So I’m coming home from this walk that I do with my neighbour in the morning. That’s another story
I’m trying to be quiet so I creep creep creep. Shoes off at the door, I slip gently as Gem sleeps. I slide into the kitchen, switch on the water for the tea..
Then I hear BRRR BRR BRRR out on the street
It frightens the life right out of me.
What’s all that whirring, I’m up off my feet. My heart is skipping to the beat. As I climb on the back of the seat to throw open the curtain to have a look-see.
Hell YES. I do a massive Cheshire Grin. Today is just beginning and I’ve already got a win. Don’t worry, Emmy, you didn’t miss the bins…
I’m straight up, shoes on, get the buckets from outside and head over the road.
A chipper, mate. I am CHIPPER mate.
So, the sound I was hearing was this industrial-sized wood chipper and it’s cutting down trees from a neighbour’s garden. I’m a bit apprehensive because I’m not really sure if they’re allowed to give away the chips of trees.
To me, I’m looking at a treasure mine of mulch. Naturally-grown trees, straight from the street I live in, all chipped up and ready to spread on my beds. Mostly carbon with some dicey bits of nitrogen thrown in from what looks like yucca leaves.
Anyway, chance me arm, as they say.
I go over, bits are just flying everywhere. He’s got all the gear on. High-vis bloody everything from coast and tails to a nice shiny helmet. Nobody can miss him. But he’s got those plastic goggles and it’s spitting rain so he’s having trouble seeing stuff and he’s got ear defenders on because it’s so brain-jarringly deafening.
So I approach through the tornado of leaves and thunderous engines and he sees me last minute and has to turn everything off. I feel bad now, like maybe I’ve wasted all his time for two measly buckets-worth. Maybe he’ll be like, ‘Nope, boss don’t let me because of insurance and law suits and this, that, and the other nonsense red-tape barrier’.
Anyway, long story short, I put my anxiety aside and ask anyway. He’s glad to give me some. Happy about it, even. He’s chatting to me about how he puts it on his allotment, I’m telling him about how to use it to make some compost-type teas. He’s giving me good ratios to spread it.
What’s the takeaway from this? Get out in the community and ask! You’ll find people are willing to help you out after a little face-to-face conversation and a little chuckle.
I ran out after and gave him a cheeky beer. Hopefully the weather clears up and he can enjoy it in his allotment later!
Until the next odd permaculture thing happens in my community – ciao! x
The summer is fast approaching, and no doubt, at some point, you’ll be finding yourself kicking back with a cocktail and a good book soaking up the sun.
So why not make summer 2019 a productive year for reading and learning? Combining the concepts of ecopreneurialism and permaculture can really help to square you away as a viable regenerative startup founder – therefore, immersing yourself in lessons from the experts is an inevitable and invaluable part of the journey.
Over the last year(s), I’ve been fortunate enough to voraciously inhale a myriad of really helpful books – books that I feel will be extremely useful to assisting you on your journey, thanks to their unique angles on business, relationships, and systemic operations.
So if you’re a bookworm looking for something to get your teeth stuck into this summer, check out these gems.
Tim Ferriss is an academic and entrepreneur, and is a wizard when it comes to systems-thinking. I read this book a long while back and it’s one of my go-tos when I want to reconsider the systems I using for efficiency in my life and work.
This book breaks down the habits you form with your own operational patterns and seeks to reimagine and reconfigure those patterns to create new habits that are more productive and fulfilling.
I highly recommend this book if you feel like you’re working tirelessly without results. This book provides real actionable tips that will help you to recognise opportunity and reach goals without having to sacrifice work-life balance.
While we’re often urged to ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’, this book puts pay to that idea, imploring us to start again at the beginning with different systems of making things. Rather than working on the ‘cradle to grave’ model, this book is about regenerative design as a way to recreate the products and services we need in the world. In fact, this is a bible for regenerative entrepreneurs looking to really consider how they can make an impact with brand new economics.
Using the permaculture theme of looking to the patterns of nature, this book invites us to reconsider abundance and the natural cycles of this that occur – take the fact that a tomato plant will produce hundreds of seeds! In this sense, this book is a guide on how to design products in the same way.
If you need ideas on what you can create as a regenerative entrepreneur, and how to go about it without repeating the patterns of poor business practices and linear economics, this is the book for you. I like that it’s short, concise, to the point, and extremely practical.
