Permaculture News is an everyday outlet for Permaculture legend, Geoff Lawton. In the winter of 2012, I set off on a grand expedition from Guatemala to Patagonia, with the plan of volunteering on organic farms along the way. By Panama, I'd become very interested in permaculture, and that interest soon turned into a full-fledged lifestyle when my wife and I stopped for six months on a property near Lake Gatun to create some permaculture systems and do cool projects. In summer 2013, I started writing articles.
you can also visit my author page on Permaculture News for access to all of my articles There.
One of the aspects of practicing permaculture that often gets overlooked—in the building of soil, the harvesting of water, the conserving of energy, and all those other great things we get up to—is some level of proficiency in the kitchen. It’s well and fine to grow a bunch of wonderful, nutritious food, but it’s also very easy to miss out on some of the basic, everyday products we could be making at home. Doing so would be one more effective way of stepping out of the industrial food production machines that have been steadily damaging the planet. For a fraction of the retail cost, we could easily be creating healthier, organic versions of some of the most important mainstays in the kitchen: booze and vinegar.
Lots of our favorite annual vegetables can be grown in containers right inside the house. Herbs have no problem with pots. Lettuce just loves to spread out in one of those oblong planters that fit nicely on a shelf or hanging from a balcony rail. Tomatoes are content reaching for the curtain rods, soaking up the sun, and potatoes can seem almost tailor-made for buckets. Squash and cucumber vines will happily cling their way up a corner or a wall. There are all sorts of things to plant indoors. Truth be told, much of the produce we buy at the supermarket was grown inside anyway.
Well, for me, for a myriad of reasons, this is one cool kid faux pas I’ve learned to live with: Secondhand shopping is not just about budgeting anymore; rather, it is something we should all be doing for the good of the planet, for our fellow humans and for the other things—sentient or not—with which we are sharing the planet.
I’ve always liked the idea that, once a permaculture system is in place, the largely perennial garden will not merely survive but actually thrive without you. My wife and I have started this year volunteering on farms in Spain, and at our second post, we got to witness this very aspect of permaculture—self-sustaining, expansive longevity—in all its fleshy greenness.
We’d spent the last year WWOOFing and working in Central America, growing accustomed to a life scheduled around our whims, a wardrobe of flip-flops and shorts, and fresh food at our fingertips. We weren’t exactly sure how that was going to work in England, but not to completely doom the visit before it began, we vowed to find ways to continue along our wave, finding a means for keeping our thumbs green and our hearts full.
Much the same as DIY toiletries, we discovered that most household cleaners can be made with just a few natural ingredients and easy-to-follow instructions. What’s more, all-natural DIY cleaners were cheaper than the damaging store-bought products, the ingredients came from sustainable (or more sustainable) sources that we already had onsite, and none of our stuff needed massive warning labels with skull-and-crossbones. So, we thought our findings might be worth sharing.
If you are into permaculture, eco-construction and/or just cool garden projects, then building your own pizza oven has undoubtedly made a blip on the radar at some point. For me, I first encountered them on Ometepe Island in Lake Nicaragua, where it seemed every other hostel, hotel or farm was hosting a weekly pizza night. I was volunteering at a small permaculture project (Totoco Farm), and we were no different — for all the volunteers, Wednesday night was pizza night.
“WWOOFing” has become a very common form of budget travel these days. The concept is simple enough: Workers/Travelers volunteer a few hours of labor in exchange for room and board. In your free time, you can frolic on beaches or hike mountains just as any other tourist might. It’s a great deal. It’s particularly fantastic for those of us who aren’t particularly good at sitting still or are interested in growing food, and, of course, if you’ve not got a lot of money yet still feel entitled to travel the world. A work exchange might be just the ticket.
