, so we need to do things that encourage healthy soil development and maintenance.  Nature has already provided a model -- the forest floor where leaves, limbs and animal carcasses fall to be gradually broken down by the fungi, mold and other organisms into beautiful black humus.  A common way of mimicking this process among most serious gardeners is composting.  By recycling food waste we are keeping it out of landfills, relying less on oil-fueled trucks to transport them or oil-fueled equipment to build the facility -- and for giving up our "right" to consume all of these resources, we end up with a substance that we can add to our garden soil to increase production.  Less in --> more out.

We also want to conserve water.  This has been referred to as "making water walk instead of run".  If you can slow water down to a speed where it is absorbed into the soil instead of runoff, it means less watering -- and less work.  There are some simple ways to do this.  One is to dig berms and swales along the contour lines of an area, giving the water nowhere to flow but a large space to sit.  As the water sits, it is absorbed into the berm and permeates through it, giving plant roots an opportunity to drink it up.  This method has even "greened the desert" next to the Dead Sea -- a place that otherwise looks like a moonscape of rock under a blazing hot sun.  Another method is to just dig lots of holes to catch the water, and planting around the hole's edge.  (There's that edge again!)  My garden is on a slight slope, and what I did was to build unbordered raised beds crossing the slope, allowing the beds to serve as berms and the mulched footpaths between as swales.  In any event, I just came out of a couple of weeks of dry, hot (approaching 100) weather in NY while hardly needing to water my plants.  I have 15 tomato plants that remained green and vigorous throughout.

Earlier we talked a bit about biodiversity.  The most basic method of achieving this is companion planting -- interspersing different vegetables in your garden together.  It's what I do, and again the result has been a vigorous and healthy garden with little to no watering under sustained hot, dry conditions.  Some permaculturists may take issue with my inclusion of companion planting, but I just see it as a simpler system of guilds.  Guilds are where you randomly mix groups of plants together (literally tossing mixed seed onto the ground in some instances), preferably at least some perennials, in order to take advantage of symbiotic relationships between the plants.  I'm not there yet, but companion planting is a simpler step along that path.

I certainly don't claim to be an expert on permaculture, and I readily admit that I'm a novice. But that's the great thing about permaculture, it's a long, patient process so it's more important to just jump in and see what happens.  I still kill a lot of plants (the difference between an experienced and unexperienced gardener is just the greater number of plants that the former has killed compared to the latter).  But I have seen my overall yields rise while reducing the time that I have to spend weeding and watering.  A large part of the permaculture approach is embracing inaction at times -- "no work farming," Fukuoka called it -- which is extremely difficult when it comes to leaving some of the weeds in my garden beds to help hold in moisture, reduce temperature and create a habitat for predatory insects.  But I'm learning, improving and OBSERVING over time.

I hope this short treatise on permaculture has given you a workable overview (and some good links), as well as a view into the workings of my overall path "to that better life".  I also welcome contributions to the discussion, as they offer me a chance to learn from you, the reader -- leave a comment below and forward it to a friend!


Unknown said...

Wonderfully inspiring, as always good sir!

How did you decide which plants to plant together for companion planting? Is there a resource you recommend?

Jeff said...

My hugelkultur beds are much more productive than my raised beds for the zucchini plants I put in this year. The weeds love the h-kultur beds too and I let most them go but still clean them out every so often.

Chris said...

There are a lot of gardening books that give you information on what plants to use together in companion planting, as well as resources on the internet. Most of all, though, like all things in permaculture, the key is in observing what plants do better together over time.

I used my hugelkultur bed for tomatoes this year and they NEVER need watered. I also planted late beans into the south-facing side and they're doing quite well too. But hugelkultur is a subject best saved for a later post.