Permaculture Basics

Who is in charge of Permaculture?

People often wonder who is in charge of the Permaculture movement. In the past few months, I have read a number of comments, emails, and threads on boards where people are discussing, or asking about, who is really in charge of this whole thing. I believe that there are a lot of people who think Permaculture is run by a central person, organization, or entity. That is just not the case.

There are some prominent organizations in the Permaculture world, but there is not a central organization. Permaculture is not a franchise. These organization are trying to organize and lead, but they have no authority over anyone. I support almost all of these organizations, because their goals falls in line with the Prime Directive and Ethics of Permaculture. Unfortunately, some of these organizations don’t always get along, and some struggles for power have developed. I was disheartened to read an email from a reader in another country. He explained how there were two “leading Permaculture organizations” in his country, and they have been fighting and waging a war of words against each other. I think this is an example of people who have lost sight of what Permaculture is all about. Fortunately, this is a pretty rare occurence.

There are also a number of primary “leaders” in the Permaculture world. But again, they are not making decisions that hold any authority over anyone else. Almost all of these leaders are doing their best to research, teach, and implement Permaculture as much as possible. I am so very thankful for their efforts.

I should add that Bill Mollison requested that anyone who uses the word Permaculture to market themselves should take a 72-hour course based on his lesson plan. The course could be taught by anyone who completed a similar course themselves. Bill Mollison did not want royalites or payment in any form for this. There is no binding law to this. It is what I call an ethical copyright. By and large, this has been followed everywhere around the world.

Now, to me, asking who is in charge of Permaculture is like asking who is in charge of Physics. Permaculture is a science. Granted it is different than many other sciences, because it is an ethical science. However, being a field of study, it is not going to have a person or organization “in charge”. I would say that Galileo Galilei, Sir Isaac Newton, Niels Bohr, Richard Feynman, Albert Einstein were all leaders in the field of Physics, but they were not in charge. Their words carried a lot of weight. Their opinions mattered (no pun intended) a lot. They had a lot of influence in the world. But they were not in charge and could not dictate to anyone.

The same is true in Permaculture. We have some foundational leaders (Mollison and Holmgren). We have some amazing teachers and practitioners (Lawton, Hemenway, Wheaton, Doherty, and more). We have many others who are doing their own thing, and we or they call it Permaculture (Holzer, Salatin, Savory, and more). But none of these people are able to tell anyone else what to do. Well, they can, but it doesn’t have to be done. It may be a good idea to listen to them, but they hold no power of anyone else.

Just like in Physics or Biology or Mathematics or Music or any other field of study, anyone and everyone has the ability to be a leader. Anyone can make a new discovery that can sweep the world. Anyone can study it and practice it. Anyone can create an organization of like-minded people to promote that field of study. It is open to anyone. Permaculture is no different.

So, who is in charge of Permaculture? No one and everyone!



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The Problem with Intervention

Humans want to intervene. It is in our nature. We see a problem, real or imagined, and we want to help. There are many perversions of this tendancy (e.g. “if I help out, I’ll be making myself look really good…”), but deep down, most people are trying to do the right thing. But any intervention has consequences. Often, that is exactly why we are intervening. If we see a child fall in a lake, we intervene so that the child may live. That is a good thing. If we are placing ourselves at risk, then it is a heroic action as well.

I intervene as a physician on a daily basis. Personally, I actively try not to intervene as much as possible. The human body is amazingly adapted to heal itself, but unfortunately, as a whole and not considering accidental injury, we humans make so many unhealthy choices and live such unhealthy lives, that we are severely limiting our body’s chances of healing itself. Sometimes I end up having to choose the lesser of two evils in deciding how to manage a medical problem. That is not by my choice. It is the patient who ultimately decides to do, or not do, something that will improve their health. Their history of action, or inaction, is often what brings them to my office. The course of action has consequences. Hopefully there are only good consequences, but sometimes there are negative consequences. And sometimes, there are consequences we never even considered. This is what I want to delve more into today. Let me start with a few examples:

Example 1: C-sections
I have delivered my share of babies (actually, the mother delivered the baby. I was just there to catch!), and I have assisted in many cesarean section deliveries. Most of these C-section deliveries were needed… the baby was doing very poorly, the mother had medical problems and she could not have a vaginal delivery, the mother was in labor for days (literally) and could push no more, the baby was too big to fit through the birth canal… these are all legitimate reasons. Yes, there are way too many c-sections in general. I saw one report which stated that most unplanned C-sections are done on Fridays, indicating that the doctor didn’t want to ruin their weekend (I am still trying to verify this). Many physicians would rather deliver a healthy baby via c-section than risk the chance of something really bad happening to the baby or mother. This may be out of fear for their patients or fear of lawsuits, but the result is the same. Additionally, we have also lost many of the skilled midwives who would/could spend hours and hours with one patient for a vaginal delivery; many of the patients who could potentially have delivered with a midwife years ago now have c-sections. When I lived in Turkey, one Turkish obstetrician told me that about 80% of insured women have c-sections; it was a sign of status (there were a few other reasons that I will not get into today). That is incredible.

What is the unintended consequence of increased C-section rates?
If we would go back 100 years only, many of these mothers and babies would have died. My wife is one of these women (that is my daughter in the photo above!). She has a narrow birth canal, and our big-headed babies are just not going to be delivered without a C-section. Due to the advancement of obstetrics and surgery, the doctors were able to intervene and save the life of my wife and our children. But the result is that my daughters are much more likely to need a C-section if and when they have a baby of their own, and my sons are more likely to have daughters that will have narrow birth canals and require C-sections as well. All my children are more likely to have children with big heads! While I am insurmountably thankful for my wife and children’s health and well-being, I have to acknowledge that fact that we have bypassed natural selection. We cheated, so to speak. The more people do this, the more dependant humans, as a whole, will become on C-sections. While it is unlikely that women will ever stop having vaginal deliveries, I firmly believe that the percentage of childen born via cesarean section is going to steadily increase as time goes on.


HIV virus in a scanning electron microscopy image.

HIV virus in a scanning electron microscopy image.

