After the initial blank stare that people give when they first hear the word permaculture, a brief explanation usually brings them around to nodding and agreeing that it sounds like a good idea, but when one gets down to the nitty gritty of practicing it, few folks have what it takes to adhere to demanding continuous study of the elements and practicing principles of this blend of what is essentially both the art and science of land management. Most landowners are coming to realize that they are truly stewards of their tiny slice of the planet. No one likes to think that they are vicious exploiters, but few understand the science or wonder, nor their daily impact on the land beneath their feet. I put myself in this category as well. For one thing, I live out most of my life in a mediated environment, unable to touch and smell the soil, protected from the weather and touching things that either shield me from nature or allow me to survive without depending on the local environment. These activities are the antithesis of permaculture. The study that I do is deep and arduous, but many of my ideas overlook what is actually going on. Many of my greatest successes remain happy accidents and some things that I have tried with the best intentions have only resulted in problems. For instance, one forest recovery project led me to plant dozens of ash trees along a ridge. They were flourishing and adapting well to their new home. The landowner heard a story on the news that a beetle was bringing disease to our ash trees and pulled them all out by the roots in one afternoon. What i had failed to convey to her was that the value of a dead ash tree, if in fact they ever did succumb to the disease, far outweighs the value of her time spent pulling them out. all of the ashes that I have planted are still doing well and most are taller than me now, each participating in the recovery of a more balanced ecosystem.
I love both grapes and rhubarb, but to grow them to the exclusion of all other crops would not help my dietary requirements or the natural diversity that nature needs and permaculture seeks to emulate. Just as a healthy forest is made up of dozens of species, the plot managed for permaculture must reflect attention to overstory, understory, annuals, perennials and ephemerals. Plants whose days in the sun may be as few as several weeks must not be forgotten, sometimes they are the only food for the bees at that particular time.
Consideration of all creatures, not just humans, is one of the essential elements of the practice. Looking long and hard at the landscape and taking our cues from it rather than a seed catalog is another important component. Once, I saw a man take all of his seed, pour it in a bowl, then take handfuls and broadcast them over a wide area. as the weeds grew up, he hand harvested the edible ones so as to favor his chosen seeds. he walked gingerly through the jungle of food and hand selected for the plants that looked the healthiest. By mid-summer, there were no discernible rows or plots, just a profusion of plants, exhibiting a variety I had not seen except in prairie restorations. The only difference I could see between a short grass prairie and his “garden” was that every plant in his plot was edible. broccoli stood next to carrots and beets were mingled with dill and chard. Paying attention to the successes and failures of this sort of planting can lead to new pairings and season extending practices that could not be found when growing with traditional methods.
In some respects it makes more sense to say what permaculture is not, rather than what it is. Anyone who claims to know all there is to know about the subject is only telling you half the story. Management of the environment has been an essential human trait throughout our brief history. Local native tribes where I live routinely burned the forests along a twenty mile stretch bordered on the West by Green Bay, and extending many miles inland to favor oaks and exclude maples, the trees that would have eventually taken over the forest in our area. Oaks, which are mast seeders, favor deer and turkey, both of which can move over large areas to find acorns that the trees don’t produce each year, but rather can be found in abundance once every few years from any single tree. These game animals have specialized needs, taste great and the locals knew it. without intervention and fire, the deer and turkeys would have died out or moved on, but with human intervention stayed near the massive population center that depended on them for survival. Culture, over time, changes. What may be right for one moment in time may not work in the future. The only eternal truth is that what works today may not be a good idea tomorrow. Permaculture straddles the divide between what is best today and what will make sense tomorrow. Rather than the most common form of agriculture, which focuses on mono-cultures of a few crops (or sometimes, just one) permaculture seeks to emulate nature in that many species co-exist, each one adding to a more diverse harvest. This variety can lead to longer harvest seasons, multiple income streams and a more stable farm economy.
It is much like the well known JFK quote, but with a twist. Ask not what nature can do for you, ask what you can do for nature! To find success, we need to put our egos in our back pockets, look long and hard at the land, learn to listen to it, find out what it is saying and what it wants. a friend started an organic farm twenty years ago. Her first three years she said, “All I could grow were burdock, dandelion, lamb’s quarters and thistle.” What she didn’t know was that these are all either edible or medicinal. where she saw failure, the land was saying take what I can give, much like Shel Silverstein’s Giving Tree. She was only able to do what she knew, till it in. Luckily this added nutrients and tilth to the soil and within a few years she was rewarded with bumper crops of more desirable crops. Be patient, make small changes and look more, learn to “see” what is really going on in each corner of your land, wait, see what develops and what is working, then make a few more small changes and watch, listen and think about what is really going on in each tiny ecotone. sometimes the shade of a single tree in the mid afternoon can make profound changes in the environment. Imagine if you had to live in a single square foot of the property all year long, then ask yourself how you might change that square foot to be more hospitable in both the depths of winter and the long hot days of summer. You might be surprised at what you can learn from that consideration, then make a few more small changes and wait, see how that goes and whether it helps or hurts the overall system. As you can see, if you are the kind of person who either desires quick results or are a workaholic, this isn’t the method for you. On the other hand, if you like to sit quietly and look around at what nature is trying to tell us, you may have found a vocation for a lifetime!