Apply self-regulation and accept feedback.
A major concern of those who have natural yards is what kind of reactions they will get from neighbors who are used to lawns. The fourth principle, however, doesn’t refer to accepting feedback from people. It’s about accepting feedback from the yard itself.
Lawns, industrial agriculture, and other conventional practices are based on the concept that a person will dictate which plants will grow – and where, and how – and the plants will obey. A permaculture practitioner, in contrast, works with the plants. They lay out an (often very detailed) plan, and work to implement it, but they accept that not all plans will succeed.
A plant that dies is a form of feedback: that plant was not successful. A conventional gardener responds to this feedback by forcing the plant to grow through inputs of fertilizer, pesticides, supplemental water, and so on. A permaculture practitioner, on the other hand, makes changes that respond to the specific needs of the plant: providing different companion plants, for example, or moving the plant to a sunnier location. If these changes don’t work, the permaculture practitioner accepts that they will not have that plant in their yard.
Many of us are used to getting what we want; accepting setbacks and disappointments can be hard. But by recognizing that not all of our plans will work out as we hoped, we can stop fighting with our yards and just enjoy what is.
Obtain a yield.
One of the problems with lawns is that they produce nothing for anyone, forcing their owners to go out and buy everything they need – as well as everything the lawn needs. Permaculture practitioners are committed to getting something of value out of their yards.
Often, this value comes in the form of food: permaculture practitioners typically grow a variety of fruits, vegetables, and herbs. Some even raise chickens or fish in their yards.
As described in the last post, the value could also come in the form of energy. Rainwater, solar heat, and compost can all be considered valuable yields.
Those whose gardening practice runs more towards native plants might consider new generations of struggling species to be a yield. Every time a rare plant sets seed, a songbird raises a brood of chicks, or a monarch caterpillar turns into a butterfly, the yard and its resources have produced something of value.
The enjoyment we get from a yard that provides for our needs and the needs of other species can also be a yield. By having a yard that gives, instead of one that takes, we can enrich ourselves and the world around us.
Catch and store energy.
We usually think of energy as something we need to extract, transport, and pay for. But really, energy is all around us, just waiting to be put to good use.
Plants do this every day. Put a vegetable plant in your yard, and it will turn solar energy into food, producing no emissions except for water vapor.
And plants aren’t the only way to capture solar energy. A house can be designed to be lit and heated primarily by sunshine coming through the windows, a technique known as passive solar. Or, a pile of rocks or a brick wall can serve as thermal mass, absorbing the sun’s heat during the day, and releasing it at night to keep nearby areas warm.
Other forms of energy can be captured as well. Water can be stored in rain barrels, organic matter can be kept on site instead of being sent away, and the behavior of animals can be channeled into productive work.
By using clean, freely-available energy sources, we can save money and live more sustainably.
Observe and interact.
A natural yard is always a response to a specific place – there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all natural yard plan. A plan may incorporate plants native to the region, and will certainly account for site conditions.
The only way to know the site conditions is to observe the site for a period of time. Permaculture experts urge practitioners to observe a site for a full year, if possible, before undertaking any major projects. Practitioners who don’t follow this guideline typically find that their impatience results in costly mistakes.
Many permaculture practitioners like to draw maps of their zones and sectors. Others simply absorb knowledge about patterns of sun and shade, water movement, animal behavior, and so on.
This observation is not passive, however. The second part of the principle is interact. While beginning major projects too soon is unwise, conducting small experiments is good. Bring in a few plants and see how they do. Dig a hole and watch how quickly it empties after a rain. Stroll around the yard and notice which areas you are drawn to.
The first principle of permaculture may seem simple, but it lays a crucial foundation for a successful natural yard.