Pimp Your Plot with Permaculture
Over the last few years, permaculture has emerged from the obscurity of the ecological underground to become the buzzword of the times. This is welcome news, as this design philosophy has the potential to change the trajectory of our global civilization. This could mean a switch away from our current habit of squandering resources, and a move towards what my crew likes to call regenerative hedonism.
What exactly is this regenerative hedonism, you ask? It’s a cheeky term for a serious idea, a new perspective on environmental and cultural sustainability. It’s the angle that humans can not only do less harm to the planet but, through good design, we might even be beneficial.
We can then reap the bounty from the surpluses, and meet all of our needs continuously. When our needs are fulfilled, we feel good. And when we feel good, well now, that’s pleasure. Pleasure is what the hedon seeks, and now we’ve set it up to regenerate itself continuously.
Let me give you a sampling of one of my ecologically positive feedback loops. As someone who gives a shit, I compost all of the organic matter that crosses my path, and usually beat a new path to even more. Once finished, I use this to fertilize, among many other things, my apple trees. Next, as a person who gives two shits, I harvest all rainwater and use this to irrigate, among other things, my apple trees. The apple trees grow, entertain many forms of life throughout the season, and produce loads of apples. I harvest these, and press them into cider. The bulk of this is fermented into hard cider. All the leftover apple schwag from the pressing is tossed into the compost pile, which perpetuates our fertility cycle. The cider ferments, I invite friends over, we get a little drunk under the shade of the apple, and then we plant more trees. Next season looks even more promising, since we now have even more trees.
At the very least, we’ve entertained ourselves without electricity, products or media. There are smiles all around, and we are up to our elbows in accomplishment and abundance. We’ve diverted loads of organic matter from the landfill, creating fertility without importing purchased products. We’ve sequestered carbon and increased the diversity of life, both micro and macro, in my urban yard. We’ve sustained life in a harsh desert without tapping an aquifer. My crew is in the back yard, enjoying home-grown drinks, the space and each other. We’ve accomplished things with friends and experienced satisfaction. We’ve designed this system to endlessly regenerate, in a way that builds soil, resources and relationships.
This is the driving force behind the philosophy of permaculture: It’s the realization that every one of us smart little monkeys has the capacity to be a positive force on behalf of the ecology of the planet, with the net result being overwhelming abundance. An abundance of both beauty and resources, of meaningful relationships and a life well lived, with high fives and smiles all around. And we can have all of this without the guilt that comes from the all too common restrictive ecological harm reduction paradigm.
Permaculture is a design philosophy, a set of guidelines to help one make informed decisions. It helps you see the realities of your environment, and set a course of action, or inaction, that results in the best outcome for yourself, your environment and your community.
It is an observation of patterns, which allows us to design the systems that sustain us properly. Each system is designed for maximum interconnectedness with all of the other systems. And with the right design in place, we get permanent culture, or permaculture. The end result is a beautiful city that harvests and stores its own fresh water, eliminates waste while boosting fertility, grows the majority of its own food, whose citizens feel connected. Unfortunately, a lot of our current cities do just the opposite, shedding water and disposing of fertility, often while burning people out. It’s time to take the reins on this situation, and up our game.
The 12 Principles of Permaculture Design
Everything that happens in the natural world happens in cycles, and tapping into these cycles is where the near effortless assimilation of abundance lies. Harnessing these cycles in the design phase diminishes ones’ workload dramatically in the long run. Forcing our will on the natural world only breeds maintenance and frustration, and often poor results. In permaculture, there are a set of guidelines that helps us do this, by helping us asses our situation and act, or not, in an appropriate way. These are often referred to as the 12 Principles of Permaculture. Let’s take a look at them, and see how they can relate to our situation in the cityscape. Most important, think about how they relate to each other. And remember, even a small step in the right direction is still a step in the right direction.
1. Observe and interact
This one seems so obvious that most folks move right onto the next number down the page, assuming they’re just naturally very observant. I’ve been guilty of this. But it’s time we slow our roll, people, and really observe established patterns. This is one of the hardest, and most important, steps. Presented with a blank slate to realize all of our pent-up projects, who can resist the urge to grab the tools and start building?
