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Toby Hemenway: Explaining Permaculture

"Permaculture" is a word fast gaining adoption in (and beyond) the agricultural and gardening worlds. We see it mentioned fairly often here on PeakProsperity.com.

But what exactly does it mean?

When asked, many of our readers have a fuzzy sense, at best. So, we've asked one of the top experts in the permaculture field, Toby Hemenway, to provide an 'everyman's' overview of the philosophy, science and best practices of the craft. His book, Gaia's Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture has been the world's best-selling permaculture book the past 8 years running.

At its essence, permaculture is about understanding and appreciating how systems naturally operate, and combining those systems in intelligent ways to accomplish intended goals, sustainably.

And while it's mostly applied to food production and land management today, the principles of permaculture make just as much sense for our economic, energetic, social and other systems. Which is why we want to provide the Peak Prosperity audience with a solid grounding on the subject -- as Chris and I plan to actively integrate much of it going forward into the "lens" we look through at this site.

"Permaculture" really started as 'permanent agriculture': we were looking at food systems and looking at how to mimic natural ecosystems. But something that we began to discover was that what we are really talking about is complex, adaptive systems, or dynamic systems -- like an ecosystem.

But an economy is a dynamic system, a community is a dynamic system, an energy-harvesting system is a dynamic system. As human beings, we encounter so many different kinds of dynamic systems. And, it turns out that if you understand a dynamic system like an ecosystem, if you know the rules for how those can be healthy -- how to enhance their health and how to work with them -- then you can port those rules over to almost any other dynamic system: like a community or a neighborhood, or designing a business, or a local economy, or an energy system, or a social justice system.

It turns out that once you have got these principles, you can apply them to almost any other dynamic system. The main difference is you just need to understand what patterns apply to say a justice system or an economic system as opposed to an ecologically-designed farm. But the rules turn out to be very similar.

So the real, the fascinating, and the exciting work in permaculture now is being done in social permaculture, in financial permaculture, in looking at human systems. Because, Nature is in pretty good shape by herself; it's the human pieces that we need to get working a lot better. 

Click the play button below to listen to my interview with Toby Hemenway (42m:21s):

Transcript: 

Adam: Hello, and welcome to the Resilient Life Podcast. Resilient Life is part of PeakProsperity.com. It is where we focus on practical and actionable knowledge for building a better future. I am your host, Adam Taggart, and today’s guest is Toby Hemenway. Toby is one of the country’s foremost experts in the field of permaculture. He is an accomplished writer and instructor on the topic, and is author of the award-winning book, Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture. It is the best-selling book on permaculture, ever.

And, while the word "permaculture" is mentioned often here on PeakProsperity.com, most readers admit that they do not actually have a firm grasp on what that word exactly means. What is the underlying theory, and what are the practical applications a backyard gardener should think about putting into practice? Toby has graciously joined us today to address just these questions. Toby, welcome.

Toby: Thank you, Adam. It is great to be here.

Adam: Well, it is great to have you here. Well, why don’t we start at the beginning. What exactly does the word "permaculture" mean?

Toby: Right, and that is a very good question. It is hard to define permaculture in a sound bite, but I will give you the first sound bite and then I will try to explain in a little more detail. But, one way to think of permaculture is: whole systems thinking applied to design. Now, that is kind of nebulous and abstract and so to just give you a little more concrete idea, I could give you a little bit of history of just where it came from. There was an ecologist and forester in Australia named Bill Mollison, who is still around, but in the 1950s he was studying the Tasmanian rain forest, looking at marsupial browsing. And, while he was looking at this amazing, lush, productive, beautiful, incredible ecosystem, he had this thought of what would it take for us to be able to design—for humans to be able to design our own environments that had all these properties of resilience and self-healing and self-organization and all the great things that ecosystems do? So, he spent the next 15 years or so really trying to figure out what it is that nature is doing when she creates these sustainable landscapes. And, in the 1970s, he met up with an undergraduate student, who got a lot of these ideas down, too, named David Holmgren, and they developed a set of principlesthey coined the word "permaculture" as "permanent agriculture." They were really looking at permanent food systems.

But, the idea behind permaculture is: how do we take what nature seems to do so effortlessly in these productive, lush, self-renewing landscapeshow do we apply that to our own landscape design and many other things as well. So, it is really ecological design of human environments.

