The Decline May Not be Permacultured, Part 1

May 18, 2016

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Image Removed

This post and the next take a critical look at the way that permaculture design is promoted and practiced in the US. While certain techniques presented in the permaculture design course may ease the difficulties of life during an age of decline, I see evidence that those who learn permaculture through the design course rather than on their own may come out of the experience less well prepared for the realities of decline in some respects. I think that people who want to explore the possible applications of permaculture design to the current situation will do better to spend their money on books and and their time on putting ideas they glean from the books into practice as opposed to taking the permaculture design course.

While I have not taken the permaculture design course, for reasons that will be covered in part 2 of my critique, I have read every issue of Permaculture Design and its predecessor magazine Permaculture Activist (PcD/PcA), the magazines published by permaculture teachers in the US for each other and those who have taken the standard 72 hour permaculture design course, for the last 17 years. Thus I am reasonably familiar with the ways that those who teach and take the course understand its uses and promote it to the public and each other. I have also read some of the books published by teachers of permaculture design, such as Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual by Bill Mollison, Peter Bane’s The Permaculture Handbook, Toby Hemenway’s Gaia’s Garden, David Holmgren’s Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability, and both volumes of Dave Jacke’s Edible Forest Gardens. I used the first edition of Hemenway’s book to design the property Mike and I live on when we bought it 14 years ago. Since then I’ve modified the design based on observations of the yard combined with insights from Holmgren’s and Bane’s books. I have also learned a lot about the ecology of the eastern broadleaved forest from Jacke’s books. But I find much to critique in the way permaculture design is presented to the public and taught to those who take the design course. Without serious consideration to some of these issues, permaculture designers may find they and their techniques have little relevance to life in decline.

While I’ve been finding PcA/PcD less interesting and less relevant to my own work and life for the past few years, it was one article in particular that crystallized my decision not to renew my subscription, which expires this month, and to write this critique. It exemplifies everything I find wrong with permaculture design as a self-described movement and what that means for the challenges it faces as the long decline continues.

That article appeared in the August 2015 issue of PcD, on page 15. It’s entitled Hellstrip Polycultures. The “hellstrip” of the title refers to the narrow strip of soil between a street on one side and a sidewalk on the other side. In St. Louis these are called tree lawns, because the plants that are most likely to be present on them are a mowed “lawn” (more precisely, a mix of grass and various other plants most people call weeds) and perhaps a tree of some sort.

The author of the article, Frank Raymond Cetera, lives in Syracuse, New York. Based on the author information presented at the end of the article, which states that he is a member of the Northeast Permaculture Design Business Guild among other affiliations, I infer that he has taken the standard 72 hour permaculture design course and intends to earn at least a portion of his living as a permaculture designer. He was running for the Syracuse City Council on the Green Party ticket in 2015 and is active with other left-of-center organizations as well.

In the article, he describes how he (and perhaps others, although that is not made clear) decided in 2012 that it was a good idea to “grow food on the grassy edge between concrete and pavement,” the “hellstrip” of the title. He raised $500 through a micro-grant to fund his project. With the intent of using plants native to the homelands of people living in the neighborhood, and after developing, distributing, and analyzing a survey to decide on those plants, he designed a garden incorporating sunchokes (also known as Jerusalem artichokes), currant shrubs, a dwarf apple tree, and an herbaceous understory consisting of bunching onions, garlic, oregano, cilantro, and galinsoga for planting in a nearby “hellstrip.” He discusses his experiments in leaving his front yard and “hellstrip” uncut and snipes at the code cops who served him with a code violation as a result, claiming that these and similar code violations friends of his received would not have been served if the properties were located in the university neighborhood. Nor was this his only swipe. The neighbors who expressed misgivings about the design as it progressed into implementation and the people who criticized him and his co-planters for leaving a half-finished project also got called out for not pairing their criticism with offers to volunteer to help with the project. He also noted that “[t]he original idea to plant sunchokes as a replacement tuber for jicama has been changed due to their habit of creating an impenetrable visual screen,” that galinsoga is commonly seen as a weed in upstate New York so “ … we will have to be diligent in education opportunities …” and that they had had a five-foot apple tree snapped in half from vandalism and another crushed by a snow plow. Still, he seemed to hardly notice these setbacks, gushing instead about how well the 2015 spring planting work party had been attended by meshing it with a March Against Monsanto Rally and Parade.

