Tag Archives: permaculture

Walking through a permaculture garden

Permaculture as a way of life and process for design is quite amazing. I asked Alex before he moved on to the next farm what his favourite thing about working here had been, and that’s the first thing he said — the incredible thoughtfulness of the design. I would agree with that with one addition — how beauty has been incorporated as part of that design for usefulness, this is an extraordinarily beautiful place. I think I have pictures from each section of the garden to do a quick walkthrough to share and remember its scope and design.

It’s hard to imagine that when they arrived here twenty years ago it was just one enormous field, bare and windswept, though with some quite beautiful and fertile soil. Everything you see has been built and grown over this period.

You walk out of their door, past the washing line, and you see this:

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Three greenhouses (all recycled before they were torn down in other places and the third finished the second weekend I was there with the help of Julian, who had wwoofed with them before). These are full of seeds to be planted out into the garden, and have become ever more important with global weirding, as the weather has been more and more unpredictable over the past few years. I mentioned this with the runner beans, but it’s such a visceral way to understand climate change in counterpoint to everything else I am reading.

To the right you can just see the top of the caravan, and somewhere there is also a giant underground water cistern that collects rain and water run-off which is used to water the polytunnels and the beds when there is a bit of drought. This was constructed with a small grant.

The flower bed closest to the path is full of flowers and herbs, lots of beautiful aquilegias, some old roses, valerian, ornamental grasses. Here it is after our weeding efforts, and beyond it a bed of onions, also weeded on my last day with the use of the splendid English hoe:

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Continuing forward  you walk into the square we actually spent most of our time — you can see the tracks of our feet marking the grass. The hedges are of beech, and very beautiful — this once giant field has been divided up to create sheltered micro-climates that plants can better thrive in. The differences between this beautiful hedged squares and the open bit of meadow that has been left as a piece of the wild is quite amazing.

There are three sheds here, all very beautiful. Rob & Diana had been considering straw bale or cob, but received a small grant to build these on a very short time frame, so they are wood. I have completely failed to take a good photo of the shed to the right but here is a piece of it — it is where veg and boxes are stored in three different sections, and has a most wonderous wisteria climbing across the front of it. There is also a porch to shelter timber, and you can see the wheelbarrows.

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Here are the others (or is it just one long one with two entrances? I somehow don’t know, I should have finished this while I was there):

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The entrance on the left leads to two rooms, one containing the beautiful collection of old hand tools, which we carefully cleaned every day and oiled with WD-40 on wet days to keep from rust, and another where I prepared the salad bags and Diana dries the herbs she uses in her practice.

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The other entrance leads to the room where Diana carries out her practice.

Continuing straight ahead through this square we come to two polytunnels and a line of grapes and berries recently mulched.

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The polytunnel on the right, where I was collecting salad leaves:

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Polytunnel on the left:

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Farming 2.3

Behind this polytunnel could be found the very sheltered and warm area perfect for the herb garden — with the terribly overgrown bed we weeded and the one we began to create:

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You continue straight ahead on the path between the polytunnels and arrive here, the stack of willow poles we used for the beans in sight (everything is used once, twice, three times — nothing wasted is a key permaculture principle):

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To the right, the Szechuan pepper and the willows we planted my first day, here almost hidden by their mulch donuts:

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Continuing straight through you arrive at the orchard and chickens and geese:

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There is one main henhouse and a couple of smaller ones with runs, to separate mums and chicks from the others and give them a little more protection against foxes and the magpies and jays and crows that regularly predate eggs — Rob was checking down here several times a day to regularly collect eggs before the birds got them. The geese are kept in a separate enclosure with their own house just behind me here.

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So back up to the sheds, towards the house (meeting Biddy as she stalks down the paths of gravel laid just last winter),

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Turning right here you would come to the main outdoor vegetable beds, looking straight ahead:

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Left — I realise I actually have no idea what this shed was supposed to be for, but we never did use it

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Looking to your right (this closest bed is before we weeded it and where we created the willow wigwams for the beans) towards the bog garden and flower meadow, Rob’s little writing shed in the distance (he never did have energy for writing at the end of the day — something for me to remember):

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Continuing straight down the main path you can see the duck enclosure (again they have a secure house within a secure fully covered pen, these are within a much larger pen with just a low fence surrounding it where they spend their days — more pics here)

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And looking to the left, the rest of the beds and the berry enclosure, to protect delicious fruit from birds. There are, of course, lots of berries planted outside for the birds, because this is a smallholding to encourage all kinds of life.

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Turning right you head down to the wildflower area and the writing shed — Rob has just been down here with the scythe to start to reclaim the bog garden, but I failed to take a picture of this, or the lovely yellows of the buttercups being dug up all over the rest of the smallholding.

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Looking further down the wildflower meadow to the end of the property, the Hawthornes blooming beautifully:

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To the right is the old veg bed that had been plasticed over to help kill the couch grass and nettles that we partially reclaimed for more runner beans:

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Beyond it more fruit trees (Rob has over 60 heirloom apple trees and myriads of others), here is more of Alex’s amazing mulching work with the grasses and nettles scythed down from the forest garden path you can see beyond:

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We walk down it and see the little crossroads:

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Turning left we come to the far polytunnel

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A bit battered from last winter’s storms but still very serviceable, this held most of the spinach and chard we’ve been harvesting for market, all now run to seed so in the process of being cleared and replaced with tomatoes dying to get out of their little greenhouse pots.

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Back to the crossroads we turn left now

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Newly cut grass and poles coppiced and left here to cure

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Looking right we’re back looking at the area behind the two polytunnels that we were working to weed and clear for the herb gardens proper

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We can keep walking straight past more poles

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and down to the open area just in front of the chickens and orchard (to your left here):

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Back up this little path of flagstones we have traversed before to the polytunnel

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And then back between the two heading towards the house.

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I haven’t really even started on describing the contents of the beds or the rotations — as much thought goes into that as anything else, but it is all in Rob’s head. So impressive. This smallholding is hovering at the line at which it can be maintained by Rob and wwoofers using hand tools and learning the great arts of permaculture and gardening, earning almost-but-often-not-quite-enough income through sales at Tavistock market (Rob is looking for another outlet as he has excess veg at this point) for true sustainability. It definitely feeds them exceedingly well. To make an income it needs to be a bit bigger, but that would require mechanization and more outlets — hopefully we are moving more towards a world in which a smallholding like this one, as well as Ian and Tania’s, become more viable propositions for those working in ways that leaves the planet better for their work here.

As you can see, it is a wonderful place that reflects the wonderful people who have created it. I learned so much but there is clearly so much left to learn here…not least the great wisdom of Diana around herbs and their uses. You can see her website here, she runs day courses as well as her practice, and I couldn’t recommend them highly enough based on our little session on dandelions.

You can read some of the theory and thinking behind permaculture here.

