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Posted on January 17, 2020 @ 12:48:00 PM by Paul Meagher
In my last blog on Zone Analysis, I discussed what Zone analysis is and some reasons why we might use it. One short coming of my last blog is that
I didn't show an example of Zone Analysis applied to a real property. Instead, I only portrayed zone maps as a set of idealized concentric circles radiating from a central point - an annular zoning pattern which is generally considered unrealistic.
As a point of theory, the main reason why a set of widening circles in not considered a realistic way to zone parts of your property is because
we don't generally survey properties using circular edges around the property. Instead we prefer grid lines that tightly pack one property next
to another property. If we were to zone properties using a central point with a common distance around that central point, then an annular
zone map could be a realistic way to map the different zones on a property. What would we do about all those areas that don't fall within each person's property circle? Perhaps we might consider these areas the commons or public areas owned by no one and managed and enjoyed by all? How we survey the landscape has a hidden but profound effect how people care for the landscape.
Permaculture zone maps were originally proposed as a layout planning tool for farms, however, it has been extended as a layout planning tool for
suburban and urban landscapes as well. Whether it applies in the same way to sub/urban settings is another issue I want to examine in this blog.
Recently, Happen Films posted a new video on David Holmgren's 2.25 acre suburban property in Hepburn Springs, Australia that included a mapping of the different zones on his property. This zone map is for a property owned by one of the co-founders of Permaculture so it is an instructive example to study. Here are the zones that were mapped for his property. Each zone is simply a set of connected lines overlaying an aerial photo that contains the relevant zone.
So we see that zone 1 elements that are visited daily are placed close to the house (aka zone 0), zone 2 elements visited less frequently are located a bit farther away, and so on. Zone 4 actually doesn't belong to David or Sue, and may be a sort of commons, that they have taken it upon themselves to manage the vegetation on. This example shows how zone analysis can be realistically applied to a fairly large suburban property (2.25 acres). David and Sue's plan to eventually build a second house on the property, and to give that property its own small zone, were probably a major influence on where gardens and orchards were placed. Many factors go into deciding how to layout any given property including what was there before. The 5 zones that we might use in our mapping of a farm property are not all used for the smaller acreages alotted to suburban properties. There might only be zone 1 on a smaller lot if you are avidly maintaining the small yard area that you have. Even within zone 1 some areas may be more visited than others and Toby Hemmenway has suggested that you might have zone 1a, zone 1b, etc.. to map subzones within zone 1. The utility of using zone mapping is arguably less when applied to layout planning for smaller properties but this might be because we have no real good examples of how it might be applied at this scale (although see Toby Hemenway on this - pages. 51 to 59).
Zone 4 in the photo above is where Sue takes her goats to deal with vegetation in a ravine next to their property. As fire is a huge issue in Australia, removing fuel that might help fire spread is an important aspect of managing the landscape for everyone. In the process, Sue and David have been able to make the ravine more park-like for everyone to enjoy (rather than filled with impenetrable blackberry bushes).
In a sub/urban environment zoning might extend beyond the boundaries of the property we own and might be one way to care about what goes on beyond the boundaries of our own properties. Sue admits that she doesn't much care about who owns the property next to her, she feels the need to care for it by reducing the fire hazard and making access easier and more pleasant. One could argue that zone 5 for any sub/urban dweller could encompass the bioregion you occupy which is often synonymous with the whole watershed that influences the water you drink.
While zone mapping might have less utility as a planning tool on smaller sub/urban properties, it might nevertheless be used to plan other aspects of sub/urban living. In my last blog, I showed how it has been used to decide where to live and how to manage your transport needs (to minimize the use of fossil fuels and mazimize active transport options). I'll cite one more good example of how it might be used to manage you or your family's foodshed.
In his book, Permaculture City, Toby Hemenway proposed the following circular zone map for deciding where to source food so that you minimize the use of fossil fuels to transport it and support local food producers as much as possible.
