Category Archives: Permaculture

Planting a Rabbit Tree

The Snarky Gardener deliberates on raising meat rabbits.
Please don’t judge him too harshly.
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Californian breed – most likely what the Snarky Gardener will raise.
WARNING: If you are a vegan, please don’t read this article. If you do, don’t send the Snarky Gardener any strongly worded messages. He understands your point-of-view but much like politics in general, you are not changing his mind. He’s raised animals he’s later eaten (cows, chickens, and rabbits) and has no qualms doing it in the future. Eating meat one has raised is certainly more honest than our current “hide the details” food system.

Back in the day (before the gardening but not before the snarkiness), the Snarky Gardener raised rabbits for 4-H, selling them as pets, magician props, and snake food. He even won two county fair trophies, including best doe and litter (glory days!). Lately, he’s been thinking hard about adding second-hand vegetables to his garden. The two best possibilities for a rented ¾ acre suburban lot are chickens and rabbits. Both are easy to handle and don’t need a lot of space. Egg-producing chickens can be as little as three hens, but if you want meat, you’ll need a rooster (very noisy) and more room. Not necessarily conducive to good neighbor relations.

Here’s a favorite quote:

“Among mammals, first place goes to the rabbit, a species so prolific that permaculture teacher Dan Hemenway has written that rabbits would be the perfect domestic livestock if only they laid eggs. They don’t, but they do the next best thing: they make lots of bunnies.”

Bane, Peter (2012-06-26). The Permaculture Handbook: Garden Farming for Town and Country (Kindle Locations 8326-8328). Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.

Here’s why the Snarky Gardener couldn’t agree more:

  1. Unlike the aforementioned chickens, rabbits are extremely quiet.
  2. Properly raised, rabbits have very little smell (can’t even say that about the dog).
  3. They are herbivores, so they will eat most of the things you grow in your garden and yard.
  4. Their bunny “pellets” (aka poop) are perfect for use as a garden fertilizer.  You can put rabbit manure straight into the garden without composting (unlike most other animal stuff).
  5. Rabbits are one of the best when it comes to converting food to meat – 2.5 to 3 pounds of feed per pound of meat (versus more than 6 pounds of feed to a pound for beef)
  6. Many urban areas have anti-chicken laws but not for rabbits.
  7. Rabbit meat is leaner and more nutritious than other meats
  8. They can mow your lawn!
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Lawn mowing rabbits

Of course, the biggest rabbit downside is their use as pets. Nobody wants to eat the Easter bunny. There are even House Rabbit Societies (who knew?) that have boycotted Whole Foods for selling rabbit.  The secret is to separate pet rabbits and livestock rabbits in your mind.  Pets get names and live inside.  Livestock rabbits live outside with only the breeding adults named.  Just don’t eat the rabbits you know and things should go along without a hitch.

Of course to get meat, rabbits will need to be “processed” (aka go to “freezer camp”), either by yourself or a processor. The closest processor to Snarky Acres is 70 miles away, so it’s drivable but not down the street. One of the hardest sales pitches ever made to the Snarky Girlfriend was to get her to eat rabbit (aka fuzzy little animals). To make sure those raised would be eaten, rabbit meat was purchased (which is harder to do than you would think) from a private breeder. The deal made was the SG will prepare and cook so the SGF doesn’t have to see it in its “obviously a rabbit” raw form. The SG made several meals but had to refer to them as “chicken” soup and roasted “chicken” (with finger quotes included). So far, so good as talking about the evil snarky rabbit plan all the time has let her get used to the idea (mostly). There was also an agreement reached where only red-eyed short-haired rabbits would be raised as the Snarky Girlfriend thinks the red eyes are not as cute.

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These aren’t cute? Really?

The Long Term Plan:

  1. Purchase meat to see if it will be eaten. (Check)
  2. Research as much as possible (Check)
  3. Talk to the landlord about having rabbits (Check)
  4. Purchase and assemble building (probably a garage in a box)
  5. Purchase and assemble cages
  6. Purchase breeding rabbits – at least one buck and two does
  7. Build lawn feeder cages
  8. Breed rabbits when they are 6 months old minimum
  9. Raise rabbits
  10. Process rabbits
  11. Eat rabbits

Now the Snarky Gardener is in the research phase of his rabbit project. He found some really cool foraging rabbits that have been bred at Polyface Farms (by Joel Salatin’s son Daniel) that the SG might purchase some day. He bought several eBooks including “Urban Rabbit Project – Backyard Meat Rabbits.” He also joined several Facebook groups including Backyard Meat Rabbits. There’s lots of information with the group, including WAY too many pictures of rabbit genitalia (for sexing youngsters), diseases, frozen newborns, and processing details. Unexpectedly, this group seems to be made up of mostly women. It’s obvious from the group’s discussions that rabbits are a 365 day job (unless you can find someone to care for them while you are on vacation), but there’s a lot of love also. The breeding stock are often treated like family members with names and personalities, and everyone tries hard not to become attached to those that will be food in just a few months from birth.

