The philosophy behind permaculture is so simple and wide-reaching as to be difficult to define. One might even go so far as to say that every human culture that did not destroy its natural resource base was, by definition, practicing a form of permaculture - although perhaps not always a conscious one.
In its purest form, permaculture is a design system. Specifically, it’s an integrated, holistic system, based on ethics and principles, and informed by Nature, aiming to permanently fulfill human needs through functional, ecological design.
In other words, it’s a complete, coherent set of principles, guidelines and conceptual tools that enable anyone to design their habitat (wherever and whatever that habitat may be) to be as healthy, sustainable, ethical and resilient as possible. This includes fulfilling the obvious needs of producing food and store drinking water, but also building homes which are not harmful to the environment, choosing a lifestyle that prevents negative collateral damage to natural systems, and even designing the social and economic structures that support and allow those lifestyles.
In fact, since most places where humans live have already suffered some degree of environmental damage, permaculture designs must frequently go beyond “sustainability” (maintaining what there is and preventing further damage) and enter the realm of “environmental restoration”, that is, recovering any important ecological functions that may have been lost or damaged.
These characteristics mean that no two permaculture sites are alike, and each is tailor-made to suit the specific needs of the people who live there, according to their specific climate, location, culture, economic situation, etc. If you go to the site of a permaculture project in Canada, for example, you’ll find a very different way of living from the site of a project in tropical Kenya, or in arid Jordan, or in the suburbs of Melbourne. What you’ll find in common is that all these people try their best to be a beneficial element in their ecosystem, always finding ways to live without harming others.
One of the natural outcomes of learning permaculture is that you become more empowered to change your life to better suit your needs, individually and collectively. And as a consequence of more and more people finding their own way to live in harmony with Nature and each other, a spontaneous global “permaculture movement” has started growing everywhere. This movement doesn’t have a specific agenda, nor does it sponsor a specific way of life. It’s a grassroots movement of people wanting to live as they feel they should - as opposed to living as they were told to - while always trying to help each other, and learn from each other.
The word “permaculture” was invented as a contraction of the words “permanent” and “culture” (originally “permanent” and “agriculture”, from J. Russell Smith’s influential 1929 book Tree Crops: A Permanent Agriculture). This idea was set forward to oppose the extractive, destructive forms of agriculture commonly found throughout the modern world, and especially apparent in the fragile ecology of Australia.
Australian farms created some of the most obvious ecological disasters that ever resulted from conventional agricultural practices. Reasonable agricultural soils were turning to deserts or salt pans in as little as five years. This was in contrast to Australian Aboriginal practices, as well as several other traditional peoples’ methods of gathering food from the land, that did not turn agricultural soils into desert even after several thousand years.
Bill Mollison and David Holmgren thoroughly investigated these ancient food production systems, as well as natural systems with no human presence, from the perspective of whole-systems scientific analysis. As a result, they collaboratively wrote “Permaculture One”, first published in 1978. Soon thereafter they taught the first Permaculture Design Course (PDC), and encouraged their students to teach what they had learned. This continuous transmission of knowledge through PDCs is still ongoing, and the curriculum remains more or less the same since the 1980s, although always adapted to the context where it is taught.
Mollison then wrote “Permaculture: a Designer’s Manual” in 1988, and Holmgren wrote “Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability” in 2002. These two very different books are considered the “core” of permaculture theory.
“The only ethical decision is to take responsibility for our own existence and that of our children’s.” - Bill Mollison in Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual
This is why permaculture is different from most other forms of sustainable food production: its core, its most foundational basis, is Ethics.
There are three ethical statements in permaculture. They are both simple and powerful, and should permeate all action and thought in all permaculture activities.
The three ethics are:
Permaculture is a design science. The way everything comes together is through design, and it’s by learning how to design that you’ll become empowered to start changing your life - and the world - towards real sustainability.
Anyone can design. In fact, nearly everyone designs something every now and then. You’re designing when you plan a meal for the whole family, or a route that takes you from work to home that passes through the grocery and the kid’s school, or when you’re arranging the furniture in your living room. The point is that design is like breathing: everyone does it, but just about everyone could learn how to do it much better.
Another important point is that doing permaculture is not “following a recipe”. It’s creating a wonderful meal from whatever ingredients you have. This means there are no recipes - or if you will, each new meal requires a new recipe.
There are some specific strategies that usually work in most cases, but the goal is to find the appropriate strategies to each individual case, and make everything work, together, towards the three Ethics.
This is possibly one of the most important intellectual achievements of the XX century, and an essential aspect of permaculture thinking.
Whereas Cartesian Thinking emphasizes that a system is comprised of simple parts, and that by understanding each separate part we can achieve a better understanding of the whole, Systems Thinking emphasizes that the whole system is always more complex than the sum of its parts.
This is not to say that Cartesian thinking is not a useful tool. Systems thinking adds a new layer on top of it, and completely shifts the focus of our attention, but does not invalidate Cartesian findings.
Permaculture principles help translate the ethics into practice. They are orienting guidelines through which we can easily assess whether we’re on the right track.
There are various sets of principles by different authors, each adapted to their originator’s way of thinking. Some are more complex and profound, others are more practical and easy to remember.
A pattern is something that repeats itself, even if not exactly in the same way. For example, a spiral is a pattern, and while a spiral galaxy is very different from a snail’s shell or a ram’s horn, everyone can recognize the spiral pattern that underlies all of these shapes.
There are many kinds of patterns in nature: shapes and forms in space, cycles and successions in time, patterns of animal behavior that follow other patterns, patterns that evolve as a response to natural forces, and so on. The cycles of day and night, the seasons, the weather, the succession of plants that grow and replace each other after a fire, the way people behave in groups, the way rain water organizes itself into streams and rivers - all follow more or less consistent patterns. Learn to recognize them and use them to your advantage, and the largest part of your design work will be done.
Patterns are a central aspect in permaculture design. Learning patterns is not like most other learning processes, though. Some people naturally work with them intuitively, others struggle all their lives and never get very far, but most people find they can train themselves to better recognize and apply patterns with practice.
We very often find that landscapes designed around natural patterns are esthetically beautiful, but that’s not the main reason why we use them in permaculture. We use patterns to shape and organize our systems every time we can because nature always works in patterns, and all living beings, including ourselves, have evolved in a world of patterns.
We must stress this point: we use patterns because nature uses patterns. Each pattern is appropriate to a specific set of conditions, achieving a certain function. Patterns repeat themselves over and over in the course of millions of years of evolution because they work.
One of the most powerful techniques used in permaculture that is rarely seen in other systems is stacking, which means accumulating several different functions in the same area by literally stacking them at different heights. This way of thinking can also be applied to time, in which case we usually use the term succession, or simply time stacking.
Everyone has heard the maxim “water is life”. And everyone can see it’s true when exploring a pond full of dragonflies and tadpoles.
But what about the storm water flowing down the road, picking up bits of trash and oils, and “disappearing” into a drain? What about the water we flush down our toilets every day? What about the gargantuan amount of water consumed in producing our electricity, our computers, our clothes, our food - everything? Is that water less worthy of our respect?
Water, as the most critical resource for life on this planet, is also unique in that it literally falls down from the sky freely on a (more or less) regular basis. It is also unique in another way: it is considered so precious that, although it does fall from the sky for free nearly everywhere on Earth, it is still being sold for a hefty profit everywhere (for more on this subject look up the excellent documentary “FLOW: For Love Of Water”).
Permaculture systems effectively manage all energy entering or leaving the site, so as to direct it and recycle it as productively as we can before it leaves our intervention area.
We all know gravity leads every drop of water down from the clouds, into streams and rivers, and on to the ocean, from which evaporation lifts it up again into the atmosphere - the natural water cycle. The opportunity we have, as terrestrial beings, to make use of that water, starts as soon as rain falls and ends when this water gets infiltrated into the subsoil, reaches the ocean, or becomes polluted.
There are many strategies to maximize our window of opportunity to direct that water towards its life-supporting functions. We can slow down its progress, store it, reuse it, and purify it, always paying due attention to any unintended consequences of our actions. Appropriateness is always a key factor that should be considered every time an action is undertaken.
The first and easiest way we can apply permaculture principles to our water usage right now is to cut back any and all unnecessary consumption. Not only we’re using up less water, we’re saving money that can be put to a better use. This can go as far as we feel comfortable with - remember many people in the world lead perfectly happy lives using a really small amount of water - in some places 5 litres per person per day, all told, is a common average.
The second way is to catch and store rainwater, both in the context of our homes and in the larger landscape. If we depend on stored rainwater for all our needs, instead of the seemingly inexhaustible municipal water, we will find it much easier to find ways to conserve it!
The third way is to reuse the same water for more than one purpose. If we use biodegradable, environment-friendly cleaning products, for example, we can water our plants with the laundry and/or bath water.
The fourth way is to take responsibility for the water we do use, and try our best to return it to nature in as good a condition as we can. This means we can (and should) clean and purify our water, using natural processes, before we let it flow out of our systems. Of course it’s much easier to clean our water if we don’t get it so dirty in the first place!
“Allowing water to run off from your land is like saving all your coins in a money box, without caring about the hole in its bottom.” - Sepp Holzer
The best, largest and cheapest possible water storage is in the soil - both above it, in the case of ponds and small dams, and especially within it, through infiltration.
Water tables, springs, artesian wells, etc
Rainwater is usually clean and free from harmful contaminants, and if it is harvested and stored correctly, it can provide for a family’s water needs throughout the year in most climates. For example, in a semi-arid climate, with an annual precipitation of 400mm/year, a metallic roof with 60 square meters can catch about 24.000 litres of water every year. This is enough to supply over 65 litres of clean, potable water every day of the year for the family living in this household. (Note: a clean metallic roof can catch nearly 100% of all the water falling on it; other materials may be less efficient but are equally appropriate. Thatch is usually the least appropriate roofing material for potable rainwater harvesting, but might also be acceptable, depending on the specific type of thatch and the climate.)
All water falling on the roof should be channelled through a gutter and into a storage tank. Depending on the circumstances, we can add a filtering system, a first-flush disposal system, a mesh that prevents leaves and debris from entering the reservoir, or some other simple device that helps ensure the water’s safety. In many cases it’s also necessary to take measures so that no animals can access the reservoir (rats and mosquitoes are usually the most problematic). This is usually not very difficult if you plan carefully.
Although we are focusing here on house roofs, most information on this page can be adapted to catch water from, for example, a large rock, or any other hard and reasonably clean surface.
The term greywater refers to moderately dirty water, such as the water that comes out of showers, bathtubs, hand washing, clothes washing, etc. his water usually contains nutrients that are useful to plants, but in such a high concentration that it becomes a source of pollution if not treated. Some disease-causing organisms may exist in greywater (although in small amounts). This water also usually contains soaps or other cleaning products that may be harmful to some plants or aquatic organisms (ecological cleaning products will be addressed in the next page).
If the correct cleaning products are used, and a reasonable level of treatment is carried out, greywater can be safely used to irrigate food crops. If you live in a region where there are endemic water-borne diseases or parasites (mostly tropical climates), you should only use this water to irrigate trees, or other crops where the harvested portions do not come in direct contact with this water. However, if you are careful and have a very good filtering system, you can use it safely on any kind of crop.
Note that the water coming from a toilet, called black water, is a completely different matter! You can also treat black water with the systems described in this page if you have to, but it’s much, much more risky and troublesome, not to mention illegal in many countries. The best way to deal with toilet waste is by using dry toilets, which we will study later.
Most store-bought cleaning products contain substances that are harmful to the environment. Some are labeled as “eco-friendly”, “green”, even “derived from organically farmed ingredients”, but many of these are just marketing strategies, and are actually not as harmless as they are said to be.
One of the greatest skills you can learn to help you buy products that are actually healthy for you and the environment is learning to read ingredient lists (this skill is also very important when buying food). If a product doesn’t list the ingredients it’s made of, don’t trust it. If you find unpronounceable chemical names, it’s not a good sign either.
Anti-bacterial products and anything containing bleach or chlorine are especially to be avoided, since they kill not only the harmful bacteria from the things you are cleaning, but also the beneficial bacteria that clean your greywater and fertilize your soil.
But don’t despair! There are some very natural, harmless substances you can use to clean everything you need, and which can safely be digested by the bacteria in your greywater systems, turning pollution into fertility.
Evolving away from flush toilets is one of the most urgent tasks of humanity.
In our homes, we can save enormous quantities of water, and completely avoid creating black water (which is any water containing human fecal matter), by simply switching to a dry, composting toilet.
Composting toilets are “dry”, since they use no water, but they have the important characteristic of actually composting your wastes - that is, turning them into healthy, odorless, perfectly safe plant fertilizer (we’ll return to the subject of compost next week, in the module about Soils).
Important: The kind of dry toilets we are talking about has NOTHING to do with chemically-treated “dry” toilets used in camping gear and outdoor latrines. Those things are environmentally horrendous! Their output is a poisonous sludge, instead of rich, healthy compost.
There are many kinds of composting toilet systems, some more adapted to certain climates than others, some requiring more expensive setups, others requiring no expense but some labor. What they all have in common:
No black water is produced, so no sewage systems or water treatment facilities need to be built No water is spent No smell at all (if well made and managed, of course) Produces healthy, safe plant food
The importance of soil to human life is not often appreciated - or even mentioned. We rarely think about how every single thing we eat (with the exception of fish and seafood) comes from the soil.
prevention and rehabilitation
Fertile soil is not only necessary for life, life is necessary for fertile soil.
A soil is fertile if it has all the nutrients a plant needs to grow, in a plant-available form, as well as water, air, a good structure, and resistance to erosion and other potential damage. This can only be achieved in practice with either an extremely delicate and expensive high-tech solution, or through cooperation with soil life.
The study of soil life with all its complex interactions, especially in relation to plants, is relatively young. Recent work by Dr. Elaine Ingham has brought more light to this subject (you can explore some of it here), but we are still very far from a complete understanding of how soil life manages to achieve so many important functions.
We will now look at some of the roles played by soil organisms, and what they can provide us with if we manage them well.
As any old-time farmer will tell you, manure is one of the most precious foodstuffs for the soil. It contains large amounts of plant-available nutrients, as well as many types of beneficial bacteria.
But this farmer will also tell you that directly applying fresh manure will “burn” plants - it has to be aged, rotted or composted to become beneficial.
Regardless of your soil type and current conditions, you can help natural processes that create or increase its fertility. This is referred to as “soil building”, in part because these strategies often increase the topsoil’s thickness significantly. This can be done in three ways:
Which specific strategies to employ will depend on your soil’s need, your climate, and the resources you have available - machinery, plants, animals, and so on. Whatever you do, it is essential for you to know exactly why you are doing it, that is, what are you trying to accomplish.
One of the largest obstacles for people who want to leave the destructive patterns of modern life is finding a good, ethical and healthy way to eat. Some search for organic products, some try to find local farmers, and a few are willing to go all the way and grow all the food necessary to feed themselves and their family.
Regardless of your own present situation and outlook for the future, remember you can always grow something, wherever you are. And if you have access to even a tiny amount of land, by using permaculture design, you can be sure to get more fresh food than you could imagine.
Regardless of what type of beds you have, which is determined by your climate, soil, and available resources, you can give them many different shapes. These shapes are not only about beauty, they are functional - helping conserve water, making harvest easier, integrating with other elements, catching or blocking the sun or the wind… Remember, there are virtually no straight lines in nature, and that’s for a reason!
