Can you recommend a book on Permaculture?

I’ve seen the same question pop up in about three different places, lately.  Since this has come up so frequently in such a short amount of time, I thought I would take the time to write about why this is such a wonderful question… and why it’s such a terrible question.

I’m happy and excited to see people asking this, because it means people want to learn more.  People care enough to try to wrap their heads around what Permaculture has to offer.  On the other hand, most people want “one” book to start with, and it should be a “good one” for their needs, but they don’t ever tell us what their needs are.

If you’ve been paying attention, my article last week was on starting where you’re at.  This is important for more than just implementation.  If you try to dive right in and read the Permaculture Designer’s Manual, without any real prior exposure, you will probably learn a lot.  Or you will fall asleep.  Or maybe both.  The truth is, that book is a huge volume of information to take in all at once.  It is also the defacto source of the best ways to design and implement for any given climate and environment.

Most people don’t NEED to know how to design and implement for anything outside of the climate they live in.

So the next sets of books that are often recommended are from the “big hitters” in Permaculture.  These are the books by Sepp Holtzer, Ben Falk, Toby Hemenway, Eric Toensmeier, Joel Salatin, and so on.  This is great, but if someone lives in the desert, the “Resilient Farm and Homestead” may not be the best book to start with.  If someone wants to focus on pastured livestock, the books on edible food forests won’t be as useful to them.  The first response to someone asking this question, “can you recommend …” should be “what are you wanting to do with the information?”

Someone who wants to learn design, really SHOULD dive into the Designer’s Manual.

Someone wanting to go from trying to learn how to container garden to growing food in raised beds with a Permaculture focus, should probably pick up something more introductory that meets those needs.  So far, the best book for this that I’ve found isn’t one of the “big names” in Permaculture, but is chock full of useful information, regardless.  I highly recommend the book “The Suburban Micro-Farm” by Amy Stross for any beginner.  The Amazon link may be an affiliate link, but it’s for her, not me, if it is.  I pulled it straight from her site, as is.  The book is an easier read, with better break down than say… “Gaia’s Garden” by Toby Hemenway.  This is just my opinion, of course, but I’ve read both, and I try to recommend what I think is best for a person based on what they tell me their needs are, and I truly believe this book is a better starter book for a backyard gardener wanting to expand into Permaculture centric food growth.

She also has a website, called Tenth Acre Farm.  You should go visit her site, and pick up a copy of her book, if you’re just starting out.

If you’ve been following my Twitter and FaceBook posts this last week, a lot of the quote graphics I posted came straight out of her book.

If you’re more advanced, and you’re looking for how to choose specific elements for your food forest implementation, try Mark Crawford’s “How to Grow Your Own Nuts” and “Trees for Gardens, Orchards, and Permaculture.”

Before you rush out and buy books that are recommended, also try this.

Check. Your. Local. Library…

Our local library system has a really nice selection of books on the subject.  I own many of them, myself, but some of the ones I don’t own I can preview before buying, just to see if it’s anything I might want to hang onto for reference purposes.  The library systems are often neglected by the current generation, so help support it by utilizing it regularly.  It’s good for the community.

Permaculture – Thoughts on Re-everything

One of the foundational concepts of Permaculture is the idea that we want to reduce waste as much as possible.  This means we need to find some way to deal with waste in a productive manner.  This brings up the topic of the “re-everything” mentality.  I bring this up, because while people tend to use the WRONG word for what they are doing, their hearts are in the RIGHT place, and a word is just a word until you get into legalese.  Below, I’ll get into the concepts and differences between recycling, reusing, and re-purposing.  We’ll also look at the term “refuse” which is not “to refuse to do something,” but rather “the refuse produced that must be disposed of.”

At its simplest, the easiest thing to do with an object that many people might just dispose of is to reuse it.  If you have a jar of jelly from the local store, you eat all of the jelly, and then you keep the jar, you can reuse it to store more foods in future.  The jar is not modified in any way, and its original purpose is still its current purpose: to store foods with a seal-able lid.

