Aquaponics has become one of our favorite methods of growing food. The method is a combination of hydroponics (growing plants in water) and aquaculture (fish) and mimics natural systems found in many bodies of water. The fish provide nutrients through their waste to plants once converted by bacteria.
By re-creating this natural cycle with a few affordable tools, we've been able to set up a small manageable indoor growing system that provides us with herbs, fruits and veggies throughout the year. Read more about aquaponics here at The Aquaponics Source, one of our favorite sites and resources.
One method to keep weeds from competing with what you've chosen to plant is 'chop and drop', or chopping excess foliage from nearby plants and dropping them as mulch. This method serves several permaculture principles - the use of on-site resources and catching and storing energy by using existing plant material to both protect desirable plants and provide nutrient support as it breaks down. Since the mulch both keeps weeds down and provides nutrients, the method also serves multiple functions in the system.
Below is an example of comfrey, a dynamic nitrogen accumulator, which was planted next to an apple tree seedling, to use as a nutrient rich mulch to support the seedling's growth. We've used this method in our garden to keep weeds from growing (the mulch blocks sunlight) and to keep cycling nutrients on site. One example is rhubarb leaves - since they are poisonous to us, we can't eat them, but their wide leaves make great mulch for the garden and end up putting their nutrients back into the soil. There is a great thread with more information and examples on Permies.com here.
Zone planning is one tool we can use in permaculture for energy efficient design. Once we've determined our elements' needs and yields through niche analysis, and evaluate when/where/how often we interact with these elements, we can use zone planning to help us place elements in locations that allow them to function productively within an permaculture system.
We can apply the concept of 'zones' to both use of elements, and our influence in our communities and beyond. The zones allows us to conceptualize an economy of energy when creating change within ourselves, family, neighborhood and country.
Applying Zones of Use to OPT's backyard design
Zone 0 in our backyard design is the house, where we had our office and kept an indoor seedling and aquaponics set-up that grew salad greens and small veggies. Zone 1 is the area immediately surrounding the house and the outdoor space that we spent the most time. In Zone 1, we kept our rain barrels and vermicomposting bin. Because the house is surrounded by concrete and abutted by an in-ground pool, our Zone 2 encompassed a larger and scattered area, including parts of our gardens and a small greenhouse. We adapted our zone planning around these existing conditions on site and designed our Zone 2 as 'patches' instead of a discrete ring (see diagram below). Zone 3/4 (further away from the house, but right next to main garden in Zone 2) also had garden beds for growing plants we were experimenting with/trying out, and was where we kept compost, tools, and found materials (pots, bricks, stones, fencing, etc). This area borders a pathway of forest and wetlands where we'd often see squirrels, chipmunks, groundhogs, coyotes, turkeys and countless kinds of birds.
Applying Zones of Influences to OPT's work
We think of Zones of Influence as a way to work from the inside out, imagining a spiral of activity from ourselves outward into our community. It helps us to commit different levels of energy to different zones to work to meet our goals. This thinking has led us to focus on the development of ourselves and our homestead first, energy from we can send out as ripples into other zones, by for example getting involved with local organizations like Waltham Fields Community Farm and planning the Northeast Permaculture Convergence in 2012. This diagram is a reminder that self-care is very important in our trip.
Deep Green Permaculture offers in depth information on each zone in this article. We've also included a PDF with diagrams and basic descriptions of zones of use and zones of influence. Share with us in the comments your experiences with zones of use/influence planning and design!
The Lyman Estate is a short walk from where we live in Waltham, MA and is one of the first places we explored in our community when we started 'Our Permaculture Trip' in the fall of 2011.
The estate features several almost 200 year old greenhouses, some of the oldest in the United States, that are still used today. The Lymans were passionate horticulturalists and grew citrus and other 'tropical' plants like bananas and pineapples in greenhouses built several feet into the ground (called 'pit' greenhouses). The property was also a working farm, and today still houses a working nursery and various exotic and native plants on display.
Part of our 'trip' has been to connect with our community through building relationships with people, organizations and learning about our shared history and how it can help us imagine the future. The idea of growing pineapples in Massachusetts is one of those small examples of the exciting possibilities that our current paradigm makes seem impossible. These greenhouses are just one example of using appropriate and available technology (remember these are almost 200 years old!) to shift what we believe is possible. This is one solution towards providing local, sustainable and simple sources for food preferences we've acquired through a destructive system of global food production and distribution.
