click below to see a nice article about my garden with pictures of my family and our yard.
“Gardeners who are interested in experimenting with the permaculture approach to growing edibles would do well to use this book as a guide.”
—Eric Toensmeier, American Gardener
“If this is your first exposure to permaculture: buy this book. If you know permaculture and want a way to share it with someone else … pick up a copy, it’s the right place for them, or you to start.”
—The Permaculture Podcast
“With beautiful photos and an open layout, this book is easy to access and a fine afternoon read. Whether you are starting a new edible garden or looking to take your veggie patch to the next level, this book is worth exploring.”
—Edible East Bay
“Gives gardeners a wide variety of tools to begin to use the principles and techniques of this ‘ancient yet cutting-edge technology.'”
“Shein’s straightforward, practical guide describes techniques and deciphers terminology to encourage gardening practices built on principles of caring for the planet and sharing its bounty.”
“I didn’t read this book so much as devour it, and few books in recent years have inspired me more to continue my efforts to turn what little yard I have into an edible landscape.”
“Shein offers plenty of color photos, diagrams and plans for turning a backyard garden into an edible ecosystem.”
—San Francisco Chronicle
“A visually attractive beginner’s guide; we really like it.”
“Straightforward and engaging… the book clearly outlines the steps you can choose to incorporate [permaculture] into your home landscape,”
My readers would love to understand the role of story, song, symbol and myth in your community work. Have you written poems about plants and Nature rituals?
Permaculture is applied ecology and remedial ecology / holistics. Mollison and Holmgren come out of an academic tradition/ white male Australian identity/ privilege so most of what’s written about permaculture is non-spiritual. I teach in a hands on way and I guide my students to start learning and experimenting with permaculture principles that can work in their own gardens. I just wrote a book in an attempt to capture some of my story about my own experiences with permaculture. I have yet to attempt permaculture poetry, but I have had some students that were poets, MCs, musicians, etc… to share their art with the whole class. Once I had some friends come in and do an elaborate Joanna Macy ritual “Council of All Beings”, where we had spent weeks before mediating on a spirit animal or plant (one student came up with “mulch” as their guide) and even made face masks and then did the ritual concerning what “we” were going to do about the two legged ones (humans). I think Joanna Macy’s shifting of the perspective of an endangered species is pretty powerful stuff.
For folks without any access to land, is it still possible to adopt and experience permaculture?
Very much so, this is where earth care, people care and fair share intersect. Permaculture in general is not about self sufficiency, it’s about mutually beneficial relationships and community self reliance. So community gardens, school gardens, back or front yard shares, roof top gardens, school gardens, homeless gardens, squat gardens are all expressions of us wanting to connect together around land and working together to create powerful change. We need to push the land reform and land redistribution angle a lot more.
My in box is always inhabited with permaculture training ads. It seems to me that there are too many teachers and schools to support the movement. Your thoughts?
Now there are many excellent permaculture teacher trainings around, so that’s an improvement. Successful courses are largely dependent on successful marketing, so there are plenty of excellent teachers and courses, but not always the marketing, so not all courses run full. And in some markets there can be too many classes targeted to the same people, but there are a lot of unreached markets, and PDCs seem to be evolving. Last summer I saw a yoga/ hike/and PDC all together in one course.
What should we understand about the various levels in permaculture practice, from the weekend back yard gardener to the hard core survivalist permaculturist? Is permaculture politically savvy?
Permaculture in general is not about self sufficiency, it’s about mutually beneficial relationships and community self reliance. There are always exceptions and exceptional people that want to go it themselves. Permaculture is a broad spectrum of political orientation, but I think there is a strong thread of little “d” democracy as in participatory democracy and being engaged locally. How are you going to raise your kids? Public schools or home schools? I think we need to get some permaculture folks into local politics, but I think its generations off for larger organizing structures. Permaculture seems to me to be about community organizing and a vision and practice of a decentralized food system, housing system, energy system, and educational system. There are lots of smaller parts that make up the whole. And interesting political bedfellows we are making on the anarchist green/black/red front with ultra left (think of the Casey Neil song, “Dancing on the Ruins of Multinational Corporations, Ha Ha Ha) slant and other end with the Joel Salatin’s of Polyface Farms, where he’s anti-government and a right wing
Christian fundamentalist that listens to Rush Limbaugh and Glen Beck to get his political worldview. But he’s one of the most successful eco-farmers in the country, a capitalist but also a greenie into protecting his land. Salatin is getting his children to be a part of his successful farm team, a really good look into how sustainable something really is. I’m glad to see people get into the urban, suburban and rural homesteading movements, but for me permaculture is something much bigger than just growing your own food (fibers, medicine, homes, water supply, etc…) it is about fair share or redistributing the surpluses. From the USA, we need to remember that as a country and western civilization, collectively people from the US are a part of the wealthiest country in human history. Most of us don’t have access to enough land to grow all of our own food, so we need to get to know our farmers and ranchers and build face to face community relations in our food supply chains. And some of the ideas from the early settlers really need some updating so we can integrate some of the indigenous thinking like “all my relations” and know that pioneers were on forcefully stolen land.
In a recent listserv chat with Toby Hemenway, he relayed that he cherishes his personal sense of the sacred in permaculture but must keep such things out of his teaching. Is your own garden practice – or Merritt Community College classroom – “just science” these days?