To understand what is wrong with this article, from failure to pay attention to the way that city ecologies function to disregard for feedback Cetera received through the course of the project, let’s begin with understanding the ecological role of the “hellstrip” in urban environments (yes, it has one, and that role is better described by the St. Louis term “tree lawn,” which I will use for the rest of the post). Then we’ll be in a better position to understand where Cetera went wrong and, in part 2, why this is relevant to the permaculture movement as a whole.

For those of us who use sidewalks for their intended function of walking from one place to another, the tree lawn serves as a buffer zone between us and the dangers presented by motorized vehicles and their occupants as they pass by us on city streets. This buffer zone not only protects us from being hit by vehicles, but if it is wide enough, it protects us from being drenched by spray from puddles of water and by wet, slushy snow thrown by vehicle tires toward the sidewalk. If you have spent enough time walking on a sidewalk, you have likely encountered at least one driver who deliberately drives past you in such a way as to spray you with water or slush, or who leans out or allows a passenger to lean out to grab your behind or to verbally harass you (all of these have happened to me at some point in my life). For a walker, a sidewalk with a wide tree lawn between it and the street serves as a primary defense against hostile actions like these.

When our walker is ready to cross the street, she needs to have the longest possible view of all the traffic on both sides of the street, so she can gauge the speeds of the vehicles and their distance from her, allowing her to cross when it is safe to do so. She also needs to be able to see what she is walking toward, in order to avoid various other hazards that may confront her as she moves across the street and onto the sidewalk on the other side. Whatever is on the tree lawn, then, needs to allow her the unobstructed view that she needs to complete her trip safely.

Motorists would rather the tree lawns and sidewalks go away entirely and extra traffic lanes be constructed in their place. To walkers, sidewalks are their roadways, and the wider the tree lawns are, the better they separate walkers from potentially dangerous cars and hostile drivers. To the city government which is tasked with their creation, maintenance, and replacement, tree lawns are one of the many compromises between competing needs that are characteristic of representative democracy — and like the others, they have to be funded out of a budget that has too many demands on it. Thus, while tree lawns are constructed by the city, their plantings are maintained by the resident whose yard lies on the other side of the sidewalk from it. The city government uses its property maintenance code to ensure that the tree lawn plantings allow for unobstructed visibility, protecting drivers and walkers from each other.

With all this in mind, the functions of plantings on the tree lawn are easy to understand. If a tree is planted in the tree lawn, it should be pruned up high enough that tall people can walk under it without leaves or branches touching them and so it provides enough visibility for safety. An ideal tree won’t drop messy fruits that stick to walkers’ footwear or attract stinging insects or stink like gingko fruits. It won’t drop hard, rounded seeds like sweetgum balls or nuts that can act like ball bearings, causing walkers to trip and hurt themselves. Trees which produce copious amounts of pollen are also best avoided, as pollen can get in hair or on clothes and cause much discomfort to passersby who are allergic to it. Often these design constraints lead to tree lawns that are all lawn. The lawns, or multi-species plantings (“weeds”) passing as lawns, should be mowed often so that walkers crossing them can see all potential hazards in all directions and can avoid getting their feet wet from dewy or rain- or snow-moistened grass or get bit by ticks that might be hanging on to a plant stem, waiting to latch onto an unwary walker. Mowing the plants on the tree lawn is also the easiest and least time-consuming way for a resident to maintain a bit of property that doesn’t belong to him but which the city forces him to maintain via property management codes backed up with financial penalties and even jail terms for noncompliance.

Anyone who lives in a city for a reasonable period of time and who walks, drives, or pays taxes has all the experience needed to understand and work within these constraints. It is thus jarring to look at Cetera’s initial design, with its disregard for the functions of the tree lawn and the constraints attending to them. Let’s look at the design more closely to better understand how it fails.

To begin with, as Cetera admits, the border of sunchokes next to the street will form an impenetrable screen during summer and fall. I wonder if Cetera grew sunchokes or studied the information on them closely before including them in his design. Did he not understand their growth habit? If he did, does he not walk or drive and therefore not understand the seriousness of blocking views of walkers and drivers of each other? Nor is this the end of his ignorance about sunchokes. With the apparent exception of one cultivar that sets all of its tubers (the edible portion) underneath the parent plant, it’s impossible to harvest all the tubers each plant produces. Any bit of tuber left in the ground will regenerate itself the next season, rapidly creating a patch too crowded to yield good-sized tubers, and even harder to see through than the previous year. Further, the tubers range well beyond their intended borders, so he’d soon have tubers entangled in the roots of the currants and apple tree included in the design, further decreasing visibility and competing with the tree and shrubs for nutrients. Finally, the tubers don’t taste that good and they cause considerable intestinal bloating and gas discharge, as we have learned from Mike’s and my efforts to incorporate them into our menus. Sunchokes makes no sense in a design for a tree lawn or for a public garden intended to provide a food familiar to nearby residents.