After initially learning about scales of permanence in practice during our permaculture design course, we did additional research on the topic, finding this article crediting P.A. Yeomans in the development of the Keyline process, a wholistic approach derived from years of observation, direct experience and lots of trial and error with implementing permanent agricultural systems.
During the analysis phase of permaculture design, the scales of permanence can be adapted into a design tool. Understanding the range of aspects in the site we can and cannot change can help us set realistic goals within our time frame and develop design strategies to make our ideas a possibility.
The top of the list includes aspects of the site that are harder to change, or can't change. As you move down the list, these aspects become easier to change with our decisions and actions:
Harder to change / can't change
How we applied this in design practice
When assessing our backyard design site during the summary analysis phase of design, we converted each of these 'scales' into layers on separate sheets of trace paper. When put together, they helped us see the whole system, with everything from climate (zone 6, to slope, to what animals visited the garden often). When separated, they allowed us to use this data to flesh our our niche analyses and begin to lay out the design.
These scales of permanence also help us to design for the future, for succession, by providing a framework for thinking out 30 years and working backwards.
Along the way we've picked up tips on the best tools for human powered maintenance of productive land. We've included some pictures below, and you can follow the links to a product provider we've used or has been recommended to us.
We learned how to make A-frames at our Permaculture Design Course with F.E.A.S.T. We put together brief instructions on how we made this D.I.Y. low tech tool - it will help you chart the contour lines of the land you are working on. That will help you begin a number of projects like digging swales and building berms to slow, spread and sink water.
We had a drill and screws on hand, so decided to use these materials to secure the pieces of the A-Frame together. For fun, we did experiment with building it only with twine. It worked, but needed some adjustments.
1. Secure the two longer pieces that are exactly the same size at the top with twine, nails or both. Attach the smaller piece about half-way down from the top, creating a big "A"
2. Tie the string or twine tightly around the rock or the weight you have for this project. Tie the other end of the string to the top of the A-frame so the weight swings freely when moved.
3. Find the level mark--Hold the A-Frame upright on ground or floor that seems level. Mark where the legs are touching the ground with sticks, leaves, small stones, etc. Hold it still. When the weight stops moving, mark the place where the string touches the crossbar. Turn the A Frame around and repeat. Mark the spot in the exact middle between the two marks you just made. This is your level mark.
Now you're ready to use your A-Frame to map contour lines!
UPDATED: As Permaculture Design Course (PDC) graduates, we always like to share permaculture courses that we would recommend. Lisa DePiano, one of our head PDC teachers, is involved with the following courses in the summer and fall of this year.
Please list in the comments any other courses you'd recommend or would like to share. We've already added one shared with us in the comments! We also have a full list of regularly available PDC courses in the Northeast on our resources page if these dates, times and locations are not convenient.
Permaculture Design and Practice - UMass Amherst
A great opportunity to build your portfolio and gain skills in permaculture design by touring existing projects and then working as a team to design a permaculture homestead. This three-credit course includes in-class lectures, field trips, design studio and a hands-on field component, to offer students a deepened practice in permaculture design process and techniques. The course culminates with students completing their own permaculture design for a site in the pioneer valley. The framework behind the theory and practice of permaculture is rooted in the observation of natural systems. By observing key ecological relationships, we can mimic and apply these beneficial relationships in the design of systems that serve humans while helping to regenerate the natural world. This course trains students as critical thinkers, observers, and analysts of the world(s) around them, and provides tools needed to design for positive change.
Successful completion of this course and PLSOILIN 197G in the fall semester will enable students to be eligible for the internationally recognized permaculture design certificate.
Important Dates; Last Day to: Register 7/11, Drop 7/12, Withdraw 7/26
Full refund through 7/12 (registration fee not refundable)
No refund after 7/12
F.E.A.S.T. Permaculture Design Course (the course we took!)
This weekend permaculture design course moves from principles and patterns to details in a supportive, respectful and collaborative atmosphere to promote rapid learning of whole systems design. The course will center around experiential learning and hands-on skill building, including local field trips where we will see theory in action.
The course will conclude with a design practicum, where participants will work in small groups to develop a design for the course client.
Dates and Cost:
September 7,8, 28, 29
October 18 (evening only), 19, 20
November 2, 3, 16, 17, 30
December 1, 7 (make up day in case of bad weather)
$998 early bird price
$1250 after August 1st
Tons of info, testimonials, and registration instructions on the website here: http://permaculturefeast.org/
Earth Activist Training
Prospect Rock Permaculture Center,
September 7-21, 2013
Instructors: Starhawk, Charles Williams, Keith Morris, Lisa DePiano, and Skotty Kellogg
A two-week permaculture design certificate course with a focus on organizing and activism, and a grounding in earth based spirituality. Learn how to heal soil and cleanse water, how to design human systems that mimic natural systems, using a minimum of energy and resources and creating real abundance and social justice. Explore the strategies and organizing tools we need to make our visions real, and the daily practice, magic and rituals that can sustain our spirits. Participatory, hands-on teaching with lots of ritual, games, projects, songs, and laughs along with an intensive curriculum in ecological design.