Seeds are one of the most magical of all nature’s creations. From a single tiny seed that is laid down on the earth, a living plant grows - some times a beautiful flower, others a hearty vegetable, a fruit tree, or a giant redwood that keeps growing for thousands of years and reaches a hundred metres towards the sky.
Within each seed lies the mystery of life and regeneration. Each one keeps within itself all the genetic information that it received through its parents: what type of plant it is, how large it can grow, what colour are its flowers, how big and abundant are the fruits, how resistant it is to certain diseases and temperatures… All these genetic traits can be transmitted from one generation to the next, and can be selected from to nudge that particular variety towards a particular direction.
There are several similar concepts around this idea, with many different names: Forest gardens, Food forests, Agroforestry systems, and so on. What they all have in common is that they aim to create a productive ecology useful to humans based mainly on trees, and to grow those trees by mimicking as close as possible the way they would grow naturally: in a forest.
By mimicking a natural forest, we can create an ecosystem that is composed primarily of useful species (fruit and nut trees are the most obvious example, along with high-quality timber trees).
Animals are a very important part of any ecosystem, and therefore of any permaculture system. This doesn’t mean you must necessarily keep domestic animals, but rather, you should include any animals in your system that provide important functions. These can be “ordinary” domestic animals (cows, goats, pigs, chickens, rabbits, honeybees…), completely wild species that you merely manage through habitat modification (insects and spiders, songbirds, hedgehogs, wombats, deer…), or something in between (semi-wild rabbits, pheasants and quail, semi-feral cats…).
(human and animal)
Although Earth Care is the first and most unavoidable of all three permaculture ethics, it will never work by itself without People Care. This is because, no matter how much food I can produce in my own land, there are litterally billions of people out there who can’t produce anything, or only know how to produce with the help of harmful practices and technologies.
But we can never assume ourselves to be the “saviours of the world”. Many before have tried that path and failed. No person has the right to judge another person’s behaviour, and therefore we can’t expect to “convince” other people to stop using pesticides or driving cars or advocating nuclear power. The only effective change is a voluntary one.
This is a delicate but extremely important balance: we live in a time when urgent, strong action is necessary, but the vast majority of people do not yet recognize this necessity - or even when they do, they cannot accept their personal role in it.
Although environmental activism has achieved many important goals since its first beginnings, it would appear that nowadays the old methods have become mostly ineffective. Protests and petitions must still happen - if only to call a subject to attention - but ill-intentioned people have learned how to deal with them, and still get away with their harmful practices.
We can hardly hope to directly influence significant changes in the large structures of the globalised world (although we should never stop trying). Understandably, decision-makers will never forbid deforestation, pollution, exploitation of people and natural resources, and so on, as long as they remain profitable. They will continue to happen, because we pay for the services they provide us.
It’s easy to say “stop the oil industry”, but is it easy for us to stop buying gasoline entirely? It’s easy to say “stop destroying the rainforests”, but is it easy to stop eating soy, beef, palm oil, sugar, and all the other products that are grown on felled rainforests? How can we even know where the the stuff we buy from the supermarket comes from?
(friends, relatives, neighbours)
A community, in this context, is any collection of humans that work together as a collective entity, rather than simply as individuals. A small town can usually be considered a community, as can a neighbourhood in a big city where most people generally know each other, have local businesses to provide each other’s needs, and so forth. And of course, “alternative communities” of all sorts, eco-villages, and some types of religious groups also count as communities.
The main thing that defines a community is the connection between people. This can be an emotional connection, a business-like relationship, a hierarchical organization, or any other. Obviously, since we are studying permaculture, we’re mostly concerned with beneficial relationships, and functional connections between people.
Most of us would like to live in a supportive, ecologically-minded society, but society as a whole is mostly out of our range of influence. What we can influence are our local communities, hoping they can serve as models to other people in different places.
One of the most powerful insights we may have when studying serious sustainability is about the nature and function of money. By understanding the dynamics behind economics, we can not only make it work to our (and everyone’s) advantage, but also find ways to avoid the seemingly inherent down sides.
Local Currency, Time Banks, WWOOFing, etc
Zone 0 - Town Hall, Community Center, Meeting Room
Zone 1 - Homes, Market, Shops
Zone 2 - Common lands, Nature reserves
Zone 3 - Neighbouring Communities
Zone 4 - Bioregion
Zone 5 - World
Sir Albert Howard - Organic movement
J. Russel Smith
P. A. Yeomans
Howard T. Odum
Bill Mollison and David Holmgren
Also Cooperation, not competition
Achieving strong, beneficial interconnections through design
Achieving self-managed systems
Removing the need for work and pollution
Being capable of seeing the system as a whole
Being capable of observing oneself as part of the system
The role of the permaculturist as a human
The role of humans as a species
We assume the living Earth as a whole, single entity. All life, as well as all life-supporting mechanisms (the water cycle, geology, atmosphere, etc) can be seen as the organs, cells and metabolic processes of a living planet. Just like cells in a much larger body, we humans should always seek the best possible health for our common, collective “body”, the living Earth, as well as the well-being of all other “cells” (humans, other animals, and plants) and all other “organs” (ecosystems). This is a version of James Lovelock’s Gaia Hypothesis.
This concept is not only a very healthy source of compassion and altruism towards our planet and all its life. It is also, at the same time, a very self-interested survival strategy. Without a living planet, there cannot be any living humans.
Earth Care means respecting and honouring each life form for the functions it provides towards the Earth. It doesn’t necessarily mean we should all be vegetarian monks who never step on an ant (although some of us can choose to be like that). It means we should find our place in the community of life and play our respective roles, to the benefit of all, including ourselves.
This respect for the Earth as a whole should be reflected throughout our daily lives, through responsible decisions and an attitude of constant care for all life.
Being humans, our primary mode of Earth Care should be directed towards our own fellow humans - People Care. In any place where humans live, if all their needs are met and they live at peace with each other, there is no reason to harm anyone or anything else.
Degradation usually starts as the result of an unmet need, nowadays frequently a perceived need for money. Of course this need is an illusion, since money isn’t actually needed for anything: it’s just a convenient method of exchange. But a perceived need is just as compelling as a real one.
By making sure everyone’s real needs (for food, water, shelter, medicine, security, etc) are met, and also making sure all illusory needs are dispelled, one can create true, lasting peace anywhere. Of course this is easier said than done, but it can happen and has happened.
People Care starts by caring for yourself, and gradually expands to family, friends, neighbours, local communities… If you wish to help others resolve their problems, you can start by resolving your own problems first - at least some of them! As you progress through your self-discovery and healing, you’ll see it’s much more effective to lead by example than to tell others they should do something, when you can’t.
At the same time, we should remember that humans are social animals, and therefore care should be given not only to the individual, but also to the community. Many people are looking for ways to organize a community and a society that foster cooperation while respecting individuality. This is an active field of research, and not many complete answers are known, especially given the unending diversity of human beings.
The goal of People Care is to become, and help others become, a responsible, compassionate, self-confident, respectful, complete human being, within a fair, equitable, participative, loving society. One step at a time.
This is the hardest ethic to explain and usually the one that takes longest to fully understand. Its “complete” formulation would be something like “Setting limits to growth and consumption, and reinvesting any surplus towards the first two ethics”.
This means being wary of excessive growth: we should always pay attention that none of the systems we create or manage can spiral out of control, becoming a source of harm to other systems or to itself.
It also means being aware of natural limits: we should pay special attention to any natural resource that may become depleted, and never use up anything at so fast a rate that it can’t be replaced by natural processes.
At a more personal scale, this ethical statement emphasizes that each of us should find out what is really enough, and not take any more than our fair share. Lots of people find they can live a more fulfilled life by simply not buying so much “stuff”, and that as a consequence they are able to work less. This is a very profound life change that has empowered uncounted numbers of people worldwide.
The resources that are freed up by this “de-growth” process (in the form of surplus money, time, energy, materials, or any other) can then be diverted to the ethics of Earth Care and People Care.
When studying extremely complex systems through a Cartesian perspective, the level of detail required to achieve even moderate understanding of the system as a whole can border on the impossible. Systems thinking attempts to see the system as a whole, and understand its behaviour as one would study a living organism.
When studying, say, a forest as a whole, we can look at:
Through this perspective, we can study the forest itself, regardless of which specific trees are where. Forests in similar climates and soil types tend to behave in very similar ways, even if they have few or no species in common - the forest’s structure and internal organization is what determines how it behaves, not the individual trees.
This is one of the most powerful general patterns that can be applied in every permaculture design. In fact, even this course itself has been designed to follow it.
These are not a neat, self-consistent list of easy-to-follow instructions. They were created to help you “think outside the box” with regard to designing permaculture systems, and to bring some clarity and focus to the “messy” process of permaculture design.
There’s no specific order to these guidelines, nor is there the claim of them being a complete set of “rules” for permaculturists. Still, these are useful and important tools, and remembering them can give you an important boost towards understanding and working with complex situations in the real world.
Work with nature, rather than against it: This appears to be a simple phrase, but it’s really very deep. It means we shouldn’t ever try to “bend nature to our will”, or make it do anything for us. If we go back to becoming a part of nature, and assist her in all natural processes, most of our needs will automatically be met. If we take this seriously enough, we end up questioning whether “growing food” is a desirable activity at all, as opposed to creating an ecosystem that happens to contain all our food as well as everything else. “Leave the bush alone. It is already in good order.”
Make the least change for the greatest possible effect: In our modern society we are used to hear that “bigger is better”. But if we can still meet all our needs without actually doing so much, we’ll be intruding much less into all other creatures’ lives. Furthermore, many ecosystems have a few key limitations that, once removed, unleash a great outpouring of healthy growth.
The problem is the solution; everything works both ways: No problem exists if we don’t see it as a problem, but instead use it to our advantage. Whenever something isn’t working like we wanted it to, we should consider first if it’s just our want that has been misplaced. Classical example: You don’t have a slug problem, you have uneaten duck food everywhere.
The yield of a system is theoretically unlimited: Given enough information and creativity, there is always something more to be harvested or turned to usefulness.
Everything gardens, or has an effect on its environment: We should always try to understand how each living being makes its living, how they work with each other, what kinds of balances they create or upset, and use this information to work out how best to connect everything. Nothing in nature stands still!
Everything cycles: “In Nature, nothing is lost, nothing is created, everything is transformed.” - Antoine Lavoisier, 1789. In a natural system there is no such thing as waste, pollution or loss. When a tree dies, its wood becomes mushroom food, and then humus to increase the fertility of the forest. Animal manures are also a source of fertility, and all matter and energy is constantly recycled and reused.
Any unmet need creates work: If any element in your system (including yourself) has a need that can’t be met naturally by the system itself, you, as the manager of the system, are responsible for meeting that need. For example, if you don’t keep your goats in a place where they can forage enough by themselves, you’ll have to buy and/or carry food for them - a constant source of work.
Any unused resource becomes pollution: Since every element in your system has some outputs, you should always find a use for them, or risk an undesired accumulation. For example, if you don’t pick all your apples, they’ll fall to the ground and rot, attracting all kinds of pests and diseases.
Each element should support several functions: This directive ensures resource conservation and efficiency (including biological, material and energy resources), as well as diversity and interconnection. It also makes it easy to accomplish its companion directive:
Each (important) function should be supported by several elements: This directive ensures important functions (such as water storage, food production, energy production, etc) are always carried out even if one of the systems fails for whatever reason, thus increasing resilience.
A Policy of Responsibility (to relinquish power): “The role of beneficial authority is to return function and responsibility to life and to people; if successful, no further authority is needed. The role of successful design is to create a self-managed system.” - Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual. In other words, we are to take charge of the repairing and re-enabling of all natural functions, and to create a society in harmony with those functions - but as soon as our work is done, we are to step down and hand that responsibility back to nature itself, and the society we have helped create.
Start small and gradually move out in a controlled front: To avoid discouragement and exhaustion, break down your work into small, achievable steps, and start with the easiest ones to give you confidence. These should always have a controlled “edge” that separates them from the surrounding, unworked areas. After the initial work has achieved stability and (mostly) self-management, then - and only then - you can think about expanding it.
If you create a niche, something will move in: Whenever you change any situation so that a new opportunity for life becomes available, life always gets there (sooner or later). Just remember that everything works both ways, so if you don’t use that new resource, some other creature will. Example: if you create bare soil, either you put some plants there soon, or you’ll inevitably get “weeds”.
Each principle has a myriad applications and interpretations. Their role is to help you continuously assess your decisions and constructions. We’ll just give you an outline of each principle here, but if you search the Internet, you can find many more details about them (a good site is David Holmgren’s own PermaculturePrinciples.com). There’s even a song for each principle, by the band Formidable Vegetable Sound System!
These twelve principles, along with the ethics, are the subject of Holmgren’s book “Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability”. This book delves deep into the foundations of permaculture, and is extremely information-dense. If you are the type of person who learns well from books, this one is an indispensable, if challenging, resource.
Say you have a vegetable patch in a sunny place. It goes well in all seasons, but plants suffer in the summer heat. Maybe it could use some shade, no? Then why not plant a deciduous fruit tree right on that spot? It lightly shades the vegetables in the summer, and still lets all light through in the winter. And while you’re at it, why not grow a vine on the fruit tree’s branches?
Onions and leeks grow tall, thin leaves and don’t cover the ground at all. Why not grow carrots and lettuces between them? Yes, I actually mean mixing them all together on the same bed, not just planting them on adjacent rows!
When you are planting a tree, it’s a good idea to stack a few other things in the same space - health-promoting herbs, nectary plants to attract bees and predatory insects, a good ground cover… You can plant all these things at the same time, in the same planting hole, as long as you are aware of each plant’s growing patterns. For example, a fast-growing shrub could take over a young tree and kill it - better to use a slow-growing shrub, or to plant it further away.
The point is to grow several different plants in the same space, and this is possible with any plants that occupy space in a different way from each other. You can grow beans that climb onto cornstalks or sunflowers, mix health-promoting nasturtiums among your pumpkins, grow berry bushes on the ends of long beds… Anything is permitted!
Stacking can be used in other contexts, aside from growing vegetables. Say you’re in a cold climate and want to build a greenhouse. Why not let your chickens have their sleeping quarters inside the greenhouse? They heat up the greenhouse during the night, and in the daytime they can go outside to forage. And if you build the chicken roost maybe about a meter off the ground, you can even harvest chicken manure to make a hot compost pile inside the greenhouse - another source of heat, and this also saves you from carrying compost into the greenhouse in the spring, and might even yield a good amount of earthworms to feed the chickens.
Stacking can take all kinds of forms, and be applied to all sorts of different contexts. Be creative!
Say your tomato plants are starting to fade, but it’s still too soon to take them out of their beds yet - they still have some tomatoes to finish ripening. But you’re eager to plant those cabbage or lettuce seedlings you’ve sown a few weeks ago. If you have a good, well-mulched, uncompacted bed, why not planting those cabbages right between the tomatoes? As soon as the time comes to take them out, those cabbages already have strong roots and can start growing fast right away.
This is a trickier one: what happens if you try sprinkling radish seeds together with carrot seeds, at the same time? Radishes sprout really quickly and take over the entire bed before you know it. Carrots are much slower to germinate and start growing. When you start having to thin out radishes, your carrots have only just started germinating. By the time your radishes are ready to harvest, your carrots have grown enough to start covering the bed on their own - leaving nearly no space or time for weeds to sprout.
You can take this much further if you start working with trees and other perennial plants. You can plant peach trees between chestnuts in a relatively close spacing, because peach is a short-lived tree - by the time the chestnuts are starting to yield their first large crops, the peaches are old and dying. And of course, you can plant even shorter-lived fruiting bushes between the peach trees, and annuals throughout. We’ll return to this idea shortly!
