I wanted to investigate permaculture to find out if it was something best left to "progressive" environmentalists, or if it was a landscaping system that average homeowners can use. So I asked a bunch of permaculture experts to bring this multisyllabic word down to my level. You know what I found out? Permaculture is definitely something the average homeowner can do. In fact, it might be the best landscaping investment you'll ever make.
What is permaculture?
"Permaculture" comes from "permanent agriculture," said Dr. John Gerber, a professor of plant science and sustainability studies at the University of Massachuetts at Amherst, over the phone on Tuesday. "It's agriculture that can be sustained and agriculture that can last for a long, long time. It originally comes from F.H. King, who was the head of the Division of Soil Management at the turn of the century. He went to China and studied how China had been growing food for 4000 years, and wrote a book called Farmers of Forty Centuries. He basically said China has been doing it for a lot longer than we have, and we need to create systems that are also permanent, that don't rely on fossil fuels, that don't run out, that don't pollute the environment, that don't erode soil."
"Permanent agriculture has expanded to be not only agriculture but part of the culture - how are we going to live on this planet without destroying it? It's really at the household level. It can be applied to larger systems, but it is really applied best at the household level, which is why probably your Web site is a good place to talk about permaculture principles, because they are very small systems that you can get your mind around as an individual. They are things that I can do individually around my house and homestead," said Gerber.
Did you catch that? Permaculture is best practiced by individual homeowners. I spoke to a pair of homeowners, Drs. Mai and Victor Phillips, who have been practicing permaculture for upwards of 20 years, and also happen to teach permaculture at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee and Stevens Point. Victor summed it up well, saying, "I'll say that permaculture is an attitude, and it's a design for mimicking nature in our apartments, in our homes and in our backyards. It's reconnecting with nature and restoring fertility and health in our local environments, and a healthy environment makes a healthy economy and healthy people."
In a world full of depressing environmental statistics, the idea that one can restore the environment by working with his own property is very empowering. Dave Jacke, a permaculture educator and designer, and the author of Edible Forest Gardens, discussed the impact that individual homeowners can have on the environment. He said, "As people bring permaculture design into their yards, what they start understanding is that my land is not separate from anyone else's land. For example, my coauthor on the book, he and his gardening partner bought a duplex together and they started putting a forest garden on their landscape. What they found is that when they put a forest garden, which is essentially an edible ecosystem, in their back yard, there was a huge increase in the number and diversity of insects and wildlife and birds in their backyard, and that enriches the whole neighborhood."
Jacke continued, "As people start doing this [practicing permaculture], they're going to start seeing those connections. If more neighbors do it, they're going to see a radical increase in the health of the ecosystem. If we pay attention, we begin to see that we're not separate, and that we have an appropriate role in the ecosystem as ecological managers. Our ecological role is regenerators and healers. We're here to lighten the load and help nature to be really healthy and beautiful. There's no separation between that function of humans and meeting our own needs, and we can meet our own needs at the same time that we regenerate the health of the ecosystem. And that's a really powerful experience."
Principles of Permaculture: Solar Power, Biodiversity, and Waste = Food
Dr. Gerber explained the 3 main principles of permaculture: "Rule #1: Mother Nature runs on solar power. Anything we can do moving in that direction helps. We can grow our own food, and we extend the season by growing in unheated hoop houses. When we do buy food, we try to buy as locally as we can so that we're using Mother Nature's power as it is manifested in local food that has not been transported thousands of miles using fossil fuels. We also can build simple solar hot water systems on our roof, which today economically make a lot of sense. Photovoltaics are a bit of a stretch because they are expensive, but solar hot water will pay for itself in 5 years, so that just makes sense. "
"Rule #2 is everything cycles in nature. The bumper sticker version of that is the mantra "waste = food." So there is no such thing as waste in nature. Everything becomes food for something else. In our homeowner systems, for example, I take my kitchen waste compost; I put it into a worm bin; I feed the worms to the hens; the hens produce eggs; I eat the eggs and I take scrap vegetables from the garden and feed my hens. So everything is trying to move toward a cyclic system. Compost waste becomes garden nutrients."