Someone who wants longterm abundance with a minimum of work input, that’s who. This observation includes the basics, like where the sunniest, hottest parts of your yard are, or where the water pools when it rains in spring. This also includes the patterns of your movement, and that of your neighbors.
Here’s an example of action before observation. When I was a teenager, I helped my father design a great backyard landscape, one that had all the elements that make up an attractive yard. The main pathway from the house through the back yard to the barn was installed in a way that we found stylish and pleasing. This pathway fit the landscape well, but unfortunately was not the way that everyone else was already taking! The new path was rarely used, and the landscape was trampled from the perpetual traffic of the older, albeit unsanctioned, route. Barriers were erected and plantings put up to prevent this, but they proved ineffective as everyone still took the most convenient, and shorter, route, which also took its toll on the plantings!
The moral of the story: Before taking action, observe. Professional permaculturists will tell you to observe for a year, minimum, before taking action to alter an environment. Any modifications to an ecosystem are going to displace life, so make sure your action is prudent and results in the longterm benefit. Once you have a solid period of observation, accept your observation, wait a while, and then revisit your initial plans with an open mind. If there is already a beaten path, chances are, that is the best route by foot. Stick with it.
This will save time, money and headache later. I’ve saved countless hours and piles of cash by picking up a wine instead of a shovel, and stopping to contemplate the project.
2. Catch and store energy
You may say, “I can’t afford solar panels and a wind turbine!” Well, let me tell you, my friend, there is so much more to energy than electricity. Let’s take heat: Aside from light, of course, the sun produces heat, loads of it. Objects, especially dark-colored ones, heat up in direct sun. The more dense this object is, the more heat it can store. This process is called solar gain, and can also work in our favor for cooling, but that’s a topic for another day.
While engaged in the previous step, I observed that the south-facing side of my house received the most sun, and the bricks on that wall were still quite warm after the sun went down. I noticed that on chilly nights if I sat close to this wall, I stayed quite warm. I also observed in the past my tomatoes dying from an early frost, although it often went back to being quite warm for another month. The next season, I planted my tomatoes near the south wall of my house. By simply making an observation, and harnessing the energy I was already catching and storing, I now enjoy another month of tomato season. No extra work, no extra fuss, just passively harnessing energy.
3. Obtain a yield
This is the engine that keeps the motivational juices flowing—that magical moment when you eat the first tomato that you’ve ever grown. Hasn’t happened yet? Try it. You deserve it. So earn it. In a bucket, on a balcony, if that’s all you have. Harvesting and eating something you’ve grown yourself is a level of satisfaction and accomplishment everyone should experience.
Aside from what we create, there are free sources everywhere, their yields begging to be harnessed. A passive solar home yields free heat, simply from good design. There are probably 50 fruit trees in your neighborhood alone whose bounty falls uneaten every season; their yield may be yours for the asking. All of the lumber you need to build those raised beds is lying unused somewhere, waiting to be repurposed. Abundance is everywhere, and the more we harness it, the less superfluous supply we need to work to create.
The yield is the reward for our inputs, the motivation for all of the hard work. Rewards are the pleasure portion of the regenerative hedonism equation. Don’t forget, one of the reasons we are doing all of this is to pleasure ourselves.
4. Apply self-regulation and feedback
Turn down the volume on that ego, and take a step back from time to time on any project, especially in the planning phase. Get the input of your friends and neighbors. A group of average folks will almost always come up with a better solution than one highly intelligent individual, so sit down, smartass, and let that group magic do its thing. This also helps us make sure that our course of action is actually appropriate, and that the work to get there is worth it. It also is a great way to include friends and neighbors in the process. And remember, while they are there they can also help you dig! Make sure to have a few extra shovels handy. That’s a Boss play right there.
5. Use and value renewable resources
When we harness renewable resources, we are tapped into the abundance of the natural world. It’s amazing how many things most of us will purchase and throw away, but it’s equally amazing how many free and abundant resources we allow to pass us by.
