Before I begin, go ahead and copy this if you want so you can save your place and even make notes. There will be a link or two throughout so you can go to the sources I drew from. I will also mention a few books and some of the sources for plants and seeds that I’m using as I work towards learning this balancing act with nature called permaculture.
The Permaculture Revolution
It has been interesting over the years to see the changes brought forth by the ebbs and flows of the various schools of thought. Science is an amazing thing unless it is without conscience. I remember a book, ‘Flowers for Algernon’ published in 1959, where a scientist took a man that was beyond slow and made him intelligent after having done the same to a rat. This man watched as the rats intelligence began to fade and knew the same was going to happen to him. There was a scene where he was showcased before an audience of scientists and was asked what he thought of various aspects of our society. When one of them asked him what he thought of modern science he simply said “Rampant technology with a computer conscience.” Fast forward to today and we have GMOs where the pesticide is on the inside of the plant and always present because the plants natural defenses are turned on all of the time. Plants have their own defense mechanism and will protect themselves if they’re healthy. Unhealthy plants go away; that’s the law of natural selection. Let’s get back to that part where the defense mechanism is now permanently turned on; pesticide labels always have warnings about not spraying it on your food within ‘X’ time frame before harvest for a reason. I’d love to know which college created the genius that decided to make sure you put the poison in the food, not on it. Another aspect of GMOs is resistance to herbicides so they can survive heavy doses of competitor killing poisons that are sprayed in order to speed drydown in wheat and to save weeding times on other crops. The other aspect is the terminal seed. Terminal seed genetics has the capacity to contaminate the entire food chain for that species with plants that produce a seed that will not sprout. The reason this trait was designed in was so that the company will always be in business, because you have to have them or starve.
There is another side to all of this that is extremely dangerous. When one goes out and looks at nature you get to see an amazing level of diversity in just one single crop. That diversity is why that crop survived the tests of time. One year it’s particularly dry and some of the variations will excel where others don’t, but their genetic coding is passed on to the survivors through pollination. Next year it’s way too wet for one type and another one takes the lead once again carrying the genetic coding forward of the whole as opposed to one single hybrid. This diversity is what ensures survivability. This is what is missing from GMOs. They want every plant to be the same and when conditions don’t match up to their plans we might have a cascading failure through our entire society caused by famine, because unfortunately that year none of their planned seed crops made it either. GMOs are an attempt to create a food OPEC. No thank you. I read an article where a company took some GMO seeds to the Haitian farmers as an act of goodwill. The farmers saw right through it and brought the seed back setting them on fire as they told them that the job of a farmer is to save their own seed because plants adapt to a specific location that way. They also said their terminal seeds were an attempt to enslave them to the corporation. That’s pretty smart, huh?
Let me now frame the rest of agribusiness in general. The very name agribusiness tells you something. It is a business and that business is all about growing food and getting it safely to the store while ensuring it lasts long enough there to then make it to your house and eventually your table without going bad along the way. Some of the best watermelon I’ve ever had was yellow or white, but there’s a reason most of you have never had it; it can’t be shipped reliably to anyplace. Let me tell you what you’re missing out on. It is a culinary experience to kill for, but killing is illegal so it’s best to find a farmers market if you can. This situation is true with many varieties. There is another side to the business and that is ease of harvest. If it’s not easy they will have to charge through the nose for it so some crops get dropped because of marketability. There are many things that people simply don’t raise anymore except in their own gardens. The main point I’m trying to make is that the food business has a different criteria than the consumer. The consumer wants to get good healthy food and the business wants to sell you food produced as cheaply as possible. Grocery chains have been linked by many writers to the up-tick in cancer cases and many other degenerative diseases. The grocery store chains came into effect as we became more centralized, which led to us becoming more sedentary. In the early 1900’s only 58.5% of us made it to 50 now 93.7% of us do. Since we live longer we are now susceptible to new challenges to our lives. In the early 1900’s nearly 60% of all deaths were caused by communicable diseases and cancer was ranked as the 8th most common cause of death with heart disease being the 4th most common cause. By 1940 heart diseases and cancer and other degenerative disease topped the charts and by the 1990’s that number had moved up to being 60%. I summarized what I needed for this, but here is a link so you can go and read it yourself.