The next level up is to re-purpose an item.  If we consume a bottle of blackberry wine (either directly, or via cooking,) we can either reuse the bottle as shown above, or we can do some modification to it to re-purpose it.  If we use glass cutting techniques to cut the neck off at the top most portion of where the bottle is consistently largest, and do it in a way that there are no sharp edges, the neck could be used as a funnel for a small wicking garding bed.  The base can be used as a drinking glass.  This is re-purposing.  A small modification is made to allow for a different kind of use than the original object was designed to perform.

Finally, we have recycling.  This word is often misused frequently to mean either or both of the above.  In reality, recycling is breaking down an object into its base constituent parts to be remade into new products from those same parts.  For example, smelting aluminum ingots from soda cans in order to use those ingots in cast aluminum projects.  Or perhaps we can crush the glass down in order to re-melt in glass blowing projects.  We can crush clay into a powder to re-mix with new clay projects, in some cases.  All of these are valid and appropriate ways to deal with some of the items we might otherwise dispose of.  This is also the method that requires the most work for accomplishing our goals.

Finally, we have “refuse.”  Sometimes you just have to give it up.  If you have cardboard that came into contact with food items, you might “recycle” it by composting, but if you have cardboard that came into contact with harsh toxins, you wouldn’t want to introduce those into your system.  You would want to dispose of them off site.  You might let them “compost” in a zone 5 area around a non-food plant, perhaps.

Alternatively, you might compost on site.  For example, you might put it in a compost that also contains mycorrhizal fungi who’s sole purpose is to break down toxins from your site operations.  This is often used on matter dredged from the little pocket ponds upstream from a production pond.  These pocket ponds are designed to capture run-off in such a way as to grab the “sinkers and floater” to keep the production pond cleaner.  These often have a higher density of heavy metals and such if they are close to roadways, for example.  Dredging these and composting the reeds used to capture the floaters are both better disposed of by using fungal composting before either taking completely off site, or using only on ornamentals in the lower elevation levels of your system.

So, if you have items that you are thinking of throwing away, consider first reusing them.  If you have more than enough of that kind of item on hand, then consider re-purposing, instead.  It takes a little more work, but it can be worth it.  If you have the talent/skills, and the equipment to do so, try recycling if neither of the other options are good.  Try to reduce what goes to “trash” as much as you can, but be cognizant of how you deal with refuse that you don’t just pitch in the trash to be hauled away.  Consider mycorrhizal fungi composting where appropriate.

Permaculture Element – Empress Tree – Support Species

Today we’ll look at a possible “element” for use in a Permaculture design.  In this case, we want to emphasize how a “support species” is used to nurse a more important “production species” into better health and higher production.  For our example, we’ll use the Empress Tree.  This is sometimes called the Foxglove Tree, among other names.  The scientific name is Paulownia Tomentosa.

I chose this tree, because of a conversation I had with my “plant identification” mentor.  The backstory on this is that I am in the middle of doing a Permaculture design for a client.  I visited the client’s property to walk with them as part of the design preparations.  When I walk a property, I’m doing several things.

First, I’m looking at the slope and orientation with my own eyes.  Second, I’m looking at the wildlife already there.  I look at the plants to give me soil indicator information, and I look at signs of wildlife to give me indicators on what animals might be beneficial vs. what might be considered “pest” for the site.  I try to catch things the client might not, such as noise sectors, and eyesore sectors.  I look for how the water sits or flows.  I take in a lot of information when I walk a property, and all of it is important for doing a “good” design, as opposed to an “okay” design.

On this particular property walk, we came across this tree.  I’d never seen one before, and I had no idea what it was.  It was near a stand of honey locusts, in an open field.  The tree is deciduous, and all I could see on it were these nut like seed pods.  They are shaped kind of like a green walnut (fleshy part outside the walnut shell) but smaller, and not fleshy.  The size reminded me of pecans, but it definitely wasn’t a pecan tree.  I pulled down a pod and peeled back a corner of the papery “shell” to find a nut like structure inside, which added to the confusion.  Why was this confusing?  Because the “nut” obviously was not the “seed.”  It was packed with lots of tiny seeds with a white, feathery disk like structure around each seed.  I was perplexed.

