Institute of Urban Homesteading
Permaculture: The Principles


Permanent + Culture = Permaculture
There is a lot of confusion about Permaculture and what it is. Recently I ran into a neighbor as I was walking home from the park. She was excited to show me what she had accomplished in her yard. What had formerly been an overgrown mess was now tranformed into well tended beds interplanted with lettuce, cabbage, celery and onions. When we spoke she was a little on the defensive. "I know it's not permaculture." she said, "but I just felt like I wanted to have some more food here." The gardeners before her had taken applied permaculture to an extreme degree. They attempted a "no seed, no till" method of reseeding annual and perennial plants. The result was an over-grown, unproductive subsistance garden that neither reseeded properly, nor provided much food, nor was pleasant to look at. Every day was a bad hair day. So I tried to lay it down for her. Permaculture is not a technique. It is not food forests or plant guilds or greywater. Permaculture is a set of ethics and principles that can be applied in many ways--hopefully in a way that is appropriate to both your space and personal style. A well tended bio-intensive garden may be the best way to build top soil and work with nature in small urban lot, especially if you, like my neighbor "just love to work outside." And most of all, while permaculture priinples do lend themselves well to agriculture, they can be applied to any activity to make it more sustainable, balanced and equitable within the greater context of our culture. Permaculture principles can be applied to a small business, a community kitchen or a large scale waste treatment plant. So just for fun, in the next months the newsletter will feature one of the principles and we'll look at some of the different ways these principles might be applied (of course you could also join us for the one day urban permaculture crash course later in the season).

Permaculture Principle #1
Observe and Interact

This is just about my favorite and most easy to remember permaculture principle, And although it seems obvious it is so often the step that is left out of the equation--especially when we look at larger developments. When you take the time to slow down and simply observe something--a plot of land, a group dynamic in your office or amongst your chickens, it gives to you time reflect on what is actually happening. The classic example in permaculture is to observe your land for a year before placing any permanent features (such as fruit trees or hardscaping). This gives you time to observe microclimates, the path of the sun, different types of soil in your plot and so on. When every action is a response to what you are actively observing, your efforts become more effective and there is less need to undo mistakes. An example from my own farm. the first year I was here I placed a beehive in the back end of the garden. It was a great spot for humans because the bees were out of the way. But these bees only got direct sun for a couple hours in the late afternoon. They were always more aggressive when I managed them and they never thrived. It took me awhile, but finally I saw it. This was simply a bad spot for the bees. I moved them to a sunny west fence line and they thrived. That shady spot in the back is where my rabbitry now sits--a much better use for that back corner. And finally here's a tip from John Muir Laws, an amazing California naturalist who published a wonderful field guide to the Sierra: When you observe, allow yourself to notice outloud. Start with "I notice..." Then as you get more curious, try starting with "I wonder...." Verbalizing what you are seeing can deepen your capacity to see and move you more easily from observation into problem solving.

Permaculture Principle #2
Catch and Store Energy

This principle asks us to use our own energy in times of abundance to store up for times of dearth. The classic permaculture example is solar energy--where we mimic what plants do in nature by storing the sun's energy when it is abundant for use in times of cold or darkness. For those of us without the finances to invest in a solar array, we can put priniple #2 into use with farm to table activities such as canning, fermenting, curing meats and cheesemaking, which are all about preserving abundant harvest for slimmer times. These vital tasks have become obsollete as we now live in a culture where everything is available to us 365/24/7. But the cost of this availability is the use of vast amounts of the earths stored carbon. The bio-regional way--more in tune with the seasonal cycle is to preserve the energy of the summer for use in the winter and to start that cycle again the next year. Instead of buying tomatoes shipped from Mexico in January, use the canned tomatoes from your own yard. Ferment that bumper crop of cauliflower or cabbage. It will store in your basement through the winter without extra refridgeration and provides great vitamin C during the winter months. Cheesemaking, while a fun activity was originally a neccesity--to preserve the abundant protein the cows and goats produced during lactation for the time they would not be in milk. Through salting and brining meat, a single cow could take you through several eating seasons without additional energy used for refrigeration.