So now  that the winter is over and the landlord has given his blessing, rabbits will be added to Snarky Acres unless the Snarky Gardener changes his mind. He’s so fickle sometimes.

Research links:

http://www.motherearthnews.com/homesteading-and-livestock/breeding-rabbits-zmaz70mazglo.aspx#axzz3FOgbMPVY

http://modernfarmer.com/2013/05/are-rabbits-the-new-super-meat/

http://www.amazon.com/Backyard-Rabbits-Urban-Rabbit-Project-ebook/dp/B00AG3X24M/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1412684343&sr=8-1&keywords=rabbits+backyard

http://springmountainliving.com/using-rabbits-to-mow-your-lawn-free-food-fuel-free-yard-care/

http://thedancingfarmer.com/2012/02/03/feeding-rabbits-grass-and-other-free-foods/

https://www.arba.net/

http://www.weathertopfarm.com/id70.html

http://www.raising-rabbits.com/californian-rabbits.html

Invasive Thoughts

Isn’t “invasive” just another word for “abundance”?

Garlic Mustard. Evil invasive invader or abundant producer?
Garlic Mustard. Evil invasive weed or abundant producer?

One of my favorite weeds is garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata). Yes, that invasive biennial that’s the bane of naturalists and ecologists everywhere. Ever since I discovered it a few years ago, it has held a special place in my heart. Most of its detractors (“haters gonna hate”) don’t know a dirty little secret – garlic mustard is edible. It’s in the New World because settlers brought it over from Europe as a culinary herb. Garlic mustard is a mustard green that tastes like garlic and has no natural predators here in Ohio (including our veracious deer and groundhogs). It grows where other plants don’t (shady, wild, and disturbed areas) and makes a really delicious pesto. My garlic mustard adoration stems (pun intended) from its resilience. It’s the kind of resilience and vigor I wish all my plants had.

During a library gardening presentation, I was describing my garlic mustard love. One woman stopped me mid-sentence as she finally put two and two together and realized that I was talking about Garlic Mustard (cue the evil music). She thought I was actually cultivating it, and was abhorred at the idea. For the record, I’m not purposely growing it. I try to harvest as much as I can carry every spring so it doesn’t take over the world. Truth be told, because of its “invasiveness”,  I will never have to cultivate it. Garlic Mustard can really take care of itself.

“Indeed, Homo sapiens is perhaps the weediest of all species, and the more he dominates the landscape, the more he seems to thrive. If we confine the concept of weeds to species adapted to human disturbance, then man is by definition the first and primary weed under whose influence all other weeds have evolved.”
Crops & Man, Second Edition, Jack R. Harlan,  p. 87

I do find it interesting that people love to villainize flora and fauna with the “invasive” tag. As I was going through my Permaculture Design Course, my instructor Peter Bane wouldn’t even utter the word. He called it the “I word”. This label is put on plants and animals which are seen as invaders from another land. They take over niches that “native” plants have and squeeze them out. Of course, from an environmental point of view, I get the whole “keep our natives native” concept but the problem I see in this discussion is the elephant in the room – us.  

Humans are more invasive than any other creature except maybe cockroaches (you know, the whole surviving nuclear war thing). Yes, settlers did displace the native people that were here in the Americas 400 years ago (thanks to the animal-based diseases Europeans carried with them), but those “natives” have only been on the continent maybe 15,000 years maximum. Considering the Earth is 4 billion plus years old, and humans have only been around a 200,000 years in our present form, native is extremely relative. All I can say is that maybe all our efforts to eradicating invasive species could be put to better use, like creating sustainable ecosystems and using “invasive” resources to feed and warm us when the oil runs out.

Permaculture stresses utilizing on-premise resources.  My plea to you is research the wild plants on your sites. Try to learn as much about them as you can before dismissing them. “How may ways can this plant be useful?” is a question every permaculturalist should be asking (otherwise known as “function stacking”). Many of your “weeds” came to your location as food and/or medicine. Here’s a list (in order of deliciousness) I came up with here at Snarky Acres (my .91 acre Kent Ohio urban farm) by asking this very question.

Fact that only interest me:
Most descriptions I find for unknown edible plants state that they taste and cook like spinach, like the plant version of “it tastes like chicken.”

 Lamb’s Quarters (Chenopodium album)

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Lamb’s quarters are in the same family as quinoa and is closely related to spinach and beets.  I found this in my backyard last year, saved some seeds. and tossed them throughout my garden. The plants I discovered almost didn’t make it as the friendly neighborhood groundhog seemed to prefer it over other plants in the backyard (which tell’s me it’s delicious). This last season I ended up with about a dozen plants, one was 10 to 12 feet tall, during our mild drought (resistant!). I don’t think I’ll ever need to worry about having enough lamb’s quarters again.

