Forgive Thyself: Self-Sufficient Homesteads Don’t Happen Overnight, And That’s Okay

Permaculture tends to attract passionate, active people who are dead-set on living more responsibly, in tune with the planet. By and large, we are an energetic, self-motivated crowd. Principally, we like the idea of self-reliance but embrace the notion of interactive, ecologically-minded communities. We are not people who sit on the sidelines, waiting for others to solve the world’s problems, but rather we are those putting our stake in the ground and going for it.

With all of that, we are also a bunch that tend to be hard on ourselves and, I dare say, each other regarding what exactly it is we are and aren’t doing in our practices. It’s a shame that in taking such positive steps forward, we sometimes become distracted by our immediate shortcomings and/or failings. We want to be further along that road to self-sufficiency, but the fact of the matter is converting to an idealized version of a permaculture lifestyle can be a lengthy process.

I’ve heard others speak about a new fourth ethic (actually, there are quite a few theories about this) being something along the lines of forgiving ourselves as we transition, and these days I’m finding real comfort in this mindset. While I certainly don’t want to advocate complacency, at times, having a little patience with one’s self (and others, of course) is much more relevant than getting everything right, right at the start. Some leniency can mean the difference between giving up and reaching long-term goals, the really important ones.

The Permaculture Way

Gardens and Swales in Belize (Emma Gallagher)
Gardens and Swales in Belize (Emma Gallagher)

In permaculture, we observe first and design accordingly. We implement change slowly with a purposeful hand and an eye towards efficiency, ecology, and permanence. We work this way to minimize large, damaging mistakes. We do it to make our more conscious means of living a pleasure rather than one consumed with sacrifice, both on our parts and the environment. To the point, when designing a permaculture lifestyle, just as with the home and garden, it’s important to remember this mode of thinking.

While all of us would like to grow all the food we eat, to only eat organically, and to have 100% of our energy come from renewable sources, very few of us are anywhere close to this, and even fewer of us start from a place where these goals are near to our current reality. Transitioning from the status quo into clean-running permaculture machines is simple in a lot of ways but also something that requires patience, planning, and well-timed changes.

Small increments are more apt to create large, lasting, and positive transformations. Sure, eating primarily what we can produce at home is a worthy objective, but if we try to do that in the first month, or even the first year, our production system would most likely fail us and lead to starvation (for the really hard-headed) or giving up. Renewable energy sources are great, but perhaps before going there, the more pertinent move would be to lessen our energy uses, learning to limit our reliance on electricity and petroleum to do things that don’t necessarily require them: opening a can, drying clothing, going to the store, etc. It’s a lot easier (and affordable) to start improving ethical eating habits by slowly reducing the negative patterns, taking on one or two at a time rather than suddenly and completely altering what’s for dinner. And, on it goes.

All That’s in the Way

Always More To Do (Emma Gallagher)
Always More To Do (Emma Gallagher)

On a personal level, I’ve recently found myself in need of gentle self-assessment. I’ve gone from nearly three years of living largely off-grid, volunteering on farms, and being able to do things closer to nature to living in an apartment in a town, as I do now. While my new job—farmers market coordinator for an organic farm—is certainly in keeping with the lifestyle I’m after, transitioning into an urban existence, one that I agree with, is proving to be slower and, at times, more challenging than I’d previously conceived.

I’d envisioned small edible gardens hugging the sidewalk of my apartment building, ferments bubbling away in the kitchen, and a nursery of seedlings on the go, but nearly a month in, I’ve got no plants in the ground and one failing ginger bug. There are reasons. My budget is limited at the moment. My time to piddle is less. I haven’t been able to find some of the materials I need. And, “real” life has gotten in the way.

After so much work towards a more sustainable existence, taking somewhat necessary steps backwards have been hard to stomach. I’m once again having to find my way into permaculture. However, this time it’s perhaps less exciting, as I have the knowledge (so that adventure of discovery has waned) to do what I want, but I haven’t had the wherewithal—the schedule, the funds, the materials. In this way, I am acutely aware of where I’m not, which can sometimes feel debilitating.

Somehow Finding a Way

At Caoba Farmers Market (Emma Gallagher)
At Caoba Farmers Market (Emma Gallagher)

But, I’m learning to be an easier on myself as I settle in to my new life. I’m appreciating what is happening as I’d like: nearly all of my produce is now organic—haven’t found local fruits that I know are grown organically—and nearly all of my food is grown locally, with perhaps a few imported grains thrown in the mix. I’m working at an organic farm, learning new techniques and playing a vital role in the local community. I walk to work (no petroleum), a beautiful journey along colonial streets with views of volcanoes. I’m networking with several gardening and green projects.