I tried to find what this might be on my own using google terms to describe what I found, but came up with no useful information.

Fast forward a week or three, and I finally ask my mentor if she knows what this could be.  I sent her a picture of the seed pod partially opened with seeds inside, and her reply was priceless.  I won’t give the exact phrasing, but she did not think highly of this tree.  She did use the term “trash tree” at one point, and mentioned a popular synthetic pesticide product for the removal of said plant.  I thanked her for the information (I now had a scientific name to look it up,) then went to work on researching it.

This tree (by reference definitions) is actually a very GOOD tree for Permaculture purposes.  It would be used as a “nurse” tree, or a “support species” if the inherent properties I read about are correct.

A support species is often planted to provide for the needs of a production species.  In a hypothetical design, we might have a species that doesn’t prefer direct sunlight (such as an understory tree like the paw paw.)  This tree would want at least some shade during the heat of the day, especially when it is still quite young.  We could plant a faster growing shade tree near it on the sun facing side.  Ideally we would want to be able to cut this support tree back a bit in the cooler months, and also ideally, it would provide some fast decomposition to produce more soil at the base of the production tree.  This is called a “chop and drop” system.  Usually our support species are legumes, because we want to also place nitrogen into the soil, and every time we chop a nitrogen fixer, we force it to let go of some of its nitrogen to the soil.

The Empress Tree is “the fastest growing tree on the planet,” according to reference sources.  It also has a high nitrogen content in its abundance of large leaves, which means when we chop it and drop it, we are not only adding carbon to the soil, but nitrogen rich material, as well.  And some sources claim it is also a nitrogen fixer in the traditional sense.  If this is true, then it should be dropping nitrogen nodules in the soil itself every time we cut it back some.  Being a fast growing tree, the wood should be “soft” (even though it is a hard wood in the traditional sense, since it is deciduous.)  Softer woods break down faster in most cases.

So what we have is a tree that grows faster than the shade loving plants, is high in nitrogen, coppices/pollards very well, breaks down into soil quickly, and is also shade intolerant itself.

Being shade intolerant means we can force it to die off once it has lost its use by planting another tree on ITS sun facing side to shade it out, then do our twilight years of chopping and dropping.  Eventually due to heavy shade, it will stop sending up new trunks, and just die.  The dead material will continue to feed the soil, and it will serve a support role its entire life cycle.

The leaves are great animal fodder, as well, which means it can be used for more than just supporting one element in the system.  We can gather some of the leaves to supplement feed for our livestock.

Finally, the tree really is gorgeous during the flowering season.  It would improve the view for some folks, which always helps when neighbors find our “jungle” of a food forest to be too “ugly” for the neighborhood.

Support species are put in to help nurse a young element into a stronger long term production element in a shorter amount of time.  This tree shows its ability to perform this role quite admirably, if the sources are correct.  It provides fast shade, nutrient from chop and drop, fodder for livestock, and a great view.  It is also easy to control with the right conditions in play.

In the end, it didn’t tell me anything about the soil in the area I didn’t already know (from the nearby honey locusts.)  It’s an indicator of poor soil, and its job as a pioneer plant is to fix the nutrient deficiency.  The honey locusts were doing the same.

I gave my mentor some of this information, by the way.  She said she had no idea “that monster” had so many good qualities.  I’m grateful that she was able to help me discover this element and all its potential uses.  It’s in my design element database now, for future efforts.

Permaculture – Sector Analysis

At its most boiled down essence, Permaculture teaches us to view the world as “flows.”  This can be energy flows, or matter flows.  This is not some mystical, magical, chakra, chi, spiritual energy thing.  This is physics.  This is about identifying how energy and matter enter our property, making a choice to retain it or remove it, and then implementing design that does just that.  If we want to retain it, we focus on keeping it on the property as long as possible, and reusing it.  If we want to remove it, we either attempt to block it as early as possible, or redirect it back off of our property as quickly as possible.

