A chronicle of Mike and Julia's adventures creating a home on the Missouri range...

Wednesday, March 12, 2014


     While we have a few more months away from our Missouri homestead--where surely there will be more action and adventure to chronicle this coming season--I thought I would do a series of posts about some of the guiding principles behind the life we are creating there.

     The first of these is a term that you may or may not have heard before, permaculture. This term didn't exist before 1978 when a couple of Aussies, David Holmgren and Bill Mollison, decided to bring together a bunch of design principles and farming practices and turn them into a teachable philosophy of sustainable farming and living--hence, "permanent-agriculture" or more recently "permanent-culture"... permaculture! As Bill Mollison defines it, "permaculture is a philosophy of working with, rather than against nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labor; and of looking at plants and animals in all their functions, rather than treating any area as a single product system." Basically, how humans had been living in relation to their ecosystems (and still do in many parts of the world today) up until the Industrial Revolution!

      Currently, standard Western farming practice is to isolate one desired output (corn, soy, cattle, pigs, tomatoes, whatever) and treat the land that it is produced on as if it were a factory designed to pump out that single product. Those single products have a name, "monocrops," because they are the only thing grown on a piece of land year after year. This form of agriculture requires enormous inputs in the form of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and irrigation to grow because the soil simply cannot sustain such huge demands year after year with no replenishing return. Where in nature do you ever see one species growing alone without hundreds of other species coexisting with it? Insects, diseases, small mammals and birds all move in to play their part when they see a huge field of a single species growing in isolation, hence why monocrop agriculture is so pesticide/fungicide intensive. Industrial agriculture has gone to great lengths to engineer its way out of the simple fact that the land is not meant to be a factory with industrial design principles applied to it. Super weeds, new blights, resilient insects and diseases evolve to out-compete the chemicals; not to mention there are huge consequences we are only just beginning to realize to poisoning water and ripping up top soil (a precious and dwindling resource that took thousands of years to build up, now washing out of the heartland into the Gulf of Mexico at a rate of one billion dump truck loads per year! Ack!) There has to be a better way to feed ourselves, and there is! It involves small, diverse systems designed to work with nature, providing both yields for us humans and returns that nourish the land for the long haul.

This map shows all the watersheds that feed into the Mississippi River.  Imagine all the top soil getting washed down stream each year because of poor farming practices!

      Permaculture is taught in books and certification courses in more detail, but the basic twelve principles (plus a few more) and examples of how we are using them at our homestead are easy to outline here:

1. Observe and interact- The first step when creating a land design is to observe what is already happening on the land. How is water moving across the landscape? What is the trajectory of the sun? Where are the best and worst soils? Where is the most biodiversity? We did a lot of this when we first came on the land, testing soils, watching during storms to see how rain was moving, marking out our flood zone, and just generally scouting about learning trees and plants. It can be hard to be patient enough to take the time to do it all when you want to get started planning, but well worth it.

2. Catch and store energy- The idea here is to collect and store resources when they are abundant. For us, this meant digging a pond that would fill with water during the winter and spring so we can use it during the dry summer months. It has also meant stopping work to cut up firewood when we had trees come down, collecting free produce from the university garden when they had excess to give away and then spending a few days canning it, and so on.

(this is not our garden... we only wish it were)

3. Obtain a yield- Make sure you are getting something useful (like food) for the work you are putting in. This is a pretty obvious objective, but think about how much effort people put into mowing grass, or exercising at the gym, without getting a useful yield from it! What if we could turn lawns into gardens full of beautiful edible plants and spend the same amount of work tending them instead?

4. Apply self-regulation and accept feedback- Human activity happens quickly and can be quite destructive so it is up to us to think about the consequences before we cause them. Nature's feedback loop can take much longer but it is usually there letting us know when our designs are not working (for example, the Irish potato famine let farmers know that growing a monocrop of potatoes was not a good design, it wasn't diverse enough to be resilient to blight).

A sun oven at work... free heat for the catching! 

