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?