How Plant-based Permaculture Is Possible
I get laughed at a lot. It’s frequent enough that, when I tell people of my intention to build a permaculture system without using domesticated animals, I sort of give a preemptive grin. While I believe most permies mean well in advising me, most seem pretty dead-set on the idea that a vegan permaculture garden just can’t work. In a lot of ways, I won’t lie, the proposition scares me, too. I’ve only built systems for other people, all of whom had animals in some form or another, so there are a lot of theories and techniques that I’ll have to test myself for the first time. But, I have to try.
Truth be known, in my experience of being vegan, most people—not permaculturalists in particular, just people—seem to relish expounding on just how much my diet choice lacks. For whatever reputation vegans—as a people—have, I am not one for confrontational public declarations but rather someone simply going about life with the choices I’ve made. Being a vegan this way can be hard. Everyone seems to turn into a nutritionist, namely one with an expertise in plant-based diets. I used to try to argue nutritional facts, but that’s usually not really the point of people’s objection to my lifestyle. I’ve not yet quite figured out what is.
Anyway, this little dietary aside was only to say that, like with my diet, this is not something I’m necessarily trying to convince any permaculturalist to do. Rather, like in the old days, when I was keen to talk about my sources of protein and calcium, I’ve come to the point in considering plant-based permaculture where I need to somehow establish (if only for myself and/or other practitioners of similar character and challenges) that the whole thing isn’t a hopelessly crazy downward spiral into an unavoidably unhealthy system design. These are some of things I’ve learned and thought about.
What Do Animals Have That Plants Don’t?
Just to be clear, despite my digression about veganism as a diet, I don’t want to focus on the nutritional aspects of being plant-based, but more to the point, I would like to address design aspects. In doing so, it seems imperative to identify just what it is that domesticated animals provide an ecosystem that plants don’t. Obviously, this design is not one opposed to wild animals, so I must stress the distinction between animals on the whole and those which we domesticate. There will be no domesticated animals in my system.
As a result, the biggest obstacle seems to be manure. Where domesticated animals really make a massive impact is in their ability to quickly convert plants into powerful, nitrogen-rich fertilizer. Most of my experience with animals has been dealing with chickens, which have insanely powerful excrement, the likes of which has to be aged well and diluted before being applied. But, I’ve also used my share of horse and cow brands, and I’ve recently been privy to ducks, turkeys, rabbits, sheep, and pigs. All of this is to say that something else must fill this niche, and that could possibly be a hard thing to do.
Products are another thing animals supply in abundance. A cow (or goat) milked every day gives a lot of calories, as do eggs collected from layers. This, of course, doesn’t even get into the amount of meat the slaughtered animals provide. Then, there are the other little products that can be really useful: feathers, hides, wool, possibly crushed bones, blood, and so on. Undoubtedly, animals within the systems that use them play a major role in providing things, and of course, to be sure, they also have some fairly major necessities to be filled as well: houses, feed, healthcare, companions, etc. Nevertheless, a lot of food comes from animals.
Then, to be fully realized, one cannot negate the functional roles that animals can play. Appropriate land management systems, rotating animals to maintain and fertilize garden areas, is an amazing attribute, saving energy for humans, benefiting the animals, and continually revitalizing the soil. The heat off of animals can be utilized in structures. The ability of ducks, turkeys, chickens and other domestic fowl to control pests is a huge help. Dogs and cats can assist with controlling pest animals. What is a better garbage disposal than a pig? Animals do a lot of work, without even being work animals, in a permaculture design. So it is.
Designing without Domesticated Animals
First things first, designing without domesticated animals does not equate to an animal-free garden. Free-running worms are still at our disposal, in the garden, likely attracted by in-situ composting buckets. Birds can certainly have some perches and houses around, with special thought as to the manure dropped thereby. Frogs, toads, and fish will have ponds to swim in (the water cycled through the system), lizards and snakes will have rockeries, and bats will have bat houses (again with manure harvesting). Bees and butterflies will have plenty to pollinate. Insects will have insect hotels and plenty of mulch to provide shelter. Then, there must be some give-and-take with the rest of the wildlife that lives in the area. In short, there are plenty of design approaches that take advantage of what can happen naturally with wild animals, and in that way, animals will be part of the plant-based system.
