Thoughts on a Permaculture Kitchen

For Emma and me, our permaculture fantasies involve building our own home, growing 90-plus percent of our food (I guess it’s 100% if we are going full-blown fantasy), and living largely in whatever space we can find for ourselves. We hope for at least a couple of acres, one of which has already been cleared because we don’t want to cut down existing forest. We envision a “natural” swimming hole somewhere, mixed food forests, and crop beds surrounding a cabin. We think a lot about shelter and a lot about food.

I guess, in some sense, this makes sense: shelter and food are more or less what we need. They are, in fact, the point of designing and building our future homestead. With a comfortable home, with productive gardens, with each other, there isn’t a lot left for us to want. Some friends maybe, the occasional work-hobby arrangement for a bit of cash, will factor in, but our survival will, we hope, hinge on what we grow and build more than what job someone will pay us to do.

With that mode of thought, with the thought that perhaps one of those work-hobby arrangements might be producing products with our own produce, the kitchen factors in hugely within our design ideas. Not only do we both love to cook and eat, but we are going to need to prepare meals multiple times a day, as well as can, dehydrate, ferment, freeze, and store it. The kitchen, then, is where we spend most of our hours: cooking, eating, socializing, working, cleaning, washing.

Photo: Courtesy of Susanne Nilsson

The Seasonal Change

For us, and I would think most out there wanting to live a self-reliant and sustainable lifestyle, so much pivots on the kitchen, and that’s makes it every bit as important to think through as any garden design we come up with. We’ve been thinking through our kitchen(s) for ages, and many ideas have come and gone. One notion that we’ve seemed to settle on is that having both an indoor and outdoor kitchen feels right.

When we were in the tropics, outdoor was the obvious way to go. A kitchen in the house would have made being there unbearably hot. We’ve lived in several places—Nicaragua, Panama, Belize—in which we cooked outside, under a roof but otherwise open to the elements, and it was a wonderful experience, something akin to having a cookout everyday. We love being outdoors, so it made even more sense to live that way.

However, as we’ve relocated into the temperate climate, the idea of an outdoor kitchen all the time is less appealing. Now, the weather is hot in the summer and cold in the winter, so after moving back and forth on how to handle that in terms of kitchen, heat and home, we’ve decided that an open-air outdoor kitchen and a small, cozy indoor kitchen seems the best answer, one that give us all the benefits of both worlds.

The outdoor kitchen won’t overheat the house in August, and the indoor kitchen will help to keep us warm in January, when cooking and eating inside is much more appealing. We’ve struggled to get ourselves to this point. Two kitchens seemed excessive, but the more we began to stack functions and think them through, the more it has become obvious we’d been caught up in convention of what today’s typical home needs. Of course, we don’t want a typical home.

Photo: Courtesy of Pete Markham

Stacking Plates & Functions

As I said, the main concern for us with the kitchen was heat: We didn’t want it in the house during the summer, and we did want it in the winter. In the process of talking ourselves into a two kitchen system, we’d imagined a porch that would be screened and cut off from the inside of the house in the summertime, but closed in and open to the house in the winter. More or less, this just reassured us how useful a well-designed, basic kitchen inside could be, and the same could be said for outside.

Obviously, the cook stove would double as a space heater, but it could also possibly be used to provide warm water if we coiled some plumbing around it. After we cooked, we’d have hot water to wash up with. The residual heat of thermal mass cooker would also help with drying the place out after cooking, and we could take advantage if we were to want to dehydrate fall crops, like apples, by installing drying racks in the rafters above it. Depending on the heat, this might also be appropriate storage for vegetables that prefer drier spaces to a root cellar.

If the sink were fed hot water from the cook stove, then the gray water from that could be drained through pipes that stretched led into the attached greenhouse garden, warming the soil as they went and ultimately watering something. (We are vegans who rarely use even biodegradable soap, so most of our wastewater is just fine for crop plants.) The indoor kitchen would then be heating and watering the winter crops we were using in it.

As for the summer kitchen, we soon realized many of the same advantages. The roof could have a solar hot water heater leading to the sink, which could drain into a kitchen-side salad bed (whatever thirsty crops), which wouldn’t need a glasshouse. The rafters would make perfect summertime dehydrating racks as the roof would heat up in the day and breezes might waft through pulling out moisture. Any heat produced from the stove would simply escape into the air, and this kitchen, being open-air and not needing to retain heat, could involve more square footage, allowing for canning and other processing of crops from summer harvests.

For us, we also hope to have volunteers, students, and campers as part of our structure, community, and income, so the larger, outdoor space makes for a better shared kitchen. It also keeps our cabin, the indoor kitchen, as a private area.

Photo: Courtesy of Bruce

Cool Features

With these daydreams and designs, we’ve stumbled upon a host of cool features that we hope to include in one or both of our kitchens. The drying racks for dehydrating fruits, vegetables, and seeds (as mentioned above) are one of the features we like. But, there have been many other cool ideas worth sharing and/or considering.

We want rocket stoves and ovens. The indoor kitchen, we think, could be cob to act as a thermal mass heater, as well as a cooker, and the outdoor kitchen could use insulated stoves that don’t absorb the internal heat. We’d like to build an earthen, rocket bread oven in the outside kitchen for making loaves of sourdough once or twice a week, as well as occasional pizza parties and roasting veggies and baking sweets while it is hot. The rocket design, of course, would allow us to coppice would much more regularly, as well as collect fallen branches rather than chopping logs, because rockets work with smaller diameter wood.

Refrigeration seemed a much larger problem in the tropics. We have two basic methods in mind. The outdoor kitchen could work with a Coolgardie safe, using the breeze and evaporation, which makes sense outside. The indoor kitchen could be a sealed cabinet above a hole in the ground that utilizes the cool, constant temperature from below. Remembering that we don’t have meat or dairy products, these basics coolers should function well for our needs. Even so, we do hope to have a chest freezer and the back up plan of freezing bottles of water that can be cycled in and out of the “fridges”.

The sink, we hope, will be a dynamic space. We’ve come up for plans for hot water, with water supplied from rooftop catchments. We want direct delivery of gray water to attached garden beds, the indoor kitchen helping to heat the greenhouse in winter. Additionally, we have long wanted to have (dish) drying racks above the sink, which can then just catch in dripped water and feed it through the system. This dish rack would minimize steps and work, allowing us to simply put wash dishes immediately away and not fuss over drying them. As long as we regularly use what dries in the rack, we shouldn’t have a problem with the dishes collecting dust there.

We love to ferment things. We make kombucha, hard apple cider, apple cider vinegar, sourdough bread (from a homemade sourdough starter), oatmeal “yogurt”, ginger beer (from a homemade ginger bug), and sauerkraut. We’d like to continue this and experiment with more fermentations, so in the indoor kitchen, we hope to build a “fermentation station”—basically a cabinet or counter with shelves—in which all of the bubbling experiments can do their thing.

Obviously, we have other plans. We want food storage areas in shallow shelving made of wooden crates and repurposed pallet wood, a root cellar outside (between the kitchens), and storage lockers beneath the counters. We’ve all but outlawed plastic, opting for cast iron cookware, wooden cooking utensils, and glass and ceramic storage containers. We want to build a large communal farm table and work space from repurposed wood for the outside kitchen, and a small, two-person table/desk for the inside.

Photo: Courtesy of Emma Gallagher

The Centerpiece

We don’t have these kitchens yet, but they have come to be the centerpiece of our housing designs. Like most people I know, we love being in the kitchen because we love to eat, and in turn, it naturally becomes the site for social gatherings, even between just us two. We cook most of our meals from scratch (save the very occasional night out) and eat in the kitchen. Often, I sit at the kitchen table to write, and Emma does art projects. If we are to observe and design accordingly, it is by far the most important room in our house. So important, it seems that we might need two.

Feature Photo: Header (Courtesy of 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. you indicate that you live in a temperate area. what do you mean by temperate? i am in northern michigan, also called ‘temperate’, but hardly compatible with the ‘dream’ you describe here. we recently redesigned our kitchen, making it much more friendly for multi-uses, and larger. we practice some of what you describe here, to the best of our ability: catch and use all rain/snow as much as possible, re-use all grey water, 17000 sq. ft. garden provides a lot of food, re-design the heating/cooling system, add solar panels. the most influential factor we face is 7 months when growing anything is not possible without a greenhouse, which is prohibitively impossible, and dealing with the wild animals that eat everything we try to grow. i am always seeking new ideas that are practical. thank you for your input.

  2. I too LOVE dreaming with my hubby. I wish all yours to come true. Such great food for thought as well as we work with an inside kitchen and summer kitchen.

  3. This is all pretty much exactly what we have done. though we have not as yet put a sink in the outdoor kitchen as its still in build mode, was next on the agenda so I appreciate your ideas on this.. I have been thinking about putting copper hosing in the wood fired pizza oven for water heating as well.

  4. Thx for sharing. Could u elaborate on how you plan to use the “food storage areas in shallow shelving made of wooden crates and repurposed pallet wood”, and also share any fridge designs you come up with? Im going to google the Coolguardie fridge you mentioned.

  5. So interesting seeing your considerations re kitchens. Our needs varied a little bit from yours but we also found a 2 kitchen system more suited to our needs. We decided on 2nd hand commercial kitchen equipment in a shed with a drain in the floor plus a very small kitchen in our tiny home. The shed kitchen allows for easier cleanup with chicken processing & honey extraction and canning/fermentation projects. Thanks for your article.

  6. Gray water/laundry — soapnuts (Chinese soap berries) clean laundry beautifully and the water can safely be a see on plants, in fact, it’s a natural insecticide. It takes several years to establish and I’m not sure the minimum temps, but an idea.

    How about a solar oven that sticks out of the wall on the outside/southern side of the house?

    And perhaps bench/storage seats for your kitchen table?

    Love your dream. I’m finding that 100% self-reliant isn’t doable for us — I’m cheering you on with your goals!

  7. Great thoughts about designing a kitchen fit for purpose. As some-one who has purposely downsized I find the kitchen the least adaptable space for my lifestyle, and too expensive to retro-fit.
    Just a thought though. if you are considering selling your ferments etc through a farmers market or similar, explore the regulations in your area concerning commercial kitchens, otherwise you may find yourself having to build a third one!

  8. I love you the level of detail you’ve thought into your kitchen design. Have you drawn up any diagrams for posting, by chance?

  9. Wow, that sounds like my dream as well. I hope you will share some photos as you progress with these kitchens.

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