Adam: And, what are the learnings from that? How successful can we be as humans in recreating what nature has done?

Toby: The field is definitely still in its infancy, I would say. I mean, we have only been spending 20 or 30 years or so actually trying to apply these permaculture principles. But, what we have learned is that we can mimic a lot of the functions in ecosystems. If we go at design from a functional point of viewlike what processes do we want to have going on here? Do we want clean water, clean air, soil building, increases in biodiversity? If we think in those terms instead of what products do we want, you know, do we want more apples, more rice? But realizing that the food productivity needs to be embedded in a larger set of processes. And, then great food productivity just comes out as a by-product of all these other processes going on. But, it is looking at how ecosystems function and trying to mimic those functions. And, we are getting fairly good at it now. We still need more work, but there are hundreds of functional permaculture sites. I mean, there are thousands around the world, but there are certainly a few hundred now that are up and running and matured and been going for 20 years or so. And, we are getting data and seeing not only can we create health habitats for humans, but we can dovetail those in with healthy habitats for natural systems as well.

Adam: All right. And, I want to get into those principles in just a moment, but I am curious, because you mentioned great food production as an after effect, to a certain extent. Is there a tradeoff to be permanent or sustainable in agriculture versus yield? Or, do you actually find that you can get equivalent yield or maybe even greater yield with that sense of permanency?

Toby: What we are seeing is that in some cases there is a tradeoff. I guess it depends on what part of the system you are looking at. Like, overall, I think what permaculture is saying is that our systemsour food producing systemsare going to be more extensive rather than intensive. That instead of dedicating a piece of land only to producing food, which we may do in some cases, but what we are really wanting to do is dedicating pieces of land to serving multiple functions, one of which is food. And, in that case, you will get somewhat lower yields in, kind of, per acre, but overall what you are going to have is the same amount of food production, yet really great habitat going on at the same time. Instead of having 20,000 acres of soybeans, or something, where there is not a living thing except soybeans, you can have 20,000 acres of incredibly rich prairie food forest ecosystem that is not producing quite as much food, but we are allowing a lot of other processes to go on at the same time. That is just one way of looking at it. Permaculture certainly can help us to design really intensive food-producing systems. We just want to balance those withfor every raised bed I have got, I want to have a nice little patch of intact forest somewhere, too.

Adam: Great, great. And, I do not want to get ahead of the conversation, but one of the questions that I will want to get into in a little bit is, as we begin to look at how we produce food as a country, what are the benefits that permaculture can offer that can perhaps change minds out there that are so used to doing this mono-crop, high-yield factory farming type of approach? Is there a way in which we can convince those hearts and minds that the permaculture way is a better way to go? But, before we drill that deeply, because you are right, it is a much broader canvas than just food productionwhy don’t we talk about some of the most important of those foundational principles that you mentioned the early pioneers began creating back in the ‘70s. What, to be considered permaculture, what are the key elements that need to be kept in mind?

Toby: Right. Well, one of the things, or several of the things that we have learned from nature is what we call these "permaculture principles." And, you can think of them as kind of indicators of sustainability. These are things that we see nature doing over and over again really consistently in almost any healthy ecosystem. And, there are, well, depending on who is writing it, anywhere from 12 to 14 or 15, or so, there are probably more, but these are principles that we know really seem to be applying to most ecosystems. And, they are things like: everything in a healthy ecosystem does more than one thing. Nature is marvelous at what we call "stacking functions," where if you have a conventional landscape designer, they may choose a tree for shade or fruit or, you know, a single function. And, if you look at what a tree is doing in any natural system, it is producing fruit, it is producing shade, the leaf litter is building soil, the roots are breaking up heavy soil, it is harvesting rain and channeling it somewhere. It is habitat for a zillion different kinds of creatures. And, that is the kind of thinking that permaculture recommends. And, so we put it into a principle of every element should serve multiple functions. So, that is one permaculture principle that we see over and over again in natural ecosystems. And, that is one of the 12 or 14 or so that we have.

Adam: And, I would imagine that that is probably one of the reasons why mono-crop factory farming, if you will, is as problematic as it can be, is because you are basically trying to force sort of a single function. You have got such a maniacal focus on a single objective that you are trying to achieve, that you are basically ignoring the many other functions that need to be in play in that system.

