Every Wednesday at 7PM Central Standard Time, I do a live show on the YouTube platform. Typically, I have a good idea what the topic of the show will be within 6 days of show time, and by the time the clock counts down to the last minute I know what I want to say, if not exactly how I'm going to say it - doing a show live really has an organic feel to it. People can ask questions during a presentation, or ideas can come to the surface that one hadn't considered until just that moment. Today is Monday, it is 5:45 in the morning, and I have no idea what I am going to say 63 hours from now.
I know what the topic is going to be - I knew what we needed to discuss from about mid-way through last week's show: Permaculture design principles. I decided on this topic because a viewer had some questions regarding swales, mounds, and Keyline design; these are all details that may or may not be important in any given site, and I wanted to address the general principle first, before delving into specifics. By way of disclaimer, I have never attended a permaculture design lecture, and I have not purchased a piece of paper from those people who sell pieces of paper in order to convince anyone else that I know anything at all about permaculture .. in all fairness, none of the certified teachers of permaculture has ever come to me seeking a piece of paper with my approval for them to teach whatever it is that they teach and it hasn't seemed to harm their credibility, either.
I grew up on one of the many farms where the solutions to soil erosion and water management were developed - the earth works and tree belts had been established from 1934-44, and the farm was worked by my grandfather for another twenty years or so before he retired. At the time we moved back on to the old farm in 1977, all of those basic changes were still plainly visible, and I spent many hours observing how the water moved through the landscape. Grandmother had built a small perennial garden beside the barn where the equipment was stored, the produce was washed and prepared to either be sold out of the front of the barn, or loaded up and trucked into the markets in the city. The garden ran down a slope facing East, with a large tree on the West side that provided shade during the hottest hours of the day. Three large pools held goldfish and aquatic plants - no pumps, no filters, just one pool draining off into the next, with lateral depressions to spread the overflow evenly across the rest of the space. All around were hyacinths, violets, Irises and Day Lillies. Nothing was fertilized, nothing was watered, nothing was weeded. The fish were never fed, and for decades, that little ecosystem sustained itself. It turns out, Grandpa wasn't the genius permaculture designer in the family: Grandma was, and she taught me as much as I was willing to learn at the time. My younger self was more interested in going fishing than hanging around for plant propagation lessons, for example. Its a shame, because that lady could get ANYTHING to root.
Nearly nine years ago, my daughter came to live with me .. it was part of the agreement her mother and I had: She would spend her childhood years with her mom, and I would take over to guide her from being a teenager to adulthood. This involved a lot of training on independence, and one of the most important aspects of being independent is knowing how to protect one's self. So, in addition to learning to wash her own clothes and dishes, prepare her own meals, and pursue her continuing education in the fields of study that interest her, she began her training in martial arts. She eventually started to take lessons from my own sensei's principle student, but to get started, I outlined 5 principles for her - and I feel that these have some relationship with permaculture design, so today, we are going to have a basic introduction course to Qi Gong - not a combat martial art form, not even a martial art, properly, but a means of understanding the flow of energy through a dynamic system, that has many applications. The short form of these 5 principles is: Breathing, Balance, Observation, Choice, and Conservation.
Now although I listed Observation as the third principle, it is the one that we actually start with, and return to over and over again. For self defense purposes, it is important to develop the skill of instantly observing as much as possible when entering into a new situation: Where are the potential exits, what are the potential threats, who or what might be a potential ally, what could be used as a weapon. The analogue for permaculture design is in making your initial observations when coming onto a new site: What is the climate like, how much annual rainfall and when does it fall, how well does it infiltrate the soil, what are the first and last frost dates, and what average temperatures can be expected month to month, what type or types of soil are present, what are the native plant and animal species, and what other resources does the site offer?
There was a time that I worked in the cooperate world as a troubleshooter: I would come into a business and spend the first week or two observing how it operated, take inventories, and identify places where the culture of the business might be deficient. One might be surprised to discover that in many cases where an operation is not returning profits as expected, the bulk of the problems stem from poor inventory controls. In short, if one does not know what resources one has, it is impossible to utilize them efficiently. This applies to human resources as well as materials, and it relates to permaculture design as well: when a person, plant, or animal is fulfilling the role that they are best suited for, they prosper, require less hands-on management, and the system as a whole prospers.
All interactions involve the exchange of energy, either transferring from one to another, or changing from potential to kinetic, or kinetic to potential. Everywhere you look, if something is happening, you are seeing energy in motion. Take a deep breath, and exhale. What just happened? You have taken in oxygen from the atmosphere, bonded it with the hemoglobin in your bloodstream, and exchanged that oxygen for some of the carbon dioxide that your cells produced as they utilized oxygen to convert sugars into energy. On the other side of this exchange there is a plant that is taking in carbon dioxide, and using water and energy derived from sunlight to create starches and sugars .. ultimately, the source of the sugars that you need to produce energy. Energy is being captured, converted, and exchanged, and the unit of currency for this exchange is carbon.
