Permaculture, the Health of the Soil, and Climate Change

By Lambert Strether of Corrente

As long-time readers, at least, may know, I’m a fan of permaculture, and did a lot of gardening using permaculture principals. I started at the time of the Crash, working on the assumption that I should need to learn to grow my own food on my own patch. As my situation improved, I discovered that what I really wanted to do was sit and work in the midst of flowers, listening to birds and pollinators, but I designed that garden along permaculture principles, too (most importantly stacking functions). Now (hat tip reader Cal2) the release into the public doman of permaculture co-developer Bill Mollison‘s Permaculture: A Design Manual gives me the opportunity to return to this topic once more. Soil fans, listen up!

What, you may ask, is permaculture? Here is what Mollison wrote in 2002[1]:

Permaculture (permanent agriculture) is the conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems which have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems. It is the harmonious integration of landscape and people providing their food, energy, shelter, and other material and non-material needs in a sustainable way. Without permanent agriculture there is no possibility of a stable social order.

Permaculture design is a system of assembling conceptual, material, and strategic components in a pattern which functions to benefit life in all its forms.

The philosophy behind permaculture is one of working with, rather than against, nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless action; of looking at systems in all their functions, rather than asking only one yield of them; and of allowing systems to demonstrate their own evolutions.

Now, to some that definition, if definition it be, may seem a little fuzzy around the edges; and Permaculture: A Design Manual sometimes reads like brilliant work of the imagination, rather than a manual. However, more recent studies have subjected the principles presented by permaculture co-developer David Holmgren to testing, and found them to pass. (See “Permaculture—Scientific Evidence of Principles for the Agroecological Design of Farming Systems,” Sustainability). It is easy to see, however, that a factory farm or an Iowa field optimized for High Fructose Corn Syrup are the opposites of permaculture.) In this post, I will look at permaculture and the soil, remind readers of the role that soil can play in carbon capture, and finally present an honest-to-gosh academic study that shows that permaculture, by producing healthy soil, aids in carbon capture and thus in mitigating climate change.

Permaculture and Soil

From Chapter 8 of Permaculture: A Design Manual, Mollison on soil:

Soils defy precise treatment, as their structure (and permeability), organic content, gaseous components (some derived from the atmosphere, some from processes within the soil, and some exhaled from the sediments below), minerals, pH, and water (or rather solute status) changes from hour to hour with soil depth and treatment, and in response to micro elevations. Added to this is the fact that many soils are originally complex mixtures derived from a variety of rock types and that they may have had a very long and varied history.

Soil science concentrates very much on what is there (classifications), but not on how to evolve soil. Often it is left to amateurs—gardeners and farmers—to create good soil by water control, modest aeration, and plant and animal management. Farmers and gardeners seem to be so often the practical, innovative, experimental, successful group (while often ignored by academics) that I despair of esoteric knowledge ever preceding effective action. Very few farmers can persuade a group of scientists to assess their apparently successful soil trials. It is past time that we assessed whether more “science” is not being done by outdoor people than by scientists who (like myself) more often collect the results of others than generate them by example. Science is good at explaining why things work, and thus making skills teachable. It is not so good at initiating field work, or in training people already in the field to work effectively.

The only places where soils are conserved or increased are:

  • In uncut forests;
  • Under the quiet water of lakes and ponds;
  • In prairies and meadows of permanent plants; and
  • Where we grow plants with mulched or non-tillage systems.

These then are the core subjects of sustainable

societies of any conceivable future. They are not, you might notice, the subjects most taught in the agricultural colleges or forestry courses of the recent past, nor do they occupy the minds of politicians, investment bankers, or TV stars.

Here is a high-level and pragmatic summary of Mollison’s ideas:

I refer to the definition as used by Mollison as a combination of two words; Permanent and Agriculture, permanent agriculture = Permaculture. Mollison’s main criticism of conventional annual based agriculture was that it was not sustainable because nothing about it was permanent. Because of mass soil cultivation and petrochemicals used in conventional agriculture, topsoil is continuously mined away and biodiversity loss. A constant state of diminishing returns. His idea was to create a system of permanent agriculture. It is also commonly referred to a design system based on observing patterns in nature.

(Note the definition: “Permanent agriculture,” made permanent in the soil.) All I can say is that anecdotally — and not on the scale of even a small farm — I greatly improved my soil using permaculture principles. Not that everybody should take this approach, but I ripped out my lawn by removing all the grass, added layers mulches, and sheet-mulched[2] everything (not for everybody!). When I started, my soil was dark, clay-y, and repellent to the touch; when I finished, my soil was lighterc-colored, almost fluffy, and there were a lot of worms. Plus the plants were happy.

The World Economic Forum (!) recognizes the importance of “permanent agriculture”:

Healthy soil leads to healthy humans. Sir Albert Howard, one of the forethinkers of organic agriculture and composting, explored this link in the early 20th century. Sir Albert recognized soil as a living organism, not just as an exploitable commodity, as we do nowadays.

Current agriculture, which consists of monocultures and extensive use of fertilizer, pesticide and herbicide, has caused a significant loss of biodiversity, has decreased soil quality and has polluted the environment…. Our soil is losing its fertile humus layer, which is resulting in even more fertilizer use. These negative trends are accelerating climate change, leading to more wildfires, droughts and floods.

It’s not just an organic farming technique, but rather a philosophy that teaches respect for the environment and a reflective approach towards modern capitalist consumption, locality and food, more in sync with nature. Permaculture’s goal is to nourish humans while enhancing biodiversity and increasing soil quality by adding humus.

