is permaculture really for me?

“What’s your plan for the land?”

I really liked Zev, the permaculture designer I’d hired for a consultation, but he kept asking hard questions. As I looked around us, the immensity of the land — the towering trees, the enfolding ridges, the tangled clearing running along the west edge of the tractor road — intimidated me.

What, indeed, was my plan?

I’d first heard of permaculture years ago, but the term percolated somewhere in the background, never really surfacing during my decision-making process as a goal, per se. I knew it had something to do with living close to the land. Beyond that, I knew very little. It wasn’t until my realtor, Pat, presented me with the permaculture design document created for the previous owner — encompassing both the land I purchased and the 52 acres across the road — that I began to get an inkling it was more expansive and interesting than I initially thought.

what is permaculture?

In a nutshell: The word permaculture was coined in 1978 and, according to Wikipedia, “originally referred to ‘permanent agriculture,’ but was expanded to stand also for ‘permanent culture,’ as it was understood that social aspects were integral to a truly sustainable system.” The permanent part referred to sustainability, which was the part with which I connected: a system for sustainable living, i.e. growing or foraging one’s own food, producing one’s own power, and minimizing waste.

Definitions apparently vary. Well, ok, mine varied from the accepted definition. We’ll get to that in a minute.

the sustainability element

What I loved about the idea of permaculture was its focus on optimizing the relationships among the parts of the design in order to minimize consumption, waste, and human effort. Sustainability at this level requires not only planning and intentional design, but also thoughtful observation of and interaction with the existing ecosystem before making changes to it. The idea is to work with the environment, rather than impose artificial systems to control or even replace it (as in clear-cutting a forest and replacing it with rows of neatly-planted, high-maintenance monocultures, such as corn or soybeans).

So, for instance, observing how healthy forests grow inspired the design of “edible forests,” which layer crops to mimic their natural counterparts, with a canopy layer (tall trees), an understory (trees tolerating some shade), an understory (shrubs), herbaceous plants (annuals and perennials), groundcovers, roots and fungi (e.g. potatoes and mushrooms), and climbers (vines). Each layer produces food or medicine, or supports and nourishes the plants around it, just as it does in a natural forest.

Planting in “guilds,” or groups of plants that provide mutual support, as in the mimosa example in an earlier post, reduces the amount of effort required to maintain them. Some plants also reduce pest damage and nourish the soil with minerals needed by others.

Planting in spirals is another common strategy.  (Photo taken at the NC Arboretum.)

Planting on berms of buried tree limbs and other compostable biomass conserves water. The rotting trees beneath the berms, called Hügelkulture — translating to “hill culture” or “hill mound” — absorb and retain water during wet periods, making it available to plant roots during dry seasons and reducing or eliminating the need to water. Small retention ponds strategically placed along the contours of the mounds, called swales, also collect water and can be used to filter waste. By arranging the whole system into “zones” — concentric circles, with the home in the center and radiating outward from plants and animals requiring the most attention to the ones requiring the least — human effort is also reduced.

Just as this description has been reduced, radically. Really, it’s fascinating stuff and worth reading about.

But, amidst all my excitement about living lightly on the land and designing sustainable systems, I kinda missed an important bit.

so…wait. people need to live here with me?

Zev offered great ideas about cisterns and solar power and edible forests. I was taking lots of notes and lost in thought when he casually asked, “So, how many people will be living here with you?”

“I’m unattached,” I replied absently, “but that might not always be the case, so maybe one or two other people.”

Zev’s pause stretched a little longer than one might consider normal, so I glanced up to see him regarding me intently with a small wrinkle between his brows and a slight frown tugging at the corners of his mouth.

“Denise,” he began carefully, “one of the main tenets of permaculture is community. If you’re designing a permaculture, you’ll have people living on the land with you, to share in the work and the rewards. Family is just the first layer. Generally, there’s more than one family unit living together in cooperation and collaboration.”

Here?!” I asked, dumbfounded, the tiny introvert living in my chest sucking a lungful of air to convert into a first-class, B-movie scream. “Actually on this land? Like, in yurts of their own?” Suddenly, my intimidating 11.61 acres shrank to the size of a postage stamp.

“Ye-e-e-s-s-s,” Zev answered carefully, sensing the potential for hysteria. “You’d be building a micro-culture, a small, interdependent group of people.”

I quickly clamped a hand over the tiny introvert’s gaping mouth and asked, “Couldn’t my community be my neighbors? And, y’know, live out there?” My arm swept a wide arc, describing — and firmly placing a boundary around — the surrounding mountainsides.

“Without an on-site community, you don’t have a permaculture,” Zev replied, squinting his eyes a little as though he were weighing and measuring me — and finding me lacking.

Cistern attached to gutters on a garden building
Rainwater collection nourishes gardens during dry spells. (Photo taken at the NC Arboretum.)

That “permanent culture” part of the definition of permaculture, or the “social aspects…integral to a truly sustainable system” seemed to have escaped my notice as I focused on the agricultural and self-reliance aspects.


Purist! muttered the tiny introvert, through my fingers, and I increased the pressure over her mouth.

the big question: what do you hope to achieve here?

Feeling a bit rattled by the implications of what he’d imparted, I waved goodbye to Zev as he drove away, promising to send me a proposal in a few weeks. I’d learned a lot. Perhaps the most valuable contribution Zev made during his tour of my land was asking the simple, yet profound question:

What do you hope to achieve here?

Although I haven’t yet answered it for myself, I have been forced to face a few truths:

  • I’d planned to live in solitude, in the hopes I would be able to focus on my writing.
  • On some level, buying the land represented creating a kind of haven — perhaps even a cocoon — for myself and for those temporary visitors who wandered onto it to stay for a (short) while.
  • I wanted to leave as much of the land untouched as possible, preserving its natural beauty.
  • All of these truths of mine run counter to true permaculture.

So, if I wasn’t designing a permaculture, what did I plan to create? A homestead? A hobby farm? A primitive bed-and-breakfast?

The tiny introvert and I have a lot of thinking to do.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Lowell Rinker says:

    OK….this post was really interesting…it falls into the category of me getting educated. Wow!….who knew? Can’t wait to see what you decide to do with this new info.


    1. Denise says:

      Me neither! (The tiny introvert and I are still hashing it out. She’s feeling kinda cranky, so I’m sliding tea under her door and giving her some space.)


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