Category Archives: Food/gardening

Permaculture Principle 7: Design from Pattern to Detail

Permaculture is a design method and like all design methods it looks at the “big picture” first. It does that with zones, sectors, and functions. Zones, in particular, have been really helpful to me in finding the right place to put things.

Warning – this is a long post. If you are just starting to plan your space, or if your existing space isn’t working for you, I think it will be useful. This method of thinking of space has really helped me put things in their proper place.


Zones are defined by the space and the lifestyle of the person who will be caring for the space. (It could be land or it could be a patio or even indoor space). Zone 1 is the place you visit most frequently and zone 5 is the place you never get to.

It really helps to draw a picture and then be honest with yourself about what area is in what zone. If you don’t know, go to Principle 1 and observe. Where do you go multiple times a day? Where do you go once a day? Where do you go once a week? Where do you never go?

Don’t put things in zone 5 that will require care. It will never happen, no matter how good your intentions. I know I am NEVER going to pay attention to the space on top of the hill by the back of the garage. It’s going to be wild. I am also never going to spend a lot of time in my front yard. Obviously, I can’t let it go wild but anything I plant there had better be able to take care of itself with little maintenance.

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Permaculture Principle 6: Produce No Waste

In 2012 we participated in the Three Actions Project. We choose three lifestyle changes that would make our household more sustainable. We had ambitious goals:

  • Eliminate all waste
  • Live within our solar budget
  • Eliminate food waste (my goal)
  • Live within our water budget (my husband’s goal)

We thought we were ready for the “no waste” challenge. We weren’t.

Food packaging was our undoing. It is nearly impossible to buy groceries without packaging! We brought our own jars and bags to the co-op but … I think it’s just not possible to get away from packaging waste if you buy food in the American food system.

Organic Waste

The compost bin that finally worked

The compost bin that finally worked

We had more success with the goal of composting all our food waste. We no longer “throw away” food. Our city composts organic food waste but most of our scraps go to our compost bin or our worm bin. Even in the winter we feed the bins. Sometimes a little animal will get into the outdoor compost bin to find a warm home. That’s okay. They need to survive too and I’m happier if they do it outside rather than in our house.

We no longer bag our fall leaves to give to the city garbage haulers. Now I put it into my fenced garden and let it start to decompose. In the spring, we rake it up and put it on top of the winter food scraps and we watch the magic of composting begin. Our compost bins have hit temperatures of 165 degrees Fahrenheit! We love to see it steaming in the morning.

We also don’t bag our weeds. We practice “in place” composting for some of it, leaving it on the ground to dry up and feed the soil. Others we put into the compost bin. And some nuisance ones we put in a special bin for longer-term composting.

Garden Plastic

That doesn’t mean we don’t have waste from our yard. The most problematic waste is plastic plant containers from our newly purchased plants. These are not accepted at the Hennepin County recycling facility. It’s a long way to drive, but Lowes garden centers in West St. Paul and Shakopee accept black plastic garden pots.

I’m always looking for more information on zero waste. Here are a few websites I’ve learned from:

Permaculture Principle 5: Use and Value Renewable Resources and Services

This principle brings our attention to ecosystem services. Those are services that the natural world handles for us, like providing us with clean water and handling waste by decomposing it into non-toxic elements that can then be reused in the system. It provides a heating and cooling system – though not quite as well regulated as we’d like it to be.

So how do we work with natural systems by using renewable resources? And when we do use them, do we truly value them? Are we mindful to consume only what we need? Do we think about how our actions will impact the ability of the system to regenerate?

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Permaculture Principle 4: Apply Self-Regulation and Accept Feedback

For me, this is one of the harder principles to put into action. It’s about setting limits and using resources wisely.

I’m certainly not the only one who has a hard time setting limits. Our planet is giving us some very strong feedback that we’ve put too much greenhouse gas into the atmosphere. It’s reacting with large and forceful hail, increasingly violent storms, torrential rainfalls, droughts and heat waves. Honestly, how could nature be any clearer? And yet we keep on doing just what we’ve been doing. We refuse to acknowledge the feedback because then we’d have to regulate ourselves.