Off to the next farm on Monday! Peak district, here I come.

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The Terrible Truth About Ducks

Yesterday started with ducks. They get shut in at night, to protect them from the fox. When released, they erupt from their prison with a joyful waddling quacking, leaving their little wooden hut in a waddling quacking line of joyfulness.

I thought to myself, how wonderful ducks are! They headed straight for the water.

ducks

I don’t know if it was the waddling or the quacking, but I really loved ducks at that moment.

After feeding them, all of their water gets emptied out and refilled — the three of these and a large almost -paddling-pool size one in the larger enclosure. They’re allowed into the larger enclosure where they can hunt for slugs and snails (the main practical reason you want ducks possibly) if they’ve laid eggs. They had laid two eggs. Out they went. More waddling and quacking. More joy.

We were refilling the water here and a sudden splashing made me turn around. I am sorry to say that possibly the most violent sex scene I have possibly ever seen was being enacted in the paddling pool. Apparently this is just the way it is for female ducks. More than one male was involved, and I would not be surprised to find that more than one female ends up drowning in such encounters.

Lady ducks of the world unite, is all I have to say.

It was a bit anticlimactic, but realising I personally wouldn’t be able to organise the lady ducks effectively to overthrow patriarchy, I agreed to continue to rescue the herb bed, and when done we used hazel from the hedges to build cages to support the great sprawling valerian

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and the soon to be sprawling elecampane, which will soon send forth great yellow flowerheads.

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If you build the cages early enough, they will disappear into the foliage as it grows ferociously in the spring and summer. The valerian was my hazel weaving work, but because these branches were cut from the hedge which has been lopped many times, they were quite unideal for such a weaving. Still, they were usable. You use all that is usable, and most things can serve multiple purposes over the course of their development, this is the philosophy of permaculture.

We had weeded these beds while Rob was mowing the orchard with the scythe — necessary before the docks flowered and seeded. So we spent some time raking up the leavings, which we will at some point use to mulch the apple trees. This is where the chickens live, along with Gandalf the Grey (gander) and Galadriel the white (goose).

I have stared my gander fear in the face and won.

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Farm 2.5

Today we weeded a different bed full of herbs and flowers, transplanted some comfrey, and began work on a new bed using a brilliant tool called an azada, which scrapes the root-matted tops off of the earth infested with the terrible cooch grass, allowing you to turn over the earth and rid it of the deep clinging roots of said grass. It went from this (we’d started a bit here):

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To this:

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You can see how the roots infest this beautiful soil. This is the grass that makes no-dig permaculture gardening impossible here (after reading Masanobu Fukuoka I was so excited about that, but ah well). You have to turn it over and over and pick it through, and still you know it will be returning. I did most of the azada work, so I am happily tired.

I quite love hard work.

Also, yesterday, we picked a huge amount of beautifully ripened strawberries — the lovely varieties you can’t buy in supermarkets because they bruise and don’t last forever and will make other strawberries pale in comparison.

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So today we made some jam. Well, I watched Diana make some jam. I think I will be able to make jam in future. A kilo of strawberries, a kilo of sugar (yep, half and half), some lemon rather than pectin for it to set. Boil, stir, get it up to temperature. Boil a minute or two more. Let it sit a minute and the fruit settle. Fill jars sterilised with boiling water. After a little while, turn the jars upside down. A few hours later turn them right side up and that creates a seal.

Also today I sent off yet another job application and made dinner which people actually enjoyed. A good day.

To end by continuing the herb lessons from Mrs. M. Grieve’s A Modern Herbal, here is some awesome info on valerian and elecampane:

Valeriana officinalis – Valerian

It was afterwards found to be useful in certain kinds of epilepsy. The plant was in such esteem in mediaeval times as a remedy, that it received the name of All Heal, which is still given it in some parts of the country.

The drug allays pain and promotes sleep. It is of especial use and benefit to those suffering from nervous overstrain, as it possesses none of the after-effects produced by narcotics.

During the recent War, when air-raids were a serious strain on the overwrought nerves of civilian men and women, Valerian, prescribed with other simple ingredients, taken in a single dose, or repeated according to the need, proved wonderfully efficacious, preventing or minimizing serious results.

Though in ordinary doses, it exerts an influence quieting and soothing in its nature upon the brain and nervous system, large doses, too often repeated, have a tendency to produce pain in the head, heaviness and stupor.

Inula Helenium – Elecampane

The herb is of ancient medicinal repute, having been described by Dioscorides and Pliny. An old Latin distich celebrates its virtues: Enula campana reddit praecordia sana (Elecampane will the spirits sustain). ‘Julia Augustus,’ said Pliny, ‘let no day pass without eating some of the roots of Enula, considered to help digestion and cause mirth.’ The monks equally esteemed it as a cordial. Pliny affirmed that the root ‘being chewed fasting, doth fasten the teeth,’ and Galen that ‘It is good for passions of the hucklebone called sciatica.’

Elecampane is frequently mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon writings on medicine current in England prior to the Norman Conquest; it is also the ‘Marchalan’ of the Welsh physicians of the thirteenth century, and was generally known during the Middle Ages.

It was formally cultivated in all private herb-gardens, as a culinary and medicinal plant, and it is still to be found in old cottage gardens. Not only was its root much employed as a medicine, but it was also candied and eaten as a sweetmeat. Dr. Fernie tells us, in Herbal Simples:

‘Some fifty years ago, the candy was sold commonly in London as flat, round cakes being composed largely of sugar and coloured with cochineal. A piece was eaten each night and morning for asthmatical complaints, whilst it was customary when travelling by a river, to suck a bit of the root against poisonous exalations and bad air. The candy may still be had from our confectioners, but now containing no more of the plant Elecampane than there is of barley in Barley Sugar.’

In Denmark, Elecampane is sometimes called Elf-Doc. Here one sometimes comes across the name Elf-Dock locally, also Elfwort.

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On Salad

It takes a lot of work, salad.

So. Much. Work.

This is because today we worked picking for the market, for the ‘city folk’, not for our own meal. I know now I never appreciated enough where my usual salad came from.

It took two of us much of the morning to harvest two boxes of spinach and one of chard. True, it’s near the end of the harvest and they are just at the point of bolting, but still. So much work. Back — aches. Hands — itch from that one sneaking nettle. Bending over to pick leaf by leaf, not too much on any one plant so more can be harvested. I know spinach disappears when you cook it, but it does the same damn thing filling a box.

I also picked and washed and de-slugged lettuce. I thus discovered today there are not two kinds of slug — the fat round kind and the long slithery kind with antlers. The slitherers roll up. Life was all right when I didn’t know that.