Another problematic plant in the design is the currant shrubs. Like the sunchokes, they will obscure the view that vehicles and pedestrians have of each other. They have some additional disadvantages as well. Birds will find them an excellent perching spot. Anyone who has a fence, trees, or shrubs under their control and is at all observant will notice that the result of birds perching is seedlings of various unintended plants growing underneath the perches. In my yard, these include bush and vining honeysuckles, euonymous, mulberry, Virginia creeper, and poison ivy. The vines and the mulberry root deep and are difficult to remove should they become established, and the poison ivy causes rashes to those unfortunate enough to come in contact with it. Furthermore, currants aren’t great for raw eating, and there may not be many people who want to take the time to process them into jelly or jam. If Cetera meant to include a shrub in the design that makes tasty fruit that is familiar to most people and can be eaten raw or processed in various ways, a blueberry would have been a more sensible choice, though it would also accumulate unintended seedlings under it.

Then there is the galinsoga which Cetera includes as a component of the understory. As Cetera mentions, it’s considered a weed by most people, including the horticultural industry in Missouri. I understand that many folks in Cetera’s neighborhood consider galinsoga part of their cuisine and his inclusion of it in the design shows respect for them. But still, why go out of your way to include a plant in a quasi-public place that many people know best as a weed and attempt to eradicate when it shows up uninvited in their yards? The comment about needing to educate the people who call it a weed hides behind it a contempt toward those folks and their actions that will do little to make Cetera welcome in the power circles of city government that he was attempting to join.

Beyond the plant choice issues lie other questions. Who has responsibility for maintaining the planting to remove bird-sown and other weedy seedlings, keep the sunchokes or their replacement (the author says he will try oca as a replacement tuber) controlled, and sort out any other issues that the various plants may have with each other or that they may present to people who are affected by them? Who has responsibility to water the planting when there is insufficient rain? Who has the right to harvest from the planting, and when can they do so? What happens if disputes arise around these issues – who should those disputes be brought to, and how are they to be handled? Who ensures that the plantings are defended against vandals? What happens should the plantings be damaged by a snowplow or by other sorts of accidents? If the plantings need to be removed or changed for various reasons, who makes those decisions and who will fund and do the work? The impression I have from the article is that none of these questions were considered prior to the design and initial installation of a portion of the planting, and he doesn’t discuss any of them concerning the redesign and further planting in the spring of 2015.

Regarding the code violations being directed against him and his friends, my own experience of living in low-income areas since 1989 indicates that he and his friends were able to keep their lawns uncut for longer than anyone would who lives in a wealthy area. This is best appreciated by traveling through different parts of town on the same day during the growing season. Whenever I do this, I am always struck by the fact that I see no lawns that have gone more than a week without being cut in the wealthier parts of the greater St. Louis area, versus, for instance, my own street, where at least one homeowner had not cut the lawn for several weeks until the code cops came through for the first time this season. No wealthy person would tolerate an uncut lawn on their street – it’s an indicator of poverty – and the code cops will not hesitate to enforce any such complaints made. In a poor area, on the other hand, there are too many uncut lawns and other code issues to allow for the rapid responses that are characteristic of wealthy areas. There are legitimate reasons to gripe about differences in the way governments treat residents in poorer versus wealthier areas, but this isn’t one of them.

Beyond the particular problems I have noted with this article, it illustrates in microcosm many deeper issues within the permaculture movement as I see it reflected in the pages of PcD. In Part 2, I’ll take a look at those and what they suggest about the permaculture movement’s probability of survival within the constraints of decline.

Photo credit: By Stephen Barnecut – Own work, CC BY 2.5,

Claire Schosser

My husband Mike and I began our practice of voluntary simplicity in 1994. It has prepared us well for the current predicament brought about by the end of cheap energy and the resulting economic and environmental difficulties. Perhaps some of the things we've learned will be helpful to you as well.

Tags: permaculture, permaculture design