Thursday, December 14, 2017

We Deserve Beauty: Finding Inspiration in Patterns

“When you put beauty in a place that has none, that's a game changer.” 
— Ron Finley  

To live in a beautiful, uplifted situation with dignity should not be seen as an exclusive privilege for the elite. It is the birthright of every being born to this earth. The idea that rest of us should content ourselves with stodgy utilitarianism is oppressive. We all deserve beauty. 

To surround oneself with beauty is old, powerful magic. It's no wonder it was seen as so revolutionary, so dangerous for Ron Finley to create a beautiful food forest garden in his poor LA neighborhood. 

Look! The elk in the wood carries itself with pride, dignity, its chest uplifted, its head and shoulders like a king, its every movement, its very presence is an incantation: 


When we dare to create a beautiful, uplifted environment for ourselves, it allows us to be in the moment boldly, rather than shrink to some sense of shame or inferiority, or worse, an aspirational fantasy of salvation - some savior, the lottery, that promotion, the dream-job, the business breakthrough, the revolution - which may never come. 

Instead, we can each make our worlds beautiful and our lives rich. This does not require money. It’s the ultimate taboo of our age, the truth almost everyone wants to hide from you, but you have more power over the way you will experience your daily life than anyone else on this planet does. 

The world we want to see starts with us.

 Looking for “patterns” and models to replicate and adapt is both a good tool for improving function as well as creating beauty. This “pattern language” paradigm makes beauty and good design available to anyone, not just those who can afford designers. (See “A Pattern Language” by Christopher Alexander.) 

Whenever I approach the teamwork of design, and design is ALWAYS teamwork, I begin by finding patterns that fit the landscape, the architecture, the history, ecology and community character of the space. Each space will be different. What is the "genius of the place" trying to say? How can I help it be heard, rather than stifle its voice under my own song? 

These images show just a few of the patterns that inspired our design. The first is the famous “Italian House” at Kuskova. We wanted to invoke this “allee” of trees and hedges framing the entry like a visual mandala setting the mind to a state of focus and attention - visual dharma. And the model was appropriate to the Itaianate design of our home, our climate, our neighborhood and our goal of promoting sustainable living through beauty. 

The next is the model of the Jardin de Cure, a historic form of food forest garden. These were beautiful spaces for growing fruit, vegetables, cut flowers, and medicinal herbs while creating a healing, rejuvinating space. 

These walking paths along fruiting hedges, with herbs were a natural pattern we could include in our design. 

The third example is Highgrove Manor, also somewhat inspired by the jardin de cure. Prince Charles' gardens at highgrove are a model for organic gardening applied to the beauty garden. Most of us do not have the space or resources to have a garden purely for pleasure, we have to integrate herbs, food, and social space into one landscape. But we can still find inspiration in places that work to make people feel GOOD. 

Here we see those Jardin de Cure colors in our gardens, with an edible meadow inspired by Highgrove in the background. 

More Highgrove colors at Lillie House. 

And finally, the most important, inspiring and beautiful pattern we looked to was the "home garden" pattern found throughout the world in indigenous societies. It is the pattern of a just and sustainable society, and one known for its beautiful, life-enhancing environment. 

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

What is Permaculture? A Primer in Pictures and Patterns - Part 2

Note: This is the third installment in a series. See also:
Part 2: Gardens
Part 3: 
Part 4: 


So what is this Permaculture thing? In this post, we'll be exploring Permaculture gardening in pictures and patterns, so we'll keep the definition short and sweet. If you want a more in-depth discussion defining Permaculture, visit Part 1. But for now:

Permaculture is a system for designing human habitats (including homes, homesteads, gardens, farms, cities, etc.) which includes sets of ethics, principles, and design methods, and applies "patterns" derived from nature, sustainable societies, and research-based best practices. 

To begin our visual exploration of Permaculture gardening, I'll empahsize that these patterns may be used in Permaculture, but they are not Permaculture. 