I’m going to skip the WEF thesis, which is that tech needs to be integrated to permaculture for scale; but it’s amazing to me that permaculture’s concepts have reached Davos (for good or ill).

Soil as Carbon Capture

To refresh readers’ memories, soil is a significant carbon sink, and soil produced by permaculture is a much more effective carbon sink than soil produced by monocultures. From Nature, “Soil carbon sequestration accelerated by restoration of grassland biodiversity“:

Agriculturally degraded and abandoned lands can remove atmospheric CO2 and sequester it as soil organic matter during natural succession. However, this process may be slow, requiring a century or longer to re-attain pre-agricultural soil carbon levels. Here, we find that restoration of late-successional grassland plant diversity leads to accelerating annual carbon storage rates that, by the second period (years 13–22), are 200% greater in our highest diversity treatment than during succession at this site, and 70% greater than in monocultures. The higher soil carbon storage rates of the second period (years 13–22) are associated with the greater aboveground production and root biomass of this period, and with the presence of multiple species, especially C4 grasses and legumes. Our results suggest that restoration of high plant diversity may greatly increase carbon capture and storage rates on degraded and abandoned agricultural lands.

Of course, this isn’t a magic bullet (see Dirt as a Carbon Sink? and associated commentary at NC). And now to the promised study:

Permaculture, Soil, Carbon Capture, and Climate

As it turns out, permaculture can be shown to improve carbon capture. From “Effects of Permaculture Practices on Soil Physicochemical Properties and Organic Matter Distribution in Aggregates: A Case Study of the Bec-Hellouin Farm (France),” Frontiers in Environmental Science (2018). From the abstract:

The limitations of conventional agriculture have accelerated the need for a transition to an environmentally and economically sustainable agricultural model. In this regard, the role played by soil organic matter (SOM) is key. Here, we aimed to study the impact of permaculture and biointensive micro-gardening practices, characterized by intensive cultivation, the use of large and localized organic inputs and the non-use of mineral fertilizers and pesticides, on soil physicochemical properties and SOM distribution in aggregate-size fractions. The physicochemical properties of soils in permaculture farming implemented for 7 years were compared with a soil under pasture. A soil experiencing conventional agriculture practices in similar geopedoclimatic conditions was simultaneously studied. Soils were separated into four aggregate-size fractions, into which organic carbon (OC) concentrations have been measured. The major soil physicochemical properties were measured on the bulk soils. The concentrations of total OC and nitrogen (N) in bulk soils were higher under permaculture practices, due to significant inputs of manure and compost, resulting in higher concentrations of the bioavailable nutrients…. Thus, permaculture practices enable the storage of additional C in soils.

Summing up in less dense prose, from Yale Environment 360:

Absent carbon and critical microbes, soil becomes mere dirt, a process of deterioration that’s been rampant around the globe. Many scientists say that regenerative agricultural practices can turn back the carbon clock, reducing atmospheric CO2 while also boosting soil productivity and increasing resilience to floods and drought. Such regenerative techniques [like permaculture –lambert] include planting fields year-round in crops or other cover, and agroforestry that combines crops, trees, and animal husbandry.

Recognition of the vital role played by soil carbon could mark an important if subtle shift in the discussion about global warming, which has been heavily focused on curbing emissions of fossil fuels. But a look at soil brings a sharper focus on potential carbon sinks. Reducing emissions is crucial, but soil carbon sequestration needs to be part of the picture as well, says [Rattan Lal, director of Ohio State University’s Carbon Management and Sequestration Center]. The top priorities, he says, are restoring degraded and eroded lands, as well as avoiding deforestation and the farming of peatlands, which are a major reservoir of carbon and are easily decomposed upon drainage and cultivation.

He adds that bringing carbon back into soils has to be done not only to offset fossil fuels, but also to feed our growing global population. “We cannot feed people if soil is degraded,” he says.

“Supply-side approaches, centered on CO2 sources, amount to reshuffling the Titanic deck chairs if we overlook demand-side solutions: where that carbon can and should go,” says Thomas J. Goreau, a biogeochemist and expert on carbon and nitrogen cycles who now serves as president of the Global Coral Reef Alliance. Goreau says we need to seek opportunities to increase soil carbon in all ecosystems — from tropical forests to pasture to wetlands — by replanting degraded areas, increased mulching of biomass instead of burning, large-scale use of biochar, improved pasture management, effective erosion control, and restoration of mangroves, salt marshes, and sea grasses.

“CO2 cannot be reduced to safe levels in time to avoid serious long-term impacts unless the other side of atmospheric CO2 balance is included,” Goreau says.

Scientists say that more carbon resides in soil than in the atmosphere and all plant life combined; there are 2,500 billion tons of carbon in soil, compared with 800 billion tons in the atmosphere and 560 billion tons in plant and animal life. And compared to many proposed geoengineering fixes, storing carbon in soil is simple: It’s a matter of returning carbon where it belongs.

Which, as I have shown, permaculture can do.


Of course, I haven’t done the arithmetic to show a tranche of C being returned to the soil through a global permaculture effort (or that permaculture could scale to feed the world; my back-of-the-envelope calculation says it can). And I haven’t said how long this would take, or what would systems would have to change to make it happen. But I can ask a simple question: If you have a lawn or a garden, what are you doing to return carbon to the soil?