Example 2: HIV treatment
I spent a month working in Nigeria at a free HIV mission hospital a number of years ago. I was able to meet an amazing group of people who are saving and changing lives on a daily basis, and for a short time, I was a part of that. I would meet someone on almost a daily basis who would tell me (usually through a Hausa-English translator) how they had wasted away and were days from death. Then the providers at this clinic gave medications that brought the patient back from the brink. Now these patients were living on “borrowed time”. Anyone who has been afflicted with this terrible disease knows that HIV has no qualms about infecting “good” people, or “innocent” people, or children. It is a disease, a fatal one at that. Treating HIV-positive patients is a good thing. Period. Don’t misunderstand my next paragraph. I think we should continue to treat HIV-positive patients, and we should never stop looking for a cure.

What is the unintended consequence of treating HIV-positive patients?
When a person has HIV, they are contagious. They can be careful. They can be “safe”. But the fact remains, they have the ability to spread this disease to another person. Despite what is occasionally reported in the media, this is almost never a malicious act. It is a sad reality. Before medications were invented to treat HIV, an infected patient had a much shorter life expectancy. HIV does not kill as fast as the flu and rarely as fast as most cancers, but the result is a significantly shorter life. But with modern HIV medications, an HIV-positive patient has the ability to live a drastically longer life. These medicines do decrease their contagiousness, but it doesn’t bring it down to zero. The result is that an HIV-positive person now has an increased ability to spread the disease, potentially for decades more than they would have if these medicines were not available. Again, this doesn’t mean we should not treat these patients, but it is an example of an intervention having an unforseen consequence.


American Chestnut Trees before the blight and government intervention.

American Chestnut Trees before the blight and government intervention.

Example 3: Chestnut blight
Before 1900, there were an estimated four billion Chestnut trees in North America. Some of these trees were over 100 feet (30 meters) tall and over 10 feet (3 meters) in diameter! Then a fungus arrived from Asia dubbed Chestnut Blight, Cryphonectria parasitica. The Asian Chestnut trees were able to live with the fungus, but the American trees were not. The U.S. acted as quickly as it could to try and eradicate the disease, but all attempts failed. Within 40 years the Chestnut population was devastated.

What was the unintended consequence of trying to eradicate Chestnut Blight?
Many people are unaware that in an attempt to stop the spread of the disease, millions and millions of uninfected trees were chopped down. Once one Chestnut tree in one area was found to have blight, all the surrounding trees were logged. There is a decent chance that one or more of these millions of healthy trees had a natural ability to live with the blight, i.e. they were naturally immune. But we chopped them all down, so we will never know. In addition, these trees (healthy and infected) were sawn into lumber and shipped all over the country spreading the disease even faster.

I’ll also add that the government did not learn their lesson. Not too long ago (January 2000), South Florida was introduced (again!) to Citrus Canker, a bacteria (Xanthomonas axonopodis) which significantly weakens citrus trees and greatly reduces fruit production. This scared the orange industry in Florida. The decision was made to eradicate all citrus trees within a certain distance of an infected tree. An untold number of citrus trees were lost due to this mandate, including the ones in my parent’s backyard… as a child, I probably spent the cumulative equivalent of well over a month straight in those orange, grapefruit, and tangelo trees, and now they are gone. Six years after the eradication campaign began, with no surprise to any student of history, the Florida Department of Agriculture deemed the eradication effort infeasible.


Artificial insemination of a virgin queen honeybee... not quite a natural process.

Artificial insemination of a virgin queen honeybee… not quite a natural process.

Example 4: Modern Bee Husbandry
Honeybees are amazing creatures. I can’t wait to get my first hive. Now, if I followed the modern commercial method, this is what I woud do (please excuse my generalities as I have never managed a commercial honey company). I would purchase all my hives and equipment first. I would receive my queens and initial bees via mail for each hive. The queens would already be mated and ready to lay eggs. Once the hives were established, I would move the hives to an area that had a lot of flowers blooming, like an apple orchard. Then, when the apple flowering started to slow down, I would load up the hives, and drive to another location of flowering. I would do this through the flowering season, moving many times all over the state and sometimes the country. At the end of the season, and maybe even during the season, I would take out some of the honey laden combs. The caps would be removed from the combs, and they would be spun to extract all the honey. The empty combs would be placed back in the hive. During the colder months, the bees would go into hibernation back at my base of operations. If I thought I took too much honey from them, or even as a matter of policy, I would provide some sugar water or fondant or high-fructose corn syrup for them to make it through the Winter. During the growing season, if one hive was not doing very well, I would combine it with another hive that was not doing to well, resulting in one stronger bee colony. I would probably replace my queens every year. I would get a lot of honey. I would do a lot of work.

What is the unintended consequence of raising honeybees in the modern method?
The modern method of beekeeping is far removed from how honeybees normally live. Commercially, a young, virgin queen bee is artificially inseminated with sperm from a number of crushed (i.e. killed) male bees, known as drones. In nature, a virgin queen would go on a mating flight; only the quickest drones would be able to mate with the queen – we’ve have a loss of optimal genetics with this method. Next, commercial bees are moved all over the place. In nature, bees don’t travel over the country. They stay in one spot, and occasionally the hive splits (swarms), but they really don’t travel very far.  By moving all over the place, we’ve lost adaptations to local conditions with this method. In addition, commercial bees are “fed” from the same type of flower for weeks at a time. In nature, bees forage from a wide variety of ever changing plants – we’ve probably lost nutrition quality for the bees with this method. Also, commercial bees are exposed to all the chemicals sprayed on the fields they have been moved to – there is growing evidence that some of these chemicals are causing colony colapse disorder. Modern-raised bees use combs that have been used over and over again for years – the wax accumulates toxins and pests and disease with this method. Modern-raised bees are robbed of their high-quality honey and given unhealthy alternatives – these can cause the bees to become sick, and they also likely result in a less healthy colony. Commercial colonies are combined when they are not doing well. In nature, if a colony is not doing well, it dies. There is probably a good reason for this; maybe they are infected or sick or not good foragers or any other number of problems. By combining weak colonies, we are propping up and propagating weak colonies resulting in weaker bees for the future. Modern-raised colonies are requeened every season. In nature, colonies requeen from within, when needed. Requeening the colony results in additional loss of adaptation to local conditions.


In conclusion, I want to say that I know some intervention is needed. Whenever we develop a Permaculture site, intervention is required. But we need to open our eyes to the bigger picture. We need to understand that there are consequences to our actions. Sometimes the consequences are good. Sometimes they are bad. If we follow the Ethics of Permaculture, and if we use small and slow solutions when possible, we will greatly reduce the negative impact of our interventions.



