Westcliffe, Colorado can be deceiving. The sweeping landscape, rugged Sangre de Cristos and big open sky seem devoid of complexity. The endless grassland’s only colorful residents are the wildflowers – unobtrusive plants easily crushed underfoot by the careless walker.
But if one stops and looks closely enough one sees a vast network of life, where a flower is a not only an individual organism but part of the earth and everything attached to it. The wildflower I was looking at had two tiny cacti growing in its shade. The plant itself had grown up from the base of a large rock which protected it from wind and sun. Each one needed another to survive and they were all part of something else, something big. “Don’t you see,” it seemed to say, “that I’m more than a flower, that I’m one of the many colors celebrating this season in the life of the planet?”
I suddenly felt a little embarrassed, like I hadn’t been paying attention in class and didn’t understand the simplest of terms.
I was in Westcliffe with the July Permaculture Design Certification class, learning how to observe (the first Holmgren principle). We had practiced using our peripheral vision to look at the world, we had sat alone for 15 minutes making notes about what we heard and saw. Now I was touching and sensing this beautiful orange-blossomed flower, hoping to notice something other than how squatting hurt my feet.
This was serious! Soon I would join a team of my classmates and, over the next four months, develop a design for a designated site. At the end of those four months we would present our design to the rest of the class. I suddenly felt completely unworthy and unprepared for such a task. How could I possibly know what was best for the earth, even a very small part of it?
What I thought was a class about growing an abundance of food in a sustainable way had morphed into a calling. I was now responsible for integrating human needs into that web of life already moving gracefully and efficiently before my eyes. Carelessness was unthinkable. Too much was at stake.
I looked down at the flower before me and felt sad that it and all the other wildflowers would soon die, taking the color with them. But the brilliant orange blooms were bursting with joy. They would change, yes. But they were part of that bigger something and that, would continue on forever.
So here I am, embarking on the second half of this PDC, sobered by this new responsibility, filled with a new respect and walking ever so carefully upon the face of the earth.
Marco Lam talks about the importance of biosystems in permaculture design.
When’s the last time you raked leaves and put them in the garbage? Well, stop it, just stop it.
Permaculture co-founder David Holmgren would tell you leaves are a valuable resource. They make great mulch, protecting plants in the winter and maintaining soil moisture in the summer.
Leaves, manure, bugs, birds, and yes, weeds are welcome in a permie garden. That’s because everything is part of a living system where the inputs (needs) of one are met by the outputs of another. “Produce No Waste” is one of 12 guiding principles articulated by Holmgren, who has been practicing permaculture for more than 30 years.
The June Permaculture Design Certification class saw Holmgren’s principle put to practice by guest instructors Marco Lam, Avery Ellis, Nikko Woolf and lead instructor Becky Elder.
Lam talked about animal systems; Ellis, aquaponics; and Woolf and Elder, natural building.
Lam pointed out that animals such as chickens, ducks, pigs and geese have important outputs that are generally ignored in commercial and traditional animal systems. Sure they produce eggs, meat and other products – but what about work they perform that benefit the whole system?
“Efficiency in permaculture means the multiple outputs rather than simply the production level of the animals,” Lam said. “Chickens scratch and forage, produce manure, etcetera.”
In aquaponics, where food plants are grown in a fish tank, inputs and outputs are met in very specific ways. Fish waste provides nutrients to the plants which, in turn, purify the water. Ellis described the process as a “nitrogen cycle.” Fish waste produces nitrogen ammonia which bacteria turn into nitrogen nitrite. Bacteria then turn the nitrite into nitrogen nitrate which helps plants grow.
Natural building utilizes materials produced by nature to fulfill the human need for shelter. Woolf described several types of natural building including cob, which uses clay soil, sand, water and straw. Globs of the material or “cobs” are piled on top of each other and worked together to form walls.
Reused materials are incorporated into the rest of the structure. Windows, doors and other discarded building material can be repurposed, making it cost effective and gentler on the planet. Sunlight and wind are harnessed for passive heating and cooling, reducing dependence on petroleum-based energy.
Reduce, reuse, recycle, no waste.
“In permaculture, we’re trying to get away from fossil fuels,” Elder added. “Having an energy efficient house in the future is going to be critical.”
Permaculture strives to imitate natural systems so that human activity provides for our needs and our ecosystem rather than simply consuming it. Here lies hope for a better, more sustainable future.
So the next time leaves start falling, put the rake away and take a nap instead.