Visit the EAT course information page and sample schedule for details on this course.
We love catching up on reading during the winter months. Our Master Gardener Course recommended several books for each area of class focus to supplement the core course reading. Some are great reference run-to-and-grab books, while others are also great read-throughs. Many, if not all, of these books are available at Chelsea Green Publishing, Amazon, or your local bookstore. We haven't linked any of these to a particular source to purchase them, so you can find them where and when you want.
We particularly recommend Teaming with Microbes, What's Wrong With My Plant (and How Do I Fix It?) and Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast.
Teaming with Microbes, Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis - This book will change the way you think about soil and plant nutrition!
Botany for Gardeners, Brian Capon - A good primary overview, very readable
Home Outside, Julie Moir Messervy - Concepts accessible to the home gardener
Good Bug, Bad Bug, Jessica Walliser - Common pest and beneficial insects in the home garden, good photos
What’s Wrong With My Plant? (and How Do I Fix It?), David Deardorff and Kathryn Wadsworth - Flow charts help gardeners learn the steps of diagnosis
Sibley Guide to Trees, David Sibley - Good illustrations, covers majority of trees in our landscape
Reading the Forested Landscape, Tom Wessels - Essential for understanding how woody plants interact in New England
Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide, Lawrence Newcomb
Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast, Peter Del Tredici - Weeds you should be familiar with in our zone
Hands on Gardener: Pruning, Robert Kourik - Easy to follow, good illustrations
The Pruning Book, Lee Riech
The Backyard Orchardist and The Backyard Berry Book, Stella Otto - Excellent guide to care of small fruits in the home landscape
The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible, Edward Smith - Great book, well organized, easy to follow
100 Vegetables and Where They Come From, William Woys Weaver
Hands on Gardener: Seeds and Propagation, Susan McClure - Covers propagation techniques available to the home gardener
Well-Clad Windowsills, Tovah Martin - Groups plants by best exposure, good care guide
The Well-Tended Perennial Garden, Tracy DiSabato Aust - Excellent care instructions for a wide variety of common perennials
The Organic Lawn Care Manual, Paul Tukey - Learn good care practices that will promote healthy lawn growth
Goal articulation is the first step in any design process. This is true for a permaculture project in your backyard, or when working with a community space. As a designers with clients, we must actively listen and absorb information from them, paying attention to how they articulate their goals and how you process re-articulate them. People get locked into idea of what they want; instead of form or details, focus more on function and the bigger picture. By seeing alternatives and spending time on exploration, we can help expand the palate of possibility. When we design for our own living spaces or communities, we are both the client and designer, and must also actively listen to, absorb and process our goals for action.
It's important to use PTAV (present tense active voice) when articulating goals. Setting goals in the present tense helps us see what it feels like by saying "this is the way it is". The goals set set this way are not in the past or the future, and are more powerful in the present. Using an active voice, we become the do-ers, connecting thought and action, theory to practice.
Here is a worksheet adapted from Edible Forest Gardens Volume 2 that describes the goal articulation process in depth:
To start the design process for the Cliff Garden in Waltham in 2011, we articulated our goals, and keep a copy of these goals where when we are drafting designs and during installation to help guide us.
1) Our garden grows and feeds us the produce we currently eat most often:
2) Our garden grows and fees us new food that we love to eat but never knew about before our PDC
3) We hang out in a chill social space outside near our garden
4) We attract abundant wildlife to our garden and they love it here, including: birds, chipmunks, ducks, bees, dragonflies, ladybugs, spiders, worms, mushrooms, microbes, squirrels
5) We have a pond that supports a vibrant aquaculture including: fish, frogs, water chestnuts, lilies
These goals were ambitious in our first year of applying permaculture. We did not meet all of our goals, and many goals were not realized in the ways that we thought they would in the beginning. We didn't grow many shrubs or trees, and focused on perennial and annual herbaceous crops for the most part. We did however, eat a lot of food from the backyard, made salads, tinctures, sat and enjoyed abundant wildlife while eating alpine strawberries, all which happened after many steps later in the design process...