5.  Favor biological resources- rather than consuming non-renewable resources! For example, we have been switching over to drying clothes on a line rather than an electric dryer, because we obtain the same result for less cost to ourselves and the environment. We also cook our food using sticks via our rocket stove and the sun (with a sun oven), instead of using propane. And so on. There is more than enough energy to go around if we use it appropriately.

A Living Machine treating waste water-- each tank has different types of plants and organisms in them that slowly filter the water as it flows from one to the next to the next. 

6. Produce no waste- This is an interesting design principle. One of my favorite illustrations of it is the industrial design work of William McDonough, who helps factories redesign so that their effluent waste streams can get cleaned via bioremediation systems (like Living Machines) and cycled right back into the factory to be used as a resource! On the scale of a homestead, it means thinking about how to turn what is considered waste into an asset. For example, when we had a bunch of rotten logs get pushed into a pile from our pond being dug, we decided to turn them into hugelkultur swales which will nourish young trees as they break down.

7. Design from pattens to details- One of the patterns most often referred to in permaculture are zones based on frequency of use--from zone 1, your house site and everyday use areas surrounding it, to zone 5, a wilderness area with limited human intervention. High maintenance plants get positioned closer to zone 1 where they will be seen and tended to every day, whereas long term firewood and timber species can get planted further away in zone 4 where they get visited once in a long while. Once these patterns are established we can work out the details of what to plant where.

8. Functional interconnection- By putting elements in proximity to each other, they can mutually benefit one another. For example, we planted several native fruiting trees (mulberry, plum, chokecherry, blackhaw) next to the area we plan to have a chicken pen in the hopes that the trees can help feed, shade and protect the chickens from air-born predators, while the chicken manure will help nourish the trees.

9. Use small and slow solutions- The idea being, the means will tend to be more local, sustainable and easier to maintain on an individual scale. Sometimes it feels like everything we are creating is too small and too slow. I guess a good example of this is that I wish we had forty cultivar fruit trees planted, like, two years ago, but our soil needed some building first. We would probably have forty dead saplings on our hands if we had planted them all at once our first year. So we started building soil with hugelkultur swales (which slow and catch rainwater run off) and a moveable outhouse that is slowly leaving "fertility deposits" around our orchard site. Next year we will be able to plant the first few trees and be able to tend and water them well because we are starting small. The next year we can plant another four. And so on. In the long run, going slow and not biting off too much at once will yield us a much healthier and abundant orchard.

10. Use and value diversity and redundancy- Diversity reduces vulnerability. Both in terms of crop species and systems that we humans rely on for our needs. We are trying to think in terms or redundancy with our water systems--if we collect rainwater off of several roofs and also have the pond water as a back-up, we are less likely to run into a water shortage during a drought. If we plant fifteen types of fruit trees instead of just one variety, the chances of a blight like Cedar-Apple rust wiping out all of them is much less likely.

11. Use edges and value the marginal- The most biodiverse areas of any ecosystem are its edges, from pond edges to forest/field edges, to the edge between ocean and land. One of our regrets in designing our pond was that we didn't ask the excavator to dig the edges of the pond in a more wavy, irregular pattern with different depth levels. It happened so quickly we ended up with basically a big oval, but already we can see that the edge is where all the life is thriving: reeds and minnows and birds and woodland mammals on the prowl are all attracted to the edge, I just wish there were more of it!

The edge is where it's at...

12. Creatively use and respond to change- We can have a positive impact on inevitable change by carefully observing and intervening at the right time. Hmm, pretty self explanatory but increasingly important with the effects of climate-change on the way.

13. Stack functions- This is a permaculture principle that pops into my mind quite frequently. It is not on the original list of 12, but both Mike and I both learned it in our respective Permaculture Design Cert. courses. The idea is that every action or placement or design element can and should serve more than one function. For example, we have some south-facing sloping areas that we are hoping to terrace with stone retaining walls. And then we got to thinking... wouldn't it be great to plant mediterranean herbs coming out of the stones that like the retained heat? And couldn't we also plant some things in front of the walls that need a slightly more wind-sheltered, warm climate, like apricots and figs? Thus the wall will be performing many functions, all stacked in the same space.