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Permaculture Projects: Chop and Drop Mulching

I almost chose not to write this quick article, but there are so many people that visit my site who are brand new to Permaculture, that I thought it would be worthwhile.

Chop and Drop Mulching could be considered a basic core skill for Permaculturists. It is a little complicated, so I will do my best to explain it in a step-wise manner:

  1. Find a plant which could be mulched.
  2. Chop the plant down, or chop the leaves off the plant.
  3. Drop the plant or leaves to the ground.
  4. Walk away.

I hope I did not make it too difficult.  (insert smiley face here!)

All joking aside, Chop and Drop Mulching really is this easy. Now there are some finer points one should understand, so I will elaborate a bit.

Chop and Drop Mulching can be done simply with hand tools or more aggressively with power tools.

Chop and Drop Mulching can be done simply with hand tools or more aggressively with power tools.

What plants do I use?
Almost any plant will do. Honest! The goal is for the plant to cover and smother less desirable plants (weeds), but we also want the mulch plant to rot fairly quickly and become part of the soil we are continuing to build. Woody plants will take longer in a Temperate Climate and are best avoided for mulch unless we only use the non-woody parts or chip the wood first. In a Humid Tropical Climate, woody material breaks down and rots so fast that it is a good choice for Chop and Drop Mulching. Herbaceous plants will work great in a Temperate Climate.

Are some plants “better” than others?
Sort of. Any plant that is considered a Dynamic Accumulator is a great mulch plant. These plants mine minerals and nutrients from deep in the soil and sub-soil. Mulching them allows these nutrients to become available to the more shallow-rooted plants. Nitrogen Fixing Plants are also great for Chop and Drop Mulching. As these plants rot, they will provide extra nitrogen to the surrounding plants. With that said, however, all plants will eventually rot and become soil.

Location matters! Woody plants are great for Tropical Climates and less ideal (but still functional) in most Temperate Climates.

Location matters! Woody plants are great for Tropical Climates and less ideal (but still functional) in most Temperate Climates.

When should I Chop and Drop?
Timing is vitally important. The general rule of thumb is to Chop and Drop Mulch when rainfall exceeds evaporation. This means we will chop plants right when the rainy season is about to start. Many places in the world have a “dry season” and a “wet season”. Some wet seasons are so wet it is called monsoon. In many Temperate Climates, even if there is not a vast difference in wet and dry seasons, there is a portion of the year where rainfall is more common. Just before  the wet or rainy season starts is the time to get out and Chop and Drop Mulch. The moisture will help keep the mulch in place and will speed the decomposition process. If we chop in the dry season, the plant material will dry up and blow away at best, and it can become a significant fire hazard at worst.

Another thing to consider with timing has to do with the plant itself. If the plant is one we are trying to minimize in our landscape, then we will want to chop and drop just as the plants begin to flower, but before they set seed. We will allow that plant to put all its energy into building the flower structures, and then we chop it to the ground. Many of the plants we are trying to disadvantage are early successional plants (i.e. “weeds” to the common person). These plants are growing well in an area, because the soil is so poor that nothing else will grow. These plants are often Nitrogen Fixers and/or Dynamic Accumulators. The Thistle plants (which is an umbrella name for many genera and species of plants) are a classic example. In a natural succession, Thistle will come in and colonize a site. Over many generations, as the soil builds from Thistles growing and dying and growing and dying, other plants can move it. With Chop and Drop Mulching, we are speeding up this process. We are helping the land and soil fast-forward in time. We are building soil, favoring desirable plants, and disadvantaging less-desirable plants.  That Thistle, which we chopped off at ground level, still has life left in it. It will put all its energy into growing again. Then, just before setting seed again, we chop it down. After this occurs a few times, the Thistle finally dies back. The deep roots rot in place which builds the soil even more and provides fast carbon pathways for other desirable plants’ roots and fungal/mycelial networks to expand.

So, if it is a non-desirable plant, we can Chop and Drop Mulch whenever (before!) the plant is about to set seeds. If it is any other plant, we want to Chop and Drop Mulch just before or right at the beginning of the rainy season or the period of time when rainfall is greater than evaporation.

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An Idealized Permaculture Story

I just had the 1,000th person sign up to my email list! I know, I know… for some of the larger sites this would be laughable, but for me, it is a big deal, and I am very happy! When I started this site, if someone asked me if I would have 1,000 people subscribed, to be honest, I would have said, “Yes! Of course.” I don’t think it because I am such an amazing writer. I do believe I do a good job, but I really think it is because of the subject. Permaculture is amazing! When I really began to understand Permaculture, I realized that there was a bit of a void within the subject of Permaculture. There was no central source for Permaculture information for a Temperate Climate. All I do now is share what I have been learning myself, and, as it turns out, there are a lot of other people hungry for this information, too.

With that said, I know there are a lot of new people coming to my site. It’s easy to feel a little overwhelmed with all the information available, especially between the Plant Index and the Article Index. So, I came up with an idea. What if I told a story? This story would follow a make-believe farm. We would follow its conversion from a neglected commercial farm into a thriving Permaculture system. Of course, this is not a real place, but it could be. This is a story that could happen over and over again all over the country and all over the world. Indeed, this type of story really is happening all over the world right now! That is what is so exciting to me about Permaculture.

Through this story, I will add a link to any topic that I have discussed in a prior article on this site. There are way too many articles for me to include all of them, so this story will just highlight the important concepts and popular articles I have written. You can read through it once to get the big picture and then take a break to read about a subject that interests you. This should be a great tool to introduce people to the ideas of Permaculture, so feel free to share this link with your friends.

Now, let us begin. Once upon a time…


… there was a small, traditional family farm. It was worked by the same family for four generations. About 40 years ago the original family died out. A neighboring farmer was able to buy this property in an auction, in addition to a few other neighboring properties, by going into a large amount of debt (he bought into the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz’s mantra of “Get big or get out” of farming from the 1970’s), so that he now owned close to 1,000 acres. This new farmer cleared most of the property and planted it to row crops of wheat, corn, and more recently genetically modified soy. None of the farmer’s children wanted to go into farming. His children live scattered across the country. They tried to bring the grandchildren to visit once a year, if they could, but since the farmer died two years ago, and his wife was moved into an assisted living home, no one has been to the property in quite some time. The children have been fighting over the land for the last two years, and finally, after they each got a lawyer, it was decided to subdivide the property and sell it off.

