Change is in the air. It’s still summer, still shorts and sandals and bright blue skies and warm sunshine but there is a new softness to it all, a smudging at the edges of each day which hints at seasonal change. Mornings, creeping in a little later now, are fresh and beautiful with surfaces flaunting mosaics of dew and whispers of mist threading the valley. The swallows are still here, swooping and spiralling on practised wings, but their days in our skies are numbered. I shall miss them once they’ve gone, as I always do, but there is sweet solace in the robin’s autumnal song, serenading me as I eat my al fresco breakfast.
I love these quiet, treasured times outdoors, breathing deeply and watching nature as it goes about its business, and the importance and relevance of such observations brings me back to the topic of permaculture. Fear not, I have no intention of turning my blog into Permaculture Central. Why would I? It’s just one philosophy, a single strand in my life which is woven from many colourful threads, all of which I love to include in my ramblings and musings. However, I’m hoping that readers will forgive me just this once for indulging in a sequel to my last post where I announced that I had embarked on the year-long #free permaculture course.
Week 4 and I’m still going strong. 🙂 I am no stranger to distance learning or life as a mature student, having studied for both a degree and PGCE through the Open University whilst caring for our young children at home; I was very grateful for the opportunity to achieve a professional qualification without sacrificing our precious family life or missing those priceless early years with our little ones. I’m not pretending it was easy (it most certainly wasn’t) but I believe the rigorous mental stimulation made me a better mum and I know for sure that being a mum made me a far better teacher. This course is a very different beast: there are no deadlines for written assignments or exams, no requirement to follow the structure and no time pressure to finish yet it is such an in-depth, resource-rich course that I find myself going off in all sorts of fascinating directions. If I manage to finish in 52 weeks it will be nothing short of a miracle!
The only drawback of all this study is that it leaves less time for other things and that, of course, includes blogging. To mitigate against this a little (and to be super efficient at the same time), I am planning to combine the two at least occasionally where it seems appropriate; after all, much of what I’m studying in the world of permaculture is the type of thing I write about anyway. This week, I’m examining the principles of permaculture which includes a ‘hands on’ activity of making flashcards as an aide memoire and ~ since my artistic skills with pencil and paint are laughable and I’m leaving the digital artwork until I reach the actual design stage (let’s face it, that will be more of a vertical rockface than a steep learning curve) ~ I’ve decided to use the medium of blog. I have lots of photos and I’m comfortable with writing so in a way I’m hoping this little exercise will give me the opportunity to consider not only how Roger and I are already applying these principles in our daily life but also the areas where we can make changes and improvements.
One thing I have learned this week is that there are as many sets of permaculture principles as there are permaculturists, but for my ‘flashcard’ exercise I’ve decided to use David Holmgren’s circle of twelve principles, partly because, as the co-founder of permaculture, I feel he knows a thing or two but also because they are the ones I was familiar with before embarking on the course. For each principle, I will share a few ideas ~ in particular, those aspects which I think we have already embraced in our lives, bearing in mind permaculture is an holistic approach which spirals outwards far beyond gardening ~ and then choose one photo (mmm, that’s the tricky part) to illustrate. I’d like to underline the fact that this is not in any way meant to be a lesson or expert discourse, rather it’s just the brief notes and thoughts of an enthusiastic student on a voyage of discovery ~ and if I’ve made mistakes, it’s because I’m only one thirteenth of the way through! 🙂
Observe and interact
All permaculture designs begin with reading the landscape, not just the topography and climatic factors but the behaviour of animals and plants, too, and the changes that occur through the cycle of the seasons or the movements between locations. Ideally, a whole year’s worth of observation should be carried out before making any changes. Everything is considered from an holistic point of view and careful observation allows us to mimic nature in ways that benefit all elements within a system. For us, this can mean spending quiet times in the natural world as we tend our patch, studying how plants in the garden respond to different situations, harvesting produce and walking through the meadows and woodland, foraging for wild foods and medicinal plants or watching the bubbles form in our sourdough starter.
