Permaculture While Renting

Permaculture is short for permanent culture.  How can one think permanently when renting is all about the temporary?

Snarky Acres in the summer
Snarky Acres in the summer

If you don’t know what permaculture is, you might want to read my “Permaculture Awkwardly Explained” post.

I’ve been a renter my whole adult life (and I’m pretty old). It’s not something I’m particularly proud of, but there it is. My gardening “career” started accidentally with a kind gesture from a previous landlord tilling up an unused piece of his yard. As I read up on everything garden-related while learning on that plot, the term “permaculture” kept coming up. So by the time I moved to my current rented house (aka Snarky Acres) in 2010, permaculture design was being slowly but surely integrated into my gardening practices and overall mindset framework.

The Snarky Gardener posing underneath his crab apple tree at Snarky Acres. Did you know you can make brandy with crab apples?

When moving to Snarky Acres, I knew my stay would be for a few years as I was going through my bankruptcy at the time. Two things made me choose that specific place: proximity to work (1.5 miles) and the 50 foot by 20 foot fenced backyard garden. As I was negotiating with my future landlord Colin, it was obvious to him I was more interested in the garden plot than the house itself. A good sized fenced garden in a very sunny spot sold me even though the 70 year old bungalow is situated on a busy state route. Colin told me “You can make the whole yard a garden if you want.” Quite a bold statement for a .91 acre plot and he’s kept to his word to this day.

An abundance of green beans from Snarky Acres

The takeaway here is to truly utilize permaculture on a rented site, you must have buy-in from the owner from the beginning. You may not use the term “permaculture” in your discussions but getting the relationship parameters out of the way before you sign on the dotted line is of utmost importance. If you don’t see a garden, ask about putting one in. If you see one, ask about expanding. It’s like any adult relationship (job, love, business, etc). You negotiate the important stuff before making the commitment, as it’s much harder to adjust once you are in for the long haul (just ask anyone who’s tried to get a raise or more vacation after a few years with an employer). Just decide ahead of time what your deal breakers are. For instance, I loved the garden and closeness to work, but if Colin had said no to River, my little Toy Fox Terrier, I couldn’t do it. Instead, I agreed to pay $30 more a month for her and we moved right in.

River (my little Toy Fox Terrier) digging amongst the flowering turnips. Also, the wood Colin helped us bury for our hugelkultur bed is in the background.

The renter’s first instinct is to do nothing permanent since you could move anytime after your lease runs out.  I decided instead to take the saying “Bloom where you are planted” to heart.  I didn’t want to wait until I bought a place to try out the permaculture design techniques I’d read about.  Practice makes perfect and in a way, making mistakes on somebody else’s property is freeing. Of course, you don’t want to invest too much money or time into a rental situation as there’s a chance you’d get your heart broken. Most of my decisions and designs are based on that tight rope walk between temporary and permanent.

Hugelkultur beds showing off their built-in heat capturing capabilities
Hugelkultur beds showing off their built-in heat capturing capabilities. They are technically temporary as the buried wood will turn into beautiful soil in just a few years.

Here’s a little secret (don’t tell Colin). I didn’t ask the landlord explicitly if I could plant perennials or put in my original 4 hugelkultur beds. After building trust over the years (i.e. paying my rent on time and not being a big giant pain in the ass), I didn’t think it would be a problem. Besides, both can be eliminated with a little effort if necessary, though I would hope the next renters would know what they have. I’ve even thought about writing a letter to future tenants to let them know what’s on the property and how to reach me for questions (hint: Colin even mentioned one time about putting in a peach or pear tree but as landlords do sometimes, he has bigger fish to fry and has never discussed it again. I’m sure if I wanted to initiate planting a tree (even offering to pay and/or assist with its planting), he would be all for it. Maybe that’s a subject to broach next year.

My front yard perennial shade herb garden (mint, lemon balm, thyme, and chives). Yet another implemented permaculture design at Snarky Acres.
My front yard perennial shade herb garden (mint, lemon balm, thyme, and chives). Yet another implemented permaculture design at Snarky Acres.