The permaculture revolution is an opportunity to become independent from everyone else’s agendas, which will also allow you to help others when they need it. You can’t help someone if you have your hand out too, or if you’re sick like they are. You can jog or go to a gym, or you can do something productive like garden and connect with nature, which is a wonderful thing. After a short while you will begin to develop a different sense of perspective. Just passing through a store after a while will allow you to laugh at quite a few things. A few years back I noticed applewood smoked bacon in the store and looked over at my wife and said “That’s so ten minutes ago. We have peach smoked bacon. They’ll probably beat me to wild cherry smoked bacon.” They did beat me to that, but only because we still had some of the peach smoked bacon. However we at that moment did have wild cherry smoked, molasses and sriracha cured ham. That was wonderful on the arugula and day lily sandwiches with homemade blueberry mustard. Okay well I made that ham part up. We actually used a pork loin roast cooked with a blueberry balsamic vinegar glaze. That loin actually goes into many recipes. Now stop and think for a moment how much a sandwich like that would cost. The point is that your life and meals can become quite creative and much more enjoyable. Plus you get exercise and save money on the gym. One other thing as I move on to the nitty-gritty. Don’t think you have to have a large parcel of land. I will include a few links to books on doing what you can in the city. There’s a method of gardening called the square foot garden and you can raise close to five hundred twenty pounds of food in a sixteen square foot area. There are different balancing acts that have to be performed to pull that off.
A Short Permaculture Reading List
First I suggest reading a few books on the subject and watching a few videos. You will start down the path with a vision and a sense of direction if you do a bit of homework first thereby saving you a lot of regrets down the road. The first book I recommend is ‘The Resilient Farm and Homestead’ by Ben Falk. The Amazon.com link is at the bottom of this paragraph. This book gives excellent explanations as to what you need to learn and why you need to learn it. He also shows how his homestead is set up and why. One of the first things you do when you begin a project of this nature is stop letting the rainfall escape your property line. By doing this one thing your property is heading towards self sufficiency and so are you. There is a link section called Earth Works below with a few suggestions. This particular book also discusses zones on your property and how to track crop harvest time from your “house zone” to save you walking time by simply planting one or two of a major crop that’s a good distance away close to your house. It discusses soil building the fast way using nature instead of fighting it. How to use your animals in the manner that nature does. The skill sets you need to develop are very nicely laid out in this book. Keep in mind that this book is written by a man who lives in Vermont and most of us don’t live in that climate, but the concepts will be the same and mostly it will be the plants that change. There are numerous perennial vegetables we can grow and methods to grow them that although more difficult to start require little maintenance afterwards. This method is called growing in guilds. The plant guilds create small habitats for protective plants and they also create habitats for protective insects. Some plants are hostile towards each other so these guilds take companion planting into consideration also. In the end what is created is one of the most productive places in the world; a meadow with the trees creating shade where needed and leaving sunlight where needed also preventing the wind from drying the soil. The entire concept is based on working with nature instead of fighting it. Plants were created through nature so why fight it?
Here is a YouTube video done by the author of the book. It will give you a good overview.
Another excellent book is ‘Gaia’s Garden’ by Toby Hemenway and this is about Home-Scale permaculture.
‘Perennial Vegetables’ by Eric Toensmeier is a great introduction to vegetables that keep on giving.
Here is another link that provides insight into the permaculture design process.
For those of you that live in a city here is a really nice series on YouTube. If you go from start to finish on this you just might end up being an expert.
This link will help you determine how much drainage space you need to fill a pond and keep it filled based on historical rainfall in your area. There is a map on page 10 for this purpose.
Here is a link that will give you a chance to see what earthworks are all about.
I made a water level for doing my own surveying. I’m sure you’ve heard the old saying that water seeks its own level. It is true and makes for a great tool. With this tool all you do is attach a hose to each level and set it firmly against the ground and perpendicular to gravity using a level, which you can attach if you need to. Mine used floats, but there is a simpler design in the video below. I used these to define the location for my upper level pond on the property. I drove a fence post into the ground and strapped one of the levels to that. That particular point is the edge of where my pond will be so it becomes the zero point. Then I identified every bit of property at the top of the hill that was at the same level and surrounding that which was slightly higher. Using the map I described in the start of the Earthworks section I then calculated the drainage area at the top of the hill. That helped me determine the size of the pond so I could create swales to divert all water flow into the pond. The pond is going to be a below grade pond so there’s no more danger of a wall of water scouring the hillside after this than there was before. Plus I can raise ducks, Kang Kong (water spinach), and also capture the runoff from the turkey, chicken and pea fowl coops. That will allow me to control fertilizer flow over the rest of the property. This is what is known as fertigation. Here is a simple water level you can make.
Here is how you can make a level for your swales using scraps you might find in your garage or shed. Make an A frame and follow this mans’ explanation on how to calibrate it. Purty simple. He even has his own version of water level in there. His is simpler than mine and the only problem with his is that he is limited by distance. If he had a way to attach a really long hose to it he would have it made. He is dealing with a smaller area so he doesn’t need the reach I do.