All life on planet Earth, indeed all life as we know it is dependent upon this constant cycling of carbon. The more carbon present being cycled, the more diversity and quantity of life there is, the less carbon cycling, the less life there is. There are places on Earth where very little carbon cycling is occurring .. we call these places 'deserts'. There is a misconception making the rounds today that growing trees and other perennials will somehow 'sequester' carbon, locking it up in organic material within the soil. This is not entirely accurate. By growing perennials and building soil organic matter, we are cycling carbon, adding to the diversity, quantity, and quality of life. The only true carbon sequestration that I am aware of is when carbon atoms are organized into tight crystalline forms that are difficult or impossible to then decompose through any normal means. Diamonds are an example of sequestered carbon. Now: Apply observation to the 'breath' of your site. How does energy move through it, where are there problems with the cycling of carbon in the system? What elements of design might be used to improve or enhance the movement of energy?
Somewhere beneath your navel, between the width of two fingers and the width of your hand is your center of gravity. It tends to be lower for women than it does for men. Move your body about, but do not move your center of gravity .. you will notice that there are limits to how far one can reach or bend this way .. go too far, and one MUST move their center, or become unbalanced, and fall. Success in employing techniques in Judo, Jiujitsu, Aikido, and Goju-ryu all depend upon a keen awareness of one's center of gravity. Combining breathing with balance, breath in deeply, then extend your lower abdomen. You will find that it is now possible to draw in even more air than before. More air equates to more complete oxygenation of the bloodstream, more complete exchange of carbon, and you will also become more and more consciously aware of your center of gravity. In qi gong, this center is called the Dan tien.
Nature is constantly working to achieve a balance of her own .. Too much of any one thing in a system will inevitably result in problems: Pests are attracted to large amounts of the same plant, diseases spread easily to neighboring plants of the same genus, too many of the same type of plant might even lead to a depletion of one or more nutrients, leaving them open for even more misfortune. Compaction in soils and mineral deficiencies are an invitation to 'weeds', which are really there simply to help correct these problems - nature is trying to achieve a balance. If a resource is going to be taken out of the system, it needs to be added back in .. either by your own conscious design choices, or by the indifferent hand of nature as she does her work.
Balance in a permaculture system is also important architecturally: Just as the Dan tien is the energetic center of the body, all dynamic systems have an energetic center; a point where all energy flows in or out from. What this center looks like in your application will depend on many factors .. it could be a large water catchment that supplies numerous other irrigation features, the position of a home, for a small farm or homestead, or even a staging area for workers to gather the harvest from the site. It may not necessarily be at the physical center of the site, but keep in mind that the more disconnected from the energetic center, the more difficult it will be for an individual element to remain in balance. Combining 'breathing' with 'balance' Consider how work is to be accomplished on the site, how energy will flow through it. For small sites, like a home garden, it may be just fine to have narrow paths and closely spaced plantings: a lot of production can be packed into a small space. For larger projects where machinery will be needed, pathways will need to be designed that can accommodate the machinery, and if that machinery is going to be stored or maintained on site, infrastructure will be needed for it.
This brings us back to observation again, as we see how energy, water, and various other elements move through the system and interact with each other. The paths that animals and humans take to interact with the elements of the site will suggest the ideal places to lay paths .. planners at the University of Michigan, for example chose to NOT lay sidewalks, instead permitting the students and faculty to establish the routes that they preferred to take when traveling the campus. Which is a more efficient use of resources - design pathways and then attempt to fit elements into the pattern, or permit the natural flow of energy through the site to inform you where major elements should be, and then design the paths afterwards? Another example of designing from the general to the specific might be placing elements that will require a lot of daily attention along those pathways. Day lilies, asparagus, and strawberries are all great things to have planted along paths, as they are examples of vegetables that require daily harvesting during the weeks that they are in production.
A permaculture system will be self sustaining, with excesses returned back into the energy flow of the system - but it is rarely a completely closed system. Inputs coming from outside of a system passively include rainfall, water from an upslope watershed, sunlight, and atmospheric carbon. When resources are properly balanced, surpluses may be output in the form of food, fibers, medicines and timber without threatening the integrity of the system. Sometimes, potentially marketable products emerge as a happy byproduct of other functions. For example, we have Alnus Glutinosa (European Alders) as a biomass generator and bridge species between fruiting perennials and nut-bearing perennials, and Galanthus (wintergreen) as a ground cover and companion for the blueberry bushes. Combining oil of wintergreen and a powdered extract from the bark of the alder, we can make an organically grown, %100 renewable toothpaste as a byproduct. Forestry products, stacking functions .. and those blueberries? Growing in the shade.