Being a renter does give you constraints you wouldn’t have with your own place (assuming your house doesn’t have a homeowners’ association). For example, I grew up a 4Her and was thinking hard about getting some meat rabbits at my current place. That would mean I would need to ask the landlord and then build up a temporary yet secure structure. These constraints (and the fact my next door neighbors make a lot of noise – fireworks and loud parties – that would literally scare the rabbits to death), made me decide not to pursue this project. Instead I put my efforts into expanding my garden from 1,500 to 2,500 square feet and trying to grow as much of several staples (potatoes, dry beans, tomatoes, zucchini, and sunchokes) as I could.  I came across a permaculture quote that sums this situation up nicely:

“The more limitation and restrictions you put on a design, the more creative you become” – Geoff Lawton

And creative we have become. This spring, Colin was over on the property to fix the neighbor’s septic system and remove some old trees from our property.  He rented a cool backhoe with a claw that we watched tear out trees like a giant iron hand ripping weeds from the ground.  The Snarky Girlfriend got Colin’s attention and had him dig a trench, move several rotting logs into the hole, and pat them down in place.  To think a landlord would help us with our permaculture hugelkultur mound still blows my mind.

The big honking 6′ by 20′ hugelkultur bed Colin helped us build now covered with turnips, leeks, and onions (i.e. plants deer and groundhogs won’t eat).

Another creative permaculture project we completed was an outdoor kitchen designed with all temporary pieces including a store bought 10′ X 12′ gazebo, a 2 burner gas grill, a self-built vegetable washing station, supports for runner beans and peas, raised beds, and a 5′ X 5′ greenhouse.  Of course we’ll need to break it all down if/when we move, but every design has its downsides and consequences.

Gazebo used for our outdoor kitchen

The Problem is the Solution” – Bill Mollison

So as you can hopefully tell from my ramblings, being a renter is not the death of your permaculture dreams. Turn your problem (being a renter) into your solution (utilize permaculture where you are). If you can’t get your current landlord to let you dig up the front yard, ask about the back yard. If you can’t plant there, ask about pots and other temporary solutions. If they are a big no no (what a jerk), rent a community garden plot, grow inside (using a south facing window or grow lights), or buy a mushroom kit off the Internet. If you get too much resistance or want a more productive solution, a more drastic relocation might be order. Remember every site (rented or purchased) has its constraints. Just be sure you move in with terms you can live with for the long-term.

You can grow mushrooms anywhere, even in your apartment or house

Burpee’s Sure Thing Zucchini Review

The Snarky Gardener really loves Burpee’s Sure Thing Hybrid Zucchini but only in a platonic way.

The Snarky Gardener's 1st place award winning Zucchini at the 2014 Portage County Ohio fair
The Snarky Gardener’s 1st place award winning Zucchini at the 2014 Portage County Ohio fair

I don’t usually get all goo goo over a specific vegetable variety (unless it’s my own like the Snarky Orange Cherry Tomato). As an avid seed saver and swapper, I go with whatever seeds I have at hand. This year, I wanted to grow the rainbow type of Swiss chard, but only had a random red variety. Oh well, it all tastes the same once cooked. I can’t even tell you what kind of cucumbers I grew this year.  Had some seeds, stuck them in the ground, waited for them to grow, ate cucumbers.  But when it comes to zucchini, I’m very particular.

Squash, Summer, Sure Thing Zucchini Hybrid 1 Pkt. (25 seeds) Fruits early even in cool, cloudy conditions. Click here to purchase.
Squash, Summer, Sure Thing Zucchini Hybrid 1 Pkt. (25 seeds) Fruits early even in cool, cloudy conditions. Click here to purchase.