You can plan entire rotation schemes, both for the small home garden and for a large-scale farm, both for short and long term crops, to take advantage of plants’ timings. It takes some trial and error to figure them out, especially because each plant responds differently to things like the weather, moon phases, light exposure, and so on. Carefully recording your plantings and harvests in a diary can be extremely valuable.
(Altitude, Islands, Steppe…)
Let’s try and apply some permaculture principles to the subject: catch and store energy, use and value renewable services and resources and produce no waste. These principles, when applied to water, translate into catching and storing clean water before it gets dirty or goes away; use and value rainwater, creeks, wells (in moderation, so as to avoid depletion), and any renewable source of water; and waste no water.
(Note: you can apply just about all principles and directives to this subject, as well as any other subject. We just chose those three for brevity.)
The first and easiest way we can apply permaculture principles to our water usage right now is to cut back any and all unnecessary consumption. Not only we’re using up less water, we’re saving money that can be put to a better use. This can go as far as we feel comfortable with - remember many people in the world lead perfectly happy lives using a really small amount of water - in some places 5 litres per person per day, all told, is a common average.
The second way is to catch and store rainwater, both in the context of our homes and in the larger landscape. If we depend on stored rainwater for all our needs, instead of the seemingly inexhaustible municipal water, we will find it much easier to find ways to conserve it!
The third way is to reuse the same water for more than one purpose. If we use biodegradable, environment-friendly cleaning products, for example, we can water our plants with the laundry and/or bath water.
The fourth way is to take responsibility for the water we do use, and try our best to return it to nature in as good a condition as we can. This means we can (and should) clean and purify our water, using natural processes, before we let it flow out of our systems. Of course this ties in with the previous points, since it’s much easier to clean your water if we don’t get it so dirty in the first place!
This course is generally aimed at giving you some tools to improve your life’s sustainability through relatively simple, individual or family-scale permaculture tools. However, there are many good, functioning strategies for large-scale ecological work. Even though this is outside the scope of this Introduction to Permaculture course, we feel you should be aware of this. If you wish to explore further, a good starting point is the Environmental Education Media Project (http://eempc.org/). On this website you can see their most famous documentary film Green Gold (http://eempc.org/107/), as well as several others, focusing on large-scale environmental work being carried out throughout the world - and most of it is centred around water.
Essential to Life
Productive (chinampas, aquaculture)
Climate Modifying Effects
Only the first of these factors, and to some extent the second, are beyond our ability to change. All others can be modified or diverted to our (and the ecosystem’s) advantage.
Many of these subjects would require a full book to cover in any meaningful detail - a good example is Brad Lancaster’s famous Rainwater Harvesting collection.
Because water storage above the ground is such a powerful tool, it should be used carefully, especially where there are steep slopes or easily erodible soils. Use the information herein contained at your own risk!
We encourage you to research above-ground water storage further, experiment gradually and carefully, and always pay attention to the way the landscape reacts to your actions. Furthermore, the success of a small-scale strategy does not always mean a larger-scale version would also work well. This is especially true in the case of dams, which can be very useful in some particular cases, but can also get extremely destructive if they are too large or in an inappropriate context.
Ponds can be easily created in humid climates, and can become a great asset if used to raise edible fish or water plants, for example. Even a very small pond in a suburban garden can be a valuable source of predators, such as frogs and dragonflies, and can be used to grow some edible water plants. Again, your specific context in terms of climate and water availability will determine if a pond is viable or not in your situation, and if it is, what kind of pond is appropriate.
In any case, plastic pond liners are rarely a necessity. A good layer of well-packed clay is usually enough, and if not, you can use gley, or pigs!
Water below ground level is a basic necessity for most plant life. Whereas in an extremely humid climate the most pressing concern is to create drainage (while preventing erosion), in an even moderately dry climate it is imperative to promote as much water infiltration into the soil as possible. Depending on the context, this can be achieved with the help of terracing, swales, soil conditioning and humus creation (in order from the largest to the smallest scale of intervention).
Notice how all fundamental natural processes (soil water, soil fertility, the health of plants growing on it, etc.) are interconnected, and how your role as a manager of life-based systems must always be one of integration and whole-system consideration, rather than looking at each individual problem and trying to solve them independently.
There are four basic variables in this calculation.
Precipitation (P): The amount of rainfall on a yearly basis is the first factor determining the potential water that can be harvested. To know your yearly average rainfall, please contact your country’s meteorological services. This is usually a certain number of millimetres or inches. We prefer to use the International System of measurements, therefore using millimetres. You can convert any measurement from inches to millimetres by multiplying by 25.4 (example: a yearly rainfall of 37 inches would be equivalent to 939.8 millimetres).
Catchment Area (A): This is the area of your roof (or any other surface from which you can harvest water). Again, we prefer to use the metric (international) units, in this case square meters.
Note that we mean the horizontally projected area, or the footprint, of the roof. In case of a rectangular building, this is simply the result of multiplying the building’s width by its length, but remember to include any eaves, or any other extensions of the roof’s length, and to measure them only in the horizontal direction, as in the following picture:
In the above example, you would measure the distance between the two black dots, and multiply it by the building’s width, to get the projected area of it’s roof. Note that in this case, we could also catch water from only one side of the roof, meaning we should only measure the distance from the black dot to the halfway mark.
If the building we are assessing has a more complex shape, we can divide it into smaller areas and add them together in the end, as illustrated:edificio.jpg
It really doesn’t matter how you divide the building’s area, as long as you count every part, and don’t count any part twice. Depending on your building’s characteristics and those of your rainwater storage device, it may be useful to calculate some areas separately, for example if you intend to divert part of the water to one tank and another part to a different tank.
Roof Efficiency (R): The material used as roofing, and especially its porosity, affects the roof’s drainage efficiency. Tile roofing is less efficient than metal roofing, for example, and older tiles get even less efficient with time. As an example, we can assume metal roofs to have an efficiency of over 95%, whereas a tile roof would be more on the range of 80~85%. The R value we will use is the decimal equivalent of this percentage, that is, for a metal roof we would use an R value of 0.95, and for a tile roof we would use about 0.80 ~ 0.85.
Filtering Efficiency (F): Depending on the type of filtering used, some additional water may be lost. For example, a first-flush diversion system would “waste” some amount of water on any individual rain event, and a self-cleaning debris refusal net might lose some water as well. Slow sand filters might not be able to cope with heavy rains, and spill some water before it had a chance to go through the filter.
For simplicity, we will assume a filtering efficiency of 90%, that is, we will use a value of 0.9 for F.
Supposing your region receives an annual average of 700 millimetres of rainfall, your roof has a total surface area of 120 square meters, with a reasonably well-conserved tile roofing that has an efficiency of 85%, and your filtering system is 90% efficient, your calculations would look like this:
P (annual precipitation) = 700
A (roof area) = 120
R (roof efficiency) = 0.85
F (filtering efficiency) = 0.90
Potential annual water harvested = 700 x 120 x 0.85 x 0.90 =64,260 litres
Over 64 thousand litres is a large amount of water to store! This is why each particular case must be thoroughly evaluated in terms of how much water is actually needed, what kind of storage system will be used (especially due to cost constraints), whether a single large tank is more or less appropriate than several small ones, whether harvesting water from just a part of the roof would be sufficient to meet the system’s needs…
Remember, you are concentrating a large amount of water in a single point. If your roof catches more water than your tank can store, you must pay attention to where the excess water will be channelled to, or you risk serious erosion problems! But remember, the problem is the solution: use that excess water as a resource. Divert it to somewhere useful, be creative! And always look at the system as a whole, observing and accepting feedback, trying to improve the life of all living things, human and non-human.
Important note about measurement systems: the advantage of using the metric system is that one millimetre of rainfall equals one litre per square meter. That means if you multiply the amount of rainfall (in millimetres) by the area of your catchment surface (in square meters), you get directly the number of litres falling on that surface.
You can also find how many gallons fall per square foot of roof, given a rainfall measured in inches, of course, but you have to factor in the conversions from inches to feet and then cubic feet to gallons. In practice, you can multiply your inches of rainfall by your area in square feet, and by multiplying the result by 0.623 you get the number of gallons.
You can use greywater directly to any purpose that doesn’t require very clean water, such as flushing toilets (although wee encourage you to consider dry toilets), or watering a non-food tree zone. You should never allow untreated greywater to reach a watercourse, pond, or aquifer, and you should not use it directly on food plants, or plants that will be eaten by animals you will eat.
If you choose to use greywater without treatment for any purpose, you should not allow it to sit for more than 24 hours, or there may be a buildup of harmful bacteria. Use it immediately whenever possible.
The main water-based decomposer organisms throughout our planet are bacteria. These single-celled organisms can reproduce at enormous rates, whenever they have access to food and a proper environment. Each type of bacteria is adapted to a specific set of environmental conditions: temperature, oxygen levels, type of food available, and so on. In almost any set of conditions, there is at least one, and probably many, types of bacteria that can digest any complex molecules ad impurities, and turn them into simpler, usually less harmful substances. This is exactly the kind of work we need them to do in order to treat our greywater.
There are two main types of water-based environment, each with its own set of bacteria:
Most bacteria adapted to one of these environments cannot survive in the other. Since each type of bacteria has a different feeding process, we need the greatest possible diversity of bacteria to ensure the complete treatment of greywater. This is easily achieved if we simply supply them with a diversity of environments.
If you just leave greywater to stand in a container, due to its heavy nutrient concentrations, any aerobic bacteria will quickly deplete all the oxygen, turning the water anaerobic and smelly. This kind of water should never be used directly on food plants!
On the other hand, if you make the effort to oxygenate the water continuously, there will remain several kinds of residue that aerobic bacteria can’t digest easily, especially oils and greases, some detergents, and also some fibers.
So, the best strategy we can employ is to make greywater flow through several different environments in succession, providing a chance for each type of bacteria to treat the water in their own way.
A complete greywater treatment system, able to cope with nearly any kind of dirty water (except black water from toilets, and industrial pollutants) would have the following systems:
Whenever possible, there should be several of these environments in a succession. For example: grease trap, sedimentation tank, gravel filter, aerobic zone, gravel filter, anaerobic zone, aerobic zone, sand filter, etc. This is much easier to achieve than it seems, as you’ll see.
The best way to ensure this kind of system works well is to set up several containers, each slightly lower than the other, so that water flows by the action of gravity through all containers in succession. Another good way is to start with a large container and place watertight divisions in it, in a way that makes water move through the longest possible path, through the most different environments, for the longest possible time, between entry and exit.
These two harmless food ingredients are excellent cleaning products as well. Vinegar is a great cleaner for glass, mirrors and other smooth surfaces, while baking soda is a powerful grease remover. Just sprinkle some baking soda onto a greasy surface, let it sit for a few hours (overnight if you wish), and then rub it with a damp cloth. Most grease will have dissolved. Mixing vinegar with baking soda provokes an effervescent reaction, further helping to remove harder stains.
There are plenty resources on the Internet about specific ways to use these and other similar substances.
There are several plants all over the world containing significant amounts of “saponins” (natural soap-like substances). All of them have been used for centuries for cleaning purposes.
Soap nuts are the dried fruits of some trees in the genus Sapindus. There are several species in this genus, but two of the most well-known ones are Sapindus mukorossi, a tropical tree from Northern India, and Sapindus saponaria, a deciduous tree found in Mexico and North America. They can easily be used like a kind of mild soap, notably for clothes washing, but for many other purposes as well.
Soapwort (Saponaria officinalis) is a herb found in Europe and Asia. Simply make a “tea” from the leaves or roots of this plant, and you’ll have a natural, soapy water. It is most effective when flowering.
It’s relatively easy to make your own soap, and recently there has been a revival of ancient soap-making processes. The basis of this process is to mix a highly alkaline substance (usually sodium hydroxide or potassium hydroxide, but there are other possible ingredients - see below) with a pure fat of some kind (for example, pure olive oil).
If you’re brave enough, there are plenty recipes on the Internet. If not, try to buy hand-made soaps from someone you trust, and if possible visit their facilities - some companies sell “hand-made” stuff that is not hand-made at all! It should still be better than any chemical cleaning products, though.
Note: Soda-based soaps are not the best to use in your garden, even after they go through a good greywater treatment system. If you can, try to find potash-based soaps, as they are less harmful to plants and microorganisms, and also provide them with essential potassium.
This is one of the oldest detergents in the world, and the predecessor of modern powdered laundry detergents. Its strength depends, among other things, on the type of wood used (it has been said apple tree wood ash is the whitest, and that the harder the wood, the stronger the ashes), so you should experiment a bit to see what works best for your purpose.
Burn untreated wood (that is, without paints, varnishes or any other treatment) in a hot fire. You can of course use the ash from a cooking or heating fire.
Sieve it carefully so as to remove any bits of charcoal or unburnt wood.
Mix about one part wood ash with 4 to 5 parts warm water, stir it very well for a few minutes, and leave it to rest for 24 to 48 hours, covered with a cloth.
Stir it again once or twice during this time.
In the end the ashes will sink to the bottom, and the water will be whitish and slippery - but don’t touch it with your bare hands, especially if you don’t know how strong it is yet! This is a very alkaline solution, and can burn your skin if it’s strong enough. Don’t use it directly on your plants either!
Pour the water carefully into a container, and label it visibly.
You can use the ash deposit left in the bottom to polish glass and metals (except aluminum, as it is sensitive to alkalinity). Just rub the moist ashes on the surface you wish to clean and then rinse with water. Remember you should have sieved the ashes well in the beginning, to avoid scratching! You can safely add these spent ashes to a compost pile, if well spread out and in not too large amounts, so as to not make the pile excessively alkaline.
You can dilute the wood ash water and use it directly as a detergent. The correct dilution varies according to the strength of your ashes and how well they have been dissolved, so some experimentation is required, but this is one of the most natural, ecological and effective kind of cleaning product you can make!
And if you want to take the next step, you can even use this wood ash water to make your own natural, biodegradable soap! You can find the instructions here: http://journeytoforever.org/bflpics/TraditionalSoapMaking.pdf
The “secret” for a good, clean, healthy composting toilet is high-carbon organic matter, such as sawdust, coconut coir or chopped straw (whatever you can access most easily). Every time you use the toilet, you cover your wastes with a layer of this material. It will absorb nutrients and excess moisture, keep everything aerated, and allow a controlled, gradual decomposition process.
If all goes well, the decomposition process generates enough heat to completely destroy any and all harmful microorganisms. This is called thermophilic decomposition, and is the same process that occurs in “hot”, fast compost piles.
You can safely use the output of a dry toilet after it has decomposed for one year. There are several ways to accomplish this, such as designs with two chambers: you use one of them for a year while the other one is decomposing.
Compost bin grey greenJoseph Jenkins, author of the “Humanure Handbook”, uses a bucket system with two outdoor composting piles. He adds his kitchen scraps to the same piles, too.This is probably the simplest and cheapest way to compost human wastes, but it does require some labor and careful monitoring.
Many permaculture sites have a two-chamber system, as described above (switching from one to the other on a yearly basis). This means no labor is required until it’s time to carry and spread the compost, but it requires building at least the chambers themselves. Some people include this kind of facility when building a new house from scratch, others build small outdoor versions right next to their garden beds, still others build larger versions next to regular campsites and similar places where they get regular visitors.