Nowhere has this been more apparent than in my rainwater collecting. Gardening in the high desert, the occasional rainstorm can be quite satisfying as the soil and plants soak up the moisture after a weary dry spell, especially since that means we can skip our watering chores for a few days. However, once you start catching that water, it goes from satisfying to exhilarating! Many a June monsoon I’ve been found, drenched in the downpour, eagerly eying my cisterns as they fill. It is nearly impossible to get enough storage capacity to handle all of the spring rain in the Salt Lake Valley even off of a garage roof!
Banking that abundance, I’m now wealthy in water for the months ahead, and rainwater is the highest grade of H2O. I’m a big fan of the high grade. No chlorine, no fluoride, just pure, clean water. (Of course I always divert the first flush of water to remove atmospheric pollutants, and never collect moisture after periods of inversion).
What I can’t catch, I divert into the landscape and retain it, to allow it to percolate into the soil. This water delivers itself to your property, but most poorly designed systems are built to shed this water and divert it from the property, out and away through storm drains. Residents then purchase water to use on their landscapes. What a hustle! Don’t play that game. Design your spot to collect it, store it, and soak it up.
6. Produce no waste
To be truly sustainable, everything must be reused, repurposed, or recycled. I’m no saint, I still have some garbage bags going to the curb, but it’s a fraction of what it was a few years ago.
The easiest place to slim down your waste stream is to quit buying disposable products, the second is to compost rather than throw away all of your organic matter. Organic matter accounts for around 50% of the average American’s waste, even higher once you factor in what you flush. This includes almost all of the paper and cardboard you put into your recycling bin. Recycling is great, but keeping all of those resources on site is better! Paper and cardboard are portable trees, shipped indirectly to my compost pile.
If we want to take it up a notch, let’s help eliminate others’ waste streams. One of my favorite parts of living in the city is the sheer volume of compostable resources thrown out by restaurants, grocery stores and breweries. So while I strive to minimize my own waste by avoiding throw-away packaging and not buying disposable crap, I also do what I can to capture this massive amount of potential fertility. High-grade compost equals absolutely banging soil. Buying nutrients from the garden center is unimaginative and expensive, and often results in more packaging to dispose of. Hustling organic matter and restaurant waste, composting it and building soil—well that’s just some next level gardening, done like a boss.
7. Design from patterns to details
We’re getting into the thick of the situation now. This guideline here is what separates great artists from mediocre ones, and it also applies to your garden, your home, and your special someone. This is about looking at the big picture.
Look at the overall elements, consider the goals, and design accordingly. Tackle the big items first; the little ones will tend to fall in place. Draw a map, big enough to make sense of and sturdy enough to last for years. Mark your paths, the spots you like to hang out, and map the observations you made in step one. Where are the areas you travel to daily? weekly? yearly? Where is the shade, where does the dog poop, what parts of the yard are trampled paths? Look at the patterns and map them. You’ll be amazed how quickly everything else falls into place.
8. Integrate rather than segregate
Interconnectedness is the muscle that makes the force of nature so resilient and unstoppable. Think about how the systems will tie together, how all of your actions will interrelate. This is a great place to eliminate waste.
Here’s an example; We give all of our uneaten food to our chickens, and since I have a two year old, I also have some pretty plump hens. Waste into resource—boom. The remnant organic matter, freesourced bags of leaves, and chicken poo are raked up weekly and put on the compost pile (waste to resource again) located adjacent to the coop (good design = less walking). Once pre-composted, that goes to the worm bin. The worms finish it off, and make more worms. The excess worms go the chickens. The compost provides fertility to grow more food, which now makes the trip back to the kitchen. It also provides food for the chickens. Win, wash, repeat.
You can gain friends, unharvested fruit trees, and even idle plots of land when you include your neighbors in the action. Turn your block into a fortress of abundance, and you’ll always have help lifting that random heavy object.
9. Use small and slow solutions
We humans may be intelligent, but we’re also fairly hasty. We tend to act before we’ve really even thought through our ideas to the end, and in doing so it’s easy to do too much, too fast. You’ve heard that saying, “The simplest answer is usually the correct one.” Well, the best thought out strategy often employs the least amount of work, done over a longer period of time. Dramatic changes to a landscape are rarely as effective as subtle ones. Passive systems always outlast anything with moving parts.
