Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Exploring Next Gen Permaculture and Ecological Succession


(A guild that really works on the home scale: productive, very low-maintenance, and a welcome sight in any neighborhood. An indication of our emphasis on practical home-scale Permaculture solutions for everybody.)

This is for you aspiring Permaculture activists and pros out there, or others looking to find right livelihood on the land: What REALLY inspires you these days? Where is the cutting edge? What is breaking new ground?

What is "next gen" Permaculture - what is the next stage of succession that grows the abundance and diversity of social and ecological regeneration?

This is something Kim and I have been increasingly talking about with our students and clients for the last decade or so, and now I'd like to open up this discussion to a broader circle. This won't be the same in every market and social network, but in many, Permaculture 1.0 has likely reached the peak of its succession arch in this cycle. (Yes, Permaculture has already been through a couple growth and "correction" cycles.) So if we're not thinking about new niches, adding new layers of diversity, succeeding into new edges, finding new markets, organizing new communities, exploring new paradigms - then we're not really in the game. 

I don't mean to be harsh, I mean to be helpful. I mean this to be a challenge. I want all of our Permaculture careers to be rewarding, impactful, and successful, and for that to happen I think there are two things we need to understand. 

First is that I'm seeing people starting very 101 level Permaculture or "demonstration" projects, often with no project or physical site design (so not actually even Permaculture) with a couple of hugelkultures and an out-dated apple guild from 1982 and expecting folks to line up like it's the krameterhof. Meanwhile, I've watched a dozen similar projects start and stall in their neighborhood in the last few years. When it comes to that basic model with a focus on workshops and optimism, we've probably reached market saturation. The same saturation is apparent in most market for SPIN farms, "yuppie chow" factories, hog farms and most other meat, dairy, CSAs, grapes, standard vegetable farms, you pick orchards, most orchards in general, wholesale greenhouses, season-extension hoophouse operations, pumpkin patches, heirloom and native seed operations, annual veggie nursery operations, and Christmas tree farms. Also: Local-level non-profits that create community gardens, those that promote the "good food movement," and the good food movement in general. In my market I see experienced and competent entrepreneurs in all of these areas struggling. 

A lot of this stuff is all about market timing and being in at the right time. And you wouldn't buy a Krispy Cream franchise with the stock plummeting due to over-saturation and 3 other stores struggling on the same block, unless you had a really good reason to think yours was going to be successful. One good sign that the market has crested is when Universities start promoting a model, extensions start offering grants for it, or people are getting rich off online classes teaching people how to do it. It doesn't take Warren Buffet to see that everybody's going to be in at once and the result is going to be the same as when Walmart opens 4 stores in the same small town knowing only 1 will survive (but they'll also drive every local grocery out of business in the process.)  

Meanwhile, I know of next generation "Unfarming" operations in many of these fields utterly THRIVING. I don't want to call them out, but while I'm watching apple orchards fail or basically continue as expensive hobbies for their owners, I know one small orchard in a hard-to-reach location that's grown to host 6 or 7 different separate stacked enterprises, and each appears to be making its owner a very decent living. A couple of those businesses provide full-time jobs for multiple adults, along with part-time labor. They're doing really visionary next gen stuff and NOBODY is even competing with them. I believe S.W. Michigan alone could support a half dozen such business complexes - at least -  and we don't even have one. Yet, this year, I'll probably see a dozen people start conceptually similar businesses thinking that mediocrity is enough, and they'll either have to take their mediocrity to a national market with corporate scale and investors, or they're going to be out of business in 3 years. 

Sorry, I'm just telling like I see it. 

The average farmer across virtually every sector hasn't made a profit in about half a decade. From the research I've seen, in almost every market that's been evaluated, farmers market consumption has been declining. Even while some individual markets have been growing, this has usually been at the expense of smaller markets as rapid consolidation has occurred. Growth in vendors has come at the expense of the farmers, who've had to accept a smaller market share. 

We've all got to challenge ourselves to be better than average, or to cultivate a different product or a different market.

But that does NOT mean emulating the unhealthy corporate/Amway BS grindstone, hustle, hard-work, positive-thinking, believe-it-to-achieve it, spread-sheet-it-like-a-dead-horse mindset and culture. And yes, some "profitable farming" and Permaculture schemes are selling exactly that, and even using the same old pyramid scam language verbatim! I can't imagine any kind of regenerative ANYTHING coming out of that kind of mind or model. 

A second thing to understand is that in this stage of business succession, things can go two ways: it could start a new round of expansion and prestige, or it could collapse. It could continue to grow in a healthy way by increasing the number of interactions and diversity in the system, or we can start to get "weeds," which are difficult to utilize in a regenerative way, and will actually reduce the benefit, diversity and abundance of the system, or reduce the resilience of the individuals in the system. They'll shrink the market for everybody.

