An architect, a midwife and a geophysicist walk into a room…

No, it’s not the beginning of a witty joke.  It’s what I experienced yesterday as I began my year-long journey into the world of Permaculture design.

If you’ve never heard of Permaculture, you’re not alone.  Even though it’s been around since the 1970s and has undergone incredible growth since then, it’s still fairly unknown in most circles.

My Journey to Permaculture

I was first introduced to Permaculture back in the late 1990s when I was working for a municipal waste reduction agency designing what we coined ‘The North Shore Natural Gardens Tour’.  The practical techniques for reducing waste AND building soil quality and quantity frankly blew me away.  Why didn’t more people know about this?

So we began working Permaculture techniques into our free public education programs under the guise of waste reduction, encouraging people to reduce and then eliminate pesticide use in their gardens, reduce lawn area in our municipality (because they are incredibly resource intensive from a municipal waste and air quality perspective), and ultimately grow organic food locally.  We even collaborated on a sheet mulching guide with a local Permaculture expert (sheet mulching is a soil preservation and building technique that also uses ‘waste’ products to create fertile soil for growing food).  Needless to say, I was hooked.

Flash forward a few years and I ran into Permaculture again when I began researching my move to a rural community.  My mentor and friend, Robin Wheeler had built a Permaculture nursery, and through her wisdom I learned more about the techniques and the plants.  But without a property to experiment on, I didn’t really do anything with the knowledge.  Until we moved to our little patch of forest.  Then it was time to get serious, which meant committing the time to really digging into the work and taking a Permaculture design course.

Most Permaculture design courses run for two straight weeks, and are usually held in far-flung places that there was no way I was going to get to with a young child in tow.  So I waited.  And I researched.  And finally I came across Delvin Solkinson.

Delvin has been developing a unique year-plus-long Permaculture design course that takes students through a full year of observations, integration, and application.  One day a month, plus homework in between.  Incredibly well priced.  And it was right here in my local community.  So I signed up.

And I blew it.

This is actually my second attempt at the course.  The first time, I signed up all gung ho and was then sidelined by the demands of a new business, which seemed to flare up every time there was a class to attend.  Needless to say, I had to bail on the course, as I got so far behind.  But Delvin was kind enough to allow me to start again, and this time I’m committed to working the process through til the very end, website tragedies be damned!

What is Permaculture, Anyway?

‘Permaculture’ is actually a word owned as a common copyright by the Permaculture Institutes and their graduates.  It’s derived from the words ‘permanent’ and ‘culture’.  But as with any innovative movement, there are a gazillion different definitions and interpretations of what permaculture actually means.  Here are just a few:

  • “Permaculture is the study of the design of those sustainable or enduring systems that support human society, both agricultural and intellectual, traditional and scientific, architectural, financial and legal.  It is the study of integrated systems, for the purpose of better design and aplication of such systems.” Bill Mollison
  • “Permaculture is a philosophy of working with, rather than against nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labour, and of looking at plants and animals in all their functions, rather than treating any area as a single-product system.” Bill Mollison
  • “Permaculture is about creating and maintaining relationships.  Developing healthy communities, Permaculture people live by sharing resources and supporting each other.  it begins with all the plants and animals, buildings and resources that can be found in and around your home.  Permaculture is a continuing process exploring the ways in which you can fulfill the needs of the things around you while having your own needs met.” Delvin Solkinson
  • “Permaculture is the harmonious integration of people into the landscape in such a way that the land grows in richness and aesthetic beauty.” Dan Hemenway
  • “Permaculture is a way of life which shows us how to make the most of our resources by minimizing waste and maximizing potential.  Living ecologically doesn’t mean giving everything up, but relearning the value of nature and understanding new ways of being wealthy… Conscious design of a lifestyle which is highly productive and does not cause environmental damage… Meeting our basic needs and still leaving the earth richer than we found it.” Graham Bell

So there you have it – a number of definitions from a number of Permaculture teachers.  To me, it’s just smart thinking.  Makes so much sense, I can’t believe people would argue about its merit.  But argue they do (more on this as the journey unfolds).  If you’re interested in Permaculture’s formative years, here’s a really great summary: A Short and Incomplete History of Permaculture.

Our ‘First Class’ First Class

This was actually the second class in the series, but the first one was on Thanksgiving Day and most of us couldn’t make it.

Gathered together were a fascinating group of people from all walks of life and professional and personal backgrounds.  A naturalist, an architect, a midwife, an artist, and a Russian geophysicist are among my fellow Permaculture classmates – and about an equal split of men and women – people I’ll be getting to know as we embark on a year of intense training.

We started with a meet and greet, and proceeded to learn about the history of Permaculture, lots of talk about the definitions and the man tenets of ‘Observe, Integrate and Apply’, as well as discussion about the key principles of Permaculture:

  • Make Sure Each Function in Your System is Supported by Multiple Elements
  • Use Intensive Small-Scale Systems
  • Use Small and Slow Solutions
  • Embrace Mistakes
  • Be Adaptable
  • Plan for Disaster
  • Value Diversity
  • Make it Beautiful
  • Creatively Respond to Change
  • Make the Least Change for the Greatest Possible Effect
  • Integrate Rather Than Segregate
  • Work with Nature Rather Than Against It
  • Co-operation Not Competition
  • The Problem is the Solution
  • Everything Gardens
  • Smart Energy Planning
  • Produce Less Waste
  • Catch & Store Energy
  • Cycle Energy, Nutrients and Resources
  • Use Biological Resources
  • No Dig Gardening
  • Chop and Drop
  • Generate Surplus
  • Embrace Weeds
  • Eat Wild Foods

Whew!  Pretty overwhelming at first, but as the course unfolds, I have no doubt it will all come together and make more and more sense.  Actually, it all makes sense now – I just don’t know how to make it all happen!  It really seems to be so logical, so simple, in fact, that it’s hard to wrap my ‘traditional row gardening’ brainwashed head around.  But I’m confident I’ll get past my need for rows and embrace all the tenets.  I guess only time will tell.

Part of the tradition for these classes is a potluck lunch, eaten together as a group, where we introduce the food we contributed by discussing where it was made or purchased, where the ingredients came from, and whether or not it was organic, gluten-free, etc.  The point is to begin to make a connection to our food, and I have to say, it was a very unique experience.  And delicious!

But what I loved most about the day is that Delvin’s way of teaching removes 100% of any judgement we or others may have about where we’re all at on our journey.  Not eating organic food?  That’s totally OK – it’s a process.  I find this incredibly refreshing, as in so many of these movements there is so much judgement, so much anger and frustration… yesterday was incredibly refreshing in that regard (well, in many regards, but that one stood out!).  I’d like to thank Delvin for creating such a safe space for all of us to experience this education.

After some outdoor native plant identification in the chilly raing, we cozied back up inside and wrapped up the day with viewing a couple of videos, one by Geoff Lawton and an old-school video by Bill Mollison – ‘elders’ in the Permaculture movement (Bill Mollison is one of its originators, along with David Holmgren, who developed the techniques based on thousands of years of indigenous technologies and knowledge).  After watching, I’m even more endeared to the movement…

The Wrap-up

It’s interesting how my interest in Permaculture has come full circle, from teaching basic Permaculture techniques more than a decade ago to finally getting the chance to learn it from the inside out.  And best of all, one of my fellow classmates remembered The Natural Gardens Tour and says it was a game changer for her.  That feels good, even all these years later.

Do you practice Permaculture techniques on your property?  Have you ever taken a Permaculture Design Course?  If so, please share your experiences on the blog.