When we’re starting regenerative enterprises, it is integral to consider the human element of our work. Ensuring that our team are working collaboratively, effectively, and happily is very important to the success of the overall vision.
This is one of my favourite books for getting this message across in a practical and visual way. Starhawk uses a hypothetical scenario of a Transition Town to explain the struggles you may come up against and how to deal with them. The manual also includes actual activities you can use to facilitate mediation, communication, deal-making, and conflict resolution. It addresses some of the key global issues we’re fighting against, as well as showing you how to manage effective collaborative organisations.
This is a key read for anyone who is trying to manage the human element of their operations – which is every regenerative ecopreneur!
Habit is one of the many things that unconsciously drives our lives. Whether it is compulsive phone checking or needing a coffee every half an hour, we’re not always conscious of how habitual routines are controlling our lives and therefore our efficiency in business, and our practical decision-making.
I love this book because it makes you really reflect on the habits you have formed, and gives hands-on tips on how to break those habits and redesign useful and purposeful habits that lead toward the outcomes you desire. This book has a bunch of cutting edge science, which is super interesting.
This is a great one if you feel stuck in a rut, as reconfiguring your own pattern will help you to see where you can redesign to push the pendulum again.
Seth Godin is one of the most influential entrepreneurs of today. He’s a straight talker, with advice that comes from his myriad experience out in the field. Both a teacher and an innovator, Seth Godin isn’t afraid to make the point that sometimes we fail because we’re just not being remarkable.
This book really helped me to understand the importance of standing out, and of providing something that’s niche enough while pushing boundaries. Seth uses his experience to outline what makes companies different and how you can employ these methods to your own work.
If you feel that your product or service is lacking in some way, or is struggling to stand out from the crowd, this is the book that helps you to work out not only how to market it better, but how to literally make it a better product or service.
One of the main problems I find with seeking to be an ecopreneur, is that there is little literature that addresses the techniques needed for this exact type of business structure. While we can learn lessons from traditional entrepreneurs, there are new ways in which ecopreneurs need to work to ensure we;re not using destructure methods of capitalism to further our ventures.
This book is a hands-on, practical guide to help you work out how to find green opportunities in business and work to design them appropriately and effectively. I like this handbook because it gives great tips on how to seek actual opportunities and recognise them and the power you have to fulfil them. Equally, Dr Glenn Croston helps you to create a viable business plan to carry your idea, while giving actionable techniques for measuring and surpassing competition, without negating the value of cooperation.
This is an exceptional tool for those looking to structurally outline their vision and create a plan to move forward.
While profit isn’t necessarily the most important element of regenerative business, right now the transitional period from society’s current economic system to the next requires us to understand the value of money. Often, the problem with green business founders, is that the financial elements evade us while we focus on the impact of our company’s ideas.
This book gets you up to speed with the financial side, as much as it may seem to be the antithesis of what we’re trying to achieve. Understanding the beast helps to work to fight it! This book will help you to build a healthier relationship with finances to make better decisions that enable your eco-business to remain viable.
This book is very important if you’re trying to work out how to fund your vision, and works equally well on principle when we apply the theory of diverse revenue types.
I actually drew your attention to Daniel Pink before in my newsletter. Daniel Pink talks about timing. While we often discuss the importance of the ‘how’, ‘what’, and especially ‘why’ when we consider regenerative endeavours, we rarely branch out to truly understanding the ‘when’. Though we know that implementation strategy is integral to permacultural design, we forget to apply it in business.
This book draws your attention to how important ‘when’ is. The psychology, biology and economics of timing are discussed in this book, providing surprising insights into why certain business decisions work or fail depending on the implementation schedule. I love how this book gives you useful tricks on how you should leverage timing in your interactions, deals, and decisions to lead toward higher levels of effectiveness.
This is a must-read for any eco-founder as it helps you to understand how to define an implementation strategy, not just across the long-term but also in daily activities.
When we look at building regenerative businesses, the permaculture ethics and principles are a great way to understand the entire cyclical process of generating and regenerating without waste. However, many permaculturists struggle with the viability of making a ‘profitable’ entity with their small-scale systems.
This book helps you to understand how you can use permacultural skills to live a viable life. While it focuses on being a market gardener, the techniques within the book serve as a useful guide for helping you to understand all the elements you need to consider when it comes to any green venture.