Sigh …

Enough of that. Let’s get to the garden.

A Few Ideas on Self Regulation

How do we start to apply self regulation? One thing we can do is try to provide from our own space/land all the resources that our garden will need and try to handle all the waste on our own land as well.

  • Suppose I couldn’t buy outside compost or fertilizer? How much could I produce on my land? How big would my garden be then?
  • Suppose I didn’t have city water as a backup supply? How much would I need to save or how much smaller would my gardening efforts need to be? How would I change my watering habits?
  • And what if there was no “away” where the garbage could go? How would I change my consumption habits?

Maybe it can’t be done, but what would we learn if we tried?

How Do I Know I Need to Do Something?

One of the tomato survivors of a heavy rain year

One of the tomato survivors of a heavy rain year

Plants are actually pretty good at giving feedback. Last summer my tomato plants told me loud and clear that I had planted them too close. I could hardly move through them to harvest so some fruit spoiled. Their yellow leaves said they needed pruning and I wasn’t giving them good air flow. Then, when heavy rains came, they said I hadn’t given them enough consistent watering so they greedily sucked up too much moisture and cracked. My mistreatment had left them thirsty and vulnerable.

So I acknowledged that feedback and made a plan to do some things different next year.

  • I won’t plant as many tomatoes. I’ll give them room to breathe.
  • I will prune the lower branches out.
  • I bought a rain gauge and I’ll pay attention to how much water they receive in a week so I can supplement it when needed. I’ll keep this on a notecard in the plastic bin with the garden tools.

My husband also gave me some feedback. He said: “Hey, where are the cherry tomatoes!” We discovered two years ago that the garden operates best when we have cherry tomato plants right by the garden gates. Everyone who enters the garden can pop a cherry tomato into their mouth, which always results in a smile as they walk down the path. I’d been so focused on trying new heirlooms, I’d forgotten this crowd pleaser.

My takeaway from that feedback? Write it down!

As much as I hate to have more pieces of paper around the house, I can’t remember everything from year to year. I really need to write down what has been successful and what needs to change. Then I can go over my notes during the leisurely winter months and see what other lessons can be gleaned.

In the long run, accepting feedback save us time because we don’t keep doing thing that don’t work, we don’t lose our anticipated harvest, and we don’t spend money buying plants that won’t grow.

Permaculture Principle 3: Obtain a Yield

This permaculture principle seems obvious, doesn’t it, but I find that it generates some of the most powerful questions I can ask as a gardener.

  • Have I devoted too much of my garden space to plants that aren’t producing much yield? How might I better use my limited space?
  • Are there things I’m not doing that I could be doing to maximize my yields?
  • Are there yields my yard is already producing that I’m not using? Can I use them or should I give them to someone else to use?
  • What other yields could I pursue?

Who’s Not Pulling Their Weight

My husband and I took a walk-through of the garden and asked ourselves, what plants do we have that are just not performing. Our eyes immediately fell on the strawberries. They don’t produce very many and competition is fierce for the berries that make it to ripeness. Birds, bunnies, visitors … we’re lucky if we get a few.

We could double our efforts — add soil amendments, new plants and netting. Or we could decide to meet our needs with the berries that are already growing well in our yard: raspberries, serviceberries, currants and chokecherries (for jelly).

We decided the strawberries could go.

You Can Do Better

Squash hanging from the trellises, saving space.

Squash hanging from the trellises, saving space.

The next plant to come under investigation was the squash. It takes up a lot of space. Last year we moved them into boxes with tall trellises behind them. In the fall we had eight butternut squash hanging behind the trellis – the leaves got plenty of sun and air and the squash were easy to harvest.

We also had some surprise squash that grew in the compost bin! Squash easily cross-pollinate so these were not true to their type. We knew they might not taste good but hey, they were free. We let them go all summer and in the fall we had 25 squash. If I recall, five were not good, 10 were okay but not particularly full flavored and 10 were very good.

So … hmm, should we be using the compost bin for growing?

What’s This For?

