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The Trouble with Permaculture

I’m not surprised that Permaculture hasn’t caught on with mainstream food growers. When I first encountered it about twenty years ago, I found it off putting, to say the least. Maybe it was the way it was presented as the ultimate solution to all the world’s ills, or maybe it was the zealous, superior attitude of its devotees, telling me how to garden when most of them wouldn’t know one end of a spade from the other, but I concluded that Permaculture was something that urbanite dreamers did from their armchairs and was to be avoided like any other cult.

 Earth care, people care, fair sharesThose of you who have read my previous posts know that I have come a long way since then. Over the years, I’ve met some inspirational teachers and have come across an interesting garden or two that were both productive and designed using Permaculture ethics and principles. Rather than finding out about Permaculture (PC) by encountering ill informed enthusiasts, I read some of David Holmgren’s work and found the principles and the ethics behind the theories. Then of course there was Transition, which, as you can read in Kerry’s post, is a perfect partner to PC, or is maybe one of its most ambitious designs. Once I had a few more pieces of the puzzle, it all started to make a lot more sense. Permaculture is now an integral part of my life; it offers me a different way of seeing the world and of understanding how it all works. I find that when I’m not sure of something, checking it against the three PC ethics of Earth care, people care and fair shares, gives me an additional perspective.

 I still get irritated with wide eyed, blue sky thinking permies though, who despite knowing sod all about vegetable growing, come and tell us that we are not doing it “right” in our market garden, because if it’s hard work, it can’t be PC. Apparently, you can design hard work out of gardening; in PC Lala land, all you have to do is wander through your food forest with your mouth open and ripe, juicy fruit will just fall in! Isn’t it exactly because of this desire to grow more food with less effort we ended up with industrial agriculture? And is it maybe also because it became so effortless to grow masses of food, we ended up valuing it so little that we waste tons of it every year?

Limnanthes DouglasiiThe persistent myth of the uber-productivity of forest gardens, perennial plants and polycultures, amongst other sacred cows, are why I have a lot of sympathy for Peter Harper’s critique on the lack of controlled trials and measured experiments. It’s not that there aren’t any instances of these types of food production being successful (though those that are, are rarely in this country), but how do you know that polycultures provide a higher total yield than comparative mono cropping, if you don’t measure it? How many people who have planted a forest garden have actually been able to feed themselves from it? When I watched the Youtube clip of Mike Feingold’s PC allotment, I was appalled at how little food was being grown on such a lush looking bit of land. I’ve heard it too often now; this over emphasis on salad leaves, berries, “beneficial plants” and lack of calorie crops. It is an ongoing weakness of many PC gardens, especially seen against the bigger picture of a world where food will be a lot less abundant than it is right now. With increasing demand on food banks in the UK you could say that we are now getting there. Mike’s plot is in an urban area, where clean, fertile soil is even more precious. How do gardens like that, full of salad and beneficial plants in cities where people go hungry, check out against people care or even fair shares?

Hugel culture bedsGiven examples where food production seems a mere afterthought, you can’t blame people for thinking that PC gardens are just another “right-on” pursuit for the well off. For those who are interested in growing a substantial amount of their food over the year, it is not going to convince them of the benefits of PC, let be those folk who are trying to make a living out of growing and selling vegetables and fruit. This is a shame, because with a little bit of common sense and a lot of gardening experience, PC thinking can be a great help in difficult gardening conditions. In our market garden we’ve used hugel culture beds where the ground before was too sodden to grow anything, we use raised beds and mulches, practise companion planting, we’re using willow pollards to deal with excess water (ongoing experiment) and yes, I grow lots of beneficial plants to attract predator insects and pollinators, but not at the expense or instead of common garden vegetables. I wouldn’t say that our market garden is a model PC project, but I would say that without PC thinking, we wouldn’t be growing anything much on this challenging piece of land. Patrick Whitefield acknowledges this is often the case in a great interview with Simon Fairlie: 

“Very few growers of food would claim to be 100 percent permaculturists but many would admit to being influenced by permaculture and using some of its ideas.”

Young tomato plants mulched with straw The greatest benefits of PC thinking for me have been the permission to give time to “Observe and interact” and then to “Accept feedback and apply self-regulation”. Even failures are only another source of information and learning that way and thus part of “Obtaining a yield”. Using “Slow and small solutions” overcame the frustration that we could not afford to put more capital in and create a greater impact more quickly, as did “Use and value renewable resources and services”, which for us meant that we discovered how much we could do with what we had and made “Produce no waste” a logical choice. It’s a slow process, but it has a certain elegance to it, which I’ve come to appreciate. Unlike the over zealous permie, I don’t hold to many fixed ideas anymore, but garden with a perpetual willingness to be surprised. Sometimes the solutions that present themselves are very counter intuitive, but obvious once in place.

Early broadbeans with companion plants calendula, chamomille and poppySo why does my heart sink when I hear of another Transition Initiative that has acquired a good bit of land, announce with great enthusiasm, that they’re going to plant a food forest? For one, it will take many years for even the most perfectly designed, planted and maintained forest garden to literally bear fruit and how are you going to keep your volunteers on board during that time? Another is that more often than not, these trees are planted on very good agricultural land, which would be perfect for growing annual veg and calorie crops, which don’t do well on poorer soils where trees would be quite happy. I know from experience that people like “normal” vegetables. I see it as quite an achievement to have built up a customer base for a few unusual crops, such as achocha, tree spinach and New Zealand spinach, stripy tomatoes and purple beans. But I know they are still a long way off “tree salads” or chickweed pesto or weird berries. And lastly, in the face of a powerdown future, where conventional growing will become increasingly expensive and problematic, we need to scale up sustainable alternatives capable of providing us with affordable food, grown close to where it will be eaten, just like they did in Cuba.

 peas, radishes, carrots and parsleyTo finish, I have some advice for budding Permaculture Designers: consider this proverb when deciding upon your diploma designs: “Cobbler, stick to thy last.” We need PC design, but leave the land based ones to people with land based experience and work within your area of expertise, be it finance, economics, health, transport, planning, architecture or rocket science, as long as you know what you’re talking about. Wonder why? Well here’s an example of a post on the PC Design Facebook page, which I read over my husbands’ shoulder, as he is currently working on his PC diploma: : “For my design I’ve decided to create a raised bed with a polyculture and to broadcast (another popular lemon in inexperienced hands) the seeds.” A few weeks later a photograph of a bed full of seedlings is posted with the following request: “Could anybody please identify which the plants that I’ve sown are and which the weeds, because I can’t tell them apart?” It yielded substantial laughter...

Images: The three PC ethics: Earth care, people care and fair shares / Limnanthes Douglasii; how can you garden without it? It's a very early flower attacting both predator insects and pollinators, freely selfseeds and thus makes a great green manure or covercrop whilst providing plenty of cover for toads and frogs / Some of the hugel culture beds that saved half of our plot, here in early spring / Young tomato plants in the polytunnel with strawmulch to reduce watering and weeds and tiny companion French marigolds / very early broadbeans in polytunnel with companions calendula, chamomille and poppy to attract pollinators and hoverflies / a successful polyculture: early dwarf peas, radishes, carrots and parsley.

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