A note on that slow solution: It pays to sit on your ideas for as long as possible before action. The main advantage I usually gain from this is it a) stops me from doing very exciting, but very stupid things (occasionally), and b) it gives me plenty of time to scavenge all of my materials for cheap or free. With enough lead time, nearly everything you need can be freesourced. My current aquaponic system is built almost completely from salvaged materials, and it is a beast. The 2,700 sq/ft greenhouse it resides in was built entirely from salvaged materials, the only purchase being the greenhouse film.
10. Use and value diversity
Diversity is the main ingredient in the recipe for stability. That’s how nature works. A sea of similarity dulls the spirit. A mono-cropped field invites pests like an open bar.
I grow a wide range plants in my garden, both annual and perennial, and a diversity of varieties of each of those. When a disease or pest arrives, they’ll generally favor one in particular. No worries, I brought backup. This is the strategy and strength of the natural world. This same rule also applies for inviting friends to be part of your Burning Man camp.
Don’t forget to include the wild as a component of your diversity. It’s easy to get carried away in a small urban plot, and every nook and cranny gets put into production. The best designs leave a portion of the property to remain wild.
11. Use edges and value the marginal
In permaculture, the edge refers to where one thing encounters another. This is where the water meets the bank, or where the lawn meets the driveway. The edge is where systems interact with each other. When we design our garden beds with curves and irregular angles, we create more edge, which creates more planting space, as well as more diversity. When we plant next to sidewalks and boulders, plants have access to stored water under these masses. When we move our gardens to the front yard, this abuts it to the public space, and we get more action. And everybody loves getting more action.
One of the most powerful edges happens at the near surface of the soil. Where the underside of the composting top layer meets the upper surface of the soil below it. This meeting point is the duff, and is where the most microbial action occurs, where the most nutrient rich layer is. Next time you apply compost, don’t mix it in, you’ll minimize the duff layer. When you apply deep mulch, you are providing a long-lasting, self perpetuating duff layer, and applying protection at the same time. Good job, using protection! Plants’ feeder roots will seek out this layer in the soil, and it is par-tee time.
12. Creatively use and respond to change
All designs are subject to random forces that can crash the party, but the best of them roll with the punches, absorb the disruption, and harness its energy. If that force destroys something, you know how to build it better next time. If it destroys it again, maybe it’s not appropriate for your region. If something requires too much maintenance, redesign it.
I’ll take you back to my initial observation story: After a period of dealing with the trampled path thru the landscape, the white flag was waved and we accepted the usage of the preferred pathway, and removed obstructions. A few years later, when we redesigned the front yard, the basis of the design was achieved by recognizing the established traffic patterns. It divided up the yard beautifully, and our natural actions were enhanced by a landscape that catered to our movement patterns, imbued with beauty and considerably less thirsty for water in the desert than before.
Be open to change, embrace your failures, and before you know it, you’re winning most every time.
Permaculture is on the rise for a reason. Its power is rooted in practicality, its essence is simplicity.
By stopping to observe and by designing well, we can maximize outputs while minimizing inputs.
By shifting our paradigm from doing less harm to doing more good, we can fully enjoy our role as stewards on the planet.
By making careful, calculated decisions, we can harness more abundance with less work, all while being fulfilled and entertained.
By working with the natural cycles and attuning ourselves to the resources that sustain us, we can leave the world better than we were born into it.
So let’s grow this thing, live it, and love every minute of it. u
James Loomis runs Onsen Farm, a geothermal powered winter farm in southern Idaho. With a knack for merging biology and mechanics, he also teaches regularly, focusing on aquaponics, deep organic technique, and various urban permaculture disciplines. By night, he can be found making crowds wiggle and bounce performing as dj illoom.
Recommended reading on permaculture:
Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture
(second edition), by Toby Hemenway
(2009: Chelsea Green)
Introduction to Permaculture, by Bill Mollison (download at http://bit.ly/1xDgVg0)
Toolbox for Sustainable City Living, by Scott Kellog & Stacy Pettigrew
(2008: South End Press)