"The third really strong principle in permaculture is building biodiversity. Home lawns are ecological deserts. They have one species or a few species out there, and we have to fertilize them and use herbicides on them to make them look like home lawns. Whereas a permaculture garden, particularly using perennial vegetables with lots of diversity in the garden, is much easier to maintain and is much more productive than an ecological desert, which is the home lawn. The other 2 principles of solar power and waste = food don't work very well in simple monoculture systems. We encourage biological diversity in our yards, which means that they are more interesting to look at, they're more productive."
You can add permaculture elements to your landscape in small steps, and in a way that looks similar to conventional landscaping. Dr. Gerber suggested, "Put a couple of blueberry bushes instead of the rhododendrons. The blueberry will attract birds. It's pretty. You can eat it. And you don't have to give up your whole lawn. A couple of fruiting shrubs is moving in a direction of biodiversity without losing that landscaped look that some people seem to like." Drs. Phillips and Phillips suggested planting raspberry bushes, boysenberry bushes and grapevine for their aesthetic and functional properties.
Victor Phillips suggested a few other permaculture elements that the average homeowner can install: "You can start composting kitchen table scraps in a small compost bin. You can install rain barrel roof catchments off the gutter system. You can put in raised bed gardens of beautiful flowers and vegetables. You can keep worm bins, and chickens if they're allowed. You can do container gardens or sack gardens that can hang from the eaves and take up very little space. You could put in solar hot water panels. Beekeeping is another one that can happen in urban situations. All of these creative, innovative, integrated activities can be done even if you're an apartment dweller, and certainly if you have a small plot of ground."
Mai Phillips added, "But in such a way that is attractive. It's not what most people would think of as a vegetable garden. When you look at it, you'll see that it is interspersed with aesthetically beautiful plants and flowers inter-planted with vegetable produce and so forth. It's not row crops. You could make it in such a way that it is very beautiful and pleasing to the eye."
Since permaculture is a whole system of living in a sustainable way, and not just a landscaping system, Gerber suggested harnessing some solar power by drying laundry on a clothesline. He said, "I have a line where I hang my wet clothes out to dry in the back yard. When people hear about it they say, 'I remember a time when I was at camp,' or, 'When I was a kid...,' and there's kind of this positive feeling around it. I tell them what I do is I have a very efficient gas dryer and I put all my socks and underwear and small things in the dryer because I am too lazy to hang them out to dry. But the large things, like jeans and towels and sweat shirts, all go out in the sunshine. So I use solar power to do the drying half the year. All of a sudden my neighborhood just started sprouting clotheslines. People notice it. We talk about it. I talk about the meditative, calming process I get when I hang clothes on the line. We don't proselytize. Just do what you do and your neighbors will come to you and ask about it."
Why Polyculture Works
The biological diversity that Dr. Gerber mentioned is also known as "polyculture," or basically, growing a variety of plants that mutually benefit each other on the same site. Victor Phillips explained, "Nature is very diverse and has many components, and one of the attributes of permaculture is the resiliency of nature. That's what we are trying to do in permaculture systems in urban, suburban or broad acre scales. That is, build in polycultures so there is a resiliency when there is impact due to droughts or floods or what have you. By mimicking nature, we're restoring the complexity and the insurance and sustainability that it [polyculture] provides. What we've done as humans, and particularly in agriculture, is eliminate the diversity. We've gone to monocropping systems, which are very vulnerable to insect attack or disease and they're dependent on petrochemicals."
Gerber discussed how polyculture passively prevents insect infestations. He said, "The pressure from insects and diseases is much less in a permacultured garden. Think about this: If you're a corn borer and you see 100 acres of corn, that looks pretty good. You get there, you lay your eggs, and you raise families. If you are a corn borer larva and you're flying around my backyard, you have a pretty hard time finding the one or two corn plants in the whole diversity of plant material out there. In a monoculture, they're set up for you like free lunch. So you have less pest pressure in biologically diverse ecosystems." Gerber conceded that polyculture gardens do attract bugs, but he said that these bugs can be controlled using "good gardening practices." According to Gerber, "It takes a shorter time to pick cucumber beetles off of plants than to mix up a tank of pesticide and spray the plants."
