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One of the many ways that permaculture mimics nature is by creating an “orchard” that is more like a forest.  The food forest.  In nature, forests develop through succession.  If, for any reason, a forest is destroyed, it will repopulate itself through a series of different kinds of plants that will eventually grow into a new forest.  Rather than waiting 50 years for a food forest to develop, we accelerate the whole process so that in 5-10 years we have a productive food forest.

First, let me describe briefly the succession of a forest in nature:

Pioneer plants grow in less than adequate soil.  In general, gardeners call these plants weeds.  However, weeds are often very helpful plants.  They are able to grow in less than perfect soil and make it better for the next group of plants. They have taproots that go deep into the ground and bring the nutrients up to the surface.  They fix nitrogen into the soil so that other plants can use it.  As these plants die they breakdown into organic matter, making the soil rich.  Once these plants go through their cycle in the succession, the soil is left nutrient rich and full of organic matter.

The next series of plants that come along are perennial plants and grasses.  Now that the soil can support these plants.  Perennials and meadow grasses are hardy and can continue to make the soil rich and better suited for other plants.

The grasses continue to amend the soil with organic matter and the root systems help to stabilize the soil and prevent erosion.  Now the hardy shrubs have a habitat that they can survive in.  It also takes shrubs longer to grow than the grasses and perennial plants so they will naturally show up later in the succession.

After the hardy shrubs comes the smaller trees.  The shrubs provide a protective habitat for the smaller trees to have the opportunity to begin to grow.  As the shrubs and trees begin to take over, the earlier successions begin to die out.  The weeds don’t live in healthy, rich environments.  The smaller plants and grasses are shaded out.  The larger shrubs and trees provide strong competition for nutrients and water.  What you are left with is now a young forest.

Finally, the larger trees grow and take over.  They are fierce competition for water and nutrients, and block all the sun.  These large trees are the final cycle of the succession.  Now you have a forest.  The forest you are used to seeing.  The forest that we want to create for ourselves to provide us with food, timber, and all of the other things that a food forest could provide us with.

Again, this process could take 50 years or so.  We don’t really have that kind of time.  So we will just do it all at once.  Here is my plan on implementing forest succession:  This past year, I planted some small fruit trees, some brambles and some comfrey.  This year I will plant more trees and some small beneficial plants around the trees.  All the trees I plant are in hugelkulture beds that naturally amend the soil without having to wait for years of “weeds” to grow and die.  I planted some fast growing trees and some slower growing trees.  By doing this, I am including the different successions all at once and am speeding up the process.  Any trees we have to cut down in the area of the food forest are used in every way possible.  The branches and stumps can be left in place to provide organic matter.  The rotting also provides a habitat for bugs and mushrooms, which help the process along. We can grow all of the different successions all at once in layers

From all the materials I have read, after about 5 years, new permaculture systems bloom.  The fast growing trees have started providing.  The brambles and bushes have started fruiting.  The perennial plants are well established.  The food forest isn’t quite at full swing yet though.  We are still waiting for the larger trees to fruit and provide nuts.  The brambles and perennials are still spreading.  We still need to rely somewhat on our annual gardens.  However, in a few more years you will have a productive food forest.  NOT another 45 years.  And, everything is happy and healthy.

You can also add animals in to the mix if you want to.  One fairly obvious benefit of animals is that they poop.  This helps provide organic matter quickly.  Ducks and chickens eat pest bugs.  They help add to the biodiversity and so the health of the whole system in general.

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Have you ever noticed that the busiest portion of any ecosystem is the edge?  As you walk into a forest, the entrance is busy and full of life.  As you get deeper into the woods, things are calmer and quieter.  The ocean shore where the waves crash onto the beach is where you find the shells and small crabs.  The more shallow part of the ocean has far more life than the depths.  The edges of the lakes and ponds are where you find small creatures and fish eggs and bird nests.  This principle will apply all through nature, so why not apply it to your own landscape?

One of the ways permaculture makes use of this is to use wavy lines instead of straight ones.  The use of wavy lines increases the area of the edges and makes areas more productive.  The best example of this is a pond.  If you have a pond shaped in a perfect circle, the edges are minimal.  The edges of a pond are what creates habitat much of the pond life.  So why not make an irregular shaped pond to increase the edges and therefore increase the productivity of the pond.  The more productive the pond, the better it is at supplying you with food, beneficial insects, habitat for your ducks, food for your fish, and anything else the pond might do for you.