Toby: Right, and if those other functions are not in play, if they are not being taken care of somehow, they either, they are gone, you are missing them, or you have to do them yourself. And, that is why conventional agriculture is so resource intensive, that instead of fertility being a natural part of the cycle, or insect pest predation being a natural part of the cycle, we have removed all the other pieces of all these cycles. So, we have to do all that work ourselves. We've got to refine the fertilizer and bring it in. We have to irrigate, we have to spray to get rid of the pests, because they are out of balance. Whereas, in a natural ecosystem, so many of thoseor a more natural designed systemmany of those functions will be taken care of by the other elements in the system. So, that is part of permaculture design is: what are the important functions we need to have present here, and then how can we put in the different pieces that will serve those functions for us.

Adam: Excellent. So, getting back to the principles then, there is thisone of, sort of nature’s multi-tasking agents, if you will, right? Where everything serves multiple purposes in this complex system. In that system, you have got many different types of players. You have got flora, you have got fauna, you have large organisms, you have got microbes, etc. When you look at a patch of land and you put your permaculture design hat on, what are some of the first questions you ask yourself about what potentially to do with that plot of land in terms of really helping activate all the different components of the system?

Toby: Right. Well, we come at it from two different directions, and one is: our goalswhat is it that we need to have happening here, just based on our skills and that sort of thing. But, the really larger component is to look at the piece of land, or whatever the system is (we are taking about landscape, but there are many other things we could be designing, but we will stick to landscape) —to look at it and see what are the major resource flows on the landscape, what are the resources that are available, where are the bottlenecks. So, we do what we call a "sector analysis," is one of the first things that we start with. And, sectors is just a jargony word for what are the major influences affecting this piece of land? In other words, are there sunny patches and shady patches? So the sun would be a sector. It is an outside—a sector is just defined as an outside influence that you cannot really turn off yourself, like the sun, or like prevailing winter wind would be another one, or say, fire may come up from a particular direction, where are the water flows. But, also things like what is the zoning? That is another very important sector, you want to take that into account when you are designing something. Or, what is the history of the land use, or what are your neighbors doing that may influence your land. So, we do a sector analysis first to figure out where are the—what are the major influences, what are the major resources, what are the big flows that we can kind of tap into that are already going on there, what are the sources of energy. So, that is really one of the first steps when we get to a piece of land, is do a resource analysis and looking at the big flows in energies that are there.

Adam: All right. And, let’s say you have nailed in your desired purpose for this land—could be food production, could be habitat, whatever—and you have done your assessment there. How do you begin to proceed next? Is it a process of kind of beginning to map form to function, if you will?

Toby: Yeah, that would be part of it. At this point, now you can look at what does the land want to do, kind of what processes are already wanting to happen there that we can sort of piggyback onto, so that nature is already doing a bunch of the work. And, then we would use that to help shape our own vision or our own ideas of what—how our needs can dovetail into this, into the land. And, so at that point, we start thinking about, okay, now that we have a rough vision and we know what this landscape is already doing, then we start thinking about what systems are going to help this happen. In other words, what are the major functions that need to be going on, such as do we need to be generating energy of some sort? What energy is going to drive the processes that we need to go on? Can we run it all off of sunlight? Do we need wood or some sort of fiber energy like that? Do we have to import other sources of energy? We would look at what is our water source and where are we going to get that from and where is it going to go. What is going to happen to the waste streams? And, we go around what we call the permaculture flowers, looking at how do we produce food, how do we produce energy, how do we deal with water, how do we deal with waste, and so on, looking at the basic needs there.

Then we would figure out what systems need to be in place to do that, like if we have to deal with waste, then, okay, given our specific situation, do we want a gray water system? Do we want a black water system? Do we just want a regular old septic system? What is the best system to deal with waste, given our particular circumstances? So, we just kind of go around the permaculture flower that way, saying, "now that we know what is happening here and what processes want to happen, how can we choose the systems that are going to dovetail into those processes so that they are just inevitable? They are just going to happen, because we are not fighting the processes, we are piggybacking on things that are already happening there."