I’ve lived here for 20 years and in all that time there have been chokecherry bushes in the front yard. I never knew those berries could be used by people until I started talking to folks at Transition Longfellow who like to forage. I now harvest about 10 lbs. of berries from these bushes each summer and use them to make jelly.

My front flower garden has lots of hardy native flowers.

Echinacea is also called coneflower. It easily grows here.

Last year we learned that the horns of sumac can be used to make lemonade. We dropped the horns into a pitcher of water and left it out in the sun to steep. It’s a weak, but natural and local (!) lemonade. Now I want to learn how it’s used as a spice in Persian cooking.

We also grow Echinacea and yarrow, mint and bee balm, which I know can be used for medicinal or herbal purposes. I just don’t know how. So my next goal is to either learn what to do with them or to find someone who can use them.

Lucky for me, the Transition Group is going to be exploring herbs in 2015.

Personal Permaculture: The Big Picture

This principle led to a particularly good discussion in our 1st Saturday group when we looked at applying permaculture principles in other areas of our life. Are we “obtaining a yield” from our time?

  • Are we generating joy or drudgery from how you use time?
  • Is your space organized in such a way that you can be productive of the things you actually want to produce (not dust :))?
  • Are there things you could do to maximize your productivity – ways you can leverage your time or resources or space? For example, can you rent a room in your house to bring in extra money?
  • Are you obtaining yields from your activities that you just haven’t recognized yet? For example, if you are volunteering in your local community, you may be expanding your social network, learning about available resources, building new skills and making new friends. On the other hand, you might be filling your time with busy work, not making any lasting friendships and not stretching yourself.

This principle gets at one of the biggest questions in life: What do you want to achieve?

Permaculture Principle 2: Catch and Store Energy

I love this principle because it fits with my belief that we should look at every building and bit of land as having the potential to fulfill multiple functions and that each function should be maximized together as a system, not maximizing one discrete function at the expense of others.

For example, this house and yard are not just a place to house people and store things, but can also be a space to:

  • Create energy (or reduce energy use through good design)
  • Collect and store rainwater for later use
  • Move rainwater down to the soil and not into the storm sewer
  • Grow food for people, for pollinators, for critters
  • Promote learning
  • Heal people
  • Connect people and create community
  • Create beauty and appreciation for nature

Some would say that a green lawn is beautiful and that is its function. My personal belief is that beauty is not sufficient unto itself but that it should be part of each and every function mentioned above. Beauty and function should both inform the ends to which we hope to arrive.

So how does this principle of storing energy inform our decision making? We start by identifying where energy exists in our landscape and then look at ways we can capture it.

This is a simple, portable solar cooker.

This is a simple, portable solar cooker.

The Sun: Our solar panels collect sunlight and convert it to electricity, but there are a lot of less expensive or zero-expense ways to use the sun’s energy. We use solar lights in the garden and on our front porch to bring a bit of enchantment and illumination to the evening. For example, solar heating:

  • While we use solar hot air panels on the side of our house to collect heat from the winter sun, any house with a south-facing window can benefit from passive solar heat gain.
  • You can use the sun to make sun tea in a large glass jar or to cook food with a homemade solar oven.
  • You can dry herbs, berries, fruits and veggies with a solar dehydrator (or the back window of a car).
  • You can heat water either with panels for solar water heating or for camp showers. (Check out this kickstarter for a cool on-the-go hot water heater.)
  • You can build a greenhouse or cloche to capture solar heat and extend your growing season.

Wind power: A small wind turbine can generate electricity for home or garden use (if it’s not illegal in your area). A row of tall trees can “catch” wind and store it to prevent it from reaching your home or yard.

Biomass: Compost provides a lot of heat at certain times of the year. Our grape vines are planted near the compost, which keeps their roots warmer. I don’t know if that’s good for them but the ones by the compost are twice as tall as the one’s next to them that aren’t by the compost. Of course, little critters also know it’s a warm space and it’s not unusual for a mouse to jump out when we turn it over in the spring.

Biomass-intensive landscaping can also be used to store water in drought-prone areas. Swales and berms can direct the flow of water.

Food is energy, too. We can preserve food using the natural enzymatic process of fermentation. One permaculture website I read talked about the energy of milk being captured and stored by cheese. I’d never thought of it that way, but I quite like that idea.

