Permaculture is short for permanent culture. How can one think permanently when renting is all about the temporary?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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: thesnarkygardener.com). 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.
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.
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.
“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.