The property we bought is one of these subdivided blocks, and it is mostly the original family far. It is approximately 100 acres (40 hectares) of hills and gently sloping land. The land is almost all fields which were prior commercial annual crops, but now it is overgrown with thistle and weeds and a few woody shrubs. There are many bare patches of earth remaining and the soil is hard and compacted, with high red clay content, and very low organic matter. There is a ravine that splits the property running from north to south that used to be an all-season stream/creek years ago, but now only runs for a few days a year with heavy rains. This ravine does have quite a few mature willow trees, cottonwood, and a few oaks, as well as large stands of brambles and other weedy shrubs. The farmhouse had fallen into disrepair for the last 10 years, but has really become worse in the two years it has been empty. There are a few overgrown mature apple, European pear, and plum trees near the home and four large raised beds previously used for annual vegetables.

We started the restoration project with observation. We gathered as much information about the land and surrounding areas as we were able: slope, sun angle, wind direction, USDA Zone, AHA Heat Zone, average and maximum rainfall, etc. In an ideal scenario, we would observe the land for a year before doing any development. We considered all the information we had, and we identified the goals for the land (What do we want to do with the land?). Once we had the goals established, which were in line with Permaculture’s Prime Directive and Three Ethics, we could begin our initial framework design.  This consisted of our water systems (collection, harvesting, and slowing), our access (roads, trails, etc.), and our building areas (homes, green/glasshouses, garages, shops, etc.). We attempted to maximize edge between field and forest, road and vegetation, water and soil, etc. We then were able to identify our Permaculture Zones and Permaculture Sectors around our buildings.

With our framework design established, we could design the details (specific species and varieties of plants and seed, animal systems, energy systems, waste systems, etc.). The first major work we actually did on the property was the earthworks implementation. This involved bringing in a large excavator to perform “earth surgery”, as Geoff Lawton calls it.  If our budget or our property were small, we could do the earthworks by hand, but this would have been a lot of work and time for the size property we have. We placed swales and ponds on contour. Our design consisted of one large pond, that is almost five acres (2 hectares) in size, and eleven more ponds that are each one acre (0.4 hectares) or less in size. We planted the swales to cover crops and also planted the initial trees and shrubs for our perennial agriculture systems, including our food forests (all nine layers) and other tree crops (commercial nut and fruit crops, firewood, timber, etc.) some of which are being coppiced and pollarded. There was a focus on plants which have direct resources, but in order to create a vibrant and healthy ecosystem, we also added myriad other plants that were nitrogen fixing, pest confusing, dynamic accumulators, and attractors of beneficial insects. We also keyline plowed all the land between the swales to maximize water harvesting and soil building. We reseed as much as we could afford of the keylined pastures to a climate specific mix of pasture seed. We also create seed balls to reseed other areas of the property as time and conditions allowed. We managed our pseudo-primary succession to speed recovery and ecosystem regeneration. We also placed windbreak plants around our fields and buildings, and these plants also doubled as barriers to chemical overspray from the surrounding farmland.

We used moveable electric fencing to run about a dozen goats in the ravine that was overgrown with trees and shrubs; this was not old-growth forest. They ate down almost all the undergrowth in the first season. Most of these animals were processed on site and provide some income and a large part of our meat for that year. Other than the willows, oaks, a wild persimmon, and a few black cherry trees, most of the other trees were cut down. This opened the canopy and allowed us to plant some additional trees, shrubs, and understory plants (currants, gooseberries, elderberry, ramps, mint, ginseng, goldenseal, etc.). We obtained about ten cords of firewood (mostly ash trees but also a few box elder) that took a few years to burn through in this temperate Wintered location. We used a number of trees for growing oyster and shiitake mushrooms (delicious!), and we also set up a few mushroom patches (king stropharia, morels, etc.) in the moist conditions near the ravine.  The rest of the trees were used to build some traditional hugelkultur mounds.

After the first year, the ravine became a running stream for a few months in the Spring. After two years, the water flowed almost all the way through Summer. By the third year, the stream ran all year long (only the surface iced over in Winter). The riparian area (land along the stream) is now protected from our livestock, but the wildlife has returned to the area in force. There are deer and wild turkey that are very frequent visitors. We have also placed a number of bat houses in these trees and are continually placing mason bee homes all over the property as well. Over the years, we have had a massive increase in native bird, amphibian, reptile, and insect populations, included a few species that are threatened and endangered. The sterile, bare fields filled with corn stubble is just a memory.

We are now using mob grazing in paddock rotation with cattle, pigs, geese, and chickens in the pastures between the food forests and perennial crops. This is turning into a vibrant silvopasturing system where we will be able to feed our cattle and geese on pasture and tree forage, finish pigs on fallen nuts (chestnuts, hazelnuts, walnuts, butternuts, etc.), and run our chickens (both broilers and egg layers) as well, but this is a multi-year process that develops as our pastures and trees mature. We are also experimenting with raising doves in dovecotes for ourselves and hope to increase the production in the next few years to start selling squab. There are six top-bar bee hives near the edge of the stream for now, and the honeybees are pollinating and producing good honey, some of which we are turning into mead.

We lived in a mobile home for a few years as we dismantled the original farmhouse that was falling apart. The basement was in good condition, so we built a hybrid straw-bale and cob home on that foundation. We are looking into constructing more alternative buildings, but we are still in the planning phase. All buildings will harvest rainwater from the roofs, and while this is just a fraction of water collected on the farm, and also just a fraction of water needed to support the farm, every little bit helps. The previous farmers’ raised beds have been removed, and we replaced them with woody annual garden beds on contour, a few planted compost circles, and a classic herb spiral. We were very fortunate (we were so excited about this!) to have found a melon living in the tangle under the overgrown plum trees. It was like nothing we had ever seen, but the flavor was sweet and fantastic. We think it had likely been an heirloom melon planted years ago that escaped, but we are not sure. We have been in contact with Seed Savers Exchange to determine if this is an already recognized variety or a brand new one. We have been growing it out for the last few seasons, and the kids love it.

