Do You Make These 3 Permaculture Mistakes?

Do You Make These 3 Permaculture Mistakes?

Recently I’ve observed permaculture-curious friends and colleagues committing mistakes that could lead to permaculture being wildly misused and misunderstood.

What’s the big deal?

The risk is that this design science — capable of creating abundant communities and regenerative ecosystems — will be set aside due to lackluster results, when the real problem is lack of training on the part of the practitioner.

With permaculture’s proven possibilities for a bright future, dismissing permaculture at a time of global resource scarcity and ecological destruction would be sad and unwise.

I admit, I was skeptical of permaculture’s virtues even throughout my training. I graduated with my permaculture design certification while still throwing around some of the same opposing arguments and lukewarm reactions to it as many of my colleagues who are trained in sustainable agriculture and ecological conservation.

But then I studied more. Practiced more. Observed more. Sought out living examples of permaculture in action. Like a scientist, I wanted to see results that proved permaculture’s worth. And through this process, I became a believer that it can truly change our future trajectory because I saw it with my own eyes.

Permaculture isn’t just for hippies who wanna talk about loving the earth but do little to propel change forward (sorry hippy friends, I still love you!).

Do You Make These 3 Permaculture Mistakes?

With permaculture, we can learn useful, practical skills that feed us, clothe us, and warm us into the future without compromising the earth or its inhabitants any further. But it does require us to commit to putting on our learning caps and thinking outside the box.

There is a segment of the population that considers themselves “dabblers” of permaculture.

This is a dangerous place to be, because it’s where the 3 biggest mistakes tend to occur. Let’s have a look.

Mistake #1: Assuming that Permaculture can be learned from a book or a Google search.

It happens to the best of us: we read a book about some kind of system, perhaps it’s a new diet, a time management strategy, an exercise program, or permaculture gardening. We try to adopt the program but have little success.

Example #1: A lesson from the human body as a whole system

Do You Make These 3 Permaculture Mistakes?Let’s say you read a book on ‘reversing type II diabetes’ and it sounds really convincing. So you decide to follow the program outlined in the book and see where it leads you. You tell all your friends that you’re doing it. But at some point you lose steam. You start to get crazy food cravings (are these normal?), you feel so tired that you might just fall asleep at the wheel on your way home, and no one is there to offer validation for your experience.

There are two things that could help you in this moment to meet your goal of following the program and reversing diabetes: 1) a training or workshop to solidify what you read in the book (and meet some peers), or 2) mentorship from a skilled professional who can help you navigate your specific situation. In either case, understanding more about how the the human body works as a whole system would empower you to self-regulate with confidence over time. But as it is, it’s just you and your book, and you’re not receiving any feedback or encouragement that you’re on the right track, so you become less inspired, and eventually the book joins its friends on a shelf. You might occasionally omit something from your diet that was recommended in the book, but this cherry-picking isn’t actually reversing your diabetes.

That’s a long example that might seem a bit off track. Let’s bring it back.

I’ve recommended some permaculture reference books that — in my opinion — should be on everyone’s shelf: Gaia’s Garden, Restoration Agriculture, and Edible Forest Gardens, to name a few. Great references, but not great educators. Try this:

Example #2: A lesson from nature as a whole system

Let’s say you read Gaia’s Garden by Toby Hemenway and it sounds really convincing that permaculture is the way to create a ‘resilient, dynamic backyard ecosystem’. So you decide to use some of the techniques in the book and see where it leads you. You tell all your friends that you’re doing it. But at some point you lose steam. The garden that you didn’t till this year is full of weeds, your design seems to be random, incomplete, and more work than before, and no one is there to offer validation for your experience.

There are two things that could help you in this moment to meet your goal of successfully creating a permaculture garden: 1) a permaculture design training program to solidify what you read in the book (and meet some peers), or 2) mentorship from a skilled professional who can help you navigate your specific situation. In either case, understanding more about how nature works as a whole system would empower you to self-regulate your backyard ecosystem with confidence over time. But as it is, it’s just you and your book, and you’re not receiving any feedback or encouragement that you’re on the right track, so you become less inspired, and eventually the book joins its friends on a shelf. You might occasionally add a plant to your garden that was recommended in the book, but this cherry-picking isn’t actually creating a permaculture garden.

