Permaculture: Taking the Long View
Written onNovember 16 , 2014
“You haven’t got an excess of slugs, you’ve got a duck deficiency!”
In 1974, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren published Permaculture One: A Perennial Agriculture for Human Settlements. The charismatic Mollison then threw himself into traveling and teaching Permaculture Design Certificate courses, known in the lingo as “The PDC,” while Holmgren and his partner, Su Dennett, dedicated decades of their lives to restoring the blackberry-covered wasteland on a one-hectare property in central Australia. The homestead they call “Melliodora,” after the eucalyptus that is native to the region, is now perhaps the world’s best-known model of small-scale intensive permaculture.
And today, within the span of a generation, permaculture has grown, mostly under the radar of both academia and politics, to become a global movement, with many hundreds of fresh PDC graduates assuming the mantle of “Permaculture Designer” with a nearly religious fervor. In Vermont, probably to no one’s surprise, permaculturists are well represented.
Design is at the core of permaculture. Every aspect of the landscape—contour, soil type, and drainage—and every aspect of the environment—seasonal rainfall patterns, prevailing winds, yearly sunlight cycles—are studied and mapped. Over these maps the designer plots the zones of human activity; water flow; the best placement and selection of guilds of plants that complement each other’s needs; and the potential impacts of domestic animals foraging through the crops at various stages.
A permaculture design evolves over the course of years. One of Vermont’s best-known permaculturists, Ben Falk of Whole Systems Design in the Mad River Valley, explains “We’re not trying to race time…. Every season and every year that goes by there’s actually a greater level of value accumulating and being generated from the landscape…life just gets richer and richer with every passing year.” Continually “closing the fertility loop,” as Ben describes it, by returning surpluses to the land and reconsidering what we call waste, we reduce the need for outside inputs to build soil, an important consideration when coping with Vermont’s often rocky, clay earths.
The mountainous terrains and short growing season present other special challenges in Vermont. “Although some river bottom land and floodplains offer good soils, our rough topography and short summers are not generally well suited for growing annual crops.…” warns permaculturist Connor Steadman, executive director of the Vermont Wilderness School. “Yet the rocky hillsides can be good for grazing, and the climate is perfect for hardy fruits and other types of tree crops.” Because permaculture philosophy insists that “within the problem lies the solution,” it’s not surprising that tree cropping and the creation of “food forests” have captured the imaginations of many permaculturists in Vermont.
Mark Krawczyk, of Keyline Vermont, spent several years traveling and researching coppicing and pollarding for a forthcoming book, Coppice Agroforestry, co-authored with Massachusetts permaculturist David Jacke. These traditional methods of woodland management take advantage of species that re-grow from the stump, allowing continually harvested trees to be kept alive for centuries. Coppiced wood, where the tree is cut down near the roots, has many uses—basketry, fence posts, firewood, tool handles, and more. Pollarding, or “topping,” is done in pastured areas: The tree is cut above the reach of foraging animals, allowing sunlight to reach the grasses below while creating summer coolness and winter fodder for the herd, all while building soil and avoiding the packed earth effects of constant grazing. With their small crowns, coppiced and pollarded trees have less chance of blowing over or being washed away in sudden floods, two challenges on Vermont’s steep hillsides. “From a design standpoint, the constraints are often your best tools,” Mark acknowledges.
Eager to try his hand at forest gardening, in the spring of 2013, Mark cashed in an IRA he’d been building since his college days and purchased 2,000 trees—knocking himself out in six weeks to get them all planted according to the long-range plans for the 50-plus-acre homestead he and his partner are creating in New Haven. “My plan was that I’d have a GPS device and log-in each tree with a 3-letter code. I never got there!” he laughs. “But I did keep a notebook and now it’s on the computer.”
Touring the property, Mark describes the zones he’s plotted—chickens near the house in “zone one,” the area of most frequent human activity; stacked inter-plantings of fruit trees and berries on a nearby plateau; tree nurseries on the hillsides with swales created to hold and direct water low; a hedgerow of 50 species along the main road for privacy; and the outlying areas reserved for wild habitat and landscape regeneration. Permaculture calls this “zone five,” and Mark insists upon its importance in his design. “Almost everything’s been mowed here—since, like forever! So I find it valuable, for my own education, to allow the forest to regenerate and express itself in a natural way. Listen to the landscape. Education and information are also yields to be harvested.”
Harvesting information is the goal of another Vermont permaculturist, Devin Smith. On the Rockingham homestead where he and his wife built an energy efficient timber framed home for their young family, Devin has devoted two acres of cleared land to experimental tree nurseries. He’s been working with paw paws, a little-known native of the eastern United States that yields a sweet fruit with a creamy, custard-like consistency, and an unusual type of persimmon that ripens in August. “Most persimmons don’t ripen until November, which won’t work here,” he notes.
A lot of the labor for Devin has involved clearing and creating nursery beds on what was a forested hillside. “It’s a learning curve.…” he sighs, “but I’ve found that if you really clear out the existing vegetation and all your organic matter is suddenly available for only one plant, like that paw paw, they take off! So now I’m tarping off the ground for several months to let it solarize, trying to kill the established vegetation…digging out the rest of the roots, which are usually creeping brambles that last for a long time.” Pointing out a new bed under tarps, he explains that, “I’m thinking I’ll do a year of annual production here, and then just roll it over to perennials after harvest. Just keep the train movin’—that’s the idea.”
Devin is a member of the Green Island Permaculture Group, started by Daniel Hartigan and his wife, Kira Sawyer, who live in Walpole, New Hampshire. Each month Daniel and Kira host a meeting in Bellows Falls in a space donated by the Sustainable Valley Group, a nonprofit working to bring sustainable industries to the area. Folks share potlucks, informal permaculture study, swap seeds, plants, and experiences, and are working on a permaculture design for the area surrounding the building.
Two other members of Green Island Permaculture, Laurel Green and Steve Crofter, have achieved remarkable success after just two-and-a-half years implementing the early stages of their permaculture design at Singing River Farm in Rockingham. Laurel took an online PDC and worked up an elaborately detailed design for the property, which occupies 17 somewhat sloping acres nestled in a meander of the Williams River. There were challenges and opportunities to consider: the contour of the land, several vernal pools on site, the nearby river, and the road that cuts through the property. Laurel’s design plots kitchen gardens and firewood storage surrounding the house in zone one. Directly across the road are the outbuildings, a specialty flower garden, an edible forest garden, and a pond. Moving outward from zone one, a production garden of 21 raised beds, stands of fruiting trees, and a tree and plant nursery extend to the south boundary. To the west are berry fields leading to an area reserved for coppicing willows for Laurel’s basketry, and to the north a larger area is planned for mixed coppiced woods.
Water flow is always integral in a permaculture design. This year Singing River received a small grant from the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service to implement an inexpensive system that will utilize solar-powered pumps to lift water from the Williams River on the western boundary and store it in several ponds created up slope from the agricultural fields. Because the biggest expense of solar is the batteries to store electricity, Steve and Laurel found a way around that cost by designing a system where, as Steve puts it, “The top pond functions as the ‘battery,’ storing the water for gray days when the pumps are still.”
This is the permaculture way: designing elements that perform multiple functions, and always taking the long view—working with, rather than against, nature’s innate tendencies.
Principles of Permaculture
Observe and interact
Catch and store energy
Obtain a yield
Apply self-regulation and accept feedback
Use and value renewable resources
Produce no waste
Design from patterns to details
Integrate rather than segregate
Use slow and small solutions
Use and value diversity
Use edges and value the marginal
Creatively use and respond to change