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Rental Permaculture: How to Fill the Void

by Bob Nekrasov

I hear you comrade. ‘I want those acres and to start my food forest and have a permaculture demonstration Eden – but alas, I am a humble renter with big bloody dreams and typically uncreative landlords’.

As us ‘renters’ forlornly scan open fields and acres — seeing real estate listings of eroded soils sitting below beautiful key points — we are designing lush, abundant landscape in our minds and whinging about the price and how we could easily ‘turn this place into a self-sustaining paradise’. Well, at least I am! But, we can get caught in the dream trap — thinking we will start the big permaculture project when we get that dream plot of land. But it is really a void that needs to be filled. When you know how much good you can do you do feel a little crippled by renting a place where you feel you cannot do much. Having this deluded mindset a few years back I set out to figure out what I can do. Hooray!

The main issues we can face as renters are access to land and the space to be creative. Now, I am aware that there are some landlords that love to have people set up gardens etc. and that, of course, would be wonderful. But we do still live in a world where military, pharmaceuticals and pornography are some of the largest industries — so contact with ‘the others’ is possible and you will not be encouraged to grow food and build soil on their land.

What to do here? Let’s start off with container gardening. Some of you know this but many do not even consider it while caught in the dream trap. Now, container gardening can be very expensive if you’re going to your local garden store and purchasing new pots. I highly recommend hard rubbish where people throw out literally thousands of pots and containers. But you do not have to use just pots. Anything that’s going to hold soil, allow holes in the bottom for drainage and give enough root space will work; just make sure it’s not toxic. Old filing cabinets, boots, bags, skulls, karaoke machines, etc. can all work. Once you start thinking about it you will become obsessed with planting stuff in everything and before you know you will have food growing out of everything and coming up with new ideas. It’s really quite exciting and you can provide most of your herbs, salads, small fruits and veggies this way. I mean really, is it worth paying $5 for organic parsley when you can easily grow it out of a shoe you were about to throw away? So, there’s another good point — before we just throw something away think about what we can grow in it? And if you need to move, you can take it all with you or give it to your neighbours and spread these evil ideas around the hood! A-ha!

Also, these days we have such an excellent variety of dwarf fruit trees available to us — trees that will survive perfectly well in pots or even large bags. I would always get excited and start planting trees, which I am glad I did, but no longer enjoy the weepy goodbyes when time to part. Fruit trees in pots can go with you!

Something I liked to tackle was experimenting and using ‘rental time’ as a means to learn things I didn’t know how to do. This can be ultra simple things like starting seeds, for example, and experimenting with easy propagation methods and then graduating to more difficult methods. If you get a bunch of seedlings growing you can then plant them into your container garden, give them to friends or trade / sell them. Organic seedlings cost quite a bit but a packet of heirloom seeds costs very little compared to the quantity you get. It’s really rewarding as well. Again, you’ll become addicted to it and have so many organic seedlings that you can proudly just give away. All you need are toilet rolls to plant the seeds into — these then just go straight into the garden with no disturbance.

I always meet people with properties who are in such a rush to get their dream place happening now — but the beauty of renting is that you can use this time to learn. You can become a great permie during this time, and, don’t forget, it’s an excellent time to start your seed saving collection.

Now, all this container gardening and seed raising is fairly common and we can all do it. But, let’s work on an essential permie skill here. Some aspects of permaculture get lost in the ‘check out my biosupersonic worm farm’ and gardening that we forget about things like observations, planning and communion with our surroundings. This relates to what I mentioned before about the need to be creative. We can stop the dream and start living the dream again through the wonderful act of observation and communion. This can be done anywhere and really, all the time. Get a notebook and spend time, ideally every day, noting down what’s happening in your surroundings. Yep, that means all the obvious stuff like where the sun’s going, what ‘weeds’ you see, what the birds are doing, etc. Now, do not analyse it — be a part of it. Watch and observe as though you are fully a part of it. No thoughts or mandala gardens yet! Ok? Just simply be with your surroundings, write them down and after a while go back to your notes and look at what’s changed in the observations and what’s stayed the same. You can fiddle around with ideas if you want — what you would like to do and just practice. Nothing in nature ends, so this activity will interest you forever! Remember, really effective permaculture design is in the planning and the understanding — this is a very effective and important skill and you will really start be too connected to life, which is exactly what we are aiming for here.