One of the most exciting parts of taking the reins to a hectare of lakeside land in Panama was planning just exactly what kind of experimenting was going to be on order. We knew there would be a food forest. We knew there’d be a vegetable garden, fresh herbs, and lots of very dense clay soil with which to contend. Much of the space was steep hillsides, but at the bottom of those slopes sat a nice little swath of land that had already been dotted with plantains (the banana-like fruit, not the weed) and yucca. Beyond that, there was a lot of canvas to play with.
The first time I did it I did so on the sly. I needed some mulch for a piece of dried up clay I was hoping to convert into a forest floor upon which I planned to grow a food forest. The piece of land next door was thick with leaves, and having seen the groundskeeper over there laboring with a rake on prior occasions, I decided to give him a hand. One morning, I started collecting leaves on a tarp, dragging them to the spot I was working on. I did it several times that day, and several times the next until I’d covered a space of about twenty square meters ankle-deep in leaves.
It was less than a year ago that my wife Emma and I set out on journey through Central and South America, our plan being to volunteer on farms the whole way. We’d toyed with gardening here and there, spent some time running the hotel side of an avocado farm called Earth Lodge, but our interests in growing our own food, becoming more sustainable people, and living less job-oriented lives had reached a pinnacle. We wanted something different, and gardening seemed to make sense.
I’m crazy about hugelkultur. I love the concept of burying old fallen and felled trees to provide years of slow-release compost for crops to come. I love using waste material for something useful. I love not having to turn or move compost about. I love the chance to sculpt a really raised bed, something behemoth — hulking if you will — that makes a beautifully bountiful mound of vegetables. I love telling people about it, how it works, how by building it up and making it curve, all sorts of microclimates are created, how from the same square footage, hugelkultur makes it possible to grow so much more and to harvest without having to bend over all day to boot. Then, I found something that made me like it even more.
TED Talks, for some time, have been something I’ve loosely disregarded. They were interesting, informative, and free, but my friend Bryant Hand was just a little too eager to share them with me. Perhaps I thought I was too young (2 years less than him) and too hip (I have a beard past my figurative collar while he actually wears dress shirts), but maybe I should’ve given my old friend a bit more credit. Bryant never managed to turn me into a fan, and I never expected visiting Colombia would turn me into another TED enthusiast. But, it did.
Inspired by our experience volunteering on a farm in Ometepe Island in Nicaragua, my wife Emma and I became very excited about the prospect of reducing our personal waste. Totoco Farm and Totoco Eco-Lodge are both 100% waste-free zones, meaning every consumable that enters either stays or is recycled. What makes this achievement even more remarkable is that, in Nicaragua, recycling is basically nonexistent. So how does one go about reducing their waste to nada?
One of the first permaculture projects I did was building an herb spiral, and to be honest, the design has never ceased to delight me. Undoubtedly, that one and the few spirals that followed are amongst the most beautiful garden beds I’ve made. More importantly, they are also amazingly productive and a great way of getting into the mindset choosing the right spot to plant stuff, both in the sense of permaculture zoning and climatic considerations.
As with any permaculture design, it’s important to first observe the space in which you plan to grow things. Think about what aspects might affect how plants will develop. Is one corner of the area particularly sunny? Is the other shady? How is the space affected when it rains? Is it possible to harvest or use some of the rainwater? Are there rails, walls, or posts that could be used? What about the space above the area? Could a trellis go there? Using all the surfaces available, not just the floor, it’s no stretch to double or triple the amount of planting area there is to work with.
Why is it that, in a time when technology has advanced so far, there are notable escalations in allergies and chronic diseases, namely in the first world? It’s counterintuitive, and many of us out here in the real world are catching wind of what may be the cause: Too much technology. Food, once believed to be a health promoter, has become a detriment. Medicine, once believed to be curative, often comes with so many side effects it hardly seems worth “getting better”.
Unfortunately, we had no access to a nursery or even a spot to pick up basic seeds, but we didn’t want to let that deter us. After all, our goal was grow most—if not all—of what we ate. And, so, it was from our groceries that we began building our garden.