This certainly has a strong sway toward the agricultural side of ecopreneurship and is a great resource for anyone looking to become a market farmer, however it’s also a great resource for anyone looking for practical information on how to design systems that take into account all integral elements for viable profitable opportunities.
When we’re coming up with a vision for our future idea, the end goal can often seem very overwhelming, and we become frozen, unable to start because it all seems to much. The ‘lean’ concept is actually not too dissimilar to practices we employ in permacultural thinking – observing, testing, learning, and repeating.
This book gives real examples of companies that employ this method, and the hurdles they’ve faced, and how they’ve dealt with them using the practical techniques associated with lean thinking. From asking yourself the ‘5 whys’ to getting started with a lean business plan, this book provides excellent methods for testing your ideas and learning from them as you go.
If you’re having trouble getting started – this is the ideal book for you.
When it comes to running businesses, systems are vital for measuring success, efficient working, and benefiting from the power of interconnectedness. As permaculturists, systems are the basis of the toolkit that we use to minimise input and maximise output – a principle we should be using in our entrepreneurial ventures.
This book uses methodical thinking and conceptual tools to outline the way systems function, and how they should be designed to provide the most effective routes to working without waste. It helps you to conceptualise the issues with working on elements in isolation, and invites you to reconsider the way you are analysing your own operations. I love this book because it gives you a whole host of ‘aha!’ moments, while deconstructing complicated ideas into easy-to-digest mechanisms for working.
This is a must for anyone designing a venture as it enables you to create and use feedback systems that can help you measure your real impact, while averting crises, and advancing through using systems within systems.
This book is more of an overview of the emergence of the ecopreneur and the value that green-thinking entrepreneurs are bringing to the table in addressing issues of waste, productivity, environmental problems, and economic mishaps simultaneously.
This is a great read providing first-hand case studies of how green entrepreneurs are changing the dynamics of market forces. It gives your both insights into what works and what doesn’t work in changing perspectives and influencing behaviour through green ways of operating. This is an important book as it helps you to understand policy decisions and recent developments that are shaping innovation and business on a global level.
For those looking to work with governments, NGOs and large organizations, this book helps to give you the broader reaching perspective.
I once heard this great saying: If we’re on the edge of a cliff, it’s okay to turn around and take a few steps back.
This book was written a long while ago and considered economics as though we weren’t working on a system of neo-liberal classicism, as though we weren’t considering resources as infinite. If this system of economics had been employed when this book was written, perhaps we would have a very different world today.
As an ecopreneur, this is an important book that helps you to understand how to put peoplecare to the forefront of the systems your designing for your venture. This book looks at the damages of excessive consumption, both on the wider level and in more personal scenarios, and invites you to critically analyse the wasteful processes used in business practices today.
What I love about this book, is that it helps you to consider your own wasteful practices and perhaps unconscious forms of waste and overconsumption in your operations, and invited you to redesign them with peoplecare at the centre.
When it comes to the best resources to get information across, I find there’s nothing more captivating than a good conversation. Podcasts present the perfect opportunity for experts, advisors, visionaries, and movers and shakers to divulge some of their best secrets on how we can all achieve.
As ecopreneurs, permaculturists, holistic managers, and regenerative startups, immersing ourselves in as much information as possible is invaluable. However, sometimes reading books and watching documentaries can take up a little too much time.
Podcasts are a great way to wander around topics, gain some great actionable insights, and still have two hands to get stuff one!
Here are some of the most valuable podcasts I’ve found really help me with improving my strategy, providing insider secrets to help boost your productivity when building a sustainable, viable business.
What It Is: Hosted by Rob Moore, triple best-selling property author, keynote speaker, entrepreneur, and investor, The Disruptive Entrepreneur offers a variety of content, including interviews with founders and entrepreneurs, as well as educational content from some of Rob’s own lectures and lessons.
Why You Should Listen To It: Rob provides actionable insights for businesses looking to grow, from marketing tips to leveraging social media to putting accountability measures in place. Have a pen and paper for each episode, because you’ll walk away each session with a myriad of steps you can take straight away. This is an especially good podcast if you’re looking to increase customer awareness and infiltrate your target audience.