The zones in this foodshed map are defined in terms of "frequency of use" just like they are for zone maps used for laying out physical properties so there is justification in calling this a zone map. Toby goes into alot of details about how to interpret this zone map and strategies for achieving it.
The last item of business I should mention before I leave the topic of zone analysis is that it is often combined with the techique of sector analysis which is a directional mapping of all the energies coming into landscape such as wind, sun, water, fire to name the most basic energies. These are aspects of the environment that we have very little control over. We have to design in a way that takes them into account by either accentuating them, blocking them or ignoring them. In an urban/suburban environment the list of sector forces can be expanded to include noise, pollution, smells, views, traffic, municipal zoning, neighbors, easements and utilities among others. The argument is that the design will be improved if we not only take into account the frequency of use/visits to different parts of our property, but also to the direction of the forces that impinge upon the property. In business, we might conceptualize our market as being influenced by named forces outside our control which we need to incorporate into our plans by either blocking them, accentuating them, or ignoring them.
So the purpose of this blog was to tie up some loose ends in my discussion of Zone Analysis by providing a realistic example of how it has been applied to a suburban property and how it might be used in sub/urban settings in general, not just farm scale properties. I also mentioned that it is typically paired with Sector Analysis to arrive at the best design of a particular landscape by taking into account how forces flow through the landscape. The fun comes in trying to apply these techniques to more abstract landscapes such as foodsheds, bioregions, transport, and markets.
Zone planning is a system where the location of an element in a design is determined by:
How often we need to use the element
How often we need to service the element
This is a basic logical principle, whereby the things you use most often, and the things you have to pay the most attention to, are placed closest to the house in the design.
Consequently, the things that are used the least often, or that require little or no attention, are placed furthest away in the design, and things that fall somewhere in between are placed accordingly.
By situating the most often used or serviced elements in a design closest to the home, it makes it easier to access them. This means less energy is expended to access them, making for a more energy efficient design.
So one important reason for doing zone analysis is that it helps you design energy efficient landscapes. It is also a tool for generating insight and solving problems.
5 Zone System
Co-founder of Permaculture, Bill Mollison, used 5 zones in his zone mapping. Zone maps often start with the house situated in Zone 0, landscape elements you visit frequently in Zone 1, less frequently in Zone 2, up to Zone 5 which you hardly ever visit. For introductory and visualization purposes, zone maps appear as concentric circles with Zone 1 depicted as an area around the house and Zone 5 as an outermost wilderness area. A good introduction to zone mapping in provided in this Oregon State University ECampus video.
In Toby Hemenway's last book, The Permaculture City (2015), he offers a very insightful discussion of what he calls "Zone Analysis" (pp. 35-41, or scan chapter 2 in the book preview for this section). Toby shows how zone analysis might be applied to other areas besides landscape design. Here is Toby's diagram depicting how different organizational structures might be conceptualized in terms of 5 zones.
Types of Organizational Structure
Suppliers & Competitors
One reason to engage in Zone Analysis is that it might yield insight. Toby's mapping of organizational structures allows us to see essential differences in how different organizations are structured while also seeing some similarities. Some might argue that having Executives in Zone 1 and Customers in Zone 4 does not seem to jive with the "Customer First" philosophy that many businesses espouse. Zone analysis in this case is being used to measure how close the different classes of people are from an abstract "center" of the firm. What is missing from Toby's analysis is where investors might fit into a business zone map. Are different classes of investors in different zones?
Zone analysis can be as simple as drawing concentric circles and putting labels onto the different rings. Bart Anderson used this approach to map places reachable by different modes of transportation.
In this map, Bart preferences walking as a mode of transport and wants the places he visits at least once a day to be reachable by walking (Zone 1). He wants the places that he visits frequently, but perhaps not daily, to be reachable by bicycle. He wants places that he might visit once a week to be reachable by public transport. And so on. Eventually Bart was able to setup his life in accordance with this zone map. This is an example of using a zone map to solve the problem of optimizing a portfolio of transport options.