As I first came into my own as a gardener, I didn’t take failure well. (Actually, now that I think about it, I still don’t). For me, there’s nothing more depressing early in the season than watching tiny little zucchinis start out with the flower on the end, get a bit bigger, and then just shrivel up and die (so sad). The primary reason for this lost is female flowers need insects to pollinate them. No pollination equals no zucchini to eat. Early in the season, a lack of pollination can be problematic especially if it’s rainy, cloudy, windy or below 50 degrees as honey bees don’t go out of the hive on those days (slackers!). If you ever go out and watch your cucurbits (cucumbers, squash, zucchini, pumpkins, watermelons, and the like) on a nice sunny warm morning, it will feel like an airport of bee activity (buzz buzz buzz).

Q: Why do my zucchini fruits just shrivel up and die?

A: Zucchini flowers need to be pollinated. No pollination equals no zucchini to eat.

Here in Northeastern Ohio, with our lake-effect clouds and cruddy spring weather, it seems like this issue is even more pronounced (though that could just be the Seasonal Affective Disorder talking). Fortunately, I did a little, research and came across Burpee’s Sure Thing Hybrid ZucchiniBurpee's Sure Thing Hybrid Zucchini.  It’s a seedless variety specifically bred for this situation.  Seedless means it doesn’t need fertilized. Problem solved!

Normally, I have a no hybrid rule in my garden but I do make exceptions for times like these. I enjoy saving seeds and while you technically can save hybrids, the “experts” don’t recommended it because you don’t know what you are going to get when you plant them (could be a puppy – who really knows?). Of course with this seedless hybrid variety, you can’t save these (thanks Captain Obvious). A few years back I did serendipitously save and grow out some hybrid SunGold cherry tomatoes and ended up with my very own variety (the Snarky Orange Cherry tomato). Little known fact: you can name them whatever you want (I prefer Fred).

What I like about these Sure Things is I don’t get the “My Zucchini Won’t Pollinate Blues”. I can plant them right after the last frost and they will grow well from there. (Hold it, how do you know it’s actually going to be the LAST frost of the year? Don’t worry, if you get another frost, you can just plant again.) These are a bush variety, so they pretty much stay put instead of crawling all over the garden like pumpkins do.  The downside of any bush plant (zucchini, bean, pea, tomato) is that they have a limited growth timeline meaning they won’t necessarily fruit all season. That’s the trade off from the pole or indeterminate types though I will say the Sure Things from last season’s cool rainy weather did go from June into September. So how do you fight the lesser production? Simple – plant some once every month until 2 months before the average normal first frost (so for Ohio plant in May, June, July, and August). What to do with all that zucchini? That’s for a different time (hint: zucchini pickles).

Permaculture Awkwardly Explained

You are probably asking yourself “What the heck is permaculture?”  The Snarky Gardener will try his best to explain without being confusing or condescending (wish him luck).

These hugelkultur mounds are a technique used within permaculture but are not a "permaculture technique"
These hugelkultur mounds are a technique used within permaculture but are not a “permaculture technique”

Permaculture is a combination of “permanent” and “culture” (though it was originally derived from “Permanent Agriculture”) and is a natural pattern design science. People often hear about permaculture as part of a gardening discussion and think it’s new upcoming gardening technique (like square foot gardening or vertical gardening). Actually, permaculture is NOT gardening per se but is just one place where permaculture can be applied. Steeped in nature, permaculture applications lean toward the physical world including farming, earthworks, housing, buildings, heating/cooling, cooking, food preservation, and water storage.  It is also utilized for human systems, such as communities, education, alternative currencies, and computer systems design (and yes, we human beings are part of nature).  Typical applications include food forests and rotational grazing. Permaculture is a paradigm shift, a movement, a different way of viewing the world, and a possible framework to build your life around.  I like to describe it as “Creating abundance through nature”™.

I built a front yard herb shade garden using permaculture design. Using perennial herbs (mint, lemon balm, thyme, chives), it makes use of a marginal edge next to my house.
I built a front yard herb shade garden using permaculture design. Using perennial herbs (mint, lemon balm, thyme, chives), it makes use of a marginal edge next to my house.