As far as value the marginal goes, find use in things that others may not see.  Our land is thickly wooded, wet, and very steep and rocky.  Marginal land that won’t sell for a high price.  What we saw here was nothing but potential.  The wood can be converted to heat and building material.  The wet areas can be directed to water a garden and used for planting water thirsty plants.  The slope of the land is perfect for terracing, making use of naturally produced water flow, catching the sun’s energy on the south side and we can even build an earth sheltered house right into the hillside.  The rocks everywhere can be used to support the terraces, build rock walls, to capture and radiate the sun’s heat, flooring, and if there is a big enough rock where we want to build then we can construct the house right around the rock and use it as a wall and thermal mass.  The potential for this “unusable” land is huge in permaculture eyes.  And cheaper than a boring flat, cleared piece of land.

 

 

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Basically, the bigger the system you have, the more energy it takes to manage it.  Think about the big farms you see.  They cannot possibly be maintained by 1-2 people.  They need heavy machinery and likely many workers to keep the system going.  We need to downsize.  If you have a huge farm, it is also often a monoculture.  Rather than using an inefficient monoculture, plant many things together in a smaller, more intensive system for a much higher yield.

Perennial-Perennial plants can be planted once and will produce for many years.  Once you get them in the ground and established, they require far less work than annuals.  They grow slower than annuals so they require less nutrients from the soil.  They are hardier and will better tolerate things like drought or over watering.  You can also plant them together with their companion perennials and they will do even better.  As these groups grow year to year, they can begin to form their own little ecosystems.  You don’t need to replant them every year so you aren’t disturbing the soil or any of the beneficials that are growing in the soil around the plants.

Biological resources-Rather than going out and buying things like fertilizer and hoses, use things that you have laying around and from sources that are renewable.  Manure or compost make excellent fertilizer.  By mulching you not only conserve water, but you also protect from weeds.  You can use swales to create irrigation systems that will fill your soil with enough water to keep your plants from getting thirsty.  Use companion planting rather than pesticides to protect your garden from disease and insect infestation.

Plant stacking-This idea ties into guilding and the food forest.  In a guild, you are planting different plants together in such a way that they all help each other.  You don’t plant monoculture rows, you stagger different types of plants all together so that they function as a system.  A food forest works in the same way.  You plant perennials together in a guild so that they all benefit each other.  However, in the food forest, we take this one step further.  We plant trees and bushes and vines along with small perennial plants to form a large guild that will grow and provide for many years.  If you wanted to go another way with this idea, you could stack plants right in with the  animals.  Pea shrubs planted in a chicken run will feed the chickens.  Comfrey planted under a rabbit hutch will be fertilized by the rabbit manure and then the comfrey can be spread as it own extra rich fertilizer on other plants.  The list goes on and on.

Succession planting-Succession planting makes use of your garden beds for as much of the year as possible and protects from soil erosion.  Basically, once one crop is finished fruiting, you plant another crop in its place.  Here is a quick example:  Plant peas in a garden bed.  Once the peas are getting close to finished, plant tomatoes next to the peas.  The small tomatoes plants don’t require much space, so they won’t interfere with the peas.  By the time the tomatoes get bigger, the peas will be harvested and you can cut the vines off anyways.  You can plant an autumn planting towards the end of tomato season as well.  Once growing season is done, cover crops are one more way to keep the soil in use.  The cover crops can be cut in the spring and used as mulch as well.  Food forests take this idea one step further as well.  Say you plant a couple apple trees.  While the trees are small you can use the area around the trees to plant beneficials in.  As the trees get larger, the surround plants will die off leaving nutrient rich soil behind for the apple trees to thrive in.  Once the apple trees die, you can start the whole process all over again.

If you notice, many of these ideas I’m getting into right now connect perfectly with many of the other ideas already discussed.  Everything ties together, and all of the different ideas tie together to form amazing systems.  This is what I like so much about permaculture.

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#6. Efficient Energy Planning

Efficient energy planning is all about three things: zones, sectors, and slope.  Using these three categories, you can set up your homestead so that you will need to use the least energy possible.  This means energy from people and energy in other forms such as wind or water.  In order to get the most accomplished in the least amount of time, increasing efficiency, you should follow these ideas.