Adam: Okay. And, with permaculture, does it have to be a natural system, or in certain cases can you rely for parts of the flower on a more sort of man-made system? So, you mentioned septic earlier, to get the "perma" in permaculture, does it have to be natural, or does it, more just have to be dependable in the long-run?

Toby: I think it is mostly that it needs to be dependable in the long-run, but you can have a fair-sized, up-front energy investment to build something, as long as the system that you have built is going to yield and pay back that energy over time. So, like you bring in heavy equipment to build a pond, and then that pond can last for, well, centuries, if it is well taken care of. So, you paid back that investment that you put into it. So, we are—in permaculture we do not have absolutes, like, "no, I would never use a bulldozer," or "I would never use a chain saw," or something like that. It is: we do the analysis and the assessment, and if there is a good payback from it—particularly now that we still do have abundant fossil fuels, we may as well use them for something good that is going to pay back that investment, and to build renewable, regenerative systems out of it.

Adam: So, I mean, in a term that is used often on Peak Prosperity, it is energy return per energy invested, and you are really just looking for the best investment that will create the highest amount of net energy in the long-run.

Toby: Exactly.

Adam: Which, I think Chris and I would agree, is something that we should be thinking that we should be applying to all sorts of different systems out there beyond just gardening and landscaping.

Toby: Yeah, EROI is a terrifically powerful tool that I think we should be applying in systems everywhere.

Adam: Well, okay, so that is really helpful. So, once you have—well, let’s maybe bring it home to the average listener who is—this line of thinking resonates with them. Let’s say you are designing a system for the average sort of backyard gardener. What are some of the more common best practices, I guess, from a permaculture standpoint that would apply to a good swath of sort of backyard gardeners? What are some systems that they should be thinking about—either looking at on their property to see if they are already functioning well, or thinking about putting in if they do not have them in now?

Toby: Right. So, another permaculture principle that I think speaks to this is: make the least change for the greatest effect. Or, in other words, find the leverage points that are going to give you a lot of bang for your buck. Nature is just really good at this, is how can she use a little bit of energy to get a big effect? And, if we are looking at the early stages of doing a landscape design or a landscape renovation, one of the biggest leverage points is soil management. Growing anything is really a question of feeding the soil, or preparing good soil. If you do that, you have just laid the foundation for terrific growth, for minimal pest problems, for minimal water needs. So, just as a global place to start the whole process, getting your soil in good shape is a—really, the first thing that I would think of doing at a site is: how can I get cover crops or mulches or whatever the most appropriate technique (or techniques, there could be a whole series of them) to build up the soil? Because, then again, we are working with nature. What comes out of that, it is just going to happen, you are just going to get better growth, better water retention, fewer pest problems, all of that. So, that is a global place to start, kind of from a big picture point of view.

Adam: Sure. Okay, great. And, you mentioned a couple of ways to do that, through mulches, ground cover. I think this is one of those instances where it might make sense to actually, maybe leverage a little bit of fossil fuel and bring in some truckloads of high quality soil if you have really poor soil quality. I know, Chris, at the Martenson’s house when they first moved in there, they discovered that they basically were living on a big sand deposit. And, so they started sort of the lasagna method of gardening as they build their garden beds, where they put down a cardboard and then brought in a bunch of nice, loamy soil on top of that. And it, just over the years have built up a great, rich topsoil that probably by natural means might have taken a lot longer to create. Any other low-hanging fruit for someone who is looking to build their soil quality, besides those three things, trucking in, mulching, ground cover crops or anything else about that that people should know?

Toby: Yeah, I think, we want to look at what areas really need intensive management and which ones can we take our time to develop. Because, say if you have, I mean, even something as modest as an acre, if you try and, by bringing in enough mulch or compost or something to build up that entire acre, it is going to be very expensive.

Adam: That is, that is lot of dirt.

Toby: Yeah, exactly. And, it may not work all that well. So, there we think in terms of "zones," another permaculture tool for designing things, which is—and all that means is that the things that we use the most frequently, or that need our use the most frequently, should go the closest to us. And, so in terms of soil, the way I think of that is, I am going to have an area pretty near the kitchen door or the back door or wherever I am a lot, that is my most intensive food production area. And, it is probably not going to be that big. You know, if I am just getting salad greens and a few vegetables and some tomatoes and some herbs and those sorts of things, I do not need a lot of space for that. Therefore, I can afford to bring in the very best, premo compost topsoil, you know, a few yards of that, and get that just cranking, while I am applying things like cover cropping or rough mulches, you know, just bringing in arborist tree trimmings or something like that that I have got in bulk, over larger areas and building those up a little bit more slowly.