[1] From Wikipedia: “In 1987, Mollison taught the first [Permaculture Design Course (PDC)] that was offered in India. By 2011 there had been over 300,000 such graduates practicing and teaching throughout the world.” Which is a good number; there are many, many examples online, though none of them seem to be covered as stories; here’s a random pick from Jordan; another from the Philippines; another from Malawi. Permaculture proceeds by a sort of apostolic succession, as PDC graduates start their own businesses and teach PDCs themselves. This does seem a bit like multilevel marketing; on the other hand, it’s necessary to make a living in order to spread the word. Here is a critique of what might be called “vulgar permaculture.” For example, you don’t have to mulch everything, and you don’t have to swale everything. Note that both “protracted and thoughtful observation” and “looking at systems in all their functions” militate against such practices.

[2] I was very lazy and cheap. I assume a rich, “lasagna-style” sheet mulch system would give much better results.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
This entry was posted in Energy markets, Global warming, Guest Post, Permaculture on by .

About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. GF

    Back in the day I took the introduction class for permaculture; but, being low on funds couldn’t afford to continue. Glad to see the manual is out. If everyone does what Lambert did, the world could be transformed but it would take awhile.

    Here is a way to speed up the process. Bezos wants to more industry and corporations off the earth along with their “pollution” and leave earth as an idyllic retreat for the rich. He has the bucks to jump start the regeneration process:

  2. Shane

    The quote that stood out for me is this

    “The concentrations of total OC and nitrogen (N) in bulk soils were higher under permaculture practices, due to significant inputs of manure and compost”

    Permaculture as currently practiced is highly dependent on inputs, especially in its use of mulches that are generally harvested, processed and transported by fossil fuel dependent machinery. If you want to grow your own organic matter inputs you need at least 2/3 of your space devoted to them, and that is space that is not growing food directly. If you want to harvest and transport them by hand then that is a huge amount of never ending labor. I have tried this myself in my system that doesn’t use any powered machinery and it isn’t worth it. Instead I use my animals to produce concentrated manure which is more worthwhile to move (or better yet my geese free range pasture by day and sit in my new cropping spaces at night to bring in manure and kill off unwanted weeds). I also transport wood ash and charcoal since these are light weight and concentrated as well. Instead of mulching for weed suppression I hoe regularly. Apart from a few weed species that I try to eliminate I tend to leave the better behaved species until they just start seeding before hoeing. This way the weeds function like a volunteer green manure, adding organic matter to the soil without suppressing the crop too much. Cropping spaces suffer from insufficient photosynthesis on site that is necessary to maintain a healthy level of soil carbon, especially during the establishment phase of annuals. One response is to bring in that organic matter from elsewhere, but I prefer to grow as much of it on site as possible. And I have no illusions that the vegetable gardens of the world are going to make a dent in the atmospheric carbon balance. Abandoned forests and farmlands do that much better.

    1. Amfortas the hippie

      in situ volunteer “living mulch”.
      i do that, too.
      it helps to know one’s weeds.
      bermuda grass is my nemesis…everyone has been planting it for hay forever out here, and the hay bales sometimes have a green bit that will root if yer not careful(i sometimes use hay for weed suppression in paths).
      around here, “rescue grass”( is my favorite living’s listed as invasive, but it’s endemic now.
      kills itself by mid-may, and is easy to pull out.
      composts well, too.

      the input problem is a tough one, and folks don’t often consider it.
      manure, especially(cue my perennial complaint about persistent herbicides)
      the goal is to end up producing our own in sufficient quantities to where i don’t need to “import” it…but as someone said in one of these threads, if you sell veggies, you’re exporting your soil’s nutrients.
      and i don’t have machinery, either…aside from the golf cart(for moving me and tools around) and a string trimmer(for precision, strategic mowing).

      1. Susan the other`

        Hi Amfortas, at the risk of grossing everyone out here, just wondering if you or anyone caught the clip (about two months ago on NHK Japan) about processing human waste into a very excellent fertilizer. Did you see that one? It looked like it involved a big heating mechanism to pasteurize the slurry and then it was very useful stuff. The scene I remember is a bare hand lifting the product and riffling it through their fingers like good dirt. I’m just thinkin. When it comes to conservation and reverence for the environment we can learn a lot from Japan – but I don’t like their abdication to pesticides one tiny bit.

        1. Amfortas the hippie

          mine is a dry composting toilet…big barrel under an outhouse toilet seat, with a funnel strategically placed to divert the pee to the built wetland. (patient wife partook in experiments to determine placement of this funnel,given no aiming equipment(ahem))
          being dry, i need no moving parts(like for stirring)…but it takes a lot longer. barrel chamber is vented well above the roof with a black pipe for solar assisted draw…screen shroud snugged tightly around the barrel prevents critters from getting in.
          i change out the barrel once a month, and put it in the pasture for a year(allows the aerobic digestion to take place)
          oak leaves work better,but we’ve ended up using pine shavings for parts of the year.
          end up with an almost black brown, friable dirt…works well as a mulch around the base of fruit trees.(seems to deter deer somewhat, as well)
          only time we’ve had a smell problem was during the first 3 months, figuring it out…and during last fall’s crazy 30″ rain event.
          half full barrels are light enough for my crippled a$$ to handle with a dolley.
          i would NOT use this mulch for the garden…I’d want a much hotter process…or, even better, an actual digester, for to harvest the methane….but it’s perfect for the pasture and orchards.
          my design is adapted from the one’s that arizona parks use…invented by an old man…link on another computer.
          I went as low tech as possible…no fans or heaters or whatnot.
          a piece of slick foam rubber salvaged from somewhere cut to fit the seat acts as a warmer in winter.
          even wife is pleased with it…and finds herself unnerved using a regular, water filled toilet.”feels unnatural”
          I was forced into this by the layout of this place(rather long and narrow) and the corruption of local plumbing authority…no room for regular field lines/septic…so they’d hafta get creative. I was quoted $7-8K for a regular septic system, permits and all.
          under texas law, i don’t need a permit for this, so long as i stayed within very general and vague guidelines.
          next task along these lines is to collect, and store/solarise(scorpions, etc), enough leaves to go through a whole year.
          only thing i don’t like is aesthetic=ie: my poor carpentry skills.
          otherwise, i’m pleased as puddin