Dabblers tend to have a collection of plants that have little to do with one another, in a design that isn’t intuitive and doesn’t save time, with no water system integration for long-term sustainability. In other words, the system is set up to need hyper-management by a human.

A collector's garden: sparse; requiring frequent management

A collector’s garden: sparse; few repeating elements, requiring frequent management

Amiright???

Permaculture is a design science that takes skill and training.

Dabblers wouldn’t call themselves experts, would they? Yet many have conveyed permaculture as ineffective because they couldn’t ‘get it to work’ or it was ‘too much work’.

Understanding permaculture as a whole system is like trying to understand the human body as a whole system. It takes, at the very least, a commitment to education from a professional to get off the ground.

This is essential before forming an opinion on whether or not it is a viable means of regenerating biodiversity and creating abundant agricultural systems in our backyards, local communities, and beyond.

On that note, I might add that this blog is not a substitute for permaculture training. It serves to pique your interest on the topic and assist in a deeper understanding.

Mistake #2: Assuming that Permaculture Experts aren’t as knowledgeable as Agriculture and Conservation Experts.

Your first clue that permaculture science could well be the system your backyard, farm, or land conservation program needs to propel itself into greatness is precisely because the permaculture community claims that it can be utilized in all of these scenarios. What kind of wackos would make such a wild claim if they hadn’t seen its success in backyards, market farms, and land restoration projects?

Many well-meaning agricultural and conservation experts skim snippets about permaculture and assume that they know exactly what it is and why it’s absolutely not the solution for their endeavor.

Mark Shepard's New Forest Farm, Wisconsin.

Mark Shepard’s New Forest Farm, Wisconsin.

I attend the annual ecological farming conference in Ohio every year and in the last two years I’ve watched up-and-coming small farmers deliberately avoid the most prominent permaculture figures as if even listening to their spiel would break their backs. [Note: There is a good following for this large-scale agriculture research, there's just also a segment opposed to even sitting in on a lecture]. Opposing experts argue that permaculture methods can’t be scaled up for market-based farming. That yields would be too low because a permaculture-based agriculture system is based on a smaller harvest of too many crops (diversity). Yet these farmers do market a variety of products and work long, hard days — like good Puritans — to make ends meet. Their diversity is a different kind that requires not just initial hard work to set up the system, but constant, day-in-and-day-out-for-the-rest-of-their-lives kind of hard work.

Additionally, water management is an essential component of agricultural land management. Yet my same agricultural expert friends have shared pictures of diversion ditches and called them “swales”. Clearly they don’t mean to be diverting water off of their property? Because permaculturists would never do that. Swales catch and hold water so it can sink in and do the irrigating for us, rather than rushing away topsoil and minerals that can never be retrieved through a divergence ditch. I hope more locally-based small farmers will visit a Restoration Agriculture site in the future, whether it’s Mark Shepard’s farm in Wisconsin, or the Restoration Agriculture Farm Tour at Creekview Ridge Farm in Minerva, Ohio. Just taking a look can’t hurt!

Land conservation experts, who seem to be on the other end of the spectrum as our sustainable farmers, shout from the rooftops about letting our forests be. I feel it in my soul that the earth needs its “wilds”, whether it’s for my own sacred rejuvenation or for the survivability of many plant and animal species.

Yet many favor eradicating exotic species by using herbicide that harms our waterways and the soil microbiota. I tend to think that if it kills plants, then it’s a big deal, not a casual, lesser-of-two-evils. If soil ecology were better understood by our friends of the forests, they would know that despite lab results, the herbicide is destroying the very soil life that would have helped to heal the land, because this is where healing begins, not with planting this tree or that plant.

Do You Make These 3 Permaculture Mistakes?

In this land management strategy, exotic species are often replaced with natives in a never-ending loop to “manage” the very wild spaces that need left alone. But this kind of sounds like gardening, doesn’t it? Which isn’t a realistic land management strategy for our vast – yet dwindling – wild places.

Sometimes we act irrationally due to our grief that the irreversible damage was done by us humans.

Because of this grief, it is often alarming to learn that permaculturists don’t view invasives as the devil at work. It is often assumed, then, that permaculturists are proponents of invasives.

Rather, in permaculture we accept that we can’t stop nature’s advance, and we work with nature, not against it. Even the invasives are nature at work. What do they tell us? It’s important to answer this question before taking on a massive battle against nature itself.

