Design from patterns to details.
It can be tempting to begin your permaculture journey by picking a favorite project from That Blog and replicating it in your yard. But, the seventh principle encourages a different way of doing things.
Designing from patterns to details suggests a thoughtful three-step process for deciding what projects to undertake. First, ask what you want to accomplish. Do you want to attract wildlife? Which species would you like to see in your yard, and which would be unwelcome visitors? Or, do you want to produce food? Are you thinking about growing a few herbs, or eating a big salad from your garden every night?
Once you know your goal, think about what kinds of patterns will lead to the desired outcome. What functions will the project need to serve? How will those functions work together? Here is where you might decide that your yard needs a water source for birds, or that your vegetable garden absolutely must include lots of tomatoes.
Finally, decide how those patterns will be embodied in your project. Will the water source be a bird bath or a pond? What plants will you put nearby to provide cover for birds before they approach the water? And for those tomato plants, where will you put them so they get enough sun? How will you build up the soil to help the plants produce the biggest, most delicious tomatoes?
At the end of this process, you’ll have a plan for a successful project. Using the goal-pattern-details framework prevents us from ending up with projects that looked good on paper but don’t lead to the outcomes we wanted for our own yard.
Produce no waste.
Lawns in America consume more land area, water, pesticides, and fertilizers than any commercial crop. After investing all these resources in making the grass grow, the average American then spends 25 hours a year cutting it – in effect, harvesting. And what do we do with all this harvested material? We put it in the garbage.
This process is 100% waste. Permaculture practitioners do it differently.
They use free energy sources, like sunlight. They capture and store free forms of water, like rain and snow. They recycle yard waste and food scraps into compost. Everything is kept on site, and nothing is wasted.
This is how nature does it: every “waste product” becomes a resource for some other process. Because nothing sits around unused, we don’t find ourselves drowning in animal droppings or dead plants. Instead, we struggle to figure out what to do with fossil fuel emissions and disposable plastic: unnatural forms of waste that can’t get reabsorbed into the system.
By relying on natural materials and natural processes, and by bringing together processes whose wastes become each other’s inputs, we can consume less and waste almost nothing.
Use and value renewable resources and services.
Conspicuous consumption is a status symbol in America. By buying things and then throwing them away, we show that we’re rich enough to be wasteful. We do this with fossil fuels, with disposable products, and even with our time.
Lawns play into this value system. Historically, their purpose was to show that the property owner was so wealthy, he could afford to spend time and money preventing his land from producing anything.
Now, this lifestyle has reached its limits. Our wastefulness has impoverished the Earth to the point where it’s no longer possible to live that way. People who continue to waste are seen as behaving selfishly in a world that no longer has enough for everyone.
Today, most people value living more lightly on the land. Some ways that we do this are by driving more efficient cars, reducing food waste, drinking from reusable water bottles instead of disposable plastic ones, and taking shorter showers.
Some other easy ways to consume less are by changing what we do in our yards. For example:
- Gas and electric lawnmowers depend on non-renewable fossil fuels. Unmotorized mowers rely on human labor, which is renewable and carbon-neutral. Better yet, we can just let the plants grow.
- Commercial fertilizer is artificially produced through an environmentally-damaging process. Grass clippings, fallen leaves, and animal droppings contain the same nutrients as commercial fertilizer, and are endlessly renewable.
- Yard work takes a lot of time. Gardening with native plants that are adapted to the area and can take care of all their own needs allows us to spend our time on other things.
Using free, abundant, renewable resources makes us look like smart people who care about our neighbors and our planet. Living less materialistically is now a respected choice that increases our status in the eyes of others.
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.