Practical Ecology: Permaculture - Redwoodtwig

Brandon Smith (Redwoodtwig)



Growing crops is what a farmer or gardener does

All farming or gardening consists of five phases:  

     Observe what's happening in the plot of land to be farmed or gardened.

     Record or remember what is there.

     Evaluate what you want to do there.

     Design or plan how to accomplish  what you want to do there.

     Dig,  plant, prune, harvest, etc., etc.

Sometimes each phase is accomplished for a particular garden bed in order, but most of the time the phases tend to overlap and repeat in almost random order.

Conventional gardening usually combines the observation, recording and evaluating into a single design phase.  Over the years of digging, the gardener usually brings in more detailed observations, records and evaluations.

Conventional farming usually starts with more detailed observations and evaluations, not to mention record keeping.  Successful conventional farms, of any size, always include detailed observation, record keeping, evaluation, and carefully thought out design prior to each season's digging.  

Forestry also has similar phases, as does probably any other work with natural resources.

In all the currently conventional methods of working with natural resources, the evaluation and design phases put human use of the output first.  In some cases, such as organic farming or botanic gardens,  other factors are sometimes given the same priority as human use.

The word "garden" also refers to pretty landscaping, from flower beds in front of the house to huge formal gardens, where aesthetic considerations are first, well above ecological considerations.  Most nurseries and the garden departments of big chain stores specialize in pretty, quite often including mostly non-edible plants and all too frequently opportunistic exotics or natives that require a lot of human labor to control.  



Growing a Plant Community is what a permaculturist does

The main difference between conventional and permaculture farmers is that the evaluations of the first are colored by the profit motivation more strongly than the colors of ecological health and well being of the farm.

To paraphrase W. Edwards Deming,

        If you don't love doing what you are doing, it won't work out. However, if you don't make a profit, you can't keep doing it.

(He was talking about cars, and he's the reason so many of us drive Japanese cars. We sent him to Japan right after WWII to help their economy recover and he taught them lessons very few American companies take to heart.)

If the profit motive comes first, evaluation of a particular chunk of land with a specific set of trees and plants growing on it will color all the observations made of what's going on in a particular feature, such as the group of trees I call "The Little Grove."    

From a real-estate profit point of view, what's needed here is pretty, since it is seen when coming up the driveway.  I suppose letting the oaks grow straight and tall would be an eventual timber profit.  At this point about the only "profit" currently possible here might be doing a tincture from the witch hazels. 

If I place the health of this community as the highest value,  then perhaps a witch hazel tincture is enough "profit."  Or maybe just smelling their delightful scent those few days when they are at that stage.

From a profit perspective, I see some young trees and bushes that either need forestry or pretty landscaping care.  From a permaculture perspective I see a few hundred foot oaks coming up eventually, and if things are balanced well, there will continue to be healthy witch hazels, persimmons and even river birch.

One problem is, how long does one plan for?  The time scale a permaculture farmer operates on can be orders of magnitudes greater: the period of time over which profit is computed can be hundreds of years: The oak beams of New College, Oxford, England.


The Little Grove, for example

The little grove

This area was initially planted with some river birch, a japanese maple, witch hazel and myrtle, and some Echinacea. Oaks, persimmons and blacklocust quickly volunteered themselves and are also happy. Working on grafting some of the oaks inside. The echinacea got shaded out after a few years, the japanese maple turned out to be a graft and the graft died so now it's a regular maple, much deformed by several attempts to cut it down.


These folders contain additional discussion about my approach to permaculture.