FermentingGeneralLandWater ConservationWhy Permaculture?

Reducing Your Footprint When You Haven’t Built a Permaculture Site from the Ground Up

In the ideal world of most budding permaculture enthusiasts, which I still consider myself, we would have pieces of land sizeable enough to begin the adventure of a lifetime. We would be designing our own energy-efficient homes with passive solar heating in the winter and deciduous vines clambering around to keep the sun off in the summer. We would have the space for luscious gardens and food forests to grow wild and abundant with surpluses of food.

Our water would come from gravity-fed springs, streams, and/or roof rainwater catchments, all of which would have a secondary life flowing into irrigation systems. The whole thing would be so efficient that our jobs could take a backseat to our lives.

Grasping the goodness that could be is simple. Permaculture is exciting because, through it, we can see just how realistic this sort return-to-Eden lifestyle is to achieve. The issue, though, is that rarely do people reach permaculture in the perfect place to make such things happen.

We have preexisting lives and obligation to attend to. We have established residences, and even without a fixed address, that doesn’t necessarily mean we have the means to go out and buy the perfect two acres, the acre, half acre, quarter acre to get the whole thing going. Often that is how idealism works: On a plain that feels just a little too far out of reach to attain.

Luckily, we don’t have to be perfect, nor does our location need to be perfect, to practice permaculture. We don’t have to have the perfectly environmentally friendly home. We don’t have to have a garden bulging with pumpkin vines and pea shrubs. Our energy doesn’t have to be completely renewable, and our water doesn’t have to be 100% self-sufficient.

Permaculture isn’t only about designing these perfect systems. It’s also about improving on what we’ve got, taking the status quo and moving things in the right direction instead of plodding further down the destructive road we’ve been on. Then, we can slowly move ourselves into greener and greener pastures of sustainable living.

Confessions of Wayward Author

Little plants pushing through the mulch.   Photo Credit: Jonathon Engels
Little plants pushing through the mulch.
Photo Credit: Jonathon Engels

At the beginning of the year, my wife Emma and I were but a month away from signing the line on a dream piece of property: cascading waterfalls, south-facing hillside (we are in the northern hemisphere), road access, and enough acreage to leave over half of it to wild forest.

Then, months into the process, the purchase finally deteriorated into nothing. Things can sometimes go that way in Central America, and we’d been here long enough to know that. Even so, it was a gut shot. We were tired and disappointed and needed a break from real estate. So, we moved back to a familiar place: Antigua Guatemala.

Certainly there are worse places in the world to be than the charming colonial town of Antigua, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but that’s not to say the sting didn’t linger. We’d spent nearly half a year trying to buy that property. We’d sketched out designs. We’d walked its borders, machete-d our way around, and swum in the stream.

We worked out a budget, made friendly connections, discovered where resources were available, and researched all of the immigration logistics. For a short time, we seemed to have that ideal space upon which to strive for that ideal life. Then, it was gone. All those dreams of gardens, water catchments, and thatched huts were put on hold.

Even so, we had no intention of giving up on permaculture. Moving to Antigua would, however, require a re-imagining of what steps could be taken immediately. We were moving from an off-grid organic cacao farm in the jungles of Belize (a work-stay arrangement) to a studio apartment in a small city in urban Guatemala (a rent-due-each-month arrangement).

The transition has been slow and steady, but we have definitely found ways to include at least pieces of the ideals and lifestyle we hope to one day pursue more completely. And, I think these are the sorts of things others, in similar situations, longing to delve deeper, might be interested in trying.


French press instead of electric coffeemaker. Photo Credit: Jonathon Engels
French press instead of electric coffeemaker.
Photo Credit: Jonathon Engels

We are renting a furnished apartment, so obviously converting it to 12-volt solar power with LED lights and energy-efficient appliances really isn’t in the cards at the moment. However, we have made some conscious choices to keep our energy usage lower than it had been in previous circumstances, and given the time, I see many other possibilities for improving even further.

So, here are some thoughts as to how an urban apartment dweller might make amends with less than perfect energy consumption.

Heating and Cooling
This is one of the joys of living in this area of Guatemala: There is no need for either heating or cooling, which cuts down significantly on energy usage. The truth of the matter is that we have lived similarly in hot places, like Belize, Panama, Nicaragua, and other regions of Guatemala, but attempting this in the winter in Spain really clued us in to the need for heating in temperate parts of the world. Nevertheless, we use no energy for that, which feels great.

The use of non-renewable energy for heating/cooling is something that could be reduced the world over. Outside of “first-world” nations, this is a luxury seldom enjoyed.

