Why Grow food?

Growing your own food can be a tremendously rewarding experience. From the satisfaction of nurturing plants from seed to plate, to increasing the nutritional value of your diet, to the many physical and mental benefits of spending time outside with your hands in the dirt, gardening is something both practical and ascetic that can add greatly to your well-being.

Having a back-yard garden was once something every family did. Before there were supermarkets, fast-food, and ordering pizza with Alexa, there were family farms and kitchen gardens. The ability to grow food was once an essential skill to provide for yourself and your family. Today gardening can still contribute to your families health, your budget, and food security. Particularly when you learn to garden sustainably and preserve and store what you produce.

Is it hard?

Gardening does take some basic knowledge. And maximizing your yields can take a life-time of learning and observation to master. But getting started can be as easy as buying a pot, a plant, and some soil. The level of effort is generally proportional to the results you want to achieve.  Want to just grow a few greens for your salad? Easy.  Want to feed a family of 4 on a 1/4 acre lot? Much more work.

But what if there was a way, a system, a method, that can reduce that effort?  A practice that uses natural systems to your benefit?  That can help you produce more and more food over time with less and less effort?  If such results were possible, what then would you want to achieve? How much food would you want to grow for yourself, on your own land, for your own family?

Well there is a food production science that does this. It’s called Permaculture.

What is Permaculture?

Permaculture is a term that comes from the combination of the words Permanent and Agriculture. It is a holistic, ethics-based design science that uses observation and mimicry of natural systems to maximize yields with minimal external inputs. It is a philosophy based on 3 core principles:

  1. Care of People
  2. Care of Planet
  3. Return of Surplus

From these derive patterns of design, practices of raising plants and animals, systems of managing flows of energy and materials, and meeting human needs in a way that builds fertility and productivity over time. Food production becomes self sustaining, and is therefore a permanent practice that provides not just for today, but can continue to provide for generations into the future.

A brief history of Permaculture

Permaculture was developed in the 1970’s more or less simultaneously and independently in Australia and Japan. It grew out of keen observations that industrial farming was depleting soils, required massive chemical inputs, and had many unintended harmful consequences.

In Australia Bill Mollison and David Holgrim were seeking a positive alternative to the environmental and societal challenges they saw around them. They were convinced just protesting the status quo was unproductive. Rather, they believed  developing and demonstrating a better way; a healthful, abundant way,  would change more hearts and minds then telling people how bad everything was. It worked.  Today Permaculture, a term Mollison and Holmgren coined, is practiced by tens of thousands of adherents around the world.

Meanwhile in Japan, Masanobu Fukuoka had been developing for decades a similar system and philosophy of agricultural practices which he described in his seminal work, The One Straw Revolution, first published in English in 1978. He called his system Natural Farming, and was based on doing as little as possible. Essentially a practice of non-intervention, natural farming seeks to mimic the growth patterns of nature. Setting up plants that support one another in places and patterns that they are best adapted to, then getting out of their way.

The knowledge and wisdom of these pioneers has been  taught and transmitted to students at demonstrations sites and research instituted they founded, and at farms around the world which follow their practices.

Fukuoka (2008) and Mollison (2016) are no longer with us. Today probably the most recognized authority in the world on Permaculture is Mollison’s student Geof Lawton. Based in Australia, Lawton has designed and built Permaculture sites around the world with truly astounding results.  For any one serious about learning about Permaculture, how it works, and what it can do, his web sight is an invaluable resource containing hours of free videos, introductory and mastery level course materials, community, and knowledge. It is the site to visit again and again as you start your Permaculture journey.

Permaculture in Practice

Ok. So by now, if you’ve read this far down, I’m guessing I have your interest. And I’d also bet you are wondering what “a holistic, ethics-based design science that uses observation and mimicry of natural systems to maximize yields with minimal external inputs.” looks like in practice.  There are two main design elements that Permaculture utilizes; water harvesting earth-works, and companion planing or “plant-guilds”.

Earthworks consist of series of dams and ditches (called swales) that are used to slow the flow of water across the landscape, allow it to settle and soak into the soil, and in the process re-hydrate the ground and capture nutrients. These can be scaled up or down to fit the size of the property, substituting rain-barrels for dams, and deeply mulched pathways for swales in a suburban yard for example.

Plant guilds are combinations of symbiotic plants that cooperate to provide for each others needs. For example mixing nitrogen fixing plants, with those that need extra nitrogen; bee attracting flowers with fruit trees that need pollination; deep rooted plants that act as nutrient accumulators with shallow rooted plants that hold soil or shade the ground to reduce evaporation.  Generally all these are combined to build a complete plant ecosystem that is healthier, more productive, and requires less human intervention or external inputs to obtain maximum yields.

Permaculture also takes advantage of plant stacking – the fact that different plants grow and produce at different heights. Trees are an essential element. We start with the over-story, which might be a nut or full sized fruit tree. Under that we place dwarf fruit trees, beneath which are planted berry bushes. Lower still come upright plants, beneath which we plant low growing or creeping ground cover. We can keep going down to root crops and mushrooms, and then back up the trees with fruiting vines. In this way total yield per given area is maximized.

The specific combination of trees, bushes, plants and vines depends on the site, soil, and climate, and the combinations must also fulfill the symbiotic functions. What the gardener likes to eat is of course part of the equation as well!

Permaculture, as the name implies, is designed for permanence. This means it focuses heavily on the use of perennial crops like fruit and nut trees, berry bushes, and fruiting vines like grapes and kiwis. Why these may take more time to establish, the fact that they bear year after year for a generation or more pays back the investment many times over.

Also because of the intent on permanence, Permaculture properties are based on thoughtful designs based on sustained observation of the site. Anyone wishing to develop a Permaculture property is encouraged to get trained in the practices first, or hire a certified Permaculture  consultant to help them plan and develop their property.

Summing up

If you want to produce more food, more sustainably, with less long-term effort, you wont find a better approach then Permaculture. BeLocal encourages increasing local food production for greater sustainability and resiliency of our community, and recommends local gardeners and farmers explore, study, design, and implement Permaculture practices on their land for a healthy and abundant future in Mount Airy.