Permaculture Principle #3
Obtain a Yield
"You can't work on an empty stomach"

In this current economy and hyper-consumerist culture, this principle seems obvious. and maybe even a little threadbare. Of course we wouldn't put time, energy and cash into creating a vegetable garden if we didn't think we'd get some food out of the deal. Other examples of very tangible yields could be creating a water-wise house with ample rainwater harvesting into a cistern or into the landscape, creating a business model that provides a healthy income while offering something of value to the community or starting a gleaning project to re-distribute food that is not being used. Slightly less tangible or obvious yields are those that invest in a healthy future and don't offer immediate returns. Examples of these are building topsoil, stewarding wild lands or planting flowers for pollinator forage. But what about the yields we cannot see or measure? Those that feed the spirit more than the body ("You can't work on an empty spirit")? These less quantifiable yields seem to me to be even more vital in a world that is glutted with food and product choices. What is the yield, for example, when you take the time to call a friend? When you put energy into a neighborhood clean-up or greening? When you sit quietly or walk in nature? For an interesting treatise on this very topic, I reccommend the new movie by mega-Hollywood director, Tom Shaydac "I AM." It is a treatise on over-consumption and an amazing rare example of someone who has too much recognizing themselves as part of the problem.

Permaculture Principle #4
Self-Regulate, Accept Feedback

When we notice something isn't working, we need to adjust to bring systems back into balance. In the garden it might be something as simple as noticing that your plants are getting underwatered and adjusting your watering schedule. If flies and smell are building up in your chicken coop, you may need to tweak the system to make it easier to maintain. On a personal level, this principle invites us to apply self-criticism as well as to accept critical feedback from others with grace. To sit in the "hot seat" and consider the feedback others give us rather than defend ourselves, is a practice that requires fortitude and strength of character. The experience of making a mistake, being called on it, accepting responsibility and adjusting ones behaviour ibuilds a strong personal ecology and sense of self-worth. Conversely learning to give feedback in a manner that supports forward movement is a fine skill to develop. Imagine a world in which political leaders and large corporations were able and willing to self-regulate and accept feedback!

Permaculture Principle #5
Use & Value Renewable Resources

In nature nothing is wasted. Nature is a model of continuous reuse. Renewables are resources that either never run out--they are plentiful and availale or they are easy to regenerate without embedded cost to the environment. Samples of renewables are solar energy, pedal -power, intellectual power and hemp.

Permaculture principle #6
Produce No Waste

Waste is a concept foreign to nature; everything produced gets eaten, decomposed and reused. The earthworm consumes plant "wastes" turning them into enrichened soil. Bacteria hang out on tree leaves protecting them until they fall, at which moment those same leaves become their food. In the garden we compost everything that is left over, use wood from pruning to stake plants or edge our garden beds or use egg shells as a natural snail control that then becomes available calcium for the plants. The next wave of limiting waste is to prioritize the use of natural compostable materials in other areas of our lives. Building materials such as earth, cob and wood, that can eventually return to the earth,. Clothing fibers like wool and cotton are similarly compostable. Who will be the first to produce a fully bio-degradable computer or mp3 player? That also produces no waste in it's production? Don't know where to get biodegradable products? Here is one cool website for home products:

Permaculture Principle #7
Design From Patterns to Details,
"We can't see the forest for the trees"

This principle asks us to step back and look at the big picture, observing patterns in nature and culture which we use as the backbone of our designs. For example, if we observe that in nature, water flows to the lowest point in the land, and we are in a dry climate, we may choose to put our most important and thirsty food crops in that area. Or, if we have no low points we might choose to dog swales to create low points for rain gardens. Once we've establised that larger pattern, we'd fill in smaller details, such as exactly which plants we'll choose and how they will be arranged. As another example, we might observe in society, that people tend to like to hang out in the kitchen. So we might decide to make the kitchen Yurt the center of our design. The details would be in exactly how the kitchen is laid out for best people flow. Or we might observe that people much prefer to hang out in small thoroughfares rather than huge open spaces (notice how the hallway is always packed when you want to walk through). So we might design our garden with lots of little hideaways for sitting and gathering with friends.