This analysis of each flow is called “Sector Analysis.”

What kinds of things do we look for in Sector Analysis?

Where does water enter and exit the property?
What is the annual average rainfall for the property?  What does a 100-year flood look like on this property?
Where does wind enter and exit the property?  During what times of year?  Does it bring overly cold or hot air from that direction?
Where does the sun rise and set?  What angles does it reach as it passes over the sky throughout the year?
Are there any cyclic wildfires near the property?  What direction do they come from?
Are there any views that should be blocked?  Are there any views that should NOT be blocked?
Are there any sounds that need to be muffled?

We also analyze efficiency, which is where we come up with placement of items for Zone analysis.  Zones measure “how many visits to this spot on the property per day, week, month, or year?”  Sectors measure “what direction and how much of a good or bad thing is entering the property?”

The “good” flows, (especially water) are generally designed to meander across the property for as long as possible.  We slow it with things like swales, and soak it into the ground.  We stop it with dams and ponds for use during dry spells.  We sometimes put in pumps to lift water from a low spot to a high spot on the property.  We shade exposed water to reduce evaporation.  We store roof runoff in tanks.  We force it to move the way we want it to move, and make it as passive as possible.  Every drop that enters should take the longest route it can before exiting our property.

On the other hand, we treat threats such as wildfire areas with care.  We plant trees and shrubs that are known to be naturally fire resistant at the edge of the property.  We allow a buffer between those trees and the productive ones further in.  We hydrate that section as much as possible using swales, ponds, dams, and other water features vigorously.

We harvest the good, and we deflect the bad.  This is how we treat the energy flows to benefit ourselves and the land.  This is how Permaculture works.

Speaking Engagement – Permaculture Class

I’ll be teaching an introductory class on what Permaculture is on April 29th.  The class will be at 9:00a.m. at the little country store located at

H & W, 659 Hwy 225 East,
Greenbrier, Arkansas

This will be a basic introduction to Permaculture for the Centerville Community Group.  Some of the members have already been introduced, but the material presented will depend on where people are already at in their understanding of the subject.

I tried for the previous weekend (Earth Day,) but there was another function at the facility already scheduled for that day, so we moved it out a week.

If you’ve been reading and enjoy this content, and you live near central Arkansas, this is an opportunity to come join us and learn more.

Permaculture elements

A fundamental building block in Permaculture is the “element.”  Every element is either a plant, an animal, or a structure.  Each element has inputs, outputs, functions/behaviors, and intrinsic qualities.

The “inputs” are things that element needs in order to function or survive.  For example, all animals need food, oxygen, and shelter of some sort.  All of these are “inputs” in one form or another.  A “dirt road” might need gravel in places where ruts are causing erosion, in order to keep the road maintained and reduce or prevent further erosion.

The “outputs” are things that element provides naturally, that may be used by the system.  Chickens provide feathers, meat, eggs, and heat, for example.  A small flock of chickens in a greenhouse in the winter can help keep the grow space warm on cloudy days.  A barn might provide water as a side effect of its intrinsic property of having a roof with gutters that drive water to a storage tank during a rain.

A chicken “functions” as a natural tiller due to its intrinsic quality of needing to scratch at the ground in search of food.  Roads “function” as both access to important areas of the property, as well as providing hard run off to direct water to swales or other catchment devices to keep ponds topped off.

Trees provide shade, act as wind breaks, produce food, and lumber, and give shelter to wild animals on the property.

Sometimes qualities of a specific breed might come into play.  Some breeds of chicken do well in cooler climates than others.  Some lay more eggs.  Some produce higher qualities and quantities of meat.

A barn with a steep almost A frame style roof holds up to lots of heavy snow seasons better than a shack with a flat roof.

All of these characteristics are important when choosing when and where to use an element in design.