What’s more is that, as all of the kinks and coils of urban living are sorting themselves out, my imagination is actively thinking about putting in the gardens at my apartment. And, in addition to the ginger bug, I’ll soon be setting up a fermentation station with kombucha, hot sauce, ginger beer, sourdough, and sauerkraut. I actually stopped writing this article to go take clippings from nearby plants—cranberry hibiscus, Chaya, mint, peppermint, basil—and have started them rooting, and I’ve potted several herbs that I took clippings from a few weeks ago. The garden has begun!

I know that I’m currently a long way off from a homestead. I want a composting toilet and a water catchment system, but I don’t even have compost bin at home yet (I take it to work). But, there are plans for worm buckets in the upcoming apartment garden. So, I’m moving in the right direction, and I’m trying to do so in a deliberate way that makes sense for me. In the meantime, I’m learning to forgive myself for all that I see that needs changing and acknowledge that I am observing, planning, and getting there step by step. How else can it ever happen?

Cuttings on the Windowsill (Emma Gallagher)
Cuttings on the Windowsill (Emma Gallagher)

Now, I must admit that I was inspired to write this after listening to an amazing podcast with Ethan Hughes.

Feature Photo: New Sprouts of Malabar Spinach (Emma Gallagher)

Jonathon Engels

The financially unfortunate combination of travel enthusiast, freelance writer, and vegan gardener, Jonathon Engels whittled and whistled himself into a life that gives him cause to continually scribble about it. He has lived as an expat for over a decade, worked in nearly a dozen countries, and visited dozens of others in the meantime, subjecting the planet to a fiery mix of permaculture, music, and plant-based cooking. More of his work can be found at Jonathon Engels: A Life About.


  1. What a beautifully written article, one that will resonate with many who are on the path to greater sustainability! Impatience only serves to cause frustration and negative emotions; it’s taking the bigger view that you’ve described that’s important if you don’t want the wave of negativity and frustration to drown you and make you give up. For hubby and I, we’ve found MANY times over the years that we didn’t achieve what we thought we wanted to achieve because there was ultimately a better plan after more observation, a plan that worked much better than the one that we beat ourselves up for not completing originally. We’ve since learned to let go and let flow, usually with better results in the end and without the frustration and negativity. We’ve dubbed our development method the “organic process,” one where we let things develop softly and after lots of observation, until the plan “feels right.” It’s served us well. Thanks for sharing your journey and insights!

    1. Land bought ✅ citrus orchard planted ✅ industrial shed turned into shed house ✅ bio cycle and water tanks in ✅ composting sorted ✅ fruit and nuts planted in rainforest beside bush tucker plants ✅ now I need to get my vege gardens going and put my chickens to work! This is just way too exciting and I just want to do everything all at once!!!

  2. ‘Forgive thyself’ as the 4th ethic is exactly what I needed to hear. As some of my gardens go back to forest and new plants move in and everything is not perfect looking, I could be discouraged. But I am trying to gracefully submit to natural succession and be happy that we are producing much of our own food and becoming more interdependent with others who are on the same path. And we are finding our tribe.
    Thank you!

  3. At first, when my husband and our 2 boys moved in with my parents to pay off all debt, save money and plan our homestead I was SO impatient. Yet, I’ve found out that it’s really been for the best. I’ve had time to read and plan exactly how we want to lay out our home and surrounding land. I started a garden the first year , bees this year and we are waiting on a flock of laying ducks to arrive in a few weeks. I’ve learned canning, composting, vermicomposting, knitting, herbology and SO many other helpful techniques. In the end, this is exactly what I needed- to be forced to take it slow and take my time.

  4. So appreciated this article. After building and fencing a large vegetable garden and developing unfenced medicinal herb beds for the last 5 years and making plans for additional projects, I was confronted with several major life events (death of a spouse, failed business endeavor and financial concerns) that stymied my efforts and affected my enthusiasm. Gophers moved into my unprotected veggie beds, devastating my attempts to grow veggies, …well, you can see, this is just life. After taking on a huge professional project this summer, my vegetable garden was left on its own and it produced an incredible crop of diverse weeds. In an odd way, this allowed me to simply observe my garden and to be with my garden as opposed to always working the garden. With new enthusiasm and energy, a bit of coin in my pocket and cooler weather on the way, I am returning to the garden to rebuild the space. Two new hugelkultur beds are being developed, an medicinal herbal hedgerow is being pondered and more perennial food plants are on the way. The luxury of a 21st century homestead is that we actually can “take a break” whether intentional or not, to observe and renew.

  5. I so appreciate this. There is an urgency to wanting your life a certain way when you are young. As more and more “life” happens, you begin to appreciate the small victories and steps toward your goal. As a middle aged single mom I have not been able to make my life 100% the way I wish, but each year I get closer and that is satisfying. It’s cliché, but the journey has to be enjoyable. So I am thrilled with each improved harvest and each ferment and each added worm bin. I am teaching my daughter along the way how to be resilient and ambitious. All while not sweating the small stuff. May your journey be full of growth (both human and plant based).

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