We haven’t owned our own mode of transportation, not even a bike to be honest, for years now. For extended trips (multiple kilometers), we use public transportation, which is readily available in Guatemala, but for most things about Antigua, maybe a few square kilometers, we walk. Emma’s daily route takes thirteen minutes, mine takes twenty-five. Being able to walk everywhere is actually one of the joys of living in a small urban (not suburban) setting.

Minimizing our use of private petroleum-driven vehicles, be it carpools, buses, or carefully compiling chores into one trip, is something that could be explored no matter where we live.

We had dreamed of making a power-free fridge for our property, but that hasn’t been realized in our apartment. Even so, we’ve been aware of our appliances. After having investigated an off-grid solar system, we know things like coffeemakers gobble up energy.

So, we have chosen to do without many of those types of appliances, and use the one we have—a toaster oven as there is no other oven—sparingly. The point here is that we can all find ways to cut down on the appliances we rely on, specifically energy hogs like tumble dryers or dishwashers.

Learning to not always go to appliances to accomplish our household jobs is a great way to significantly cut back our energy usage. Appliances require a lot of power.


Soaking chickpeas for lunch, saving the water for the garden. Photo Credit: Jonathon Engels
Soaking chickpeas for lunch, saving the water for the garden.
Photo Credit: Jonathon Engels

I can’t lie in that the amount of water we waste being in this situation irks the both of us. Obviously, a lot of greywater goes right down the drain and into municipal systems, and we are stuck with the fact of a flush toilet. The worst part is probably our shower, which takes ages to heat up, allowing liters of water—sometimes simply too cold to face—to cycle through with absolutely no purpose. Even so, we’ve managed to find little ways of doing what we can, and we are constantly discovering more.

We, of course, haven’t had the option of rerouting drainage pipes into irrigation systems, but we have managed to do some stuff to utilize some of our greywater. Firstly, we use a French press to make coffee every morning, so I use cleaning it as the perfect opportunity to water the garden, coffee grounds included.

We also keep a pot near the kitchen sink so that we can save water used to soak beans (a daily task) or rinse something to use in our tiny garden (we’ll get to that in a moment). We’ve not quite gotten our system right for the shower, but we have plans to start catching the water wasted while the shower heats up and using it manually for the toilet.

Even when greywater systems aren’t piped in and super efficient, there is still the chance to adopt habits and routines to make use of water that is still perfectly good for gardens or flushing.

The Toilet
Flushing toilets are one of the things that have come to pain me so. I’ve read extensively on them, and I know all of the ills that they’ve caused the planet, both in water wastage and sanitation issues. I also know that we are flushing useful fertilizer (both urine, which can be applied directly, and feces, which needs a safe composting system) away with clean water.

We let the yellow mellow nearly to a fault on the senses in our house. Ethically, it just hurts me to flush a bowl of liquid away. And, as I said, we are in the process of using shower water to replace the clean water that refills in the tank. It’s not the ideal we were after, but it’s what we’ve got.

Reducing water waste from toilets—the “mellow yellow” method, the shower water method, adding bricks in the tank to lessen the water needed to fill it—are possible even in apartments.

Then, there are those good habits that we learn in school and life for conserving water. We make sure our faucets don’t leak. We turn off the taps while we brush our teeth. We don’t have a dishwasher, but we wouldn’t use it anyway. If we rinse vegetables, we reuse the water.

We don’t need to use clean water for the garden because we’ve got plenty of greywater, and we’ve also mulched the garden well to make the most of that. We don’t shower every day but rather when it’s necessary, and we are conscious of the amount of time we spend doing that. These are things that become second-nature after the initial effort, but they add up to a meaningful contribution.

Wherever we live, we can all adapt habits that lessen our water consumption, and especially water waste, and even small efforts add up to hundreds, possibly thousands, of liters a year.


Kombucha mother making the next batch. Photo Credit: Jonathon Engels
Kombucha mother making the next batch.
Photo Credit: Jonathon Engels

I think most of us are initially attracted to permaculture from a food production point of view. Emma and I certainly were, so when we were moving to Antigua, we promised ourselves to keep that alive as best we could. I think the consensus dream in that arena is growing one’s own food, and while we know that wouldn’t be possible on a grand scale, we would grow what we could.

We would also make what we could, fermentation being big in our plans. And, we would go organic as much as possible and do so from local sources. We’d dreamed of producing it all ourselves on our own piece of land, but we would discover what could be done otherwise.

I got very lucky in landing a fantastic job as the farmers’ market and volunteer coordinator at an amazing local farm that prides itself on sustainable organic practices. But, before that, my plan had been to volunteer there (I had done so in times past) and get most of our vegetables that way.