We could figure out what niche the invasive species are filling in the ecosystem: Dynamic accumulator? Nitrogen fixer? Ground cover? Invertebrate shelter? Nectary? These are just a few of the niches filled by plants wishing to heal the land and jumpstart succession back to healthy forest. We could then find the appropriate native plant to replace the invasive with, not just a native plant for the sake of it being native. Plants exist in a given location because the conditions are exactly right for its survival. Change the conditions, change the plants that grow there. The “invasives” didn’t change the conditions, they responded to them. Ripping them out and replanting natives doesn’t instantly reverse the changing conditions.

Do You Make These 3 Permaculture Mistakes?

I’m being so bold in this section because permaculture is sometimes seen as a “hackers” realm because of its lack of prominence in higher education, though Oregon State, UMass, and Cornell seem to have established programs. Don’t be fooled – it’s a glimpse of what quality education will look like in the future: intense, highly academic content, taught by highly educated professionals, yet decentralized so that it comes without the cost of $50,000 in student loan debts. Accessible to anyone willing to learn. A small price to pay for something that could be the missing link to your farming business or restoration project.

None of this is said for the sake of isolating permaculturists from sustainable agriculturists and ecologists. They’re all doing good work. We need wild lands and we need to eat. Rather, this is all said for the sake of stating – for the record – that permaculture has something to add to the conversation, and it might just be the missing link in the tool belt. Or maybe not. The point is, do a training, find a mentor, and discover what permaculture has to offer.

It’s fair to assume that what you’ve skimmed from the available information about permaculture is perhaps just the tip of an iceberg you never knew was there.

Mistake #3: Assuming that your friends who are trained permaculture designers can give you free professional consulting on demand.

I’ve been asked recently about what a food forest is.

A food-producing forest? Sounds easy enough.

Take this conversation I had recently:

Friend: “I let the back acre of my property grow back to forest, so now I can attempt a food forest.”

Me: “But a food forest is a land management system that mimics a forest ecosystem, with perennial, food-producing plants as the anchor species.”

Friend: “Yeah – an existing forest planted with fruit trees.”

Me: “No, a food forest mimics a forest. It’s planting like a forest, not in a forest.”

Friend: “Oh. How do I do that?” [With a look that says I should absolutely give her a free training in permaculture design science, and do it in the duration of an elevator speech.]

Simply planting a bunch of fruit trees among an existing forest sounds pretty easy, doesn’t it? While mimicking a forest, with all of its layers and interconnections — tall trees, small trees, shrubs, herbs, vines, and ground covers – sounds a bit more overwhelming?

Do You Make These 3 Permaculture Mistakes?

You see, our culture has the attention span of the elevator pitch. We want to learn how to do things as fast as we can google “how to design a food forest”. Sometimes it doesn’t cross our mind that what we want to accomplish will require a commitment to learning and research prior to actually doing the work.

Another friend approached me recently about ‘doing permaculture':  “I just purchased a boatload of fruit trees. Tell me how to ‘do permaculture’ “, she stated. She just showed up one day — unannounced in the middle of a work day — with a carload of fruit trees, assuming that I could look at her carload of trees and tell her how to ‘do permaculture’.

Helping friends is a tricky situation. I like to help people with permaculture gardening because it’s what makes me happy and I want it to make them happy, too.

But I prefer empowering people to be their own experts.

That’s why I run the community garden with free permaculture training twice a week, and that’s one reason why I created this blog. Beyond that, if you’re not willing to pay for consultation or installation, then you should be prepared to do your own learning. Seek out a permaculture class. They’re everywhere, even a few distance learning options.

Here’s the thing:

Permaculture consulting & design is an expertise, and it needs to be treated as such.

Permaculture Design Flowchart

Permaculture Design Flowchart

Would you expect your electrician friend to spend a day at your house consulting and doing work – without offering him anything in return? How about your plumber friend? Certainly friendships have their intricacies and some relationships have unspoken understandings about camaraderie and enjoyment and what’s for fun and what’s for a fee. If you’re not sure, you should be prepared to offer an energy exchange. A beer is probably not a fair exchange for a day of expert consulting from any professional. Just FYI.

Treating your skilled friends with respect ties back to Mistake #1: learning from books. Become your own expert by taking classes, and supplement your learning with books and blogs like this one.

People who have permaculture training know the value of it, and are often more willing than dabblers to pay for consulting. Sometimes having a second opinion from another expert really catapults a particular design into greatness.