Personal Permaculture: The Big Picture

Permaculture principles can also be applied in our lives and the folks in the Transition Longfellow Saturday group had lots of ideas for how to capture personal energy when we have it so we don’t need to expend it when we’re tired.

  • Prepare food in advance and put it in the freezer for quick reheating.
  • Get work ready the night before. Set out your clothes in advance.
  • From the women with chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia, don’t put things off until tomorrow if you have the energy to do it today.
  • Work with your personal energy pattern (whenever possible). Plan to get things done during the time of day when you feel most alert and then rest.

Money is another form of energy. It can bring growth or stagnation, depending on how it is used or hoarded. For example:

  • Money spent at a local business rather than a chain store stays in the local community and is reused many more times, creating a lot more economic activity. Money spent at a chain store typically leaves the community.
  • Money deposited in a community bank is used to lend money in the community, building even more economic activity. Money deposited at national – too big to fail – banks may actually become a drain in the community, especially if that bank is responsible for a large number of foreclosures in your area.

Permaculture Principle 1: Observe and Interact

I have to admit that I’ve done lots of interacting with my garden based on what I WANTED to see and not what was actually there to be seen. I can’t tell you how many times I tried to create a flower bed on the front boulevard only to find a thriving weed bed by August.

It was helpful when a friend and master gardener came by and pointed out that what DID grow on my boulevard were plants with red leaves or silver leaves. There was something about the soil there that was conducive to those kinds of plants. Why didn’t I plant more of those? So I did and they grew well and in time other things started to grow there, too. Now that corner is wildly exuberant.

Observing How I Work Best in My Yard

Two years ago my back went out and I have not fully recovered. It has really interfered with my ability to get down on the ground to weed so last year we added four tall raised beds, three half-barrels and eight lower raised beds. It was a lot of work installing them but this year I had NO difficulty keeping them weeded. I like being able to spend a quick 15 minutes weeding a box whenever I walk by. (I didn’t love hours on my hands and knees.)

This year lots of rain guaranteed a bumper crop of weeds, despite mulching. My tomatoes were completely overgrown with weeds. I realized that despite my love for tomato jungles, I would actually have better yields (Principle 3) if I set limits (Principle 4) and gave each plant the attention it deserved. We added more raised beds.

I won’t be able to jam 75 tomato plants into the space I’ll have next year, but I can set up a nice trellis system and I can keep them weeded and pruned better and it will be so much easier to walk on well defined paths.

Observing Where I Actually Go in My Yard

My husband has always wanted the kind of house that has pretty flowers in window boxes so this year we added window boxes to the front porch. We planted vibrant flowering plants and within a month they were dead.

It turns out that although my space isn’t large, there are places I just never go. The front porch is one of them. My husband loves to get the mail so I let him. And that’s the only reason we ever open the front door. I never saw those flowers so I never remembered to water them.

I’m a slow learner. I should have remembered that two years ago, when I was desperate to find more space for vegetables, I dug up some space in the front flower garden and put in collards and kale. That was pretty much the last I saw of those plants.

My front flower garden has lots of hardy native flowers.

My front flower garden has lots of hardy native flowers.

I just don’t take much care of things in my front yard. They need to survive on their own – and basically they do because they are a hardy mix of native flowers and hostas. The best I’m going to do is weed them twice during the season and water if we have two weeks without rain. Vegetables need more care than that. Unlike children, they can’t yell for what they want so they need to be within easy viewing every day.

Observing Natural Processes in My Yard

When the ash tree came down in the side yard, in advance of installation of solar panels and the onslaught of emerald ash borer, we took out the grass that had grown under the tree and created a circle garden.

It was a lovely idea but that was a mistake. We didn’t know what the sun/shade pattern was for that part of the yard. We had not seen it without a tree. We also didn’t know what the soil was like.

Soon enough we could see the problems. Even in the height of summer, half of the circle was in shade. And soil deficiencies resulted in a lack of chlorophyll in some plants and lack of growth in others. Top dressing with compost was not enough. It just not ready for prime time. So this year we began the work of undoing that work. I’ll be looking for shade plants and flowers.

