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Jack of All Trades, Master of None

I am always observing and making decisions on the run, doing a sequence of brief tasks and changing mid stream from what I had previously planned. Multi-tasking is the norm in a self-reliant way of life, so different from the specialisation and repetitive focus that characterises work in the conventional economy. When performing a long sequence of small tasks in a diverse and integrated permaculture system, [one] needs many different tools. – David Holmgren, ‘Permaculture Pocket Knives’ article, April 2012

I have a confession to make. I’m not really very good at growing things. That’s a problem when you start delving into permaculture, which, after all, means ‘permanent agriculture’. And there are so many areas to consider: water and soil, space and seeds, companion and sequential planting, harvesting and storing… None of these are skills I grew up with. My family had a vegetable garden and they composted, but I never paid much attention. You cannot study one area without overlapping into another and while that is an interesting, interconnected process, it also means there is a lot to learn, particularly if you are trying to minimize inputs when growing food. I find that when you are enthusiastic and new at something, it can be irritating to others who have developed skills over many years and feel that you are stepping into their field of expertise. A fair point as permaculturalists seem to have something to say on virtually every topic, including those they may not actually know much about. But hopefully it’s better to be learning, asking for advice from others and making those connections rather than sitting on the sidelines feeling overwhelmed and end up doing nothing.

The internet is such a huge, wonderful database of information. I spend time every day looking things up and learning more about a wide variety of topics via articles, videos, experts and regular people just trying things and reporting results. David Holmgren wrote in his article ‘Permaculture Activism and the Future’, October 2014:

It certainly helps to connect with like-minded people for ideas and inspiration in building skills and capacities to help ourselves and others adapt to a rapidly changing world. As a concept I hope [permaculture] continues to be informed and infused with creative thinking and activism that arises from outside its own self-referenced world. In this way it will avoid stagnation in thinking and action and continue to exhibit hybrid vigour that can respond to a rapidly changing world. This holistic “jack of all trades” scope of permaculture needs to be balanced by a “mastery of one”. For each of us the calling and contribution to a better world will be many and varied.

Part of any sustainable system is having a ‘closed loop’ – there is no waste in nature. This led me, of course, to composting my kitchen scraps. And that led to a big, unproductive mess with lots of fruit flies. Learning how to improve soil is very high on my list of things to learn, but there is just so much to learn about that I made a hasty and rather bad start to composting. I did experiment with burying food waste this past summer, and I planted cover crops and put hay down so there’s no exposed soil. But I jumped in without a clear plan, which is not very efficient.

Permaculture is not new; it simply puts together what we know are best practices, defines principles to guide our actions, and moves from pattern to details. Problem is, I’m a detail person — diving into the little stuff and then backtracking because I did not have an overall design in place. Needless to say, taking a Permaculture Design Certificate (PDC) course made me rethink my strategy. Starting small, learning more, and scaling up would be a better option, so I watched a TedTalk video; “Everything you know about composting is wrong” which seemed right up my alley.

Mike McGrath talked about the value of leaves and why we should collect as many as possible at this time of year. One of my worries has always been how to really balance my soil, making sure there were minerals and nutrients, not just focussing on nitrogen. Then I thought about how nature recycles nutrients by drawing them up through the roots which grow deeper each year, pushing nutrients into the leaves, collecting sunlight as energy, and finally dropping those leaves at our feet once a year. Maybe I don’t have to get overly scientific with the soil, just mimic nature and use what she does; at least that seemed like a reassuring starting point.

I had planned to rake and keep the leaves from the one deciduous tree in our yard, but after listening to him, I raced out to collect from a neighbour’s front yard (they were only too happy to have me cart some away in bins). Then I tried mulching leaves with my weed eater (no good) and then the lawn mower (much better). Having carbon alone is not much use, so I went to my local Starbucks to learn about their ‘Grounds for your Garden’ program. Not so much a program, it turns out, as a process of dragging plastic bags of spent grounds out of their recycling bin. No matter, I was taking a waste product and doing something useful with it, and that felt good. Next was building a wire enclosure for the mulched leaves, mixing in coffee grounds, and then the ‘wait and see’ process.

I am so grateful for those who share their expertise through workshops, articles, video, etc., as it’s a way of accelerating learning, rather like permaculture’s idea of accelerating natural processes such as building soil. Hopefully I’m doing both, with plenty of mistakes along the way. As Jeffrey Agrell wrote:

a mistake is an unexpected result that tells [you] that something needs changing in some way. When (not if) such surprises happen, the proper reaction is isolation of the problem, analysis of possible causes, and construction of possible solutions. Not irritation or tension. Children are able to assimilate the world so quickly because they don’t worry about making mistakes. They proceed with a spirit of endless adventure, persistence, and enthusiasm. Adults learn much more slowly because they have heavy ego attachment to results and have been schooled to value product (perfection) over the process that allows them to learn efficiently, which includes making lots of mistakes and learning from them.

We all choose different paths based on our skills and passions. What are yours?


