Tag Archives: personal permaculture

Permaculture Principle 12: Creatively Use and Respond to Change

Where is change happening in your yard – and in your life?

The sun has been a primary change agent. When an old apple tree was struck by lightening and came down, we gained a sunny back yard and a much larger vegetable garden. When an ash tree came down, we gained a side yard vegetable garden, solar electric and solar hot air. When the city-owned boulevard trees grew too tall, we lost half of our side yard garden and we lost the ability to plant late season crops.

People are a major change agent. Because I live on a corner lot, my space is vulnerable to theft and I’ve certainly experienced a lot of it. As a poor single mom, it was devastating when my children’s bikes were stolen and the first gift from my husband — a concrete lion for my front stairs – was taken in the middle of the day. We didn’t have the money to replace them, at least not for a long time.

It makes one want to give up. Or get angry – I’m more of an anger person than a giving up person. I continued to invest in the things that would bring us happiness – like a hammock, which I chained to a tree. I invested more in things that went into the ground rather than on top of it, thinking it would not be as attractive to thieves.

That’s only partly true. In 2014, someone stole my boulevard plants the day after I put them in the ground. In 2013, someone stole my entire pepper harvest. That was the worst betrayal.

We hope the right kind of fence will create better boundaries without closing off the opportunity to socialize with our community.

We hope the right kind of fence will create better boundaries without closing off the opportunity to socialize with our community.

I spent a good bit of time trying to figure out how I could both invite the community in and also create a boundary. I wanted to say yes to engagement but also, “Respect my space!” (I’ve since learned of the term creative placemaking, and I am learning more about how people respond to place.)

We decided to install a fence. Several neighbors came by to say they were unhappy to see us putting up a fence. They loved to see the garden. I feel the same way, but when I explained why and that it would not be a privacy fence, they understood. We’ll see if we’ve found the right balance.

Children are major change agents: When they hit their mid teens, our kids had nothing more to say to us so we built a patio and firepit. Every evening my husband would sit by the firepit smoking a pipe (which he no longer does) and the kids would come out to chat. Usually there was no fire. But on weekends their friends would come over and we’d have a fire and maybe do some cooking outdoors or hang out until midnight. This was the most important space and the most important time – words could be spoken.

City regulations are major change agents: Sitting around a fire late into the evening is no longer possible. The city changed its rules about fires in response to air quality concerns. I feel that as a loss, although not such a big loss now that the kids are grown and gone. Sitting around a fire in the evening is a special experience of bonding and social connection and I haven’t found a way yet to creatively respond to that loss.

So here we are at the end of the year and this blog post is ending on a far different note than I expected when I started it. On the face of it, permaculture principle 12 sounds all hopeful and positive, but change often comes from difficult situations and is accompanied by feelings of anger and sadness and loss. How do we deal with that?

I think we go back to permaculture principle 1: We stop. We observe. We interact with the new space and the new reality. Then we take an action – and we wait to see what happens next.

Permaculture Principle 11: Use Edges and Value the Marginal

Where are the edges in your yard?

  • The edge of the house and the yard? That space has its own microclimate. It is typically protected from wind but may not get enough water.
  • The edge of the yard and the sidewalk? This space has lots of visitors. Plants may need to survive dog urine showers and sidewalk salt.
  • The edge of a yard and a driveway? Snow will be piling up here – up and up. Delicate shrubs may not like getting hit with snow from the plow.
  • The boulevard between the sidewalk and the street? Another microclimate, more challenging soil conditions, more public traffic.
  • The open yard and the side of a fence? Think about shade, protection and structure.
In 2014, we added a side yard fence. Now I can begin adding a shade flower garden within the border of a fence.

In 2014, we added a side yard fence. Now I can begin adding a shade flower garden within the border of a fence.

Edges can be hard places to work with, but they present a lot of interesting opportunity and natural diversity. “Weeds” tend to appear in those places where it’s harder to survive. Is it truly a problem plant? Is it a plant misplaced? Or is it a plant you don’t yet know?

We’ve spent a bit of time in the last two years learning about wild edibles. We attended a foraging class with Charley Underwood through Exco, experimental community education of the Twin Cities. Not only did we learn to identify some of these plants, we got a chance to eat them.

Ilze Mueller has conducted “weed walks” through her community garden with folks from Transition Longfellow.

Friend Elizabeth Blair told us about the Minnesota Mycological Society, which sponsors mushroom walks. Whenever a new mushroom pops up in our yard, she comes over to identify it for us.

When I posted a question about whether my chokecherry tree was the right kind to harvest from – chokecherry or chokeberry, but only one is “edible” – a naturalist who is a member on the Transition Facebook page came to my yard and showed me around it in a whole new way!

Before we judge a being that lives along the edges too harshly, we should try to understand who and what they are and the benefits they bring.

Permaculture Principle 9: Use Small and Slow Solutions

Make the least change for the greatest possible effect. – Bill Mollison

Small and slow systems are easier to maintain than big ones, make better use of local resources, and produce more sustainable outcomes. – David Holmgren

Small and slow solutions will be increasingly important in an energy-constrained future. Large, fast solutions typically use more energy and are more expensive. It may be appropriate to use a lot of energy to set up a system, but in the long run the system should be self-sustaining.

I think an example of a slow solution – maybe the only example I can think of, since I’m bad at doing things slowly – is our raised garden beds. We now have 18 raised beds but we didn’t start there. We started with four.

The latest installation of raised beds

The latest installation of raised beds

They worked well and helped us achieve the goal we were seeking: making it easier for me to keep the garden weeded even when my back was acting up. I quite enjoyed weeding them. I could sit on the edge and reach everything. It takes about 15 minutes to weed one bed. I can easily do three or four in a day.

The next year I added five more. It continued to work well, so in the fall of 2014 we went all out and added nine more. Now we’re done. I hope this investment proves to be, as Bill Mollison would say, appropriately scaled. We’ll know if I can maintain them without feeling overwhelmed.

If I were to do anything differently, it would be that I would not have added more beds until I had figured out the best way to keep them watered. But that’s not a new problem. I’m always struggling with my water setup.

For the Love of Perennials

Perennial plants are the epitome of slow and small solutions. In my garden, rhubarb and raspberry took a bit of time to get established but once they are contented, I do nothing for them but harvest!

I want MORE of these kinds of crops – more sorrel, more asparagus, more horseradish, more dill (evidently I’m not going to have any trouble getting more of those last two). I’m hoping that next year I’ll find that the ground cherries have reseeded themselves.

The Big Picture of Slow Versus Fast Solutions

Soaking and fermenting food takes a few days or weeks before it’s ready to eat but the food then requires no cooking – not fossil fuel inputs for cooking or for storing!

Biking takes more time but is so much more enjoyable than driving. I check out gardens. I can say hi to neighbors. I can observe more of what is going on around me. Because I was biking, I have stopped at small shops in our neighborhood that have become new favorites.

Slow and small has some very big advantages.

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 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.

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.

Moving the Conversation

I have become the administrator of the blog for Transition Longfellow. I am moving the pages of information about the discussion groups — personal permaculture and preparedness — to that blog. If you would like to participate in the ongoing discussion and resource sharing with members of those groups, you can do so at that blog.

I will likely still write about the actions Peter and I take as a result of group participation, but shifting the bulk of the conversation there relieves me of feeling I’m inappropriately speaking for the group or the neighborhood when I am, in fact, just one voice.

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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