Mizuna, roquette (this is the same as arugula, who knew? Maybe I knew, but I have also been known to state I’ve never had ‘rocket’ in the US. Perhaps this forgetfulness arises from the fact I don’t care so much for it…) and a third I can’t remember. Those you can just cut all the leaves in a satisfying bunch about an inch and a half above the roots and they will grow back better than ever. Those were a pleasure to harvest. A little chicory, endive, some calendula petals and my salad bags for market tomorrow were a pleasure to behold.

There is, of course, also the choosing of varieties, preparing of beds, planting, watering and etc. Today’s labour was only the end of a much longer labour of hours and thought.

The afternoon we spent weeding around the chard and spinach, and weeding and weeding. But these polytunnels are amazing.

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Today’s moral: appreciate your damn salad.

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West Devon Smallholding, Day 1

Oh, today was lovely.

This despite, or possibly because of, the extended tour of West Devon I received today due to the vagueries of Devon’s public transportation system. While there were at least three different bus schedules online for the same route, I did think I had found the correct up-to-date one. It insisted I stay on the bus at Okehampton, and to note that the bus number would change from 6A to 6 as it left Okehampton for Holsworthy.

The bus did arrive in Exeter at the time I had noted. The driver sold me a ticket to my final destination without batting an eyelid. I breathed a sigh of relief.

The trip was lovely. We skirted glorious emerald fields.

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Dartmoor rose in the background.

West Devon

We arrived in Okehampton, paused, were off again.

I realised after mounting anxiety that something was wrong. Turns out I was not supposed to stay on the bus, I was supposed to change from the 6A to the 6 in Okehampton. But if I just stayed on long enough, the bus would eventually get back where I was going.

So we arrived in Launceston. I was here when I was thirteen with my mum. This whole area makes me think of her, and my gran in Lamerton and it feels a bit like my country. It makes me happy. I didn’t mind seeing the castle again — it’s not nearly as big as I remember it.

Launceston

I didn’t remember this, but Bruce Lee always makes me happy.

Launceston

Then we were off to Bude (opposite direction from my final destination). Still so beautiful.

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Just before Bude, and after a glimpse of the sea, we pulled into a lock up to change drivers, and my driver coming off a long shift was so apologetic he gave me a ride to Holsworthy. Only about 10 minutes late, so clearly I was meant to have waited in Okehampton for some time. In the rain. So although I missed my ride and had to wait a little longer with a little more anxiety, they came back for me and it all ended well.

This smallholding is amazing, I am going to learn so much here. I just worked a part of an afternoon after the tour. I am still taking in the thoughtfulness and design behind absolutely everything.

Geese, I learned, are no fun and their powers of guarding are real and to be respected. Goose vs fox? No contest, goose will win. Goose vs. me? Also no contest, luckily I can move faster.

We raked up the grass and nettles they had scythed (scything! Hurrah!) the day before, the three of us WWOOFERs each planted a shrub — mine was Szechuan Pepper. Awesome. Then piled the mulch high all around them and then it was time to be done. Tidy up. Tea.

Then I joined a little trip into Stratton for an environmental group meeting in the ancient pub (pub? Lefty meeting? of course I will…and well worth it, I enjoyed it immensely and learned some more — not least that Stratton is actually in Cornwall).

Stratton is amazing. This is the Tree Inn up the hill on the left, ancient inn, with parts of it dating from the 13th Century, parts of it built with timber rescued from wrecked galleons on the Cornish coast:

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Stratton

The last of the Cornish giants:

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Gibraltar Square! Lots of naval references here.

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We saw a cat make a flying leap and land with a thud on top of a car. Luckily the woman in the car at the time was its owner.

Amazing sunset from the great mound the church is built on (possibly the site–given its raised round shape–of pagan worship before they plunked the church down)

Stratton

Stratton

Petal-strewn cobbles

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And part of a cob wall without its plaster (cob! Real cob! This is what it looks like underneath, how exciting as all I know of it is theoretical)

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A final view.

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Home. Tired. Looking forward to sleep.

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Transition, or The Power of Just Doing Stuff

the-power-of-just-doing-stuff-160x246This book is an invitation to explore a new approach to how our economy might work, how we create employment and wealth, and how we live and work in our local communities. (9)

I’d heard about the Transition Town stuff, I’ve even been a member of the Brixton group on facebook for quite a while now, but it never seemed very active and I wasn’t entirely sure what it was all about… This book was lying around the office, brought in by Claire I expect, and reading further down the first page I found:

I hope that this proves sufficiently inspiring that in later years you might look back at the moment when you picked up this book as having been one of the seminal moments in your life, beyond which you never looked at things in the same way again. (9)

As if for all of us there’s some pre-packaged red and blue pill a la Matrix with the same content, the same deconstruction (or reconstruction) of reality that some dude can give us to swallow and thus change everything.

I really hate that shit.

That said, looking at content over style and the point of this book as a simple introduction to energy descent and what are mostly permaculture principles as they might apply to building local community and resilience, well that’s all good. I understand the idea is to inspire. So I won’t quibble too much over style, just note it didn’t work for me and won’t work for anyone else with a bit of a chip on their shoulder from having been regularly informed of what to think because you’re a woman, or poor or any of the other multitude of reasons like being a person of colour or an immigrant or disabled or elderly or… all those things.

The idea underpinning this book is that local action can change the world. Between the things we can do as individuals and the things that governments and businesses can do to respond to the challenges of our times, lies a great untapped potential, what I am calling ‘The Power of Just Doing Stuff’. It’s about what you can create with the help of the people who live in your street, your neighbourhood, your town. (11)

That’s all good. The aspiration that local action can change the world. I like too that it’s tied in to big problems that neither austerity nor any proposed new deal is talking about — peak oil, climate change, an economy in crisis that can’t just keep expanding forever.

I’d like to suggest a third approach, a new Big Idea for our times, which could prove to be one of the most essential and pivotal shifts in thinking in recent times. It is the idea of local resilience as economic development. It is the idea that by taking back control over meeting our basic needs at the local level we can stimulate new enterprises … while also reducing our oil dependency and carbon emissions… (27)

Resilience — I am still not sure what I think of this term, in many ways it has always seemed to me an academic appropriation of what poor people have doing for thousands of years to survive, and something to admire in that sense, but surely we should be aiming higher. Still, I’m willing to look at it as a construct. He quotes Lewis and Pat Conaty’s The Resilience Imperative on what generates resilience

  • Diversity
  • Modularity (leave a gap in that line of dominoes)
  • Social Capital (another word I quite hate, but ‘social networks and vibrant communities’ are all good)
  • Innovation
  • Overlap (no siloes, no one is isolated)
  • Tight feedback loops (the real point of evaluation — get better as you’re going along)
  • Ecosystem services  (real understanding of our impact) (34-35)

Thinking about how to build that into community work is important I think, and useful when actively thinking about how to knit together different people and projects to make the whole stronger. These terms used both to plan work and to evaluate how well you are doing seem very useful indeed.

