An internet search will bring up all kinds of choices for taking permaculture classes or courses, but how in the world is one to choose? Here are some tips for finding the right permaculture course and instructor to meet your needs.
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My First Permaculture Class
When I first started hearing about permaculture in the early 2000s, it was barely a whisper in the wind. There wasn’t much of a permaculture presence online so I didn’t know a whole lot about it, but something told me I needed to check it out. So when I stumbled across a permaculture design certification course (PDC) being taught in my city, I signed up.
I didn’t know then that there were options all around the country and world for me to look into, so I didn’t study the credentials of the instructors with a fine-toothed comb. I didn’t look at their educational background as it relates to permaculture, or ask about their experience in using permaculture out in the world.
If I had done some research (hind sight is always 20/20), I would have looked to see if their experience, teaching style, and perspective on life were going to resonate with me. After all, 72 hours (the instruction time required to receive the certificate) is a long time to spend with instructors who may not be framing the information in a way that is relevant to your life, interests, and needs.
Luckily, through my local PDC, I was able to grasp a cursory understanding of permaculture and enough confidence to continue learning through my own practice. This is the goal of any PDC, though there are always rumors of course instructors who fail to meet this goal, either through lack of experience or lack of planning.
Nowadays, we’re more easily able to use the internet to connect to people and courses both locally and afar, to hopefully find an educational experience that meets our needs.
What is Permaculture?
No article about permaculture could be complete without clarifying what permaculture is. It’s a shame the word is not more easily self-defined. In a way, it is, although it’s not as straightforward as–say–the term “edible landscaping”. Perma stands for permanent, and culture has come to most often stand for agri-culture. Together Perma-culture means a system for feeding humans that is ecologically regenerative and allows for humans to exist into the future as permanent residents on earth.
I like to call it edible restoration, since the tools used in permaculture can help to restore land as well as yield food for humans. Permaculture design can also be used in myriad civil systems, such as city planning, energy, waste, health care, and so forth. The main focus of permaculture, however, will always be growing food efficiently with ecological integrity.
The following is a series of questions to ask yourself when searching for a class on permaculture. These questions will help you define your goals and needs surrounding permaculture so you find an appropriate course for you. They might also help you save time and money.
1: Why do you want to learn permaculture?
There are a lot of prominent permaculture teachers and “gurus” out there who would be excellent to learn from, but don’t let star status get in the way of picking a course that meets your needs. Unless of course you have all the time and money you need–then by all means take all kinds of courses and learn from many different teachers!
For the rest of us, we need to make sure we’re spending our time and money wisely, learning what will be most relevant to propel us further with our goals.
So, why do you want to learn permaculture?
Do you have a homestead that you want to design and develop into an efficient, food-producing system to meet your household’s needs? Want to start a design and consulting business? Start a permaculture farming enterprise such as a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) or plant nursery business? Teach? Or maybe you’re simply a Curious George who likes to learn things for the sake of learning, and permaculture is just another thing to check off the list.
It’s important to be honest about what you’re after, since certainly not all classes or courses can be relevant to all of these goals, as much as a class on soccer can’t simultaneously teach the basics for playing in a pick-up game, the business acumen for owning a professional franchise, the skills needed to coach a team, and some fun tricks to do with the ball.
Be specific about your goals.
2: Are you developing a specific property, or are you interested in general information?
If your goal is to develop a specific property, define whether it is a large-scale, rural property or a small-scale, more urban or suburban property. Many classes nowadays are heavily focused on one or the other.
What kind of climate is this property in? A temperate climate resident may be intrigued by a class taught in the desert, but she shouldn’t expect the information to be completely relevant to the conditions of her home climate.
Likewise, a student who is interested in international non-profit work will be wise to look for a class that covers a wide range of climates, and even perhaps a teacher who has had experience with this kind of work.
3: Do you want to learn By-the-Book Permaculture or a Specific Permaculture Skill?