What It Is: This interview-style podcast is hosted by Shelbi, a well-known sustainability vlogger. Each episode jumps into deep conversations with ecopreneurs, environmental experts, sustainability stakeholders, and regenerative start-up founders. It explores how and why these people are successful, providing tips on how to reach the same level with your own endeavours. Aimed at those who are passionate about regenerative action, this podcast is a winner for those looking to expand in green business.
Why You Should Listen To It: Shelbi has a great array of approachable guests on who provide touchable advice that you can follow from the get-go. Instead of talking about how money breeds money, this podcast gives you great insight into how to get going with what you have, how to deal with some of the conflicts that come between eco-friendliness and entrepreneurship, and provides a comforting backdrop that allows you to see how each entrepreneur pursued their goals. This is ideal if you’re a founder or visionary wondering how to get up and go.
What It Is: Hosted by Andrew Warner, who built a $30mil/year company in his 20s, this podcast is a place to learn from really successful, proven entrepreneurs from all sectors. While not focused directly on ecopreneurship, this podcast dives right into the creativities used and barriers faced from real-world founders. This podcast has a mix of interviews with high profile guests, as well as some lecture style podcasts rom experts, and some updates on what’s going on in the business world.
Why You Should Read It: Use cases provide excellent examples of what we need to do to get from where we are to where we want to be. Andrew’s easy-going interview style doesn’t stop him from asking the tough questions we all want to know the answers to. This podcast is a great resource for actionable steps to increasing revenue and decreasing working hours, while building sustainable structural systems within your own venture.
What It Is: Hosted by Scott Mann, permaculture practitioner and computer scientist, this podcast is dedicated to education in permaculture, sustainability, and holistic management. One of the longest running permaculture podcasts, Scott provides an environment for listeners to learn from those who are making it work first-hand – the practitioners, the experts, the enterprises, and the educators. Each conversation explores the interviewee’s experience and as well them divulging their personal secrets to success.
Why You Should Listen To It: Scott Mann brings on realistic guests who live their lives running permaculture and eco businesses. These guests give valuable insights into the realism of the struggles that occur and the shortcuts that can be used. The advice is extremely specific to running permaculture style businesses, as opposed to purely entrepreneurial podcasts, allowing you to understand what to expect and to plan for this. You’ll also get very specific tips to help you out.
What It Is: A permaculture-themed podcast aimed at farming, business, and life, this show is hosted by Diego Footer, who also organizes the Permaculture Voices Conference. In this podcast you’ll hear from experts who have chosen paths to follow in permaculture and farming. Diego asks hard questions and opens honest conversation to piece together what it takes to build business in these arenas, with practical advice that listeners can follow – whether than be crop selection,time management, goal setting, or soil regeneration techniques. The podcast has a great range of both tips and techniques, as well as heart-felt honesty and debate on global topics.
Why You Should Listen To It: This is one of the most practical podcasts providing useable techniques to help build business. Not only does it provide help on the actual skills needed and specifics on how to apply them, it also looks into business practices that need to be employed to plan and strategize the viability of your enterprise. This is a great podcast for those specifically looking to create business from farming and agroecology.
What Is It: While permaculture and regenerative entrepreneurs are not necessarily looking to make huge sums of money, the methods to meeting the final goal of success usually follow similar patterns of strategy. This podcast, hosted by Brandon Gaille, provides quick, snappy tips for helping you to redesign your patterns for better success. Many of the podcasts come as top 10 tips, and cover topics such as sleep, time management, funding, productivity hacks, and startup tips.
Why You Should Listen To It: The fast-paced nature of this podcast gives you great insights if you’re time poor – with many episodes being 10 minutes, you can fit one in over your morning coffee. You’ll find that they give a brief overview of important topics you might not be considering that affect your working practice – such as nonverbal communication, negotiation tactics, stress, and self discipline – but can serious help you make behavioural changes that alter your systematic strategies.
What Is It: Hosted by keynote speaker, author, and executive educator, Carol Sanford, this podcast seeks to bring you responsible entrepreneurs and capitalist investors who are helping to shape the sustainable business arena. In each episode, Carol guides conversation that breaks down how each of these people has made their own endeavour work, what they propose for the future, and how they feel others should approach the startup tasks ahead of them. Particularly focused on the growth of regenerative businesses, this podcast provides and open and honest look inside the lives of those who are working successfully in many arenas of regenerative entrepreneurship, without focusing solely on farming.