Earlier I discussed the comments made by the Haitian farmers regarding crop adaptation. Here is how that applies to permaculture: Many of the plants you will be trying to grow may not do well on your property or in your agricultural zone. What you may have to do is create an adapted species for your area. Believe me when I tell you that you will be crowned the master when you adapt a few plants to your area. This year I planted twenty or so Jerusalem artichokes. Only three survived the heat and humidity. Horrible right? Not really. Not all plants are the same and I just found three that are candidates for local adaptation. Supposedly none of them should have made it. When I get a chance I’ll buy some more and add them to the mix while tracking the first three survivors. Jerusalem artichokes go to seed very seldom so I can’t use that avenue as I can with some of the other crops I’ll be working with such as oca, mashua, ulluco and yacon, as well as several bunching onions. The bunching onions are coming to me as seed so I will have to plant them and see how they do. I can eventually get a variety that is well adapted to this area. The oca, mashua, ulloco and yacon are coming as roots. I will have to obtain seed from them and begin isolating a variety that is adapted locally. Those are just some of the root crops I will be playing with.
I said earlier that working with nature is the best way to go. Here is an example of that. My soil is horrible red clay that is as easy to work as concrete. When we first moved onto the property it was pretty barren. I could plant a tree and watch it die in a season no matter what I did. Then I learned about mulching. After the Challenger accident I couldn’t catch a break and was at work constantly and that went on for a couple of years. During that time an amazing thing occurred. The grass got really tall and suddenly the trees took off. I realized that the grass was stopping the ground from drying out. Another thing was happening as well, the brush took off. When I planted my orchard a few years ago I didn’t dig huge holes and add peat moss, I added a bit of peat moss to the soil and only lopped the brush off at ground level. The reason I did that was that as the roots from the brush rotted away they would provide aeration, whereas if I planted it the normal way by removing the competitors, as the soil settled, it would go back to being concrete. What I do now is plant daikon radish about three or four feet apart and then let them rot out in the summer. This creates an air passage and as the grass, leaves and roots rot and fall into the holes I get better soil and it actually breathes. If you haven’t seen a daikon radish before here’s a description: Three or four inches in diameter at full size and sometimes up the two feet long. So you can drill two foot deep holes or stick a seed in the ground and walk away. Permaculture experts have identified crops such as these and what they call dynamic accumulators that were rapid soil builders. Some add humus and some add nitrogen and there are some that do both as they pull nutrients to the surface from deep in the ground, and all of these plants stop soil erosion and drying.
Since I’m already on the subject of soil building I’ll add another item to the soil building concept. If you plow organic material into the soil it will add humus, which will allow the soil to both breathe and hold water much better, but it will eventually rot away. If you make bio-char it will be there much longer. Also small particles of carbon eventually begin to separate the plates that make up clay. Carbon is much better for the soil and it’s pretty easy to make. Here are a few YouTube videos. You want to process the biochar before you use it or you will be losing nutrients as the biochar absorbs them. If you watch the comparison video you will see that after a short time even without processing the biochar does go to work rather nicely.
One of the more enjoyable aspects of permaculture is that you never run out of things to learn. I’ve talked a bit about adapting plants to your area by allowing their inherent genetics do their job, but there are many other elements to learn. Here is a link that discusses food forests.
Here is another primer on food forests.
As I said earlier there is a lot to learn. Mycology is another part of the life cycle. When you cut down a tree you can inoculate it with mycelium for Shiitake, oyster, agrocybe aegerita (swordbelt) or maybe wood ears and reishi ling chi mushrooms. This helps to break down wood and add it to the soil later. This is how nature works. Eventually you can learn, as I did, how to isolate a productive species in the wild and use it to make your own spawn.
You will learn animal husbandry because you will use goats and sheep instead of a lawnmower. You might be clearing a piece of ground so you run chickens on top of the cleared area to finish off the competing plants. You might even look into bee keeping, like we have. We will be using the Kenyan top bar frame hive. This type of hive doesn’t require all of the smokers and beekeeping equipment because it doesn’t get the bees so worked up that they might want to kick your butt. One of the more rewarding parts of permaculture is that you have so many types of flowers that your honey is quite simply a culinary experience like nothing else.
The point to all of this is that hobbies are nice, but this can be your hobby and you will learn so much and on top of that, being connected to the earth is quite a wonderful feeling. Here are two sources for some of the different plants you will want to try. These are also the sources I used for some of the items I couldn’t easily find at Amazon.com.