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!).
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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?