    2. Lambert Strether Post author

      This is what the DSA would call good praxis “protracted and thoughtful observation” and “looking at systems in all their functions.” There does seem to be a sense in the more vulgar sort of PDC that growing plants isn’t work. It is work, as you point out.

      You write:

      And I have no illusions that the vegetable gardens of the world are going to make a dent in the atmospheric carbon balance. Abandoned forests and farmlands do that much better.

      On “abandoned forests and farmlands,” yes, Mollison gives them each bullet points as places where soil is conserved or increased (and forests are far better at carbon capture than plantation as with BECCS). On atmospheric carbon balance, all I can say is that sources (e.g., the WEF) disagree in principle, although obviously there are a lot of implementation details.

      Adding, I’m aware of the distinction between bringing in carbon from elsewhere and creating it on the patch. From a carbon sink perspective, I don’t see why it matters. But I was taught that nothing organic should leave the patch (like the insanity of sending fallen leaves or grass clippings away to the local landfill).

      1. juliania

        The latter point really matters, Lambert. In my very small back garden I had put in trees, mostly fruit, for needed shade our hot summers. This has gradually prevented me from success with vegitables in the ground, as the tree roots took over, while providing needed shade and beauty. I moved gradually to container gardening as I could keep the veggies happy with less watering plus the partial shade the trees provide, but I needed more soil – and then I was into worms bigtime. In the fall (and anytime I have extra vegetation – right now am snipping off lilac blooms) I use my accumulated pots as mini composters, worm domiciles, motels and hotels – don’t need to do much except set them around in the garden with leaves in; the worms come up when they need to feed. By spring I have lovely new decomposed mulch, can add the depleted garden soil on top, set in my cardboard carton veggies and replace the entire penthouse apparatus out to grow when temperatures are right. I put the uncomposted green stuff on the bottom layer, then the partly composted, then lovely stuff on top with carton bottom cut off and set in.

        I’ve discovered it is best to put out these planters in contact with or a bit lower in the earth so the worms can come and go as they please. I’m strictly non-mechanized, just little getting very old me. This is not labor intensive though it takes time; fortunately I have that.

        Worms are the bees knees!

      2. Susan the other`

        Lambert, just looking at all my own possibilities here, I live on a natural, wooded hillside at 7000 ft. Aspen and white pine; scrub oak and chokecherry. The biggest benefit I can contribute is clover for the bees. So I’m going to do that shortly. But, over the long haul I’m wondering more and more if a little genetic engineering might help to grow food-per-household at high elevations. I’m not interested in building a greenhouse up here – it’s a losing battle with winter. But I’d like to see some botanists actually experiment with ice-age nut trees or some other plant creature. If they can resurrect a mastodon (elephant frankenstein) why not research an ancient food tree?

        1. Amfortas the hippie

          might look into the diet of folks like the Sami and Altai(thin pickins:
          or Mongolians.
          mostly meat, milk and butter, from what i remember of my anthroplogy studies, and a lot of berries. you and i probably don’t have the genes for it.
          and don’t give up on a greenhouse just yet…this particular lunatic was a big inspiration to me:
          rabbits and chickens and waterwalls to heat the greenhouse!
          coolness all around…and way outside the box.

  3. Janie

    Thank you, Lambert and Cal2. We have been using permaculture principles as we gradually convert our .7 acre place from grass, play area, ivy and Himalayan blackberries into a productive garden patch. It’s a work in process, with emphasis on “work”. We found a source for well composted horse manure and are using acid and clay adapted plants, as well as getting plants bred by Oregon State University. Quite satisfying…

    1. Cal2

      Awww shucks….thanks.

      “The only places where soils are conserved or increased [in your garden] are:
      ‘Where we grow plants with mulched or non-tillage systems.”

      I would add that it’s easier to work with nature, and do little, rather than working yourself to death.
      Avoid as much “work” as possible by never, ever, removing any carbon from your land.
      All grass, weed, blackberry, tree and other trimmings should remain on site. The exception might be the reproductive parts of an invasive or noxious plant.

      Besides your own kitchen, don’t forget the neighbors that go to all the trouble to rake up their leaves and clippings and then send them to a composting facility. IF, and only if, they spray nothing and there’s no plastic pollution or junk on their land, take their leaves and use them. Swap your empty green wheeled bin for their full one before collection.

      You want free carbon? Tree trimming companies have to pay a lot to dump a truckload of wood chips. Why not invite them to dump them on your land? Or, in your driveway for distribution on your land? Hardwood chips add more minerals to your soil than do softwood.

      Create a relationship with an independently owned tree company. Note that when the blades on wood chippers are freshly sharpened, they produce smaller, thinner chips that rot quicker. When blades are dull, big fat chips result, so the timing is important.