So, it gives us this graduated system of managing a small area really intensively and, yeah, maybe spend some fossil fuel and some—you might even do a one-time tilling of the whole area, or ripping to loosen up the soil once, while—and then that helps to jump-start you into better soil management. But, you do not have to do the same thing, and you do not want to do the same thing over the whole area.

Adam: For everything, great point.

Toby: Just what you need to manage the most intensively will probably be a fairly small area, and that way you do not get overwhelmed either, and you can keep an eye on a small place.

Adam: Great. And, just to your point on cover crops, because I am not sure everybody is super familiar with the different options out there. But, maybe give the brief definition of what a good cover crop is and maybe an example or two of some of them.

Toby: Right. Yeah, a cover crop is a crop that you put in for the specific purpose of soil building. So, these would be things like nitrogen-fixing plants, like fava beans or types of peas that are really to produce more fertility in the soil. Or, folks will bring in annual grasses of certain types to grow for a season, and the roots will put a lot of organic matter into the soil. The tops of the plants can be used to compost or turned into the soil, or just mulched right in place. So, a cover crop is a seed that you lay down to increase the organic matter and fertility in the soil. And, again, that is just letting nature do the work. You go out and spread the seed, and then over the next few months you have got this big boost of fertility in the soil. And, then you can come back later and put your fruit trees or garden beds or whatever it is you want to be putting in there.

Adam: Great. And, presumably if you went to your local nursery and said, “What type of cover crops grow best in the zone in which I live?” That is a good to get some direction on which cover crops to get?

Toby: Exactly. A nursery or an extension agent will know exactly what the best things for your conditions are.

Adam: Great. And, actually, let’s talk about extension agents for a minute, because not every knows what an extension agent is. Could you briefly let folks know what their role is?

Toby: Yeah, every county—a few urban counties do not have this, but almost every county in the country is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture extension system, where there is an agriculture agent or even a whole office in every county. Specifically, the agency was created to help the people in that area with whatever their farm or agricultural or food producing needs is. So, you have an agricultural extension office, and usually a Master Gardeners group is affiliated with that. Master gardeners are individuals who have learned a lot about gardening through the extension agency. And, you can call up the extension agent, and usually for free, they will be able to answer almost any sort of question. The one caveat about extension agents is that a lot of extension research is funded by multi-national chemical corporations. So, sometimes—not so much as it used to be—but sometimes you will get, you know, what type of pesticide you should be using, rather than what kind of organic method. So, just pay attention to that. But, it is a terrific resource.

Adam: Yeah, I would completely agree with that. And encourage anybody that has not already reached out to their local extension agent to try to do that the next time they have a question that they are not entirely sure how to answer.

All right, so getting to back to best practices. We talked about probably the biggest bang for the buck, which is: get your soil to a good place from the get-go. Let’s say somebody has attended to that. What are some other sort of fairly common best practices or other low-hanging fruit that somebody should consider? And, I realize a lot of this is specific to the exact type of property a person has, but painting with a broad brush here, what are some of the more common ones?

Toby: Right, and yeah, so we are just looking at the large categories of what these systems are. And, another really important one would be water. Maybe you are blessed and living in an area where it rains really regularly and you never have to irrigate, but those places are becoming harder to find.

Adam: Right. Well, and you and I probably won't see water now for another seven months where we live.

Toby: Not here in Northern California, probably not, or maybe once in the next six or seven months. So, there again, by building up soil, you have helped the water retention properties in the soil, but also putting in water harvesting—figuring out where the water is moving on your land. Everybody has an automatic water harvesting called your house, where the roof will catch water and you can put it in tanks. You can also contour the soil to hold water better, just to prevent runoff or whatever rains do occur, get the water to soak into the soil and stay there.

Adam: Is that when people talk about swales, is that really the use of a swale?