Manure as the large issue, I hope, is one that can be addressed on multiple fronts. If manure is free and I’m not contributing financially to animal exploitation (my vegan version of that), and in fact actually helping the environment by putting manure into a healthy cycle rather than a contaminating problem, then I believe I can justify obtaining it that way. However, even if it is not regular or ever there, I don’t necessarily think imported manure is required. There will be harvesting from the wild animal sources (namely, worms and bats, hopefully black soldier flies), as mentioned above, and humanure composting toilets to eventually provide a large source of fertility. There will also be soil-enriching plants, the nitrogen-fixers and dynamic accumulators, which can work directly and immediately in the garden (unlike many manures), as well as be the supercharged nitrogen element for well-rounded composts. So, what’s missing?
As for the products animals provide, I think it is just a matter of recognizing how to meet those needs another way, a plant-based way. If milk and eggs aren’t on the table, then sprouts and seeds can be. The space used to house animals and maintain those systems go to provide more calories in a different way: nuts trees and seed production can match up calorie-wise and nutritionally. If meat production isn’t there, I can design in a healthy assortment of leafy greens, bulk crop grains, and legumes, feed for the family rather than the animals. Feathers could be replaced with cotton or straw. We already buy second-hand clothes (something that has long way to go before being obsolete), so the need for hides and wool isn’t so high. Honestly, the trade off for taking care of animals sometimes seems demanding to me, requiring a constant presence and the extra effort of raising food for them. I envision a system without domesticated animals as the middle player, the labor used to care for them instead going to the garden.
Then, there are functions. Animal rotation does a tremendous service, but something similar can be accomplished with green manure crops and soil de-compacting plants like daikon and mustard, as well as they aforementioned dynamic accumulators. In this way, the soil is constantly revitalized with organic material. Once established, this way will work, just as it does in a forest system. Companion planting and wild animals can service pest control issues. Composting directly is the garbage disposal, which admittedly isn’t as bacterially exciting as manure, but it gets the job done and gets more diverse over time. Compost can also be used for heat in greenhouses or for hot water. Wild birds can be attracted to an area with a bit of seed for their scratching services. And, maybe a little more human labor is needed for the gardens, but that’s a trade off for it being used for tending animals.
If We Are Really Looking to Nature
I must admit that many, many people know a lot more about permaculture, growing food, and raising animals than I do. However, as I have further delved into these things, with vegan practices on my mind, it has occurred to me that nature—the ultimate guide to sustainable production—doesn’t have domesticated animals. The natural forests we look to for guidance as to how to build healthy eco-systems are not, and most have never been, reliant on domesticated animals for their foundation nor their maintenance. Why, in the case of vegan permaculture, do so many believers of natural systems begin to doubt?
Again, this is not some attempt to get people to stop using animals in their own systems, but merely a means by which I can look at a plant-based version of permaculture and feel confident. Has the inclusion of domesticated animals become such a convention within our unconventional designs that most established practitioners are incapable of imagining systems without them? The knee-jerk reaction of those with animals in their systems (every permaculturalist I’ve ever spoken to) seems a tad derivative and premature to me, somewhat like those of people who can’t envision a healthy diet without animal products.
No judgment, guys. Just delving into something. I’d love to hear any honest, constructive insights more experienced, knowledgeable permaculturalists (or otherwise) could offer. And, of course, as some of the above videos have shown, there are many folks working on plant-based permaculture systems as we speak, and I’m sure you guys would have the greatest intuitions of all, as well as fantastic sources to share. Please do.
Feature Image: Eggplant (Courtesy of writenq)