      Learn about seed saving. Gather native flower seeds and perennials that you like, mix them and any other insect encouraging or cover crop plant seeds in a gallon jug with some hardwood ash and Azomite, or Spiral Stone, two organic mineral supplement brand names, dump this on any bare land you have and scuff them in. Do nothing. Wait for the rains and the plants will grow.

      Here’s a great source for mail order organic green manure seeds in our neck of the woods.

      You probably have something closer.

      Finally, if you want to see where you, the Permaculture gardener, fit in the scope of history, and the importance of your work at a personal level, check out this magnificent free online book. It’s great for history students was well.

      Conquest of the land through seven thousand years
      Lowdermilk, W. C. United States. Soil Conservation Service

      1. Janie

        Good info. Thanks. Doing some of the things you suggest. Hadn’t thought of others. Wood chips are plentiful here in Oregon. Got about 10 yards waiting to be spread now. Inputs: fruit trees add a lot more than lettuce and spinach. Good reason to grow them.

  4. Terence Dodge

    Compatible or complimentary work by Allan Savory ( Holistic land management ) and Elaine Ingham PhD is an American microbiologist and soil biology researcher, their contributions to understanding soils and interactions of grazers ( cattle, goats, various antelopes, ETC ) and what is happening in your soils that feed your plants ( weeds, and preferred crops ) needs mentioning as Mollison work predated and did not have the subsequent research of Ingham and the decades of field experience of Savory first in Africa, then Texas several other states subsequently. Worth checking out.

  5. Brian Westva

    Thanks for the article. I first learned of permaculture here on this blog a few years ago. Thanks for writing about the topic. While we have a small lot in the city, I have managed to build a few hugelkulture beds by burying rotten wood conveniently left by the previous owners. I have scrounged rotten wood from my neighbor and also had a tree blow down which provided materials. I get some composted manure from a farmer nearby to provide a good start to the beds. I transplanted some rhubarb into one of the hugelkulture beds that grew exceedingly fast and they shaded out the intended crop of strawberries. I noticed today as I was gardening a chipmunk has taken up residence in another hugelkulture bed. I have unintentionally created good habit for it.

  6. KLG

    See also:

    The works of Wendell Berry, Wes Jackson, Gene Logsdon, David Kline are excellent. Each of these farmers follow Sir Albert Howard. And Herman Daly. More recently Michael Foley published Farming for the Long Haul: Resilience and the Art of Agricultural Inventiveness, which is outstanding.

    One other thing. In a recent thread here that I mostly missed due to travel, I got the (I hope mistaken) impression that local farming and permaculture were conflated with subsistence farming. Nothing could be further from the truth! Local farms can provide the food we need, and do it better in every way than industrial farms growing cows, pigs, chickens, and “commodity” crops. The land will be better, as will the people. But the market fundamentalism rendered unto us by neoliberalism must be slain first.

  7. oaf

    I am hoping for results of a study evaluating the effects of solar farm impact on soil microbes, and other life forms, in the formerly exposed; now shadowed areas…Has anyone looked into this?…It seems to me; that the *renewable* energy sources come with consequences which have not been fully evaluated.. Even if we locate them in areas that are generally regarded as wastelands; there may be significant impact on the micro flora/fauna.
    Likewise; one might anticipate changes arising from mass implementation of wind power; although that topic is not germane to this post. Will save that rant for later…


    1. Amfortas the hippie

      i haven’t read it yet, but this month’s Mother Earth has an article about just that subject.
      I would be inclined to treat the area under a solar array like any other shady spot. plant mint, or some other shade lover.

  8. John Zelnicker

    Lambert – As I have entered my 70th year on this planet, I have decided to completely rework my entire yard. I never have done much with the lawn I have, except cut it periodically to keep the city inspectors (and the neighbors) happy.

    In my front yard, with my daughter’s design skills, I am planning to plant fruit trees and bushes, along with various perennial flowers that will attract pollinators. I’m starting with a couple of pear trees and blueberry bushes. I’ll probably use a cherry tree to visually anchor one end of the yard, and fill in with the perennials. According to my daughter’s research, I can have flowers blooming during all months except about November through February (depending on temperature changes as winters are getting much, much milder).

    That’s the first step. My next step is to turn my side yard into a milkweed field for the monarch butterflies as we are directly in their migration path to Mexico.

    Also, I want to build a food forest in a corner of my yard. I have the overstory already and a bunch of blackberries covering most of that area that can be the ground level.

    Another part of my plans that I may be able to execute this year is to build a French postage stamp garden like my mother did 40 years ago. She had 100 sq. ft. surrounded by landscape timbers and produced more vegetables than she and my father could ever eat. She gave them to their neighbors, which is what I plan to do.

    All of these ideas are the result of reading your posts and comments about what you have done in your yard and the philosophy behind it.

    So, my deepest gratitude for what you have taught me.

    1. Cal2


      Great project.

      In my opinion and years of experience FWIW, start small or you may be overwhelmed by maintenance requirements. Protect your trees and plants from animals, while part of nature, they can quickly undo a lot of work. Hire strong backs. Don’t try and do it all yourself.

    2. Lambert Strether Post author

      > So, my deepest gratitude for what you have taught me.

      Thank you so much! But this is really a case of “standing on the shoulders of giants.” All I did was pass along information I learned from others. My own garden gives me enormous pleasure, and I have decided that is its central function!

    3. John Zelnicker

      @Cal2 and Lambert:

      Thank you both.