Catch and store energy
Storing and using surplus energy, food and resources is an essential part of permaculture and a key tool in becoming more automonous, self-sufficient and self-reliant. For us, this entails planting and harvesting woodland for fuel, storing nuts and good ‘keepers’ like squash, drying, freezing and making preserves, capturing the rainwater that falls on our roof, growing perennial vegetables, maintaining fertile soil and saving seeds. The principle can also include areas like learning skills from other people; for instance, I would like to be taught how to make baskets and then grow some willow just for that purpose.
Obtain a yield
Something I hadn’t really considered in any depth before this week is how living a home-based lifestyle as we do helps us to realise a much greater all-round yield from our most expensive asset (our house and land) than under the social norms of modern society where much time is spent away from the home working, studying, shopping, socialising and the rest. It’s certainly food for thought. Yield refers to all harvests and includes those foods we can forage from the wild (which this year, for the first time ever, has included blackberries from our hedges). Planning for a harvest is important, both to ensure we don’t go hungry and also that any surplus is used wisely and doesn’t become ‘pollution.’ Careful management can result in very high yields from very small spaces which is why permaculture can be so successful in tiny gardens. For us, it means drawing up and adjusting a planting calendar each year, sowing seeds throughout the year for successions of crops and saving some for next season, increasing the diversity of foods we grow (and including perennial plants among them), experimenting with new food crops and ways of using them, swapping surplus and giving ample time to harvesting and processing. Every meal we eat starts with what’s ready in the garden (or orchard, field or hedgrows).
Apply self-regulation and accept feedback
I find this an interesting principle, one that in many ways is based on discouraging inappropriate behaviour in all elements of a design. For us ~ the human element ~ that means a commitment to living simply, treading lightly on the earth, wasting nothing, being resilient and self-reliant, working with and caring for nature and basing our interactions on co-operation and peaceful negotiation. In the garden, it encompasses ideas such as plant guilds where plants are chosen and sited together in order to ‘help’ one another; for instance, we plant lettuce in the shade of taller, long-maturing crops, nasturtiums as a sacrificial crop amongst brassicas and comfrey as a companion plant to asparagus. Green manures help to reduce weeding and although some management and culling of plants is necessary, we try to develop a garden of self-reliant, self-reproducing plants as much as possible. Accepting feedback from nature entails asking ourselves what works (and what doesn’t!) and adjusting our approach accordingly.
Use and value renewable resources and services
This is a principle that we are constantly working on, increasing our use of renewable resources and reducing our reliance on bought commodities and fossil fuels wherever possible. This includes using sunshine and wind to dry our laundry, either outside or in the barn, or the heat rising from the woodstove during wet, winter weather. We also use the same heat sources to dry foods for storage. Our woodland supplies us with fuel for heating the entire house (we use fallen wood and coppicing as much as possible) as well as cooking and heating water for drinks, washing dishes and washing ourselves during the cooler months; it is also a source of useful materials for practical activities such as replacing fence posts or staking young trees. We capture rainwater from the roof in a butt placed close to the polytunnel and turn all biodegradable ‘waste’ into compost, which we use to feed the soil along with manure from the local farm. We use plant materials in various ways, including for making herbal medicines and toiletries, natural cleaning materials and disinfectant and producing natural dyes. Spinning sheep’s fleece provides a ready stock of skeins for making new socks, hats and gloves when needed.
Produce no waste
This principle asks us to adopt frugality as a positive lifestyle choice (in my opinion and experience, that doesn’t mean being tight-fisted, doing without or feeling ‘poor’ ~ far from it, in fact) and once again, to walk lightly on the earth. Closing as many loops as possible is an important goal and the way that we use wood, water and compost here goes a long way down that route although a compost toilet would be a big winner! The seemingly ever growing list of Rs ~ rethink, redesign, refuse, reduce, repair, reuse, repurpose, recycle ~ are central to the principle and an acknowledgement that recycling is the absolute last resort is vital. I would argue that there is much creativity to be found in working backwards through the list and tapping into waste streams! Caring for what we already have is also key, so it’s important to develop and use skills for maintainenance and repair, as well as considering ways in which we can use other people’s waste. We avoid waste through doing things ourselves whenever we can, composting, making things from scraps, meal planning, preserving surplus food (mostly in reusable / repurposed containers), sharing surplus, maintaining and repairing things (I’ve just patched a 16 year-old pair of jeans), living to daylight hours (why waste hours of electricity to light a dark house?), showering or basin washing and combining reasons for car trips. We have been working towards zero waste for some time but packaging still remains a serious problem.