Permaculture Principle #8
Integrate Rather Than Segregate
"Many hands make light work"

This principle is about setting things up so that systems interconnect and support each other. My favorite example from nature concerns the elegance of natural fertilization systems. Throughout the years, nutrients from the forest wash downstream and out to sea. If this happened indefinitely all the nutrients would be lost to the forest. But thankfully (or nowadays no more so thankfully) the salmon swim upstream once a year. They spawn and die. Bears eat the dying salmon and poop in the woods, depositing the nutrients back in the forest. A classic example from renowned grass farmer, Joel Salatin is his practice of throwing a few corn kernals in the horse stall every so often as the winter proceeds and the bedding builds up. In the spring he lets the horses out to pasture and brings his pigs ito the stalls. The pigs root through the straw for the kernels loosening it up, turning it and getting it ready for the compost bin. Principle #8 also celebrates the concept of stacking functions. Stacking functions is the idea that each element in the system has multiple outputs or roles within the system, Let's take an example from the office where we work. Say you instigate a weekly visit from someone who offers chair massage. It csts a bit of money (your input), but the employees feel cared for, more relaxed and thus more productive which ultimately enhances output. The massage therapist gains an income, which in turn puts money back into the community. The whole experience helps build morale and connection between the insular world of the office, the world of the body and the greater community. And so it input, many functions, many outputs. See how easy it is?

Permaculture Principle #9
Small and Slow Solutions
"Slow and Steady Wins the Race"

This principle is an extention of the "Small is Beaitiful" principle. It is easier, more elegant and more efficient to make and maintain a small change, rather than trying to overhaul an entire system all at once. Examples of small and slow solutions could include repairing an old tool rather than tossing it out and purchasing a new one. It may seem like more work in the moment, but the larger impact for the environment is greater. Buying things as you actually need them, rather than taking on a new hobby, purchasing an entire library of equipment and never using it. Compost is an example of small and slow solutions. It is slower than adding a bunch of chemicals to your soil, but far more efficient in the long and slow run. Finally, as New Years is upon us, consider when you go to make them, that the giant new years resolutions rarely last, while the one small change may be easier to make and will impact a greater change with commitment to it over the time.

Permaculture Principle #10
Use and Value Diversity

"Don't Put All Your Eggs in One Basket"

Life would be so boring if we ate corn mush everyday and we all looked exactly the same. Bio-diversity is the standard in nature and diverse systems have been proven to be less vulnerable and more resilient. The classic example is the contrast between mono-culture and polyculture cropping. In a monoculture where vast tracts of land are planted with the same species, these plants are vulnerable to massive attack and collapse of food systems (see potato famine). Similarly, diverse peoples have diverse solutions to the issues of life which leads to a beautiful array of possibilities and insurance of survival. Planned redundancy is at the core of this principle. That is to say, in any system, there should be multiple elements that support the same function, so that if one element fails, there are others to fill that need within the system. An easy example is soil health, Since it is so important to the overall resilience of the garden system, there should be multiple inputs or elements that support it: compost, animal fertilizers, cover cropping, compost tea and so forth.

Permaculture Principle #11
Use Edges and Value the Marginal
"Don't think you are on the right-track just because it is a well-beaten path"

Things get interesting at edges and transitions--think of what goes on at the edge of a creek bed (riparian zone) or the ocean (tidal pools). A example of this principle can be seen in the use of the keyhole bed in permaculture garden design. A keyhole has many more nooks and crannies than a square bed. This enables you to reach everything, but also to get creative with the shape, layout and placement of your plants. Interesting ideas also seem to flow from the margins of our culture towards the center (rock and roll, organic agriculture, the Detroit farming rennaissance), Subcultures often offer up the most inventive, intelligent and creative solutions. For example, though we may also see it as a double-edged sword, with the internet we are at an amazing time historically in terms of information coming from the edge into broader consciousness. This can be seen in the huge popularity of viral phenomenon like YouTube where ideas can catch fire from the furthest outbacks of our culture. Finally, I am sure you have called something "edgy" or used the expression, "that's my edge." The work of change and transformation seems to happen most at the edge of our comfort zone. Change can be uncomfortable, because it is new and unfamiliar and requires stepping into unknown territory, where we don't know what will happen. So, what is your learning edge?