The point that ‘We are the cavalry‘ is an interesting one…no government, big business, wealth benefactors or billionaires are going to bail us out. We have to do it. Am I sure about this? Frankly not so much because those are the guys really causing climate change and taking the whole world to hell in a hand basket, but I am sure that communities working together like this is a vital part of the solution. How does he argue this works?

If you can get a group of people together where you live and you can start practical projects on the ground which demonstrate this new approach, then what starts to happen is that the story that place tells about itself begins to shift. (47)

A good insight that practice shifts discourse, shifts the way we understand the world through our narratives. What Re:imagining Change talk about, but a more organic way of creating a counter narrative built in positive change rather than all the many important campaigns that stop all the bad things from happening.

Transition is an idea about the future, an optimistic, practical idea. And it’s a movement you can join. There are people near you who are optimistic and practical too. And it’s something you can actually do. Actually, it’s lots of things you can actually do. Lots of things.

The Transition approach is self-organising and people-led. It looks different everywhere it emerges, yet is recognisably Transition…It’s a social experiment on a huge scale. It’s also great fun.

You can think of it as being like Open-Source software. Everyone who gets involved picks it up and tries it out where they live, and is part of its ongoing evolution. Their additions refinements and insights are available to others who are also trying to figure it out…You can think of it as a self-organising system, driven by people’s enthusiasm and ideas. (49)

There’s a whole lot of this happening everywhere, which is so inspiring, and not all of it is Transition of course. The internet has made it possible for stories to spread so quickly, for people to learn from one another. There are multiple different networks, another one growing out of the Community Lovers Guides done by Civic systems labs, and their even more intentional approach to how the growth of a thickly networked participatory community might be facilitated (see thoughts on their marvelously detailed report on a year’s work in South London here). But networks are important, feeling part of something bigger is important. Hopkins answers the question of why label things as Transition — it allows for a more joined up approach, can be a catalyst and idea incubator, provides a network. As long as there’s no proprietorial feeling over such local efforts, that’s all good too.

Transition of course builds on the permaculture principle that we are moving into energy descent, having to scale back everything as deeper crisis approaches (Holmgren writes about this, as well as Bell and Mollison of course). The vague outlines of it as an economic approach are interesting. Hopkins argues Transition:

proactively sets about creating a post-growth economy from the bottom up, contributing to the ‘Big Idea’… It doesn’t just accept that we have to grit our teeth for five more years of ever-more-soul-crushing austerity..

What characteristics will it have?

  • Localised
  • resilient
  • brings assets into the community ownership
  • low-carbon
  • has natural limits
  • not purely about personal profit (59)

Quite vague though. It also depresses me the absence of words like justice, a line about how we end existing structural inequality. The environmental justice movement has been fighting that for so so long, arguing addressing class, race, gender, sexuality inequalities have to at the forefront of any real and lasting change. You have to throw in global inequalities as well. Graham Haughton is one place to start, Vandana Shiva‘s work somewhere else. I know this book is mostly about motivation, but this could just become (or remain) for the most part a nice comfortable middle-class thing. It can’t stay there and maintain any real meaning, especially when there is so much amazing stuff happening around the world — more amazing outside of the UK to be honest. This does try to connect to some of those things, but clearly it’s mostly limited to Britain and its former white colonies.  This is the weakness of localism in many ways I think, it tends to avoid these issues as well as the big agents of climate change with a positive goal of doing what we can here and now. An uneasy trade off that needs more work.

So all that said, I did like the case studies — I always love case studies, they actually help you do things and they really push our ideas about what is possible starting where we are.

I do like that that is the point.

Here are a few that you can look at

Totnes REconomy project

Malvern Gastketeers

Bristol Pound

Transition Town Brixton

The one I most love is Brixton Energy — I’m just sad living in Brixton for the past six years I had never heard of it, but putting solar panels up on estates is definitely my idea of awesomeness. Their last post, though, is November 2014 and like a lot of these initiatives they seem to be continuing on but not expanding. These initiatives rely quite heavily on people with a lot of time and no few skills, at least to really start up and get going. That makes it hard, and not so resilient and is something that needs more thought I think. The participatory city folks are working on what it would take to get a very dense network of projects up and running that would network a whole community and make this more sustainable once set in motion. That’s quite exciting really, and I do have immense enthusiasm for these kinds of projects…

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David Holmgren on Permaculture Principles

David Holmgren's Permaculture: Principles and PathwaysThere is so much in David Holmgren’s Permaculture that I am sure I will return to it, but I wanted to capture the basics in one post. One long post.

Way back when I had a house and a garden, I found out about permaculture and read the huge manual by Bill Mollison and was immensely impressed and tried to grow all my own veg. I failed, and learned a lot in the process. It is many years on now, of living in rooms and flats and no access to gardens and moving and a publishing endeavour and a thesis. I am quite excited to come back to it in thinking about urban and public space and how we live, how we create community, how we leave every place we inhabit, and the earth itself, better than we found it. That’s rarely talked about.

Uncertainty about our place and our future and our knowledge, however, is more and more talked about.

We live in an uncertain age — theoretical science has opened up a whole world of uncertainty, modernity clashing with traditional values, crisis undermines possibility of certainty about the future, and the pace of technology-driven change

Even so, what surprised me — and shouldn’t have because it is a reality that we must face — is that this book starts with, and doesn’t bother to argue for, the reality of climate change, peak oil, crisis. In fact the permaculture movement started with that foundation forty odd years ago

Insofar as permaculture is an effective response to the limitations on use of energy and natural resources, it will move from its current status as “alternative response to environmental crisis” to the social and economic mainstream of the post-industrial era. Whether it will be called permaculture or not is a secondary matter. (xvii)

It argues for a true sustainability, looked at in different ways as befits a key principle for organizing life. One is ‘as a set of coherent system priorities’. There follows an interesting set of binaries that contrast industrial with sustainable culture —

David Holmgren's Permaculture: Principles and Pathways

I am trying to think more along continuums rather than through binaries, but this is useful I think.

So on to definitions.

Definition:  Expanded from Permaculture One: “Consciously designed landscapes which mimic the patterns and relationships found in nature, while yielding an abundance of food, fibre and energy for porvision of local needs.” People, their buildings and the ways they organise themselves are central to permaculture. Thus the permaculture vision of permanent (sustainable) agriculture has evolved to one of permanent (sustainable) culture.

A second definition: the use of systems thinking and design principles that provide the organising framework for implementing the above vision. (xix)

And then there is this

Permaculture is a whole-hearted adaptation to the ecological realities of decline, which are as natural and creative and those of growth….The real issue of our age is how we make a graceful and ethical descent. (xxix)

and if you didn’t quite get that, he writes:

I am suggesting that we need to get over our naive and simplistic notions of sustainability as a likely reality for ourselves our even our grandchildren and instead accept that our task is to use our familiarity with continuous change to adapt to energy descent. (xxx)

Yes please, let’s do that. I wish everyone from now on could just start right here.