Jason Gerhardt talks water at the 2015 Permaculture Design Certification May class in Venetucci Farm’s big red barn. (Photo by Clare Thomas)
by Trudy Thomas
There’s a saying in Colorado: “Whiskey’s for drinkin’, water’s for fightin’ over.” Permaculturist Jason Gerhardt knows only too well the truth of that sentiment, as he works to change state water management policy.
Gerhardt, who holds a degree in sustainable design, spoke at the May class of Pikes Peak Permaculture’s 2015 Permaculture Design Course (PDC.)
The struggle for change got a little bump in 2009 when a law was passed allowing residents without access to public water to capture it. But Colorado officials have their sights set on stopping city dwellers from doing the same. Not only can we not collect it, we are forbidden from directing its flow to trees or plants. It is permissible to use rain gutter extensions to direct water away from a home or building, but if the intent is to water landscape, then folks are technically breaking the law.
Rainwater harvesting’s illegality did not stop Gerhardt from talking about its benefits. As a consultant, he calculated the harvesting potential of seven homes in a Boulder cul-de-sac. Taking into consideration an average precipitation rate of 18 inches a year, he calculated roof catchment and earth works capabilities, confirming that enough moisture fell from the sky to exceed what the cul-de-sac residents consumed. If Colorado residents were allowed to capture and store rainwater, be it from the roofs of their homes or landshaping techniques, Gerhardt suggested it could go a long way toward mitigating drought in cities of the American West.
Unfortunately, laws and people are slow to change even when faced with the facts. Water rights holders south of us are afraid if we interrupt the flow of water it won’t get to them. But a 2007 Colorado Water Conservation Board study showed that only 3 percent of precipitation makes it to rivers anyway. A whopping 97 percent is absorbed by plants and/or evaporated back into the big blue.
Gerhardt and other advocates are pulling out the whiskey as they wrangle with officials over state greywater regulations. Although greywater – water from showers, bathroom sinks and washing machines – was legalized by the Colorado legislature in 2013, it awarded cities and counties the power to issue permits and called for public health regulations. The details of those regulations are still being negotiated.
Water drama began early in the last century when lawmakers divvied up the Colorado River between 7 western states: Wyoming, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico in the north; Arizona, Nevada and California in the south. Since then, passage of other compacts, federal laws, court decisions and regulations governing river management have created the complexity known as The Law of the River.
The Law remains largely unchanged, but circumstances have not. A warming climate, lack of precipitation and burgeoning development on the Colorado Front Range have helped reduce the river to a trickle at the Gulf of California. Further, low water levels have endangered fish and degraded river ecology.
Worldwide, overuse of fertilizers in runoff has contributed to algae plumes where rivers reach the ocean, developing dead zones. The Mississippi River at the Gulf of Mexico is one such example where excess nitrogen in the water has facilitated the growth of algae. In excess, algae deprive ocean plants and animals of oxygen. The result is that everything dies except for a few resilient species.
But not everyone values expediency over quality of life.
“Permaculture asks how do we meet our needs and improve the ecosystem while meeting those needs rather than degrading the ecosystem,” Gerhardt says.
An infiltration basin at a Boulder, Colo. residence. (Photo courtesy Jason Gerhardt)
Reshaping property so that water is directed from the highest point on the land and, using gravity, moving it across the landscape is one way to accomplish this. The use of bowls, berms, swales and terraces slows the water down, allowing the earth to absorb it. Further, plants fed by rainwater thrive without the chlorine contained in public water.
Directing water across the landscape says Gerhardt filters out toxins and water is absorbed and stored in the humus layer. This process is especially helpful when weather events become extreme and erratic, be it flood or drought.
Gerhardt described other harvesting methods including redirecting street runoff by curb-cutting, a practice used successfully in arid Tucson. The water is redirected to the soil, where organisms, particularly fungi, help mitigate street pollutants.
Green roofing filters rainfall, check dams (terraces across the banks of rivers) slow water flow and, in rural areas, keylines (where the slope goes from steep to flat) serve to create efficient water management plans.
Gerhardt’s hope for Colorado to embrace green infrastructure may take a while. But that doesn’t seem to get him down. When he’s not joking about getting lawmakers together to drink and fight over water, he’s waxing poetic.
“Water is one of the main mediums by which all life is connected,” Gerhardt says. “By concentrating on this one stream, we can solve many of the world’s problems.”