      Cal2, I’m moving slowly and have my daughter helping me. Part of my motivation is to have daily heart-healthy exercise as I have early symptoms of heart disease (I’m 69). We have the occasional raccoon or possum, and plenty of squirrels, but I don’t expect too many problems.

      Today we planted 2 pear trees and 2 blueberry bushes in the area I have set aside for a food forest.

      I’ve also ordered the cherry tree I mentioned above.

      The postage stamp vegetable garden is a project for next year.

      Lambert, I have only just started and I am already getting enormous pleasure from what has been accomplished so far. This is going to be a ton of fun.

  9. jdm

    I have lived on a little les than an acre for 39 years, planting arbor day trees, a few fruit trees, now three raised bed vegetable beds and some wildflower places. I have had a compost pile that I brought from my previous abode. We have moved to a warmer climate zone and now have a desert willow, which could not survive winters a decade or two ago. We have chickens eating all our kitchen compost and their manure goes into the compost piles when too many stalks need a good does of nitrogen. I have apricots and plums this year and it will be a large crop.

  10. Steve H.

    Cut down nonproducing trees to open up the sun, put wood in soil, salivation at turning red clay to black soil which swells up a half-foot when it gets wet. Black raspberries suddenly exploded three years after planting, getting meals from the yard. Yard is low spot on the block, so the north edge is where the foodstuffs are grown with water from my property only, while the rest of the block drains into the southwest corner, where I’m coppicing. (I’ve got a metal rocket stove rated for indoor use.)

    Favorite tool lately has been a post-hole digger, for drainage spots, to put in logs for hugels, and to drop in seedlings. I use tarps and black plastic sheeting to weed with little work. Loves my perlite. Trying biochar.

    1. Janie

      Biochar: making it? Buying it? It’s expensive. I’d be interested in your experience.

      1. The Rev Kev

        Not sure how you downloaded that pdf but if you scroll down that page, on the right you will see this book in different formats including that of a pdf file. From there it is a simple matter of right-click and clicking ‘Save link as’. It is 85.6 mbs in size.

  11. clarky90

    Permaculture is the counterpoint to the geo-engineering Satanic (IMO) madness.

    I have followed the 737 Max debacle. The genesis of this unfolding “teaching moment”, begins with the need to have more fuel efficient jet engines., to Save Mother Earth (?). So Boeing decided to….

    I am inundated with shouts of; (1) vegan, (2) electric cars/trucks (3) triple glazing (4) The Internet of Things (5) “eco-jets (727 Max) (6) giant CO2 sequestering factories…. all inane and ineffectual (IMO) responses to The End Of The World.

    Please, MSM (earn your keep for once) and go on and on…. about permaculture. Permaculture is an actual, inexpensive, no tech solution, that we can all participate in, today. My house is rented; but the front, side, back and street bern are all, permaculture. My landlord supports the idea. My neighbor and I are planting out forgotten roadside. The council grass-cutting gang just leave it alone, because it just looks like the trees and bushes are supposed to be there. (They are!)

    I have reverted to my Southern Ohio Mound Builder roots (I have a Mingo ancestor). I build mounds everywhere on the lot, with vegetative detritus.

    Hügelkultur (I learned about at NC! Thanks Lambert)

  12. Amfortas the hippie

    when i first arrived out here, around 25 years ago…mom and stepdad had sort of unconsciously doubled down on the errors of previous occupants, going back more than a century. cotton farming, then overgrazing. stepdad’s a paraplegic vietnam vet who grew up on a working dairy farm….so entertainment cows were the first thing they did.
    20 acres, and 6 cows…front and back pastures periodically tilled and fertilised and planted with “hay grazer”. …and the 5 acres that became my domain, split evenly by the damned county road, had been bulldozed of mesquite and cactus(and topsoil).
    I had my place fenced pretty quick(altho the cows were jumpers and fence ignorers. i despise cows) and started collecting grass and wildflower seed from the side of the roads and from a couple of the neighbor’s perennial pastures.
    mom kept mowing my “across the road”, so one day, I strung random old wire all through my little pasture, and informed the tractor man of it. he’s refused to mow my place ever since,lol.
    I started there with wilmann lovegrass primarily…it was easiest to pick in great quantities, and is known as a soil builder and soil holder.
    i’ve been adding all manner of native and may-as-well-be-native grass and flower and herbs ever since…about 23 years worth.
    black driplines along winding paths, and grapevines and various trees. the paths are all that’s been mowed.
    what was thin, dusty sandy loam(with emphasis on sand), where only stickerburrs and poverty weeds grew, is now 6″+ of rich, black, spongy dirt…teeming with life.
    i’ve counted more than 100 kinds of plant in this patch, and the lovegrass is giving way to a sort of meadow(natural succession).earthworms abound(the skinny natives)…and during our last 2 years of biblical grasshopper invasion, this patch…while it had hoppers, was more resilient than everywhere else.
    all i did was string wire to prevent mowing, and scatter seed.
    this 3 acres is the most lush and vibrant patch of ground in the county, as near as i can tell.
    and since my anticow lobbying finally paid off, some 15 years ago, I’ve done the same thing with the front and back pastures(with 4 years now of composting toilet deposits where trees will eventually go)…mom no longer plows these, but she still has it mowed…this year, at exactly the wrong time: spreading a 20 sq foot patch of johnsongrass all over, and scattering a couple of spots of the big, brown cuckleburrs…both i will have to deal with,lol.
    I won’t let her forget it, either….insisting that i must be consulted before any such action.