  1. I totally agree with the fact that we can’t all be masters of all the skills needed to maintain a permaculture system. But at the same time, that fact makes the idea of “community” much more essential. The idea of working as a community means we each can focus on a niche, master it and serve the others who aren’t as good doing that task. This way services are exchanged and efficiency is maximized. At the same time, we can teach other about our own niches and thus strengthen the momentum of the community!

    1. George, you are absolutely right. That’s why I am involved with the Transition Initiative in my area – each of us has different skills and passions and we share them at workshops and meetings. The thing about learning self-sufficiency (Mollison would likely just call that ‘personal responsibility’) is that you feel good about it. I look forward to teaching more in the future!

  2. Hi Linda. We’ve all got to start somewhere and congrats on doing just that. Have you considered the alternative option of letting nature deal with these soil inputs? As a suggestion, add them to your soil in various places using different methods. Mark out those locations and watch what happens over the next year. The results may surprise and delight you. Plus then you’ll be able to discuss the relative merits of each of the different additives and methods and then you’ll know intuitively what works for you and your area. PS: Here, even high carbon materials such as woody mulch break down into a rich black loam within two years. Cheers. Chris

    1. Thanks Chris! I have several experiments ongoing, including innoculated shitake logs, hugelkulture bed (not much wood breaking down yet), and several types of compost. Glad I have so much wood and also leaves here. There’s certainly only so much reading you can do, then you have to experiment with your local conditions. But permies are always willing to share their experiences which is so helpful!

  3. Innovation is born from error. Luckily we have some really solid principles and ethics to keep our errors small, allowing for the innovation part to take central stage.

  4. I’m in a similar situation, don’t know much but enjoying the endeavor of improving soil. On my 360 or so sq meters, I’m on track to collect 200 bags of leaves from around the neighborhood this year. I’ve already used fossil fuels to bring them home, can’t bring myself to try to shred them all too. In nature, in a real forest, there are lots of downed branches with the leaves, seems that would aerate things. I’m trimming all sticks and limbs I can find out of my trees to lay out as thickly as possible among the leaves. If my soil is ready to grow stuff a year or 2 down the road instead of right now next spring that’s ok, I’m patient.

  5. Interesting, because I left with a very impression after watching that video a few months ago. I’ll copy and paste my comment here. But first, I want to say that I agree with much of what you have to say. Sometimes we do feel like “jacks of all trades” and yes, like you mention, people who are specialists sometimes do get irritated with energetic permaculture upstarts :) So I do a lot of listening and try to get a feel for whether or not someone may be interested in my perspective. Which is hard, as you will see, because I do have a lot I want to get off my chest sometimes.

    Here was my comment on that TED talk:

    I cannot recommend this video.

    1) Taking all of the leaves deciduous plants drop to make leaf mold compost is a great way to ensure your trees lack the leaf litter they have come to expect after millions of years of evolution. Taking some to use as mulch or compost elsewhere isn’t a problem, but taking all of them? Highway robbery. There is no mention in this talk of leaving some for the trees or shrubs. Leaf litter is essential for soil development around trees and woodland species. Trees have been around for over 100 million years. Instead of blithely waving away the benefits of leaf litter, perhaps we should pay attention.

    1a) One of the primary reasons to compost is for the biological activity inside the compost. Healthy, biologically active compost needs to be protected from solar radiation, wind, and rain. Leaves acting as a mulch do this. If you do take leaves and make compost and then return that compost to the tree, the compost should be mulched, else you lose many of the benefits that drove you to make compost in the first place. The only mention about a benefit to trees and shrubs of leaf litter is waved away rather cavalierly.

    2) Leaves decompose without human intervention. Yes, even leaves from oak trees decompose. Sorry they don’t conform to the dominant cultural desire for tidiness or instant gratification. Trees were dropping leaves well before humans climbed down from them. Perhaps it is an evolutionary advantage rather than something to be improved upon by human intervention. And if anyone believes in creationism or intelligent design, perhaps the creator had a reason why trees don’t shred their leaves? (Hint: fungi, bacteria, and insects do a wonderful job of this if we allow them)

    3) Trees are not bullies. They are trees. Taking species from one ecosystem and forcing them to live with some from another and expecting all of them to get along is nonsense. Research desired species thoroughly for their needs before planting them together. If your flowers are not from an environment where trees exist, don’t plant them under a tree and then complain when they get smothered by leaves or if they are outcompeted by the tree.

    3a) Mycorrhizal fungi and interspecies root grafting are two prime examples of how trees cooperate rather than compete. Yes, they do compete too, but they primarily cooperate with organisms that thrive in their same habitat. Also, take a look at a forest about this time of year and notice the many species of herbaceous plants that have a) survived being “smothered” by leaves and b) are blooming before the canopy closes in late spring. I wonder why they didn’t die? Could the leaf layer have something to do with protecting them from early and late frost? Could the leaf litter have something to do with regulating moisture too?