How would you feel if someone told you you’ve been living in a bubble your whole life, that the global financial system was balanced atop an oil derrick geyser and the derrick was running dry?
That’s what I thought.
But “Permaculture Through the Seasons” instructor Steve Saint told a class of more than two dozen design certification students that that’s exactly what’s been happening and the bubble is about to burst.
The beginning of the end came with what’s called peak oil, when global petroleum production reached a maximum and began to fall. In the United States, oil production peaked in the early 1970s. Experts, including Permaculture Co-Founder David Holmgren, believe that conventional global petroleum production has peaked as well and is now being artificially propped up by unconventional methods like hydraulic fracturing, tar sands and deep sea drilling. All three are expensive and accident prone.
That precarious bubble also fuels the expansion and contraction of global financial markets. The more petroleum produced the more robust global markets become and visa versa. In fact, Saint went so far as to say that he believed that President George W. Bush’s bank bailout was not so much about the banks themselves, but was needed to protect financing for the oil industry. The bottom line is that when oil reserves are gone we’ll need to find another engine for the global economy.
Bryan Christie Design
Okay, so why not let the oil disappear and replace it with wind, solar and other renewable energy sources? Because, Saint said, it isn’t that simple. According SRI International (formerly Stanford Research Institute) it would require building 32,850 1.65 megawatt wind turbines with 70-100 meter blade span for the next 50 years to replace the power of 1 cubic mile of oil, the annual global consumption of petroleum. The institute published similar mindboggling data regarding solar, nuclear, hydro and coal.
Saint said that not only have we been hooked on energy consumption over the past 60 years, we’ve grown a hefty dependence on corporations. In the 1950s there used to be 300 farms within the Colorado Springs city limits. Today only one remains.Corporations dominate local economies that used to take care of themselves.
“Now we depend on big ag, big government, big pharma and big finance,” said Saint. “Everything is moving toward a monetized market system run by centralized globalized corporate systems.”
So, what do we do?
We must think differently. We must live a simpler, ethically-based lifestyle. In Permaculture this is summarized with the phrase, “people care, earth care, fair share.”
We care for the earth because we realize everything is connected. We care for each other because we understand that to survive and thrive in a post-oil world we need each other. We consciously share our surplus because we strive to understand our true needs and share what we don’t.
“If we can’t change, if we can’t say I am my brother’s keeper, we are not going to be sustainable,” said Saint. “We need to know how to think, to look at the problems and `use ethics principles to solve these problems.”
With the demise of oil and, eventually, our corporate-dominated economic system, is this the end of the world as we know it? Probably, and for the record, I feel fine.
Pikes Peak Permaculture, Inc. is designing and will be implementing the Crystal Valley Permaculture Food Forest Demonstration Garden in Manitou this coming Spring.
There are a multitude of benefits to creating a food forest garden including:
* Addressing locally significant, multi faceted environmental issues and aspects of food security through building long term perennial food gardens.
*Water supply is a limited resource. Water conservation will be directly demonstrated through legal rainwater management, design, plant selection - including native plants, building up sponge soil to absorb water and plant “training” towards less-is-more and water sharing in guilds.
*Creation of animal habitat along side the production of foods, increases stability for the local birds and insects, as well as creating a natural space for local students, visitors and neighbors to come observe nature in action, touch the earth and gain that exposure.
*Many (most?) of our American citizens no longer have any substantial direct contact with Nature giving rise to a variety of negative physical, psychological and emotional influences, especially among our children. (This is sometimes referred to as Nature Deficit Disorder (NDD).) This garden, without chemicals and toxins, will demonstrate organic gardening, the exclusion of unwanted potential pests such as mule deer or elk and will be on going research and experiments for on-going issues (like bears) that may arise.
*Once the garden is planted, it will begin to bring returns immediately. We will be successful with food production, even in the first year, but on-going and increasing over the years into high value fruits, perennial foods and nuts.
*Visiting school classes and community members (from Pikes Peak Region and beyond) will tour the garden coming to see and understand Permaculture not only as a resilient design for food systems, but a design system of sustainability applicable to many other areas of life as well.
*Our goal is to inspire a new generation of eco-farmers who step into nature’s way rather than working against nature. Many interconnected points of learning and understanding of our natural world will be made though this garden for use. We will see for ourselves how valuable a community orchard and edible gardens can work to create tighter community bonds.