You actually have a great advantage here and with practice and time you will start to really see what your needs are. Your ‘dream’ might end up a little clearer and purposeful and may even end up being totally different to what you thought was ideal. In time you will be boring people to death on car trips across landscapes yelling ‘Wow! Check out that keypoint babe!

Now, if you are saving for land, something to consider is when you do get that land and plan it all, how much it is going to cost you? Fruit and nut trees even in the tens can get pricey and being permies you’re going to need your support and pioneer species too. Another thing we forget is that once we plant these fruit trees we won’t see much off them for a few years. So while you’re waiting, you’ll get on the land and still wait. I hope you know what I am getting at now! Yes, start propagating fruit trees now. Take cuttings from friends or wherever you can and start your planning now. You can buy bulk pioneer tree seeds ultra-cheap and they will grow quite easily. Have a lot of the fruit and nut trees going in case you have some casualties. There’s always somewhere to learn how to do it and plenty of how-to on the internet. It will save you hundreds but also help fill that void when you see all those trees growing — giving some reality to your vision.

The next thing I really want to emphasise is Landshare. It’s a system whereby people with heaps of land allow people to get growing on whatever area is unused. It’s also for people who want to grow their own food but do not have the space. It really is the way of the future and should be the way of the now, I believe. You can check it all out here. That link is for Australia but if from you’re from elsewhere, find out if it’s happening near you, and if not, make it happen! You can head to your local council and see if they will offer up unused land for a community garden, etc. It’s really quite insane the amount of land that is available to all of us. Sometimes we just need to get up and ask for it.

And, of course, there is the excellent Permablitz where you become involved in transforming a place into a permaculture system. Permablitzes are an excellent way to cheer up your permaculture rental blues, learn heaps and keep your hands in the soil. If it’s not happening in your area you can ask people who do own if they would be interested in having one. Now, if you are not a skilled permie — please do not hold back and live in the procrastination void. Just find some people who can help, and, if you can’t find anyone, just work with what you can do. Start small and work on out from there. That is the only way to truly learn — and do not worry too much as any permaculture mistake is much better than an oil spill mistake.

Now, these are just some main ideas for you and I know there are plenty more out there. Please use the comment box and share your ideas for those starting out in permaculture who are caught in the Eden dream whilst renting.


Bob Nekrasov operates Terra Sancta Permaculture, Northern Rivers, NSW, Australia.


  1. i put permaculture beds in the property i was renting. I went back there recently and they dug them up and put grass… sigh!

  2. Thanks for that very important post! As former property owners and now renters we’re in the position of ‘filling the void’ for a while before we do buy again. Renting is not and should not be a burden to practicing permaculture. I do want to recommend to anyone renting who has a landlord willing to hear your ideas to get the property onto paper! Draw up a base map to help your landlord SEE your ideas. Our landlords are open to many of our ideas but to be sure they prefer to see maps and other visual tools -which helps us enormously in the end.

  3. Ah very true! You can always vermicompost too under the kitchen sink, and dont’ forget to tap into community resources. Plenty of schools, churches, and private and public places to garden if they are available.

  4. I don’t think it can be emphasized enough, people are your number one resource. Whether you live in an apartment or on 100 acres your permaculture designs are going to need people.

    It’s important to note that gardens and food forests are only ideas, so if the idea doesn’t map onto our situation maybe we can change the idea. The whole world can be your garden. Foraging is a good place to start and great observation too. Then if you can work with nature to do any sort of organic gardening, it’s not too much harder to observe a little bit wider and interact with human systems.

  5. Renting is where it’s at! I can’t imagine buying property in an economy like this, that is unless I suddenly find myself in the position to pay cash. I’m starting to think I may never even want land. At this point I’m happy to have my cargo bike and a tiny house in the city. After long days of designing and implementing on clients properties the last thing I want to do is come home and do all that for my land too. I’m happy to help those who already have the land get it into good shape! It is dismaying to see so many hold off, waiting for the day they can afford land, and then practice permaculture. Often, I think permaculture is better practiced on a street corner than on 50 acres that few people ever see.

  6. This article points up a larger issue….that there is so much more to permaculture than gardening and homesteading. Permaculture is applicable to a high-rise dweller with no access to land whatsoever. That person still has an ecological footprint, and chances are likely that he or she has lots of opportunities to reduce it. What are they buying, and where? Where does their energy and water come from? Where does the waste go? What options are there to practice the “three R’s” (reduce, reuse, recycle)….or any of the additonal “R’s” added since (like respect, rethink, refuse) I once reminded a friend in Manhattan that they might be doing more good for the planet by choosing a life where private car ownership isn’t necessary than I was doing with my 40 acre homestead 15 miles from the nearest town of any size…. Besides the footprint, there’s what I would call the ecological handprint….what positive opportunities does a non-landowner have to a disproportionate degree? One could start with the already mentioned possibilities for community networking, including around land access but by no means restricted to that.