Yesterday, I was consulting with a client working for a nursery business, and we discussed this phenomenon in that sector. Historically, greenhouse nurseries spread around my city, Kalamazoo, until we had more than any other region in the world, and we were at capacity. These days most of these sit empty or under-utilized, because after the market reached saturation for that business model, weeds started to arise that could use these failing businesses as a resource. Middle-men stepped in to reduce marketing and distribution costs, typically at the expense of increased resource consumption. Short-cut suppliers stepped in to provide cheaper services at 1,000 points along the production line, again, usually at the expense of sustainability and the land. This created a fast race the the bottom, until the bar could be lowered no more, then consolidation and centralization began.

Already we're seeing similar weedy forces in Permaculture and homesteading. To me, these include efforts to consolidate, "professionalize," or market corporate-style peer-to-peer services that look a lot like pyramid schemes, or that aim at taking value out of small businesses and promoting the same "race to the bottom." Plastic farming, systems that hide or rename tilling, certification systems for marketing, online "profitable farming" courses that push unsustainable practices to cut costs... there are a lot of potential weeds to watch out for. Once these weeds get started in a sector, it gets much harder for any of us to interact regeneratively with that sector without racing to the bottom. Worse, many of these actually increase consumption of fossil fuels, depetion of water, carbon pollution, and reliance on the corporate economy. 

But look around the world? What percentage of people are living a lifestyle that is life-enhancing and regnerative personally, as well as to the ecosystem, social system and biosphere? Like, .2%? Max? The potential market for growth in Permaculture, homesteading and income streams based on sustainable ecosystem services is IMMENSE. Yet everyone's targeting the same few dozen poor hippies in their region who are already living pretty regeneratively, hoping to get more blood out of them there turnips.... 

So what really has been inspiring ME these days - what I think is TRULY next-gen Permaculture - isn't a soul-sucking race to "the top," it's people just daring to be more fully, completely, eccentrically themselves. That thriving orchard I mentioned earlier, that's what they're doing, something unique, passionate, and more than a little eccentric. It's people reaching outward, intead of inward to "the community" looking to build rich, diverse social ecologies out of their lives by networking and meeting the needs of the people around them. It's people building interesting, adventurous lives and communities for themselves. I'm inspired by people mining new markets, by trying to build richer connections between nature and the people in their communities while cutting out corporate middlemen. These are people who are repairing the broken social fabric of their friend and family groups and natural organic communities. These new inspiring revolutionaries follow their passions, follow adventure and real connection, on a path to become unique and interesting persons. In the process, they build broad and diverse little social villages - then they teach them to be inter-reliant and vibrant. Instead of huddling together online with 3 dozen regen farmers as your social group all selling the same prodouce, meat and trees, we need to reach outward. What would a folk village look like if everyone was a heart-surgeon and nobody wanted to do any other work? A whole lot of heart-ache, that's what. Everyone needs Permaculture. Everyone deserves Permaculture. 

Let us be literally fruitful and multiply. And if you're not discussing next-gen Permaculture with your mentor and support system, AND concrete tools to bring it into the world, then you might not be in the right game. 

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Gardening Against Climate Change - 10 Tips and Techniques




"You can solve all the world's problems in a garden." 
- Geoff Lawton, The Permaculture Research Institute

Hot enough for ya? If not, just wait: According to NASA 2014, 2015, and 2016 were each consecutively the hottest years on record globally, and 2017 was the hottest year on record without an El Nino, coming in second after 2016. Already, 2018 is looking like it will be a contender. 

This next couple of paragraphs are the bummer part, so first: LOOK! A BUNNY!




Of course, it would be nice if heat was the only problem. But no, the real problems caused by climate change will be ecosystem collapse, breakdown of the farming and food systems, increased disease and human health impacts, larger storms, more wildfires, potentially increased earthquakes and volcanic activity from ice melts, sea-level rise, refugee migrations caused by famine, drought, and flooding, and a whole host of secondary and tertiary affects that will be felt first and most profoundly by the globally disadvantaged. And, as researchers get a better picture of what our climate future will look like, they're increasingly predicting the most dire scenarios, unless bold dramatic action is taken immediately. Many researchers are now talking seriously of predictions of dire civilization-shaking consequences as early as 2030. 

But for those of us who garden, we don't need NASA to tell us climate change is in full swing. In my biome of S.W. Michigan, an unusually brutal winter of temperature fluctuations between hot and cold left plants and ecologies reeling, then record flooding, followed by Spring starting a month late, and then going straight into more 90 degree days here than we typically average in a whole summer - and it's not yet June! Meanwhile, gardening and farming fora are filled with posts about increased pest problems, and scientific journals and extensions are noting climate-related spread of new pests each season. Others are widely reporting plagues of mosquitos and ticks. While it's hard to directly blame the whole of this on climate change, all of this is exactly the sort of thing predicted to result from climate change. 

