Sow Good Seeds: Learning permaculture

Sow Good Seeds is a column devoted to environmental issues, gardening, cooking, and anything else connected to the natural world that has so graciously hosted us on this earth. My hope is that it will encourage you to see the world around you in a different way, to make incremental changes in your daily living, and to treat our planetary home such that we honor the generations of life that will follow.

I have friends who have talked about something called “permaculture” for years. They went off to complete courses and returned with eyes shining and notebooks filled to the margins. Since hearing the term for the first time — a combination of “permanent” and “agriculture” or “culture” — I’ve been dabbling around the edges with mini-courses, flipping through books, and attending talks.

Permaculture can be defined in lots of ways, but one way to describe it is “a creative design process based on whole-systems thinking informed by ethics and design principles […]. This approach guides us to mimic the patterns and relationships we can find in nature and can be applied to all aspects of human habitation.” The mindset is used in a variety of contexts, from designing a fruitful and self-sustaining garden to building community resilience by sourcing renewable energy to resolving conflict over tough issues. 

In the spring of 2020, I took advantage of the abundant time on my hands and dove in: I signed up for an online, self-paced permaculture design course. Fast forward to two years later: I completed it at the end of April 2022!

I’m still unpacking all the learning I’ve taken in. I’m also enjoying more free evenings — I haven’t undertaken such a rigorous, school-like experience since undergrad. I truly loved school, but I’m feeling like I just finished exams and now I can pack up my spot at the library and resurface for air. 

As with anything, though, the learning doesn’t stop after the experience ends. The learning just takes place outside of the classroom or computer screen and gets applied hands-on. There’s so much I could go into, but one foundational aspect that will stick with me is the 12 principles of permaculture, and I think they’re a really accessible way to grasp the concepts and enact them in daily life. Permaculture is a way to approach things like gardens and ecosystems, but it’s equally as valuable a tool for understanding and designing community dynamics, social relationships, and one’s inner, emotional workings.

The first principle is observe and interact. It’s the first principle because it’s the first thing to do before creating plans, making decisions, or implementing changes in a system. Before anything else happens, it’s important to take note of what is already present and happening (or not), and how the system functions as you interact with it. 

When we moved into our house, I didn’t do enough of this before breaking ground for a garden bed. There are sunnier spots, better for planting in our yard, which I would have noticed if I had spent more time in the yard and been more patient before taking action. So, I’ll be using that bed for shade-tolerant vegetables!

To apply this principle to the “ecosystem” of a company: when a new CEO arrives, she would do well to observe the relationships between existing staff, take note of each department’s strengths and resources, interact thoughtfully, and listen deeply to understand the culture already present. Doing all of this before sweeping in and shaking things up will make the whole system healthier, do a great service to the staff and to the leader, and prevent problems down the road (such as realizing that the new plot is too shady, to go back to my garden example).

Even when you’re in a familiar environment, careful observation can help deepen your understanding of what’s going on around you. Becoming an inquisitive scientist or anthropologist is a fun exercise when walking in your neighborhood, standing in line at the store, or sitting in a community meeting. What’s growing in the bare patch of soil at the spot where the utility work was done? (Check back in two weeks to observe the difference!) Does the cashier’s behavior change when he interacts with different customers? Who is talking the most in the meeting, and who is talking the least?

I heard someone early on in the course say that permaculture may seem like common sense — observation as Step 1 is pretty obvious, and logical — but it’s not common practice. My friends are probably tired of me bringing permaculture into every conversation, but there’s a lot more to say about it (this is only the first principle of twelve, after all). I look forward to writing more about it here. 

Deborah Haak-Frost is the Caretaker for Community Engagement at GilChrist Retreat Center in Three Rivers, and volunteers with *culture is not optional, a Three Rivers-based community development organization.

Any views or opinions expressed in “Sow Good Seeds” are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the Watershed Voice staff or its board of directors.