Permanence is, of course, at the heart of permaculture.  Permanent is relative (as we are all technically temporary), but here it refers to designing for the generations ahead of us.  Energy and other inputs are high at initial implementation with maintenance and harvesting in later years.  A system can’t truly be enduring while accepting continuous inputs from the outside (fertilizer, gasoline, electricity and money).  Permaculture strives to take advantage of the more renewable onsite resources – sunlight, water, soil, leaves, wood, perennial plants, animals, manure, human labor, caring, love, humor, snarkiness, art, music, and ingenuity.  This thinking runs counter to our society’s current short-term focus.

Food Not Lawns book
One of my favorite permaculture books. Click here to purchase.

I was originally introduced to permaculture through my vegetable growing education, as gardening is a gateway drug to permaculture. As my skills and experience advanced, I sought better and more efficient techniques.  Mentioned in blogs, podcasts, and books (my favorite being “Food Not Lawns: How to Turn Your Yard into a Garden and Your Neighborhood into a Community
by Heather Flores), I slowly internalized the overall concepts (including comprehension that permaculture does not just apply to food production).  In early 2015, I advanced my knowledge further by attending a Permaculture Design Certification (PDC) course (7 full weekends of fun).  A PDC sets the foundation of understanding and allows graduates to pursue permaculture design careers.

I think what really attracted me the permaculture is the systems thinking that runs throughout.  As a software developer for the last 25+ years (wow I feel old), I work with systems on a daily basis. Thinking holistically is natural for me as is resource-intensive new development versus the small tweaks of the maintenance cycle. Patterns are also a part of software development – relationships between objects, standard user interface design, project management, and so forth.  To me, developing a software application is the same as putting together a permaculture design, just with a different tool set (and more dirt under my fingernails).

A set of ethics guide permaculture:

  1. Care of Earth
  2. Care of People
  3. Return of Surplus (or sometimes Fair Share: Set Limits and Redistribute Surplus).

For people looking in from the outside, permaculture seems like re-purposed ancient techniques (was told this by an experienced master gardener and I agreed).  But here’s an important differentiation – permaculture is not about techniques (though some are labeled as “permaculture techniques”) but on designing deliberative systems that utilize these techniques with the three ethics intertwined.  Just because you dig a swale (otherwise known as a big giant trench) to hold water doesn’t mean it’s permaculture. If the trench is just one piece of a whole design with an understanding of water flow and storage, then it’s permaculture as intentions drive design.  Just implementing a technique when it’s cool and trendy is not.  I’ve also seen examples where people have implemented permaculture-like systems (for example, the rotational grazing of Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farms), but I would argue they are not practicing permaculture (not that there is anything wrong with that). Again, intentions drive design.

Along with the three ethics are the 12 Permaculture Principles. These help put the individual into the proper mindset when designing.

  1. Observe and Interact
  2. Catch and Store Energy
  3. Obtain a Yield
  4. Apply Self-Regulation and Accept Feedback
  5. Use and Value Renewable Resources
  6. Produce No Waste
  7. Design from Patterns to Details
  8. Integrate Rather Than Segregate
  9. Use Small and Slow Solutions
  10. Use and Value Diversity
  11. Use Edges and Value the Marginal
  12. Creatively Use and Respond to Change
The Permaculture Handbook by Peter Bane. Click here to purchase.
The Permaculture Handbook by Peter Bane. Click here to purchase.