For example, Organic Gardening, MAY be used in Peramculture (though quite frequently it is  not) but Organic Gardening is not Permaculture. It is just organic gardening, used as one part of a Permaculture design! At Lillie House, we grow our food and nursery stock entirely without imported non-organic chemicals, free from biocides, and with almost no organic spraying! However, what we do has little in common with organic gardening, beyond the goal of sustainability and care for the soil. We don't dig the soil. We try to minimize the use of plastics. We have no use for most common organic garden tools, sprays, or pest control techniques. We hardly ever even add compost to our beds! To explore the difference between Organic Gardening and Permaculture, visit this excellent article at

Likewise, Permaculture gardens are NOT native plant gardens, but may heavily use native plants. 

Native plant afficianados have commented that our Permaculture gardens at Lillie House may have more native plants than most - if not all - the native plant gardens in our city! Yet, our garden works to create additional wildlife habitat and habitat for native plants where it counts most - out away from our home in the city. If we can use our own land to meet our needs much more efficiently (while still benefiting wildlife locally) then that frees up larger areas of marginal agricultural land to go back to nature. And those are the areas that will have the greatest benefit to plants and wildlife! This is why many consider Permaculture gardening, or Ecological Gardening the ULTIMATE ecological landscape.

Permaculture gardens are "integrated," not "segregated." 

As you can see from the image above/right, there's no seperate veggie garden, orchard, wildlife garden, herb garden and flower garden. It's all one big veggie-orchard-wildlife-flower-herb garden. This maximizes diversity and takes advantage of what ecologists call the "diversity-resiliency principle," that generally speaking, the greater number of species in a system, the more resilience it confers to the individuals in the system. The Permaculture garden recruits plants, beneficial insects, and wildlife to work for us. That means fewer pests, fewer diseases and less work for the gardener!

One of the most inspiring exemplars of this kind of integrated gardening is Bealtaine Cottage:


Polycultures are gardens where we grow multiple crops, rather than monocultures, with one crop alone. This is another technique that takes advantage of the diversity resiliency principle, as well as maximizing space in the garden. 

This includes annual polycultures, like the beds in this study from BALKEP....

and dynamic (ones that change over time) annual polycultures like this one at Lillie House. 

These are based off the popular Ianto Evans Polyculture, and it is a classic way we plant and establish new beds. 

And "mixed" polycultures of annuals and perennials. 


Guilds are polycultures that are designed to function like ecologies. We recruit plants to fulfill "guild roles" that might be found in a natural ecosystem, like "mulch makers, nitrogen fixers, groundcovers, insect attractors, and fortress plants." We can even stack functions and use plants that are functional, edible, and beautiful to increase our yields. The most common guild example is a fruit tree guild, like this apricot tree guild at Lillie House. 

We can also arrange guilds to take care of our annual vegetable beds, as in my sketch of the annual garden guild concept going back to Mollison. 

This is the design you see in all our vegetable beds.

Deep Mulch Gardens

Deep mulching conserves water, builds rich soil, eliminates weeds, and enhances plant health and resilience. This image of "sheet mulching" is from Gaia's Garden by Toby Hemenway. This technique has also been called the Ruth Stout method, Lasagne Gardening, back-to-eden (with wood chips) and sheet composting (by Rodale) but it likely as old as gardening itself!

These maincrop production beds at Zaytuna Farm utilize deep mulching and forms of polyculture and companion planting. 

Water Collection

Permaculture gardens tend to use a variety of techniques to havest and save water. Because of these techniques, at Lillie House, we have grown our garden with almost no irrigation over the last 5 years. 


And these techniques taken together reflect a deep concern for the health of the soil and the maintaining of fertility. Deep mulches build healthy soil while nitrogen fixers add fertility. One technique often used are "permanent beds and permanent paths" which helps beds develop soil structure and can make digging and tilling unnecessary. This sign is at the Peace Garden in Flint, a project we've supported. 


Many Permaculture gardens and farms work towards no-till gardening. At Lillie House we only dig on rare ocassion to harvest and shape new beds to collect their own water. We do not use "alternative tillers" like "tilthers" or harrows, as these have been shown to be the same as conventional tilling. This image shows our "slashmulch" garden, an ancient technique practiced around the world, where no digging is done to prep a garden. 