Speaking of children, unlike the previous farm, our farm constantly has kids visiting. We run regular Permaculture courses and welcome families to stay as well. In addition, we have families stopping by to directly purchase meat and produce, and they often stay for an hour or more exploring the farm on trails we have established for visitors. We also have extended family living with us, which has worked out better than any of us expected. The variety of jobs we all have keep us from ever getting bored, but we have plenty of time to relax and enjoy the process of growing with the land, our family, and our friends. We are able to feel the sense of place we have here, and that is a beautiful part of this process.

We have built a thriving farm that continues to be profitable and supports many families. We are raising healthy food in a humane manner. We have restored ecosystems and native habitat. We have regenerated the land while providing for all its inhabitants. This is Permaculture!



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  • (the “after” photo is of New Forest Farm in Wisconsin. This permaculture farm is the product of Mark Shepard’s work. Learn more at: )


My Grand Experiment… The Permaculture Diet (Part 1)

The Permaculture Diet (Part 1): How it started. An Ethical Diet. Health Benefits. Community.

This started as a bit of a tongue-in-cheek response to being called “Dr. Permaculture” for the hundredth time. Every celebrity doctor has a diet plan, I thought, so why not embrace my new moniker and create a diet program to go along with it! I posted it on Facebook about a month ago (see image above). Well, what started as a joke has been marinating in my mind over the last few weeks. I realized that when you apply the Ethics of Permaculture to anything, even in jest, the result is going to be something true and maybe even profound.

As an experiment, I decided I would try following my own diet plan for one week. I am on day number 4, and I have had numerous thoughts and revelations about the Permaculture Diet so far. But first, let me start with some general observations…

Ethical Diet
The Permaculture Diet is an Ethical Diet. It does not specify what foods to eat, but rather guides our decisions on selecting the source of our food. By applying the Ethics of Permaculture (Earth Care, People Care, and Return of the Surplus) to our decisions on food, we can lay the groundwork for an ethical diet plan.

For more information on the Ethics of Permaculture, please read my articles here:
Permaculture EthicsThe Third Ethic… it’s time to identify the mutationIdentify the Permaculture Mutation (Part 2)

There are a number of ethical diets in the world today, but from what I can ascertain, they all deal with religion. There are a number of semi-ethical diets that people embrace. Eating “organic” or vegetarian or vegan and even fruitarian are a few examples. I call these semi-ethical, because they are often attempting to counter what is wrong with our modern diet or with modern agriculture. In my opinion, a true ethical diet is one that starts off with neutrality to eating, develops ethical guidelines, then identifies how our eating is influenced by these ethics. With that strict definition, I think only religious diet regulations would fall into this category.

Eating “certified organic” food also may do little to promote sustainability. There are USDA Certified Organic farms that are thousands of acres. While these megafarms are not using chemicals that harm the environment, they are far from sustainable. It is healthier for the land and produces better food, but we should be clear that organic farming is not necessarily ethical just by sheer virtue of being “organic”.

Eating vegetarian also may do little to promote sustainability. One can eat completely vegetarian or vegan and only consume food produced in a very environmentally poor, chemically sprayed, non-sustainable manner. This may be ethical to the animals, if that is your moral world-view, but it is not ethical to the Earth.

So in reality, a style of eating is not alway ethical. There must be something deeper that guides it. What we have with the Permaculture Diet is a set of ethics that are neutral to eating. These ethics were not created by me, but I firmly endorse them. The ethics are a way toward true sustainability.

Health Benefits
By its nature, an ethical diet does not guarantee health. It is not a prescription for eating or not eating any one particular food. This is important to keep this in mind, and this is true with almost any diet program. Vegetarians can eat sugar and white potatoes all day long and be very unhealthy while never breaking the vegetarian rules. While I have never seen it this extreme, I have seen a number of very unhealthy vegetarians (and to be honest, a lot more unhealthy non-vegetarians). They are very devout in their beliefs, but their health is failing. It takes more than just ethics to be healthy.

Well then, can an ethical diet have health benefits? Let’s examine this. Step One of the Permaculture Diet is: Produce all your own food in a way that cares for the Earth and for People. The first part, “Produce your own food” has many health benefits. When we produce our own food, we have a vested interest in the quality of that food. We care more about it. We are more mindful, more careful, and more intentional. We are more likely to harvest food at its peak and consume it before it loses nutritional quality sitting in a boat, plane, or truck, or on a grocers shelf. We are going to pay more attention to soil quality, which will provide more nutrient dense food. We require less food when it is nutrient dense (as opposed to still feeling hungry when we consume many calories of nutrient-poor food) which means less total calorie consumption. When we are producing our own food, we are outside, we are exercising, we are in nature. All of these things are also correlated with good health.

The second part, “in a way that cares for the Earth and for People” also has health benefits. Again, if we are being mindful of people, we are going to be significantly less inclined to douse the food in chemicals before we eat it. If we are being mindful of the Earth, we are not going to be destroying ecosystems to build fields of monocropped species. We will build the soil. We will build ecosystems. We will build systems that moderate water instead of promote flood and drought cycles. When we care for the Earth in a truly sustainable manner, we will be caring for People at the same time. These two concepts are synergistic, not oppositional, to each other. When we are producing food in this manner, it is healthier for us.  When we live in a healthy environment, we are healthier as well.

Step Two of the Permaculture Diet is: If you cannot complete Step One, then get to know the people who produce all your food, and make sure they are caring for the Earth and for People. By supporting these producers, we are promoting all the benefits as outlined above for ourselves as well as the producer and others who purchase from them. We are helping to build healthier communities. Healthier communities will promote and maintain healthier individuals.

Step Three of the Permaculture Diet is: If you cannot complete Steps One and Two, then don’t eat. This step serves two functions. The first is fasting. Fasting has traditionally been a religious exercise, and while not all that enjoyable at first, fasting has numerous health benefits. We do know that fasting is not a healthy way to lose weight, but there are a number of studies that suggest fasting can increase lifespan, aid in detoxifying the body (protects/repair the liver and assists with filtration), improve chronic diseases, and may reduce inappropriate inflammatory and immune responses in our body. There are also a number of other claims made about fasting which have not yet been validated by modern science. Obviously, if a person is pregnant, malnourished, or very sick, they should not fast. The second function of this step is motivation. If we are dedicated to following this plan, then skipping a few meals is a pretty good motivation to keep gardening and/or to find a person producing ethical food.