Some sophisticated systems exist which are more or less automated, but adhering to permaculture principles (use small and slow solutions, for example) would mean trying to keep to the basics. Sophistication may have appropriate uses, though, such as vacuum-operated, automated, centralized composting toilets in an entire large office building (this has been done in Sweden and other developed, environmentally-aware countries).
In some cases, if the people using dry toilets are not careful enough, some smell may develop. Installing a black-painted “chimney” on the sunny side of the building will usually be enough to correct this. The black pipe heats with the sun’s energy, heating the air inside it and making it rise up the chimney, thus no fan will be necessary. This is also useful to improve aeration, and thus decomposition speed.
Urine diversion systems can be created in more humid climates or seasons, so as to avoid excess moisture in the composting material. If the water content gets too high, it will impede oxygenation and prevent decomposition. Urine is a very strong fertilizer, and should be diluted in about 10 or 20 parts of water, but it’s otherwise perfectly safe to use on your plants.
One popular addition in places that get reliable rainfall is a gutter leading to a rain barrel with a tap, allowing you to wash your hands with rainwater collected on the roof of the toilet itself.
Many other creative ideas can be found for dry toilets, such as diverting the hand-washing water to a specific water-demanding plant or garden bed (preferably a tree or something that is not directly consumed), planting some type of bush or small tree just outside the door with leaves that can be used as toilet paper, adding a clear glass window on an outdoor facility (a friend using one of these at night called it a “5-million-star toilet”),…
Not many books have been written on the subject of composting toilets. The first and most famous is the already mentioned Humanure Handbook (you can buy it or read it online for free from the official website, http://www.humanurehandbook.com/). There are plenty resources on the Internet, though, such as this story (http://permaculturenews.org/2012/04/30/when-eww-turns-to-ooh/).
There are many ways to do this right, according to your specific situation, but there are also some ways to do it wrong. No matter what you do, you should find someone with experience, or at least join an online forum where you can show your plans and ask for help and advice. Of course you can talk to us at Project Being Sustainable any time you want, even after the course is over.
Treating your own waste is a powerful activity, and requires an equal amount of responsibility. If done right, it’s not difficult or dangerous in any way, it’s very empowering, and it makes a very big difference to your own life and that of many, many others.
Living, healthy, fertile topsoil is a precious substance. Nature usually takes hundreds or even thousands of years to form a significant layer of topsoil, with the correct nutrient balances and stable beneficial microorganism populations.
Before the invention of chemical fertilizers, maintaining this layer of topsoil in healthy conditions was the only way farmers could ensure their continuing ability to grow crops. Nowadays, modern farmers can get away with many kinds of destructive practices, because any nutrient imbalances they cause can be corrected by the simple application of a chemical substance. But these practices often destroy the soil’s ability to recover its fertility in the long term, in some cases leading to nearly irrecoverable damage.
If we are to grow healthy food, our first task is to create and maintain healthy soil. This means treating the soil as a living being, that needs food, water, air, and shelter. And it also means respecting the soil’s limitations, not forcing it to give us more than it can.
To that end, we should understand what soil is made of, how it makes plants grow, what can harm it or help it, and how we can best take care of it.
Old time farmers took many generations to find out what were the best practices in their specific locations. These old ways, before the invention of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, are often treasure troves of information to our permaculture designs. These practices tend to have one particular limitation: they are often only viable in one specific soil type, in a single climate, and in a particular cultural context. Therefore they can never be directly applied to other places without significant adaptations.
We, armed with permaculture knowledge (and some help from the Internet, if needed), can try to learn from the mistakes of the past, make the necessary changes in the present, and gradually build a better, more resilient, abundant and fertile future.
An excellent documentary film about soil is “Dirt! The Movie” (official site here - but you can also find it on YouTube).
Fertile soil is not an inert substance. It is an active, self-regulating substance, populated with uncountable numbers and varieties of microorganisms, all of them interacting with each other, with the atmosphere, and with plant roots growing among them.
The composition of soil can be broken down into several components:
We will briefly take a look at each of these components, but remember they only constitute fertile soil if they are all working together as a single entity.
Just like its composition, soil structure is of great importance. Throughout millions of years, soil has formed in much the same ways, and thus all life is adapted to the patterns that emerge from the soil’s formation.
On the larger scale, soil is usually organized into more or less well defined layers, called horizons. On the smaller scale, fertile soil acquires a specific crumb structure, which is what enables it to retain consistency and porosity even in large rain events.
This is another aspect of soil that has filled many books. The innumerable chemical processes happening in soil are very complex and interrelated, especially after you factor in the action of all living creatures within it.
But as you will see, permaculture can simplify much of this subject. In fact, nature has been perfecting the chemistry of healthy soil for billions of years, and all we have to do is learn how to best assist natural soil formation.
Some soil chemical properties you should be aware of are:
While these factors are important to the soil’s health, remember we should treat it as a living being in and of itself. Merely “injecting” the soil with soluble nutrients is like feeding yourself exclusively through intravenous infusion!
Nitrogen is one of the most essential nutrients for life. It is present in all proteins, DNA and chlorophyll. But while it is very abundant - 80% of the air we breathe is nitrogen gas - no animal or plant can use it directly. There are only two natural sources of plant-available nitrogen: lightning strikes (in very small quantities very far apart), and nitrogen-fixing bacteria.
These bacteria can be said to be the basis on which all plant and animal life stands. They convert atmospheric nitrogen gas into ammonia or nitrates, the two forms of nitrogen available to plants. These in turn incorporate this nitrogen into all other complex molecules, and animals (such as ourselves) ingest these molecules and incorporate them into their bodies.
There are many kinds of nitrogen-fixing bacteria in the soil. Some live freely in the soil itself, but most form an association with plant roots. The plant provides them with sugars and other complex molecules, and the bacteria returns the favor by giving back plant-available nitrogen.
Only some plants can form this association with nitrogen-fixing bacteria. These are mostly in the legume family (beans, peas, clovers, and some trees such as Inga, Acacia, Tipuana, etc.). There are also other plant families that can form these associations, such as alders, casuarinas and sea-buckthorns.
By knowing and using these plants and their associated bacteria, we can easily eliminate the need for synthetic nitrogen fertiizers.
The role of fungi to soil fertility has only very recently become subject to comprehensive scientific studies. Much about them is still unknown.
One reason for this is that soil fungi are very fragile. They form extremely thin strands called hyphae, much finer than human hairs, that are destroyed by digging. This means that fungi are usually absent from modern, frequently plowed agricultural fields.
But wherever there are forests, fungi abound in the undisturbed soil. They form large, complex networks, often linking together many different plants. They thus help transfer nutrients from place to place, as well as water, and possibly chemical messages that tell plants when a predator is around.
Fungi can digest many types of harmful substances and render them harmless. They can also harvest specific nutrients (such as phosphorous) that are very hard for other organisms to obtain.
Furthermore, many types of plant, including most human food plants, form beneficial relationships with specific fungi. These fungi form something called a mycorrhiza, which means “fungus root”. Because the fungal hyphae are much finer and more numerous than plant roots, they can access nutrients much more easily.
As a final benefit, mycorrhizal plants (that is, plants associated with these beneficial fungi) have been shown to have greater disease resistance - although the reasons for this have not been well understood.
Aside from their extremely important cooperations with bacteria and fungi, plants also have direct effects on soil.
Trees that drop their leaves (either all at once in autumn or gradually throughout the year) build up the soil’s organic matter from the top down. This creates a mulch layer that protects the soil’s surface from erosion and drought. All plants drop organic matter to the ground, but trees (being so much larger) can provide a lot of active organic matter in a relatively short time.
Some plants have very strong roots that can break open hard soil layers, and in some cases even rocks. Deep-rooted woody plants in particular can have a dramatic effect in loosening compacted or stony soil, but even humble “weeds” such as chicory and dandelion have strong enough taproots to significantly improve soil structure.
Plants with thin but abundant root systems, such as many types of grass, can increase the soil’s organic matter content from within. When such a plant is grazed or burned, for example, a large portion of its root mass dies and turns into active organic matter, ready to feed microorganisms and gradually transform into humus.
And since plants make use of the extremely powerful process of photosynthesis, they are the primary harvesters of solar energy, which is required by all other terrestrial lifeforms. Plants turn sunlight into sugars, which are then stored in the plant’s body, ready to be harvested by other creatures (such as ourselves), but a large part of these sugars is also released through the roots directly into the soil, feeding soil life and thus increasing natural fertility.
All burrowing animals have an obviously close relationship with soil. Although we often demonize some of them for eating our carrots and upsetting our lawns, their activity is of great importance to the aeration of a healthy soil.
In any climate of at least moderate humidity, earthworms are some of the hardest working organisms. They tunnel through the soil, aerating and mixing it, eating large quantities of fresh organic matter, and expelling an extremely valuable resource: earthworm castings. These castings are not only richer in nutrients, they are full of beneficial microorganisms, and even have been found to contain plant growth hormones.
In arid climates, where earthworms cannot survive, ants and termites take up some of their roles. They harvest and process raw organic matter, bury it in their nests, and expel it in a form that is useful to plants and microorganisms.
Small critters that live in the litter layers, like pill-bugs and millipedes, also help break down larger chunks of organic matter into smaller, more bacteria-friendly bits. Many others work as predators, keeping all other species from multiplying too much, and releasing back to the soil the nutrients contained in their preys’ bodies.
Each and every living creature on this planet has a role to play in its ecosystem. If left alone, any natural system repairs, maintains, diversifies and expands itself unassisted. We only need to observe and interact, understand what nature is doing, and try to assist her in the best, most natural way. When dealing with damaged or poor soils, we should ask ourselves: what would nature do to restore this soil? How could it become fertile once again? Which natural functions are missing here? What could I do to help?
Soil is healthiest when covered in healthy, growing plants. If you need to grow annual crops and can’t avoid leaving the soil empty for some time, it’s very useful to sow something - anything, really - that keeps the soil covered and working until the next harvestable crop is sown. And if this cover crop is, for example, a nitrogen fixer, or a high producer of organic matter, this means the soil is actually being improved, as well as protected.
There are many ways to integrate these cover crops into production systems:
This is one of the most frequently used techniques in permaculture, appropriate in just about any context. It simply consists of covering the soil with a layer of organic material, and has many important benefits:
You can use just about any organic material as mulch, with some exceptions in some situations (such as fresh resinous sawdust, pine bark and needles, and the leaves of walnut and some eucalyptus species may cause problems to some plants). The most often used materials are straw, tree leaves, newspaper and cardboard.
Mulch can be applied to specific spots, such as around a young tree. This is an excellent way to help establish trees - as long as you keep the mulch about 10cm away from the tree’s stem, so as to prevent disease.
It can also be used as sheet mulch, covering a large area uniformly and planting right in the mulch - just make a hole in it, add a few handfuls of compost, plant your seedling, and tuck the mulch back around it. This makes for an excellent garden bed, nearly weed-free, and with great habitat for soil microorganisms.
Each kind of animal will give you a different kind of manure. This has to do not only with the different types of food they eat, but also how their digestive system works, and what kind of intestinal flora they have.
For example, rabbit and chicken manures have very high amounts of nitrogen, which means they can be powerful fertilizers, and should be used carefully. Horse manure, on the other hand, tends to be low in nitrogen.
Phosphorus content is highest in pigeon droppings (and also very high in chicken manure). Many regions with phosphorus-deficient soils used to have pigeon lofts to use their manure in agriculture.
Cow manure is on of the easiest to use, since it is balanced, decomposes easily, and has lots of beneficial bacteria from the cow’s gut. It can be spread and buried on agricultural fields directly, as long as some time for decomposition is allowed before sowing the crops. Carnivore manures, on the other hand, (particularly cats and dogs) should not be used in large amounts, since their composition is usually not so good for soil life. They should only be used after being thoroughly hot-composted (see below). Human manure from a dry toilet is also a very good ingredient to a hot compost pile!
It’s important to avoid manure from animals that are given strong medication, especially antibiotics, fungicides and other substances that kill microorganisms. These medications can interfere with the decomposition process, the soil’s life, and ultimately the crops we eat.
This is another of those subjects that would merit decades of study. The myriad ways humans have found to make compost are as diverse as the cultures they come from, each adapted to the most common ingredients found, the climate, and the particular soil biology to be stimulated.
A hot compost pile is one of the most useful ways to make compost, since its high temperatures kill any kind of pathogens and weed seeds present. There are many resources on the internet on how to make really good hot compost, but we’ll save you some work with a text version and a two-part YouTube video.
A cold, slow compost pile is roughly similar to the hot pile, but has much less nitrogen content. This means the pile never heats up very much, and so will not destroy pathogens and weed seeds, and also it can take one or two years to fully decompose - by which time some nutrients will have leached away. This is still very useful to create large amounts of stable organic matter (humus), especially if you have access to large amounts of high-carbon materials, such as dry leaves, straw, etc.
Sheet composting means layering the compostable materials on a large soil surface, to be digested by the already present soil life. This means this technique should not be used in very poor, “dead” soil, because it would have a hard time decomposing all that material without causing some problems. However, as long as some soil life is already present, this technique can be very useful to quickly create a rich vegetable bed, such as a lasagna-style no-dig raised bed.
Whatever the specific technique used, good-quality compost is an excellent resource, and it can mostly be made for free using materials that would otherwise be wasted (thus honoring several permaculture principles). Many large organic farms use nothing more than compost to maintain fertility on their fields, and small-scale gardens can benefit even more from it.
There are several types of earthworm: nightcrawlers are large and make permanent tunnels that go down vertically for a long distance, common pink garden worms are small and continually move through the earth. The ones we can use to make vermicompost (that is, compost made with worms), are the ones that live on the surface, eating manure and fresh organic matter. There are several more or less appropriate species, but the most frequently used is called Eisenia fetida, or the “red wiggler” worm. You can sometimes find them for sale, but in many parts of the world you can find this or a similar species under a finished compost pile, or in rotting manure in a field. You should remember that Eisena fetida is the fastest breeder and eater, and thus your best choice, but other species may be adequate enough for your needs.
We can use many different techniques to make vermicompost, from large windrow systems to plastic boxes you can keep in your kitchen. Many small farms use an old bathtub! Whatever the container, or even without any containment, all it takes to make worms happy is a source of organic matter (kitchen scraps are a good idea), some bedding (dry leaves, shredded newspaper, coconut coir…) and a space where the earthworms can live in that is protected from light and extreme temperatures, but also well ventilated and constantly moist.
The output of a worm-based composting system is called “worm castings”, or worm manure. This is one of the most healthy plant foods you will ever find! It’s very high in available nutrients and organic matter, has a kind of mucus that keeps those nutrients from leaching away or harming plants, has a very rich beneficial bacteria community, and even contains some plant growth hormones.
If you want to know more, you can start with the Wikipedia article. There are lots of websites and YouTube videos showing many different types of worm systems - but remember it’s always better to recycle something you already have than to buy a new plastic bin. If you are really interested, you can also take our own online vermicomposting course - check out our Being Sustainable website.
This is the “cutting edge” of composting technology. Aerated compost tea is made by soaking freshly-made, high-quality compost or vermicompost in water, mix in some bacterial food (such as raw molasses, sometimes fish emulsion and some minerals may be added) and vigorously aerate this mixture. The result is a brownish liquid with an extremely high amount of beneficial bacteria, that can be sprayed on the soil or directly onto plants (often after some dilution).
While this has been found to be very effective, with lots of beneficial results, the additional work and energy requirements mean it is most appropriate to larger farms or commercial gardens, rather than the small home garden. Still, some home gardeners swear by it!