  7. Great article Bob and one that is entirely in line with mt thoughts . Small spaces , and the urban environment are where it’s at . While a lot of us would like to have the big block of land , in a contracting economy most simply wont have the means, and ultimately it is the skills we build that become our greatest asset . Most of us will simply have to stay put and muddle through using the “Software” of Permaculture . Great to have you in the area , I’m at the PRI so please feel free to make contact , we’re all in this together !
    Best Tim

  8. thanks for the all comments – that container garden link is amazing – excellent proof right there.

    and yeah, foraging! – get to know your local native edibles that grow in the wild. another whole world to explore right there.

    Tim – I am one million per cent coming to PRI at some stage soon. Still settling in. I will be giving a short talk at Nicks Urban course in Feb but hope to get there before hand. And likewise mate – if you or PRI need anything, hit me up!

    much power to you all!

  9. Hi Bob,

    Really great article. Good work and enjoy those fruit trees, herbs and vegies! Years ago I had to walk away from a nashi pear tree that gave about 50+ fruit a year so I know what you mean.



  10. After reading this article last week I felt inspired to do a few containers on my patio this weekend and I have to say it felt DAMN GOOD to actually get going – rather than procrastinating all the time or finding excuses not to start Perming! Way to go! thanks Bob.

  11. Rental is the way to go and in an urban area there are many empty blocks available, often sitting there for years without anyone doing anything on them. All one has to do is check up on the ownership and contact them. You would be surprised how many owners would like to have someone looking after their land instead of them having to clean it up all the time as a result of it being utilised as a public dump. Lateral thinking is the way to go in getting access to land. Urban farming is also a great example for others to follow.

  12. I remember some wise words of Cecilia Macaulay: treat each rental house as another property to add to your permaculture portfolio. Even if you have to leave, you have gained so much by implementing yet another permaculture design (but do record it!)
    Love the German container garden!
    I’ve also started my fruit trees in pots. My philosophy was one day I’ll get fruit and that day will come sooner, the quicker I get the tree! I now have 24 fruit trees! I quickly got carried away in two years.

  13. I rented for many years and finally rented one with a garden. Grew perennials that transplanted freat to our new place when we finally bought and got a real head start. Thoseperennial veggies aremnowmeleven years old and still cranking!

  14. Thanks !
    This site is great, simply great, and this post is amazing. Full of hope.

    Just Thanks for the ideas, we are living in a unit in Gold Coast, now rented a small house with a backyard, and we are really happy to start perming and nursering.

    Lots of good vibes for everyone.
    Bless !

    Javier, Paula and little Camilo

  15. Oh, the first thing I did when I moved back into Melbourne from interstate was to propagate like mad and pot up heaps of fruit trees in 100L pots. Well, landlord got greedy, kicked us out, here we are at second rental and unless you have at least 100k goodbye property market… so trees are now outgrowing their pots (go rocket pots, sadly not mine) and no permanent home in site. And the front yard is covered with no till wicking beds.. and all the trees in pots are getting big and fruiting nicely thanks, planted all the under the fruit trees are herbaceous layers, or sit there in smaller pots… and all the companion, insectivorous etc plants to are in pots… and the portable reed bed water filtration system is in essentially big pots… the worm farm is in a bath, sort of a big pot, will be fun to move… the neighbours think I run garden centre and the landlord doesn’t know what to think. Before you get excited, with propagation of trees, think about your timeline . And dwarf varieties have come a long way recently…. soil building and non labile carbon fixing in no till wicking beds and bloody big pots- I’ll keep you updated. these are the musings of a person who’s life is in pots.
    All I know is everything needs repotting.

  16. Thanks for sharing ‘a-bear’ – great to get your story, awesome. You’re spot on with how good dwarf varieties are these days. This article goes back a little now but I am still renting, actually just moved interstate and think I am due for part two of this tale as there’s even more possibilities available and new strategies. I hear you on the conflict with trees getting to the stage where they’ll be needing a home! Look forward to hearing more mate. Cheers!

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