David Holmgren’s Ethical Principles of Permaculture

Three broad principles — pretty easy:

Care for the earth
Care for people
Set limits to consumption and reproduction, and redistribute surplus (1)

I liked this:

In particular, we need to be suspicious of seeing the philosophy of individualism as the source, rather than outcome, of material well-being. Further, we should expect that the beliefs and values that have developed with a rising energy base are likely to be dysfunctional–even destructive–in a world of limited and declining energy. (2)

I loved this:

The stewardship concept demands that we constantly ask the question: Will the resource be in better shape after my stewardship? One cannot go far in this process without challenging the ethical validity of the ownership of land and natural resources that lies at the heart of our legal system. Control of land and natural resources has been central throughout history; in a low-energy future it will again become the primary focus for ethics, politics and culture. Indigenous land right and agrarian land reform in poor countries are two issues that continue to challenge the prevailing ethics about land. The ethic of earth stewardship provides a moral imperative to continue to work out more creative ways for vesting control of land in collective structures, rather than taking as natural the individual ownership of land that goes with our Western industrial culture. Efforts to do this over the last hundred years show that it is not an easy task.  (5)

It is part of care for the earth: understanding the living soil, stewardship of land, preserving biodiversity, seeing all living things as intrinsically valuable and minimising our impact on them.

Care for people? It means understanding the massive structural inequalities, doing what we can to undermine them beginning with ourselves and our families, our neighbourhoods, our communities. I think missing here is a little deeper thought into social and racial justice and how those intersect with environmental justice —  the words environmental justice don’t appear at all, but I think will have to be intrinsic to a wider movement. Graham Haughton‘s work is a start among that of many others I am now exploring.

And hell yes to redistributing surplus.

There then follow twelve principles:

Each of course links to the others, ‘In this sense, each principle can be thought of as a door into the labyrinth of whole-systems thinking.’ (xii)

1. Observe and Interact

icontreeThe icon for this principle is a person as a tree, emphasizing ourselves in nature and transformed by it. (13)

A process of continuous observation in order to recognise patterns and appreciate details is the foundation of all understanding. (13)

And lo and behold, a popular education spiral — I use this all the time to think through things:

David Holmgren's Permaculture: Principles and Pathways

2. Catch and Store Energy

iconcatchenergyThe icon of sunshine captured in a bottle suggests the preserving of seasonal surplus and a myriad of other traditional and novel ways to catch and store energy. It also reflects the basic lesson of biological science: that all life is directly or indirectly dependent on the solar energy captured by green plants.

The proverb “make hay while the sun shines” reminds us that we have limited time to catch and store energy before seasonal or episodic abundance dissipates. (27)

Energy is stored in landscapes — water, nutrients and carbon. This is what our presence should be working to rebuild. This means we think about the land we can manage, we think about catchment and regional planning, and we think about households and the built environment as stores of energy.

When considering the development of the tools, buildings and infrastructure , we should aim to emulate, where possible, the characteristics…for natural storages of energy. The following design criteria are relevant:

  • modest in scale
  • well-designed for long life and/or made frmo easily renewable materials
  • simple to maintain (not necessarily maintenance-free)
  • multi-purpose and easy to adapt to other uses. (46) 

3. Obtain a Yield

iconobtainyieldThe icon of the vegetable with a bite taken shows the production of something that gives us an immediate yield but also reminds us of the other creatures who are attempting to obtain a yield from our efforts. (55)

Then he goes on to talk about Kropotkin‘s refutation of the Darwinists in arguing that cooperation is as prevalent if not more than competition. Yay. It means understanding where and how we are dependent on social relationships — harder to see sometimes in the modern world, just as our interdependence with the other creatures in our world is obscured.

4. Apply Self-Regulation and Accept Feedback

iconself0regulateIn modern society, we take for granted an enormous degree of dependence on large-scale, often remote, systems for provision of our needs, while expecting a huge degree of freedom in what we do without external control. In a sense, our whole society is like a teenager who wants to have it all, have it now, without consequences.

The Gaia hypothesis of the earth as a self-regulating system, analogous to a living organism, makes the whole earth a suitable image to represent this principle. (72)

This is really hard, because it’s been a really long time since we’ve done it. That’s all about to change.

Learning to think wholistically requires an overriding, or reversal, of much of the cultural heritage of the last few hundred years. With little experience of whole-system thinking and such cultural impediments, we need to focus our efforts on simple and accessible whole systems before we try to amend large and complex ones. (85)

5. Use and Value Renewable Resources and Services

iconusevlaueThere is no more important example in history of human prosperity derived from non-consuming use of nature’s services than our domestication and use of the horse for transport, soil cultivation and general power for a myriad of uses. (93)

I love this, it encapsulates everything wrong with consumption, and a lovely definition of use value, evocative of William Morris somehow:

Appropriate use:

How well we use the products from natural resources is as important as the way those products are made. The dining table that is used each day to feed a large household is very different from the one used for the occasional dinner party in an otherwise empty house. One will become imbued with the memories and marks of living. The other will occupy space that is locked, insured, maintained and heated, doing little. (95)

6. Produce No Waste

iconearthwirmThe earthworm…lives by consuming plant litter (wastes), which it converts into humus that improves the soil environment for itself, for soil micro-organisms and for the plants. Thus, the earthworm, like all living things, is a part of web where the outputs of one are the inputs for another. (111)

A critique of privatisation, of built-in obsolescence. A recognition that the world’s poor know more about this than anyone else living, and instead of being looked down upon they should be held up as teachers and examples.

7. Design From Patterns to Details

icondesignThe spider on its web, with its concentric and radial design, evokes zone and sector site planning, the best-known and perhaps most widely applied aspect of permaculture design. The design pattern of the web is clear, but the details always vary. (127)

I don’t think it surprises me that he references Christopher Alexander’s Pattern Language here, looking at the regular patterns to be found in our built environment. I quite love that he tries here to look towards beginning a similar pattern language for permaculture design.

This is all about thinking how energy is stored in the landscapes we create, but its interesting to think of ‘site design as cellular design’.

We can think of a permaculture-designed garden (Zones 1 and 2) as a human rural settlement cell. There is a limit to efficient garden size before we have to jump up into a more complex production system. Successful gardens do not keep expanding. Instead, they provide a surplus of plant stock and human knowledge that help to establish new gardens.

Despite the great challenges in recreating community, the expanding interest in eco-villages and co-housing as part of the permaculture vision is implicit recognition of the problem that the nuclear family is too small in scale for many aspects of ecological living. (138)

8. Integrate Rather Than Segregate

iconintegrateIn every aspect of nature, from the internal working of organisms to whole ecosystems, we find the connections between things are as important as the things themselves. Thus “the purpose of a functional and self-regulating design is to place elements in such a way that each serves the needs and accepts the products of other elements.”