    I’ve finally convinced her to allow(and pay for) pipe to front and back, for gravity fed drip lines for trees….from oaks to pecans to agerita and even mesquite(a very useful plant!)…as well as grapes and pomegranate.
    and my efforts with grass have been so successful that i am compelled to obtain sheep(i hate goats,lol, and can’t handle larger grazers).
    so permaculture works….as does just leaving things alone, while helping the natives return.
    my “across-the-road” patch is proof of concept, and i’m convinced that this is a viable path forward…both for food provision as well as for environmental remediation/restoration.

    1. Cal2

      “I strung random old wire all through my little pasture, and informed the tractor man of it. he’s refused to mow my place ever since…”

      Or, one could just warn the mower man of it and not bother with the wire….
      “Warning: Lose barbed wire in weeds”

      Amfortas, research seedballs. With a wrist rocket slingshot you can “plant” seeds of useful/native/insectary plants way up a freeway embankment or onto land you look at everyday that might not be easily accessible.

      1. Amfortas the hippie

        that wire is long gone, now…rolled up and made into things(or buried around fruit trees to leaven our native iron deficiency)….but the myth of it is something i maintain assiduously.
        i still marvel that i had to resort to such tactics.
        as for seedballs…i did those initially, front and back, since those endeavors were guerilla gardening(mom has a very hard head, but mine is considerably harder…but again, how crazy is that?), and the soil was terribly depleted…so the seedballs were necessary to have something to plant in.
        i hear tell it works well with weed, too,lol.

  13. Peter

    of looking at systems in all their functions, rather than asking only one yield of them; and of allowing systems to demonstrate their own evolutions.

    I have absolutely no idea what that means in the context of food production with specific crops.

    Soil science concentrates very much on what is there (classifications), but not on how to evolve soil.

    That is NOT what I learned as an agricultural engineer in Germant in the mid 1970’s, Technical university of Mainz.
    At the time the stress lwas very much exactly NOT on fertilizers, fertilizers were meant to be a soil additive to substitute for some lack of specific nutrients, the emphasise was on soil improvement by compost, crop rotation including “green” fertilizers like beans oan other legumes and of course manure from pigs, cows, fowl.

    Our Highschool stressed very much the concept of crop rotation, preventing soil erosion and keeping and upgrading the humus level. balaned soil structure between the organic and inorganic mineral levels was a goal to strive for.

    Those concepts have gone completely by the wayside because more powerfull commercial lobbie from the agr industrie steeresd the EU away from the family farm concept to an agro business concept, with fatatl results for soil and water.

  14. Stanley Dundee

    Thanks, Cal2 and Lambert, for calling attention to the public domain availability of Mollison’s founding document, which is rare and expensive in print.

    I undertook a modest permaculture project (although I didn’t know it by that name) about 8 years ago in my suburban New Jersey backyard, planting apple trees, blueberry bushes, asparagus, hops, various herbs and flowers, as well as annual crops. Lacking fencing I have met with severe pest depradations so I’ve concentrated on the handful of crops the deer, woodchucks, rabbits, racoons, etc. don’t much enjoy: garlic, eggplant, potatos, hot peppers, fava beans, basil, arugula, etc.

    I use multiple compost streams: a kitchen stream in a rotating bin, garden waste in bins, and fallen leaves, of which I scrounge the neighbors when they are blown out into the street for pickup in the fall. Also I recycle xmas trees in January to mulch the blueberries! My soil has gome from sad red clay to black loam about a foot deep. Probably a ton or more of carbon capture, almost all of produced or collected onsite or nearby. I also use various cover crops.

    Although the yields are modest the garden itself is a source of endless delight and I spend as much time out there as I can spare. I started using a wheel hoe for cultivation about two years ago, and I am no longer troubled by weeds. I was originally inspired by Fukuoka’s One Straw Revolution and the early writing of John Michael Greer (the Archdruid Reports). Also have found Sepp Holzer’s books and videos very inspiriational for permaculture. And Elliot Coleman has a great philosophy and his books are extremely useful. And Carol Deppe, also well worth reading. Logsden has already been mentioned upthread.

    Finally, I would reiterate that well managed rotationally grazed pasture in permanent grass and legumes is another very effective carbon sink and produces the finest of food with animals doing most of the work. E.g. Dougherty, The Independent Farmstead. Bon apetit!

  15. Eclair

    My spouse and his brother inherited three acres plus house and multiple outbuildings from their parents, here in Chautauqua County, NY. About two acres are in lawn and one acre in rather scraggly woods.

    About five years ago, I bought a copy of Sepp Holzer’s book on permaculture; his farm is at altitude in the Austrian Alps, so not a good fit for here, but that is where I first learned about hugelkultur. I am a big fan, since my brother-in-law cut and dumped a small forest-worth of wood for burning (and then disabled the big outdoor wood furnace,) almost 15 years ago. Some of the stumps are almost three feet across, and are not going to be moved, so will rot in place, but I have been spreading about the smaller pieces and constructing berms.

    I planted seven twiggish fruit trees in 2015; they all died, from ‘wet feet.’ My attempt at an asparagus bed last year has been a soggy disaster. From what I can learn, this part of NY state is becoming wetter … I think of Lake Erie and Lake Chautauqua (a puddle by comparison to Erie) as sort of seeping up from underneath. Then, too, there are the days and days of clouds and precipitation.

    So, I have moved on to berries: raspberries, blackberries, currants, gooseberries, blueberries, and most recently, cranberries! If we are going to live in a bog, let it be a cranberry bog! All must be protected from the predatory deer.

