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The Tools of Permaculture: A Guide to Permaculture Techniques

This is the third part in my permaculture series. Check out Part I: The Permaculture Principles and Part II: A History of Permaculture and its Movers and Shakers.

Permaculture is a thought process. There are many methods employed by permaculturist but these methods do not make the movement. My teacher, Larry Santoyo, likes to say that the methods are the tools and permaculture the toolbox. It is important to note that many of these tools are not new, many of them are ancient. Too often people in power profit by marketing ancient tools and philosophies as new and hip. Permaculture links relevant ancient methods with new ones and applies them to the challenges of today.

Below are some permaculture techniques that can be easily applied to urban gardens, homes and economies. Note that permaculture is not a “one-size-fits-all” solution. A herb spiral is designed to save space and would be unnecessary on a large farm. Building with straw bales is a great way to insulate a home in many climates. But, in areas without large temperature fluctuations, a straw bale house becomes an inappropriate solution. Observe your site and analyze your needs and resources before deciding which of these permaculture techniques to employ.

A Guide to Permaculture Techniques

Gardening

Herb Spiral

Inspired by spirals in nature, the herb spiral optimizes garden space by using vertical space in addition to horizontal. These easy to build structures are usually about six feet in diameter and four feet high. They can be built from many materials but brick, rock and urbanite (see below) are popular. Besides saving space, the herb spiral creates microclimates. Some parts of the spiral will receive more sun than others, the top will be drier than the bottom. These niches provide more opportunities for a diversity of plants.

permaculture techniques

One of my favorite permaculture techniques, a herb spiral. Photo by Hons1111 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

Perennial Crops

A typical grocery store usually carries three perennial vegetables; asparagus, rhubarb and artichoke. But, there are much more. While permaculture uses annual crops it also encourages the use of edible perennials. Because they do not need to be replanted each year, perennials reduce the gardener’s workload. The majority of plants in a natural ecosystem are perennials. Perennials establish a deeper root system than annuals and are thereby able to access water and nutrients deep underground. They produce more with less energy input by the farmer. Some perennials to try include sunchokes, sorrel and scarlet runner beans. For an extensive look at perennial crops check out Eric Toensmeir’s, Perennial Vegetables.

permaculture techniques

Sunchokes (Helianthus tuberoses) have an edible and healthy root.

Guilds

In Medieval Europe craftsmen grouped together for mutual protection and aid, they called these formations ‘guilds.’ Permaculture adopted the word to refer to a collection of plants growing together for mutual benefit. The Native American Three Sisters Garden is a prime example of a guild. Beans use corn stalks for climbing support while squash spread out over the ground forming a living mulch. The beans provide nitrogen to the soil benefiting the corn and squash.

A guild is often composed of a central fruit tree surrounded by plants that:

  • fix nitrogen: beans, peas, lupine.
  • accumulate nutrients: comfrey, stinging nettle.
  • create living mulch: strawberry.
  • attract pollinators: borage, lavender.
  • Attract beneficial insects: dill, yarrow, anise hyssop.

Gaia’s Garden, Toby Hemenway’s master work on permaculture techniques, provides thorough lists of plants categorized by the need they fill in a guild.

permaculture techniques

Corn, beans, and squash all help each other grow (Note beans should be planted after corn is established as they grow quickly). Amaranth is also pictured.

Lasagna Mulching

Lasagna mulching (also called sheet mulching) is a process of composting in place. This method creates healthy soil over hard dirt or even a grass lawn. Simply lay down a layer of cardboard or newspaper as a weed suppression barrier then top that with about one foot of organic mulch (wood chips, straw, leaves, etc…). Keep the pile moist and watch how quickly it breaks down into loamy earth.

For converting an area for vegetable planting create a highly rich soil by making 2-inch layers of manure, hay, stable bedding, compost and other organic matter. Most of this material is thought of as waste and can be found for free. Note that Bermuda and crab grass, the bane of many gardeners, has a way of surviving lasagna mulching. I have found that solarization works for these grasses.

permaculture techniques

Mulch will attract worms to the soil surface where they will cultivate your soil for you. The occasional bird searching for a snack is evidence of the worm’s presence.

Architecture

Straw Bale House

Straw has long been used as a building material across the globe including in Middle America where trees can be scarce. It has a high insulation value, is cheaply acquired, uses little lumber and eliminates plywood and insulating materials that outgas toxins.

A straw bale house usually consists of a wood frame with stacked straw bales for insulation. The straw bales are covered with stucco creating a warm and earthy feel inside and out. A straw bale house may be a large project for the typical homeowner but consider building a chicken coop or art barn with straw bales.

permaculture techniques

Straw bale house under construction. Photo by Colin Rose (originally posted to Flickr as Straw Bale House) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

permaculture techniques

The thick walls and plaster give this straw bale house a warm feeling. Photo by Rrechtschaffen at English Wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

 Urbanite

Urbanite is the hip word for broken concrete. Concrete is the most widely used material in the world and landfills are drowning in it. You can construct pathways, herb spirals and retaining walls from broken concrete, thereby diverting it from the waste stream. When done properly, these finished projects have a clean and natural look. Urbanite is easy to find cheap or for free. Conduct a Craigslist search and if you live in a city you will quickly find someone looking to get rid of it.

permaculture techniques

Urbanite is cheap and easy to work with.

Economy

Local Employment Trading System (L.E.T.S.) and Timebanks

Picture a healthy forest. Leaves fall to the ground, animals excrete waste and things die. This is all decomposed and incorporated into the soil where it becomes part of the building blocks of other plants and animals. Now picture a local economy. A person buys a box of nails from Wal-Mart using the $10 they earned working at a local restaurant. A small (very small) portion of that $10 is returned to the community, the rest is funneled up to the heads of the company located outside of the community.

L.E.T.S. and timebanks aim to mimic a healthy ecosystem within their local economy. Members come together (usually between 50-150 members) to create their own currency. This currency is earned by selling goods or services then used to buy goods and services from any other member. Say Lee babysits for one hour for Ahmed. Kai is paid in the L.E.T.S. currency or in one timebank hour. He can then take this currency and buy home grown vegetables from Brittany. The currency is not useful outside of the local community and therefore continues to circulate within it.

Visit www.timebanks.org to get started with timebanking.

Conclusion

These are some of my favorite permaculture techniques but certainly not a comprehensive list. As you observe your site, community, and social challenges, you will discover and advance new methods for sustainable design. Let us know what you come up with.

 

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