According to Toby, this zone map was used by Bart Anderson to "arrange his life so that most of his movements were in the walking and biking zones 1 and 2 because that would shrink his energy and carbon footprints. The zone system not only made Anderson's goal easier to achieve but enabled him to envision and organize it in the first place by providing a framework to map his regular destinations by highlighting the concept of frequency of use". (p. 40)
There is a debate in Permaculture circles about whether Permaculture has to offer design advice for Zone 00. Zone 0 is often described as the "center of activity" with the house commonly being used as the center, or the center of a village in larger scale designs. Some view Zone 00 is being the users own mind and wonder if Permaculture needs to give as much attention to that zone as other zones when doing zonal mapping. Many of the top permaculture people see no useful way forward by getting more detailed about Zone 00. Toby Hemmenway has also voiced his disdain for Zone 00 analysis in his article Zone 00: Right Intentions, Wrong Term.
I take the heretical position that perhaps there is a useful way to think about zone 00 and how we might map it. Permaculture is very much about learning practical skills. In Bill's criticism of Zone 00, he says this:
Permaculture has always been about skills and systems that are practised, and verifiable by any individual; it does not, and will not, teach purely individualistic beliefs – such systems are already taught elsewhere, and there are numerous courses on spiritual, therapeutic, or theological subjects available.
So my proposal is that Zone 00 Analysis consists of mapping the skills you use frequently and skills you hardly use at all. There might be some correspondence or harmony between your externally focused Zone 1 to 5 map and your internally focused Zone 01 to 05 skills map (notice internal zones are prefixed by 0). For example, Zone 01 of your skills map might contain gardening skills because you frequently tend to your garden in your physical Zone 1. Personally, I have had to prioritize skills related to small engine repair, basic plumbing, and basic electrical wiring as being important skills for cost effectively managing a barn structure and equipment stored in the barn. Where those skills may have existed in Zone 04 or 05 of my skills zone map a few years ago, I see that they need to exist in Zone 02 or 03 of my skills zone map if I am to cost effectively manage the farm.
Whenever you are building a business, you are in a catchup game of learning the skills you need to adapt to the circumstances at hand. It was not obvious to me that I needed to learn about carbeurators and how to clean them until I noticed that 1) I have a significant number of small engines to maintain (string trimmers, powersaw, lawn mower, lawn tractor, garden tiller, chipper, generators), and 2) whenever I cannot start one of them, a plugged carbeurator is a common cause of it. If I am frequently being taxed to use a skill and I don't have that skill then that is an argument for prioritizing that skill into an inner zone of the Zone 00 skills map. Zone 01 are skills you use everyday, Zone 02 are skills that you don't use everyday which you do have to invoke on a regular basis. If you only do your accounting once a year and get someone else to do it, maybe you place that skill in Zone 04. If you do accounting more frequently then maybe that is a skill in Zone 02 or Zone 03. Zone 05 is the realm of skills you don't even know exist and the challenge may be in discovering which ones to add to Zone 05 that you think are worth acquiring. Like getting out in wild nature, you need to get outside your comfort zone and attempt to acquire some radically new skill.
It might be helpful to think about the skills required for different businesses as being different profiles having their own skill maps.
I hope you have learned something useful about Zone Analysis and Mapping from a few different examples to how it has been used and my own speculation on how it might be used to map the forbidden Zone 00. Toby's book, The Permaculture City, is my recommended resource for learning zone analysis and I'll leave the last word to Toby:
The zone system organizes the parts of the design in relation to the user or center of use.