Meanwhile, political solutions don't seem forthcoming. The best chance we have is the Paris accord, which doesn't remotely go far enough to prevent the worst-case scenarios from still occurring, and places what even this environmentalist has to acknowledge are unrealistic and likely impossible burdens on the US. 

However, there is good news. We each have the potential to respond in a way that is powerful and life-enhancing. 

And there is still hope - if we stop waiting for politicians and start taking direct action. 

While many poo poo the possibility of direct action, hoping instead to channel energy into their political candidate or cause, we know a few things for certain: 

1. The consumer economy is driving the greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change. 
2. When the consumer economy falters, greenhouse gasses go down. 

And 3, as "industry murdering" Millennials have proven time and time again, consumption choices are powerful and can have a direct effect on stunting and crashing corporations and industries. 





And to the extent that it is itself sustainable, and it effects our spending and the spending of others, what we do in the garden can be a truly powerful, multi-pronged way to meaningfully address climate change. 

As a mode of climate resistance, gardening offers two main benefits:

Resistance & Resilience

First, a garden offers us a meaningful way to act against climate change and the host of other negatives associated with "public/private" fascism. We'll start by talking about the mechanisms, then we'll get into the methods we can each use to make our home gardens, farms and public landscapes more effective tools in fighting climate change!

Resistance

1. Starve the beast. As stated above, the 1 million articles about Millenials killing industries proves that our consumer choices DO have a powerful impact. And Permaculture co-founder David Holmgren dug into the numbers to demonstrate that it is indeed possible to mitigate or even reverse climate change via consumption changes alone. But let's be clear, not every garden is a climate-fighting endeavor. Some gardens are demonstrably worse than driving a Hummer! The change we need to make to be effective is to replace consumption of corporate food and materials with those grown sustainably closer to home. 

 


2. Reduce, reuse recycle. These are still powerful modes of reducing consumption and thus greenhouse gas emissions. Gardens give us a chance to do all three, through growing food, providing recreation at home, repurposing household items into garden-wares, and mulching and composting.

3. Protect wildlife habitat and biodiversity. One of the biggest problems with climate change is that it will further contribute to the ongoing mass extinction event underway. It's extremely powerful for us to use our landscapes to provide a sanctuary for wildlife, insects, and endangered plants. Again, not every garden does this. In fact, many gardens are war zones against biodiversity!

4, Sequestering carbon. A garden can be designed to actually directly fight climate change by sequestering carbon in the soil and in plant tissues. 

5. Catching and infiltrating water. Another indirect effect of climate change is that it will contribute to further depleting our aquifers. While many gardens waste water for irrigation and fancy ornamental water features, gardens CAN be designed to catch water and get it back into the aquifer.  

6. A garden CAN reduce our burden on the food system, which will be increasingly fragile as climate change continues. 

7. Decrease suffering for as many as possible, and increase happiness for as many as possible, for as long as possible. Even if we can't stop climate change, we can use our gardens as a sanctuary habitat for humans and non-humans alike, and model for others how to better thrive in challenging times, because gardens can be important sources of resilience.

Resilience

1. Moderate climate around the home, providing cool in summer, warmth in the winter, and shelter in increasingly harsh storms. 
2. Help us withstand shocks to the food and water system. 
3. Provide recreation and stress relief during times of stress and disruption.
4. Help us to grow social capital and community cohesiveness. 

Tips and Techniques:

But in these regards, not all gardens are created equal. In fact, some may actually achieve quite the opposite effect. So here are some tips and techniques we've used and recommend to make our gardens into powerhouses of climate change resistance and resilience: 

1. Grow food. Even in ornamental landscapes. Because our food system is arguably the #1 cause of climate change, and our traditional landscapes (especially lawns) are another major driver, using food plants to reform our landscape strikes to the core of climate change. While any garden that reduces lawn is likely a step in the right direction, and native plant gardens may provide increased biodiversity, a food garden reduces our consumption and reliance on the systems that are the leading cause of climate change. This does not necessarily mean having a traditional "food garden," which may actually deplete soil carbon, waste fertilizer and fossil fuels, and reduce biodiversity, but a well designed garden that integrates food plants can be especially powerful. Perennial edibles and no-till systems are two great ways to improve garden sustainability and performance. Perennial systems like edible hedgerows, edible prairies, coppices, and forest gardens may be the easiest and most climate-positive forms of garden we can grow. Every landscape should include some of these!





2. Grow fertility, healthy soil, and simultaneously sequester carbon. If we want to get serious about sequestering carbon, we need to have a plan to stop importing fertility and start growing it on site. When we import fertilizers, we're depleting non-renewable resources, and when we import compost, we're depleting carbon from someplace else, while adding to greenhouse gas pollution via shipping. Growing our own fertility ensures that we're actually sequestering carbon, reducing our overall greenhouse gas footprint, and our healthy soils will help take better care of our crops. A few key ways to grow fertility include: deep mulch gardening with home-grown mulch-maker plants, perennial fertility strips, edible hedgerows and other agroforestry systems, nitrogen fixing plants, and wetland or water gardens. Everyone should be composting, and some of the easiest methods for home-owners include sheet-composting, and trench composting, which do not require maintaining a pile or carting compost around the yard.  Grow Bio-intensive is a method based on growing fertility using annual crops in the garden. 