14. Use and accelerate succession- Succession is the process that is happening all the time in nature: field is slowly becoming young forest, young forest becoming mature forest, and so on. When we work with that process, steering it to our advantage, we fight nature less, and yield more benefit. Mike and I are trying to do this by planting lots of native trees that will yield us benefit (fruit, nut, firewood) on the edges of fields and forest, areas where succession is already beginning to take place. Hopefully the hardy edible natives will outcompete the sapling oaks coming up and yield us something in, oh, about 20 years! In the meantime, we have been cutting down young oaks for use in building and fencing, the perfect size for small diameter poles. Thank you succession.

       So there is some Permaculture food for thought! If you are interested in learning more about Permaculture there is really no shortage of amazing courses, teachers and designers, and resources in the form of websites, films, magazines, and books. And if you are not such a DIYer, you can hire a permaculture designer to develop a landscape design with you; whether you have a small yard or huge acreage. Here are a few of our favorite permaculture resources out there:

Introduction to Permaculture, by Bill Mollison, Tagari Press.
This book is a good starting place to get an introduction without being overwhelmed. It is written by the illustrious Bill Mollison himself, co-founder of Permaculture. He breaks down the basics of permaculture for the initiate reader, covering the basic design topics of house placement, energy systems, animals, orchards, gardens, and microclimates.
Permaculture: A Designer's Manual, by Bill Mollison, Tagari Press.
This is a massive textbook, not for the casual reader. I have tried to read it cover to cover multiple times and failed because of the shear dry density of the information therein. But there are loads of wonderful detailed illustrations  that compliment the text and make it more skim-reading friendly. I would recommend investing in this not-exactly-cheap book if you are seriously considering taking a course or embarking on a permaculture design of your own! Of if you are a geek who likes textbook reading.

The Resilient Farm and Homestead, by Ben Falk
This is one of my new favorite books, just out last year. Ben Falk is a practicing Perm. designer in Vermont, and over the last decade has been turning a piece of land into a Permaculture teaching center, slowly experimenting and implementing many of his ideas. In the book he chronicles and illustrates his own designs on his land (10 acres), as well as his list of 72 principles, plus design process advice, as well as chapters on all of the major components of a homestead-- water and earthworks, fertility harvesting, food crops, fuel and shelter--all within the lens of designing resiliently, with changing climate and society in mind. Several friends also agree, one of the best North American permaculture books out there. And beautiful to boot.

 Toolbox for Sustainable City Living, by Scott Kellogg and Stacy Pettigrew
Here is one for all you DIY city-dwellers out there, trying to take some modicum of control back over the compact environments around you! The authors scale down all the big permaculture ideas to very accessible, city-yard scaled DIY projects. Topics include food production, small-scale animal husbandry, water security, waste management, autonomous energy, and bioremediation of toxic soils.

Edible Forest Gardens, by Dave Jacke
This two volume set is the best literature out there on designing, planting and managing a forest garden. "Guilds" of different plants, vines, shrubs, and trees species can all thrive when planted together, and these books will teach you how and what to plant. Exhaustive species lists and dense tree-geek info, beautiful detailed illustrations and hefty price tags... but still, what a great resource!
Permaculture magazine
This is a good quarterly publication based out of the UK, with articles on all aspects of permaculture and self-reliant living. A few of my friends have had articles published in this journal, and I like that it has articles by permaculture enthusiasts of all sorts, who are independently experimenting and inventing new ideas and systems, and then sharing them back with the community in bite-sized articles.

www.permies.com - Apparently the largest Perm. website out there (how does this get measured?), but definitely the most popular on this computer! (Mike visits frequently.) The website consists of many threads of conversation, divided by topic, which you can read through or add your own question/idea/comment onto. Lots of great videos and podcasts as well. There is really just a ton of useful information on this website, but it does take some sifting. A good place to kill some time.

Farming with Nature- Permaculture with Sepp Holzer (www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bw7mQZHfFVE) - This guy is amazing and just totally inspiring. He basically turned the high-altitude slope of his Austrian mountain farm, Krameteroff, into an abundant, biodiverse oasis using just simple permaculture principles. There is a longer video about it, but a short taste on youtube here!