The permaculture design certification (PDC) is a very specific 72-hour course. It is a standardized introduction designed to give students a foundational knowledge of permaculture ethics and principles. The content is generalized and will skim over all climates, soil types, scales of property, etc. Of course, all instructors will have their own teaching style and add a unique perspective based on their own experience of putting permaculture into practice.
Many people start with a PDC, but in my opinion, it isn’t always necessary. Again, it depends on what your goals are.
If you aren’t aiming to become a professional teacher, designer, or consultant and you lead a full, busy life, it is now possible to find a lot of general permaculture information online and in books. This part is important: It is essential to have a basic understanding of permaculture principles and ethics, so be sure to get this solid foundation either through a class or through reading the literature. I see so many people bypass this information and attempt to tackle “permaculture” projects without understanding the basic theory that should guide their decision making.
My favorite books for independent study are:
- Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture
- Practical Permaculture for Home Landscapes, Your Community, and the Whole Earth
- Restoration Agriculture: Real World Permaculture for Farmers
- The Resilient Farm and Homestead: An Innovative Permaculture and Whole Systems Design Approach
Once you have a solid foundation of permaculture principles–whether through class-based or independent study–you may be more interested in a class that hones in on specific permaculture skills or areas of study.
For example, one of the most important aspects of permaculture is learning how to read a landscape and make decisions on how to manage the water. That’s why a few years ago Mr. TAF and I taught a Rain Catchment class. The class was full (Take note, teachers!): Many people really want to learn how to think through a specific problem–such as water or soil ecology–through the lens of permaculture, rather than simply talking about it in theory.
4: Are you interested in the permaculture “extras”?
Permaculture is a system for growing food efficiently with ecological integrity. It is recognizing that the earth sustains us only as long as we protect and regenerate a healthy ecosystem. It is also recognizing that, “The only ethical decision is to take responsibility for our own existence and that of our children,” said Bill Mollison, the father of permaculture.
On one hand we are called to care for the earth and on the other we are called to be as self-sufficient on our own properties as we can muster. These are two of the three ethics of permaculture and are fairly well understood. The third ethic–return the surplus–can be interpreted a few ways, and can be a point of contention among permaculturists.
Some practitioners interpret surplus to mean extra food, and encourage the donation of it to the local community as a service to mankind and a practice of kindness. Others interpret surplus to mean excess resources in the form of water, nutrients, organic matter, etc., and encourage the recycling of it back into the system. Examples would be turning food scraps into compost or directing roof water into a swale. Some practitioners see the word surplus as encompassing both of these ideas. As you can see, your view of the world can affect how you interpret the ideas presented in permaculture instruction.
Sometimes the waters get muddied when permaculture instructors dig deeper into socio-political, spiritual, or dietary conversations and apply permaculture to them based on their own perspectives in life. This can be instructive if you have an open mind and are interested in learning more, but if these “extras” don’t interest you, you’ll want to sift through class descriptions and instructor bios to know if these extras will be a focus in the class.
5: Find the Right Instructor(s)
Have you ever had a teacher you loved but when you mentioned how much you liked him to your friends they were like, ‘I can’t stand Mr. So-and-So!’
We all like different types of teachers. Some teachers are very dynamic, funny, personable, and engaging. They go on long tangents with stories that may or may not be on topic. Other types of teachers are no nonsense, factual, well-researched, and to the point with information.
Either way, they should be able to communicate clearly and passionately. Their bio, portfolio, and/or testimonials should demonstrate that this is the case.
When looking into potential classes, be sure to check out the instructors. Some instructors may be well-known, but if they’re not, it doesn’t mean they aren’t any good. Hopefully their bio will be available for you to read. And don’t be afraid to do some internet
stalking searching on them.
Do they have prior experience in teaching, designing, consulting, or developing? Can you read about projects they’ve successfully completed? Are there testimonials from previous students who can describe the teacher’s style and how that teacher influenced or motivated them?
If your goal is to develop a profitable farming enterprise, have they created a successful enterprise themselves or mentored successful farmers?
