Toby Hemenway – Redesigning Civilization with Permaculture

When just over two years ago we came across permaculture we were overwhelmed by a flood of information. We couldn’t find anything to anchor us down, anything to help us make sense of it all. Fragments of information came at us from all directions and we didn’t know how to put it all together. We have since a few precious anchors to give us direction, but the day before yesterday we came across this by Toby Hemenway (author of a fairly well known in permaculture circles book Gaia’s Garden). We enjoyed every secon of this talk – one of the most clear and accessible introductions to permaculture we’ve come across. In it he gives an inspiring historical glimpse into the forces that shaped our modern day cilization and the difficulties we have been experiencing lately – especially with regard to food, but not just.

I wish we had come across this video earlier in our meeting with Permaculture.


This video also presents a welcomed and first opportunity to share Permaculture with others in our lives who’s lives have not yet presented a relevant invitation into this domain.

Permaculture Reality Check

I am undecided about Paul Wheaton’s podcasts. Many (most?) times I feel like I need to patiently wait through annoying chitter-chatter … however I do occasionally come across ones that are interesting and valuable. I just finished listening to one of my all time favorites The Realities of Practical Permaculture – Dell Artemis Farm.

Very few things in real life are as they seem to be in the books (this is true for Permaculture and almost anything else I can think of). Theoretical knowledge is one thing and practical application a whole other thing. I think a warning about this gap should be placed in large bold type-face on every permaculture publication … kind of like the warnings they have on cigarette boxes. But this isn’t the case and as a result learning about permaculture and sustainability creates illusions … and those illusions come crashing down when you hit the ground … and that pain can be avoided or the fall softened. This podcast does just that. If you are thinking of embarking on a permactulrue-esque life … listen to this podcast.

Nothing is ever as easy as it seems to be in the books or articles or even classes. Circumstances (soil, climate, culture, finances, skills, resources …) trump theories every time. If you are not prepared to experiment and fail and experiment and fail … again and again … a lot … then don’t head out on this road.

I completely agree with the notion that self-sustainability is a bullshit notion which is more likely to lead to misdirection and frustration than to inspiration. There is practically no such thing as self-sustainability. You can move towards a more self-sustainable life but true sustainability can only be achieved within circles of community. Community is one of the most complex and mysterious concepts I have come across … don’t take it for granted.

For example: we built our hugelkultur beds in the spring. It was too late for them to absorb water and get us through the summer drought. Yet we did a few experiments and lost most of our produce … we learned a lot but produced very little food. We were able to do this by purchasing the food we needed from neighbors. Those neighbors are growing food in traditional farming with a lot of work and risks and depletion of natural resources. They are supporting our research efforts. Those research efforts will hopefully come up with alternatives methods of growing food which they will be able to learn from and adapt to their needs. That is community.

Infrastructures first. Every time. Andreea is dying to bring a couple of goats on the farm and I am constantly the bad guy (and also the one who shoulders most of the regular tasks that need to be done around here) by refusing to even consider it before we have the necessary infrastructures in place (pasture and paddocks, yearly food cycle and supply, water, winter sheltering …). Those infrastructures will take years to build (once we have the money to get some of them started). Infrastructures make the difference between a life of pleasant work and a life of slavery. I did not come here to become a slave.

 

Cutia Taranului & Rain

We had a very wet spring this year. We had plenty of rain but less early warmth. Corn grew early and fast however vegetables were slower to grow.

IMPACT1: Field grown vegetables have been growing slower then last year.

But then the rain stopped and people got religious … some more then others. Some people have no irrigation solutions so they get really religious really fast as they watch their crops dry. Others have small water-holes created not by gathering rain but by excavating until they penetrates an aquifer so that springs create a small reservoire of water. They use gas-driven pumps to move water into the fields and have been watching the water level go way down … so their religion is a bit more laid back … but still … they too are praying for rains.