One of the many things I’ve learned thus far gardening in Central and South America is just how many plants are edible and medicinal, most of which people generally don’t use, that we in fact never even think to harvest. Of course, many of us who frequent a site such as Permaculture News have soft spot for multiple-purpose plants, especially those with nutritious attributes, but until recently, I’d never approached it as much more than a curiosity, a sort of fun quirk of growing certain plants. I wasn’t making nearly enough of the forest around me, and wasn’t that foolish!
Like many, my introduction to permaculture came in the form of food production. It changed the way I viewed farming, shifting my practice from being one of waging war with nature—constantly tilling, weeding and wasting—to one that teamed up with the plants, soil and even buildings around me. I was already an advocate for organic practices, but this was something altogether different.
I am not Bill Mollison or Geoff Lawton, they will both happily report; rather, I am but a humble novice when it comes to permaculture, experimenting my way through ideas, mimicking when I can, improvising when research falls short. And, it was somewhere in between mimicry and improvisation that I came up with what I’m calling overflowing circles and slow-flow swales.
Make no mistake, the war is on. The commodity is food, the source needs to be sustainable, and the community needs to know about it. If you are already into permaculture, or just gaining an interest, then congratulations and welcome to the peace-loving yet active front lines. We call it guerilla gardening.
Many of the most successful gardens we’ve propagated have been as much luck and accident as they have been my astounding wits. We’ve made lots of special garden beds, no-till expressions of fertility and decomposition, but often times it’s the rogue plantings, the spots where seeds have fallen from a pocket or simply tossed away as compostable refuse, that turn out to be the most bountiful. Here are some of the impromptu, inadvertent strokes of genius we’ve had recently.
Permaculture designs, especially on a large-scale, incorporate domesticated animals. For organic gardening, it just makes life a lot easier. Manure is key in growing anything. A timed circulation of grazing means the land gets cleared, fertilized and tilled by the animals’ natural patterns as opposed to the farmer’s sweat. Then, at some point, animals equate to food. The efficiency and logic are there and simple, but domesticated animals aren’t always a possibility. There are housing restrictions, acreage issues, and even dietary choices to contend with; however, that doesn’t mean a garden should or needs to be without animals.
It sounds strange to speak of poverty as an exciting opportunity, but many of the projects in Guatemala make me do just that. I’m particularly impressed with those working with trees. Reforestation is often not so simple as just planting trees. Mass agriculture has created a need for serious reforestation efforts, but that need doesn’t override humanitarian concerns like malnutrition and poverty. A largely agricultural workforce still needs crops to sell, and to eat. So what do you do? This challenge has brought about some really innovative ideas. The Maya Nut Institute, De La Gente, Caoba Farms, and Valhalla are four organizations facing this situation creatively, sustainably, and altruistically, using trees to contribute to many a worthy cause.
I love the tropics as a place for permaculture, specifically the ability to grow tropical fruits and the capability to plant stuff year round. I like the interplay between rainy and dry season, the way things get incredibly green and grow uncontrollably in the wettest of times, and all that fodder for composting when things get parched. Still, living here is not without its sacrifices.
It happened a bit more rapidly than I expected: One day my wife Emma read a list of horrors associated with fluoride and toothpaste, and by the evening, she’d sworn off store-bought toothpaste. In the weeks to come, I watched our other toiletries disappear. Realizing she was right, as is often the case with greener, kindlier things of the world, I soon followed suit. Over the next couple of months, we’d converted ourselves completely: shampoo, conditioner, deodorant, toothpaste and whatever else came up.
We knew it was coming. Hell, we were excited about the fact that it was coming. We were returning to Panama just in time for mango season, taking the reigns of a piece of property with five or six large mango trees, and beyond those, we knew some of the neighbors let hundreds of fruits rot on the ground every year. Well, that wasn’t going to happen on our watch. We love(d) mangoes. We were going to utilize every one of them.