Why You Should Listen To It: While this podcast isn’t providing the most practically applicable tips,it does give you an overview of real-world hurdles and starting points. By understanding these use cases, you can see patterns across each entrepreneur which you can mimic, while also avoiding their pitfalls. It’s engaging and authentic and provides education as well as entertainment.
What Is It: Founder of Force for Good Fund, Ryan Honeyman, hosts this podcast that singles out the leaders in the sustainability and regeneration fields and asks tough questions about what they’re doing and what we should all be doing in our lives and in our businesses. Some episodes address practical topics like visioning, strategizing, and operations, while others delve into the social, environmental and economic issues faced within business and across the globe. A great mix of science and opinion, each guest is captivating and charismatic, while Ryan leads strong and worthwhile debate.
Why You Should Listen To It: This podcast has some very high-profile guests who help you to understand practical applications of regenerative techniques on a larger scale. With a wealth of experience at their fingertips, these experts bring issues to the table which you may not have considered in your own working practice, while relating them to wider global outlooks. Insightful debates, tough conversations, and well-rounded opinions provide the backbone of this podcast.
So this article is a little less about giving advice and a little more about the bewildering scenario I witnessed the other day. So currently, I’m located in Santa Domingo, Dominican Republic before I move on to build a garden elsewhere. One thing I’ve noticed about being in a city after coming from the smothering silence of being alone on a farm, is the sheer interruption of pollution around you. Whether it’s the bellowing street vendors, the neighbourhood dogs, the scream of overhead helicopters, or raucous racing cars, there’s always some kind of noise piercing your peace of mind. I wouldn’t go as far as to call it an attack on your senses, but the sights, sounds, and smells of large cities like this certainly provide a jungle of visceral intrusions. For urban permies, this is your world, and I bow to you in the patience of it all, especially the lack of control you have over your own life in a place where being so crowded with others who do not share your vision, means that you are subjected to enduring the decisions that they make.
One of these such decisions barged into my life the other day while I was sitting reading Donella H Meadows book ‘Thinking in Systems: A Primer’ (excellent thought tool by the way). Ironically in the book, she was talking about looking for leverage points in systems where you wouldn’t necessarily realise they were, to help relieve problems at the source, rather than just patching up symptoms and waiting for the pipe to burst again. I heard the mechanical roar of machinery and then saw a dude blasting fertilizer on bin bags, walls, and even a pizza delivery motorcycle.
I’ve noticed that there are many mosquitoes in this city. Flies are also a problem. But so are stray dogs. While the flies and the dogs might not seems connected, of course they are, it’s just where you’re looking for the answers. Apparently there was a ZIKA scare here a little back so the people are avidly trying to control the mosquito population to help curb the chance of a recurrence of this issue. There’s no problem with this; the problem comes when these control measures are futile because they’re not properly assessed.
Take this, the last job I was on, there were a lot of mosquitoes. So I asked myself, why? There’s many reasons why you find mosquitoes within your vicinity: an abundance of their food, insect attracting plants, and places they can breed, are but a few. I noticed on the site that when it rained, there was a great deal of standing water and the cycle of mosquitoes would thicken for the following week or so as the water slowly drained away or evaporated. In this scenario, I designed a rainwater system which would reduce the amount of standing water, which would reduce the amount that mosquitoes could breed.
This is not what is happening in the city. When you look at the collection of mosquitoes, flies, and street dogs, you’ll find they congregate around certain weak points; the garbage sitting on the street. One of the things I noticed, sadly, about the Dominican Republic, is the high level of dumping, leading to areas where garbage is piled all strewn all around. While I have seen billboards denouncing this action, the question remains while it still happens, as this weak point is where those mosquitoes, flies, and dogs are gaining their strength. The likelihood is that the disparity in wealth means that poorer people cannot afford the private services for garbage collection, a service not provided by the government. This leaves them few other options.
But what’s most baffling here is how the government are spending money on dealing with the issue. Rather than devising a garbage collection system that’s universal to its people (at least in the city), it sends round spirited young fellows to blast any pile or rubbish or rubble with pesticide. Adorned in a huge atomising body suit, these lads walk up and down the streets and spray everything in site with pesticide. Are the residents warned of this? Do they have a say in this? No they don’t; it just happens.