IMPACT2: Peasants income is late to appear and to a degree in doubt this year.
IMPACT3: Peasants live in fear.
IMPACT4: Cutia Taranului members need to be patient … investing more energy then they thought they would in this mutual relationship with their fellow peasants.

By now the corn too is starting to show signs of dryness. It had a great start but it too needs water to continue growing.

IMPACT5: There may be less yield of corn, less to feed the animals, more expenses in buying feed … coupled with less income from selling food = difficult.

The pastures have given good yield so far but may not continue to yield enough hay for another cutting. Hay needs to be cut in dry conditions so that it can dry in the sun before it is collected … so summer is pretty much the only time

IMPACT6: Gradually less and less small peasant families with 2 or 3 cows … much work, not enough value … and way too much trouble.

This morning we awoke to a hopeful drizzle. It paused and later turned into a promising summer rain … that lasted 20 minutes … then the sun came out and the hope went away. Within a couple of hours most of the earth was again dry. Rain … it is so immediate, so powerful, so far reaching. Of course the worries may be eased at least temporaily somewhat with a few rains … but the instablity and fears remain.

We hope Cutia Taranului will create stability for both consumers in the city and peasant producers. Yet we ar convinced that selling food is just one (though a critical) step on on the way. The way food is grown will have to change too … water supply is diminishing (water tables are dropping), the earth (yes, even AND especially the earth that will supply the wonderful vegetables that will begin delivery next week) is dying, work is getting harder and weather is becoming less predictable and more extreme (it isn’t global warming that worries peasants, it’s singular local events that threatens their livelihood).

For me, that’s the heart and motivation of Cutia Taranului. We live and grow our food in the same weather conditions, we face similar challenges. We have already begun to explore alternative approaches that create better and more resilient conditions and we hope, through Cutia Taranului, to both continue our exploration and then share our experiences in the hope that stability can be achieved in the face of coming uncertainties.

 

Rainy Days and Hugelkultur Beds

Last year we prayed for continuous sunshine and warmth as we were racing to make our house livable and to complete preparations for winter. It was a droughty year … demanding for all the locals. This year we prayed for rains to saturate our newly built raised beds … and so we’ve been having a streak of rainy days. Its wonderful mild rain gently covering the landscape and watering all new newly planted plants. It has been going on for I think at least 3 weeks and more is expected throughout this week and the next with only occassional appearances by the sun (no doubt this would have been a challenging period for living off the electrical grid).

Last year everyone complained about lack of water. This year many people are showing signs of worry due to too much water. Some peasants have already lost some crops (some of which have already been replanted) to flooded areas.

We are now realizing another wonderful feature of raised beds. Our plants are all planted on raised beds and are in absolutely no danger of flooding (unless it comes in the form of a hollywood-end-of-the-world kind of disaster) since excess water that is not absorbed into the bed itself will run off. It will have another opportunity to get absorbed in the earth in the mulched space between the raised beds … and if there is still any runoff it will most likely find its way to the small lake we dug.

We have not yet harvested a single crop from our raised beds yet I cannot imagine raising plants in any other way (except of course where the terrain calles for Sepp Holzer style terraces). Planting in a field seems out of the question.

Building Raised Beds

A year ago we were still in the theoretical phase of working land. We already met Bhudeva though we were not yet the owners and we were bewildered by the vastness of permaculture and could not imagine how to begin reviving 9 hectares of land. Then we found Sepp Holzer’s raised beds and something told me we’d found a good beginning.

Raised beds is a common gardening term and usually refers to small and manageable areas of garden that are slightly elevated from ground level and neatly arranged to accommodate plants. This IS NOT what we are talking about. When we say raised beds we are referring to Sepp Holzer Hugelkultur … very large raised beds that:

  1. Are made up of fallen wood or other residue organic matter that has substantial mass.
  2. Provide a fertile growing area for many years without the need to bring in extra fertilization.
  3. Soak up a lot of water and as a result can survive droughty months without any need for irrigation.
  4. Make harvesting easier by reducing the need to bend down to ground level.
  5. Drastically increase the surface growing area where available land may be limited.