3. Grow some native plants. Native plants may provide better wildlife habitat and protect biodiversity, which research shows will increase the health of your garden and crop plants. This does not mean that your grandpa's daylilies or your aunt Petunia's petunias have to go, or that you've got to ditch the tomatoes. There's no proven benefit to growing ONLY native plants, but there are proven benefits to including them. In fact, because climates and soils have changed, in many regions "native" plants may be more difficult to grow in our modern non-native soils and climates, which may require measures that waste resources, pollute carbon and harm ecosystem biodiversity.  Many native-only gardens also leave the human inhabitants reliant on the destructive food system. Meanwhile, some of the best native plants to grow are edible, and some of the best fruits and vegetables are natives! In my region, that includes paw paws, persimmons, currants, jersusalem artichokes, varieties of alliums, and many, many others. 

4. Include wildlife habitat like rockeries, wood piles, unmown grasses, and messy garden areas. These will increase biodiversity, protect climate-threated wildlife, and attract beneficial organisms that help keep the garden healthy. 

5. Have a design to catch and store the water on your site and use it wisely. Permaculture design is a great resources, since it starts with treating water as a "mainframe element" and teaches that we have an ethical obligation to constructively treat the water that falls on our properties. This also includes a plan for water-wise gardening, so that we can be responsible in how we use water, too. I recommend Toby Hemenway's 5-fold water wise gardening plan, as described in Gaia's Garden.


(Water designs at L.H.)

6. Use recycled materials in the garden whenever possible, instead of buying new. 

7. Avoid manufactured concrete, cement, and faux brick landscaping products, as the concrete industry is one of the leading causes of carbon pollution, and shipping further contributes to the footprint. In fact, concrete is so unsustainable, that it needed its own number. Recycled concrete, or "urbanite," can be both aesthetically and ethically beautiful. 


8. Avoid the use of plastic materials and plastic landscape fabrics. Not only do these contribute to climate change in their manufacture and shipping process, they also are quickly becoming the leading cause of plastic pollution of water and soil. Plastic in food production systems has been found to contaminate food at unhealthy levels. 

9. Start exploring no-till gardening. This won't necessarily work for every crop, or every ornamental in every garden or landscape. However, there ARE plenty of crops that will actually grow better and with less labor and cost, when grown in no-till systems. You might not be able to replace the entire farm or garden with no-till right away, but you might be able to start saving time, and soil carbon, by figuring out how and where no-till will work for you. 

10. Utilize the power of biodiversity, Biodiversity will increase the health and resilience of your plants, while also assisting wildlife and threatened plants. Having a variety of crops will mean you're protected against crop losses, pest issues and extreme weather events in a changing climate. Again, perennial edibles and perennial systems like hedgerows and forest gardens may be the superstars of a climate resilient garden, as they build up energy and store it over many years, and have deep roots to pump water, they may be less susceptible to all forms of extreme weather. 

So, that is our checklist of tips and techniques to make the most of the climate-resistance garden. Am I missing anything? What steps are you taking? Leave a comment below, or share on social media by visiting us on Facebook. 

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If you would like to learn more about climate resistance gardening, water harvesting, no-till gardening, growing fertility, perennial vegetables and growing systems, or see these techniques in action, consider joining us for this special event. We'll be offering this event twice this summer, on June 7th, from 2:30 pm - 5, and again on August 11th from 9:00am - noon. 

Suggested donation: $20. @ Lillie House. To learn more or reserve your space, visit: https://squareup.com/store/lillie-house-permaculture/item/gardening-against-climate-change-intro-to-permaculture





Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Farming Vs Permaculture: Pests, Disease, and Planning REAL Value



'Tis peak season for the most beloved of pass-times for market gardeners and farmers everywhere: complaining!

And what a season it is: with an exceptionally harsh winter of temperature swings with little snow cover across much of the northern hemisphere, record flooding everywhere, Spring arriving a month late almost universally, then moving straight into high/dry summer temperatures, followed by prolonged cool damp weather... ecologies and garden plants are all left reeling while pest and disease pressures seem to be soaring. This makes sense whenever general biodiversity and health takes a hit, as pest and disease pressures return before beneficial populations and immune systems recover. 

So, if you've been complaining, know you aren't alone: I've been getting a lot of questions about how to use Permaculture to reduce pest and disease issues, and the farming and market gardening fora are filled with stories of rampant rodents, malicious molds, stupdendous slugs, woeful woodlice, um.. carnivorous corn seed maggot... downright ornery damping off... ... Ok, I promise never to do that again. Anyway, the point is I'm seeing a real uptick in compaints about crop losses to pests and disease this season.

