I’ve been volunteering with the Phoenix Permaculture Guild for about a year. Basically, we are a group who love to garden. Otherwise, our views and backgrounds couldn’t vary more. One of the men I often sit with at our meetings is a gazillionaire Republican businessman who likes to talk and talk and say again Arizona “not having enough water” is a myth. He has charts and his own data, no less.

Anyway — I truly enjoy this gumbo of gardeners. A member of the organization sent a brilliant email today addressing this and I thought I’d share for those interested. It’s long, but well worth it!

Liz Lonetti writes:

“Permaculture is NOT about individual techniques that might save energy or anything like that (like gardening, changing out lightbulbs, or even rainwater harvesting) it is about creating systems that solve many problems at one time while creating surpluses that further feed the system and contribute to long term sustainability and viability.  If that doesn’t exactly make sense – the example I like to give is that of the forest.

Back in the age of free love, it occurred to Bill Mollison (founder of permaculture who was an ecologist studying the forest ecosystems in Australia) that there was a vast difference between the way the forest worked as system and the way human’s civilization does – the immediate contrast was in the production of food (hence the name Perma[nent Agri]culture).  Our system is a one way consumption of water, soil and other resources requiring massive inputs in the form of fertilizers and pesticides to gain paltry outputs of grain and other staple foods that are then shipped great distances.  By comparison the ecology of the forest is one that is incredibly abundant in both animal and plant matter and is also quite stable over hundreds of years without any outside inputs necessary (no person is out spreading fertilizer in the forest, but the trees drop leaves and the animals and soil organisms create the soil fertility for ‘free’).  Mollison’s idea was to try to create a way for people to learn from those stable systems and apply that to the way we live.

That being said, there are a number of creative ways people incorporate specific techniques to accomplish this ‘systems’ thinking in their own lives.  Examples:

Compost – composting takes something that is considered a ‘waste product’ (like say leaves in the forest) and recognize it for what it is – an underutilized resource for building soil health, feeding microorganizms and putting organic matter in our desert soils.  In my case it also attracts some amount of insects that help feed my chickens and increased my garden’s fertility giving me a better quantity and quality of food.  It also saves me from having to purchase chemical fertilzers, supporting agribusiness companies that don’t share my ethics and values.

Microlivestock– If you’re going to have the hassle of having a pet – why not have one that also contributes to our urban ecosystems?  Chickens are an example of an urban pet that will do well in a typical backyard, happily eating weeds, grass (and your veggies!), and insects while distributing free fertilizer that is high in nitrogen and turning over your soil.  You are rewarded with fresh eggs for a minimal amount of input to this micro system.  My ladies keep the urban orchards weed free while benefiting from the shade and protection provided by the tree cover and cleaning up the occasional dropped fruits.

Edible Landscaping – by incorporating yummy plants into your existing landscape, you are now getting much more productivity for the same amount of inputs.  for example, by converting a grass lawn to food production, you can create something that is beautiful, productive, contributes to your health with high nutrient foods, connects you to the seasons of the place you live, gets you out to meet your neighbors, provides food that contributes nothing to global climate change as there were no trucks or chemical fertilizers involved with delivering these calories to your table.  It gives you a place to put your compost and other ‘waste’ products to good use (cardboard, paper, etc), diverting that from our landfills.

Urban Orchards – Fruit trees planted in your yard strategically can provide a lot more than just fruit.  They can help shade your house to lower AC costs, creating a cooling microclimate around your house.  If you’ve planted deciduous trees, they will allow winter sunlight into your home to help warm it as well.  A well planted tree can also provide a wind block keeping drying winds away from tender garden spaces or a funnel to encourage breezes into your favorite patio seating spot.  Leaves and trimmings can be composted or fed to livestock, which in turn will provide more fertilizer to the trees.

Can you see how all these things mentioned so far are interconnected?  You can weave these individual strategies together to contribute essential resources to each other making the entire system more stable and productive.  A short listing of other techniques that can be woven into our lifestyle include:

Repair, Reuse and Repurpose
Using Urbanite, reclaimed wood and other salvaged material instead of new
Creative repurposing of items like tubs or cattle troughs for planters or garden ponds
Collecting Coffee Grounds from your local barista to use on your gardens
Right house right location – smaller homes in town are more efficient on many levels than mini-mansions on the outskirts of town
Promoting Genetic Diversity
Polyculture plantings
Open source and heirloom seeds
Zone Design – thinking about how we use space and placing components appropriately
Rainwater Harvesting
Roof gutters can direct water to cisterns or directly into the ground to feed trees and plants
Patios, driveways and paths can be sloped to drain water into adjacent planting beds
Keeping water onsite reducing water runoff that contributes to contaminates to our natural water ways
Graywater Reuse
Running the washing machine or bath water to a grove of fruit trees
Energy Saving Strategies
Passive Energy
Added insulation
High Energy Windows
Shade Trees
Awnings and trellis covers
Turning off lights and appliances when not in use
Thick adobe style walls that help mitigate cooling/heating loads…
Active Energy
High efficiency Heating and Cooling units
Solar water heaters
Windmills, Solar Panels, etc
This list goes on and on and on, some strategies being lower impact on one’s ecological footprint (and wallet) than others
Backyard Habitat certification
Encourage native wildlife by planting some native plants (also can help conserve water)
Provide water and shelter for native insects that help pollinate the plants
Using Natural and EcoFriendly Building Products & Techniques
No VOC paints, clay or milk paints
Cob or straw bale construction
Natural fibers
Petroleum free products…
Locally Produced Products
Reduce transportation fuel needed by buying local
Supports local jobs
Alternative Transportation
Riding your bike or walking contributes positively to your health
Reduces fossil fuel use with people power or public transporation

There are lots more things that can be added, but this gives you a good basis for understanding that we’re looking for a bigger picture than just a pretty garden or a solar panel.  You certainly don’t need everything from this list, but the more you can add the better the sustainable example will be!”