Toby: Right, "swale" is a permaculture word, or a word that has been kind of coopted by permaculture, to mean a ditch—can be fairly shallow. It is essentially, think of it as a long skinny pond about a foot or two feet wide and however long you want to make it that runs right level on a contour line. They are usually put on a slope, so obviously they are running across the slope, so when water runs down the slope during a heavy rain, it hits the swale, drops into it, spreads out, does not run any further and then sinks down into the soil. And, these are amazing devices that really increase the water holding capacity of your soil. Even in places that are quite dry, you can really find that after every rain, a huge amount of water has been put down into your soil. So, it is something that—they have been in use for well, really thousands of years. But, the permaculturists have really developed swale technology to kind of a fine art over the last couple of decades.

Adam: Wow, okay. So, there is catchment in things like rain barrels that you put underneath your gutters. There is things like swales. I know we have had Joel Salatin on in the past. He is a big fan of what he calls farm ponds. But basically—I guess there used to be, in the old days, a huge system across the country of these small little farm ponds that have largely been removed, that he says that is probably one of the absolute best things we could do for our nation would be to try to get these things back and reactivated. I am seeing you nodding here, would you agree?

Toby: Right, yes. Yeah, yeah, there have been a lot of studies done, showing that a large pond, let’s say a dam, a great big federally-constructed dam, is a much less efficient way to collect a given volume of water. That between sediment build-up and evaporation, it is much better to have that same volume of water distributed in 500 or 1,000 or 10,000 small farm ponds than it is to have it in a giant reservoir somewhere. That, for one thing you are hydrating the whole landscape, I mean, picture a landscape that has hundreds of small ponds across it, and they are earthen ponds. They are not usually lined. I mean, you can build a little garden pond with a rubber liner in it. But, these are earthen ponds, where the water in the pond is slowly percolating into the soil. And, if you have got hundreds of these across the landscape, all that water is draining through the soil, percolating through it, really hydrating the entire area, as well as you being able to individually use the water in your pond.

Adam: Right. I do not know if this is a question better put to a meteorologist or climatologist, but would a network of farm ponds like that in a concentrated area actually influence the atmospheric moisture and promote rainfall?

Toby: I think not so much from the evaporation from the ponds, but from their ability to keep the soil hydrated, and what you are going to do then is naturally increase the tree growth for one thing. Trees need a fair amount of water. And, if you now have a large landscape that is well-hydrated, you are going to get vast numbers of trees, which will evapotranspire. And, then downwind from that, you are going to see more rainfall. We know that rain follows trees, and by collecting the water in ponds, you are going to generate a lot more vegetation that are going to green an area. So, I am sure that they—and they have demonstrated this. They have demonstrated the opposite at least. You cut down the trees and rainfall drops.

Adam: Right.

Toby: So, I think we could say that if we increase trees, rainfall will increase.

Adam: All right, well, maybe our folks in our home state of California may take note of this, given that the wildfires are already started this year. Maybe a few more farm ponds would be a good idea. Last question on ponds: is there a property size below which a pond of any dimension does not make sense, or is there no property too small for even a small pond? Or, when does it make sense to consider putting one in?

Toby: Right. I think the only time it does not make sense to have a pond is when you are in a terrifically dry area without shade, because then it is just going to evaporate real quickly.

Adam: Evaporate away.

Toby: But, ponds can be put in at any scale. I mean, I have put in a pond that holds about three gallons of water, just as a little water feature somewhere, and the frogs move in and the dragonflies move in, and just by having a little bit of open water in the landscape you are increasing biodiversity, and it is pretty, we love the way they look. So, they have benefits at whatever scale you are at. And, again, that is another permaculture design principle, is: we are thinking about scale. We are not just, "a pond means something bigger than an acre" or "a pond means this." A pond is simply any body of water from the size of practically my boot print up to Lake Michigan.

Adam: Okay. Well, right, that is a pretty wide category there. All right, so we have talked about soil, we have talked about water. Let’s just touch on biomass for a moment. Is there something about what can be planted there or raised there in terms of fauna that is a fairly common practice with taking a property and making it more of a study in permaculture?