Hurrah! From a Permaculture perspective, this is all great work! 

If you're doing conventional, you just spray poison on your veggies yum yum yum. 

Otherwise, in your first year gardening, your goal is to grow slugs. After that, you'll start growing things that eat slugs, like millipedes, centipedes, fireflies, predatory wasps, snakes, lizards, birds, and so on. But won't move in until you've opened the slug buffet. And it helps if you give them good habitat near your veggies. In this case, long grasses near the garden really help, as it's firefly larva that are the biggest eaters of slugs, and they lay eggs in tall, unmown grasses. If you keep grasses by the garden too trim, your slug patrol has to commute. Rockeries for snakes, perches for birds, and a nice messy winter garden with hollow reeds and stems to help beneficial insects overwinter all help, too. 

In the early years, we're trying to get all the slugs, voles, moles, aphids, cucumber beetles, cabbage moths, molds and mildews all up and running really good, so ecological resiliency and predators can come into play and we can start getting a more balanced system where we only lose a couple kale seedlings before the kale can take care of itself. This season, while we've had our own increased pest issues, we've yet to lose a single annual start to pests or disease (knock on wood.)

Ideally, the pest/disease curve is gradual enough in the early years that the slugs get some kale, but we get plenty, too. But sometimes pest population spikes can be huge, especially when we're just getting started and there's low biodiversity to begin with.... This is all the worst the first 3 years at any new site. 

But many producers will give up before they get there, and reach for poisons instead. But most poisons will kill of beneficial insects and predators as well as pests, keeping the land stuck in time at the point where pest and disease pressures are highest. Even pest-specific ogranic controls (like organic slug pellets, which only effect slugs) eliminate the food source for predators, and keep the garden dependent upon chemical interventions. 

This is especially true if you're a farmer or market gardener dependent upon crops in order to "save the farm." Often, you may feel you have no choice but to intervene, and so the land will never become a self-regulating ecosystem. 

Anyway, all these complaints have me thinking about a major comparison between modern "farming" and "Permaculture." 
       
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Remember first of all that Permaculture is a system of holistic design for creating integreated, functional human habitats. It's not the same as farming, or even a kind of farming. 

Farming or market gardening, by which I mean growing crops for sale as an income stream, is one pattern that CAN be used in a Permaculture design, but does not have to be. 

In fact, while some current Permaculture celebrities strongly emphasize farming as Permaculture and Permaculture as farming, early designers so de-emphasized farming as a useful pattern that Permaculture was often framed as an alternative to farming, or even the exact OPPOSITE of farming.

"The last thing any of us should be doing is any kind of farming." 

- Bill Mollison, Founder of Permaculture, creator of the PDC curriculum,  and author of the Permaculture Designer's Manual. 

Of course, some of this was just Bill being sensationalistic. On deeper inspection, this gets to be a debate about terms, with Mollison promoting older forms of making clever, profitable, and sustainable land investments, which were once just the definition of good farming, while "farming" has come to mean growing vegetables or commodity crops for market. However, there is a real, meaningful difference between this Mollisonian form of Permaculture and farming, market gardening or agriculture of any kind.

From Mollison's perspective, this modern kind of farming was a "type 1 error," a system designed to fail. Consider the reasons many people say they get into farming and market gardening:
- To generate income for the family. 
- To get out of the "rat race."
- To heal the land, or act regeneratively.
- To grow good food for their family.
- To spend more time with family.
- To live a slower rural lifestyle.
- To reconnect with nature.
- To have a higher standard of living. 
- To get into shape, have healthy activity.
- To fight climate change, sequester carbon, heal the soil.
- To create a healthier local food system. 

If those are ones goals, it is quite likely that "farming" (vegetable farming, market gardening or commodity farming) is the absolute worst thing you could ever do to meet any of those goals. The dream, unfortunately, does not easily line up with reality:
- The average farmer hasn't made a profit in 4 years now, and average incomes are likely around $3/hour. 
- Celebrity "rock star farmers" make their big bucks teaching "profitable farming" classes, but report that they themselves only earn minimum wage salaries while working ridiculous hours. 
- Most of these "sustainable farming" programs are highly unsustainable, arguably more unsustainable than the unsustainable industrial farming they seek to replace, often requiring more spraying, tilling and shipping footprints. 
- Annual gardens with heavy tilling and chemical fertilization do not sequester carbon and may even contribute to climate change.
- Farmers work longer hours than virutally any other profession, and often have less time for family. 
- "The customer eats first." Most farmers I know are too busy during the season to prep and cook their own produce, so they eat pizza and fast food, and supplement their diet with snap, while their customers get the all the best looking and tasting produce.
- Modern "profitable farmers" describe their lifestyle as hustle-bustle, challenge, fast-paced labor and hardship, with a high necessity for sales work, marketing, and logistics which would put most corporate admins to shame. 
- Farming puts you in a position to have to fight against nature constantly, instead of connecting with it and learning about it. 
- Talk to any modern fitness professional and they'll tell you the long hours of low-intensity cardio associated with farm labor are no way to get into shape. If you knew the "ol farmers" I grew up around, you'd see why they described their work as "back breaking" labor that wore the body down and aged you quickly. 
- Modern local veg farming is highly plastic intensive, is quickly becoming the BIGGEST source of soil and water pollution, and has now been found to contribute to the chemical and plastics contamination of food, rather than create healthier food.  