Again, Step Two of the Permaculture Diet is: If you cannot complete Step One, then get to know the people who produce all your food, and make sure they are caring for the Earth and for People. By supporting ethical producers, we are enabling that producer to keep producing. This is an important thing to understand. While many of us would like to be completely self-sufficient, it is almost impossible to do so. We need others in many ways, but especially for our food. Every time we eat, we are make a choice of who to support. I see so much inconsistency in people who are against genetically modified foods or monoculture agriculture systems or “big ag”, but they continue to eat breads and cereals which support these systems. If we chose to support only those people who are producing food in an ethical manner, then we are returning our surplus back into the sustainable systems (the Third Ethic of Permaculture), and this will keep the cycle going. It will make it easier for other motivated food producers to make a living producing food in this ethical manner. When we choose to give our money to those who are not-sustainable, we are delaying that change, we are promoting the status-quo.

Permaculture’s originally meaning was for Permanent Agriculture, but it quickly grew to include Permanent Culture. By supporting those who are producing ethical food, we are building community, we are building permanent culture. We are building sustainability.


(check back soon for The Permaculture Diet, Part 2: The diet in practice)

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Permaculture is an Ethical Design Science

Through the years it took to become a physician, I heard the maxim, “First, do no harm” repeated so often that it almost became a mantra in my head as I walked along the hospital halls at night. This phrase is so integrated into our medical education that it is impossible not to practice medicine through the lens of this ethic. In fact, it is so atypical for a physician to disregard this underlying principle. So much so, that when a physician intentionally inflicts harm, it becomes headline news. I am going to set aside the arguments that “modern” medicine inflicts harm through its goal of destroying disease instead of facilitating health… that is a deep discussion and not one for this site at this time. Regardless of your opinions on modern medicine, the hearts of most physicians, and mine without a doubt, is to do no harm. To be honest, there have been many nights I have been unable to sleep due to worry I may have been unable to prevent harm. I cannot fathom how I would handle being the one responsible for truly causing harm. It is a tough road at times, but well worth it in so many aspects. I pity the physicians who have become too jaded or cynical with humanity or the “system” with which we have to work. They have lost sight of the privilege and honor we have to serve as physicians.

It is with this same mindset that I approach Permaculture. We have sick lands and diseased waters. We have been given the privilege and honor to bring our environment back to health. And, as with medicine, we have an ethos to guide us… the three Ethics of Permaculture. I have stated in the past that Permaculture is a design science, but what truly sets it in a very limited class is that it is an ethical science. I believe medicine alone is the only other field of study that puts an ethical framework in place before one starts their education and training.

There are many techniques and skills one can be taught to function as a physician, but without the guiding ethic of, “First, do no harm”, that person is a very significant risk to others as well as themselves. The same follows with Permaculture. There are many amazing techniques and skills one may implement onto a landscape or into a community, but without the guiding ethics of “Earth Care”, “People Care”, and “Return of Surplus”, that person is dangerous to the Earth, to other people, and to themselves.

It is vital for us to understand the importance of what we are doing when we are practicing Permaculture. We are practicing medicine on the Earth and on our communities. We may be Primary Care Permaculturists, and at times we may be Earth Surgeons, but we are trying to heal the land and our culture, and it is indeed a privilege and honor to participate… and it must start with ethics.

To read more about the Ethics of Permaculture, read these articles:


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The Problem is the Solution… it ain’t Zen

One of Bill Mollison’s original principles of Permaculture states, “The Problem is the Solution.” This concept has been embraced by Permaculturists around the world, but if you are new to Permaculture this may seem an absurd statement… akin to Zen master Hakuin Ekaku’s famous kōan, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”

In reality, this principle is a powerful design tool in Permaculture.

Maybe a more clear way to say it would be, “In the problem lies the solution.” To be honest, it is quicker and more fun to say, “The Problem is the Solution.” It makes us sound more philosophical and mysterious, but my goal is to demystify Permaculture. I want to promote the science of Permaculture. There is a place for philosophical musings, but let’s not confuse the science with the art.

It is hard to say where this saying originated. Preliminary research shows that this phrase has been around for a long time, and from what I can tell, I don’t think Bill Mollison created it. In reality, it doesn’t matter. Permaculture is not about claiming original ideas, it is about designing effectively and using what works, regardless of where it originated.

So how is “The Problem is the Solution” a design tool? Let’s review some examples of this principle in action…

Probably the most famous example is when Bill Mollison stated, “You don’t have a snail (or slug) problem, you have a duck deficiency!” The problem, one which I have personally battled, is one of snail or slug damage to our young or tender plants in wet weather. We can battle the slugs and snails directly with chemicals or traps or prevention. This can take a lot of time and energy. We can potentially cause damage to the land if we are reckless with chemical attacks. But if we look at the “problem” as a neutral element or even as a resource to be utilized, then we can start to ask ourselves what benefits the slugs or snails may provide. Ducks love to eat slugs and snails. If we incorporate ducks into our landscape, then our problem will be a solution, at least in part, to feeding our garden allies. Simple to see it in hindsight, but less simple until we open our minds to this principle.

Here are some more examples:

  • The problem of deer in the garden? Hunt them and you have a solution for your food bill!
  • The problem of occasional flooding of a river? We can plant trees to capture the silt the flood is carrying, and we have a solution to building good soil!
  • The problem of too many “weeds” on our land? Eat them and we have a solution to lowering our grocery bill and increasing our nutrition! Plus we can identify the type of weed to give us an answer (solution) to our soil condition.
  • The problem of a wet spot (poor drainage) on your land? You have the solution for where to place a pond!
  • My own problem of too many sticks from overgrown bush trimmings that were not good for our fire place and too woody for the compost pile? I laid them out over an area that may be a small sinkhole. This was the solution to keeping my children and dog away from that potentially dangerous area, and it provided a great habitat for the local population of lizards… right next to the vegetable garden, so they can come over and eat pests whenever they choose!
  • My own problem of a sudden population of caterpillars eating through my Kale patch? I did nothing, and ended up with two Kale plants that were not affected. I now had a possible new caterpillar-resistant Kale variety… solution! (I documented this incident in an article here)

“The Problem is the Solution” is an amazing tool that can be used in all areas of life, not just with land and food systems. It is key to recognize that very few things we call problems are negative or “evil” by their own merits. They are neutral. But they pose a problem to us and our ideas and ideals. If we try to see how that item or element or energy can be harnessed as a resource, then we will be more productive, more sustainable, and significantly less stressed in our day to day life.