Do they most often work with beginners, or is their teaching style geared toward advanced students or niche topics? Do they veer into the socio-political, spiritual, or dietary “extras”?
Don’t be afraid to ask questions about the instructor(s) before signing up for a class. You have a right to know who you will be learning from.
There will always be good teachers and bad teachers, but “good” and “bad” can be relative, much like in the example above where you happened to love a teacher while your friends didn’t. If a teacher’s style or focus doesn’t meet your needs, it doesn’t mean they’re a bad teacher.
If you end up writing a testimonial after a class with constructive criticism, stick to the facts: ‘I thought I was taking a course on urban permaculture and instead we learned about broad scale farming.’ The instructor may be passionate about their career, and this will help them improve more so than an attack on his/her character. We can all be a little more care-full with the words we choose, especially those that end up living into perpetuity on the internet. A private message to them could be more direct, if you feel that they neglected to fulfill what they promised.
6: In-person or Independent Study?
I can say with certainty that an in-person class will be the most valuable commitment you can make to your progress in learning permaculture. There simply isn’t a replacement for direct interaction with human beings.
The phrase, ‘Two heads are better than one” can be translated into this example to remind us that a group dynamic can mean increased learning. The instructor in a live class can adjust his or her teaching by reading the students’ body language and facial expressions, and naturally steer the conversation in a more understandable or relatable direction. Students in the class will ask questions that you wouldn’t have thought of or tell stories about their experience that enrich your understanding. You might even make some new like-minded friends and/or business colleagues.
Locally, you might find introductory courses that are affordable and are only an hour or two long. Because these classes aren’t a big time or money commitment, I would highly encourage you to attend them whether or not you’re interested in an introductory education. You will almost always learn a little tidbit that you didn’t know, you might meet some like-minded people or make business connections, and you might even find out about more classes being taught in your area.
I really enjoy permaculture tours. They are extremely popular (ours filled up quickly) and they give a visual representation of how people take the information and apply it to a landscape. People are inventive, and it’s always fun to see how people put their own spin on what they learn.
If a big time commitment outside of the home for a permaculture course isn’t going to jive with you as you juggle work and family life, then self-study (beyond books) might be the right fit. Note that an in-person class will still be of great benefit if you can make it a future goal!
There are only two self-study courses/DVDs that I can vouch for.
One is Permaculture Skills: A Cold-Climate, Applied Permaculture Design Course. This 4-DVD set includes almost 8 hours of instruction with high-quality video from two in-person, 10-day courses. It’s a nice mix of lecture and scenes of hands-on projects.
The other DVD that I learned a lot from at home is The Permaculture Orchard: Beyond Organic. This 2-hour video will be a boon of knowledge for anyone wanting to grow fruit trees for business or personal use.
Searching for an Online Course
There are, of course, plenty more options for self-study including entire certification courses offered online. Since I don’t have experience with any of them and don’t want to recommend anything I haven’t tested, I will leave you to your internet searching using the guidelines in this post to find an appropriate course for you.
How to Search for a Class
Permaculture Design Magazine is one example of a website that lists many available in-person permaculture courses. There are many others, but that is one website I like to peruse. Beyond that, you’ll do well to search for “permaculture course” with the name of the city, state, or region of the world where you would like to study.
Check for permaculture forums or other related groups in your area. In my area, we have a meetup group. You can also check with non-profit gardening groups or your local extension office.
Kick your Learning into High Gear
After my PDC, I went on to practice permaculture in my own front yard, and at my community garden before I began teaching and consulting. It is only through project-based experience that I have the confidence to write the words on this page. You can read all the books in the world, but in-person classes and project-based experiments will be what give you the confidence to design appropriately and learn from the results.
When searching for the right permaculture course, be sure you’re clear about what your goals are, and whether a particular instructor will meet your needs. Independent study will get you started, but in-person classes and project-based learning will help you soar.
Do you have a tip I didn’t mention? Any resources that will help people find a quality course or instructor? Leave your comments below!