Toby: One of the things that we focus on in permaculture is we are trying to develop more perennially-based systems, because mature ecosystems tend to have a lot more perennial plants than annual plants in them. And, once you start shifting over to perennials, you start accumulating biomass, or carbon really, in the landscape. So, once you get trees or anything with kind of woody tissues in it, if there is enough rainfall to support the growth of that, or if you are irrigating, then you start building up lots and lots of biomass, and there are just tons of—there are so many benefits from biomass. It is stored solar energy. Wood is still one of the most used fuels on the planet. So, you now have a good source of fuel wood. You have a great source of habitat, just in having permanent standing biomass. And, the general productivity of perennials in terms of how much carbon they fix and how much energy they harvest, tends to be much higher than annuals. Plus you also have—when you grow perennials—you have got standing biomass all the time. But annual agriculture is essentially clear-cutting every single year, we just go in and clear it back. Whereas perennial agriculture, there is always some sort of ecosystem process happening there all the time. We are not setting it back every year.

So, there are a million benefits to—once you have got the soil and the water, or while you are building soil and while you are harvesting water, to also set up systems that are going to increase biomass. And, one of the side benefits of that is, oh, and by the way, we are sequestering a huge amount of carbon by doing that.

Adam: Right, right. Excellent. There are so many sort of sub-categories of this conversation I would like to go into, and for time, we are not going to be able to. But, I really do hope we can have you back on occasionally to have a more focused conversation about—whether it might be food production, whether it might be how to influence or involve the animals that are in the area, whether it is on hydration. I mean, there is just sort of a whole long list of things that we could go through. So, I hope we can have you back on for that. But, as you describe permaculture and the principles behind it, and we talked a little bit about this earlier. But, I feel like this could really, this type of logic, this type of rationale, the approach of understanding that everything exists in a complex system, and understanding its connection to everything around it, trying to have a multi-functional, sustainable and sort of as zero-unused-waste-cycle of a design as you can have—I mean, that makes sense to me energetically, it makes sense to me from an economic standpoint. It makes sense from a societal standpoint. It just seems like you could basically scale these principles to so many parts of society and the human experience. I am seeing you nodding a little bit here, but is this something that permaculturalists think about more, beyond just taking it off the land, but into other elements of society?

Toby: This is really where permaculture has been going over the last decade or so, is that it really started as permanent agriculture, that we were looking at food systems and looking at how to mimic natural ecosystems. But, something that we began to discover was that what we are really talking about is complex, adaptive systems, or dynamic systems, or whatever you want to call these entities that are systems, like an ecosystem, but an economy is a dynamic system, a community is a dynamic system, an energy-harvesting system is a dynamic system. Or that human beings—we encounter so many different kinds of dynamic systems. And, it turns out that if you understand a dynamic system like an ecosystem, if you know the rules for how those can be healthy and how to enhance their health and how to work with them, then you can port those rules over to any other, or almost any other dynamic system, like a community or a neighborhood, or designing a business, or a local economy, or an energy system, or a social justice system. It turns out that, once you have got these principles, you can apply them to almost any other dynamic system. The main difference is you just need to understand what patterns apply to, say, a justice system or an economic system as opposed to an ecologically-designed farm. But, the rules turn out to be very similar, so the real—the fascinating and exciting work in permaculture now is being done in social permaculture, in financial permaculture, is looking at the human systems. Because, nature is in pretty good shape by herself, it is the human pieces that we need to get working a lot better. And, that is where permaculture is, to me, really very exciting right now, is all the other systems that it applies to.

Adam: Well, I think it is just fascinating, and for those listening, I think you are going to probably see a lot of this thinking begin to really increasingly blend into the work that we do here at Peak Prosperity. It just makes a ton of sense and as Toby said, nature has largely figured out a lot of these problems, and if we can really just follow nature’s lead as opposed to try to wrestle it and conform it to exactly what we want, when we want, I think we are going to be a lot better off. So, hopefully, on one of these future return visits of yours, we can maybe delve into some of that as well.

Toby: That would be great, and I would certainly love to come back, so, it would be really good.

Adam: Great. Well, I imagine we probably have a number of listeners that, now that they understand the topic a little bit better are even more interested in learning more about it. What would your guidance be to somebody who would like to get an even deeper exposure into the permaculture mindset? What resources do you like?