Posted on July 18, 2017 @ 10:56:00 AM by Paul Meagher
The landscape that we see around us today is the result of processes that have taken place at various timescales. There are cycles
of annual growth, cycles of perrenial growth, animal cycles, hydrological cycles, geological cycles and generational human disturbances that can be used to account for why the landscape is the way it is today. Those who are skilled at reading a landscape can tell an interesting story about why the current landscape has the form it has today and the forces that led to its present form. Most of us are not that good at reading the landscape as we don't spend enough time in nature in quiet contemplation of what the landscape is telling us about how it came to be that way. Books help, but there is no substitute for extended direct observation as Permaculture co-founder David Holmgren argues in this video (skip ahead to the 8:30 mark if you want to focus on his landscape reading thoughts):
The urban landscape has many forces operating over different timescales that determine its present form. Perhaps it would repay the effort to sit in quiet contemplation in front of a successful business and imagine all the forces that came together to make it successful. You can also be more interactive and ask the owners what factors have contributed to their success, although they alone cannot determine their fate - the forces within the larger landscape are major determining factors.
Books help in informing our observation as they might direct our observation towards aspects that we might be missing. A big influence on urban landscapes are the modes of transport that its residents typically use to get around. Do they typically walk, bike, take public transport, or drive to where they need to go? This can determine how traffic interacts with buildings and how cities are laid out. In the excellent textbook Urban Ecology: The Science of Cities (2014) Richard Forman
offers up this interesting but somewhat vague set of comparisons (p. 286):
Bicycling: San Jose, Portland, Sacramento, Seattle.
Public Transit: Newark, Seattle, Portland, Pittsburgh, Miami, Denver.
Walking: Orlando, Fort Lauderdale, Kansas City, Fort Worth, Indianapolis, San Jose.
Bicycling: Kansas City, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, San Antonio, Fort Worth, Newark, Indianapolis.
Public Transit: Fort Worth, Kansas City, Indianapolis, Orlando, Norfolk, Fort Lauderdale.
Perhaps in a city where people walk and bike more often, successful buildings are more likely to be clumped together than in cities that mostly use motorized vehicles to get around? Factors like this may be
behind the patterning we see. Perhaps it would repay the effort to engage in direct observation of traffic patterns around locations to understand what type of transport passes in front of it, and interacts with it, and use that information in your design and thinking.
Some skills we can be acquired quickly, but as David points out some skills cannot be rushed and require extended periods of direct observation and interaction informed by past observations and current understandings. The ability to read the urban landscape is one of those skills. We all have the ability to some extent but it can be improved.
Posted on March 6, 2017 @ 06:32:00 AM by Paul Meagher
I recently became aware of farmer Richard Perkins. He is an innovative farmer that runs Ridgedale Permaculture in Sweden,
at a location that offers six months of winter and six frost-free months. He recently published a book called Making
Small Farms Work that has received very positive reviews.
It is impressive how quickly Richard and his wife have converted a 25 acre farm into a productive, profitable and sustainable farm (took over the farm on Mar, 2014). He calls farming a "land-based business" and he is offering permaculturists a vision of how to productively and profitably occupy larger amounts of land ("small farm" acerages). Richard appears to be publishing videos more frequently on his YouTube channel where he shares his ideas.
His video introducing people to Ridgedale Permaculture is a good place to start to learn their systems:
I became aware of Richard when I checked out Permaculture News and came across the video below. Those with little interest in farming might nevertheless learn something that might apply to their situation as well.
Posted on December 2, 2016 @ 10:27:00 AM by Paul Meagher
Bill Mollison, the father of Permaculture, died on Sept 24th, 2016 and his dying wish was that people plant a tree in his memory. I had to wait until until a few weeks ago to collect some black walnut seeds and last weekend I had the chance to plant out a black walnut grove in a forest clearing on our farm property.
Here is me planting the first black walnut seed in Bill's memory.
After I finished planting around 25 black walnut seeds, I documented some of it.
I am experimenting with a tree guard design that I fashioned from 4 inch Big-O drain pipe and some metal barbecue skewers that I used for anchors. The idea is that the seedling will burst through the center of the tree guard because this is the path of least resistance (the soil here is crumbled with my hands when I'm putting the soil cores back into the hole). The tree guard will help with identifying where I planted the trees. It also helps with maintenance. I can run a string trimmer against it (tested) to keep the area around it cleared.