Your relationship with expert friends also ties into Mistake #2: respecting permaculture as a field of expertise. This alternative education has a fresh take on agricultural and conservation problems that current experts are spinning their wheels on. Permaculture perspective is absolutely worth paying for and adding to the tool belt.

In the end, we should all work together, hear each other’s needs and respect each others’ exptertise, no matter if we’re permaculturists, friends, neighbors, backyard gardeners, farmers, or ecologists. Together, we are a force to be reckoned with, but only together.

No one ever said expanding your horizons was easy, but it’s rarely a waste of time.

Have you made any of these mistakes? What are your thoughts?

 

Comments

  1. penny says

    Thank you so much for this post! I really appreciate your consideration of the scientists, farmers, home gardeners, conservationists, preservationists, the dabblers and the “hippies.” I, too, have encountered many of these misconceptions when talking to others about permaculture- especially in the academic community and in my work with farmers. Thanks for sharing, and I’ll likely borrow some of these explanations for encounters in the future!

    • says

      Penny, your feedback is really valuable. Would love to hear more about your experience when you’re back in my neck of the woods :)

  2. says

    Hey Amy,

    Good post. I have been dabbling in Permaculture for about 3-4 years now. At first it was just internet research, then I bought some books like Gaia’s Garden and started understanding more and more. I finally took a PDC in Cincinnati where I learned more, got some hands on and met a lot of great local people. I agree that if you just “dabble” you will never fully understand what Permaculture is all about. I will say that my dabbling led to more research and finally to taking a PDC. I am also signed up for my second PDC that will start late summer online.

    Over the years I have been developing my property. At first I just wanted a garden and some fruit trees and bushes. So I built a large raised bed garden and planted a ton of fruit trees. Then I heard about Permaculture. While my garden placement was good, I realize now I could have done things better for me and my local environment. I have been slowly replacing my raised beds with a more natural raised mound garden in a Mandala / keyhole style. Instead of bringing in straw and mulch for my walk ways I use local limestone walkways with strawberry cover crops to keep the weeds down while providing shade and moisture retention and of course fruit! Everywhere I planted a fruit tree was pretty much wrong, when I stopped and really observed my property. I have been moving them around to better locations and have established the beginnings of a food forest in my front yard.

    Even with my training I feel I have a lot of experimenting to do. My homestead is constantly evolving towards a more sustainable interconnected landscape. I do have some friends that I have offered my help for free, to get some experience designing their properties. They understand that I am relatively new at all of this but they do see the merits of Permaculture and are willing to make mistakes with me.

    I hate explaining what Permaculture is to people that have never heard of it. My plan is to design and implement my property and a few others that I can point to and say, well here is one application of Permaculture, and take the conversation from there.

    I am interested in visiting your community garden. How do I get more information?

    Thanks,

    Patrick

  3. says

    Hi Patrick,

    Thank you for your comment. We all start out as dabblers, don’t we? Your ongoing permaculture homestead property sounds delightful, and a great way to “be the change”. It seems like most people need a visual before they would feel inspired to try something similar.

    Our own homestead, even though it’s quite small, is probably only 1/3 of the way into full permaculture mode. It’s fun to see it grow more interconnected over time.

    I, too, will be taking more permaculture courses in the near future to continue my learning. Designing for others is quite different from improving on one’s own homestead design!

    Information about Hillside Community Garden can be found at http://www.HillsideGardenDelhi.com. Visit us any Wednesday or Saturday!

  4. says

    Hi Amy,

    Yeah I wish I knew what I do now, when I bought my property. Yes I agree it will be a challenge designing for other peoples property. Luckily the first property I will help design for is owned by a Permaculturalist friend of mine. It will be more of a collaboration and an extra shovel. ;)

    I am glad your events start at 6pm on Wednesdays. I should be able to drop sometime after work. Here is a link to my blog about our property. http://www.littlecountryhouse.blogspot.com/

    Patrick

  5. says

    Very well said. On all of it.

    I’ve only just found your blog but have a feeling I’ll be spending far too much time digging into your past posts this afternoon. As a forever-student of Permaculture, I appreciate your insights.

    Plus, we’re right up the road from you… a little southeast of Dayton. My wife was born and raised in Cinci. Specifically, her parents are still in the Norwood area.

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