Toby: Right. Well, there are permaculture groups in really every major city and a lot of smaller cities and a lot of rural areas. So, just looking to see if there is a permaculture meet-up group or guild (we often call them permaculture guilds) in your area so that you can get to know other people who are doing this is one easy way. There are a lot of…

Adam: And, you do that by either Googling "permaculture guild" in your city, or maybe reaching out to your local nursery or your extension agent and asking for…

Toby: Right, those would be a good place to start. Perhaps not the extension agent, they may not know this that well, but yeah, just looking for—Googling "permaculture, Minneapolis," or wherever you happen to be will get you some of the resources there. There are good permaculture courses being offered in, again, pretty much every major city, and there are also a lot of really good permaculture books out there. I would include mine, but there are plenty to look at, and getting to be more all the time.

Adam: And, do you feel comfortable mentioning off the top of your head, in addition to your book, obviously?

Toby: Yeah, one of the foundation texts that, when you are really serious about it, is a book by Bill Mollison, the co-founder of permaculture, called Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual. And, this is kind of the Bible of permaculture. It is very dense, but it is very complete. So, it is not something you are going to read cover-to-cover, but you might dive in on it.

Adam: Okay. So, maybe not the first book you get, but once you really get the bug, it is a good reference to have on hand.

Toby: Yeah, Bill does have a condensed version of this, or a simplified version of this called Introduction to Permaculture which is much easier to read, so that is another very good place to start as well.

Adam: Good. Any websites that you recommend somebody go check out?

Toby: The largest permaculture forum website is called permies.com, that is p-e-r-m-i-e, and it is a huge website with a lot of categories in it. It is kind of the Peak Prosperity of permaculture in a way, in that there…

Adam: You are very flattering.

[laughter]

Toby: …in that there are many different categories and a large number of people visiting, and so you can ask questions and you could say, "anybody using permaculture in my area?" Or just whatever question you want answered. So, a lot of good Web resources like that as well.

Adam: Great, great. I should also mention, too, that on PeakProsperity.com we have the agriculture/permaculture group, so it is a good place to ask questions if you have got, probably, more focused questions that the group members then can direct you to answers on. We also have a series of articles that are being written in our, on ResilientLife.com, which is the kind of the practical application part of the Peak Prosperity website. We have got a gentleman there named Phil Williams, who has his own permaculture consulting business, and he has been generating a lot of very focused, topical content there—how to plant bare-root fruit trees, how to create swales, that type of thing. So, getting back to books for a moment, though, I understand that in addition to the excellent book you have written, you have another book that is coming in the relatively near future. Is that true?

Toby: Yeah, I am just finishing the manuscript of a book on urban permaculture. Having spent a lot time in cities and just seeing how we can take what we know about growing permaculture systems and really apply those not just to urban food production, but also social permaculture and economics and community building and those sorts of things. So, it is kind of my synopsis of where permaculture has been going over the last few years, and I hope that that will be out sometime within the next year, if all the deadlines get met properly. But, just my book on urban permaculture.

Adam: Great, excellent. Well, that is a whole other podcast right there, and I know that there will be a lot of interest in that, because we have a lot of listeners to these podcasts who do live in urban settings, and, I think to a certain extent feel limited in what they can when we talk about a lot of the gardening and agriculture aspects of the site. So, having some direction on how they can implement permaculture into their own lives while being an urban dweller, I think will be of great interest. So, that is excellent. So, if it is all right with you, we will have you back on when that book has hit the shelves. And, in the interim, how can people learn a little bit more about you and what you are up to? Is there a website or any other place they can go?

Toby: Yeah, I have a website called patternliteracy.com. Those two words, "pattern" and "literacy," because one of the things we are doing in permaculture is trying to understand larger patterns and how we can become more literate in them. So, I post articles there, videos that are—I keep my workshops and lectures pretty up-to-date there, so—I do travel a lot to teach, so, I am in a lot of different places, so I may be coming to a neighborhood near you at some point. So, patternliteracy.com is where to find out what I am up to and what I am thinking about these days.

Adam: Excellent. Well, Toby, thank you so much for taking the time today to meet with me on this. I think you have done a great job in really sort of lifting the veil on what permaculture is for our listeners and for me. So, thank you, and I hope we have you back on again soon, and then again later on when you book has launched.

Toby: All right. Thank you, Adam. It has been lots of fun.

Adam: All right.

 

Photo credit: Wikipedia/Claire Gregory

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