Best way to eat Lamb’s Quarters:  same as spinach

Violet (Viola sororia)

violet

Violets (a perennial) not only show up in my garden, they are also spread throughout my yard.  I didn’t know until last year they are edible but have been eating them ever since. The leaves are pleasant and remind me of spinach.  Like many leafy greens, the earlier in the season the better.

Best way to eat violets:  leaves and flowers in salads

Plantain (Plantago major)

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Also known as white man’s foot, plantain is a yard and garden staple. It loves compacted soil, so you’ll notice it growing near where there is a lot of foot traffic. The leaves are full of nutrients with a spinach like taste. Plantain can be used medicinally for bug bites and scrapes.

Best way to eat plantain:  same as spinach

Dandelion (Taraxacum)

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We all know the good old dandelion. I laugh (just in my head) when people talk about eradicating them from their yards. Not only can it be eaten, but it helps in other ways.  The yellow flowers give bees pollen early in the season when they need it the most.  Its long tap root brings up minerals and nutrients that are then utilized by your garden plants.  Just hoe the plant down and use the leaves as mulch around your veggies.  Don’t worry – the tap root stores plenty of energy and will help the plant grow back in no time.

Best way to eat dandelions:  young leaves in salads, flowers in fritters, and roots in beer or wine

Purple Dead Nettle (Lamium purpureum)

purpledeadnettle

In the mint family. purple dead nettle is a bee favorite.  It comes up early and often on bare ground in gardens.  As a salad addition, the taste isn’t the greatest but a few flowers at a time doesn’t hurt too bad.

Best way to eat purple dead nettle:  just a few flowers in salads

Ground Ivy/Creeping Charlie) (Glechoma hederacea)

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Ground Ivy or Creeping Charlie is a ground cover in the mint family. It’s not my favorite food but the bees seem to love it. Ground Ivy’s little purple flowers give plenty of nectar to small native insects. It’s strong mint-like flavor makes ground ivy a good companion plant and natural mulch.

Best way to eat Creeping Charlie:  it’s too strong for my taste, but I’ve read it makes a good tea. 

Permaculture creates abundance through nature” – Don Abbott

Seven useful weeds listed (including garlic mustard) and many not mentioned, including quickweed, hairy bittercress, purslane, multiflora rose, , and poison ivy (just kidding), raspberries, pigweed, and pokeweed. Pretty impressive.

Another place I hear the “I-word” is with common herbaceous perennials. Everybody knows that the mint family (including the Creeping Charlie mentioned above) can run amok if left unchecked. I even relocated my chocolate mint from my main garden to a more secure and bordered shady plot next to my house. I wasn’t as careful with my oregano and lemon balm though, and both have taken over a few areas of my production garden. What’s not always discussed with the mint family is their wonderful purple flowers. The oregano especially ends up looking like a pollinator airport once the flowers open up for business. Bees (both native and the non-native honey bee) and predatory insects swarm all over to the point I have to avoid the area completely so not to get stung.

“The common definition of a weed – that is a plant in the wrong place – conceals two important implications. Firstly, the word “wrong” implies a human opinion, since right and wrong are human concepts not inherent in nature. Secondly, the word “place” implies some characteristic dependence on environment, or in other words an ecological relationship, and clearly that relationship has to do with man’s own botanical activities in farming.” – A.H. Bunting (1960)

The invasiveness of weeds is a human judgement. We as humans put values on things we often don’t understand. Both honey bees and earthworms are not native to my eastern United States home, but everyone accepts them as a positive thing. Some day I’m going to ask those who describe living things as invasive to explain to me why these two examples (plus us humans) don’t count. Should make for an interesting conversation.

Listen to the Snarky Gardener

The Snarky Gardener was interviewed on the Urban Farm podcast. Listen to him talk about Snarky Acres and his projects.

Listen to the Snarky Gardener's podcast interview

 

I had the privilege of being interviewed on the Urban Farm podcast. We discussed my beginnings as a gardener, why I grow food, my favorite book, and my current project (writing my first book “The Snarky Gardener’s Veggie Growing Guide for Ohio and Beyond”). So it was pretty much all about me, someone I know a great deal about.  I didn’t mention the Snarky Girlfriend and haven’t heard the end of it by far. There will be other podcasts in my future, so maybe I’ll remember to talk about her then.

It took me a week, but I finally got up the nerve to listen to my own interview. I obviously was there for the recording, but wasn’t sure how my voice would sound. You can tell I was a little nervous at the beginning but really came on strong by the end. It’s easy to talk about something I’m so passionate about. As you can tell by this blog, growing food is very important to me.

What I really like about urbanfarm.org is that they consider anyone who grows food and gives or sells it to others is a farmer. This definition probably expands the number of farmers in the world tenfold.  We can all contribute to the local food supply even with a “simple” garden. Those overwhelming zucchinis people complain about every summer? Perfect for donating to those who don’t have enough food. Then you too will be a farmer.

 

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.

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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.

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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.

SevenTopRiver
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: 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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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

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.

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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.