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The organic food movement is sweeping the nation. Farmers’ markets are springing up in nearly every county nationwide. The slow food movement is bringing people together at their dinner tables to share homegrown produce. Chefs are now demanding to source their food stuffs direct from regional growers. Victory gardens are making a resurgence as people choose to become beacons of healthy food production in the neighborhood. So what is permaculture?

Permaculture is a method of design that links resources, use and harvest into a connected whole. A complex system of design, permaculture is perfectly suited to community-scale production. By taking into account local microclimate conditions, permaculture asks how many harvests and functions can be simultaneously realized in one plot of land. It challenges us to shift our focus, to view our gardens as objects of community-centric and plant-centric design, as opposed to products of machine-centric industrial farming.

Soil fertility is paramount to healthy produce and a necessary foundation that ensures produce devoid of synthetic nutrients. Organic farmers expend vast amounts of resources in order to develop and maintain the health of the soil in which their crops grow. Soil fertility creates a rich ecosystem that is resilient, resistant to pests, and supports healthy plant nutrition.

In fields where monoculture and single crop species are the norm, even the most fecund soil cannot deter all forms of pestilence. Fungus and insects have a field day in monoculture crops and as a result devastating losses to yield can occur. Alternatively, pests are inhibited from travel when crops are interplanted with other beneficial crops in a polyculture. When we diversify production we create a hardy system.

Plant-Centric Thinking:
Why do we plant in straight lines? Straight lines are necessary for mechanized agriculture. Thus, straight line agriculture is inherently machine-centric, which makes sense for large-scale farm production. However, such “design” is so entrenched in our psyches that many small-plot organic farms implement straight line planting even though no machinery is involved. How might we redesign our production fields to become plant-centric?

Take an organic apple orchard for example, planted in straight lines with nothing but weeds between the rows. Permaculture asks how we might “stack functions” and increase overall productivity. We could begin by planting between each row with a second harvest that thrives in the shade provided by the apple trees, an example is Asian greens and peas. Further, we can identify rocky, or marginal fringe areas and in those spaces plant a third harvest of cut flowers. These flowers will act as a repository for native plant species. Such areas foster biodiversity and harbor beneficial insects that assist in pollinating the flowers and the main orchard crop, naturally increasing overall productivity. In addition, herds of animals may graze during winter under the fallow trees, eating the weed sprouts and depositing fertility. These natural processes, or “stack functions” create healthy soil and feed the spring growth of the apple crops. Animal feces is full of enzymes and positive bacteria that bolster the immune system of the crops and provide a natural source of organic fertilizer.

Another question to rethink in our production of crops is, where are they headed? We can grow two acres of carrots and sell them to a regional wholesaler, then take a portion of the proceeds and buy other produce. Alternatively we can grow a number of crops that do well in our area and barter with neighbors who do the same, eliminating the need to buy. Furthermore, if our intention is to have homegrown apples for as much of the year as possible, it is a more productive option to plant three to four different varieties of apple rather than one. This spreads the harvest season over several months rather than yielding a ton of apples all at once.

First, identify a few crops that you can grow. 
By planting and maintaining these crops you will no longer have to purchase them. For example, citrus does well in the bay area, as do berries, culinary herbs and fresh greens. Though certainly not enough to live on, these can become home grown foodstuffs you no longer have to spend your currency on. Furthermore, you can barter your lemons and mint with your neighbor for their corn and tomatoes, adding to this list of resilience while fostering a culture of interconnectedness and shared-values. By gardening, you initiate a community-scale strategy for productivity and interdependence.

Start Now:
Question: Rethink your lawn: Can I earmark a corner of the lawn for growing crops?

Observe and Document: What crops do I see at nearby community gardens and farms?

Organize: Arrange a Saturday potluck work-party and work with many hands to make light work. Then the following month rotate to another house and do it again.

Start small: Start with a manageable amount of production. I recommend a first year goal of chickens, salad greens, culinary herbs, berries and a fruit tree.

Sow Peas: Follow Henry David Thoureau’s example and plant a patch of peas. Peas and beans add fertility to the soil and are easy to grow. At the end of the season, harvest the bean pods and turn the vegetation into the soil and fertilize for next season.

Mulch: Straw or shredded wood chips three to four inches deep on the ground will reduce weeds and retain moisture, while slowly decaying, acting as a food source for the plants and soil.

Start Now: There is no greater gift than the present. You will make mistakes, but rest assured they will inform future design.

— Joshua Burman Thayer is an Ecological and Permaculture Designer specializing in community food production.