Permaculture is an ecological design science that requires skilled training, experience, and continued education to practice effectively. However, there are three big mistakes often made by permaculture dabblers and other land management experts.
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Let’s take a look at these assumptions and clarify the benefits of permaculture design.
Permaculture Design without a Designer
Permaculture design provides proven possibilities for creating abundant communities and regenerative ecosystems. And as more people learn about it, they express interest in testing permaculture strategies in their own home- or business-based ventures.
One of the benefits of permaculture is its accessibility, but this often can result in permaculture being misused and misunderstood.
Unfortunately, many land management experts and home-based dabblers are testing permaculture strategies that they’ve only read about in a book. Kudos if the solution works! However, oftentimes when the strategy produces lackluster results, they conclude that permaculture isn’t a viable solution. Many times the problem was an inappropriate use of permaculture strategy.
I admit, I was skeptical of permaculture’s virtues even throughout my training. I graduated with my permaculture design certification while giving credence to opposing arguments by my colleagues who are trained in sustainable agriculture and ecological conservation.
Like a recently-graduated college student, I had the training but little experience.
So 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.
Through permaculture training, we 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 put on our learning caps and think outside the box.
3 Permaculture Assumptions
Here are the three biggest assumptions about permaculture being made by untrained permaculturists:
- Permaculture can be learned from a book.
- Permaculture experts aren’t as knowledgeable about land management as landscape, agriculture, or conservation experts.
- Your trained permaculture designer friend can give you free consulting.
Let’s take a look at each of these assumptions in detail.
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.
I’ve recommended some permaculture reference books that I wouldn’t practice permaculture without: Gaia’s Garden, Restoration Agriculture, and Edible Forest Gardens, to name a few. Great references, but not great educators.
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”. You decide to use some of the techniques in the book and see where it leads you. You tell all your friends you’re doing it. But at some point you lose steam.
The garden 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:
- a permaculture design training program to solidify what you read in the book (and meet some peers), or
- consultation with 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 or implementing the right strategies, so you become less inspired, and eventually the book joins other “nice try” books on the 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 system.
Permaculture is a design science that takes skill and training, and experience in the field.
This is NOT to say that one shouldn’t dabble in permaculture or experiment with permaculture solutions.
On the contrary, the biggest challenge for permaculture dabblers is figuring out how to use all of the available plant lists and solutions to create an integrated design that is appropriate to their land.
Dabblers aren’t experts, so getting the design to function properly may take a bit more trial and error to take the concepts in books and apply them appropriately without a skilled professional to guide the process.
Don’t shoot the messenger here! While this stuff is inspiring and fun, just like an ecosystem, permaculture designs are complex.
Mistake #2: Assuming that Permaculture Experts aren’t as knowledgeable as Landscape, 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 landscape, agricultural, and conservation experts skim snippets about permaculture and assume they know exactly what it is and why it’s NOT the solution for their endeavor.
Remember, permaculture requires skilled training like any professional arena. Cherry-picking information won’t provide reliable conclusions.
Each year, I attend the annual ecological farming conference in Ohio, 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 large-scale, permaculture-in-agriculture research, there’s just also a segment opposed to even sitting in on a lecture].
Product Diversity on the Farm
Opposing experts argue that permaculture methods can’t be scaled up for market-based farming, that a permaculture-based system relies on a smaller harvest of too many crops (too much diversity).
Yet some of these farmers already market a variety of products out of necessity, and work long, hard days to make ends meet. Their product 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.
Permaculture agricultural systems, on the other hand, will include a diversity of products since they are modeled after nature, but over time these perennial-based, regenerative systems should require less back-breaking work.
Water Management on the Farm
Water management is an essential component of permaculture design, as well as a farm system. Yet my agricultural expert friends have shared pictures of diversion ditches and called them “swales”. Clearly they don’t mean to divert water off their property when it could passively irrigate crops? Swales catch and hold water so it sinks in and does the irrigating for us, rather than rushing away topsoil and minerals that can never be retrieved through a diversion ditch.