Caoba Farms trades a bag of fresh, organic vegetables for three hours of labor. Now, instead of me doing the volunteering, Emma comes to volunteer for me twice a week, and other than a couple of things here and there, this has provided the entirety of our vegetables each week. And, we are vegetable-loving vegans.

While organic vegetables can be expensive, look for alternatives like volunteering or end-of-farmers’-market deals to make it a possibility when growing them yourself isn’t.

In the beginning, I was the fermentation master, playing with things like sourdough bread, hard apple cider (and apple cider vinegar), and ginger beer, but for some reason, I never got moving on it when we moved into our apartment.

Now, Emma has taken over the show. She made some fantastic sauerkraut, some oatmeal yogurt (a recipe from Graham Burnett), and has kept up with a steady supply of kombucha. She’s also done pickles here and there, when the produce has been right for it. But, it only takes writing about it to inspire one’s self to get up and get a new sourdough starter going.

Fermentation is a great way to preserve food, as well as provide ourselves with healthy gut flora. Pickling, dehydrating, canning, freezing—we can do much of our own.

In truth, the garden has been a disaster thus far. We have a small space, less than two-meters wide and roughly ten meters long. It’s shared between three apartments, one which houses two dogs that ran wild and defecated all over my first attempt at growing: Beans, mustard greens, basil, oregano, mint, cranberry hibiscus, chaya, citronella, Texas tarragon, moringa, and garlic sprouts.

With a new understanding of the dog situation, I have rearranged the garden and have replanted most of what was there, adding a little more. I’ve also finally managed to introduce worm buckets for composting (We were carrying ours to the bins at work until recently). We get more greens than we know what to do with from Emma’s volunteering, so I’ve focused mostly on growing perennial herb varieties.

Even if the dream garden isn’t within our grasp, we do have the capacity to grow something on our own behalf, so we can analyze those needs and grow what we can.


The new reimagined garden outside our door. Photo Credit: Jonathon Engels
The new reimagined garden outside our door.
Photo Credit: Jonathon Engels

Otherwise, our life is full of efforts. We buy secondhand clothes so as not to support exploitive industries or encourage more destructive cotton farming. We make our own all-natural cleaners and toiletries and otherwise buy things, such as soap, that are made with the same care.

We shop consciously, boycotting companies when we find their methods of production unacceptable, not in keeping with permaculture’s three ethics or our own additional ethical stances. We have jobs in which we are trying to provide services to the planet, to other people, and to more sustainable means of addressing our needs and problems. We don’t do all of these things infallibly, but we do them and learn and adjust and re-imagine.

In other words, in short, we haven’t yet got the ideal, but that hasn’t yet stopped us from exploring the boundaries of what is possible with what we do have. It’s a rewarding feeling and one that is worth pursuing in the meantime.

I hope sharing these experiences has managed to enliven someone else who hasn’t yet found the means to build their site from the ground up but is dying to get this new lifestyle underway. You can.

Feature Photo: Worm bucket from the ground up. Photo Credit; Jonathon Engels

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. Permaculturists and organic farmers (including organic seed producers) are required to deal with plant pests and diseases through an integrated pest and disease management approach. They understand that plant pests and diseases are almost always the result of soil imbalances or poor plant system design (monoculture, not rotating crops, etc). So, rather than treat symptoms with poisons that cause more long term problems, they instead focus on the source problem, e.g. creating and sustaining a healthy overall system.

      1. So true, Jake! It is all about SOIL health. Healthy soil produces healthy plants with strong immunity to fight the diseases and pests, cleans and enlivens the water, absorbs and stores carbon,, turns the disease to health and death to life. In turn…. healthy plants with strong immunity will nourish human body, mind and spirit, so we finally become a peaceful and mindful human race instead of destructive, mindless and fighting one….

  1. Thank you for sharing encouragement and simplification of what an ethical, Soul nourishing life is…Loved it! Greenest blessings from Ireland,
    Permaculturist Singer, Artist, Core Clarity Facilitator
    from Maui, & Orkney, Scotland

  2. Thank you for sharing. I have also been disappointed that moving onto my “ideal” property has not come together yet. Am always looking for ways to move toward a permaculture lifestyle on my city lot. Appreciate adding small steps that you are taking to what I can do now!

  3. Thanks for your encouragement. Sometimes I feel I have done so little being on sand with little summer rain. But I can say I have done quite a lot when I check myself against what you have done. Perhaps my biggest saving was rerouting the greywater.

  4. At last an inspiring article about making the best in permaculture terms of the situation you find yourself in.
    Have only just started to implement permaculture having spent 20 years creating a small holding albeit organically-made so many mistakes!

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