Design from patterns to details
Permaculture is not simply a list of elements. We might have an organic garden, use renewable energy sources, ride our bikes and drink herbal tea but that doesn’t make a permaculture; the crux of the matter is the way those elements are linked in a flow, the patterns and relationships between them ~ and that’s where the ‘design’ bit comes in. This principle marks a switch from the previous ‘bottom up’ perspective to a more overarching view of systems as a whole. Nature is full of patterns and these can be used to inform good design in structure, time and process, starting from a wide-angle view of the overall pattern and then zooming in to the fine details. Once again, it’s not just all about gardens; when we were planning and implementing the renovation of our house here, the design started with a consideration of pattern, in particular the natural patterns and flows of our daily life and activities within the home. Our garden layouts, our use of polyculture and plant stacking, our (until now unconscious!) use of zones and sectors and various handicraft activities all reflect this principle in action.
Integrate rather than segregate
This principle is about engaging the whole system, choosing elements that perform more than one function and functions that are supported by many elements. So for instance, the walnut tree I focused on in my last post performs many functions: releases oxygen, absorbs carbon dioxide, absorbs and releases water, creates structure in the landscape, acts as a windbreak, provides habitats, casts shade, produces wood for fuel and practical activities, produces nuts for food, produces leaves for mulch, compost and natural dyes . . . yet I could name many different plants or elements within our patch that also perform those same functions. It’s all about relationships and once again, practising polyculture, sowing green manures and using plant guilds is a good example of what we are already doing. Turning a ‘dead’ area of the garden into a small pond and wildlife habitat has led to an increase in our frog, toad and grass snake populations which in turn helps with pest control. This principle works at a community level, too; a quiet lane runs through our property and the blue seat we placed in the shade of a fig tree is there for all to use, a welcome resting place for passersby after the steep climb or simply a peaceful spot to sit, relax, contemplate, enjoy the flowers or chat.
Use slow and small solutions
Small-scale, intensive solutions can produce both greater yields and diversity and underpin the goal of self-reliance, as well as being a far more efficient way of getting things done ~ I love the way that permaculture values hammock time! Doing things slowly gives us the time to observe, learn, enjoy, improve and relax, and is surely a welcome and healthy antidote to the rush and bustle of modern life stuffed as it is with fast travel, fast food and fast fashion, disposable commodities, social media and instant gratification. Making our own sourdough bread and yogurt, preserving, pickling and fermenting foods, foraging, collecting stone for building, coppicing wood, collecting, chopping and seasoning logs, making compost and comfrey fertiliser, using well-rotted manure, growing dye plants, seed saving, spinning, dyeing, knitting and crochet, making birthday cards and gifts and walking and cycling are just some of the ways we do things slow-time here. Preparing all our meals from scratch together is a real biggie and I’d argue that where ‘Slow Food’ is concerned, you can’t get much slower than starting with planting a few seeds! I think a good example of a small-scale solution would be solving the strawberry problem. Slugs and snails tend to thrive in the humid climate here and we knew that protecting a strawberry crop planted in the ground would be nigh on impossible. The solution? Build a trough from scraps of timber, raised high on stilts to prevent the slimy ones reaching the plants. Outcome? An ongoing, bumper crop of delicious, juicy, unblemished, slime-free strawbs!