Although the model of the Forest Garden, or a Food Forest Garden was not developed within the system of Permaculture it is extensively used by permaculturalists because this model closely mimics the laws and dynamics of Nature or the natural world and therefore is necessarily a model of maximum yield and authentic sustainability. A Food Forest Garden is a planned ecosystem which works the way Nature works. If you observe Nature and the natural evolution of a landscape you will notice that there is a natural succession it follows from a bare (and generally barren) field to a mature woodland forest. There are many stages in this succession and it can take anywhere from 50 to 100 years to reach the phase of a mature woodland forest.
By consciously designing and implementing a food forest garden that mimics the evolutionary stage of a natural young woodland forest when it is mature enough to provide top canopy benefits (such as windbreaks) and yet still allow enough open space and sunlight for the healthy development of the lower forest garden layers , the maximum amount of product yield can be delivered while maintaining the authentic sustainability of the ecosystem.
This includes food products but also much more such as the following :
Sap & Wood Products
Poles & Canes
Nuts & Seeds
Salad Crops & Herbs
Here is more detail and history related to Forest Gardening:
Forest gardening is a low-maintenance organic plant-based food production and agro-forestry system based on woodland ecosystems, incorporating fruit and nut trees, shrubs, herbs, vines and perennial vegetables which have yields directly useful to humans. Making use of companion planting, these can be intermixed to grow in a succession of layers, to replicate a woodland habitat.
Forest gardens are thought to be the world’s oldest and most resilient agro-ecosystem.They originated in prehistoric times along jungle-clad river banks and in the wet foothills of monsoon regions. In the gradual process of families improving their immediate environment, useful tree and vine species were identified, protected and improved whilst undesirable species were eliminated. Eventually superior foreign species were selected and incorporated into the gardens. Forest gardening is believed to be the oldest form of land use in the world
Forest gardens, or home gardens, are common in the tropics, using inter-cropping to cultivate trees, crops, and livestock on the same land. In Kerala in South India as well as in northeastern India, the home garden is the most common form of land use and is also found in Indonesia. These gardens exemplify polyculture (multiple species of crops planted together), and conserve much crop genetic diversity and heirloom plants that are not found in monocultures (planting only one type of crop such as corn or wheat).
Robert Hart adapted forest gardening for temperate zones during the early 1960s. Hart began farming at Wenlock Edge in Shropshire, England with the intention of providing a healthy and therapeutic environment for himself and his brother. Starting as relatively conventional small landholders, Hart soon discovered that maintaining large annual vegetable beds, rearing livestock and taking care of an orchard were tasks beyond their strength. However, a small bed of perennial vegetables and herbs he planted was looking after itself with little intervention.
The seven layers of the forest garden.
Robert Hart pioneered a system based on the observation that the natural forest can be divided into distinct levels. He used inter-cropping to develop an existing small orchard of apples and pears into an edible polyculture landscape consisting of the following layers:
‘Canopy layer’ consisting of the original mature fruit trees.
‘Low-tree layer’ of smaller nut and fruit trees on dwarfing root stocks.
‘Shrub layer’ of fruit bushes such as currants and berries.
‘Herbaceous layer’ of perennial vegetables and herbs.
‘Ground cover layer’ of edible plants that spread horizontally.
‘Rhizosphere’ or ‘underground’ dimension of plants grown for their roots and tubers.
‘Vertical layer’ of vines and climbers.
A key component of the seven-layer system was the plants he selected. Most of the traditional vegetable crops grown today, such as carrots, are sun loving plants not well selected for the more shady forest garden system. Hart favoured shade tolerant perennial vegetables.
The Agroforestry Research Trust, managed by Martin Crawford, runs experimental forest gardening projects on a number of plots in Devon, United Kingdom. Covering his twenty years worth of experience Martin has written an extensive volume called “Creating A Forest Gardening” accompanied by an hour-long DVD.
Forest gardening has been adopted as a common Permaculture design element. Bill Mollison, who coined the term Permaculture, visited Robert Hart at his forest garden in Wenlock Edge in October 1990. Numerous permaculturists are proponents of forest gardens, or food forests, such as Patrick Whitefield, Dave Jacke, Eric Toensmeier and Geoff Lawton. Whitefield wrote the book How to Make a Forest Garden in 2002, Jacke and Toensmeier co-authored the two volume book set Edible Forest Gardening in 2005, and Lawton presented the film Establishing a Food Forest in 2008.
One of the oldest (30 years) food forest garden installations in the United States exists near Basalt, Colorado at Central Rocky Mountain Permaculture Institute (www.crmpi.org).