A visit to a Restoration Agriculture site with Mark Shepard would be a worthwhile educational experience to see permacultural water, crop, and livestock management on a large scale.
Conserving Land through Herbicides
Land conservation experts, who are 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 for my own sacred rejuvenation or for the survivability of many plant and animal species.
In conventional land conservation strategy, exotic/invasive species are often treated with herbicides, then replaced with native plants.
The Purpose of Invasive Species
The spray-and-replace model exposes a breach in our understanding of how forests become populated with certain plant species. The question is, why did the invasive species show up in the first place?
Over time, human activity and atmospheric changes have affected the soil environment, so that different plants now prefer to grow there. Unfortunately, the use of herbicide is only further changing the soil ecology.
In permaculture we accept that we must work with nature, not against it. Even the invasives are nature at work.
An abundant plant species—whether native or exotic—fills a particular niche in an ecosystem when the conditions are just right for it to exist. What niche does it fill? Nature chose the invasive plant because it filled the right niche and worked well in the existing soil environment.
When the conditions change, the plants that grow there also change. The invasive plants didn’t change the conditions, they responded to them. Ripping them out and replanting natives doesn’t instantly reverse the changing conditions, at least not without a deeper study of what niches the invasive plants filled and how the soil needs to change to support the native plants.
A skilled permaculturist can contribute to the reforestation process by helping to discuss soil ecology and how the different layers of plants in the forest work together to create a healthy ecosystem.
Credit the Experts
Permaculture is often seen as a hackers realm because of its lack of prominence in higher education, though Oregon State, UMass, Cornell and a growing list of other universities have established programs. Like many farmers and conservationists, permaculturists are largely self-taught through attending relevant workshops, trainings, and certifications.
I believe it’s a glimpse of what quality education will look like in the future: intense, highly academic content, taught by educated professionals, yet decentralized so that it comes without a >$50,000 price tag. It is accessible to anyone willing to learn.
A permaculture course is 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, it is said for the sake of stating—for the record—that permaculture has something to add to the conversation.
Permaculture might just be the missing tool in the tool belt for running viable, sustainable farms and regenerating healthy forests. Or maybe not. The point is, do a training, find a consultant, and discover what permaculture has to offer.
Mistake #3: Assuming that your friends who are trained permaculture designers can give you free professional consulting on demand.
I was recently approached by a friend:
Friend: “I let the back acre of my property grow back to forest, so now I can attempt a food forest.”
Me: “Oh, you don’t need an existing forest to create a food forest. A food forest 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 give her a free training in how to mimic a complex forest ecosystem, 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?
Incidentally, read my article about creating food forests.
We want to learn how to do things as fast as we can google “how to design a food forest”.
I’m not a google search! My expertise holds value, and should be respected like any person who provides a service…the landscaper, the farmer, the yoga teacher, the utility companies that provide electricity and running water.
Another friend just showed up one day—unannounced in the middle of a work day—with a carload of trees. “I just purchased a boatload of fruit trees. Tell me how to ‘do permaculture’ “, she stated.
Helping friends is a tricky situation. I like to help people with permaculture gardening because it 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 website.
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 on a project, without offering him anything in return? How about your plumber friend? Be prepared to offer an energy exchange for consulting. A beer is not a fair exchange for a day of expert consulting from any professional. Just FYI.
The bottom line: Become a dabbler of permaculture. Read books. Attend classes. Hire your expert friend as a consultant (and compensate them!). Discover what permaculture can offer you.
In the end, we should all work together, hear each other’s needs and respect each other’s expertise, no matter if we’re permaculturists, friends, neighbors, backyard gardeners, landscapers, 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.
Read more about permaculture and why deep study of this approach will help you design a better homestead.
Need more ideas for growing a permaculture garden?
- Implementing Your Dreams on the Permaculture Homestead
- The Cherry Tree Guild & Natural Pest Control
- Contour Gardening to Minimize Irrigation & Maximize Yields
Would you like to learn more about improving the biodiversity of your garden, reducing maintenance, and increasing yield?
You’ll find loads of information just like this in my book, The Suburban Micro-Farm.
Have you made any of these mistakes? What are your thoughts?