So go out and become a Permaculture Zen Master!


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Nine Layers of the Edible Forest Garden (Food Forest)

Food Forests have been around for thousands of years in tropical and sub-tropical climates. In fact, there is a Food Forest currently still producing food in Morocco that was established 2,000 years ago! The concept of food forestry was almost lost to the annals of history when Robert Hart decided to adapt this design to his temperate climate in the UK in the 1960’s. The idea of a Forest Garden was brought to the public’s awareness when Robert wrote a book documenting his grand experiment. Bill Mollison, the co-founder of Permaculture, visited Robert’s site in 1990, and he quickly adopted this design element into his teachings and work. Initially, when Robert Hart described the layers of the Forest Garden, I believe he did so based on what he had and what he studied. Since then, Robert Hart’s categorization of the layers of the Forest Garden has stood unquestioned.

Until now.

I am not actually arguing about the existing layers. My issue is that there are certain layers that have been ignored or overlooked. My goal is to resolve this discrepancy today. As you can see in my illustration above, I believe that there are 9 layers in a Forest Garden. The first 7 are identical to Robert Hart’s initial design. The missing layers are the Aquatic or Wetland Layer and the Mycelial or Fungus Layer.

Here are my Nine Layers of the Edible Forest Garden:

  1. Canopy/Tall Tree Layer
  2. Sub-Canopy/Large Shrub Layer
  3. Shrub Layer
  4. Herbaceous Layer
  5. Groundcover/Creeper Layer
  6. Underground Layer
  7. Vertical/Climber Layer
  8. Aquatic/Wetland Layer
  9. Mycelial/Fungal Layer


1. Canopy or Tall Tree Layer
Typically over 30 feet (~9 meters) high. This layer is for larger Forest Gardens. Timber trees, large nut trees, and nitrogen-fixing trees are the typical trees in this category. There are a number of larger fruiting trees that can be used here as well depending on the species, varieties, and rootstocks used.

2. Sub-Canopy/Large Shrub Layer
Typically 10-30 feet (3-9 meters) high. In most Forest Gardens, or at least those with limited space, these plants often make up the acting Canopy layer. The majority of fruit trees fall into this layer.

3. Shrub Layer
Typically up to 10 feet (3 meters) high. The majority of fruiting bushes fall into this layer. Includes many nut, flowering, medicinal, and other beneficial plants as well.

4. Herbaceous Layer
Plants in this layer die back to the ground every winter… if winters are cold enough, that is. They do not produce woody stems as the Shrub layer does. Many cullinary and medicinal herbs are in this layer. A large variety of other beneficial plants fall into this layer.

5. Groundcover/Creeper Layer
There is some overlap with the Herbaceous layer and the Groundcover layer; however plants in this layer are often shade tolerant, grow much closer to the ground, grow densely to fill bare patches of soil, and often can tolerate some foot traffic.

6. Underground Layer
These are root crops. There are an amazing variety of edible roots that most people have never heard of. Many of these plants can be utilized in the Herbaceous Layer, the Vining/Climbing Layer, and the Groundcover/Creeper Layer.

7. Vertical/Climber Layer
These vining and climbing plants span multiple layers depending on how they are trained or what they climb all on their own. They are a great way to add more productivity to a small space, but be warned. Trying to pick grapes that have climbed up a 60 foot Walnut Tree can be interesting to say the least.

8. Aquatic/Wetland Layer
This is my first new layer to the Forest Garden. Some will say that a forest doesn’t grow in the water, so this layer is inappropriate for the Forest Garden. I disagree. Many forests have streams flowing through or ponds in the center. There are a whole host of plants that thrive in wetlands or at the water’s edge. There are many plants that grow only in water. To ignore this large list of plants is to leave out many useful species that provide food, fiber, medicinals, animal feed, wildlife food and habitat, compost, biomass, and maybe most important, water filtration through bioremediation (or phytoremediation). We are intentionally designing Forest Gardens which incorporate water features, and it is time we add the Aquatic/Wetland Layer to the lexicon.

9. Mycelial/Fungal Layer
This is my second new layer to the Forest Garden. Fungal networks live in healthy soils. They will live on, and even within, the roots of plants in the Forest Garden. This underground fungal network transports nutrients and moisture from one area of the forest to another depending on the needs of the plants. It is an amazing system which we are only just beginning to comprehend. As more and more research is being conducted on how mycelium help build and maintain forests, it is shocking that this layer has not yet been added to the list. In addition to the vital work this layer contributes to developing and maintaining the forest, it will even provide mushrooms from time to time that we can utilize for food and medicine. If we are more proactive, we can cultivate this layer intentionally and dramatically increase our harvest.
UPDATE: I have received numerous comments and questions about this layer. I wrote a more detailed description and defense of this layer here.

So this is my proposal to the Permaculture world. Let’s consider all nine layers when designing our Forest Gardens.


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Permaculture Design: Frameworks

The design process in Permaculture can sometimes feel overwhelming. There are so many things to consider. How do we, as Permaculture Designers, keep everything straight? How do we make sure we don’t forget an element or fail to consider something important?

While not all-inclusive by any means, one tool we can use to help organize our design is through structured processes sometimes called Frameworks. These simple acronyms were developed initially in engineering and landscape architecture and then further refined for Permaculture.

SADI – This was the original acronym. It is important to note that with a single project (e.g. engineers building a bridge) this process is linear… they start at the top (Survey) and end at the bottom (Implementation).

  • Survey
  • Analysis
  • Design
  • Implementation


SADIMET – (image shown at the top of this article) This acronym is significantly more applicable to Permaculture. Note that the “D” is changed from Design to Decisions, as the entire Permaculture project is Design. Also, with Permaculture, this process is circular… we never “arrive” at a finished product. We are constantly evaluating what we have done and making small changes (Tweaking) or larger changes (which have us starting at Survey again).

  • Survey
  • Analysis
  • Decisions
  • Implementation
  • Maintenance
  • Evaluation
  • Tweaking



O’BREDIMET – This final acronym is the one I like best. We start with Observation. Survey can mean the same thing, but Observation is more encompassing. This acronym also breaks out the Analysis section into Boundaries and Resources. The Boundaries for every design project are, first and foremost, the three Permaculture Ethics. The remaining boundaries will vary on the project specifics: climate, slope, water sources, land size, existing structures, budget, legal requirements and limitations, cultural practices, etc.