Due to it having been recently developed, not much scientific research has been completed on the many different ways to make compost teas. Each advocate of aerated compost teas uses a different technique, and their results are not always easy to replicate. This means anyone trying it for the first time may or may not get excellent results, but it also means it’s a really exciting avenue for exploration.
Permaculture generally discourages tilling as a routine activity. It exposes the microorganisms to the sun, wind and rain, and upsets their balance. Their massive death rate liberates the nutrients in their bodies, and this temporarily gives plants a good growing medium, but it is always unsustainable in the long run. Nature doesn’t till, and especially not on a regular basis!
There is, however, at least one very useful mechanic tool that can be used, especially on pastures, called the Yeomans (or Keyline) plow. This type of plow makes a vertical cut in the soil with a furrow on the bottom, without disturbing the surface or inverting the soil in any way. This type of plow should be used in conjunction with Yeomans’ Keyline techniques, which you can read about here.
The most natural way to achieve this is to use plant roots. Strong-rooted vegetables, like the Japanese Daikon radish, have been successfully employed to break up compacted soils to a reasonable depth. Tree roots can be even more powerful, sometimes even breaking open large stones, but may take several years to accomplish this. Some types of grass also have strong, fibrous root systems that can hold on to excessively loose and erodible soils, helping them aggregate, while at the same time making it easier for water to penetrate deeper into the soil.
Plants can be simply sown and left to their own devices, or they can be cut down or grazed upon. In this second case, some plants (especially grasses) can regenerate several times, each time increasing soil organic matter through root die-off.
Forests of any form are major soil builders. Whether it’s a windbreak, a food forest, a native ecosystem restoration project, or any other type of forest-like system, you can be sure it has the potential to create large quantities of continuously improving soil.
To successfully plant a self-regulating, evolving, resilient natural forest, you should learn how forests expand into new ground. This is known as ecological succession. Strong, usually short-lived plants are the first to colonize an environment. They are followed by taller, longer-lived shrubs and trees. These then serve as shelter for the more sensitive, slower-growing, longer-lived species that evolve into a mature forest.
The main message is to imitate nature’s processes. Find out how forests are born and expand in your specific zone of the world. What limits them? What assists them? Observe with an open mind, be creative, and learn from ancient wisdom if it is still available.
Sepp Holzer, the Austrian “rebel farmer”, has avocated the use of pigs to loosen the earth. He will spread the pig’s food on the ground, or sometimes even plant tubers, in an area that needs to be worked. When searching for food, the pigs dig up the soil with their snouts.
Many permaculturalists use chickens to peck and scratch a field before sowing. They not only eat a large portion of weeds and their seeds, but also loosen the soil’s surface, add manure, and eagerly devour many “pest” species.
Similarly, cows and goats can be used to clear a field of tougher vegetation, while also manuring it. These can then be followed by chickens that eat the remaining weeds, as well as the grubs in the manure.
Any of these animal systems must be very well planned and thought out according to the land’s size and holding capacity. A cell grazing system, for example, is usually a good idea. Anyway, you should remember that unless you are certain you can provide your animals with year-round forage, you will have to buy or carry food for them!
Imagine the most plant-unfriendly setting you can: a tiny, windowless apartment. No food could ever grow in there, right? Turns out you could still grow something: edible mushrooms! These are quickly gaining popularity the world over, especially in the form of prepared kits which you only need to lightly spray with water twice a day. After some practice, you can start to breed them for yourself.
Going one step further, if you have a sunny window, you can grow a respectable amount of lettuce, radish, arugula (also known as rocket), parsley, chives, and other small food plants. A bigger window might have space for strawberries, and one or two tomato plants (which you might have to hand-pollinate if there are no bees around - easy!).
With a veranda/balcony, especially if it faces the sun, you can have an even more productive system: a vine such as kiwi, grape or passionfruit on the wall, large and small pots with all kinds of vegetables, a larger “pot” up to the size of a bathtub containing currants and blueberries… even an aquarium with watercress and water chestnut, and frogs - it has been done!
If you have access to the roof of a building, then you can really start some production. Rooftop gardening is also a relatively new but fast-growing idea, and it has the potential to produce much more food than you would think possible, right in the middle of a city.
In any city there are parks, empty lots, lawns no one actually uses, and many other public spaces that can be converted to food production. Of course, since these are public spaces, this must be carried out with the cooperation (or at least consent) of the local people in that area, not to mention the local authorities. But the urban food production movement is stronger than ever, and if you live in a city that has no such growing areas, you might get to be the one to start them!
No matter how much effort you expend, cities was never planned with food production in mind, so it’s very unlikely you’ll be able to achieve self-sufficiency inside a city (who knows? you might be the first pioneer!) You will most likely need to buy food somewhere, so be very responsible with who you are supporting with your money. Organic is better than conventional, but a small local farmer - even if he’s not certified organic - is usually even better than mass-produced organic. Unless he/she uses lots of chemicals, in which case he could probably need some help!
Here we start looking at some real possibilities for near-complete self-sufficiency. A properly designed, multi-functional permaculture plot can be immensely productive. Check out this video, if you haven’t already: Dervaes Family, California
It takes a lot of trial and error to make a system as complete and functional as that, but it’s perfectly achievable. And as it turns out, if you happen to have a larger plot to work with, you can even make a tiny grain field - 100 square meters of rice, or 200 square meters of wheat, could be enough for your family’s yearly needs - depending on how much of it you eat, of course.
Animals in a suburban setting are also a viable option (unless you live in a town that has some legal code against it). Chickens, ducks, pigeons, rabbits, and even goats can thrive in a suburban plot, but you should be absolutely sure you can feed them and take care of them - and their manure - before you get them! If your system is not (yet) very productive, having to buy in food can become a big expense, and improperly composted manure can smell!
Many smaller fruit trees and bushes are a great addition to your suburban system. If you’re short of space, you can graft multiple varieties of fruit onto the same tee. And remember even supposedly non-productive trees, such as willow, can be a valuable forage for your animals. Climbers are excellent space savers!
Even if you only have a tiny plot, you can seriously start thinking of selling some produce. Many crops mature all at once, and your only options when that happens are: sell it, can/freeze it, give it away, feed it to animals, or compost it. To make the most of your plot, food conservation is an essential skill! Chest freezers are more efficient than vertical freezers, canning and making jams is a simple matter. There are many other options, such as building a solar dehydrator, or learning about the many different types of fermentation.
Connecting with your neighbours and local small businesses is vital in the suburbs. If you can help create a sense of community, everything will become much, much easier. We’ll expand on this topic on the Human Permaculture module
By the time you get to a small farm scale, things start to get really interesting. You now have the space to plant some serious trees, create pastures, orchards, small grain fields, fish ponds… basically anything is possible at this scale, so it would be pointless for me to try and list it all for you!
You can either design your system to be largely self-maintaining - meaning it’s mostly a “wild”, productive type of forest or savanna system with not many annuals, where most of your work is just harvesting; or you can aim for a more intensive production system largely intended for sale - meaning either you have a large family, or you’re probably going to start needing workers. If you choose this path, WWOOFing is your friend!
For one of the most impressive small farms in the permaculture world, check out Zaytuna!
If a farm starts getting to a certain size, there’s no way to avoid mechanized work and broad-range systems. These are less efficient than smaller-scale systems, as they can’t be fine-tuned to fit each micro-climate and every niche available, but can still be dramatically improved by applying permaculture design.
Cover crops are essential, as are forested areas (at least for windbreak, preferably more than that). Keyline plowing is a great tool, and Holistic Management techniques or other types of advanced grazing patterns can really make a difference.
Water management is critical on a large farm, both in terms of mitigating droughts, and in terms of dealing with floods or water erosion. Large dams and swale systems can make nearly any farm completely drought-proof if properly designed. Serious aquaculture can also create an excellent additional income.
Complete watershed ecological rehabilitation is one of the most exciting challenges in the world. This obviously requires large sums of money (from NGOs, governments, or other big organizations), as well as serious expertise.
Check out the Environmental Education Media Project, they are at the forefront of this subject. In their site you can find videos about several projects of this type.
Permanent raised vegetable beds are almost as common in permaculture as mulch, at least in humid climates. And for many good reasons, since they:
It’s easy to create raised beds, as long as you have reasonably good soil, some compost, maybe some manure, waste cardboard or newspaper, and lots of straw, dried leaves, or some other such material for mulch.
You can see a short workshop about creating a small raised bed here:
Raised beds are only appropriate if you live in a reasonably humid climate, or have access to enough water to irrigate them. For dry climates, especially in very well-drained (sandy) soils, you can make sunken beds instead.
In very dry climates and free-draining soils, sunken beds can be a big help. These help to accumulate and retain the moisture where you need it - near the plant roots. They can be harder on your back, though!
Sunken beds can be created exactly like raised beds, only you have to dig a relatively deep hole to make them in. The soil you remove from these holes can be used to raise the paths around them, further increasing the effect. You can plan these paths and beds to channel water from one place to another in a large rain event, thus integrating your garden with flood management - but don’t allow water to flow too fast in them, or it will erode away all your precious plants, and more importantly, your fertile soil.
Be careful about springing an ankle when walking around sunken beds - your own or anyone else’s.
This is a technique developed and perfected by Sepp Holzer. It’s more or less like a raised bed, except it has large logs and sometimes entire trees buried within it. Hugelkultur beds can also be made very tall and steep, more so than any soil-based raised bed. The large amounts of rotting wood in their centre also greatly help conserve moisture.
Note that large chunks of wood should be used, not shredded or chipped wood. You can use freshly cut whole trees, old half-rotted logs, anything that doesn’t have chemicals in it. Avoid old furniture and wooden pallets, as well as construction wood, since these are usually heavily treated with chemicals.
Here’s a short clip with some examples:
This is a pattern for relatively flat land that minimizes the area “wasted” by paths, and maximizes the area covered in plants. It consists of a large bed with a small path leading to a hole in the middle, resembling a keyhole when viewed from above. You can make a single keyhole bed with a path going around it, or you can link several keyhole beds into a more complex shape. Simply do an image search on the internet for “keyhole garden bed”, and see the immense variety of ways to use this simple pattern!
This is a pattern used in sloped ground that uses the raised beds themselves as a kind of swale, effortlessly harvesting rainwater. These are long beds that curve to follow the contour of the land, and are about 1m to 1.20m wide - just enough for you to reach the middle without having to step on them. That’s what is meant by double-reach: their width is twice your reach.
There are also many variations on these, both in the small and the large scale.
A spiral can pack a long row into a tight space. This is what led to Bill Mollison’s idea of using this pattern to grow most culinary herbs right next to the kitchen door, thus creating the famous Herb Spiral.
A herb spiral is made by building a relatively steep mound, about 1m to 1.20m wide (sometimes more), planted with many different herbs along a spiral path that runs around it. The top is always drier, and thus more adapted to grow dry-climate herbs, such as rosemary, oregano or thyme, while the bottom is wetter and more fertile, and thus better suited to parsley and chives. One side is always in the sun, and the other is always in the shade.
Creating a good herb spiral requires some knowledge of the herbs’ particular preferences. It’s important that all niches are filled, so that no weeds can establish - if some do, it means there’s a niche waiting to be filled that you hadn’t considered. Watering may or may not be necessary, depending on your climate and the soil quality.
If you have a relatively flat area to make your garden in, you might like the idea of Mandala-shaped garden beds. A mandala is usually a circle within a circle, often with a path that goes from the center towards each of the four cardinal directions (north, south, east and west), but it can refer to any pattern that has radial symmetry and repeated geometrical shapes.
Depending on your specific requirements and available resources, you might want to create a pond in the centre, integrate fruit trees in some of the garden beds, use keyhole beds as part of the mandala, or any other combination of patterns and shapes. Remember that the garden’s functions and the functional connections between it and the surrounding elements are the most important considerations. As long as these are taken into account and work well, the rest is up to your creativity and sense of aesthetics.
Again, an image search for “mandala gardens” will show you an immense diversity of designs, each adapted to its specific context.
This is one of the most crucial skills we need to learn if we are to grow food for ourselves. It requires lots of observation and some ability to keep clear records, as well as a good knowledge of how each plant reproduces.
There are several affordable books (and free internet guides) available about seed saving for each plant family. Some require lots of work to ensure we avoid crossing our precious variety with a completely different one, a weed, or even worse, a genetically modified plant that might be growing somewhere near you. Other plants, such as most cereals for example, can’t be pollinated in any other way: you just have to trust them, and carefully select their children.
Nature always performs a gentle, gradual type of selection on all life forms. Each plant usually produces a very large amount of seeds - either all at once, or gradually throughout their life. Not all seeds find a place to germinate, and few of those that do reach the age of maturity and have the chance to spread their own seeds. This natural process has as much to do with “survival of the fittest” as with plain dumb luck - maybe the seed that happened to have the best possible combination of genetic traits got stepped on by a goat, and maybe one that wasn’t so great happened to land on top of the goat’s manure and grew better than the others. This is why nature takes a very long time to evolve new species: the process must be very slow to ensure that usefulness has a chance to prove itself.
Humans have the ability to understand a reasonable part of these processes. We can remember that one part of the field was flooded and the other was dry, and see which part has grown better corn. We can devise experiments to test whether oats grow better when seeded closer together or more spaced out. And we can select seeds from plants that grew bigger, tastier tomatoes. We can thus accelerate natural selection and create new, different varieties.
We can then keep planting and re-selecting these varieties, creating in effect a genetic line that is particularly adapted not only to the particular climate and soil type of our location, but also to the way we grow it, and what we particularly appreciate in it. If you happen to like light-coloured, uniform beans, you will select those for seed, and eat only the ones you don’t like so much for a while, but after a few years, your bean plants will consistently bear only light and uniform beans. You can then keep selecting for a particular size, taste, or growth characteristic (maintaining “pressure” to keep the first selected trait, and avoiding excessive inbreeding), and after a few decades you might have a solid, brand new variety.
Like everything else, sowing practices depend on the kind of plant we’re sowing. Some must be buried relatively deep, others need to be on the surface to be exposed to light. Some can only germinate successfully on damp sand, others require sticky soil, yet others grow much better on pure compost. Observation and interaction is once more our best tool, as we can devise experiments to work out the best practices for each of our plants - but most plants have already been thoroughly tested, so we can save some time by finding good seeding guides for each of our plants.
Keep in mind, though, that many agricultural practices are recommended on the basis of frequent tillage, no mulch, and persistent weeding, fertilizing and pest control. This is effectively the opposite of what we try to do in permaculture! So remember that even the best and most reputable advice may fail to apply to your particular situation, and in that case your own observations are much more valuable.
Many farmers plan their activities according to the phases of the moon. While there appears to be no solid scientific support for these practices, some farmers claim to see significant differences after starting to follow moon phases for sowing.
In general, a waxing moon is said to raise sap in plants, reaching its height in the full moon, making for stronger above-ground growth. Similarly, a waning moon lowers the sap down into the roots, making for stronger below-ground growth, and leading to a minimum of above-ground sap during the new moon. This is why the new moon is said to be the best time to prune and fell trees: their lower sap content will prevent bleeding in the first case, and wood cracking in the second.
One of the largest difficulties in following the lunar phases is that different methods sometimes give different advice. This is probably due to the underlying effects remaining unknown: some say it’s the lunar gravity that directly affects water in the plant’s body, while others claim the night-time light provided by the moon is responsible for their greater activity in the full moon phase, and yet others attribute the effects to astrology and cosmic forces. The fact of the matter is that plants are simply much more active and alive than was believed some decades ago, and the full range of their sensitivities is far from being known.