    And, speaking of deer, I am learning by experience (and a Cornell Extension website) which plants do not tempt the voracious appetites of deer. They avoid bee balm; but pollinators and hummingbirds love it and the stuff spreads by runners, so I have divided the main plant and installed about about six new plants around the place.

    And, a small victory this week: I have finally persuaded my spouse NOT to mow strategically placed and eye-catching ovals of lawn, which we will let go to ‘meadow.’ This may be a disaster too, but we can grow grass and wildflowers here. No watering needed, ever.

    1. Amfortas the hippie

      ^^^”… so I have divided the main plant and installed about about six new plants around the place….”^^^
      first time i’ve seen this mentioned in one of these threads.
      division and cuttings works for all sorts of plants…from figs and grapes, to lavender and blackberries. it’s a money saver.
      i make an attempt to begin with plants from a variety of sources…for genetic variation(this has become difficult, as a big nursury(bonnie) has been trying to monopolise the bedding plant market… a local, idealist mom and pop nursury is a resource to be protected and patronised and cherished.)
      and i’m unsure how i feel about rooting hormones, now…having never given it a second thought before.
      …but they certainly help in this endeavor.
      i’ve got pots pots pots, filled with , variously, mulch, sand,or regular old dirt(depending on the plant), with rooted cuttings(and seedlings from my seed collecting habits), sitting bunched under trees all over the place.
      novices take note….turn one plant into 20.
      give some to your neighbors.

  16. William Hunter Duncan

    I have 30 fruit trees and 200 species of plants on my 1/6th acre in south Minneapolis. I turn about 20 cubic yards of wood chips into soil each year. The garden right now is at peak fruit tree bloom, smelling of plum, pear, apple, cherry and elderberry blossoms. An older fellow stopped on his walk the other day and said, “I’ve never known anyone who works as hard as you do, you have a great….place here.” He wasn’t sure what to call the garden, which is what I call the entire lot. Also, a sanctuary. I could not live in the city if not for this.

    When I started this process 10 years ago, I was an outlier, and I have paid many thousands of dollars in fines to the city and county because many of my neighbors saw not the order of nature but the collapse of society in my garden. I am convinced that some of my neighbors, feeling otherwise helpless in the context of economics or politics, would latch onto my project as something they could do something about. I suspect the city gets a hundred calls a year, and consequently I have received on average nine letters from the city every year, demanding I do this or that. Last year I received my usual 3 Fall letters, I thought I had done what they asked, I had been communicating with the inspector, but he sent in a contract crew with a lawn mower and hedge clippers and mowed most of the wildflowers on the boulevard, and hacked up several of my fruit trees on my (supposed) property.

    Of course there is no venue for my neighbors to call, to praise what I am doing here. City gov only hears and acts on complaints. I am resolved to do better about keeping the sidewalk clear, and I am hopeful social norms are changing enough that I will not continue to be harassed this way. However it is still early spring and I am anticipating my 3 Spring letters any time now. I’m certain one will demand I remove all my shitake mushroom spore logs.

  17. Peter

    Being gardeners ourselves, producing and trying to produce our own vegetables, plums, oranges, bananas, apples, guava etc. to a large extend or source them from the neighbours gardens we also raise chicken and ducks utilizing that manure and produce compost of course for soil improvement.

    We also plant according which plants grown in close proximity protect each other against pests and even diseases, and also improve the soil quality for each other – concepts long known in Europe.

    Permaculture seems to me not much more than hyped good gardening practises developed in Europe – the UK and maybe Germany especially with a dose of spirituality.

  18. PKMKII

    Two observations on permaculture: I grew up in a state that, while my particular corner didn’t have much agriculture, has a large agricultural sector. So we got subjected to a lot of educational material in school, per state policies, about the importance of farming and its techniques. Now this material, like the rest of it per this red state’s skimping on public investment attitude, was rather old. So the emphasis was on proper sustainable practices, likely written by someone with living memory of the dust bowl, that a good farm would have four plots, three of them would have a variety of crops similar to the others on the plot, and the third was keep empty so that the soil could be renewed. Every few years, rotate. This was in sharp contrast to the reality of farming in the state, which was all forced farming of cash crops, mostly corn and soybean.

    Other observation: I am interested in permaculture, however, I have a typical NYC outer borough lawn. Which is to say, a glorified flower pot. It’s about 7 feet by 12 feet. Is there any sort of permacultural practices that are applicable to a lawn of that minuscule size? Or is it just a waste of effort and time to attempt such?

  19. mauisurfer

    I have been homesteading/farming for 50 years on Maui. A few years ago I got sheep which has eliminated my need to constantly mow my orchard, and also provided free fertilizer. And my geese are now reproducing with little/no help. My compost pile is hardly used, only for what the sheep will not eat. I sell dried bananas, and feed the peels to my sheep.
    The best books I have read are
    Sir Albert Howard, An Agricultural Testament
    Howard worked in India, so his tropical experience was very relevant for me, more so
    than later work by Rodale which applied Howard’s thesis and methods to Pennsylvania.
    E.g., guavas grow well in heavy African grasses such as Kikuyu, whereas other fruit trees need help.
    F.H. King, Farmers of 40 Centuries
    About China, Japan, Korea. My favorite pictures: a family going to their small field to work, with a goat and a donkey; and a fishpond along a dirt trail/road with an attractive outhouse to encourage passers by to contribute.

Comments are closed.