Permaculture Design


Permaculture is getting hip and trendy now and with that there is and an inescapable side effect of the dilution of the meaning.

Whereas a lot of people think it Permaculture is ‘just another way of gardening’ and building a ‘herb spiral’ or ‘pizza oven’ in your garden will certainly get you the permaculture stamp, for others, there is much more to it.  The good part of the story is that you can do what you want and just call it whatever, as a word is just a word and its meaning depends on what society gives to it. However, let me tell you what Permaculture means to me.

Permaculture to me means to design for resilience. Yes, it is a design science. Using observational skills of ‘what is’, the natural cycles and patterns specific to the site and scientific knowledge to design a system that works with nature instead of against. As a whole, it should work together to provide for the needs of the owner, while working together with the animal and natural kingdom. Imposing our will just plainly on the land often leaves us struggling as we are going against the stream, not paying attention to the ecosystems natural flow.

A permaculture design could look something like this.
On the higher grounds, swales (earth mounds on contour) direct water into the newly made dam, which helps increase biodiversity (frogs, water insects, birds) while at the same time, growing fish in it. The water also serves for gravity feeding the garden in summertime, while acting as a reflective mirror, increasing the reach of the sunlight to the tree lanes in the field. The trees growing on the swales are coppiced every so many years to serve as firewood for the rocket stoves in the house. After all, instead of waiting 20-30 years for a tree to get a proper size, getting the arborist in to fell it safely, and breaking your back on lifting, cutting, moving and splitting and still having to wait 2years to have nice dry wood for burning it is much easier to cut fistlike shoots of a tree, and putting it into your daily routine to harvest and stack the wood for usage the next winter. Especially as Rocket Mass Heaters are much more efficient than your average woodstove, using only 1/10th of the wood to heat your home.

Walking from the dam towards the house we see fields were cows, sheep and chickens are ‘working’ hard to improve the soil, eating and roaming freely in a space fenced by movable electric fencing to imitate the natural grazing in the old days when wolves and other carnivores where after a bite. The animals are able to move and perform their natural instincts. Chickens for example scratch up the mosses, eat bugs but also scratch the cow’s poop, which has bred nice fat beetles to be searched out by the chickens exactly 4 days after the cows and sheep have left. and while they are having a great time finding these nutritious mineral ‘bombs’, they spread the poop nicely over the field. Happy chicken, happy farmer, and guess what, this happy healthy chicken lays eggs as well. Thank you nature!

The fields are not just grassy empty spaces, kept open by the cow, sheep and chicken cell grazing system, no. In between of two rows of grazing, we find fruit trees with fruit bushes underplanting. Red currants on the north side as they can handle more shade than their blackcurrant cousin planted on the sunny south side. Underneath we find other perennial herbs that thrive in these circumstances. Alternatively, these rows could be planted with species that serve as cow or sheep fodder, adding to their already rich diet expressed by the salad bar they are standing on daily.

A food forest, also known as a forest garden, provides perennial food and nutrients growing in different vertical layers, thereby making the most of the space and time available. A forest doesn’t need to be watered, doesn’t need to be composted. After the initial establishment years, maintenance is kept to freeing more beneficial species from more enthusiastic growing species, which will end up, roughly chopped on the forest floor. In the more open spaces annuals, like lettuce, beets, and kale, grow until the trees and shrubs are ready to take up their designed nice. This diverse range of growing doesn’t only serve the plants and trees but also the bees, birds, critters but also beneficial fungi and other species who are part of the bigger network we humans are often unaware of. Next to that, it is very pleasant to walk in the abundance of green, calming the mind with the presence of buzzing bees and noticing the cooling shade the grown trees provide.

When we walk out from the food forest, we can already see the house, mostly build from the clay that came out of the earth, while digging the foundations. But more on that later. First, we encounter the elaborate and well designed annual garden. Its geometric shapes are a delight for the eye and bring a certain peace in a space that is certainly full of life. The no-dig garden beds are just wide enough to reach from both sides, while the paths in between are narrow to conserve space. A planting calendar keeps you on track with what can be sowed and transplanted or harvested and not unimportant, when. Trelisses full of beans stand in the middle, while the bed is always covered with an intensely planted lower crop, not allowing much room for weeds. And hey, a lot of those weeds are perfectly healthy and edible, so a continuous learning curve in the knowledge of ‘wild foods’ is ensured. The growing season is prolonged with the earth-sheltered greenhouse, harnessing the sun, also in lower angled sun times (spring, autumn, winter) and with an insulated northside, not to lose that precious warmth. Again, a little pond and rockeries are inviting for more wildlife to pick up possible pests and increase the reach of the sun.  Ducks (like the breed Indian Runner) can help with eating the slugs away who are eating your lettuce and producing a nice compost of their manured bedding. their manured swimming water can be gravity fed to the garden. Oh, yeah and they are great egg layers as well. Mjam.

The house then, finally. The house is, as said earlier, build from natural materials. The availability of strawbales and clay, made the pick of materials a no-brainer, and well suited for a cold climate, keeping that cold out and the heat in. But just as important as the materials, is the positioning of the house, the windows, the well placed thermal mass indoors. But also, carefully chosen roof overhangs, to let the sunshine in in winter months but keeping most of the sun out in the summer months, keeping the house cool. Also outside we can help the efficiency of the house by planting trees on the predominant wind side, sheltering both house and garden. The house is being heated as said with rocket mass heaters (RMH). These are efficiently woodburning stoves burning small wood on higher temperatures, using a well-insulated burn chamber and heat riser, the warm air travels through a clay bench on which you can sleep or sit before the air leaves finally leaves the building. Because the wood burns hotter and the special design of the stove, there is a cleaner burn, more complete than in open or ‘normal woodstoves’ and thereby there is less smoke coming out of the chimney. Another important feature of the RMH is that they capture most of the heat.  Small dry wood burns on 800-1000 degrees Celsius, but when it leaves the chimney it is often between 50 and 100 degrees. This means that is has given about 800 degrees away. Away to the space directly through radiation and stored in the thermal mass you are sitting on (the clay bench), which gives it away slowly, up to 24h sometimes even more.
Working with clay and naturally curved wood invites for artistic expressions of the builders and as clay is a very forgiving material, working with it is easy to learn with some guided professional help and doing it yourself always brings the costs down and possibly your happiness and competence level up!