The deeper level of polyculture design involves planning a landscape so that its elements serve multiple functions. Dave Jacke explained, "One of the things we talk about in permaculture is the principle of multiple functions, that everything has more than one interaction with its environment. As part of that, we do this thing that I call 'niche analysis.' So we look at a species of animal or plant and we say, 'What is its ecological niche? What are all of its interactions,' and we list out its needs, its tolerances and preferences and its characteristics -- its height and width and behaviors...we analyze all that so we can design a system where that plant is not under stress, all of its needs are being met, it can perform all of its natural functions without any problem and it's not being asked to perform any functions that are unnatural to it. That's the definition of harmony or lack of stress."
Jacke explained the way that plants offer multiple functions with the example of a pear tree. He said, "Obviously pear trees produce pears, but they also produce moderately dense shade, and flowers at a certain time of year, and a certain kind of color and texture of foliage, and we try to look at all those inherent products and find ways that all the inherent products are being used by some other part of the system, that its inherent needs are being met by the products of some other parts of the system. That's called "functional interconnection." You design a system where the inherent needs of one element are met by the products of another element, and that means that we have less work to do to run the system, because the system is running itself."
It sounds technical, but what Jacke is talking about basically means doing some research before planting a garden so that you can spend a lot less time weeding and fertilizing, and spend a lot more time enjoying the fruits of your labor.
Adding Animals into the Mix
Small animals, like chickens and fish, can serve multiple functions in a permaculture landscape. Mai Phillips described the many functions that chickens serve. She said, "At our home in Stevens Point, we kept 4 egg-laying hens. They were very unobtrusive and our neighbors hardly knew that we had them because they don't make much noise. They cluck when they are laying eggs, but not what you'd think of as a rooster that crows in the morning. As long as you don't have a rooster you're fine. They provided 4 eggs a day for a family of 3, and that's a lot of eggs.
"The manure that we got from them was really rich in nutrients, and we used that for our garden. Also, we allowed them to free range in our yard. We enclosed the yard using chicken wire and a chicken tractor, which is a pen that you move around after they finish a section of grass or garden. After we finished a garden and we picked all the vegetables and it was ready for the next planting, we'd put the chicken's pen in there and let the chickens take care of all the weeds. They loved it. They'd scratch the whole plot, and by the time they were done it was ready for the next planting."
In many densely populated urban areas, local code prohibits chickens. However, Mai Phillips said, "People have fish -- aquaponics in their gardens -- and that is doable. Fish are the most efficient converter into protein. If you feed them one pound of food, they produce 1.2 to 1.5 pounds of protein. Cows are 1 to 4, and a chicken is slightly better. You keep them in a circulating water feature, incorporating the fish in aquaponics where you circulate the water from the fish tank into vegetable production. The vegetable plant acts as a filter and cleans up the water from the fish tank, and the plants need the fish manure as fertilizer."
"Installing small water features adds a lot of diversity to a landscape, and they are very aesthetically pleasing and relaxing. Many of those are self-contained systems that are very affordable and easy to install. You can have a solar-powered pump on them," added Victor Phillips. "You can keep frogs or fish in there. It attracts beneficial insects that help with weed control."
Going All Out
I am aware of the fact that many homeowners don't want to rock the boat, and would prefer to take little steps to be more green. According to Dr. Gerber and Dr. and Dr. Phillips, that is a viable way of doing permaculture.
However, Dave Jacke said, "My experience has been that the way we perceive the world and the frames [of looking at the world] that we inherit and that we choose have a huge influence on creating the world around us on the physical plane. If we have a belief system that we've inherited or we've grown up with, that I don't deserve to be well fed, or I don't deserve love, or I don't deserve respect, then that changes the dynamics of all those other pieces of how we create the world around us. So if we're going to do permaculture, we need to be designing that whole system as a whole, and that means we need to be doing design of our inner landscape."
Jacke continued, "This is becoming a big focus for me because time and time again I've seen how I can design a landscape and a homestead and an economy for someone, but their mental structure will just destroy it. It is very tricky stuff. The inner landscape is the true invisible structure that we have to deal with. So when I talk about permaculture, I'm talking about designing that [a lifestyle and attitude] as a whole system in the context of nature as a whole system."
Photos: Pictured first is a forest garden. Pictured second is Dr. John Gerber. Pictured third is Dave Jacke. Pictured fourth is Dr. Mai Phillips. Pictured fifth is Dr. Victor Phillips.
Want to learn more about permaculture? Check out Professor Gerber's Living Routes study abroad program.