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Kari's thoughts on growing food, urban farming, permaculture, canning, food preservation and all things gardening.

Permaculture: The Elastic Pants of Gardening

Permaculture:  Elastic Pants of Gardening

aka Growing Food the Easy Way

Have you ever worn a pair of snug jeans or a nifty belt that looked awesome, but by the end of the day you couldn’t wait to take it off?  I have often felt this way about my garden.  At the start, I was motivated to dress it up and make it look spectacular.  But somewhere along the line, I became sick of it.  Sure, I enjoyed the fruits of my labor, but longed for ONE weekend that didn’t involve hours of garden-related activity.  Growing food is my passion, but some days it felt restrictive, like those tight jeans.  Anyone with me?

There are many gardening techniques that promise to make it easier, but they only loosen the belt a bit while you are still wearing the snug pants.  Fortunately, there is another way to grow food, the Permaculture way.  Or, as I view it, the elastic waist pants of gardening. 

What makes Permaculture gardening different from any other method?  First, it’s not a technique.  Techniques always require a lot of management.  Permaculture is a way of thinking, a lifestyle that mimics nature. 

Consider that there is abundance in a forest or field, despite the lack of a human gardener.  Berries, asparagus, fruit trees, lettuces and all kinds of other edible plants grow of their own accord in the wild.  And even in the city, plants pop up in every crack in the asphalt. Nature can create abundance out of almost nothing.  Adversely, my garden began with abundance (fertilizers, plenty of water, sturdy garden beds, lots of effort) and created almost nothing.  Few things demotivate like starting with lots and ending with little.  For a moment, I was ready to give up growing and resort to shopping. 

The theory of Permaculture Design saved me from that dark fate.

My first forays into Permaculture theory revealed that so much of modern garden design amounts to attempting to beat back nature, from using chemicals to stop the inevitable pests, to monocropping and growing plants that are not adapted to our climates.  This requires constant vigilance and energy, and nature fights back.  Hard.

Permaculture_float_downriver

In contrast, Permaculture designers observe how nature grows plants and mimic it in the human landscape.  My friend Greg Peterson of UrbanFarm.org describes the concept as the art and science of working with nature instead of against it.  He equates life without Permaculture to swimming upstream in a river.  But embracing nature’s way of doing things is like floating placidly downriver.  Natural forces do the work; we just have to navigate and stay afloat.

Greg’s river analogy makes sense.  In my old ways of upstream gardening, growing food cost a lot of time, effort and money.  But having embraced a downstream Permaculture lifestyle, gardening is a pleasure, not a chore. 

Perhaps you are thinking, Great!  So, how does Permaculture Design work? If you have never heard of it, prepare to have your mind blown (but not by this article, which only scratches the surface.  Google it, or download the EASY GARDENING TIP SHEET and you will see what I mean.) 

The first step to creating a Permaculture garden is to observe nature to discover how she grows plants.  The next step is to adjust gardening practices considering those observations. For example, one of my practices had been tilling every year to prepare my garden. Nature doesn’t annually till, and her gardens thrive.  In response to observing how nature builds the soil, I began to practice no-till gardening.  Thus, gardening got much easier and more productive.  BAM!

Simply put, Permaculture designers observe nature and make exchanges, like switching from tilling to no-till methods.  Other exchanges that I have made at The Micro Farm Project include switching to perennial plants from annuals, avoiding straight rows in favor of companion plantings, and embracing patience in place of stress. No money is spent on chemicals, no effort is expended to grow plants that aren’t well adapted to our climate, and bugs can’t frighten me (even bad bugs.)

As a result, gardening feels a lot less difficult and restrictive, like exchanging tight jeans for elastic waist pants.  What a relief!

My husband calls Permaculture ambitious laziness, by which one actively seek nature’s example to discover the easiest, most efficient ways of doing things to achieve the highest, most productive results. 

If you are motivated to grow food the ambitiously lazy Permaculture way, click below to download a list of simple exchanges to get you started, with links to learn more about Permaculture Design for those who want to dig deeper.