Obviously, my view on pesticides is far from favourable. I see their toxicity as something I’d rather avoid clogging up my lungs with and if I had children, I would definitely not want them to be subjected. Equally, to unwitting dog owners strolling the streets for their daily walk, it puts their animals at danger from being poisoned by licking or eating this garbage. Whether you agree to the damage that pesticides do to our world or not, it seems unfathomable to me that residents would not be warned about this, at least so they could be out of town for a day while the gasses choke the sky.
It also seems incredulous to me that this is the solution that they’ve decided to invest in. No doubt it’s probably cheaper than a garbage system that is affordable to all people, however this is a waste of money. It doesn’t solve the problem at all. Instead it leads to the government needing to frequently shell out money to have garbage fumigated, that continues to pile on the streets and grow pests anyway. The leverage point that they’re tackling isn’t a leverage point at all so the system is still going to kickback in the same way and nothing will change. It’s like increasing pressure through water pipes and patching up the leaks, when you need to either turn down the pressure or widen the pipes.
And this is the issue here that has led to many of our world’s quick-fixes. Rather than addressing the issues of overpopulation or a lack of quality soil or poverty, we try and fix it by pushing through a plaster to patch up the holes by taking more, consuming more, killing more. Systems work most effectively when they’re in balance, so when something becomes imbalanced, like the prevalence of a pest, we need to look at what’s causing that imbalance and remedy that. Not blow toxins in the faces of unwitting urbanites. They’ve already got enough problems with the car fumes to contend with; don’t be spraying extra cancer in their faces.
So I’ve embarked on this adventure to complete my Permaculture Diploma in Applied Design. That means I need to complete 10 designs in a minimum of two years. Obviously, I would like to do this as quickly as possible while broadening my knowledge, gaining hands-on experience, and really trying to become a well-rounded permaculturist.
We’ve all got goals. We also all have things we want to learn. But all too often I hear the murmuring cries of ‘Oh I wish I’d learned to play an instrument’ or ‘I’d love to know how to draw’.
Sometimes it seems like we constantly feel like we’re past our sell by dates, as if learning is limited to school-age individuals. As if the familiar adage ‘ you can’t teach an old dog new tricks’ is actually true. I think it’s as true as you make it. After all, if you don’t even try to learn how will you ever learn?
I think it’s not as simple as setting your mind to something and going for it. Often we have a menagerie of things we’d like to learn but we have no time/money/resources/inclination/*insert excuse here* to do it. Instead, we trundle along as bundles of sad faces wishing we were more than we’ll ever become.
One thing about the diploma is it teaches you, nay, forces you to set a learning path. A learning yellow brick road if you will. Sometimes the overwhelmingness of the amount of things we want to learn causes us to collapse into a ball under the pressure and we never even get started. I felt so blown over by the prospect of starting this self-taught diploma that being able to devise a learning plan for myself felt like too much, as though I needed all the information at once and had to learn everything simultaneously like an orchestra conductor forced to play all the instruments while trying to keep the symphony together.
Pen to Paper
After a deep breath, and a kick up my own bum, I decided to start small. I tapped myself on the shoulder and asked myself why I’m taking this journey and what I’d like to learn along the way. Yes, permaculture embraces complex agricultural techniques, logical applications of water systems and all manner of complicated social structures so intricate my brain might burst, but I don’t have to start there. And I don’t have to be restricted to those things either. So I asked myself, what do I want to learn in life?
And here’s the trick of the trade, my fellows. GET IT DOWN ON PAPER. As the ink slips out that pen you start to colour your own learning landscape. You start to see how you can bring those skills together to stack functions, with one following on from the other, utilising one to help learn another.
Here’s where I started:
Seeing it on paper helps to ruse that go-getter in you. My good friend and amazing blogger Super Lucy J has jumped on this bandwagon to become inspired on her learning journey; as soon as you see it being laid out, it really gets your toes tapping.
Beginning, Middle, and End
So you have this paper peppered with possibilities of lucrative learning. But where do you start? For me, I wanted to tie in these skills I want to learn with where I need to go with my diploma. So I asked myself, ‘where am I now and where do I want to be?’.
Right now, I’m just dipping my toe in the concept of designing permaculture systems and I want to be in a place where I can strategically design, implement and manage complex social structures. I know that where permaculture uses the patterns in nature, I need to understand the basics before I’ll ever get there.