  • Observation (or Survey)
  • Boundaries (identify boundries)
  • Resources (identify resources)
  • Evaluation
  • Decisions
  • Implementation
  • Maintenance
  • (Re)Evaluation
  • Tweaking


I hope this quick article gives you some tools to systematically think and work through your next Permaculture design project.


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Photo References: All photos/images in this article are mine. Please ask if you would like to use them!

References: Permaculture Design: A step by step guide by Aranya


Identify the Permaculture Mutation (Part 2)

I recently wrote an article about titled, The Third Ethic… it’s time to identify the mutation. It started out like this:

Mutations in nature can be good, they can be neutral, or they can be harmful. Any idea or philosophy or science can also mutate as time and people influence it. Oftentimes, these mutations are truly beneficial for the maturation of that science or philosophy, and other times these mutations can be very detrimental to its credibility and acceptance.

I believe there are two mutations that have occured in Permaculture that have been detrimental to its credibility and acceptance in the world. These mutations have kept Permaculture from becoming more mainstream. It is only because of the integrity and grandeur of the design science we call Permaculture that it has still has gained such international recognition.

So what are these two mutations? The first I will save for my next article. The second is that years ago people bastardized the Third Ethic of Permaculture.

Well, now it is time for the “next article”…

I have a feeling that some people will be bothered or upset or flat out angry with my thoughts, and I am okay with that. My goal is to bring Permaculture to the world. If your ideologies are preventing that, I am truly sorry, but you need to stand down. I come across so many people that say they want Permaculture to be brought to the world, but what they really mean is that they want their version of Permaculture brought to the world. But guess what? There is only one Permaculture. There are many expressions of Permaculture, but there is only one core. This is what I am trying to get to today.

The mutation I want to discuss today is that, at its core Permaculture is a religion. This is not anywhere close to true. It is an ethical design science. It is not a religion. To be fair, I understand that most people would not call Permaculture a religion, but they certainly act like it.

Now, before I get too deep into this, I need to say a few things. First, I would consider myself a fundamental Conservative Christian Evidenced-Based-Environmentalist Libertarian … there are probably a lot more -isms that I could identify with, but this is who I am at my core. I think we need to be honest with ourselves and be able to identify our own worldview before we start to address worldview issues on the whole.

Second, in a nice way, I don’t really care what you believe as long as you are not forcing it on me. I have friends who are Athiests, Agnostics, Catholics, Protestants, Mormons, Muslims, Liberals, Conservatives, Republicans, Democrats, Straight, Gay, and almost any other major category you can identify. Do we always agree on major goals in life? Well, yeah, actually we do. Do we always agree on the details and the path to get there? Heck, no! But that is okay. Again, in a nice way, I don’t care. Do I think I am right and they are wrong? Of course I do! And they usually feel the same in reverse. And that is okay. Will I try to persuade them (and you!) to see the world as I do? Of course! But I will try my best not to be confrontational or insulting. I will back up as much of what I can say with logic and evidence. If they do not want to participate in that discussion, it is fine. No problem! We can easily discuss only the things on which we agree.

Third, we need to remember that we can learn from people who have completely different worldviews than we do. We would be foolish to think that a dance instructor or a chef or a carpenter doesn’t know how to dance or cook or build  just because they voted for Obama or Bush or Mickey Mouse! I may not go to them for political advice, but we can certainly learn from people who have differing world views. Sometimes, they make the best teachers for us, because they make us really think and really question and, therefore, we really understand.

Okay, now back to my main point.

There are too many people who push Permaculture as an expression of their religion… specifically those who are modern-day witches, Pagans, and Wiccans, and/or those who participate in (Mother) Earth Spirit or Gaia or Goddess worship. Let me be very clear with this. I personally see Permaculture as an expression of my Christian faith; really, I see all of science as an expression of my faith. I see no problem with a Wiccan seeing Permaculture as an expression of their faith, even if I don’t personally agree with that faith. The problem I have is when that faith or belief or worldview is pushed onto a person.

This has been the case far too often and for far too long. This is one of the reasons people are turned off by Permaculture.

Let’s think about this for a minute. Who has ever said, “Well, I don’t believe in the principles of Biology or Chemistry, so therefore I can’t accept its tenets.” That would be ridiculous! Of course, for those antagonists out there, there are certain aspects of one science or another where people can take issue. That is usually when more research is done and a new theory is proposed or a new law is discovered. This is how science works.

But how often do you hear, “Well, I am not interested in your view on that” or “I have a fundamentally different worldview on that issue.”

If the world saw Permaculture as a science (which it is!) and not an expression of a new-age religion, then no one would be turned off to it. But time and time again, because of the excess baggage being strapped to the back of Permaculture, people and communities and governments are turned off to it.

What am I proposing? We need to teach Permaculture as it was meant to be taught. It needs to be based on the science as outlined by the originator (Bill Mollison) in his 72-hour course. If you want to add other things on top of it, go ahead, but make it optional and clearly state that it is not Permaculture. For instance, if you want to have a folk-singing or chanting or naked-dancing session around the fire in the evenings then go for it, but don’t make it a required part of a Permaculture Design Course (PDC). If you want to combine Permaculture with your worldview, then advertise it as such… PDC for Gaia Worshippers or PDC for Flat-Earthers or whatever. This allows people to differentiate the science and the worldview. There is a group called the Gay Republicans. With this title, people automaticaly understand that all people who are Gay are not Republicans, and all Republicans are not Gay. See how simple that is? Also, be very clear during the PDC when you are teaching the science of Permaculture and when you are expressing your worldview. In reality, there is enough science to take up almost all the teaching time during a PD, that there really is no need to expound your personal view of the universe.

I’ll bring it back to how I started the article. I do believe that our goal is to bring Permaculture to the world. To do that we need to present it in a way that is scientific and verifiable.

Thank goodness we have people like Geoff Lawton and John Liu who are not trying to convince the world. They are out there showing the world that Permaculture is a reproducible science. Let’s cull the mutation where Permaculture is taught as a religion, and let’s bring Permaculture to the world!


Note: While I was writing these two articles, Jack Spirko at The Survival Podcast published a similar article. I find it really interesting how similar our arguments are. You can read his article here: What exactly is a PDC and what it isn’t.

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