The idea of zones is based on the idea that the areas on your homestead that you would visit the most often should be closest to your house or the easiest to access.  The areas of the homestead that you visit the least are the furthest off the path.  The zones are set up from zone 0 to zone 5 with 0 being your house.  Zone 1 is comprised of all the things that need the most attention or need to be harvested daily.  Some examples are firewood, herbs, the kitchen garden, and small animals like chickens (you may want these almost between zone 1 and 2 due to smell).  Zone 2 is made up of things that need less attention but still need to be tended to like delicate fruit bushes, larger animals, and perennial vegetables.  Zone 3 is mostly things that still need tending, but very little.  Things like larger fruit bushes, small fruit trees, and grazing animals like cows.  Zone 4 is made up of things that don’t need hardly any attention at all, just harvesting.  A wood lot would be something you would have in zone 4.  Zone 5 is untouched nature.  You go here only to observe and learn, to enjoy nature as it is.  Maybe collect a mushroom or two (if you know what you are doing).  Really, zoning a homestead makes perfect sense.  You just have to plan it out in advance.

Sectors relates to the energies coming in from outside of your setup.  This could be the sumer and winter sun, the wind, the views you have and even the noisy neighbors.  How this relates to energy is how you use or block these different energies efficiently.  You want to know the direction the sun is coming from and at which angle because you want to set up your house to passively collect as much sun as possible for passive solar heating.  You want to know where the winds and/or winter storms are coming from so that you can grow a windbreak to block what you can.  If you have a great view, then you want to put a bench up where you can sit and take in the relaxing energy.  If you have noisy or otherwise undesirable neighbors, you might want to grow a sort of a windbreak to block this negative energy as well.  A little bit f planning can save you a lot in this area!

Slope is the final aspect of energy planning.  The main consideration with slope is water.  You want to know where you might have erosion so that you can plant things with good strong roots to prevent this erosion.  The most important thing with water and efficient energy planning is that you work with the flow of the water.  Put in swales or trenches that work with the flow of the water and not against it.  The slope of the land is the main driving force in this water flow.  Dig the paths for the water gently in to the slope and try to use as much of the natural drainage as possible.  You can redirect the water towards your garden or your pond.  Try not to have areas that are too steep that could wash out in heavy rains.  When you build your house and water storage, try to have the level of your cistern above the level of the house to aide in water pressure without an electric pump.  The slope of the land can also help greatly in home building.  For example, we plan to build our home right into a hillside, underground.  Working with the slope of the land, our underground house should be safer from leakage since the rainwater will naturally flow right over the house rather than crashing into it and setting us up for leaks.

So many people choose not t buy land that is hilly and steep because it is harder to work with.  Rather than fight the slope, work with it.  There really are a lot of advantages to a steep, hilly lot.

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Just like you want everything to do more than one thing, you wanted everything supported by many things.  Things go wrong, things break, plants and animals can die.  If you have a giant monoculture corn farm and you have crop failure for one reason or another, then you loose everything.  If you plant a little bit of a bunch of things, then when your corn fails you just don’t have corn that year.  You still have plenty of food.  This is hugely important.  If you are going to be self reliant, or what ever term you choose to use, you don’t want to loose everything.  That could make for a truly devastating season.

Since I am already talking about food, I will continue on this path.  There is far more to it than just the garden.  Obviously, you would be planting more than just corn in a home garden.  Then add to the garden your perennial garden.  Once perennials are established, they are quite hardy and will provide food for many years.  Then you can raise animals.  This gives you meat and eggs and other things as well.  Where we are, we will plan to hunt at least deer for the meat.  Then there is the orchard.  Fruits and nuts.  Canning the surplus will help get you through the winter.  There is trading among your community.  I almost forgot, the living fence.  Tons of berries from the living fence.  And you can forage.  Once you learn from someone who knows very well, there are tons of wild plants and mushrooms all over the place.  Especially where we are.

For simplicities sake, I will continue on the chicken path and the food path.  You have to feed your chickens.  They love the pests you have growing in your gardens.  They also love your kitchen scraps.  Plants like comfrey and pea shrub can be used for fodder.  One system I really loved is where you have cows and chickens and rotate their grazing areas.  When the cows poop, flies are attracted to it.  They lay eggs and the maggots grow.  Let the chickens run wild and devour the maggots.  They spread the manure around the pasture while they eat, and add a little nitrogen.  Notice you have not given the chickens any chicken feed yet.