Like a child writing a story, I looked at my beginning, middle, and end. I need to start with the practical basics, somewhere in the middle I will start to focus on social permaculture, and toward the end I want to be looking at more complex social systems. Then I broke this down further to ask myself, which 10 steps do you need to learn?
I have decided that I need to learn about:
Waste System Design
Renewable Energy Systems
Methods to Economic Sustainability
Fairshare Volunteer Programs
Outreach Educational Methods
Food Security Programs
Community Empowerment Methods
Tying Together the Symphony
Now I know my beginning, middle and end, I can look at what I’d like to learn and ask myself where it fits in that journey. What skills do I want to learn and how are they going to complement the steps I’m taking in order to lead to developing my all-round knowledge and capacity? Place the skills from the first mindmap with the steps you want to take. This final step helps you to know where to start.
For example, I can’t draw. I just can’t. It’s like my brain has this amazing idea and then my hand is drunk. It just wiggles on the paper and mocks my internal creativity. However, if I want to be a permaculture designer, I need to practice this skill; I need to learn to draw. So that’s where I’m starting. I tie together the first step of garden design with the first skill of drawing and I begin to practice, hence the somewhat horrifically child-like drawing of my timeline to follow (logically, the picture probably should go here, but I need to warn you in case you wanted to wear sunglasses or cover your eyes).
I can now look at that first step on my learny journey and say to myself ‘OK, Emmy, chill out. This is what you need to do’:
Find a place/project that specifically pertains to garden design
Order the skills logically that you’re looking to master
Use that time to implement those skills
When you start to get these rushing streams of ideas down on to paper, you start to see the connections and the chronology more easily. For example, take the first step of learning garden design. The catastrophe of skills I’d like to learn seem to order themselves when you think logically. Take a look.
Straight away you can see that the need to learn to draw goes before learning to use Adobe Illustrator, as I’ll be digitalising the drawings after I’ve made them. Equally, learning to make compost tea will come after making garden ferments, as I’ll make the ferments at the same time as I make the compost and I’ll have to wait for the compost to develop before I can make the teas. When you see it laid out, it dances together to form its own logical sense to you.
The Permie Learny Journey
Here’s my first attempt at drawing out my learning journey. It’s rudimental to say the least, but it’s a start. Next time you see it, it’ll be jazzed up in Illustrator and you’ll be convinced I’m a professional!
Anyone who works on their garden knows that compost is the thing you put on plants to make them do well. Few people know why unless they’ve dabbled in a little soil science.
While this blog doesn’t aim to repeat the knowledge imparted by most other permaculture blogs, it does seek to divulge some of my personal experiences in permaculture techniques, to help prevent you from making the same mistakes as me. So we’ll cover a quick background here and then go on to my most recent foolishness.
Why is Compost so Damn Good?
I’m not going to give you a science lesson but simply, when we employ permaculture techniques, the idea is to accelerate the success of plant growth. In our dying world, it is no longer enough to sustain ourselves; we need to go further to regenerate the mess we’ve made and to do it with a little urgency. Succession in agroforestry terms basically refers to the stages in which ecosystems move through, from the first pioneer plants (or weeds as you laymen like to refer to them), up to a mature forest.
The soil is also making a personal journey in that time, most basically moving from bacteria to fungi. Bacteria breaks down green stuff like leaf drop, feeding on the nitrogen in the plants. Fungus breaks down brown stuff like straw and dried leaves, feeding on the carbon. In order to accelerate succession, we need both. Compost is a lovely amalgamation of both of these things with bacteria and fungi bumbling along in there, breaking down the stuff we put in, building soil for the plants we want to grow. A rough calculation for this is that you need 40% green stuff, 40% brown stuff and 20% high nitrogen (manure or kitchen scraps, but manure is better). I’ll address how to make quick hot compost another time, but for now, this is about my adventure with sheet mulching.
What in the Heavens is Sheet Mulching?