So, if we have any of those goals above, "doing farming" is virtually guaranteed to fail to meet them. 

Of course, there are goals and expectations which can more easily be met through "farming." And, there are clever ways of designing a project so that farming can be a part of meeting one's goals. But  what I hear from farmers very often is the lament that they are trapped by the realities of farming to exploit the land, exploit the soil, and exploit other people in order to make a living. 

This really is the exact opposite of the classic Permaculture described by Mollison in his work. 
In that form of Permaculture, we don't start with the idea that we're going to farm for its own sake, we start by looking at our goals, what we want, how we want to live, and then DESIGN a system which will actually get us where we want to be. Often, our preconceived notions of "farming" only get in our way. 

Let's get back to pests as an example. 

The farmer who jumps into sales in the first year will end up trapped into spraying and fighting pests in order to keep the business afloat. They may simply have no choice. And because they're trapped on the pesticide treadmill, and have very little free time, change will be very difficult. 

Whereas, the kind of Permaculture design Mollison proposed is about starting to make high value "regenerative investments" which will help meet your goals. For example, these might include investing in little healthy, diverse edible ecosystems like hedgerows, ponds, and forest gardens. These can be designed to become profitable, and start paying back in terms of food savings and even cash flow in the very first year, as all of our plantings have at Lillie House. But then they will grow in value over time, producing more food, more cash value and plants for sale every year into the future. Meanwhile, they will require less and less labor each year, so your hourly wage will always be going up while your free-time rises, too. And because pest and disease resilience are part of our investment, we can afford to take time to let diversity build. We haven't designed a system where we have to immediately spray as soon as a pest shows up.  

Because we're not stuck in the rat race of farming, we have time to make regenerative investments in home energy efficiency, too. We can start saving hundreds or even thousands of dollars/year on energy and fuel expenses. We can start looking at investments which will save us money on clothing, healthcare costs, recreation, housing and so on. 

We have time - and energy - for investing in our own health and fitness, and that of our family. These may be some of the most valuable investments we can make! We can invest in eating incredible food from our own garden, and reap the health benefits and food savings from doing so. For many, this will be of more value than selling vegetables at the market and buying back food! Growing our own food is a very high value activity. 

And most imporantly of all, we have time to invest in relationships and social capital. For us, these have been the absolute biggest 'Return on Investments" we've had. Doing Permaculture activism, and helping other people make sensible "regenerative investments" in more sustainable, resilient living has connected us with really amazing people all over, and this has - hands down - been the best thing we've invested in. Bill Mollison used to say if you're doing it right, and you're really helping people, then resources will start to come to you and crowd around you, and many will be good people. That's exactly what we've experienced. 

And as it turns out, we usually have both vegetables and plants for direct sale.  But if we had started a "profitable farm" business or SPIN farm in our first year, we would have never had time to do any of this. We'd still probably be stuck in the farming rat race, selling veggies to buy pizza, and looking for ways to exploit people, nature and soil in order to pay our bills. 

And we'd still be stuck complaining and stressing about crop losses, and spraying for pests....

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In the meantime, if you're already trapped on the pesticide treadmill, here are some research-based Permaculture-ish things you could consider, which might help with pests in the short term, while moving in a better direction for the future.  
- Invest in a biodiverse, healthy ecosystem. Add plant diversity, esepcially with perennial plants which will come back every year. 
- Invest in perennial native plants. 
- Invest in creating healthy soil, especially with deep mulching. This will improve plant immunity. 
- Invest in diverse healthy agroecologies like edible hedgerows, forest gardens, and habitat strips. 
- Invest in predator habitat: rockeries for snakes, wood piles, bird perches in the garden, insectory plants, bits of untidy garden for beneficial insects to overwinter in. 
- Long, untrimmed grasses near the garden are essential, as they attract fireflies, whose larva are one of the biggest predators of slugs. However fireflies lay eggs in long grasses, so if you don't have patches of long grass in the garden, your slug patrol will have to commute. 
- Decentralizing production. If you've got all your kale in one bed, slugs can move from one to the next easily, destroying the whole crop, then moving on the the next row of cabbages. If you've got kale throughout the garden, interspersed with strong-smelling aromatic herbs, slugs have trouble finding the kale. 
- Polyculture everywhere. Same as above, pests have trouble finding their favorite foods if you're mixing them up, and they have to travel further, past more predators on their daily commute. 
- Use minimal interventions. Do just enough to save the crop. For example, for slugs, beer traps and copper, or organic slug pellets that only effect slugs - used sparingly - may help reduce pressures enough that you get a crop, but also leave slugs for fireflies and vespids to feed their babies.