Here’s a non-garden real life design example that might make things clearer (or murkier, I’m not sure).  After attending our Permaculture Design Course, we decided to build an outdoor kitchen based on the Summer Kitchen pattern discussed in Peter Bane’s book “The Permaculture Handbook: Garden Farming for Town and Country”. We purchased a low cost semi-temporary 12’ X 10’ gazebo and built it outside our back door (within Peter’s recommended 50 feet from our main kitchen).  This simple (albeit labor-intensive) action turned an inhospitable grassy area into a multi-use room available 6 or 7 months out of the year.  A two burner propane camp stove (plus the propane grill we already had) lets us cook and can food outside instead of heating up our house unnecessarily. Observing that the area to the south of the gazebo receives 3 to 5 hours of direct sunlight a day, we installed a 5 X 5 greenhouse, raised beds for semi-shade tolerant vegetables (like beets and arugula), and a trellis against the gazebo  for shade, privacy, and pole beans (not necessarily in that order).  A homemade outdoor sink built with scavenged parts lets us wash vegetables (and save the water for irrigation) without all that dirt walking into the house. When we aren’t using it as a kitchen, we process seeds or just enjoy our backyard in comfort.

Gazebo we used in our design

All 12 principles above are represented with this elegant solution (at a rental property no less):

  1. Observe and Interact – the site; especially sunlight
  2. Catch and Store Energy – canning, seed saving
  3. Obtain a Yield – vegetables, seeds, meals, relaxation
  4. Apply Self-Regulation and Accept Feedback – reconfiguration of tables and chairs as needed
  5. Use and Value Renewable Resources – sunlight, water, plants, seeds
  6. Produce No Waste – canning, vegetables, sink, compost
  7. Design from Patterns to Details – patterns 39 and 42 from “The Permaculture Handbook”
  8. Integrate Rather Than Segregate – all the disparate pieces as one system
  9. Use Small and Slow Solutions – temporary and inexpensive pieces
  10. Use and Value Diversity – different technologies and techniques
  11. Use Edges and Value the Marginal – unused area next to house, gazebo’s south side
  12. Creatively Use and Respond to Change – adjust based on seasons and changing needs

Over the years, I have found many permaculturists can be quite serious as they believe the world needs saving and permaculture is the answer. One story I love to tell is when the Snarky Girlfriend and I were going through our PDC.  Peter Bane was teaching about water by having us imagine ourselves flowing from the mountaintop, down the valley, and gently down the river.  The Snarky Girlfriend made a sarcastic comment about “watching out for the banjos”.  Not one smile or chirp of laughter from 25 plus people, just overwhelming silence (guess no one was a “Deliverance” fan). Normally the Snarky Girlfriend’s warped sense of adult humor is her best asset, but during our classes, it rarely hit the mark.  I guess permaculture is a sobering topic not to be taken lightly.

One thing that still puzzles me is the politics that runs throughout permaculture.  I do see how permaculture has the potential to make big differences with issues like climate change, economics, peak oil, and social justice.  Many in the movement believe we as humans need to do as much as possible as soon as possible as humanity may be too far gone already.  The trouble is I’m not into permaculture to save anyone (except maybe myself).  I practice and teach it because the concepts and systems just make sense to me.  During a leadership workshop held by Heather Flores of Food Not Lawns this summer (name dropper!), I realized that I’m a “reluctant activist” (my term).  For me, producing my own food is logical knowing what we know about the industrial food system.  I want to spread that word and help others to grow their own vegetables but not from any sense of justice or activism.  Don’t get me wrong – I believe these are very important causes – they are just not my primary motivation.  By teaching others about organic gardening and seed saving, I can see how I’m going against the status quo. Guess I’m a rebel with a cause but without a clue.

I believe the most important lesson I’ve learned through my ongoing permaculture training (it’s never really over) is that every person is a designer.  Each of us has the talents and skills to build better systems, whether they be for just our own selves or for the benefit of all mankind.  Permaculture gives us the tools to create these systems eloquently using nature’s gifts instead of with the finite resources of billions of years of stored sunlight.  It is just up to our imagination and persistence to make it happen.

Final Note:
I named this “Permaculture Awkwardly Explained” because I have found it difficult (and watch others struggle also) to describe permaculture to people. It’s sort of like talking about how the color blue tastes or how green sounds. Maybe it is something that just has to be experienced. Hope I was able to bring you closer to understanding.