When we make compost, we tend to make it in a nice, neat pile, relatively close to the garden. However, this still requires that we distribute it around the garden with our back-breaking labour. Sheet mulching is a beautiful technique which increases efficiency by building compost on the spot, pertaining to the permaculture principle of relative location. Not only does this make our lives easier, it also keeps the ecosystems that develop in the soil undisturbed. While turning compost and moving it to put it in place allows oxygen to enter, which helps to fire up the decomposition process, it also disturbs the complex life systems forming inside. Imagine you’re a happy little basteria, building a life for yourself down then, having built your own community and home with other bacteria. You’ve got yourself a bacteria job and you’re putting bacteria food on your bacteria table for your bacteria kids, taking them to their bacteria extra-curricular activities and having a bacteria pint down the bacteria pub with your bacteria mates. Then all over a sudden the dreaded natural disaster of the ‘spade’ wipes out your whole bacteria life and family, and you have to start over again from scratch, or worse, you get burned up in the process. Sheet mulching keeps those systems intact and undisturbed, and keeps them happily working away.
It’s basically making compost in the bed, which improves the soil straight off the bat. Recently I was reading a blog by a highly Christian, middle of America, homesteading Mummy who referred to this technique as ‘lasagne beds’. This made me chuckle but I really liked it as a descriptive title.
So it’s this simple…or so I thought. You dig you bed. Then you place a layer of high nitrogen (manure most often), followed by a layer of green material (weeds, leaves, etc), followed by a layer of brown material (dry leaves, straw, rice husks). This brown material should be wet. You need generously thick layers of each and over time you pile these up over and over, which decomposes making rich composty soil in place. Not only this, the covering of the soil suppresses weeds, preventing erosion by rain, and holds water in the soil.
So Where Did I Go Wrong?
The tropics are luscious, thick eco-systems of pure production, but the nutrients are held in the plants, and not so much in the soil. The moment it gets in the soil, these overarching trees are sucking it up and expanding their growth. Not only does this mean you have to constantly feed the soil, it means that as quickly as you work to manage the growth, the jungle extends its spidery tendrils to take the land back.
When I laid down my sheet mulching, I thought it would be most effective to hoe the land first and clear the weeds out, to prevent them growing through. You can, in fact, just leave them and pile on top and the deprivation of sunlight from the other layers will kill them off, allowing their nitrogen to leech back into the soil. That was my first mistake; doing too much work for no reason. Just too in love with my hoe.
My second mistake was thinking those weeds would die once I pulled them up, because logically that’s how life works no? No. These weeds are resilient little beggars.
I used dried leaves as my brown layer as we had an abundance around the site, but I found that the weeds underneath that I had pulled up, continued to grow searching branches, weedling through the leaf layers to find the sunlight, while their roots struggled to find solid ground. Often I feel like I’m personally doing this in my daily life, so I could most definitely sympathise. While the majority of stuff was decomposing under the top leaf layer, there were a selection of more viney weeds that would just not give up!
After speaking with one of my permaculture mentors, Itai Goldman, (when I say speaking, I mean freaking out and having a mild nervous breakdown) what I realised I should have done was the old bio-cardboard trick. Luckily, I’d been fermenting up a good old witch’s brew of nitrogen weed fertiliser in the background so I had that at my disposal to use. Rather than digging up all the weeds, I should have soaked the cardboard (make sure it has no ink on it) in the ferment and laid this over the weeds. That way this opaque layer would really stop them getting sunlight. Then I build my lasagne layers on top.
I did this in the end over the layers I had already put down and just piled more over the top and it worked. It stopped those weedy greens struggling to come back through. I was also a little more picky on what I laid as green material. I used cut-grass as the lack of roots meant that the grass would die off quickly without struggling to regrow.
The beds are happily mulching away now. I haven’t planted in them yet although you can plant pretty much straight away. As I used raised beds, when it rains the water collects in them and the mulch holds them. If it’s dry, at the beginning, I would water the beds a little to encourage the brown leaves to decompose, as when they dry out they do nothing but sit and sometimes blow away in the wind.
What I Learned?
You can read all the books in the world about this stuff. You can indulge in all the blogs with different techniques. Only when you start to do it, do you realise that everything really is site-specific. I didn’t realise the voracity that these vine weeds would seek to stay alive and no blog or permie book really talks about that; because it doesn’t occur on their sites.
Next time, I’ll stand back and observe for longer and really take into account what is occurring on my site and what is likely to be a setback for the generic technique I’m applying, or should we say a hurdle I may need to overcome. Just because our PDCs taught us a little knack we can use for growing, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be consistently thinking about how our site specifically will work with this technique, and what feedback loops the system might throw at us. As our good buddy Elvis taught us ‘Wise men say, only fools rush in’.