And, if you're farming and it's not meeting your goals, it's ALWAYS a good time to start divesting from activities that are low-value or are not meeting your goals, and start reinvesting that time and energy into things that will start moving you towards meeting your goals.

But if you're farming and happy and meeting your goals, then keep on keepin' on!

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

French Intensive Methods for Permaculture


(Dynamically evolving French Intensive spacings and planting design at Lillie House) 

I love French Intensive Gardening, or French Intensive Method (FIM.) This old evolved set of French techniques using planting designs with precise, tight, non-row spacings, interplanting, and clever companion planting - all to achieve the highest possible productivity and quality -  has a lot to offer the Permaculturist and expert gardener or producer. And this goes beyond the lessons that FIM teaches us about true sustainability, companion planting, soil building, plant spacing and size, and producing top-quality produce. 

FIM is one of the major things that gives our garden its distinctive look, which many conventional gardeners find incomprehensible, or even "impossible." Yes, we're now used to hearing that many of the key techniques we rely on to grow superior produce while absolutely minimizing maintenance are all impossible: no-till, continuous cropping while growing 100% of our fertility at home, exclusively polyculture growing, and of course our precise FIM plantings and spacings. Gardeners often recoil at seeing these spacings, despite them being the research-based optimal spacings for superior produce and sustainability.


(A typical FIM planting, optimizing productivity and garden health, From Sunset Magazine.)

Of our impossible gardening techniques, FIM is one of the most vital. For me, my gardening, and my understanding of Permaculture, which is about using DESIGN to achieve a goal, there has been nothing more important than understanding how to control levels of "intensivity" in the landscape. This is as true for the home garden, landscape, or homestead as it is for the profitable farm. 

By levels of "intensivity," we're talking about a spectrum where we let nature do all the work on one side, and on the other side, we add "inputs" like energy, work, time, water, fertilizer, pest-control and most importantly planning and design. 

And when it comes to this one point, I have learned a great deal from French Intensive Gardening, and the simplifed systems taught by Alan Chadwick (Bio-Intensive French Gardening) and John Jeavons (Grow Bio-Intensive.) 


(FIM is incredibly practical, yet naturally produces beauty as a by-product. This is a low-maintenance sustainable, and highly productive vegetable garden design, via Awaken.com)

To come to the point, it's absolutely revolutionary to understand how these methods optimize the "Return on Investment" of a garden or farm system. 

First, FIM gives the highest possible yield per square foot of any system. Consider this: Like historic FIM gardeners in the suburbs of Paris, Jeavons and Chadwich have both used similar methods to achieve yields that are typically 4-6 times the best conventional yields, and in some cases over 10 times! So, the FIM gardener can do on 1/4 or 1/6th an acre what a conventional market gardener using a tiller and planting in rows does on 1 acre. 

Of course, this requires more work, more design and more fertility management. BUT - here's the key - NOT PROPORTIONALLY more. 

(A somewhat formalistic FIM design from Sunset, uses tight plantings of companion plants like a Permaculture "guild.")

So, it will take significantly less time on average, according to Jeavons' research, to manage 1/4 or even 1/2 an acre using FIM than it would to manage that acre conventionally. And it will not require a tiller or imported unsustainable fertility inputs. And finally, quality is often higher, and so is profitability. So, while it will typically take a couple of full-time workers to manage that 1-acre farm, one person could get the same (or better) outcome from 1/4 of an acre under FIM. 

This leaves 3/4 acres which can be managed in extremely "extensively," by handing management over to nature, in the for of edible hedgerows, edible forest gardens and edible-meadow type systems, or possibly small livestock. The best of these are traditional, evolved patterns with long-established proven viability and management techniques. All of this can add significantly to yield, while helping to maintain fertility sustainably. NOW, we're using good energy-efficient design! And it's also just good math. 

As farm size grows, nothing changes this dynamic. The greatest yield is going to be defined by the same equation: how many labor hours you have to put in, how much can you put into intensive systems (which have the highest profitability) and how many do you need to maintain the rest of the land. Which is to say, at some point, once the farm is large enough, you will spend all your time managing broad-acre systems and have no time left for Intensive production. Because small intensive systems have been shown to be as high as 10, 30, 100 or more times as profitable per land area (University of Vermont, Berkley, etc.) Small market farms can sometimes gross in the ballpark of $100k/acre, whereas on the broad-acre, profitability is measured in hundreds of  dollars/acre. So, once you are no longer doing intensive methods, to get back to the same value might require hundreds of acres with fossil fuels and chemicals, or large amounts of exploited labor. 