Everything you have on your homestead can be incorporated into systems like these.  Once you are established, things start to take off and you can really see how awesome the systems can be.

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When designing with permaculture in mind, everything you should have should be good for many things.  Everything should provide as much as possible.  Having something that is only good for one reason, is not the best choice.  Also, using things to their full potential is a must.  You would be surprised how much you can get out of one thing.

In order to get all the uses out of something you could possibly get, you have to know all about the plant or animal you are looking to introduce.  What does it eat or need for nutrients?  How much water does it need?  What kind of shelter does it need or possibly provide?  What are it’s habits?  How much space does it need?  What kind of environment does it need to live in?  What are it’s waste products?  What else can you learn about this plant or animal?  Dig deep!  If you know what something needs and what it produces, you can begin to fit it in among your other elements.

One of the most common examples I have seen for this is chickens.  In a conventional farm, chickens are raised for meat or for eggs.  That’s it.  Using permaculture, you can get meat and eggs.  Chickens are excellent for helping to control pests, they love to eat bugs.  Chickens also love to eat kitchen scraps.  They do quite a bit of scratching which can be put to use turning a new garden bed.  This is far better than tilling because the chickens dig just deep enough to loosen the soil without interrupting the natural ecosystem that is living in your soil that your plants love so much.  Chickens produce manure (while scratching your garden bed).  Chickens also put off a lot of heat.  This can be used to heat a greenhouse.  I’m sure I have left something out, but you get the idea.  One system that I thought was really neat was having the chickens live under the grapevine. They love japanese beetles, which love your grapevine.  Apparently, if you go out at dawn and knock on the grapevine, it will knock all the sleeping beetles to the ground for the chickens to devour.

Another example that I really love is the living fence.  This is going to be a project I start at my place right away.  I have actually already started, but barely.  So a living fence is obviously a fence.  Can be used to contain animals, or kids at my place and keep the unwanteds out.  It is a fence made of bushes and trees, so you get all the benefits of anything you plant.  Plant fruit bushes or nut trees to add to your food supply.  Not all trees and bushes are ideal for a living fence, but that discussion is for another time.  I chose to plant brambles.  Excellent living fence option.  Shade and windbreak can be provided this way.  A habitat for animals and birds, possibly even food for the critters.  Willow is another excellent option for a living fence.  They grow fast so you can use them for coppice.  There are a million things you can make out of willow, not t mention that it can be used for rooting hormone.  Many good choices for are living fence are also medicinal.  Always good to have herbal remedies available.

There are so many things you could get out of all the elements on your homestead that you wouldn’t even think of.  Every time I look through a new permaculture post or article, I find something new that I had would never have even thought of.  There are so many great ideas if you look for them.

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#3. Energy Cycling

Energy cycling is all about capturing the energy that is already there and using it in all its forms.  This can be as simple as using wind or solar to power your home, but it is also so much more.  Energy is so much more than just electricity.  Think about a system in nature that cycles it’s energy.  Leaves take in the energy from the sun to provide for the tree they grow on.  Then, they fall off of the tree onto the ground below.  As they decompose, they are providing food, and therefore energy, to bacteria, fungi and insects.  As these breakdown the leaves to provide for themselves, they are providing organic matter that trees roots will then soak up and use to provide nutrients to the tree.  An effortless cycle that goes on all around us.

So why shouldn’t we use this sort of a system for ourselves?  I will use greywater as an example.  You spend all day working out in the garden and taking care of your animals.  You and your clothes are covered in organic matter of all kinds.  You take a shower and wash your clothes.  The water you are using for the laundry and the shower were harvested from the rain.  The water from the shower and from washing the clothes goes into your greywater system.  First, the water runs down into a pond filled with plants that are soaking up all of the nutrients in the water.  They are also filtering out any soap that will be in the water.  You may have two or three of these ponds.  Depending on what kind of plants you have growing, the plants will provide you with various things.  The pond at the bottom of the system is filled with tilapia that you can eat.  Ducks live in the pond and provide you with eggs, meat, and pest control.  Frogs live in the pond and provide you with pest control.  All of these creatures that live in this pond are benefitted by the nutrient rich greywater that would have otherwise gone into the public sewer system or your septic tank.  The water in your pond is far cleaner than you could imagine.  Once this system is setup, it is another effortless cycle.  All you have to do is harvest to reap the rewards of setting it up and it lasts for years to come.

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