Last Friday night it was snowing… Saturday morning it was sleeting… Saturday night I was sleeping outside in a tent…
I wasn’t quite sure if I was up for sleeping in a tent in 30 degree weather. Ironic, since it didn’t end up feeling all that different from sleeping in a yurt! I tucked into my sleeping bag fully layered up. I smiled to think that even without him nearby stoking a wood stove all night, Josh was still keeping me warm as I huddled into the hat, mittens, socks he has knitted for me over the years. Must put a sweater on wish list… How about knit pants?
Why was I sleeping in a tent in Maine in early April? Because I was learning how to save the world.
Dramatic, yes. True, yes.
This was the first weekend of the Permaculture Design Course I am taking this year, one weekend a month over the next 7 months. It is held on the grounds of MOFGA (Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association), the oldest and largest organic organization in the country. I spent the majority of the weekend tucked upstairs in this building, completely absorbed in the knowledge flowing into that small, warm library space:
I’ve previously only been to this place for their amazing September Common Ground Fair, packed in with 25,000 other fairgoers each day to learn how to carve a wooden spoon, see a humanure toilet demonstration, sift through piles of woolen fleece, learn how to make sourdough bread, take a foraging walk, see a solar shower demonstration, gather from the farmers’ markets, browse through the many craft booths, try to settle on which organic food goodness you want to get in line for, and so, so much more. It was strange to see it so empty and quiet this past weekend.
Somehow, surrounded by only two dozen people, I still ended up with the same experience of there being so much I couldn’t wait to get my brain on. My head is still spinning and dancing and jumping jacking with everything I learned over this weekend. I can’t help but share some bits of what was packed into the 20 intensive hours when I wasn’t resting up in a tent.
First, what is permaculture? Until about 2 months ago, I could have only vaguely answered this question for you. And while I don’t nearly have a complete grasp of it yet, I still want to stand up and shout what I do know for everyone to hear. From a definition standpoint:
Permaculture is a design method and set of skills for creating resilient human habitats and healthy ecosystems. Permaculture is modeled on natural patterns and addresses food, production, shelter, energy, water, community, culture and health.
I’ve always loved gardening. Permaculture takes gardening to an entirely different dimension. Instead of segmented lawn, flowers, vegetables, trees, these are all woven together into a landscape that more closely mimics how growth actually happens in nature, and is how many indigenous people worked with their food landscapes for thousands of years. Instead of high maintenance and reliance on finite resources, there is layering ground covers, trees, fruiting bushes, water catches, animals to work together harmoniously and cooperatively. Most everything is taken care of within the system. It is resilient, strong in its diversity. If the carrots don’t grow well this year, that’s okay because there is such a diversity of other foods to harvest.
I once read that it is impossible to support organic growing for everyone in the U.S. because there isn’t enough farmland. The beauty of permaculture is that you do not need vast amounts of farmland. The course teacher lives on an urban 1/3 of an acre and last year grew 2,000 lbs of produce there. If everyone did this kind of growing with whatever space they had, imagine the food possibilities. And yet as recent as 2006 marked the lowest point in the history of the U.S. for proportion of people with vegetable gardens: less than 2% of Americans had a vegetable garden. I heard a statistic that one in four children in Maine goes to bed hungry. Do these numbers make any sense in a rural state where so many of these families live on at least some bit of land? These edible landscapes can be large or small and can continue indefinitely. Imagine if everyone in the U.S. had access to healthy food indefinitely, without reliance on mega farms…
The course is also opening my eyes to how there are patterns in EVERYthing in the natural world. Permaculture aims to mimic these patterns, benefiting from what mother nature has already figured out.
Here are a few ways that permaculture thinking is starting to shape what is happening on this bit of land we’re on:
100 hours of meaningful thought for 1 hour of meaningful work: Not jumping in and just planting like I really, really, REALLY want to. I want to get things going growing, especially fruit and nut trees that will take awhile before they are large enough to bear. But I now see the enormous value in really learning the land, the flow of water, the sun angles, the prevailing winds, pinpointing the best house spot, and mapping out a design with all of these in mind. Hopefully avoiding what I did every year in my old perennial gardens: moving plants over and over to try to give them the space and setting that I hadn’t accounted for when they were initially planted…
Making soil: Gathering and starting to layer on soil builders – seaweed from down the road, aged goat manure from a local farm, straw… anything that can be layered on and decompose on spot to help build a rich layer of soil over this very clay landscape. The clay here might be good for when I take up pottery someday. In the meantime, must create a better environment to plant into.
A pond: Yesterday I roped off a potential pond area. I have never wanted a pond. But there are many benefits I never considered.
- Rich soil that collects in pond muck and can be used in garden
- Attracts beneficial wildlife
- Water storage
- An edge to grow many edible plants on (watercress anyone?)
Piglets: Just last week the children were saying they wanted to get piglets. We laughed and thought they were quite silly. I’ve also never wanted pigs. Yet this week we’re actually really considering it. We’re starting to look at everything in terms of potential inputs and outputs here. Pigs have many, many potentially beneficial outputs they could give, from watching their pig quirkiness as they grow, to digging out the pond area, to tilling and nourishing the future planting spaces, to filling that deep freezer next winter.
Perennials: I’m now much more focused on learning about potential perennial plants. I’ve enjoyed planting giant gardens of annual vegetables, but it is time and labor intensive. The idea of having a whole lot of food plants that will establish and come back every year with minimal input from us sounds extremely appealing. Most definitely there will be perennial fruit and nut trees, berry bushes. But also things like black locust for a high BTU wood source. Willow as a living fence. Comfrey for mulch and compost booster. There are even perennial onions and celery. Grapes. Herbs. And of course I’ll take another go with asparagus, having left my one perennial vegetable behind in New Hampshire. I imagine those little purple tinged spears peaking out in that backyard and wonder if the new owner even realizes the deliciousness that grows there.
Herb spiral: This is like the token permaculture design… and one I can’t wait to work with. It makes use of vertical space, creates a mix of environments for the different needs of different herbs, it is based on one of those natural patterns and it’s just really appealing to look at. Must make an herb spiral…
In the meantime, I’ll keep digesting all of the learning and work on reading the landscape here. So far that has meant sitting down on a stump and getting stuck to the spruce pitch. Maybe a sign I should stay sitting even longer… One thing is certain, permaculture is opening a view into so many possibilities and I am only at the very beginning.
Because one can’t survive on learning and visioning alone…here’s the beginning of a little preparation for something our bellies CAN digest before the full master plan is created. Bed making of a different sort… kale-sized.