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What is Permaculture

When I was 33, 10 years out of college and building in my career, I started to question what a career was really all for. The daily grind was getting to me and I started to feel distanced from what initially drew me to my career in resort development and management.

So I started to question things in my life and realized that what was really driving me was fear. You see, I grew up in a household that struggled with money and food. And that childhood fear of not having money or food is what had been driving me.

To combat this, I needed to explore the worst case scenario where I didn't have food or money. What would I do then? Well, turns out humans have spent a majority of their time on this planet without money and somehow still managed to get food. This led me to explore historical ways of growing food. How did the indigenous people do it?

And this led me to discovering a concept called permaculture. The word is a mash-up of "permanent" and "agriculture" and is the practice of designing a holistic food system that mimics nature as best as possible to create a sustainable and productive landscape. 

This was also the time that Netflix was coming out with documentary after documentary about how unsustainable our mono-culture and mechanized agriculture system has become. Permaculture seemed like the solution. The romanticized vision is you have a backyard or small farm full of plants and animals that produce food year-after-year and you can live like an indigenous forager getting your meal right from your yard. Not just farm-to-table, this is yard-to-table.

In reality, that may be possible but is probably unrealistic. However, what is possible is focusing on some key ingredients that you enjoy and figuring how those ingredients can be grown together in a cohesive, natural way. This will give you a similar satisfaction and sense of security even if it just a small portion of your daily diet. 

The ultimate permaculture training is a Permaculture Design Course and Certification ("PDC"). These are offered in a variety of ways and locations. Some are urban, some are rural, some are intensive 1-2 week courses, some spread them out on weekends over several months. You can now even take them online, and some are even offered by accredited education facilities like from Oregon State University (including a free online intro course).

I took my PDC course in 2017 through the Denver Permaculture Guild. It was a very well designed program where we were instructed by several permaculture thought leaders around the Denver area. It was also great because it was a very diverse group of individuals and explored other applications of permaculture principles beyond just growing food - to things like social and economic justice.

If I had one critique about the particular PDC I took, it was focused on the "why" of permaculture but did not leave me with the "how". I was really looking for a paint-by-numbers way to convert my backyard into a food producing oasis. I didn't get that but instead got introduced to a ton of resources and connections that have allowed me to explore permaculture ideas and principles further. This is likely the intent of the program. It is absolutely better to know the "why" before learning the "how". 

Now I spend my hobby time experimenting with the "how". My vision is to continually convert my backyard into a permaculture showcase for others to get inspired with what I have done and provide them with a paint-by-numbers example of how to do it in their own backyards in Denver. And because of permaculture, I no longer live in fear and look forward to the discovery that life will bring and trust that nature can provide abundance for all. I have also rediscovered what I love about my career and now look for ways to blend these two worlds together.

I recommend anyone unfamiliar with permaculture to start to learn more about it. It's a fascinating subject and one that continues to build momentum with new pupils each and every year. Here are a few books and online resources that I've found helpful:

  • Gaia's Garden by Toby Hemenway - perhaps the best introduction to home-scale permaculture gardening techniques.
  • Paradise Lot by Eric Toensmeier - this is the fascinating story of how Eric and his friend converted a 1/10 acre city house lot in Holyoke, MA into a permaculture food paradise. Also be sure to check out Eric's website Perennial Solutions to learn more about what he has accomplished and how to learn from it. I'm particularly interested in his DVD where he shows several different types of edible perennial vegetables.
  • The Resilient Farm and Homestead by David Falk - another great resource on permaculture practices. This one is focused on a bigger farm scale with acreage as opposed to Gaia's Garden and Paradise Lot which are more about a typical backyard scale. Ben too has a website Whole Systems Design to learn more about him, his work, and to tour and take classes.
  • Biggest Little Farm movie - a powerful story about a couple who started a homestead and farm in Southern California and followed permaculture principles in how they designed and ran the farm. It is quite amazing the health and diversity of the ecosystem they created on what was a rundown orchard field.
  • RetroSuburbia by David Holmgren - David along with Bill Mollison were the founders of Permaculture back in the 70's. Bill passed away in 2016 but David still lives in Australia at a home site where he practices permaculture principles day in and day out. This book is about how suburbs, one of the problems of urban sprawl design, could actually be the solution to building a more resilient, localized food and community system.
  • Central Rocky Mountain Permaculture Institute (CRMPI) - this is a home site in the mountains of Basalt near Aspen, CO run by Jerome Osentowski. It is incredible what he has built over the last few decades at an elevation of over 8,000 feet in the Rocky Mountains. Using large eco-greenhouses, which he calls "Climate Batteries", he is able to grow all sorts of food producing plants including bananas, avocados, mangoes, figs, and citrus fruit all in a Zone 4 climate. Simply astounding.
  • Bullock's Permaculture Homestead - these are two brothers who started a permaculture homestead on Orcas Island in North Washington State and share their successes with others through tours and classes.
  • Chelsea Green Publishing - a publisher with focus on permaculture and other earth-healing practices. Their website is a great way to discover new authors and new ideas. And sometimes you can get the books for less expensive than on Amazon, plus you are cutting out one more layer of profit-taking so the publisher and author get more of the proceeds.
  • Mother Earth News - one of the oldest and most widely distributed magazines on natural systems and homesteading. Most of their archives are available for free on the website.