I’ve succeeded in growing about 80% of my own food almost year-round, and have observably transformed a space from a sterile lawn to a home for chipmunks, birds, bumblebees, and worms alike.
The first time I heard about permaculture was when I was a teenager. The local alternative bookstore carried Heather Jo Flores’ DIY urban gardening book Food Not Lawns, and I was instantly hooked. My library of seeds and books alike took off from there.
“Permaculture” became the early internet buzzword that connected everyone in this field. Although, truthfully, it was a word that seemed to have no real concrete meaning. It stood-in as a connector for urban farmers, suburbanites pushing back against HOAs, punk teens taking over abandoned spaces, and a handful of experienced organic farmers who were always happy to have extra help on farm work days. I’m not sure that anyone I knew or associated with permaculture had actually completed one of the design certification programs (PDCs) that have since sprung up worldwide.
Still, we had fun. We grew good food and good friendships, and got a taste of skills that society has largely brushed off to the pre-industrialized history of rural areas.
Life happened and my next opportunity to get my feet in the dirt wasn’t until my late twenties when I set up a cooperative farm with my friends and snagged access to a fenced-in backyard where my green thumbs could go wild. I tried but failed to crowdfund my way into a PDC, but it didn’t matter.
I’ve spent the last several years experimenting with what all can be done despite the tiny dimensions of my yard.
And I’ve succeeded in growing about 80% of my own food almost year-round. What once was a sterile lawn with not even a single insect crawling anywhere has now transformed into a home for chipmunks, birds, bumblebees, and worms alike. Sometimes I just let it get overgrown and take on forms of its own. I let the birds perch on the boughs of my high tunnels and drop the seeds they want to see come into fruition.
Most recently, I disassembled everything but the compost bin and a huge barrel of rosemary. I’m still experimenting. I think of myself as more of a citizen scientist than a permaculturist, purely speaking.
The more I’ve read permaculture classics, the more inspiration I’ve found, but also the more I’ve realized that my creative impulse transcends some of that. I get irritated to laughter when I see silly social media arguments over design rules and acceptable parameters. Some people are dedicated to making permaculture — and that’s great for them.
I realized that my heart is in tending relationships — a loose idea. I’m more interested in the needs of wild bees than guidelines written in a book somewhere. I’m more interested in the diasporic agricultural practices of Jewish people than in a more universalized pattern of ancient indigenous wisdom. I’m more interested in the challenge of growing food for myself in a tiny urban backyard than I am in creating earthen structures and introducing animals into the equation.
Certainly there is overlap. And good permaculture engages the marginal relationships I just described. But I think sometimes we get stuck on a word. We displace our own interests, needs, and values for the closest descriptor. We get caught up in replacing one agricultural system with another.
We mistake a garden for plants placed perfectly in precise locations, rather than a cacophony of wild things growing together in their own ways.
Someone asked me the other day if I thought it was worth it to sign up for a permaculture design course. I suppose this blog post is a long way to say that my answer is unequivocally and enthusiastically yes! Even though I haven’t completed one yet, I have a handful of programs bookmarked for when money and opportunity present themselves.
Permaculture — whether a by-the-book traditional class or a loosey goosey design course — is a great introduction to more sustainable ways of living. It’s not the end-all, be-all of adapting to climate change, and its often limited by the nature of places its teachers have engaged. But it’s still a damn good place to get started.
And if you, like me, can’t afford a program right away — don’t let that stop you. Pick up a book. Scour the web. Spend a year in your neighborhood just observing the systems of nature at work. Find your place within it. Grow out from there.