So the best Permaculture designs will find ways to put as much land as possible into naturally managed "forage systems" to free up labor hours for more intensive forms of production with the highest ROI - this is the basis of the Permaculture "zones" system, which is radically under-apprecaited in today's Permaculture world. 

However, these dramatically productive and sustainable techniques were once so associated with Permaculture designs, that it was common to hear the terms used interchangably by some observers, such as in this interesting article from Mother Earth news. 



(Dynamic Polyculture at Lillie House, throw-cast then selectively thinned.)

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FIM gardening is a highy information-intensive form of gardening, which requires knowledge and experience beyond what I can blog about. However, there are some key points, which I've taken from Jeavons, Chadwick and Aquatias, one of the first to attempt to present French methods to an English-speaking audience.

1. Growing in double-reach sized, permanent beds, with permanent, narrow access paths. These are sized so that one can reach to the center of the bed from either side, without stepping on the beds. Certainly, the #1 thing one can do to improve the maintenance and productivity of a garden is to NEVER WALK ON GARDEN BEDS. Permaculture has improved on this with patterns like keyhole design and hierarchical path and node systems (see Gaia's Garden, or search this blog for more information.) 

It's very important to note that these are often referred to as "raised beds," but that these differ greatly from the modern "raised beds" of wood or plastic made popular by HGTV and glossy magazine covers. These are created simply by deeply digging the soil and refraining from ever walking on it again. These actually aid good landscape hydrology and conservation of fertility and water. Meanwhile modern "raised beds" have benefits as well, looking tidy and in some cases increasing accessibility, but for both fertility and water, these have been proven to yield a decreased result. 

2. Intensively managing soil. This is typically done through additions of compost, organic teas and sprays, and a one-time double-digging of the soil. In the best systems, FIM beds become no-till through a combination of careful succession planting, cover cropping and mulching. 

3. "The Greenhouse" (Chadwick) - tight plant spacings with no rows. "Close plant spacings, as found in nature." (Jeavons.)  Starts are spaced tightly in a grid-like formation, rather than rows, with naturalistic spacings so that there is no soil visible at maturity and leaves are brushing together. With many crops, seed are hand-cast, then thinned as they grow to dynamically maintain these dense spacings. This is what we do with most of our crops at Lillie House. Research by ecologists have discovered that plant cooperation in such conditions outweigh competition, helping to maintain optimal growing conditions in the top soil layer and the atomosphere under the plants. This is probably why FIM systems are so productive, sustainable and healthy. 

4. Intercropping polycultures. While Jeavons and and Chadwick eliminated much of this tradition for their simplified versions for the American audience, intercropping was a major part of the French tradition, and one of Aquatias' 4 principles. This maximzies utility, yield, use of space, and garden health for home and small market garden systems. However, at a certain scale, it may become necessary to simplify designs. This is another major principle to our growing at Lillie House. (It is also something you can see in the FIM pictures in this post.) 

5. Synergistic planting, or companion planting. This is especially done with a high percentage of strong, older, established aromatic herbs, kept in the garden over a long period of time. These are traditionally in every bed, and near every crop. 

6. Growing your own fertility (Jeavons) or sourcing it smartly and sustainably (Chadwick, Aquatias.) At Lillie House we use 0 inputs, and grow 100% of our fertility on site. We feel that Jeavons was correct, that in this modern world, that is the only true measure of sustainability. 


7. Use of open-pollinated seed, rather than hybrids, to enhance seed security, diversity and self-reliance. 

To these Grow-Biodynamic adds some information crop selection for sustainability and self-reliance. These are excellent recommendations, but may be designed for in other ways in a Permaculture system. 

Getting Started:

FIM gardening is a method that creates expert gardeners. This is perhaps one of its main benefits. But that takes time to develop as the soil develops.

Beginning gardeners may want to start with Bartholomew's Square Foot Gardening program, but try also creating some FIM beds. Jeavons' How to Grow More Vegetables is an excellent place to start, with resources for spacing and companion planting, as well as sustainability.

A more Permaculture approach is to create a bed in the FIM fashion, then cast a polyculture like the Iano Evans Polyculture in Gaia's Garden, thinning to maintain good spacing as plants grow. This both forces you to learn good plant spacings through observation, and to eat a salad a few times per week!

Later, expert gardeners can integrate other patterns and techniques, such as sheet-mulch, water harvesting and perennial guild design.

Yes, FIM takes some extra knowledge and design time. But the rewards are phenomenal. The FIM garden will build soil, grow incredible amounts of superior produce, create a beautiful healthy landscape, and most importantly, grow your own knowledge of gardening, plants, and the natural world. 

For more information:


Aquatias' classic manual