On April 21, 2016, the Snarky Gardener gave a presentation on vegetable gardening for beginners at the Kent (Ohio) Free Library. The audio isn’t the greatest, but hopefully you’ll gain some new information.
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).
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”™.
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.
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).
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.
Observe and Interact
Catch and Store Energy
Obtain a Yield
Apply Self-Regulation and Accept Feedback
Use and Value Renewable Resources
Produce No Waste
Design from Patterns to Details
Integrate Rather Than Segregate
Use Small and Slow Solutions
Use and Value Diversity
Use Edges and Value the Marginal
Creatively Use and Respond to Change
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.
All 12 principles above are represented with this elegant solution (at a rental property no less):
Observe and Interact – the site; especially sunlight
Catch and Store Energy – canning, seed saving
Obtain a Yield – vegetables, seeds, meals, relaxation
Apply Self-Regulation and Accept Feedback – reconfiguration of tables and chairs as needed
Use and Value Renewable Resources – sunlight, water, plants, seeds
Produce No Waste – canning, vegetables, sink, compost
Design from Patterns to Details – patterns 39 and 42 from “The Permaculture Handbook”
Integrate Rather Than Segregate – all the disparate pieces as one system
Use Small and Slow Solutions – temporary and inexpensive pieces
Use and Value Diversity – different technologies and techniques
Use Edges and Value the Marginal – unused area next to house, gazebo’s south side
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.
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.
The Kent (Ohio) Free Library is starting a seed library and the Snarky Gardener is helping out!
As the founder of Kent Ohio Food Not Lawns, I’ve been giving gardening talks at our local library – the Kent Free Library. My last presentation covered seed saving including the why’s and how to’s of saving seeds from one’s garden. I used several of my previous blog posts to develop my content, including tomatoes, peppers, mustard/kale/turnips, and beans, as I’m nothing if not lazy. For me, seed saving is a very important cause as it’s one of our most basic rights as human beings. Seeds have been saved and exchanged by individuals for thousands of years (no, they haven’t always been sold at big box stores or online). Seeds saved from your garden have been selected just by the very fact they survived and thrived at your location with your soil and environment. Add choosing the best specimens year after year (for taste or drought tolerance or color), and it turns the backyard gardener into a local plant breeder. Pretty cool and powerful stuff if you think about it.
Over this summer, the Snarky Girlfriend and I have been working with the KFL to start up a seed library. In a nutshell, a seed library is a central location for seed storage that allows community members to “check out” seeds. These usually come from donations, either from professional seed companies (like Johnny’s Selected Seeds), seed non-profits (like Seed Savers Exchange or the Cleveland Seed Bank), or preferably local amateur seed savers. Borrowers are encouraged (but not required) to return twice as much seed as they borrow, thus increasing the seed library’s inventory. Kent Ohio Food Not Lawns (KOFNL) has made a commitment to assist the library in maintaining the Seed Library and offering advice to gardeners who plan to save donated seeds. We held several seed repackaging parties this year to help KOFNL break down donated seed into business card size packets for distribution during our presentation events. I got the idea of seed packaging parties from my time spent with the Akron Seed Library earlier this year. The Seed Library of the Kent Free Library currently has a call out for seed donations and we should start organizing some repackaging parties this fall and winter. If you have donations (especially ones saved from your own garden) or want to participate in our “parties”, please send me an email at email@example.com.
The Snarky Gardener is ready for the growing season
Spring has been a fun and interesting time to be a snarky gardener. I’ve taken in some workshops, and taken in some new edible varieties. Last year was all about growing my own starts and saving seeds. This year so far seems to be about expanding my knowledge, contacts (through Food Not Lawns and the Kent Community TimeBank), and perennial plantings.
In March I took two workshops – one for bee keeping and one for tree pruning. Looks like bees will be a future project though now I’m now a member of the Stark County (Ohio) Beekeepers Association (even have a cool membership card in my wallet). A very passionate group but I’m not quite ready to have so many little lives dependent on me. The tree pruning workshop did pay immediate benefits as there’s an old apple tree way in the back yard. I’m not real fond of getting up on a ladder but the tree is 30 feet tall so not much a choice. It did produce (small and holey) fruit last year and I’m hoping for better this season. In early May, I attended a WordPress “camp”, where I picked up new knowledge to help these blog entries and this site be better for you. I also concluded my permaculture class prematurely as my schedule has been full as of late.
With permaculture slowly but surely changing my point of view, I’ve taken some steps to make my domain more permanent and perennial. My two part article written earlier this year discussed perennial plant possibilities and I’ve taken steps to make them reality. For the Snarky Garden, Egyptian Walking onions, ground nuts, mushrooms, strawberry spinach, and perennial kale (from Territorial) will be added to compliment already established sunchokes, strawberries, corn salad (via self seeding) and comfrey. The whole north part (top in the plan) is evolving into only perennials. I’ll never move to a whole perennial garden (I love tomatoes and potatoes too much), but half would be nice. Also, my foraging is getting more serious with grazing of garlic mustard, dandelion greens, hostas and violets picked right out of the yard. I wanted to do maple syrup, but missed the February/March window, but there’s always next year.
If you are interested in gardening, community, food security, permaculture, seed saving and sharing, this is the place for you! Bring seeds (purchased or saved) if you have them, or consider what you might swap for seeds in goods or service, but come anyway. We have a good collection and lots of information to share. This year, we have signed the Safe Seed Pledge and will not knowing share GMO/Monsanto owned seed.
Joining us will be: Elle Addams of City Rising Farm, Judi Strauss, of The Charmed Kitchen, with herbs, books and more for sample and sale, Chris McClellan, of Natural Cottage Project, will demonstrate a rocket stove, gardeners of the Grace Lutheran Community Garden, and many more.
Refreshments are potluck. Please bring a dish to share. Also, collecting non perishable food donation for Hts’ Emergency Food Bank. There will be a Freecycle table available to bring or take useful items. Residue will be donated.
If you bring saved seeds, please label them with as much pertinent info as possible. We will have envelopes and labels available. New this year: Seed Savers, who are willing, will be with their seeds at tables, to discuss traits, growing conditions, stories about them, and aspects of seed saving. Donated seed will be available and asked to be considered a “loan” to be returned, if possible, the fooling swap. The completed Saved Seed Inventory will be available for perusal, or check it out online at: