It took me a long time to get around to taking a permaculture course. By the time I did so, I’d written well over 100 articles about permaculture, read a small library (at least a good shelf’s worth) of permaculture texts, and helped to develop half a dozen or more permaculture projects. I’d acted as a consultant, or perhaps knowledgeable adviser, with a few NGOs looking to get into the mix. I was making the rounds.
Don’t get me wrong: I was under no illusion or delusion that I was an expert, but I had some facts and figures and perennial species I could rattle off the top of my head when the time was right. To put it frankly, I didn’t necessarily feel driven to take a permaculture course. Having a printable certification to hang on the wall, to my thinking, wasn’t going to establish a food forest or feed me.
Even less encouraging, I’d met several people who were certified but did little in the way of practicing permaculture. On a few occasions, I would seek assistance from such people only to find that they hadn’t much to offer as answers. It was as if they’d gotten the certificate, hung it on the wall, and hung up the garden trowel. Job well done.
I wanted no part of that. I was in the permaculture game to do the work. I already had an MFA in Creative Writing—it had led to a low-paying freelance writer status—to build up my ego, so I wanted something beyond credentials. Credentials hadn’t made me a novelist, and they weren’t going to make me a permaculturalist. That’s where I stood on that topic, and had I not been offered a work-exchange to take the PDC, I probably never would have.
Lucky for me, I was offered a work-exchange, and I spent the better part of year really diving into design. That’s right. This article is about why you should take the PDC, not why I shouldn’t have. And, ultimately, I was really glad to have taken one when I did.
Now before getting too involved in my personal PDC experience as a study in why, it’s important to note for those who haven’t had much experience with permaculture, why a PDC might be right for you. In the same paragraph (literally), I would also recommend that the PDC not be amongst your first experiences of permaculture. I believe it’s better to know what you are getting into before getting into it.
The concepts within permaculture design change the way you see the world. Looking from the window on a bus ride or walking through the park, the landscape becomes this vibrant piece of the planet thirsty for life. You’ll want to design it. You’ll want to fix mistakes you see in lawns and houses. You’ll have this enrapturing understanding of what trees, animals, streets, machines, and corporations are doing.
Rather than giving you a petition to sign or senator to call, as we see at the end of life-altering documentaries, permaculture texts give a blueprint for how to start making changes at home. In fact, they almost demand that you do so. The movement is grassroots, localised around all parts of the globe, and admittedly, it will not work if theory is never put into practice. There is so much free information to access about permaculture that it could occupy months of daily study, video streaming, and conversations.
Within a year of discovering permaculture, I changed the way that I approached garbage, going to the bathroom, eating, and traveling. Already a boycotter of the Wal-Marts, McDonalds, and Colgates of the world, I transformed into a self-empowered DIY maker of cleaning products, hygiene products, and breakfast biscuits. Suddenly, I found, from seemingly nowhere, that I just knew a bunch of stuff about the planet and how people behaved on it. But, not just that, I knew what to do personally about it all.
Exploring permaculture this way, jumping from article to article, book to book, video to video, work-trade to work-trade, went a long way into me getting something significant out of my PDC. Had it been my introduction to permaculture, I fear I might not have finished the course, or worse yet, I might have completed it and felt the job was done. Luckily, I was prepared to digest all I could from what I was learning.
I got most of my early permaculture chops in the tropics, specifically Central America. I had a list of species I was familiar with, the ways I knew to grow them, and a few tricks up my sleeve in terms of dealing with the climate. By the time I finished my PDC, I’d moved to North Carolina and was transitioning to the temperate climate. A new world was upon me, and much of the one that I left seemingly no longer applied. It was exciting and intimidating, overwhelming and inspiring.
What I liked about taking a PDC was it gave me insight into many different climates, an understanding of where and why techniques might transfer between two or more of them, or why they might not. It gave me a good starting off point for expanding my practical knowledge of how to design homes, gardens, food forests, and so on in my new environs. It gave me a set of circumstances to look at wherever I might be and some semblance of the direction in which to begin moving.
I shifted from cacao, vanilla, and ginger as understory mainstays into mushrooms, fiddleheads, and American pawpaw. A new buffet of weeds was on the menu each season. The fruit trees completely changed, and berries took over the landscape. Heating, and passive heating, became a necessity, as did understanding four seasons.
In short, I walked away with a new collection of rhetoric and curiosities to expound upon within my new, USDA Zone 7 canvas. A gardening book might have told me how to address one climate or the other, a natural building book would focus on one technique, but I enjoyed how permaculture could dance betwixt them. The course laid this out very well for me, and soon my knowledge of how to deal with mountainous Central American landscapes started to make sense (and not make sense) in Appalachia.
Most of the permaculture projects I’d been associated with had ultimately frustrated me. People, I’d concluded, were interested in attaching the term to what they were doing—putting in a garden—but lacked the drive to make the greater, much more relevant, changes involved with a permaculture lifestyle. If you can’t be bothered to compost your kitchen scraps—let alone bathroom business—why are we even talking?
But, permaculture projects can be slow to develop and don’t necessarily have to be massive in scale. Geoff Lawton’s Greening the Desert Project is only a small parcel of land, but it has had a huge impact on the community around it. Rather than outright changing the village house by house per say, it has served as an example and educational centre for what is possible. With success, people within earshot or eyesight become interested. The projects I’d be involved with were missing this notion.
The PDC gave me some sense of how to bite off the right amount when tucking into a design. There’s no use building compost bins if no one is going to use them. There’s no use planting vegetable gardens if no one is going to eat from them. There’s no use busting one’s butt to develop something for someone else or an NGO if there is no one to take the reins when you go. In fact, there is a whole list of things to think about prior to ever picking up a shovel, and that list is crucial to understanding where, when, why, and how everything is happening.
I’d reached the PDC ready for a permaculture site of my own, but that’s quite a scary proposition, even with a bit of experience. It’s one thing to pile organic material all over someone else’s lawn to make no-till gardens but quite another to spend your savings and mess up your own lawn, or invest in building an energy-efficient home that looks completely unconventional. The course, in my circumstance, gave a desirable nudge towards the “you can do it” vibe I was needing, kind of like graduating and realising there’s nothing left to do but get to work.
A simple, even if loose, framework in which to work makes a massive impact. It’s the difference between grabbing on to each new idea—hügelkultur, swale, lasagna garden, herb spiral, stumpery, insect hotel, water garden, etc.—as it comes along and knowing when a technique is applicable, why that is, where it belongs, what is needed, and how to put it into a multi-faceted system so that it is cooperating with the other ideas at play.
I’d spent a lot of my pre-PDC design days dabbling in this and that thing because the concept was interesting, often at the expense of what I knew/saw worked. There is a piece of me, and always will be, that enjoys experimenting and playing with my own conceptions of beauty and possibility in what I’m doing/designing. But, having a mentor of sorts—an instructor—gave me permission to also play the winning hand more often rather than constantly looking for new cards.
Designing a holistic system from the get-go changes the game a great deal. It’s imperative to be able to explain the placement of each component in a system in some rational way, knowing the choice was deeper than simply fitting in the latest thing I’d learned about. I was already getting beyond this habit, but the PDC catapulted me into a new mindset.
The final project involved a worksheet that required a considerable amount of preliminary work before even playing with the actual landscape. It was like having lecture notes from which to study once the test site was in front of me. Then, somewhat like a logic puzzle, it was a matter of using all of the information to piece together a design. The course taught me how to delve deeper by remaining practical, to set aside techniques, like hügelkultur, that hadn’t proven particularly effective for me, and to be happy with another lasagna garden instead. Use what works and multiply that before venturing out into the abyss.
I took Geoff Lawton’s online course, which is extremely comprehensive and intense. It was six months’ worth of lectures, covering the entirety of Bill Mollison’s A Designer’s Manual followed up by a complete design of my own choosing, working through all the steps, from researching the area’s history to imagining a site some ten years down the road. By the end of it, I’d written volumes on the reasoning behind each choice I’d made and why I thought it might be the right one.
The number of tools in my box had expanded such that I could both explain why everything was as it was as well as leave tools in the box that weren’t right for this particular job. Then, professional, seasoned permaculturalists gave me feedback. For someone who was serious about what he was doing, it was miraculous. I’ve certainly had missteps and challenges since acquiring a PDC, but updating here and there has become much more deliberate.
So, that’s why you should get PDC, and why it makes sense to explore permaculture a bit before doing so. It’s the next step in a series of steps that take you from seeing the world differently to wading out into it with a wealth of knowledge and inspiration. A PDC isn’t necessary for building a garden. It’s what to do after realising the garden is but a small corner piece in a much larger puzzle.