Grow Bio-intensive

No-till can be a challenge, especially for certain crops on a commercial scale. Many Permaculture gardens and farms use the "Bio-intensive' method, a proven research-based way to maintain fertility and soil health while minimizing tilling and digging. Other soil systems used by Permacultures include French Intensive Gardening, Korean Natural Farming, Biodynamics, and Natural Gardening. Many of these use microbial preparations to enhance soil ecology. From a Permaculture perspective, one could critique the highly sustainable garden pictured below on the grounds that the beds run off contour, wasting water and causing erosion. Bare soil may also be a problem. 


Finally, no introduction to Permaculture gardening would be complete without reiterating the idea of zones. Zone analysis shows us that different techniques work better on different scales and with different levels of care. In smaller, more intensive Permaculture systems closer to the home we'll find more vertical gardening, trellises, water-harvesting beds, and greater diversity. Away from the home, on larger scales we'll find more "extensive" systems. So any Permaculture garden may use any variety of the patterns above depending on the location and goals. That's reflected in this classic image from the Permaculture Designer's Manual. 

Up Next: Part 3 (Coming soon) 

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

What is Permaculture? A Primer in Patterns and Pictures - Introduction and Inspiration

Note: This is the INTRODUCTION to a series. See also:
Part 2: Gardens
Part 3: Building
Part 4: Organizing


Ask 10 "Permies," folks interested in Permaculture, and you'll get 10 different definitions. 

Some will tell you it's an easier way of vegetable gardening. In fact, "most people enter Permaculture "through the garden gate" as Permaculture Designer and author Toby Hemenway used to say. 

However, recently I've met people who had no idea that Permaculture had anything to do with gardening! For them, Permaculture was about forgotten building skills, meat farming, or primitive skills, sustainability, or even community organizing. 

Permaculture is about Patterns

But one thing ALL these definitions have in common is PATTERNS. In this series, we'll be exploring Permaculture by looking at some of these patterns. So, before we even attempt to define Permaculture, lets take a quick glance at a few of the biggest broadest Permaculture "patterns" and the various realms we might see them in. 

We'll also be pointing you towards some of the best Permaculture sites on the internet!

My suggestion is to skim this series, take in the patterns, let them speak to you and inspire you. Then double back and go into more depth on the topics that most inspire you. That is the standard Permaculture journey. Use this piece as a choose your own adventure. Let it be a roadmap in pictures and patterns. 

Permaculture is About Meeting Needs

Our needs, the needs of the planet and its ecosystems. The needs of the future. So, Permaculture is applied to any of the systems we use to meet our needs. This is seen in the Permaculture Flower by, co-founder David Holmgren, from Holmgren's site 

Permaculture can help us in the garden.

Permaculture is often found in the garden, making things easier, more productive, more profitable and more beautiful. This is a shot of our food gardens at Lillie House. We'll be looking at other Permaculture gardens in this series, too. 

Permaculture is about a healthier, safer, more just and sustainable food system for everyone.

It's being used to change the concept of farming

This image is from Zaytuna Farm, one of the most famous Permaculture sites in the world. 

Permaculture helps us build more livable, sustainable homes. 

This image shows a form of natural, sustainable building from Strawbale Studio, a fantastic resource in Michigan, a place I have been lucky to take attend some classes. 

It can give us more sustainable forms of energy

In this case, a rocket mass stove, by Ernie and Erica Eisner, can heat a home sustainably while emiting almost 0 carbon pollution! 

It can help us take back control over our health

An image of homegrown medicines in our apothacary cabinet in Lillie House

Permaculture is being used to create more vibrant, healthy neighborhoods and communities.

This image is from the  City Repair Project, which applies the patterns of healthy communities, such as the "village square" to bring people together. In this image, neighborhood residents used a street painting and gardens to make their neighborhood safer, slow down traffic, and build a community out of formerly issolated neighbors. Now, there is a Village Building Convergance to help people re-design their own neighborhoods. 

Permaculture can heal degraded landscapes

Our site in 2012 and 2015.

And it can even heal whole communities, holistically, starting with their ecologies. 

The story of the Loess Plateau is incredibly inspiring. This transformation helped stabilize the community, increased income by 4 times in just 10 years, increased measures of health, academic performance... all from starting with healing their ecosystem. 

It can fight climate change, soil loss, the depletion of our aquifers, the decline of fisheries, and ecosystem collapse. 