Our cultural bias toward focus on the complexity of details tends to ignore the complexity of relationships. We tend to opt for segregation of elements as a default design strategy for reducing relationship complexity.

The icon of this principle can be seen as a top-down view of a circle of people or elements forming an integrated system. The apparently empty hole represents the abstract whole system that both arises from the organisation of the elements and also gives them form and character. (155)

Then there is this:

Permaculture can be seen as part of a long tradition of concepts that emphasize mutualistic and symbiotic relationships over competitive and predatory ones. Declining energy availability will shift the general perception of these concepts from romantic idealism to practical necessity. (156)

There’s a section called rebuilding community, and god knows we need that.

…almost everyone active in the permaculture movement would agree that stronger development of co-operative relationships between people, families and communities outside the large institutional structures is the perfect complement to personal and household self-reliance. Without this alternative, political strategies for taming the global institutions are like King Canute telling the sea to retreat.  (172)

I like too the list of characteristics of a sustainable community:

  • Local and bioregional political and economic structures

  • cross-fertilization–biogenetic, racial, cultural and intellectual–giving natural hybrid vigour

  • Accessibility and low dependence on expensive and centralised technology

  • capable of being developed by incremental steps with feedback and refinement (172)
    Because the design of sustainable culture is beyond the capability of any mortal, the process must be organic and iterative. Each small step and stage should be immediately useful and workable and should provide feedback for refinement, and even changes, of direction. (173)

9. Use Small and Slow Solutions

iconsmallandslowThe spiral house of the snail is small enough to be carried on its back and yet capable of incremental growth. With its lubricated foot, the snail easily and deliberately traverse any terrain. (181)

Lovely — though the use of the word lubricated still makes me giggle like a twelve year old.

I also love how clearly this stands in opposition to Le Corbusier’s paean to speed adhered to by planner after planner.

The speed of movement of materials and people (and other living things) between systems should be minimised. A reduction in speed is a reduction in total movement, increasing the energy available for the system’s self-reliance and autonomy. (181)

10. Use and Value Diversity

iconbirdThe spinebill and the humming bird both have long beaks and the capacity to hover, perfect for sipping nectar from long, narrow flowers….

The great diversity of forms, functions and interaction in nature and humanity are the source for evolved systemic complexity. the role and value of diversity in nature, culture and permaculture is itself complex, dynamic, and at times apparently contradictory. (203)

It’s also interesting that emerging from nature, this value of diversity is connected to place and it is the cultures most attuned to the places where they live that hold the most wisdom.

Permaculture uses the patterns that are common to traditional cultures for design principles and models. the diversity of design solutions, strategies, techniques and species are a toolkit towards new cultures of place. Wherever we live, we must become new indigenes. (211)

This is particularly interesting in thinking about cities, the new cultures of place that grow in them, and how their connections to the land surrounding them can be made visible and healthy.

11. Use Edges and Value the Marginal

icontrailThe icon of the sun coming up over the horizon with a river in the foreground shows us a world composed of edges. (223)

I like that he looks at ‘marginal’ neighbourhoods, cites Jane Jacobs as noting that they are where space and low rent allow new things to grow and thrive. Also the ways that we see the edges between rural and urban, where it is the connections that are interesting.

12. Creatively Use and Respond to Change

iconbutterflyThis principle has two thread: designing to make use of change in a deliberate and cooperative way, and creatively responding or adapting to large-scale system change that is beyond our control or influence. (239)

We need to break out of the delusion of apparently linear acceleration of human material and numerical progress to a world view in which everything is contained by cycles, waves and pulses that flow between polarities of great stability and intense change, all nested one within another. (270)

Permaculture is a dynamic interplay between two phases: on the one hand, sustaining life within the cycle of the seasons, and on the other, conceptual abstraction and emotional intensity of creativity and design. I see the relationship between these two as like the pulsing relationship between stability and change. It is the steady, cyclical and humble engagement with nature that provides the sustenance for the spark of insight and integration (integrity), which, in turn, informs and transforms the practice. The first is harmonious and enduring; the second is episodic and powerful. The joyful assymmetric balance between the two expresses our humanity. (271)

I find all of these useful starting points for thinking about cities, planning, building communities. It is built for praxis, and while much of this book is highly detailed about how these have been concretely implemented in terms of household design and agriculture, I think it will be quite fruitful to explore how they can be usefully applied in a broader movement to help create a better world. All of these things fit together, and I am enjoying exploring the potential of this.

David Holmgren's Permaculture: Principles and Pathways

 

Masanobu Fukuoka: One-Straw Revolution

Masanobu Fukuoka - The One-Straw RevolutionThis is a book that is a lot about food, food chains and agriculture, but more about how we live on the earth and the nature of knowledge. It owes much to Buddhism, here is the moment of Masanobu Fukuoka’s initial enlightenment:

One night as I wandered, I collapsed in exhaustion on a hill overlooking the harbor, finally dozing against the trunk of  a large tree. I lay there, neither asleep nor awake, until dawn. I can still remember that it was the morning of the 15th of May. In a daze I watched the harbor grow light, seeing the sunrise and yet somehow not seeing it. As the breeze blew up from below the bluff, the morning mist suddenly disappeared. Just at that moment a night heron appeared, gave a sharp cry, and flew away into the distance. I could hear the flapping of its wings. In an instant all my doubts and the gloomy mist of mu confusion vanished. Everything I had held in firm conviction, everything upon which I had ordinarily relied was swept away with the wind. I felt that I understood one thing. Without my thinking about them, words came from my mouth: “In this world there is nothing at all….” I felt that I understood nothing. (8)

Nothing as a positive thing. The thing you reach when you realise how insufficient intellectual knowledge is, and struggle to see everything for what it, learn again. This moment so prized in so many cultures apart from the western, European one — and even then it is well know to some of the meditative strands of Christianity.

He left home to further this insight, share it.

At one stop, I saw a small sign which read, “Utopia.” I got off the bus and set out in search of it. …. (12)

Even in Utopia no one would listen to his ideas of nothingness, so he returned to his father’s farm to practice them. I remember reading about this book many years ago when I was in LA, trying to get it, not being able to afford it given its rarity. It’s affordable now, and quite awesome.

Over thirty years he has worked immensely hard to perfect a system that works with nature to grow as much food as any other farm with immensely less effort.

I fucking love that. You still work dann hard because it’s a farm of course, but the goal is always to work less, to have leisure, to enjoy life and live well and to leave the earth you farm better than when you started.

Masanobu Fukuoka notes that in the traditional farming year, the New Year’s holiday was three months long (though did women ever experience such a thing I wonder?).  He talks about the village shrine, and the many faded haiku villagers had composed and offered. Because they had some leisure. Over time and ‘improvements’ the holiday became two months, and then two days. Poetry is no longer written.