Either way, you’ll still have to do some figuring out for yourself. Experiment with different methods and see which works best for your particular context and your plants. They are your only real teachers!
By large animals we mean anything down to the size of a goat, and up to the largest cows (some people raise bison and other even larger animals). By including large animals in your system, you are implicitly assuming some degree of responsibility for them. The larger the animal, the larger your responsibility: large animals need large spaces, large amounts of food, and a large manure management system.
That said, if you’re working in a large piece of land, it’s hard to avoid including large animals. They can be a very appropriate tool to help you take care of that land, provided you understand how to do it. In this case, you might benefit from studying Holistic Management techniques.
Some animals can lead a happy and healthy life in a smaller space, such as some small breeds of goat for example. This is of course not the best possible life for them, but in some cases it might be appropriate to keep a couple of small goats or pigs in a smaller space to handle excessive vegetable scraps and other resources that would otherwise go to waste. Just remember to keep up the ethics! Their manure, after going through a proper composting phase, can be extremely valuable in a small system.
Large non-domestic animals are important to be aware of if you live near them. While some people have deer problems, others have to deal with baboons, wild boar, bears or kangaroos - either way, fences and hedges are important tools. Or moats, in case you live near wild elephants. But remember to always respect all these animals. You may have a territory to defend, but that doesn’t give you the right to prevent those animals from living their life. As long as they have access to food, water and shelter in their environment, they will mostly avoid yours - if they don’t, maybe they need help out there to restore their ecosystem as well.
Small domestic animals include poultry, rabbits, guinea pigs, pigeons, and other such creatures. They can be a huge working force when in large numbers, and usually are much easier to manage than larger animals. They are also much easier to integrate into smaller spaces.
Chicken and rabbit tractors are famous in permaculture circles. These are mobile cages that are moved around in a pasture, while their inhabitants eat and manure the herbage in a controlled manner. They can be used in many different ways, and for several different purposes: rabbits are great “lawnmowers”, and chickens are excellent at clearing a patch of weeds, bugs and seeds, while at the same time their scratching can create a great seedbed. Just like large animals, these animal tractors must be well managed, especially with regard to the time they spend in one location, and the time they take to return to that location.
Pigeon lofts require little maintenance, and are an excellent source of phosphorous-rich manure. But bat houses can be even better, since they come with the added benefit of bats eating mosquitoes and moths all night - and their manure is also very rich in phosphorous. Bird houses, especially if made to attract insectivorous birds, can make a large difference to your ecosystem too.
Managing small wild animals (such as rabbits, for example) can be a nightmare without expensive fencing - unless you have a dog or large cat patrolling the garden. These in turn can become a source of problems if not well managed, but some farming practices would be nearly impossible without a properly trained guard dog.
Other small wild animals might be easily disregarded, but provide us with essential ecosystem services. These include rat-eating snakes, toads and frogs, and many, many others. It’s often worthwhile to study the small wild animals of our own locations, so as to provide them with good habitat, while trying to avoid creating habitat for those that might be troublesome. This depends entirely on where in the world you live, and what species live near you.
Bees and compost worms are the only more or less “domesticated” animals of this size, but in a sense neither is actually doing anything different than they would do naturally. We simply provide them with a good housing and some food. Despite their size, they can be extremely powerful allies, along with all the other nearly invisible ecosystem workers: centipedes, praying mantids, ladybugs, spiders…
In this much smaller scale, it’s hard to understand what’s happening. So many complex interactions can happen under a log or between two stones! Therefore, with few exceptions, the best you can hope for is to increase biodiversity and attract every tiny creature you possibly can - if your plants are healthy, these creatures will balance themselves out without much further intervention on your part.
That said, it’s very important to provide as many flowering plants as you can. Many tiny predators and parasites require some nectar at some phase of their life cycle, and having a large array of flowering plants, in all sizes, colours and seasons, is a sure way of attracting them. Luckily, many vegetables provide you with good flowers for this purpose, and you were going to let them flower anyway to save their seeds!
Pests and Predators
One of the most flexible, cheap, durable and reliable building materials is plain old soil. It has been used for countless generations, in a variety of ways, to build all kinds of structures - from simple homes and barns, to tall buildings and temples, to palaces and monuments. Many of these structures are still nearly intact today, centuries after having been built.
Although it’s easier to achieve this kind of durability in a dry climate, you can protect an earthen structure from the elements by building a good roof with large eaves, and by making a strong, impervious foundation (such as dry stone, for example). In any case, even with minimal protection, a well-built earth building can last for several decades before needing any maintenance.
Obviously, most countries have strict legislation about house construction, and if you would like to build your own home, you will probably still need an expert to help you. But you can start by experimenting with smaller, less demanding structures, such as a chicken house, a bread oven, or whatever kind of small construction project. Regardless of what it is you are building, the basic techniques remain the same.
Soil buildings are usually fireproof, termite-proof, allow for excellent insulation, provide a huge thermal mass that keeps you warm in the winter and cool in the summer, have much reduced humidity problems, and no toxicity of any kind. And they are completely biodegradable!
Most of us, after being exposed to the very large and difficult issues of environmental and social degradation of our current times, need some time with other people who understand their concerns. This is often found in permaculture sites, Transition Initiatives, environmental associations, or even things as small as a couple of neighbours or relatives with whom we can talk once in a while. Either way, it’s very important to connect with other people, vent all our emotional stress, and allow others to vent theirs as well.
These can also be important vehicles to create organized action. Groups of like-minded people can think together and act together, so as to achieve goals that would be out of reach to individuals. Grass-roots movements can become extremely powerful agents of change in surprisingly short amounts of time.
Important though this is, don’t forget the trap of turning this group into a kind of “elite”. Many ecological associations (and other groups of like-minded people in just about any area) forget that people outside their group are just as important.
The role of these circles of like-minded people is indeed of great importance, but just like everything in permaculture, they cease to be appropriate if they are the only thing that happens in your life. Diversity is one of the greatest keys for success and happiness.
Different-minded people can be a very important asset to ourselves, and us to them, if we are careful enough to not let our differences cloud our similarities. Talking to someone who has a different position from ours about a subject on which we have a strong opinion can be stressing - and trying to get a message across to someone who has a radically different world view from ours may sometimes seem impossible. But both of these can be excellent multi-functional permaculture strategies.
Firstly, we have the opportunity to test our knowledge and its logical bases. If someone questions our ideas using sound arguments, we might find out something we had missed. We should always be open to that possibility.
Secondly, we might have the same effect on the other person, and they might leave our conversation with something important to think about. In order for this to happen, we should never try to impose anything. We wouldn’t like it if they were doing it to us, would we?
Thirdly, we have the very important opportunity to train ourselves in good, constructive, assertive but non-violent communication. This is an extremely important skill, which can take a long time to develop.
And lastly, connecting with someone different will nearly always expand our horizons. There is so much we don’t know about, and never will! Talking to people with entirely different backgrounds can result in something you could never have expected. This is precious, wide-reaching diversity!
As you no doubt have heard, freedom and responsibility come together. If we wish to free ourselves from a paradigm that disrespects all people and the entire planet, we have to take on the responsibility of creating a new paradigm, along with all the philosophical, emotional, and practical challenges this implies.
It is from each of our own wallets that harmful practices are financed. We are the ones who have to change our own habits, first and foremost, to enable significant change in this world to happen. And always remember, just as important as the things you do, are the things you choose not to do.
If we do this, if we start taking care of our own needs instead of paying for someone to do it for us, we can free up time and money. These can be reinvested into taking responsibility for all other actions that are not being taken at a large scale: education, awareness raising, availability of affordable, ethical alternatives (especially food), and so many other essential issues. You probably already have small associations near you that might be useful for these ends, but if you don’t, you have the opportunity to be the one to create them!
No “father figure” high up in the hierarchies will take care of us and our country any more. This model has worked for many useful ends in the past, but we now see it is outdated and must be replaced. We must now take back responsibility for ourselves, our lives, our families and our lands. We must reorganize into smaller, more humane groups, that understand and provide for our collective needs. And above all, we must stop participating in anything we find harmful, thus withdrawing our support for it.
It is time for humanity to come of age.
If you believe in a saner, more compassionate future, start living it now.
No one will stop you. Some may make it difficult for you, some may carry on behaving like they always have, but some will take the message home and start creating a better future as well.
We live in a damaged planet, and we are part of a damaged culture. We don’t have a choice about that. But by acknowledging that fact, we can finally start the long and hard process of repairing everything. We can’t go back to the undamaged world of who-knows-how-many years ago, but we can start building a better world now.
PLANT TREES! GROW FOOD! BUILD RELATIONSHIPS! MAKE YOUR OWN HAPPINESS!
A long-standing myth that often still sits in the back of our minds is that developing a strong community requires some kind of submission, cutting back on individuality; and that developing a strong individuality requires some kind of aggressiveness, cutting back on community spirit.
This is true only if taken to the extreme. There are many ways to balance community support with individual pursuits, and if we can be creative about it, we can even find ways to do both at once: to follow an individual dream that just so happens to be very beneficial to our community, or vice versa. In fact, this is probably the greatest advantage of community living: because each individual is different, each one’s activities are potentially useful to all others.
Resilience is one of the most important concepts to have stemmed from ecology into mainstream thinking. It’s the ability to keep functioning after a disturbance, or to quickly recover after an interruption in function.
A modern supermarket, for example, has very low resilience: if truck drivers go on a strike, or there is a flood or earthquake, or a serious political instability, the supermarket will have a hard time re-filling its shelves, and will shut down entirely after a few days.
A diverse, closely-knit community is much more resilient. At least some people have at least some food and water stored, or have a vegetable garden, or even a small farm close by, that can serve the community in case of disaster or isolation. Small, highly connected communities can withstand and recover from catastrophic disruptions much more efficiently than, say, a disconnected community that receives governmental aid.
And of course, while the “lone survivor” that builds a cabin in the woods (with enough canned food and stored drinking water for three years), is more resilient than the average suburb dweller, he’s probably less resilient than someone who lives in a village of friendly, supportive neighbours that know each other for years and have a strong sense of community.
Many people who leave a Permaculture Design Course try to create or join an eco-village or intentional community as quickly as they can. They know how to design stable, regenerative and productive ecosystems, and they feel surrounded by like-minded people, so what’s stopping them?
Where 90% of these communities fail is in the People Care department. A stable community can never arise out of nothing: either stable legal structures (formal or informal) are set in place prior to even finding the first few members, or they need to spend many years gradually building mutual trust, consensual decision-making processes, learning about conflict resolution, and so on. The third option is to gather around a strong leader, but this type of community rarely lasts longer than the lifetime of its leader.
It’s not easy to create a community from scratch! But it is possible, and has been done in several occasions. You can take a look here for some pointers: Rules of Thumb for Starting an Ecovillage
No matter where you are, you already live in a community. You may not even think about it as such, but there it is: the person who sells you groceries, your neighbours, the people who clean your streets - they are already part of your life. You don’t have to teach them all about permaculture (well, maybe to some you could), but you can try to improve their lives, for your own best interest. And in the process, you might help them realize the same thing: that improving other people’s lives is also in their own self interest. Being selfish may benefit you individually, but being altruistic benefits both you and your community.
Be aware of your limits, though. You’re not a superhero, and some people can become “leeches” if you help them too much. Remember the old proverb: if you give a man some fish, you feed him for a day, but teach him how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. And you get to keep your own fish that way, too!
So, start small, right at your doorstep. Talk to people you share your life with: the old lady on the bus stop, the guy you buy stuff from, the people you meet often in the street but never bother greeting. You’ll often find you don’t even need to talk much at all, just listen.
After a bunch of listening, you’ll start to see patterns emerging, and with them opportunities to start improving your community. Maybe the old lady feels lonely and wouldn’t mind paying a small fee for someone to make her company, and maybe you can connect her with the girl that was just fired from the mall and doesn’t know how to make money by herself. Or maybe you could start a small gardening business to tend other people’s gardens organically and efficiently. Who knows?
Engage with what is already within your reach. It might not look like a very pretty scenery right now, but you’ll find it much more beautiful if you look at it with compassion and a desire to help. There are uncounted treasures buried all around you, and you’ll never find them if you don’t look!
Money started out as no more than a tool for comparing the value of different items. By using money, you can compare apples to oranges: if I have some apples, and I assign a specific price to them, I can compare that with the price of your oranges, and in this way we can trade apples and oranges in a way that is fair for both of us.
If you work for money, there is usually a specific price assigned to the time you spend doing that work. When you receive your payment, you can then use it to buy food, clothing and services, pay taxes, or anything else that may be useful to you.
However, money itself (especially if obtained through credit) has no intrinsic value. It is merely an intermediary, a means of exchange. Or, if you want to look at it this way, money is a promise of future value.
Usually money is created by a government, to be used in all transactions within its borders. It’s the state’s authority that gives credibility to that particular currency. If the state itself (the issuer) loses credibility, its currency also loses all value.
A local authority (such as a city council, for example) can also create its own local currency. In fact, any group of people who can gather around itself enough stability, trust and credibility, can create and issue its own currency system.
This is not a very easy step to take, as it usually entails a long process of building trust among local businesses, local people, and the local money issuer. Also, some countries have more stringent laws in this respect than others. Even so, local currencies have been on the rise in recent years, having been adopted by many towns in several countries.
Credit is one leap of abstraction away from money. While money is a promise of future value, credit is a promise of future money.
If you go to the bank and ask for a loan, they give you some money in exchange for your promise that you will pay it back. You don’t have the money yet (that’s why you asked for the loan), but more interestingly, even the bank doesn’t usually have it - since your loan contract is legally binding, the bank can use your expected future income as money for investment. That’s right, money that hasn’t even come into existence yet can be used as a form of payment!
This is the reason why global markets, banks, and everything else is increasingly unstable. Most investments in international finance are based on future expected income, rather than on anything real. The problems begin when things don’t turn out as expected…
An all together different matter are credit unions. These usually work exclusively on the basis of real money, namely the sum of everything that is deposited by all members, and subsequently this money can be lent to specific people who need it. Often these loans have small or even zero interest rates, and the projects that are approved to get the loan are directly beneficial to the community.
Local Exchange and Trading Systems (LETS) can be set up as a means to trade goods and services without any centrally-issued money. The basic principle is that people offer goods or services to the LETS community, assigning a “value” to them. Whenever someone provides these goods or services, they receive “credits” as per the value of what they deliver. These credits can then be spent acquiring other people’s goods or services. All transactions are registered in the system and are publicly accessible by all members, so that it’s effectively impossible to steal or be dishonest without immediately being detected.
A Time Bank is more or less similar to a LETSystem, but it completely leaves out the reference to money altogether. Its members offer their services in units of time, which are registered and can then be exchanged by other people’s services. For example, someone can spend time taking care of elderly people, earning a certain amount of “time credits”, and then trade those credits for someone taking care of their garden.
PunkMoney is a way to semi-formalize informal exchanges through Twitter. Some of the most common types are offering someone a dinner, a home to stay in when travelling, tickets to an event… By using Hashtags and other simple keywords, anyone can issue “payments” (or rather, promises to offer a certain product or service of value) in a public, transparent, and reliable way. Again, being public, anyone can see whether everything is being done with honesty, whether promises are being kept, etc.
There is even an Open Source project named Cyclos aimed specifically at providing micro-financial institutions (including Time Banks, LETSystems, local currencies, etc) with all functionalities of professional banking systems, such as e-commerce, online banking, etc.