I have had success for the last few years planting black walnut seeds in the fall in my garden and having them emerge in early summer. When I moved them to their final spot there was some transplant shock because the root system gets damaged and can't deliver enough water/nutrients to the leaves until it gets re-established. During this time it might look like the seedling is on the way out because leaves are dropping off and turning black but eventually all the seedlings recovered and did well a couple months afterwards. A year previous all my black walnut seedlings died because it stayed dry for a few weeks after I transplanted them. They couldn't overcome the transplant shock.
I will transplant shock by directly planting the seeds where I want them, however, planting in the woods has some different challenges - like knowing where you planted your seeds and a system for maintaining them over time. That is why I added the tree guards. I also planted the trees more densely than I will ultimately want them in the expectation that the woods environment will be less forgiving with rabbits and deer wanting a black walnut snack.
I came into the woods about a month and a half earlier with my tractor and a bush hog attachment to clear out some of the weeds and make paths. I planted the seeds where I thought they would get the most sunlight (towards the center of the cleared out area) and in such a way that I would be relatively easy to harvest if it comes to that. The black walnut tree I harvested the seed from had a broken limb from exposure to wind so I'm concerned about how fragile the tree might be in this area that does experience some high winds. Planting them in a woods clearing gives them more wind protection than in the middle of a field or at the edge of a field where I planted black walnuts this summer. They are doing ok in these field locations so far but will experience more direct winds down the road.
Will have to wait until next summer to know how this forest planting experiment turns out.
Posted on November 10, 2016 @ 02:37:00 PM by Paul Meagher
Today I was thinking about the Permaculture concept of zonation. In the most simplistic terms, zonation would advise that you place an element in the landscape according to how frequently you need to visit it. Elements that you need to visit frequently, such as your main garden, should be within zone 1 of your home. Other elements, like apple trees, in zone 3 and wild forest in zone 5. That is the general idea.
This concept of zonation arguably implies the use of single minimum heuristic that involves computing some distance metric between a landscape element, and your zone 0 reference point, and deciding if it satisfies some minimum distance metric for that landscape element. I call this Single Dimension Zonation and it is a powerful Permaculture idea. But it can be extended as follows.
Let H be your Home and G be a Garden element that you want to place in your landscape. Given this, we can compute the distance D between H and G where G is located at some specified landscape coordinate.
Let W be a second important constraint, Water, whose location we will denote with the letter W.
Where I want to place the garden G is not simply determined by how close it is to my home, e.g., min(G-H). An equally important consideration is how close it is to the water source I might want to use to irrigate it, e.g., min(G-W). The use of two constraints to compute a minimum might be called the Dual Zonation Heuristic for locating landscape elements.
So here is how it works.
If I place my garden G at location 1, the dual minimum is computed by first estimating the distance between my home H and garden location 1 (G1 - H), then estimating the distance between my water source W and garden location 1 (G1 - W). My estimate today was 20 feet from H to G and 30 feet from W to G for the garden at its' existing location. I then weight the importance of each dimension by multiplying each distance by a number beween 0 and 1. Using the value.5 for both dimensions expresses the idea of equal importance. I then add up each factor to get the average distance A.
A = (.5 * 20) + (.5 * 30)
A = 10 + 15
A = 25
So the average distance for location 1 is 25. I can pick other locations and see what their average distance is (say 26, 27, 28, etc...). Ultimately, I want to pick a garden location that is the minimum average score given my equal preference for the home nearness and water nearness constraints.
I'm in the situation, however, where I already have a garden in location 1 so I need to think in reverse to analyze the zonation that is being used. What are the weights I am assigning to the importance of the water source distance versus the house distance? I'm actually very satisfied with the location of the garden so computing these weights formalizes the degree of importance I am assigning to each constraint in this dual zonation analysis.