Use and value diversity
Striving for diversity ~ biological, ecological and cultural ~ makes a lot of sense to me; there is much wisdom in the warning not to put all your eggs in one basket, and again having choices and back up plans (ideally for other back up plans!) gets us a long way down the path to automony, resilience and self-reliance. On our patch, we encourage and extend diversity through polyculture, exploring new plant species and varieties, seeking and using wild foods, seed saving (particularly open-pollinated and heirloom varieties), creating dishes and menus from the choice of home-produced foods we have and creating and encouraging mini-ecosystems. We value cultural diversity, too; I’ve written many times about the privilege and mind-broadening experience of living and learning in different cultures and countries. Sharing our space with neighbours and friends of different nationalities is a hugely pleasurable and enriching thing to do and our life reflects many ideas and approaches we have learned from other cultures. Diversity extends to structures, too: here, the house offers us shelter and warmth (and obviously somewhere to wash, sleep, cook and relax); the underhouse barn traditionally provided accommodation for animals but now acts as a utility and storage area; the barn gives us a workshop and tool store, an area for drying washing on rainy days and a useful space for indoor exercise; the polytunnel allows us to trap solar energy and extend the growing season; finally, the horreo in itself is a wondefully diverse structure, the perfect embodiment of ‘one element, many functions.’
Use edges and value the marginal
Physical edges ~ for instance, where fresh water joins salt water in an estuary or where forest meets field ~ tend to be fertile, dynamic places with much to offer. In permaculture design, valuing edges and marginal places (and ideas?) is a key principle that reminds us not to overlook or forget about such areas. Here we try to use edges as multi-functional elements, such as growing plants up fences necessary to keep wild boar out of the garden or letting wilder plants such as apple mint ramble along the bottom of them; dry stone walls built to create terraces have proved to be excellent habitats for lizards and favourite spots for useful and edible self-setters to appear; making wavy path edges by reusing old curved terracotta tiles has created mini ‘keyholes’ where herbs and flowers thrive. Beyond the garden, the margins offer us good forage of wild foods as well as a diversity of habitats for other species. By planting a wealth of flowers and herbs at the margins of our patch along the sides of the lane, we share our edges with others in the community.
Creatively use and respond to change
Change can seem frustrating, worrying, unwanted and threatening but it’s the only constant in life and being able to respond to it in a creative way not only builds resilience but can be a very uplifting experience. Flexibility creates durability and is essential if we are to pursue a lifestyle of sustainability and regeneration, now and in the future. Permaculturists often state that ‘the problem is the solution’, as illustrated by Bill Mollison (the other co-founder) and his observation that there is no such thing as a slug problem, rather a duck deficiency. This principle, therefore, is all about making changes to our own habits as well as responding positively to the unexpected. Certainly, choosing to move from ‘mainstream’ living to the way we now live here, making important choices about things like food, travel, energy and shopping, trying new ideas such as growing and eating different foods, adopting new gardening practices, making soap and toiletries rather than buying them, planting trees for the future and adjusting our lifestyles to try and help tackle the problems of the climate crisis are all ways we have embraced change. The ongoing ban of growing potatoes in our region of Asturias, now in its third season, has forced us to think creatively: no potatoes, now what? The solution has been to grow more starchy vegetables that we can use in their place ~ squash, parsnips, Jerusalem artichokes and, for the first time this year, oca. It’s too early to try the oca, but I can happily report that the other three at least make fabulous chips!
Phew! So much to take on board and of course, all these principles are part of a whole system revolving around the triad of permaculture ethics: Earth Care, People Care and Fair Share. I’m quietly surprised at how much we are already doing without having realised it was a valid part of the permaculture concept, but of course there is plenty more to be done. Reflecting on what I’ve written, I can see that there are some very pertinent elements that would help us to move forward including solar panels for hot water and electricity, a compost toilet for humanure, going back to keeping chickens, ducks and bees as we have in the past, learning and using new handicrafts and skills, involving ourselves in community projects with like-minded people, finding our ‘tribe’ and thinking of ways to share our space. I can’t promise that we’ll ever crack it completely or achieve the full interconnection and flow of a true permaculture . . . but I’m inspired to give it a go and at the very least, it’s keeping me out of mischief! 🙂