There are many other creative ideas related to these. What they all have in common is that they are a way to register promises of value from one person to another. While they do not exactly constitute “money”, and therefore can hardly be subject to any form of taxation, they serve the same function as money: a promise of future value that can reliably be redeemed.
The requirement that an official, authoritative body back the currency, ensuring that everyone accepts it as payment, is no longer required if these promises of future value are public enough to expose anyone who breaks the rules.
The illusion that money has intrinsic value, and that nothing can be accomplished without it, can quickly be dispelled once we understand what it money actually is: a promise of future value. You can lift any project off the ground with zero money if you can show people something they can trust. If they find reason to believe that their efforts and investments (of resources, time, effort, etc.) will be repaid in the future, that’s just as good as money - minus tax.
And of course, it should go without saying that you can also use the existing tools of money, business, investment, and so forth, in a beneficial way. They’re just tools, and can be used in any way we wish them too. The specific needs of any particular person or project will determine which tools are most appropriate to each situation - and often the solution is to use a bit of each. Diversity is, once more, the root of all resilience.
In permaculture design, zones are used to increase the energy efficiency of the whole system. A central zone is defined as the point of origin, with several concentric zones surrounding it, each larger and farther away from the centre than the previous one. The outer zones are the ones that require less intervention, while the inner zones are frequently visited or altered. Thus, we are creating a simple pattern that greatly helps us define where each element should be placed, according to how often it requires attention and/or intervention.
In the original land-based context, the home is Zone 0, the centre of activity, where all decisions occur, and from where all human energy is deployed. In case of a settlement with several homes, Zone 0 can be a central, frequently used common building (such as a common kitchen, school, community centre or town hall).
In close proximity to the centre, and along frequently used paths that radiate from it, is Zone 1, where the kitchen garden supplies the most frequently accessed elements, such as culinary herbs, salad plants, tomatoes, lemon tree, compost bins… Close to the border with Zone 2 we can place a chicken coop, which gives us daily access to eggs, and at the same time gives the chickens access to the Zone 2 areas.
Surrounding this small Zone 1 garden is Zone 2, where we place the orchard and food forest systems, free-range chicken runs, larger compost piles, storage facilities, and other elements that are still more or less fully humanized, but don’t require daily maintenance.
Further away is Zone 3. Depending on the specific context, there can be broader fields of cereals or other larger-scale commercial crops, pastures and rangelands, windbreaks and hedgerows, as well as larger water bodies for irrigation and aquaculture. These elements need vigilance, but not frequent intervention.
Surrounding and merging into this is Zone 4, the managed woodland, where only a few visits a year are required. This is where we harvest most firewood, construction timber, some nuts and other such low-maintenance crops, and (if so inclined) game meat. These woodlands are carefully managed to avoid fire hazards, and may receive some excess nutrients from other systems, but are otherwise self-maintained.
The farthest, least visited area is Zone 5, the “nature reserve” or “sacred land”, where nothing is harvested, dead trees are left standing, and no intervention is carried out unless absolutely required. This is where we go to learn how to manage everything else. In degraded lands, this zone may require some effort to establish initially, whereas in lands that still contains wild woodlands, all efforts should be aimed at preserving them as much as possible.
Unlike a sheet of paper, real pieces of land almost never conform themselves to neat, circular, concentric zones. In reality, these zones always follow and adapt to the shapes of slopes, access ways, water flows, and so on.
While zones are used to manage the energy flows from the centre of the system outwards, sectors are used to manage energy flows that enter the system from the outside. In case of the classical farming context, these include, prevailing winds, water flows, sun angles; as well as the general directions from which risks of fire, frost, invasive weeds, pesticides from neighbours that use them; and even things such as beautiful views, noise from roads and factories, and heavy pollen loads if you have allergies.
These sectors are usually represented in a map as arcs centred on Zone 0. They help us decide where in each zone should an element be placed. For example, if there is a significant fire sector, we can place a large pond or dam in its way, so as to protect the inner zones from fire. We can place denser, taller forest areas in the strong wind sectors - or instead, we can choose to place windmills there. We can use evergreen trees to moderate cold winter winds, and deciduous trees to moderate hot summer winds.
Observation in a general sense - which means using all five senses - is fundamental if you are to live within nature. A quiet state of contemplation can give you much more information than you would think possible. Interacting with what you observe is equally important, since passive observation will not bring about a complete picture.
Conversely, any time you act or change something for any reason, you should pay close attention to the results. Theories and ideas can never replace actual experimentation and observation of the factual results, and acting just because everyone does the same is a recipe for disaster.
And don’t forget to observe yourself!
The primary source of energy on our planet is the Sun. Strive to make the most of it: look up passive solar houses, solar hot water, photovoltaic panels, etc. - and dry your clothes on a clothesline. Simply getting up earlier and going to bed earlier can save a lot of artificial lighting!
The Sun’s energy is also what drives the wind, the water cycle, and most importantly, photosynthesis. Plants run on solar power, and thus anything that eats plants runs on (indirect) solar power too. The energy you use to walk, think and work - all of it - was harvested from the Sun.
Harvesting rainwater is also a kind of energy storage, as is harvesting and drying your own firewood, canning and dehydrating surplus produce for the winter, and so on. This principle applies to just about any form of harvest and storage, since just about anything worth storing or conserving contains energy.
As the saying goes, you can’t work on an empty stomach. It’s a very worthy goal to try and save the Earth, but you can’t do it if your own basic needs aren’t being met.
This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to be self-sufficient all by yourself. You can still be a teacher, an engineer, a dentist, or whatever (as long as your activities are aligned with the three ethics). They all provide a kind of yield, that can be exchanged by the yields of others.
Remember that every animal and plant “works” to provide for itself, and that their “work” is part of the whole point of them being there. By foraging, a bee is also helping pollinate the flowers; by feeding, an earthworm is also aerating the soil. You are no exception - you do have to eat, drink, and find shelter, so you might as well find a positive way to do it, both to you and everyone else.
Every action has its consequences. If you don’t like a particular consequence, you might as well avoid the action that leads to it. It’s a much easier and reliable strategy than to try and get rid of the consequences after they arrive. Self-regulation is key in a natural environment, especially while we still have so much power over it. There are such things as limits!
But we don’t always know the consequences of our actions beforehand, so sometimes we are visited by an unexpected consequence. That’s where accepting feedback comes in: there’s no point fighting or resisting it, it’s just a consequence of some previous action. Accept it, grieve if you feel hurt, repair what can be repaired, learn from the whole process, and try to avoid it next time. And don’t forget to apply this principle to human relationships too!
Above all, this principle urges us to stop - right now - any and all harmful behaviour we can, stop complaining about anything that is already here, and start learning from our mistakes. It’s easier than you might think! Just go at it step by step, and ask for help if you need it.
Nature is always finding ways to keep itself running, along with every living thing within it, ourselves included. Try to find the best ways to tap that abundance to meet your needs, and always remember to return the gifts you receive so that the abundance can keep regenerating.
All of nature’s processes are inherently renewable, in that they constantly cycle matter and energy back and forth. If you synchronize with these cycles, meaning you neither use up a resource too fast nor let it go to waste, you can continuously keep using that resource indefinitely. That’s the very definition of sustainability right there!
Waste is actually more or less an illusion: it’s just a resource in the wrong place, not being given a use. To put it another way, it’s only waste if you waste it.
Any organic stuff, from kitchen scraps to yard trimmings to the “waste” you usually flush down a toilet, can be composted and turned into healthy fertilizer. Also, storm water isn’t supposed to be drained away to the sea as fast as possible, it’s supposed to infiltrate the soil, replenish aquifers, and keep plants alive in dry weather.
Most plastics and metals can be recycled (you can simply refuse to use the ones that can’t), but remember that recycling uses energy and water, so is not exactly a perfect solution. It’s always better to avoid buying/using the thing in the first place, reducing wastage up front. If you can’t do without something, try at least getting it second hand, or maybe recover it from someone who was going to throw it away.
When designing anything, it’s useful to do it step by step, starting with an overall concept and gradually adding details. In the case of permaculture design this is even more important, since nature always follows patterns. If you get the basic overall patterns right in your design, the details mostly sort themselves out without too much effort.
You can follow and build on existing patterns, but in some cases you can also create new patterns where none exist (like a flat, featureless lawn becoming a beautiful, diverse garden). Just be aware that not all natural patterns are immediately visible, some practice is usually required to “get” them and work with them.
Permaculture is always trying to make connections, to find some usefulness in everything that comes your way, and to help all things working together as a whole. This is just as relevant when designing a garden as when dealing with human systems.
This doesn’t mean everything has to be all flowers and harmony all the time. You shouldn’t try to make living beings (be they plants, humans or other animals) behave differently than what they do naturally. Instead, try to help all living beings carry out their natural behaviour on a place and in a way that benefits the whole system.
Also, just about all physical work gets much easier if you invite friends; mixing different generations is always a great source of learning; and fostering positive interaction between people of different origins, ethnicities or social circles is ALWAYS a good idea.
Anything that is too big or too fast can run out of control or cause accidents. And if you happen to notice something is not working as it should, it’s much easier to stop or change it if it’s small and slow.
Furthermore, a small and slow solution that can be replicated lots of times becomes capable of immense change (think about termite nests for example).
Increasing diversity in a living system is an insurance for the future. The more diversity (in plant and animal species, in the functions they support, and in the humans that manage them), the more likely the system’s survival in a time of crisis. Monocultures of whatever type, small genetic diversity, uniform education - all systems with low diversity will inevitably cause problems in time.
As a general rule of thumb, every element in a permaculture system should support several functions, and every important function should be supported by several elements. Food and water in particular, as the most immediate needs of any living being, should always be supplied by several independent sources.
And even in times of no crisis at all, a diverse environment and diet are some of the most important sources of health.
The edge between two different things is very often the most productive, abundant, diverse, or at the very least interesting place. This can mean a physical edge (between land and water, for example), a temporal edge (sunset, the turn of seasons), even the “marginal” space where two different cultures meet.
Exploring and making use of edges in all senses can make all the difference in a good design. Leaving any margin out of your thoughts will usually result in it getting out of hand, as anyone who ever tended a lawn can tell you.
Change is not always predictable or even imaginable. But it’s an inherent part of everything in nature - nothing ever stays the same. Making the best of change is an important skill, and with it can come some of the greatest benefits in life.
This requires above all a great deal of observation (which means we’ve gone full circle, and are back to Principle 1), but also appropriate action at the correct time, and in the correct amount. The closest analogy is surfing, where you balance yourself atop a little board that floats on a huge mass of moving water, not resisting nor running away, but riding it, adapting to it, moving in concert with it - and using its strength to take you farther and faster than you ever could by yourself.
Changes in your life - large or small - are always opportunities to better yourself and your surroundings. You just need to apply some creativity!
Terracing can help with both drainage and infiltration. It has been used for thousands of years, especially for rice paddies in tropical Asia, but also in the Mediterranean region and parts of South America.
A terrace is created by flattening a section of a slope and creating a retaining wall, which can be made of stone or compacted earth/mud. Usually a series of terraces is created along the slope, like a series of steps. Depending on the climate and soil type, as well as the available water sources, terraces can be made more or less impermeable (enabling the cultivation of water crops and even fish, as well as traditional rice paddies), can have inbuilt drainage systems, or can be made to infiltrate seasonal water into the soil so as to assist plant growth in the dry season. Irrigation is also very easy to manage in a well-designed terrace system, as well as most other agricultural practices. Farming on a steep slope without terraces is asking for erosion!
Again, this strategy has the potential for disaster if done without sufficient care and attention. Expert advice is necessary especially in humid climates, where a badly planned terrace system can lead to heavy erosion or even a landslide. This is often not a serious problem in drier climates, where terraces often help to prevent erosion and landslides.
Remember, scientists and technicians can often give excellent advice, but no amount of science can match traditional local wisdom. If there is a tradition of terracing in your area, look for the old people who know how to build and maintain these systems from experience before you seek a (usually expensive) professional technician.
Swales are one of the most widely used permaculture tools. These are ditches made on a contour line (that is, on a level line that follows the shape of the land without going up or down the slope). The earth removed to dig the ditch is piled on the lower side, so as to create a soft earth berm. This berm is then immediately planted with some kind of cover crop, so that plant roots and other soil life stabilize the soil, and if possible trees are also immediately planted, both on the berm and just below it. Swales can be as small or as large as the context may require, from a 20cm wide, 5m long mini-swale in a suburban backyard, to a 2m wide, 300m long swale on a farm, to a 10m wide, 1km long mega-swale on a large project. Several successive swales can be built on the same slope, each higher than the other, creating a series of swales that increases their overall effectiveness.
Regardless of their size, the result is that, because a swale is on contour (meaning no part is higher or lower than any other), rain water accumulates in it instead of running down the slope. The idea, however, is not to create a pond, but instead to infiltrate the water below ground, where tree roots can then access it.
Remember, a swale is mostly a tree-planting tool. Not only trees benefit from swales, but swales also benefit from trees. If you already have a healthy forest, with no problems of water stress in any season, a swale is often unnecessary.
In time, a swale may become filled with humus and silt, but still retain much of its efficiency due to having accumulated a lot of organic matter. By the time it becomes indistinguishable from the surrounding area, the trees planted around it will have become a healthy forest, and their root systems will replace the swale’s functions.
Always plant and/or seed something right after building a swale. If you don’t, the next large rains can erode it and cause a rupture, which can be very problematic. If this is at all impossible, at least cover the loose earth with a thick layer of mulch (straw, leaves, or any more or less fibrous, decomposable organic material), but growing something on the swale mound as soon as you can is essential.
Also, you must always plan for a spillway, that is, a specific point from which excess water can safely flow out of the swale. This spillway must be carefully planned to prevent erosion, since a very large amount of water can flow through it in a heavy storm.
As a final cautionary remark, be wary of making swales in areas prone to landslides or slumping. Since swales cause an increase in subterranean water, they can increase the risks of landslides and slumps, especially if no deep-rooted trees are planted on and below them.
Provided you study a bit, take care, start small, and carefully observe your system’s reactions, swales can become one of the most amazing tools you can ever use. There have been many cases where a series of swales has infiltrated enough water into the soil to recharge old dry springs, and even to create new ones. Seasonal creeks below swales tend to gradually flow longer and longer into the dry season, and vegetation responses are often spectacular.
Soil conditioning refers mostly to de-compaction and aeration of degraded soils, or to soil imprinting. The goal is to promote rainwater infiltration into the soil without causing it to become waterlogged, and most especially, to promote healthier and stronger plant growth without damaging the soil structure.
One of the most advanced forms of soil conditioning is Keyline plowing, a system developed by P. A. Yeomans around the decade of 1950. He created a special kind of plow that creates deep rips in the soil without disturbing the surface, and most importantly, a system of aligning these rips to the shape of the land so as to better distribute water through the subsoil without excessive accumulation. This is a complex system demanding specialist advice and tools, but when carried out by a good professional, can be of great benefit, especially (but far from exclusively) in the context of degraded, compacted pasture. You can learn more about this system in The Keyline Plan, one of the first comprehensive books by Yeomans.
Soil imprinting is mainly done in very arid areas. It consists of creating a large number of small “pits”, or shallow holes. Wind always carries some seeds and nutrients, which are deposited at the bottom of each pit. This is also where rainwater concentrates, puddling for a while instead of immediately running off. The effects on severely damaged soils are sometimes dramatic.