Paul Wheaton posted an excellent article on such raised beds so I don’t need to. I urge you to read his article to gain a basic understanding of what hugelkultur raised beds are and then, if you’re still interested, continue reading about our efforts to create them.

Raised Garden Bed - from Permies.com

Location

If you have a small garden this is probably a lesser-issue. However, we have 9 hectares of land and this was quite an issue. We have an evolving vision of the entire property but there are still many things that can and are being shuffeled around in that vision. Here is what we knew:

  • We wanted to build a few raised beds … how many would depend on how much wood we would have (which was still an unknown when we decided to get started).
  • We wanted the raised beds to be our primary gardening area for annuals.
  • Therefore we wanted the raised beds close to our future (and current) house.
  • But we didn’t want them taking up space that would be set aside for one of our forest gardens which we also want close to our future house.

So we decided to start building the beds just south of the intended location of our future house. The house is intended to be mostly underground so a forest garden cannot be placed to the south where it would block out the sun. The only inhibiting factor for this location was timing.  Eventually the area of the house and its surroundings will become a construction site (though a relatively delicate one) and we do not want the raised beds to be in the way or to get trampled. Fortunately there is enough space for both 🙂

Materials

The raised beds started with a symbolic gesture. I simply placed a small pile of medium sized pieces of wood that were lying around from an old and ailing tree we pruned heavily (it seems to be reviving wonderfully). Most of the materials then came from a maor thinning we did of a dense and overgrown prune orchard behind the existing house (the one we currently live in).

We currently know of only two kinds of trees that are not suitable for raised beds. Hardwoods such as Acacia (which is a strong native here) contain chemicals which deter the microbiological fungi that are responsible for rotting wood (which make them extremely durable and rot resistant). Then there are walnut trees (also abundantly available here) beneath which nothing ever grows due to another chemical that is present in the tree (though we don’t know if its just in the leaves or in the bark itself) … so we don’t want that in the raised beds either. So our raised beds are mostly of prune trees with a few more mixed in.

Building

Building the raised beds was a lot of work for one person. I am confident that a few people working together could have done it much faster … however it is possible to do on your own. Converting a branched tree into pieces that can be piled together can be quite a meditation. I eventually found a work-process that I could follow fairly regularly (dragging trees from where they were lying around, spreading them near the raised beds, chainsaw cutting and then piling).

How you go about it ultimately depends on what kind of wood you have available to you. I had lots of relatively thin pieces (even the tree trunk) and only occassional massive pieces. In some cases I used the heavy trunk pieces to quickly create a base … very rewarding as it feels like rapid progress 🙂 However I ultimately found that is it better to use the thinner pieces to create the base and then to lay on top of them the heavier pieces to weigh them down. Some of threes were tall, straight and fairly thin (most branches pointed up and alongside the trunk) and I just placed them as is on the ground … a pile of such trees formed a formidable base with relatively little work.

The good thing is that it isn’t rocket science and eventually it is all buried by dirt. My main objective was to make sure I got fairly large beds (at least 1 meter high just the wood)  and as much wood mass as I could into the beds. Because I was using fairly thin branches, whenever I could I tried to insert pieces into spaces that formed inside the bed. There was still much space for dirt to settle inside.

Another good things is that we now have 3 different “densities” of raised beds to observe and experiment with over the years. We have one very dense bed, two mixed bed and two low-density (and smaller) beds.

Spacing

We built 5 raised beds. They are located on a slight-slope that faces south. The land also slopes slightly from east-west. The raised beds are oriented roughly west-to-east and they are interlaced so that water can flow between them:

Again this isn’t rocket science and only time will tell if our choices will work well for us. We tried to leave enough space between the beds so that after burial, which widens the beds, there would still be enough space to walk comfortably between them with a wheel-barrow for carrying stuff in and out (tools, harvest, etc.).

