Sepp Holzer’s Permaculture – a Review

by Harry Byrne Wykman

Sepp Holzer’s Permaculture is the work of a man of unique sensitivity and imagination. Holzer has combined a lifetime of practical experience with clarity of expression and intellect to produce a book which will satisfy a practically-minded farmer or gardener as well as the student of agroecological design. With gentle strength, Holzer would make designers and practitioners of us all and entrust to us neither task unless we join him in the school of nature.

He makes us want to join him in that school. He describes the techniques of what he calls "Holzer Permaculture" with surety born of concrete success and the observation of ecological health but without the urgency of someone trying to convince us that he is right. Any urgency the work possesses beckons us to join with the author in the "joy of cultivation" which comes from working together with nature.

The Krameterhof, the Holzer family’s land and home, is one of the most compelling examples of the application of permaculture principles. Holzer writes that:

With a little ingenuity it is possible to apply permaculture principles anywhere.

The Krameterhof is a fine example of the application of these principles to an alpine climate.
My principle criticism of the book (and let it be drowned in a clamour of praise) is the potential for some of the techniques described to be transferred to inappropriate contexts. Though I am sure that the author intends to describe the techniques which have worked for him — techniques which must be altered or abandoned in other climates — the tone sometimes makes this easy to forget. The author sometimes appears to refer to ‘Holzer Permaculture’ as a set of techniques rather than as the set of design principles which he sets out early in the book.

The techniques Holzer describes are impressive examples of what can come of long observation of natural systems and continuous and sensitive experimentation. Some of these techniques include:

  • terraces, paths and humus storage ditches
  • raised beds (like none you’ve likely to have heard of before)
  • ponds and ‘waterscapes’
  • plant polycultures and green manuring
  • keeping livestock
  • earth building
  • intensive kitchen and vegetable gardens, fruit trees mushroom cultivation.

Each of these is described clearly, with reference to other parts of the system and as a part of an evolving process which begins with sensitive earthworks and broadscale soil improvement. If you recognise some of the techniques in the above list you may be misled to think that this book is not worth reading. You almost certainly do not know about them as Sepp Holzer practices them.

As I came to the close of the book, I was struck by the picture which had grown up of Holzer’s imaginative power. He begins the work with a story of his first garden experiments on a marginal piece of rocky land inhabited by snakes, too far away to irrigate by hand. Some of the things he learns from working with this piece of land are impressive even to his mother, a very experienced gardener. She says, however, that she is unable to use Sepp’s methods because of what the neighbours will think — her garden will appear ‘untidy’. From this time until now, Sepp Holzer has had not only the sensitivity to develop new methods, he has had the imagination and force of character to integrate them into a viable economic method of farming in the midst of long traditions of ‘how things ought to be done’ and in an area of Austria thought to be good only for low-value forestry.

This same imaginative power is displayed in Holzer’s vision for urban spaces. He elegantly describes very small but scalable systems for small yards and balcony gardens in apartment blocks. The beautiful illustrations of these systems capture an imagination which appears to see how we together might assist nature to do what it would do given hundreds or thousands of years and just the right conditions. Here is the spirit of design — the application of intellect to the ends of people and nature.

I recommend this book to anyone interested in producing food and designing for productive and beautiful places. Holzer has not only produced a working model of the application of permaculture principles, he is himself a model of the elements of character required for working with nature and not against it. Even if, like me, you’re from a vastly different climate such as south west Western Australia’s mediterranean climate, you will find this book worth reading for its integrity of vision and practice. All it takes is "a little ingenuity" to apply the principles of ‘Holzer Permaculture’ to other places.

You can buy the book at Permaculture Magazine UK’s online shop, Green Shopping, Chelsea Green in the USA or ask your local library or bookshop to order it for you.