And finally, it can help us design more beautiful, meaningful lives, with a richer connection to nature and our communities

And if we can get that right, then we can create viral change. If we can create truly beautiful, rich lives by working with nature, instead of against it, and healing the planet and communities instead of exploiting them, then we won't have to twist people's arms to create change. They'll line up for it like it's the new iPhone. 

Next: Defining Permaculture and Patterns Part 1:

Monday, November 20, 2017

What is Permaculture - A Primer in Pictures and Patterns - PART 1

Is it a community of doomer hippies? An incomprehensible internet meme for do-gooders who hate lawns and love fermenting things? A clever rebranding scheme for the organic farming movement thought up by wayward corporate marketing gurus? A cult for Gaia-worshipping environmentalists? A secret society for foraging herbalist hedgewitches?


After 6 years, 100 posts, over 100,000 page views, and hundreds of followers, I've never written a post answering that question! 


Because there are already so many good treatments of the topic on the nets. Why re-re-reinvent the wheel when the internet's rolling along just merily without me. Instead, this is an invitation to explore those fine resources, a visual exploration of the common "patterns" that have come to most define Permaculture.  

And besides, why author yet another definition when Permaculture creators Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, along with their early-adopter colleagues (especially Rosemarry Morrow) defined Permaculture very eloquently, simply, narrowly and precisely from the start:

Permaculture is a system for designing human habitats (including landscapes, homesteads, homes, towns, cities, organizations and ultimately societies) which starts with ethics and principles, and uses "patterns" derived from natural systems, sustainable societies, and research-based practices. And the guiding GOAL of Permaculture is right in its name: to create "permanent" (sustainable, regenerative) "cultures." 

But a great deal of ambiguity and confusion remains. There are many reasons for this. The first is founder Bill Mollison's own penchant for marketing and provocation. While always maintaing a formal definition of Permaculture, he quite often used short, catchy descriptions tailored to the interests of the audience, like:

Permaculture is REVOLUTION disguised as GARDENING.


Permaculture is working with nature, instead of against it. 

But the ambiguity is also somewhat deserved, as Permaculture has probably become a variety of things beyond its original intent. The word has indeed become a trendy marketing term for all things sustainable, hippie, foodie, and new-age. Many projects and products proudly wear the term "Permaculture" whether they have anything to do with Permaculture design, or its key patterns, or not. This is especially true of farms, although Mollison himself said "the last thing any of us should be doing is any kind of farming!" The relationship between farming and Pemraculture is... complicated. 

And Permaculture has also become a community or movement of people interested in all things sustainable, hippie, foodie and new-agey. This often includes conventional farming, natural building, an almost spiritual devotion to "hugelkultures" and rocket stoves, intentional communities, animal husbandry (whether humane or not) and over-alls. 

And of course, Permaculture has become a "world-view" if not an outright religion with a clergy, cosmology, commandments, and unquestionable dogmas. Perhaps this was inevitable, since Permaculture can be a mind-blowing perspective shift for many people - one that often inspires the  the "cult" in Permaculture (a pun that goes back to Mollison himself.)

As you might have guessed, I'm sometimes ambivalent (if not outright concerned) about these other forms of "Permaculture." Yet, I remain convinced that Permalture Design's primary insight is one of paradigm-shifting importance: that we can use nature-inspired DESIGN to solve our problems, both personal and societal, and create more beautiful, just and sustainable lives and societies. 

And because a picture is worth a thousand bon-mots, we'll be visually exploring the patterns that most define Permaculture. 


Permaculture is DESIGN

Whether a landscape, homestead, garden, farm, business, organization, community, or building, a Permaculture site grows along a planned, on-paper design. It doesn't have to be a fancy computer-generated pro design. These are some of the early design sketches for Lillie House. 

Permaculture follows ETHICS and PRINCIPLES

The ethics and principles have undergone a series of revisions and drafts, yet remain consistent at their core. One version of the ethics is "Earth care, people care, fair share." There are a veriety of write-ups of the two sets of principles, the Mollison principles, and the Holmgren principles. The Holmgren principles include things like "obtain a yield," "use slow, small solutions," and "Observe and interact." This image is from  which is the best place to explore and learn about these principles. The site has an interpretation of the Mollison principles. 