Modernised agriculture has always taken a different route, an arrogant route that demands ever longer hours of work for those who can still make a living through farming, and in solving one problem caused a cascading set of others. And now?

The reason that man’s improved techniques seem to be necessary is that the natural balance has been so badly upset beforehand by those same techniques that the land has become dependent on them. (15)

Ivan Illich could have written some of what follows, both books contain the same insight that beyond a certain point there are limits on how technology and specialist knowledge can improve our lives, and many points at which it can become damaging. Modern agricultural methods of mass production, mechanization, monoculture and chemicals must be among the best examples:

The path I have followed, this natural way of farming…was first interpreted as a reaction against the advance and reckless development of science. But all I have been doing…is trying to show that humanity knows nothing.

During the past few years the number of people interested in natural farming has grown considerably. It seems that the limit of scientific development has even reached, misgivings have begun to be felt, and the time for reappraisal has arrived. (19)

For those of who who research and write, we know that this should always be true and rarely is:

Before researchers becomes researchers they should become philosophers. They should consider what the human goal is, what it is that humanity should create. (74)

He writes too:

I think an understanding of nature lies beyond the reach of human intelligence. (25)

In the West natural science developed from discriminating knowledge; in the East the philosophy of yin-yang and of the I-Ching developed from the same source. But scientific truth can never reach absolute truth, and philosophies, after all, are nothing more than interpretations of the world. Nature as grasped by scientific knowledge is a nature which has been destroyed; it is a ghost possessing a skeleton, but no soul. Nature as grasped by philosophical knowledge is a theory created out of human speculation, a ghost with a soul, but no structure. (125)

The argument is not that we should stop trying to understand it or work with it, more that we respect its intricacies, approach learning from it with humility, never assume we can untangle all of the symbiotic relationships developed over millenia, and so tread lightly.

An object seen in isolation from the whole is not the real thing.

The difference in the results of respecting, observing and working with nature, and not:

Make your way carefully through these fields. Dragonflies and moths fly up in a flurry. Honeybees buzz from blossom to blossom. Part the leaves and you will see Insects, spiders, frogs, lizards, and many other small animals bustling about in the cool shade. Moles and earthworms burrow beneath the surface. This is a balanced ricefield ecosystem. Insect and plant communities maintain a stable relationship here. It is not uncommon for a plant disease to sweep through this region and leave the crops in my fields unaffected.

And now look over at the neighbor’s field for a moment. The weeds have all been wiped out by herbicides and cultivation. The soil animals and insects have been exterminated by poison. The earth has been burned clean of organic matter and micro-organisms by chemical fertilizers. In the summer you see farmers at work in the fields…wearing gas masks and long rubber gloves. These rice fields—which have been farmed continuously for over 1,500 years—have now been laid waste by the exploitive farming practices of a single generation. (33)

It is the same picture as that laid out by Michael Pollan in Botany of Desire and his other works, by permaculture and organic farming experts. It’s crazy and the toll on the earth, the agricultural workers and those who consume this produce is still not fully known. Except that it is deadly, especially for workers, the soil and the multiple layers of life that once abounded here — those things least valued by capital.

The Four Principles of Natural Farming:

  1. No Cultivation — no plowing, or turning over of the soil.
  2. No chemical fertilizer or prepared compost
  3. No weeding by tillage or herbicides
  4. No dependence on chemicals (33-34)

A rhythm of growing and planting that allows desired crops to establish themselves without need for weeding, grown amongst cycles of clover or other such plants grown to keep down weeds and the use of the straw after the harvest to build the soil and protect the new crop. Companion planting. Allowing monsoon rains to sit for just over a week to kill unwanted weeds, weaken the clover, strengthen the rice. The use of hardy plants without fertilizer other than compost (or ducks loose and nibbling the fields) to grow strong and compact and thus resistant to pests. Allowing the natural ecosystem to flourish that ensures where pests exist their predators do also. Careful attention to weather and soil and plants native to the site. Trial and error.

Instead we kill the earth and everything in it dead, and pour chemicals into it. We eat them on our food, lacking in flavour and vitality, often dyed and waxed and grown only for perfection of form. Its medicinal power is completely lost. The chemicals run off into our waterways and oceans causing blooms of algea, doing god knows what else. Compare these two ways and you wonder what the fuck we were thinking.

Not that Masanobu Fukuoka’s system to grow food with little effort has come easily — like all good things it has taken a long time:

It involves little more than broadcasting seed and spreading straw, but it has taken me over thirty years to reach this simplicity. (45)

And of course, he understands that all of this challenges power and wealth. He describes going to conferences and speaking about it and always and immediately being shut down – ‘To do away with machinery and chemicals would bring about a complete change in the economic and social structures.’ (81)

A problem cannot be solved by people who are concerned with only one or another of its parts.

To the extent that the consciousness of everyone is not fundamentally transformed, pollution will not cease. (82)

Much of the philosophy comes at the end, along with some of the most powerful statements. My favourite was: ‘they trapped themselves in the endless hell of the intellect.” (165).

All too familiar, and funny for that reason. The other two are just true and deep:

If we do have a food crisis it will not be caused by the insufficiency of nature’s productive power, but by the extravagance of human desire. (104)

It is said that there is no creature as wise as the human being. By applying this wisdom, people have become the only animals capable of nuclear war. (156)

Depressing. So I will end with an offhand report of a true wonder:

In southern Shikoku there was a kind of chicken that would eat worms and insects on the vegetables without scratching the roots or damaging the plants. (65)

I once accidentally let two chickens in our vegetable garden and they had destroyed the whole of it in about 2 minutes, so this seems to me a most mythical creature.

For more about no-dig agriculture, food chains and permaculture…

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Food is Free: A Practical Lesson in Community Gardens

In my day job we are looking at creating a community garden among other projects — which seems like it should be easy enough if we get the right people together and just figure it out. Better yet, I have asked for a little help from local organisations of people committed to growing food in the city, and there are lots of people working in the East End on just exactly this. But I thought I would also just see what the internet had to offer, doing a little more research on projects to learn from when we come to build our own gardens.

Besides going a little overboard on permaculture books, which I’ve been obsessive about for a long time, but without much chance to do anything at all about for the past few years. I’ll be writing about those as I go through them, I am so glad that my garden-drought is ending.

Food is Free

If not free now, perhaps some of it can be free in the near future — with food banks on such a steep rise, I think we should be doing all we can to work with people to grow their own healthy veg. Only yesterday through a friend’s post, I stumbled across the Food is Free project, which seems to me to have a particularly lovely way of both framing the project and breaking down the process of bringing people together in urban spaces to grow food not just for themselves, but for neighbours.

This is making me wish I had made a little time to do this ages ago.

