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Home > Resource Conservation > Soil > Urban/Suburban Permaculture

Resource Conservation: Soil: Urban/Suburban Permaculture.

soil food web pic.
Permaculture is out pick for agriculture method that will feed few people, but very well. The methods may take a little time to master but most people can get started right away.



Many people have small gardens in their back yard. And most people accept as "fact" that it requires a lot of labor, money and water.
     They expect to spend $1,000 on a roto-tiller. They expect to spend another 3 or 4 hundred dollars a year on top soil, fertilizer, insecticide, mulch, herbicide and gas for the roto-tiller and trips to the home improvement store.
     They have accepted spending 10 hours roto-tilling, 25 hours weeding, 4 hours at a home improvement store each and every year. Then there is the time spent harvesting the fruits and vegetables, then pulling up the plants and throwing them away.
     Let's not forget the shear amount of water they pump onto the garden every day. Usually the amount of water put on conventional gardens will double or triple their water bill.
     At the end of the season, they might get 50 pounds of produce for the $500 dollars they spent and the 40 hours they toiled. If you got $10 an hour working the ground like this, the produce would cost $18 a pound. More nutritious than grocery store food? Yea, but it is more expensive than buying Organic.

     A simple matter of education. We have been taught we need to fluff up the ground (roto-till) before planting. We are taught that soils get depleted of nutrients and "weeds" come to steal more, so we must fertilize and apply herbicides. We think all bugs are bad, so we should kill everything around "our" precious plants. And rain water needs to go down the storm drain but chlorinated water needs to go onto your plants every day.
Permacuturists believe that these are all myths and so do we (see our page on misconceptions). They believe there is a much simpler way. That growing your own food, in the long run, should not require much more labor than it takes to harvest the bounty that grows (on any soil and any amount of rain fall) naturally.
     Permaculturists tend to harvest every bit of rain that falls on their property to be used in their garden. They also respect the biology of the soil and environment obsolescing inputs like fertilizer, pesticides, top soil and other inputs. All soils are good for growing for permaculturists.
     What does that do to the harvest? It increases the size of harvest while reducing the cost to less than a dollar per pound with much higher nutrition than a conventional garden.
     Some people try to make permaculture more complicated than it is. Yes, there is a lot to learn, but the concepts and methods are easy to understand.

That may leave you asking the question, "Should I invest my time learning permaculture?" That depends, do you want to do things the conventional way spending a lot of money and time

What Is Permaculture?

What is Permaculture? In 1969 Bill Mollison coined the term "Permaculture" in his book "Permaculture: A Designers' Manual". It means "permanent agriculture". Over the years people have fashioned this term to mean "permanent culture". That is to say, people have made permaculure a way of life, not just an agricultural technique. Some of the non-agriculture things are rocket mass stoves, housing structures (yert), cobb ovens and much more.
     For our purposes, we will just focus on permaculture as it applies to growing food, fiber, medicine and energy. We also recognize "paddock shift livestock" is something permaculturists do but we discuss that in another section.
     Usually, people start a simple garden at their home. As time goes by these people decide to take it to the next level. Permaculture is usually the next natural step.
"Permaculture is a landscape design science": is the typical thing said about Permaculture. Others may say that permaculture is a way of conditioning the landscape permanently so that a lot of food, fiber and medicine can be grown on small amounts of land without much human intervention.
    However, what it mostly is about, is to harvest natural resources on a property to the benefit of the human owners and the local flora and fauna. These resources should not only be sustained but create surplus with little or no inputs.
  • Regulations and Toxic Land
  • 3 Ethics
  • 12 Principles
  • Learn Wild Food First
  • The Design
  • Companion Planting

Regulations and Toxic Land:

You have heard the phrase, "Innocent until proven guilty". We would like to state another credo to live by, "Good intentions until proven otherwise".
     The city where you live will have regulations and bylaws. It is a good Idea to familiarize yourself with those before beginning a permaculture garden at home. Sometimes, what you want to do is illegal in your town or state. In the beginning, that is OK. We suggest you start out with activities you are allowed to do. In general, no city is going to prosecute you for having a small garden in your back yard that just feeds you, but you should know that first.
     Since most cities have a web site we suggest you find their page and look at the laws of your town. If not, consider a trip to city hall. Why is this so important? Good intentions. All government is set up to create laws that are intended to be good for the citizens within their authority. Sometimes, the laws are passed with misinformation, sometimes with good information but bad solutions, sometimes technology makes the laws obsolete, some could be protection against toxic land and some (few) are passed to covertly oppress the masses. You do not know which is witch until you explore those later. For now, you want to increase your own food security by having a garden.
     The laws usually indicate how many stupid things people did before you came along and have nothing to do with you. If you look at our "Benefits of growing ..." page in the "Time With Family, Friends and Community" section you will see links to videos of people who were able to change or work with the laws in their cities.
     We would also like to suggest that your efforts start in the back yard. Nothing gets noticed like a garden in your front yard.
     As you proceed you will figure out what things are important to you. If those things are illegal, we suggest you find other people who agree that the laws (regarding your landscape) may be ridiculous. If you can show to the city (county or state) that the law does not have sufficient merit, you may be able to get the laws changed.
   If that does not work, consider some legal defense type funds. An example of such a fund is the Farm-to-Consumer Defense Fund.
     We do not encourage illegal or poorly conceived actions. Cooler heads always prevail. To borrow from Paul Wheaton, "We encourage you to do good things instead of being angry at bad people. "
Toxic Land:
It is estimated (Nov. 2004) that 73 million people in the U.S. live within 4 miles of a waste site and 14 million live within 1 mile of a National Priorities List site. Usually your states department of Ecology will have a list. For example, here is the list for Washington State.
     When you have a non-food bearing landscape, it usually does not matter as much if there is toxic material in the soil. However, when considering growing food on your land toxicity needs to be considered. If you built your house your self on land that has not had a human use before, then it is very likely you do not need to worry about land toxicity. However, if the land is built on an old orchard or on an industrial area, it could be toxic. If you sprayed any 2,4 -D or glyphosate (Round Up) or had buildings with old peeling paint or a number of things happen on your property, growing areas may contain some toxic material.
     The good news is that if the soil has been growing stuff (like grass) for years the toxic molecules (poisons, chemicals) should mostly be broken (or bound) up. Then it is just a matter of toxic atoms (metals) to test for.
     There are many laboratories that test soils on a regular basis for farmers and homeowners. Many will do tests for fertility but you want the environmental tests for toxicity on the soil. The tests of interest are for RCRA metals such as As, Pb, Cr and a few more elements.
     While you are testing, it would not be a bad idea to test the water that comes out of your hose or the rain that falls on your property. This water, after all, will also be going into the plant. Usually, your local extension office can recommend a local lab to submit samples to. These tests can be as little as $10 or as much as $200 each. Several government entities ( county health dept., dept of ecology, epa programs, etc.) can help pay for these tests.  If the tests show high contamination, all is not lost, You might be able to remediate some of the bad stuff, see this video on remediation to get an idea of what can be done.

3 Ethics:

It is interesting that a system of agriculture would have ethics. In this country we are used to creating large mono-crops of animals and plants to feed us. Usually this is done at the detriment of the land, animals, air, water and plants and is highly inefficient. For thousands of years it has been believed that the only way to feed ourselves is to rape the land.
     Bill Mollison decided to change that with this design system. He chose to have the foundation of permaculture in the form of 3 ethics to live by:
  1. Care of the Land (Earth):
  2. Care of People:
  3. Redistribute the Surplus:
Care Of The Land:
As best as we can determine, what is meant here is care for the soils and water bodies of the earth. Some would even say "rebuild natural capital".
     This rebuilding can be done in a number of ways. Some may advocate that you buy less stuff. Others will want you to volunteer to clean up parks and shores. A vast majority of people would also encourage less use of "artificial things". These artificial things could be inorganic chemicals, nylon clothing, paints, treated lumber, plastic and so on.
     As it applies to agriculture, permaculturists would not use inorganic fertilizers and pesticides on their properties. They are willing to work with any soil (regardless of quality) to grow their food, fiber, medicine and energy. They would create natural paths for resources to be used across their property.
     For example: A person practicing permaculture may dig a sequence of ditches on their property to allow water to infiltrate into the landscape. They may orient plants to be exposed south to maximize plant growth. They would treat yard "waste" as a resource.
Care of People:
"Look after self, kin and community." is another way people state this ethic. As it applies to agriculture, it is to feed yourself first, then your kin, then you are encouraged to share with others of your community. This can be defined any way you want, really. If you have a surplus and you dry it or can it for later personal use, that is fine. Many people are mistaken in thinking this ethic means you have to give everything you are not eating away to other people. However, eventually, when people have so many good harvests year after year, they tend to share with the people around them. This also encourages collaboration and sharing of skills and in the long run builds community.

Redistribute the Surplus:
Some people call this "Fair Share". Before we chalk this up to a form of socialism (scary), again, we are not talking about giving everything away.

12 Principles:

Learn Wild Food First:

The Design:

Companion Planting:

Map Making:

Savings Calculation:

More Savings Calculations:

Glossary of Terms:


http://www.no-tillfarmer.com/ No-till farmer web site. Good general information. taken 9/5/2015.

http://permacultureprinciples.com/ Home page for Permaculturepriciples.com, Taken 4/3/2016.

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21782735, Seeking solutions to chemical mixtures challenges in public health., U.S. National Library of Medicine, Taken 2/22/2016.

http://www.urbanaglaw.org/soil/ Urban Aglaw, Soil testing; Urbanaglaw.org, Taken 3/5/2016.