The Permaculture design system uses a process, which begins with observation.

These are some common observation tools used in a design, as applied to our site at Lillie House, including sun angles, precipitation, microclimate patterns, elevation, heat and cold, etc. This is generally the first step in a design process, and is usually taught and required in a Permaculture Design Certificate Course.  

Permaculture uses observational tools like Zone and Sector Analysis. 

Zone analysis looks at where to place "patterns" and land uses, like gardens, ponds and sheds, by how often you'll need to visit them and how much energy they take to work. Sector analysis looks at "energy flows" that enter and leave the property, like sun, wind, wildlife and traffic, so that we can choose how to deal with them positively. This zone diagram from Toby Hemenway's Gaia's Garden is a classic. 

Permaculture Designs place an emphasis on a "Zone 1" kitchen garden.

This most valuable and most productive garden is situated right outside the door, near to the home, where it can be harvested and looked after every day. It is usually an herb garden, a vegetable garden, a fruit orchard and flower garden all in one. Setting up this most important garden that will have the highest productivity and the highest impact on our health is usually the first task in a Permaculture design. Of course, not all sites include kitchens, let alone homes, so not all sites will have a kitchen garden or a zone 1.

Permaculture analyses relative location and interconnectivity

We attempt to make systems look like connected ecosystems, where the needs of each element are met by other elements in the system. The analysis of the chicken has been the standard example since Mollison. 

Permaculture stacks functions and connects elements to save work, time and resources.

Understanding the chicken, we can put it to work controlling pests, fertilizing our gardens, turning our compost and heating our greenhouse, all while providing good nutrition, natural habitat, and comfortable shelter to our chicks! This is relationship design going back to Mollison's Permaculture Designer's Manual. 

Permaculture designs often resemble indigenous societies, such as the "home garden" pattern found around the world. 

The term "home garden" is closely related, and sometimes a synonym for the terms "forest garden" and "food forest." This brilliant diagram is from the study "Home Gardens in Nepal."

Notice how similar that looks to this sketch of a Balkan Ecology Project (Balkep) site. For me, Balkep is one of the most inspiring cutting-edge, research-based Permaculture projects today! It also closely resembles our design at Lillie House. 

Permaculture heavily relies on "forage systems" 

These are "productive ecologies," largely managed by ecosystem services and the connections between elements in the system. This is the classic visual representation of Permaculture from the Permaculture Design Manual.

Permaculture often makes heavy use of trees and forest gardens 

Unless it's otherwise maintained by humans, if an area gets more than 30 inches of precipitation a year, it will naturally become a forest. So "forest gardens" are the natural "forage farming" systems that would be favored on such sites. Also called food forests, edible forest gardens, home gardens, gardens of complete design, forest farms and agriforest systems. These also include a wide variety of traditional systems like the Japanese Satoyama, the European Straubst, hedgerows, copses, panage lots, etc. You can learn more about some of these through our Pin-board on traditional forest garden systems. Forest gardens are not gardening IN a forest, they're gardening LIKE a forest. You can learn more about forest gardens through our links here

Forest gardening is different from conventional orcharding in that it combines tree crops, vegetables, fuel, craftmaterials, building materials, wildlife habitat, and often social uses all together. They use many layers, instead of just one, and use "hetrogenous" textures instead of rows and even spaces. This image by our colleague and friend, brilliant designer PJ Chmiel, is a master class in one image! You can learn more about the basic defining characteristics of forest gardening from the following video 

Permaculture may sometimes use organic gardening, but it is not organic gardening. 

This article from is one of the best I've seen on the topic. In fact, this little gem is another master class in one image, showing us the patterns that really make Permaculture what it is, and something very distinct from conventional organic gardening or farming. In it, we see a designed human habitat integrating energy efficiency, tree crops, fruits, vegetables, wildlife, animals, water-harvesting systems, zones, diverse plantings with no bare soil... all classic features of Permaculture that we'll explore in more depth in Part 2!

Which side do these pictures of our integrated annual vegetable garden beds with tree crops, wildlife habitat, deep mulches, living ground covers, integrated edible companion plants and perennial vegetables resemble? 

We'll explore the patterns commonly applied in Permaculture gardens in part 2.