Rental Permaculture: How to Fill the Void

by Bob Nekrasov

I hear you comrade. ‘I want those acres and to start my food forest and have a permaculture demonstration Eden – but alas, I am a humble renter with big bloody dreams and typically uncreative landlords’.

As us ‘renters’ forlornly scan open fields and acres — seeing real estate listings of eroded soils sitting below beautiful key points — we are designing lush, abundant landscape in our minds and whinging about the price and how we could easily ‘turn this place into a self-sustaining paradise’. Well, at least I am! But, we can get caught in the dream trap — thinking we will start the big permaculture project when we get that dream plot of land. But it is really a void that needs to be filled. When you know how much good you can do you do feel a little crippled by renting a place where you feel you cannot do much. Having this deluded mindset a few years back I set out to figure out what I can do. Hooray!

The main issues we can face as renters are access to land and the space to be creative. Now, I am aware that there are some landlords that love to have people set up gardens etc. and that, of course, would be wonderful. But we do still live in a world where military, pharmaceuticals and pornography are some of the largest industries — so contact with ‘the others’ is possible and you will not be encouraged to grow food and build soil on their land.

What to do here? Let’s start off with container gardening. Some of you know this but many do not even consider it while caught in the dream trap. Now, container gardening can be very expensive if you’re going to your local garden store and purchasing new pots. I highly recommend hard rubbish where people throw out literally thousands of pots and containers. But you do not have to use just pots. Anything that’s going to hold soil, allow holes in the bottom for drainage and give enough root space will work; just make sure it’s not toxic. Old filing cabinets, boots, bags, skulls, karaoke machines, etc. can all work. Once you start thinking about it you will become obsessed with planting stuff in everything and before you know you will have food growing out of everything and coming up with new ideas. It’s really quite exciting and you can provide most of your herbs, salads, small fruits and veggies this way. I mean really, is it worth paying $5 for organic parsley when you can easily grow it out of a shoe you were about to throw away? So, there’s another good point — before we just throw something away think about what we can grow in it? And if you need to move, you can take it all with you or give it to your neighbours and spread these evil ideas around the hood! A-ha!

Also, these days we have such an excellent variety of dwarf fruit trees available to us — trees that will survive perfectly well in pots or even large bags. I would always get excited and start planting trees, which I am glad I did, but no longer enjoy the weepy goodbyes when time to part. Fruit trees in pots can go with you!

Something I liked to tackle was experimenting and using ‘rental time’ as a means to learn things I didn’t know how to do. This can be ultra simple things like starting seeds, for example, and experimenting with easy propagation methods and then graduating to more difficult methods. If you get a bunch of seedlings growing you can then plant them into your container garden, give them to friends or trade / sell them. Organic seedlings cost quite a bit but a packet of heirloom seeds costs very little compared to the quantity you get. It’s really rewarding as well. Again, you’ll become addicted to it and have so many organic seedlings that you can proudly just give away. All you need are toilet rolls to plant the seeds into — these then just go straight into the garden with no disturbance.

I always meet people with properties who are in such a rush to get their dream place happening now — but the beauty of renting is that you can use this time to learn. You can become a great permie during this time, and, don’t forget, it’s an excellent time to start your seed saving collection.

Now, all this container gardening and seed raising is fairly common and we can all do it. But, let’s work on an essential permie skill here. Some aspects of permaculture get lost in the ‘check out my biosupersonic worm farm’ and gardening that we forget about things like observations, planning and communion with our surroundings. This relates to what I mentioned before about the need to be creative. We can stop the dream and start living the dream again through the wonderful act of observation and communion. This can be done anywhere and really, all the time. Get a notebook and spend time, ideally every day, noting down what’s happening in your surroundings. Yep, that means all the obvious stuff like where the sun’s going, what ‘weeds’ you see, what the birds are doing, etc. Now, do not analyse it — be a part of it. Watch and observe as though you are fully a part of it. No thoughts or mandala gardens yet! Ok? Just simply be with your surroundings, write them down and after a while go back to your notes and look at what’s changed in the observations and what’s stayed the same. You can fiddle around with ideas if you want — what you would like to do and just practice. Nothing in nature ends, so this activity will interest you forever! Remember, really effective permaculture design is in the planning and the understanding — this is a very effective and important skill and you will really start be too connected to life, which is exactly what we are aiming for here.

You actually have a great advantage here and with practice and time you will start to really see what your needs are. Your ‘dream’ might end up a little clearer and purposeful and may even end up being totally different to what you thought was ideal. In time you will be boring people to death on car trips across landscapes yelling ‘Wow! Check out that keypoint babe!

Now, if you are saving for land, something to consider is when you do get that land and plan it all, how much it is going to cost you? Fruit and nut trees even in the tens can get pricey and being permies you’re going to need your support and pioneer species too. Another thing we forget is that once we plant these fruit trees we won’t see much off them for a few years. So while you’re waiting, you’ll get on the land and still wait. I hope you know what I am getting at now! Yes, start propagating fruit trees now. Take cuttings from friends or wherever you can and start your planning now. You can buy bulk pioneer tree seeds ultra-cheap and they will grow quite easily. Have a lot of the fruit and nut trees going in case you have some casualties. There’s always somewhere to learn how to do it and plenty of how-to on the internet. It will save you hundreds but also help fill that void when you see all those trees growing — giving some reality to your vision.

The next thing I really want to emphasise is Landshare. It’s a system whereby people with heaps of land allow people to get growing on whatever area is unused. It’s also for people who want to grow their own food but do not have the space. It really is the way of the future and should be the way of the now, I believe. You can check it all out here. That link is for Australia but if from you’re from elsewhere, find out if it’s happening near you, and if not, make it happen! You can head to your local council and see if they will offer up unused land for a community garden, etc. It’s really quite insane the amount of land that is available to all of us. Sometimes we just need to get up and ask for it.

And, of course, there is the excellent Permablitz where you become involved in transforming a place into a permaculture system. Permablitzes are an excellent way to cheer up your permaculture rental blues, learn heaps and keep your hands in the soil. If it’s not happening in your area you can ask people who do own if they would be interested in having one. Now, if you are not a skilled permie — please do not hold back and live in the procrastination void. Just find some people who can help, and, if you can’t find anyone, just work with what you can do. Start small and work on out from there. That is the only way to truly learn — and do not worry too much as any permaculture mistake is much better than an oil spill mistake.

Now, these are just some main ideas for you and I know there are plenty more out there. Please use the comment box and share your ideas for those starting out in permaculture who are caught in the Eden dream whilst renting.

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Bob Nekrasov operates Terra Sancta Permaculture, Northern Rivers, NSW, Australia.