In explaining who they are, they write:

The Food is Free Project is a community building and gardening movement that launched in January of 2012. We teach you how to connect with your neighbors and line your street with front yard community gardens which provide free harvests to anyone.

The gardens are built and offered for free using salvaged resources that would otherwise be headed to the landfill. By using drought-tolerant, wicking bed gardens, these low maintenance gardens only need to be watered every 2-4 weeks. This simple tool introduces people to a very easy method of growing organic food with very little work. A wide variety of vegetables along the block promote neighbors to interact and connect, strengthening our communities while empowering them to grow their own food.

workday4construct

They work with people who have brought friends, family and neighbours together to build bed gardens in a whole variety of available places. They’ve even put a how-to booklet together to allow others to do what they do. The simple steps summarised:

1. Declaration – let people know what you’re doing so they can get involved!

2. Location – find a spot

3. Discover Resources – look at what you have and what you need to get — and don’t be afraid to ask for things that can be reused and recyled

4. Planting! – pretty self-explanatory, just know you will make mistakes.

5. Sharing – share the harvest, it’s nicest that way.

We love how this breaks everything down, makes it sound easy to start up something in any neighbourhood. I like the way this opens up the city so that food can be integrated into improving everyday life along every street, not just for those with allotments or a car or a garden.

food is free7

What is great about this is that these kind of projects can be done almost anywhere, even in very small spaces, so they complement our amazing local city farms like Stepney and Spitalfields, as well as existing allotment spaces.

Other Examples of Street by Street Awesomeness

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There are people doing this everywhere. From Ron Finlay in Los Angeles, who helped changed LA’s laws to allow people to plant vegetable in medians and along sidewalks, to the Yorkshire village of Todmorden growing its own food all over the place, to Growing Communities in Hackney, with its patchwork farm made up of 12 market gardens.

There are also incredibly beautiful and creative ways of making plants that we normally only think of as being grown for food both decorative and inspiring. Like this wonderful archway of squash:

pumpkin_gourd_vines_trellis

Or this spiral of flowers (that could have been strawberries or tomatoes or herbs):

572a60bcc1ec59723da4e25f63098174

From the community gardens we hope to grow on our community site now to the rooftop gardens that could lie in our future, there is so much to learn from and be inspired by as in joining this growing movement.

For more ideas, look at the amazing collection of stories about what people are doing here, on the Community Lovers Guides site. But this is probably the first of many a post on local food growing.

I like the idea of Food is Free. It should be. Especially the food that is so good for us, both as something to eat, but also something that gives us joy to plant collectively, tend and grow.

 

Permaculture in Urban Farming: An LA Experiment

Once upon a time I was lucky enough to move into a house with a small and completely overgrown garden. So my then-partner and I decided we would reclaim it and try to grow as much of our own food as possible. Just to learn what that would take.

chickens

We grew some delicious vegetables — and if you know me that will make you laugh — but I deeply enjoyed them after they were cooked. We also had loquats and kumquats and pomegranates. We had fresh eggs from the chickens we also raised up there in the Forgotten Edge, perched between Echo Park and Chinatown. But what we managed to grow? I’m afraid it was nowhere near enough to sustain us and this is partly why (apart from size, as of course that does matter).

Grocery stores have brutally erased the agricultural seasons for us, so you have to relearn a lot (which also means your diet and your cooking repertoire have to completely change). You can’t plant seeds all at once, rather you have to do it in waves, so as to have a continuous harvest. Preparation of the ground is key: digging deep, breaking up clay (of which we had tons and it sucked but it sure as hell was better than caliche), adding what you can to improve its lightness along with your organic fertilizer which should come as much as possible from your own compost pile.

We aimed for all organic but it was rough, and involved things like wiping down each individual plant to get rid of aphids and other pests. We bought ladybugs, but did not have a garden they seemed to enjoy sticking around in. That required more thought and work and planting. We had to water; to do it efficiently required putting in a drip system or a way to collect rainwater, and treat and reuse gray water, which we investigated but never managed to do. We didn’t have money even for the drip system all at once, so watering regularly was one more thing (though adding mulch reduced that burden). We had to fertilize regularly. We had to tie up our tomatoes and our cucumbers, and insulate our squash from the ground. We had to rotate crops as we constantly planted new ones. Planting certain combinations — like the famous triad of squash, corn, and beans — helps ensure each variety grows better than they would alone and puts them at less risk of pest infestation, so we planned that into our rotations. And every day we had to be out there weeding, watering, tending, planting. Every. Day.

All of it required planning and thought and work and more planning. It was joy and pain all mixed together, even if we didn’t do it all that well and I discovered I’m lazier than I thought. I remember reading something in the middle of this that referred to subsistence farmers as unskilled labour, and I almost threw the book across the room. The ability to survive on what you grow on the land is knowledge passed down from generation to generation. To try and relearn it all through books that are never specific to the land you are working? I just wonder when we will awaken to the tragedy of what we have already lost, and what we continue to lose.

I started reading  Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual by Bill Mollison during this grand attempt, the only textbook I’ve ever loved. I’ll acknowledge that for the present I’m far too busy, and very happily so, to reattempt such a labour intensive project for now. But permaculture as a way of being in the world has stuck with me. In it’s most concrete sense it is an approach to planning and implementing sustainability, creating systems that provide for their own needs and recycle their waste. It has very practical rules to live by. In a quote from Bill Mollison:

“Permaculture turned very rapidly into a system of design so that everything you put in had a multiple purpose and was in the right place to carry out its job. It’s a peculiar thing to say that you put the tree there to give shade; every tree gives shade; so that’s not a unique characteristic of this tree you put there, to give shade, but if it also gives you something like oranges or dates as well, that’s good, and also has an excess of oranges to feed your pig . . . then it’s doing three things. And I always say that everything you place should do at least three things.”

But more philosophically, it is entirely about getting to know your place: finding out where the sunlight spends most of its time in summer and winter, where the cold air collects, where the soil changes and moisture collects. It’s about acknowledging all of your assets, seeing how you — and everything around you — fit together, work together, improve or help each other. You can only live this way by constantly working to see the world around you holistically, deepening how you understand it. You no longer see just a chicken, but what a chicken eats, how it lives, what it produces as the picture above shows. This requires deep reflection on experience, in preparation for acting, building, creating, before reflecting again in a perfect popular education spiral.

what-is-pop-ed-1-13-10.003

Clearly I haven’t even scratched the permaculture surface here; I’ve just read a book or two and talked to some people and tried to implement some principles, so find out for yourself and explore! I’m particularly excited about urban permaculture, so read more here. I’ll leave you with an awesome design I look forward to one day building, as I’ve already mentioned spirals once and I surely love them:

 

herb spiral
It reminds me of this from my own hometown:

and the house I grew up, built of adobe by my parents and called at different times ‘mud house’ and ‘nautilus house’. This stuff runs deep.

 

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