Why Permaculture?

Using the Community as Part of Your Own Permaculture Design

When beginning with a permaculture design, when we get out our pencils and graph paper and start dreaming a little, we often do so with a rather insular perspective of what our systems can be. We think of how to be sustainable on our own quarter-acre. We think of how to go about doing it all by ourselves. For me, someone who rarely envisions more than a couple of acres (anything larger being beyond my budget) at a time, that sometimes becomes a very tightrope to walk.

If I need vegetables and staple main crops, if I need fruits and nuts, if I need a house and a greenhouse and probably a barn/workshop, if I need reed beds and dams and swales and water tanks, if I need compost and mulch and manure and a seed bank…how do I fit it all in? By virtue of the very designs we envision in permaculture, we are going to push biodiversity and soil creation and energy efficiency and self-reliance, but our objectives are so large in scope that it sometimes seems overwhelming to imagine it all in our suburban lawnscape.

At the project with which I was most recently involved, Garden of Hope, I started learning to consider my community as a viable and, if not sustainable, reasonably reliable source of materials and other necessities to include in a design plan. Not only that, I’m beginning to recognize this can be a vital and vibrant component to include in my thoughts about the potential of a property, that it isn’t only about what is already there to work with but what is around to aid in that work.

Pulling the Community Together for Good

Volunteer Hours, Courtesy of Claire Henkel
Volunteer Hours, Courtesy of Claire Henkel

Garden of Hope recently was given access to about an acre of land, formerly planted as a coffee farm, and before any designs could be installed, many of the coffee trees had to be removed. It is an arduous task, the trees being every meter or so. The Garden of Hope, being a social business, doesn’t have a huge budget, but we managed to have a steady source of volunteers come to help with the task. Reasons varied from just wanting to help the kids to being outside to learning about gardening to hanging out with friends. The task and project—a humble call for help—pulled in lots of people.

Furthermore, the community was brought together by and supported the project in several other ways. After the coffee trees had been pulled, the design partially implemented, local farms—including Caoba Farms, for which I was working—and local gardeners were happy to donate trees or provide huge discounts, to share clippings and information, to help the garden get going. Local artisans and restaurants contributed recipes and tips for the compiling of “A Little Book about Food” to be sold to benefit Garden of Hope. Also, musicians and local eateries donated their time and talents to help host a massive fundraising event.

In other words, when we have a mindset of including the community, of reaching out to others as part of the overall plan, we can expand our resources, our labor, our funding, and our knowledge. It only seems logical that we include these aspects in our design plans, setting up the groundwork of creating a new, beneficial network of people with like-minded pursuits. Undoubtedly, Garden of Hope instigating its network has helped to make connections between others. This has got to be part of what we are doing, especially if the idea is to make local and global impacts.

Pooling Our Resources for the Betterment of All

A Little Book about Food, Courtesy of Claire Henkel
A Little Book about Food, Courtesy of Claire Henkel

Something that is inescapable when designing a small property is that it is very difficult to puzzle it together in such a way that everything we and the system needs is provided. This is even more of an obstacle when we are trying to start from scratch and expect results of some sort in a timely fashion. Gardens need fertility through compost and manure, they need mulch materials, and they need productive plants. They need water. In large part, these are not all simply waiting on a piece of property.

While permaculture focuses on creating cyclical sources to form self-sustaining systems, we could, and probably should, also creatively include outside contributions to enhance systems. At Garden of Hope, we harvested bags upon bags of spent hay and broken down horse manure (for free) from a nearby stable. Volunteers helped collect cardboard boxes from local businesses for sheet-mulching. Farms shared clippings, seedlings, and seeds. Coffee grounds, kitchen scraps, composting worms…many resources from outside the physical area will help get the gardens going and keep them maintained.

Garden of Hope, of course, is a social business, which is what bridged our thinking into reaching out to people and companies in the community for resources, but there is no reason we as individuals couldn’t do the same. Many companies are happy to give away their trash, which might be incredibly useful on a permaculture site. Stables often would gladly exchange some manure and spent hay for the labor of cleaning it up. Farms might gladly share seeds or plants if the same is done with them. Individuals will give away reclaimed lumber if someone is willing to take down an old structure. These are fantastic opportunities, especially for upstart gardens.

Expanding the Land at Our Disposal

Musicians for the Cause, Courtesy of Claire Henkel
Musicians for the Cause, Courtesy of Claire Henkel

For those of us who are limited by the expanse of our land, plots that are often confined to urban and suburban areas, it makes much more sense to coordinate, organize, and orchestrate our individual properties as a community. This isn’t to say that lands can’t remain privately owned and autonomously run; however, it is to say that we miss out on huge food-producing potential and stability when we isolate ourselves and try to do it all. Strong communities aren’t constructed this way, nor has our food system ever been. It’s a team effort.

There are some obvious different ways to envision this sort of cooperation. Neighborhoods or even villages interested in producing much of their own food can coordinate different people specializing in different crops. This doesn’t mean everyone can’t have an apple tree or an herb garden, but rather that main crops might be grown in areas better suited for them, while vegetables or fruits are produced elsewhere. At times where the workload heightens, such as harvests and preservation, the effort can be more communal, in which everyone gets a share and has pitched in producing it.

In another realistic situation, there are plenty of people with property but no desire to work it into production. They will often begrudgingly labor over a lawn when they’d rather be watching the game or taking a trip somewhere. In these situations, for those with less land than they’d like and a bit of gumption, it might be possible to trade labor (maintaining a neighbor’s yard) and harvests (grown on that space) in exchange for access to a bit more cultivating area. When we look to create a winning situation for all, we can increase the land, and thus crop production and labor, at our disposal, even if budgets don’t allow for it.

The Point of Self-Sustainability Is Not Isolation

Emma y Jonathon, Courtesy of Claire Henkel
Emma y Jonathon, Courtesy of Claire Henkel

Sometimes being self-sustainable seems to get confused with the idea that we must be isolated and un-reliant on those around us, but I’m moving more and more towards the necessity to share a different viewpoint. Isolation doesn’t jive with permaculture, something meant to be a global solution for humanity and viable lifestyle for all, because it isn’t the most efficient way to do things, isn’t the way to have the biggest positive impact on the environment, and isn’t rooted in caring for ourselves and other people. While our sites might be designed to be cyclic and somewhat insular, I think it is equally important that we consider how we might reach out beyond property lines to make connections and beneficial exchanges that further our individual and collective efforts towards sustainable living. This should start with how we design sites in the first place, with research regarding what surrounding systems are already in place and imagining what new ones we might initiate.

More Material on Permaculture and the Community:

What Fair Share Can Mean in the Permaculture Community

Building Community through Permaculture—An Interview with Mark Lakeman

Designing Authentic Community

Not Socialism, Not Capitalism…Distributism Seeks Community Power

Header Image: Huerta de la Esperanza, Courtesy of Claire Henkel

Jonathon Engels

The financially unfortunate combination of travel enthusiast, freelance writer, and vegan gardener, Jonathon Engels whittled and whistled himself into a life that gives him cause to continually scribble about it. He has lived as an expat for over a decade, worked in nearly a dozen countries, and visited dozens of others in the meantime, subjecting the planet to a fiery mix of permaculture, music, and plant-based cooking. More of his work can be found at Jonathon Engels: A Life About.

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