Permaculture Principles

Even though we’ve used many of the practices of Permaculture on our farm through the years, I’m just learning the formal principles.  “Permaculture” itself is a bit tricky to nail down.  One of the best, simplest descriptions comes from

“Permaculture is a design system inspired by nature which is based on ethics and design principles that can be used to guide you, your household and your community ‘beyond sustainability’.”

In a nutshell, we observe and study nature and seek to use the natural systems we see to sustain ourselves now and in the future.  Nature, be it a woods, prairie, or neighborhood is designed with unique interactions that perpetuate the system.  Our job is to figure out how to do it purposefully.  That’s where the Principles of permaculture offer a road map to set up self perpetuating systems.

In the Intro to Permaculture and Soils class Penny Krebiehl and Craig Schaaf will give you all the principles and you will get to work through a project with them.  Here is the first Principle:

Observe and Interact

Mullein plants indicate a "sour", low pH soil--a good place for blueberries.

Mullein plants indicate a “sour”, low pH soil–a good place for blueberries.

This first step is the key to opening the door of permaculture.  Joel Salatin was the first person we heard express this concept.  He recommended taking a five gallon bucket out to the field and sitting for a while, watching your chickens, turkeys, pigs, etc. to see what made them happy and content.  Do it at different times of day.  Do it on different days.  Then see what you can do to make your animals happy.  Happy animals (not necessarily spoiled, though) are productive animals.

Lambsquarter is a healthy addition to a salad since it's a member of the spinach family.  It may also show you a great place to plant squash.

Lambsquarter is a healthy addition to a salad since it’s a member of the spinach family. It may also show you a great place to plant squash.

When you want to put in a garden or a new bed, consider what you want to plant.  What soil conditions does it like?  How much light does it need?   How hot or cool does it tolerate?  Sit and observe your yard, considering these things.  Look for which weeds thrive–they can give you a clue as to what kind of soil you have.  For example, if you see mustard or chickory, you likely have a “crusty” soil.   Broccoli, cabbage, and vegetables of that family will likely do well there.  Differing sources suggest various remedies, or you may consider using a permaculture approach and find out what likes that soil and would thrive there anyway.  Observing and beginning to interact with the area will help you make decisions about what to plant where.   The goal is to develop a system that will thrive with as little maitainance energy from you as possible.

I can tell you that this is a process.  For example, the weeds got away from me one year in between the rows in the garden.  I decided just to mow them so they wouldn’t go to seed.  What I learned is that the mowed weeds helped hold moisture so that the vegetables did better in between waterings and needed less water.  The next year I planted in beds rather than rows and Mark planted clover between the beds.  This worked fabulously.  The clover kept the weeds choked out and made a nice thatch that held water and protected all the worms and other soil life.  The next step was mulch.  Craig Schaaf, our Soils instructor, is the fellow we learned this from.  We rearranged the garden into wider beds with a narrow walkway.  We mulched the beds (learning a few lessons about that along the way, too–like how quickly a hen and 7 chicks can deconstruct the carefully strawed rows of potatoes) with straw and put cut grass from the lawn on the walkways.  This was even better as the mulch brought the water retention right to the plants and provided cover and food for the soil dwellers.  We’ve observed and learned that nature doesn’t leave soil uncovered.  By imitating that one concept in the garden we have improved our soil and gained better harvests.

There are 11 more principles.  A fun site to explore them is  A couple of sites where I read about weeds are: and Everyday Gardener.  However, there is lots of information on both topics if you google them.  Penny will be sharing all the permaculture information and she and Craig will walk you through applying it in the Intro to Permaculture and Soils class.  You get practical experience with your book learning!  Hope to see you there!

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