In the context of the Landscape Horticulture Department, permaculture is really way out there in terms of the hard sciences. We don’t teach pesticide applications or other losing battles from research of reductionist science. We do teach the ethics and principles, which is really pro-life (earth care, people care, fairshare) in the sense of biophylia. We need to teach about the interconnectedness of ecology, of the web of life and how we need to start valuing zone five and wilderness. Like the idea of tinkerers not throwing anything out just because we don’t know what it’s for yet. And zone 5 is our university, the place where we get out of civilization and start to see and observe what’s really going on and what’s working together. Death is a part of life, so it’s pretty hard to understand vegans. We are nature, we need to spend some time just being and then we can observe and connect with the nature in our surroundings and ourselves. Learning about nature awareness and tracking skills and all that is pretty much on a spiritual path. I’ve had guests over the past come and teach about bird song recognition, which is an opening to a whole new way to perceive the natural world.
The ethics, principles, techniques and strategies of permaculture are all based on ecology and the natural world. Nature is about sharing resources, of bounty and abundance. Scarcity comes up too as a check and balance; let’s just not drive our society with it in the pilot’s seat. The brilliance of the 99% movement is it is decentralized and locally empowering and challenging the idea of having a 1% in control of so many of the resources and power. The corporate media couldn’t see it or understand it and just tried to ignore it before it co-opted it. There is enough to go around, we have enough food produced every year to feed everyone on the planet right now, we don’t need the “green revolution” that is just chemicals and irrigation and petroleum agriculture, we need a fair share or a just food system and equitable distribution. Food actually goes to waste now before it gets to where it should. That doesn’t happen in a natural ecosystem on an annual basis like our food supply chain.
For Chris Shein, keeping chickens is a perfect example of “stacked functions,” a permaculture term referring to the fact that everything in the garden should perform several tasks at once. By where you locate a plant, what companion plants are sited near it, how their leafing and watering cycles complement each other, and so on, many functions may be addressed simultaneously. As the permaculturalist Toby Hemenway puts it, “Nature can do a thousand things at once.” And therefore, so should everything in our gardens.
Chickens gobble up weeds and bugs, poop out the most fertile manure there is, burble and cluck satisfyingly, are fascinating to watch, teach kids, are affectionate pets, and only lastly, provide eggs and meat. Some gardeners construct “chicken tractors.” These are wicker cages on wheels, like tiny corrals, in which a few chickens can be placed, then transported to the part of the garden that needs weeding or where the slugs tend to hang out. They are covered with their tractor and left there for a day or so of happy pecking, then when they are ready to be moved, that plot will be free of weeds and pests and well fertilized. Voila!
I cannot resist mentioning a pair of farmers I know who do this in a larger scale with an old flatbed truck they call a “R-egg-reational Vehicle.” Fitted out as a great big chicken coop on wheels, with ramp and latched windows for fetching the eggs, the truck moves into a field after it is harvested, and the chickens are let out to range. They pick and peck the field free of weed seeds, pests, and stunted plants, liberally fertilizing it with poop.
My favorite example of stacked functions is at the Food For Thought Garden, a suburban garden surrounding the Sonoma County AIDS Food Bank in Northern California. Doug Gosling, head gardener at the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center, and his gardening partner Rachel Gardener have created the most ingenious urban garden I have ever seen, which serves more purposes than I can name.
In a very small space, this garden provides not only an array of fresh vegetables and fruits for the food bank but also a place of healing, where clients can come for quiet reflection or work in the garden for “horticultural therapy.” Gourds hang from arbors and trellises, and curved benches surround a small pond shaded by flowering vines. People can sit and talk, eat some lunch, or just stare at the water.
Once a year, the food bank hosts Calabash!, a fundraising event for the Food Bank drawing in the talent of local artists. When the gourds are ready for harvest, artists are invited to come to the garden to choose one from which to make a work of art. And such art! The inventiveness is breathtaking, and as the years go by, the artworks become more fabulously brilliant.
All these pieces are then auctioned off on the day of the Calabash! It is like going to the most exciting art gallery you have ever seen–and everyone benefits. All day we stroll the gardens to live music of gourd instruments from Africa, the Middle East, and the Balkans, and eat delicacies prepared from the garden. We bid on our favorite art pieces, meet old friends and new, and learn what’s been going on at the center. There is laughter; there are tears. Doug and Rachel greet us all, smile a lot, and seem happy to pass along their wisdom about a fence line, or planting vines in a small space. It is gardening as art, as healing, and as providing food for every part of ourselves. May they all thrive.
My friend Helen Krayenhoff (also of Kassenhoff Nursery) and an amazing artist herself, wrote a nice review of the book.
A student shared a Facebook page about the United Kingdom’s Permaculture Magazine. I was hoping to see a review and there was, but I was surprised to see one of my former students and worker at City Slicker Farms, Joseph Davis, on the cover! Its a great picture and he has a nice smile. And they liked the book, too.
please check out my interview on scott mann’s podcast from january 2013. its a brief personal history on my journey with permaculture and my work teaching at merritt community college in oakland, ca, where i teach a permaculture design class that includes an 11 year old food forest on one acre…
peace, christoper shein