Tag Archives: permaculture

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.

The First Permaculture Ethic: Care For the Earth

vegetable walk

A walkway of cabbage, turnips, chard, amaranth, ground cherries and horseradish

The earth – at least in my beautiful part of the world – is naturally fruitful. Before I knew about permaculture, I spent many years benefitting from earth’s bounty without giving much thought to the fact that what I was doing was making constant withdrawals from its store of nutrients. I thought of fertilizer as something for plants, not as something for the soil.

As I got serious about vegetable gardening, I came to understand that I needed to rebuild the soil. That replenishment couldn’t be an after-thought – “I think I’ll add some fertilizer this year.” The soil needed to come first!

For Love of Compost

Years ago we got one black plastic barrel, put stuff in it, and waited while it did nothing. It was impossible to turn the material over and we didn’t know compost breaks down faster with rain and sun. We tried a different container – still no luck. It got overly full.

Finally we built an open wire and wood, 3-bin composting center. We keep a pitchfork available and my husband turns it regularly. Now we’re cooking – compost, that is!

We add compost into the garden beds every year. We use the worm castings to make worm tea, which is a nutrient-rich addition that can protect and nourish plants.

Hoarding water with mulch

It took me even longer to learn that the best water is what’s in the soil, not what’s in the hose. Now I use straw mulch but if we had a lawn mower with a bag (and enough lawn) I could use grass clippings. Maybe I’ll start asking my neighbors for their grass clippings because sharing the bounty is also one of the ethics of permaculture and I bet they don’t think of their grass clippings as one of the yields they obtain.

Personal Permaculture: The Bigger Picture

With only 1/10th of an urban acre, it’s pretty clear that the greatest impact I have on the planet and its resources is not as a gardener, but as a consumer. Like most Americans, I consume more than my fair share of the world’s natural resources in terms of food, water, minerals and fossil fuels. Every time I buy something, the permaculture ethic of care for the earth asks me to consider whether I really need it.

After all, there’s not much I can do to rebuild the world’s store of iron ore or titanium or tungsten, but if I don’t buy that extra thing, more of those resources stay in the ground. And if I give my usable, previously purchased possession to someone, or share it with friends and neighbors, then someone else doesn’t have to buy it and those resources won’t be needed.

Recycling helps. It puts at least some of these valuable resources back into the stream of production and it keeps them out of the stream of waste, where they may actually be toxic.

But reduce helps more. That should be my goal.

Reflections on Two Seasons of Permaculture

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFor the past two years, I have participated in a monthly conversation about permaculture, hosted by Transition Longfellow and facilitated by Hennepin County Master Gardener Theresa Rooney (and me). That conversation comes to an end this month. Since I haven’t written about it before, I thought now would be a good time to take a look back at what I’ve learned from the permaculture principles and ethics, what I’ve put into practice in my garden, and how the principles have played a larger role in my life.

The thoughts expressed in the blog posts about permaculture that will follow may or may not be “from the book.” It’s my take on what I’ve learned in the discussion group, in classes at the Permaculture Research Institute for Cold Climates and at gatherings like the permaculture convergence in Harmony, Minnesota that I attended in 2013.

What Is Permaculture?

Permaculture originated from the work of David Holmgren and Bill Mollison. It is a landscape design method and it’s a philosophy. It takes its cues from natural systems, which are extraordinarily abundant. Every year nature manages to produce multiple yields for plants, animals and people. How does nature manage to do that? It’s regenerative. It’s cyclical. It uses “waste” to create anew. Permaculture is also called “regenerative design.”

Permaculture recognizes that the benefits we obtain from our environment cannot, for long, come at a cost to the natural world. Unlike a company or a country, a planet cannot run a deficit. The well simply runs dry. So permaculture principles guide human activity in a way that seeks abundant yields, that acknowledges limits,and that recognizes the need to provide inputs into the system to rebuild natural resources like the soil and water – and people. We’re part of the natural system, too.

I’ll do one post each on the ethics and the principles, which are these:

Permaculture Ethics

  1. Care for the Earth
  2. Care for People
  3. Fair Share

Permaculture Principles

  1. Observe and interact
  2. Catch and store energy
  3. Obtain a yield
  4. Apply self-regulation and accept feedback
  5. Use and value renewable resources and services
  6. Produce no waste
  7. Design from pattern to detail
  8. Integrate rather than segregate
  9. Use small and slow solutions
  10. Use and value diversity
  11. Use edges and value the margins
  12. Creatively use and respond to change

This month I’ll post about each of the ethics, then beginning in January I will do one post a month about one of the principles. I welcome comments on what these ethics and principles have meant in your life and practice.

Personal Permaculture 1: Observe and Interact

During the first discussion of the Personal Permaculture group, after hearing the principles and ethics, people shared their thoughts about the principle of observation and interaction. A couple of things struck me as particularly important areas to pay attention to this month: measurement, tracking and how we talk about sustainability (we personally, and the media in general).

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Personal Permaculture Discussion

We started the Personal Permaculture discussion group last Saturday morning at the Riverview Wine Bar. Some people are interested in learning about permaculture as it applies to their land; others are interested in understanding the principles in a broader context. That’s why we’ve called in “personal” permaculture. This week we reviewed the 3 ethics, the 12 principles and the concept of zones. I’ll go over those quickly here.

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Personal Permaculture Discussion Group

Transition Longfellow will be hosting a year-long conversation on Personal Permaculture. January’s kickoff meeting will feature Longfellow master gardener Theresa Rooney. She will provide an overview of permaculture, introducing and explaining the principles and ethics. To learn more, see the Personal Permaculture page under Discussions.

  • Location: Riverview Wine Bar on 42nd Avenue and 38th Street, Mpls
  • Time: 10:30 to noon
  • Dates: First Saturday of each month