I’m much more thoughtful now about sun and shade patterns across the seasons. Plants that require a long season can only be grown in one narrow strip in the back yard. All other areas of the yard are shaded from September onward by the boulevard trees. Sadly, I have limited opportunities for 2nd plantings because of that shade.

I’ve made up my mind to work with my yard’s reality for a change, and to make it the best reality I can.

Permaculture Resources

foodBefore we dig into the 12 principles, one last general post. Permaculture is a huge topic and there are a lot of resources available online to learn more about it. Here are a few I really like (I have no financial relationship with any of the companies or websites mentioned below. I receive no remuneration for mentioning them on this blog.)

  • The website Permaculture Principles talks about the principles and also has a lot of resources you can purchase or download.
  • peppersPermaWiki: A collaborative effort to exchange information about permaculture, sustainability, environmentalism and organic gardening.
  • Worldwide Permaculture Network: An interactive database showcasing permaculture projects and practitioners worldwide.
  • We The Trees: A crowd-funding platform that lets you help make permaculture, endeavors become a reality.

amaranthBetter yet, plan to visit a permaculture farm this year:

  • Harmony Park in Clarks Grove, Minn., is a wonderful example of permaculture principles in practice.
  • Gale Woods Farm in Minnetrista may not talk about itself as a permaculture farm but it uses a lot of the practices. They give tours in this teaching space.

Seed Suppliers

It’s all about the seeds with us gardeners, isn’t it? I buy my seeds from only a few companies, which are NOT subsidiaries of the largest seed companies in the world — Monsanto, DuPont, Sygenta, Land O’Lakes, etc. You can get non-GMO, organic, heirloom and non-treated seed from them.

ground cherriesLooking for local businesses to help you move your permaculture designed garden to the next level? Just love to browse garden stores? These are my favorites. (Again, I have no relationship with these stores other than being a customer and loving them!)

  • Egg Plant Urban Farm Supply, 1771 Selby Ave., St. Paul. They offer plants, tools and classes.
  • Mother Earth Gardens, 3738 42nd Ave. S., Minneapolis. They have organic seeds and plants, native plants and classes in the dead of winter to whet your appetite for spring.

If you are looking for a larger collection of native plants, try these:

Next week, we’ll begin looking at the permaculture principles.

The Third Permaculture Ethic: Fair Share

The third permaculture ethic is Fair Share. It tells us to set limits on what we withdraw from the earth and to redistribute (share) the surplus.

Nature is abundant. Even those environments that seem uninhabitable, when examined closely, are often full of plant and animal life uniquely suited to take what that place has to offer. But those plants and animals don’t take more than the environment can give. They live in a balanced system.

We live in the same system but we’ve been able to ignore natural limits thanks to technology and trade. As we reach global limits of “peak water,” “peak oil” and peak mineral usage, we will no longer be able to over-reach. We must either replenish the system or bring our demands into balance with what nature can actually provide.


I remember how shocked I was when one of my permaculture teachers told our class we should not give away our food but should instead think of composting it. How could he suggest we not share?

Of course, what he really wanted us to look at was the idea of surplus. Did we get that surplus by overtaxing the soil? In a very real way, every bushel of corn and every sunflower seed that leaves our garden is water, soil, nutrients and sun energy leaving this space, depleted it. The sun energy is renewable but what about the other resources? What comes back to rebuild the soil?

For the system to work we need to give and take – and give back.

A Better Model for Sharing

Harvesting apples from the neighbors big apple tree

Harvesting apples from the neighbors big apple tree

For the past couple of years, neighbor Kate has shared the (really massive) surplus of her apple tree with us. We turn bushels of apples into sauce, apple pie filling and apple cider vinegar, and we return a portion of that to her. The tree gave and she took; she gave and we took; we gave back and we used the refuse from our processing of the apples to make compost.

Permaculture is fundamentally about right relationship. As the earth is generous with us, so we are called to be generous too, not by draining ourselves (or our soil) but by sharing when we have a surplus.