Another, completely different approach is growing crops with strong, deep roots, and possibly cutting them back when they are fully developed but before they start setting seeds. This means the plant’s roots are still young and vigorous, and when they rot in the ground they leave open channels filled with decomposing organic matter, enriching the soil in depth without the need to disturb it. If done correctly and in accordance with the specific climate and weather patterns, this strategy can yield immense benefits without any machinery at all, since in effect this is an acceleration of the natural soil formation process.
Humus creation is fact one of the consequences of all previous strategies, but can also be accomplished independently of them. It means the increase of stable organic matter in the soil, effectively creating a soil ecosystem.
Humus (stable organic matter) is probably the most significant factor for soil fertility in all contexts, most significantly due to its water-holding properties. Humus can not only increase the soil’s capacity to absorb and retain moisture, but can also dramatically increase the availability of existing moisture, while at the same time improving aeration and drainage, and reducing the risk of erosion.
Small increases in the soil’s percentage of organic matter can have very large effects on soil structure and physical properties, as well as chemical properties, leading to healthier and more resilient plant growth. Therefore, anything you can do that permanently increases soil humus content will improve its fertility and water retention capacity, and anything you do that reduces humus content will have adverse effects.
A grease trap is a simple device that separates greases and oils from the water. This is possible because oils usually float. The picture shows an example of a very simple and effective grease trap.
Water comes in through a pipe and accumulates in the (water-proof) box. The exit pipe has a T-junction, of which one end is maybe about 20cm below the surface of the water, and the other end is about 10cm above it. This way water can only exit from the bottom of the T-junction, and grease, since it floats, cannot leave the box. (Note: the other open end of the T-junction, which is open to the air, avoids a siphoning effect that could empty the entire box.)
A grease trap is especially necessary if treating water from a kitchen sink. This kind of water is usually much dirtier than others, particularly because of high amounts of oils and greases from food preparation. In some situations anaerobic bacteria can colonize this box and help gradually digest the grease, but usually you have to clean out the excess grease every once in a while (you can then add it to a hot compost pile, which we will talk about next week).
If you’re treating only water from the bath/shower and laundry, you might not need this - but it’s one more bacterial environment, so you can still include it if you wish.
These consist of a simple container where greywater is stored for a certain amount of time, before going on to the next phase. In a few hours to days, most nutrient particles drop to the bottom, forming a kind of sludge. There the anaerobic bacteria concentrate, digesting the sludge and releasing methane, some sulfur dioxide, and other gases. This is why the water starts to have a bad smell.
This step is only needed in the case the water is dirty enough to clog a gravel filter (such as kitchen sink water with frequent heavy food loads).
These help retain larger particles inside the filter environment, while letting water flow along to the next phase. They also harbor a very important class of bacteria that colonize only the surface of the gravel. These bacteria then gradually digest the particles that have become trapped. Since greywater is so heavily loaded with residues, the first phase of filtration should always be through relatively coarse gravel, to prevent clogging. You can reduce the gravel size further along the system, thus trapping smaller impurities.
The method is simply to pass the water slowly through a container filled with gravel. If you build it in such a way that the water level always stays a few centimeters below the gravel’s surface, you can completely prevent mosquitoes from breeding there, as well as any unpleasant smells. You can also include some swamp-adapted plants, as they help absorb excess nutrients and create an even more diverse habitat for different species of bacteria.
One of the most important functions of these filters is the capture and digestion of disease-causing organisms. A good gravel filter, complete with several different plants, can considerably reduce pathogen levels, and if followed by a slow sand filter, can eliminate them completely.
Plants that have evolved to live with their roots in standing water or water-logged soil (such as sedges, rushes, etc.) must continuously pump oxygen into their root systems. This means they create a film of oxygenated water around their roots, where aerobic bacteria can live and reproduce. Often these plants and bacteria develop symbiotic relationships, where the plant provides oxygen to the bacteria and the bacteria gathers nutrients for the plant in return.
Earlier in the treatment sequence the best way to integrate plants is in a gravel tank, as mentioned above. Later, after the water is clean enough, you can set up a pond, with aquatic plants and algae. Both these plant systems absorb excessive nutrients from the water and turn them into biomass, which you can then use as mulch, compost ingredients, or any other use you can devise for them.
Slow sand filtration should only be used with water that is already mostly clean, or it can quickly get clogged. Water slowly and continuously passes through a thick layer of sand, trapping any remaining nutrients and microorganisms. These are then digested by the bacteria that colonize the sand’s surface. To maintain the filter’s efficiency, the sand should never be allowed to dry up - if the bacteria die, they can no longer retain and remove impurities, and can take up to two weeks to re-colonize the sand.
After passing through such a filter, water is pure enough to be diverted, for example, into a fish pond, even for edible fish.
If you pass rainwater through a well-built slow sand filter, this water will almost certainly be purer and healthier than just about any water you can buy. If you live near a city or factory that may be contaminating rainwater, simply adding a 5 or 10cm layer of powdered charcoal and replacing it about once a year is usually enough to get rid of most chemical residues.
The mineral component of soil is generally divided into sand, silt and clay. The only significant difference between these three substances is their particle size: largest in sand, smallest in clay, and intermediate in silt.
This division has to do with the way each of them holds water. Sand grains freely drain water and can’t hold onto it, while clay particles are so small, they prevent water from moving through it. Silt, being intermediate, can slowly drain excess water, but still holds some of it available to plants.
The relative proportion between each of these substances is called the soil’s texture. Usually it’s not feasible (or even desirable) to change a soil’s texture. This means if you have a clay soil, for example, that’s what you have to work with, and mixing in sand will probably not solve any of your difficulties.
This is what can help you in all situations. Organic matter levels are one of the most important characteristics of your soil, and luckily, this is one you can influence.
Roughly speaking, the more organic matter the better - up to a point. Most soils under conventional modern agriculture have had their organic matter severely depleted, so unless you are working in a peat bog (which is close to 100% organic matter), chances are you should try to increase its levels.
There are two kinds of organic matter, and both are important to fertility:
Active organic matter is still not entirely decayed, such as newly fallen leaves, dead plant remains, fresh manures, the bodies of dead bacteria… This is the primary food source of most soil microorganisms, and it is through the decomposition of these remains of formerly living beings that all nutrients their bodies contain are gradually released. Constant accumulation and release of nutrients is one of the soil life’s most crucial roles.
Stable humus, on the other hand, can last for hundreds of years in the same form. Since it has mostly already decomposed as much as it could, it doesn’t directly release nutrients. But it can hold on to nutrients that have been released elsewhere, and keep them stored in a plant-available form, while protecting them from leaching. Stable humus is also largely responsible for increasing the soil’s water holding capacity, as well as it’s aggregation properties - meaning a soil rich in humus will much more easily acquire and maintain a good, soft, crumbly structure.
These are the workforce that keeps the soil functioning. The diversity of soil life could fill several books, and we will have an entire section devoted to it later in the course, but for now it will be enough to say that no lasting fertility can ever occur without soil life.
The main players in this game are bacteria and fungi, although many others are also important. Bacteria are responsible for a very great number of essential chemical processes that hold and release nutrients, while fungi can decompose tougher types of organic matter, connect separate parts of the soil, interact with plant roots, and even harvest nutrients directly from rock.
Larger animals, such as earthworms, also have crucial roles to play, especially in the aeration and mixing of the soil.
We will come back to this subject later this week.
As we have seen last week, water is essential to life. The water that has become stored in soils is what enables plants to grow.
Water can hold onto soil particles due to surface tension. Smaller particles (such as clay) tend to hold more water relative to their size, because they have a proportionally larger surface area. But organic matter can hold much more water - up to a hundred times its weight in some cases - and in a much more plant-friendly way.
Nutrients dissolved in the soil’s water are directly available to plants. This is why soluble, chemical fertilizers were invented. However, in a situation of drought, even if the plants could survive the lack of water, soluble nutrients become much harder to take up, and the plant can develop serious nutrient deficiencies.
Air spaces in the soil are just as important as everything else. Plant roots and most soil microorganisms need oxygen to breathe, and some bacteria can take up nitrogen from the air and convert it into nitrates - plant food.
These air spaces also allow roots to grow through them unhindered.
If your soil has a poor drainage, water can fill all the soil’s pores and thus prevent aeration. Compaction also leads to poor aeration, and burying large amounts of fresh organic matter can cause so much soil life to flourish that it eventually uses up all oxygen and turns the soil anaerobic - which is not good for plants.
These natural layers in soil are a kind of pattern that regularly repeats itself regardless of soil type, climate, or underlying geology. They are the consequence of long years of weathering, leaching and accumulation, and so are less visible in “young” soils, formed not too many thousands of years ago. Note that some soils, especially in tropical climates, may not exactly conform to this general pattern.
The O horizon is dominated by organic matter. There is usually a layer of decomposing plant remains, followed by a layer of dark, partially decomposed organic matter. This is the soil’s “skin”, protecting it from sun, wind and rain, and we always try to maintain this cover, usually through mulch.
The A horizon is what is known as topsoil, and it’s the zone of greatest living activity. This is our most important soil resource, and the one we wish to build and maintain. It is usually darker than any of the lower layers, with a significant amount of organic matter, and the largest concentration of living organisms.
The B horizon is known as subsoil. It is usually denser, with a much smaller percentage of organic matter, and a different nutrient composition. In the context of permaculture, we try to avoid disturbing this layer too much, unless performing large earthworks (such as building a pond or dam, or a large house). It is possible to gradually transform subsoil into topsoil, through the action of plants and other living organisms, but we can also remove the topsoil layer to a storage pile, perform the necessary work on the subsoil, and then put the topsoil on top again.
The C and R horizons are respectively the weathered (broken down) and unweathered (solid) bedrock layers. They usually have little to no organic matter, and have little effect on what happens on the surface - except in that they were the source of most minerals on the upper layers.
When soil has a high organic matter content, and has been worked on by living beings for a long enough period of time, it acquires a particular, “crumbly” structure.
A good crumb structure is loose, can infiltrate water without puddling, doesn’t come apart if immersed in water, and retains its structure after drying. It also retains moisture in its pores, while keeping a good amount of aeration.
These crumbs are the result of soil particles becoming aggregated into stable formations, that contain pores of all sizes as well as minerals and organic matter. In fact, it’s the organic molecules and living beings that hold these aggregates together.
No human activity or technology can create this crumb structure. It is a natural consequence of all the soil’s life working to keep itself alive and healthy. By creating the most hospitable conditions for all soil life, we are enabling them to do this crucial work for us.
This is a measure of acidity and alkalinity. A pH level of 7 is neutral, meaning it is neither acidic nor alkaline (such as pure distilled water). A pH lower than 7 denotes acidity (lemon juice has a pH value around 2 or 3), whereas a pH higher than 7 denotes alkalinity (strong bleach has a pH of about 13 and will burn your skin!).
Most soils have a pH between 5 and 8. Peat bogs and conifer forest soils can be more acidic, and chalky soils can be more alkaline. Accordingly, some plants have adapted to more acidic soils, whereas others have adapted to alkaline ones. Most garden plants prefer a pH around 6.5 (slightly acidic).
Whatever your pH is at the moment, good-quality compost can bring it closer to the ideal level of 6.5. If you have a strongly acidic soil, you might try adding agricultural lime, finely crushed eggshells, or wood ashes. If your soil is too alkaline, you can add pine needles or agricultural sulfur. In any case, you should be very careful not to add too much of anything at once!
You can easily test a liquid’s pH by using red cabbage. Boiling its leaves turns the water into a bluish/purplish liquid. You can immerse some paper strips into this liquid and let them dry. When you touch a liquid (or anything wet) with your bluish cabbage paper, it will turn bright red if it is acidic, deeper blue if it’s mildly alkaline, and greenish-yellow if it’s very alkaline.
You can test your cabbage paper on several different types of liquids to get a feel of how it reacts to stronger or weaker acids and alkalies. Remember some paper can be acidic, and most tap water is slightly alkaline - even rain water is usually more or less acidic - so this is not as accurate as a laboratory test. But it can give you a good help.
After you figure out how your cabbage paper reacts to different substances, you can test your soil’s pH with it. Just get a bit of soil, moisten it well (try to avoid touching it with your bare hands, skin has a pH of 5.5 and will likely acidify your sample) and touch your wet soil with cabbage paper.
While nutrients are obviously essential for plant growth, the chemical processes that make them available to plants are extremely complex. Some are immobilized in the presence of others, some are restricted at specific pH levels, some are easily leached by rainwater, and others can react with soil minerals and become permanently unavailable.
But if you follow nature’s lead and learn from natural soil formation, providing all your plants with their nutrient needs is not as hard as it might seem.
You can easily (and usually cheaply) have your soil analyzed in a lab to test for nutrient levels. The type of tests, their relevance to your purposes, and their price can vary a lot from one country to another, but they will usually tell you at least your soil’s pH, along with some available nutrients. In many cases they will also tell you that some values may be too high or too low, and suggest chemical fertilizer application rates that would correct those situations. These are some of the more common nutrients that can be analyzed in a soil test:
If your soil has a very serious deficiency in any of these nutrients, your plants will have a hard time growing. Testing your soil and correcting these deficiencies right from the beginning can make everything much easier in the long run.
On the other hand, if you can boost soil life and organic matter content, most light to moderate deficiencies can easily be resolved. Life processes balance themselves out automatically, and as long as you keep a constant, careful observation, all difficulties can be worked out.
Cob is an ancient technique that has recently been re-discovered. It consists simply of sand, clay, straw and water, all mixed into a sticky consistency. The proportions between each component are important, but it’s very easy to get it right once you have a bit of experience.
A cob wall is made by gradually stacking lumps of wet material, and “massaging” it into the desired shape. Usually one builds no more than about 30cm of wall a day, to let it settle and dry a bit before placing the next layer.
Cob allows the greatest flexibility in shape and surface decoration, making beautiful, rounded, organic structures. It can be made somewhat stronger than most others, but can be slower to build.
The same material can be used to make a strong flooring. Some people have experimented impregnating this type of flooring with linseed oil, so as to make it washable.
Adobe is just like cob, but it’s made into bricks instead of simply building the entire wall as a single unit. These bricks are then sun-dried and stacked together just like regular bricks, using the same clay-sand-straw mixture to stick the bricks together.
Compressed Earth Blocks (or CEB) are a recent development that uses a mechanical press to make bricks. If the right soil mix is used, these bricks can have a stronger compression resistance than cement blocks. The only major disadvantage in relation to adobe bricks is the need for the mechanical press, which is nothing compared to the unending machines usually used to build a house!
Both these methods share many of the advantages of cob, but there are some differences. Since adobe bricks and CEBs are made as a separate process from actually building the structure, they allow for a much faster construction. Additionally, taller structures are also easier to build. On the other hand, a lot of the flexibility of cob is lost. More importantly, brick-based structures are usually not as resistant to earthquakes as cob, unless there is some kind of additional structural reinforcement.
Designing and building your own house, using only the natural materials you have available on the very land that you will build on, is one of the most empowering decisions you can ever make in your life. Although great care should always be taken to ensure the safety of your constructions, and expert advice and supervision are always a good idea (and a legal necessity in many countries), the fact of the matter is that you CAN build the house of your dreams, using your own bare hands.
The subject of natural construction is very broad and diverse, and no single technique is appropriate to all cases. As always, each element in your system must be designed with appropriateness in mind. Especially with such a large and important structure as a house (or a barn, or even a tiny shed), you are responsible for it, and for all the consequences of its presence. Try your best to make sure these consequences are all positive and beneficial, both to yourself and the whole system around you. If you can do that, you’ll start seeing the true ability humans have to become part of nature again, and the wonderful world we are able to create.