    It should also be noted that the timing of these early spring, woodland species growth has been observed to be a key method of retaining nutrients that would otherwise be leached away during spring thaw (look up the “Trout Lily and vernal dam” hypothesis). So trees aren’t bullies. Trees are trees and trees have evolved alongside other plants. Choose plants that get along with trees to live with trees, not the other way around. Likewise, if you want a lawn, don’t plant a specimen tree into it unless that tree gets along with grasses. The types of soil most trees actively encourage through root exudates are dominated by fungi, not bacteria (which most grasses favor). Your grass and tree will be competing until the end of their days to develop soil in the way that suits them. Try to avoid forcing plants to compete because of cultural pressure. If you have to have a tree in grass, be kind and let it have at at least some area that is mulched with its own leaves and perhaps some wood chips so that its feeder roots and soil life associates can do their evolutionary thing.

    4) Composting has precious little to do with physics and everything to do with biology. There are many ways to both build and manage a compost pile. One of them is to layer greens and browns in appropriate ratios, search for the Berkeley Compost Method. In some climates, people have managed to “finish” one of these compost piles in just 18 days. Yes, they do wind up “mixing” the layers as the pile is managed, but the biological processes are initialized by layering materials. One advantage of initially layering a pile is that it is easier to visualize the ratios. Mixing the two together from the outset works too. Do what works best for you. Again, composting is all about fostering biology. Human beings don’t create compost, they create the conditions for decomposer organisms to thrive. That is what you are doing when you build a compost pile, you are fulfilling the niche requirements for the organisms that do the work. We don’t make compost. We help make compost.

    The one thing that I completely agree with in this video is partnering with composting worms (especially Eisenia fetida) to process kitchen scraps. This is a highly underrated activity and its benefits are, as he says, enormous. See the work coming out of North Carolina State University and Cornell for starters.

    The last two minutes of the video, from worms on, was the best part of this talk. Trees are not bullies, they are not benign, they are simply trees. Understanding what organisms do and why should be the foundation of land management, not how we can exploit one organism for our own benefit.

  6. But really, whether the leaves are shredded or not is a small point. Our soil has been stressed for so long that anything we are doing is fantastic. The best thing I love about the techniques and mindset of permaculture is the boldness. We are all exploring avenues with gusto, and nature will indeed thank us for it, I do believe. Thanks, Linda, for opening the topic! Thanks, Joshua, for the note about worms. This inspires me to try to explore that soon. Though I’ve seen some success with straw and kitchen scrap composting so far.

  7. Doing a little bit of everything with leaves is a great way to utilize such a wonderful resource, agreed for sure. I’m not against shredding leaves either using a machine, garden shears, or even gloved hands. Just that this TED talk starts off with such a bold claim then ignores some really basic things about biology/ecology that made me want to speak up.

    Vermicomposting really is something special. I’ve got to put together some new material about it. Perhaps even calling it vermicomposting is misleading as it is really about raising worms, rather than “composting.” It can take a while to get used to meeting their requirements, but once you do, you’ve got a year-round way of processing food scraps (and some other materials). Of course, it depends greatly upon your own situation. My wife and I live in an apartment in a country with nearly 7 months of freezing/near freezing temperatures. Thermophilic composting isn’t an option, but having a worm bin inside is! Storing the finished vermicompost while keeping it biologically active requires a little more attention.

    I’m also a big proponent of it since the organisms that are digesting the food work at regular temperatures and so will continue to serve their function when the castings/manure (see, its not really “compost”) are brought into the garden. In a thermophilic compost pile, many of the organisms only become active once the temperatures climb well above any soil temperature should be! Of course, the temperatures in such a pile serve their own purpose, like reducing the number of pathogens or killing seeds that you wouldn’t want in your garden. Vermicomposting, on the other hand, seems to increase the rate of germination for many seeds that just aren’t eaten by the worms, like tomatoes.

    What is great is that there are so many ways to partner with natural functions to meet an objective that a solution exists for just about anything.

  8. Thanks for the comments, Joshua (and everyone else). “Taking some to use as mulch or compost elsewhere isn’t a problem, but taking all of them? Highway robbery.” Totally agree! I am fortunate as I can rake leaves from sidewalks and boulevards in my area before the leaf blowers come in and suck everything up, we should never take from natural areas. I was listening to Joel Salatin’s speech at a local event yesterday and I was a bit uncomfortable about his comments on clearing the underbrush so we humans can use the carbon and stop wildfires. Permaculture does put human needs front and centre, though, so it’s always going to be a balance between our needs and leaving natural areas alone. The shredding of leaves is mentioned just about everywhere leaf litter is discussed, the usual humans-accelerating-nature. I sure wouldn’t want to have to go and buy a tool to do it, though! your point 3a was actually what my husband and I were discussing on a walk through the woods yesterday, good point. The guy in the video was trying to be funny and low-key for his TedTalk audience, calling trees ‘bullies’ when of course in fact nature is FAR more cooperative than competitive. Funny, my friend tried worm composting and say it totally did not work. Just goes to show we all have to try everything for ourselves, find what works, and hopefully help others in our local area with the results!

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