The blue space you see in the diagram is where we got the dirt. We dug a small lake … however that is a topic on to itself … and it is too early of an experiment so I am nowhere near confident enouh to write about it. .. stay tuned though 🙂

Burial

To bury the raised beds we hired Florin our wonderful tractor guy for a day (we had him to lots of other things that needed doing that day).We decided to dig a test lake and to use the dug up earth to bury the beds. The lake is placed in the lowest corner of this part of the land … so hopefully it will collect water without us having to penetrate the aquipher for water (as seems to be the norm around here).

The beds were spaced in such a way that a tractor good just get through and dump earth onto the beds. This is important to plan for if you intend to use a tractor. It would have been easier to do this one row at a time (or two rows at first) so that there would have been unhindered access for the tractor but just having the tractor arrive at our property is costly so we decided to maximize using it.

It took a lot of earth to bury the raised beds. It would have been an unimaginably difficult task (a few strong people over a few days) to get this done without heavy machinery.

Because of the limited access to the central bed the tractor had to dump a few loads when its not aligned parallel to the bed itself. This resulted in a “wide-dump” causing dirt to fall to far to the sides of the bed creating a wider bed then we had hoped for.

It is better (for the shape of bed that we were aiming for) that the tractor come up parallel to the bed and dump the earth right on top.

Post Burial

We then had the tractor haul over a pile of hay that we would use for mulch.

We also had the tractor haul over a pile of cow-manure that was sitting next to our barn (last years our neighbors housed their cows there for some time ) and had composted there. We didn’t know if the amount would be sufficient for the 5 beds so we preferred to leave it in a pile we could use as we see fit. In retrospect that was a mistake. Spreading it manually will not create more of it. It was hard work to spread the manure over the beds and I definitely regretted not having the tractor dump it directly onto the beds (with supervision to make the best of what is available).

Then came the mulch … and planting the beds … both of which I will get too in separate future posts 🙂

Meanwhile …

While we were building our raised beds our neighbors were all busy doing the same traditional, expensive, labor intensive, fertility destroying activities they (and most Romanian peasants) have been doing for eternity:

People who passed by were curious about what we were doing with the piles of wood on our land … or to be specific … why we weren’t cutting it up into firewood … or to be even more specific … why were we burying precious firewood with dirt. We give a brief and passionate explanation to those who ask and get on with our work. The beautiful thing about these raised beds is that when you hear the reasoning it makes sense even if you’ve had no gardening or farming experience … it makes TONS of sense if you have had any experience … yet it it still mostly met with doubt.

If all goes well, then this time next year we will be free to relax or do new things while our neighbors will all be doing the same work again. Maybe in a few years when we’ve shown that we can get better results with less work and less expenses some of them will come around to inquiring about what is going on.

Beware: Sitting & Digging Dogs

Our dogs love sitting on on raised piles … usually of hay … though raised beds work great for them too. They demonstrated their affections from the start:

At first it was cute … heck it was an achievement that they just sat there instead of trying to bark the tractor into submission … but now we are constantly demanding they get off. It isn’t pleasant to see them walking over or sitting (or digging into) the raised beds now that they are planted … and to the dogs the plants make no difference. So our recommendations: (a) get them off from the very beginning and (b) get used to it 🙂

 

 

 

 

Inspiration: Sepp Holzer

If you haven’t already been touched by Sepp Holzer’s inspiring life and framing then this relatively new production with available subtitles (after you click play a “cc” button will appear and you need to click it and then ”english” to activate them) makes for a good introduction. Enjoy 🙂

Arrived in my life complements of Paul Wheaton

Lawton’s Guide To Permaculture Design and Strategy

Here’s another 5 part series which demonstrates the diversity of considerations which lead to diversity of crops and foods in permaculture forest-gardens. At least watch the last two parts for a system overview and tour of an actual eco-system which demonstrates the concepts described in the first three parts.