Choose your battles - that's some good advice, not only from a self defense standpoint, but for designing a dynamic system as well. My daughter learned to observe, to be aware of developing situations, to accurately assess her own abilities, and make choices. This requires some flexibility, to be able to decide when, where, or even if one is going to do battle. It might not be what you want to do, but exercising the ability to choose ensures that one is only fighting battles that one can win. So, how does this advice factor into permaculture design? Go back to your first observations. If one is wanting to grow something like avocados for example, and the climate is relatively arid, with poor water infiltration, things aren't going to work out well, at least at first - with proper management, even a seemingly unsuitable site can be guided to the point where it might be possible to grow a water-hungry crop like avocados.
What will it take to grow those hypothetical avocados in what is essentially a desert climate? Well, you could begin with your water management strategies: set up catchment and swales up slope to maximize water concentration where you want those trees to grow, build soil organic matter by planting in succession, establish wind breaks and shade to further protect that soil as it builds, and eventually, one can plant a few avocados .. most likely not enough to be a major export, but it is certainly possible to bring the site to a point where some might be grown for personal use. Here is another example: I want to grow Cornus Canadensis (creeping dogwood, or bunchberry) as an herbaceous groundcover, but it is a zone 6 perennial, and I'm in zone 7a .. it should be able to handle the winters, but the summers are going to be very hard on it up until I have built a microclimate that will protect the plants from the heat .. Good shade from canopy and understory trees, some smaller perennials contributing to the umbra, an aquatic component within the immediate vicinity to lend some additional cooling, and the bunchberries should thrive.
For years now, I have been saying "Don't spend the effort to do one thing, if you can do two or more things at the same time" This is an example of the fifth principle, conservation of energy. In permaculture terms, this equates to stacking functions. What is a good example of this? Well, I personally like the idea of planting Dutch white clover in all walkways. As a ground cover layer, it helps prevent soil loss to erosion, maintains and extends mycorrhizal associations with plants on either side of the walk, looks attractive and feels nice on the feet, forms associations with beneficial bacteria to form nitrogen nodules on its roots that drop off as the above ground foliage is disturbed by walking on it, thus fertilizing the adjacent plants. Its flowers, in addition to being edible also attract pollinators, errant rabbits would prefer to eat it rather than most other vegetable crops, it can be cut back to provide an additional boost of nitrogen for composting, used as fodder or graze for most animals, grows reasonably well in the shade, so it outcompetes most grasses there, and as a perennial, I only have to establish it once.
So on your way up to the water catchment to release a little irrigation water to your crops, you can bring your basket with you to harvest some fresh vegetables from the side of your clover covered walkway, stop for a moment to pull your chicken tractor just a little farther down the slope, turn the valve to release that water that has fish dung in it to both water and fertilize your crops, check the passive fish trap for the biggest of the fish that are in there, and turn the rest loose in the pond again, close the valve, walk back down slope towards the chicken tractor, gathering more fresh veggies as you go, collect the eggs, toss some extra fodder in for the birds, and finish your walk back at the house with a day's worth of food, and all of that work done. That is conservation of energy, that is efficiency, stacking functions, and that is permaculture. Now, who wants to see a visual demonstration of what swales and key lines look like?
OK! Here we have a dry hillside. This looks like winter to me, but if you look at this landscape, you shouldn't have any trouble seeing how the water is going to move. Down off of the Main and primary ridges, into the valleys, collecting down there in the main valley, leaving everything else dry unless it infiltrates quick .. and it looks like it doesn't. Notice the soil has washed down onto the road a bit .. If I had to take a guess, I would say that whoever owns this piece of dirt raises cattle, and they are farming thousands of acres for not much protein. This land could definitely be better utilized.
Here is an example of swales .. essentially, these are ditches dug on contour with the land, with the excess laid out downslope in a berm. This is the way my grandfather would have done it, and although it is an improvement, this particular landscape could be improved more. Swales are more effective on land with a much more gentle slope. In this example, although there will be some water infiltration, the primary ridges are going to remain a bit dry. The smart thing to do, even with swales like this is to stabilize that landscape by planting a hedge all along that berm .. leave enough room between the swales to make a pass or two with your tractor, and you can alley crop between those hedges.
This is where Percival Yeomans improved on my grandfather's ideas. By beginning the irrigation ditch at the point where the primary ridges begin to turn from concave to convex (becoming primary valleys) and running those ditches downhill, the water is encouraged to move out to the crest of the primary ridges, at a lower elevation. This spreads water across the entire landscape. Installing dams just below the Keylines would provide additional water retention, a habitat for fish, frogs, aquatic plants, water loving perennials, ect. ect. In Grandpa's defense, Conrad farms was built on a much more gentle grade: Swales and tree belts were all that were needed there.