Sharing in the Context of a Small Urban Yard

We have 1/10th of an acre and only a small portion of that lot can grow food. Between eating fresh in summer and canning vegetables for winter, we can’t produce enough food for our family (we can’t live exclusively on kale). It doesn’t make sense to think of producing surplus food to give away.

So if we have a goal of sharing, how would that work best?

Turning 10 lbs of chokecherries into lots of jars of jelly

Turning 10 lbs of chokecherries into lots of jars of jelly

  • I always have a lot of cucumbers, which I could exchange with a friend who has a lot of raspberries. Or I could exchange cans of cucumber pickles for her jars of raspberry jam. That way we get the best of all worlds from our two little lots.
  • I like to share plants. I grow a lot of my plants from seed, starting in February. I successfully raised 150 baby tomato plants last May, but only had room for 75 in the garden. I gave the rest of them away, mostly to people who were new to gardening. It was fun to visit their gardens and see my babies thriving.
  • When children come by and admire the garden, I let them taste whatever is ripe that day – ground cherries, borage flowers, pea pods – and I ask if they’d like to take a chive plant home. Chives are expansive. I always have more than I know what to do with. They are easy to grow and look pretty. They do well with little care so a child is almost guaranteed to be successful growing it.
  • I share my knowledge of gardening. I participate in the monthly food gardening discussion that Transition Longfellow hosts on the first Saturday of every month. I volunteer with Chard Your Yard, helping to install raised bed gardens in the yards of folks in my neighborhood. I volunteer as a mentor to new gardeners.
  • And this year I was accepted into the Hennepin County Master Gardener’s program. I’ll be doing 50 hours of community service as a master gardener in exchange for learning with and from some really knowledgeable teachers.

If I had more free time, I could offer to help neighbors who work long hours by watering their plants. Or I could volunteer to weed my elderly neighbor’s vegetable garden because I know how difficult it is for her. Or I could volunteer to help maintain the garden at one of the elementary schools in my neighborhood.

Actually, knowing my limits may be one of the hardest lessons I have to learn from permaculture. See Principle 4: Apply self regulation and accept feedback.

The Second Permaculture Ethic: Care For People

Permaculture puts care for people and community on equal footing with care for the environment. Human beings are PART of the system, not apart from it. We have a vital role to play in caring for the earth and by doing so we are also caring for each other.

How Does This Ethic Apply in My Yard?

Our yard provides benefits to the people in our house and the people in our community.

  • We grow food. When I plan what food I want to grow I plan for health needs, to please people, and to share. I add cherry tomatoes for my husband. I add ground cherries for my nieces and neighborhood children. I grow greens for my health.
  • The act of working with the earth by gardening an act of caring for the earth and for myself. It’s a healthy outdoor activity. It’s a good excuse to move around and gets me out in the sunshine.
  • Gardening leads to many great opportunities to talk with neighbors, especially seniors and stay-at-home moms out walking the babies. Everyone wants to talk when they see you in the garden. It builds community networks and an active street life makes the neighborhoods safer.
  • The flower garden brings beauty to passersby and makes our whole neighborhood more pleasant.
  • The garden is a learning place. Last fall a 2nd grade class visited from a nearby school. I gave the children a tour and taste.
  • When planning how to fit everything into our small space, we made sure to include an area for rest, relaxation and enjoyment of nature.
  • We enjoy having friends and neighbors over in the evening to socialize but we noticed that our plastic lawn chairs were flimsy and possibly unsafe. This year we built a really sturdy bench, just in time for National Night Out. We had 30 neighbors here that night!
  • Our little free library allows us – and lots of our neighbors – to share knowledge and entertainment with others. At least a handful of people stop to browse every day.

What’s Next in Caring for People?

little free library

Our little free library is busy every day

We’re eyeing the space by the little free library as an area where we can continue to share and care for our community.

  • We want to build a bench so people can sit and look at the books.
  • We’d like to add an information area where we can post information about the neighborhood sustainability group.
  • I’d like to add a couple of cherry tomato plants right by the library post.
  • I’d like to put a dog watering station there, too, but it’s so far from the house that I don’t know how I’d keep it filled with water. So that’s just an idea for the time being.