The use of dual zonation analysis allows me to finally understand why this old farm that we took over 6 years ago is laid out the way it is. Proximity to the house is only one factor, proximity to the main water source (a dug or spring source located in the garden shed that is no longer being used) was probably a more important consideration in determining the layout of the main barn, house, outbuildings and gardens. So we might regard dual zonation as a "landscape reading" technique that might help you to better understand why the built or natural landscape is organized as it is. You can visually triangulate distances between two landmarks (e.g., house and water source) and your garden and visually sense the weight structure that location selection expresses.
An application of triple zonation would be for the location of a "GetAway Cabin" on my farm property that would involve the selection of three reference points (zero points) from which distances would be computed:
F - Proximity to a forested/wild area
W - Proximity to a water source
R - Proximity to a road
Given these three types of constraints/zones, I can search for a location that is a minimum distance accross these three constraints. That location is where I would locate the "GetAway Cabin". Here is where I think it might be: At the end of a road through my field (road source), near a marsh that turns into a creek (water source), nestled besides a green belt of woods (wilderness source). Here is the future site of a "GetAway Cabin".
One more factor that was extremely important in my selection but which is still not included as a constraint is "privacy". I wanted a location where people can't see me and I can run naked in the woods if I want to :-) How should "privacy" be factored into a zonation analysis? Do we convert it into a distance or do we invoke the Permaculture concept of "sectors" and say that the selection must also satisfy a sector analysis for privacy as well? I think the latter is how I would proceed and not try to incorporate privacy as a spatial dimension. On the other hand, physical privacy does have spatial properties so don't hold me to that.
He offers up new Permaculture designs for greenhouses, ponds, food growing systems, pest control and more.
He goes into rigorous detail on how to implement these designs, often involving some math.
He is practicing/teaching permaculture concepts in an academic context at the Student Organic Farm at Clemson University.
The co-founder of Permaculture, Bill Mollison, was often reluctant to partner with universities for a variety of reasons; however Shawn has found a way to make Permaculture practical and innovative in an academic context.
Shawn puts the principle of Stacking Functions at the center of his approach to Permaculture design. This is just one design principle in traditional Permaculture; however, it is interesting to see it being used as the central design principle.
Stacking functions is sort of like designing things so they can be multifunctional, however, the multiple functions are not so much a property of the thing itself but how it inter-relates to other aspects of a system. A pond, for example, can be designed as an aesthetic feature of the landscape but there are a host of other functions it could serve and when we design ponds so they serve multiple functions then that would be considered a good permaculture design or bio-integrated design as Shawn likes to call it. Shawn argues somewhat mysteriously that if your design serves 7 or more functions then it often takes off - requires less maintanance and leads to greater abundance. In the case of a pond, we could also design it so that is used to harvest rainwater. If we position it right we can also use the reflection as a source of heating to another building. If we populate it with fish we can harvest those fish for eating. If some of the fish we include are good at catching mosquitoes then it can help reduce mosquito populations. We can of course use the pond as a source of irrigation for crops. If there is fish poop in the water it can also be a source of fertilization as well. We can also use the heat from the water, run through hoses on a grow bench, to germinate plants. These are just some of the functions a pond can have and which they do have in Shawn's pond designs.
In my last blog post on Patterns of Innovation I discussed 3 patterns used to create innovative designs. I think we can add another innovation pattern called "Stacking Functions". Whenever we are confronted with a design task there is always the opportunity to consider whether we can add more functions to our design and when we do so we might hit upon a combination that leads to greater utility and less maintenance work and for that reason might be a design that is copied as a new innovation. I think we can go overboard and sometimes we just want a toothbrush to brush our teeth. Our tendancy, however, is probably in the other direction. We often underdesign by not considering other functions a design element might have. We don't place it in a wider context and consider the other functions it might have in that context.
To learn more a bit more about Shawn and the Student Organic Farm he manages you can watch this YouTube video:
Posted on August 3, 2016 @ 07:54:00 AM by Paul Meagher
I am currently conducting an experiment with some Brandywine tomatos. I planted some Brandywines last year and this year I had some volunteer seedlings that I transplanted into a small 8 x 10 plot. I planted them over a month ago and ignored them for the most part until I noticed how big they had grown in the last few weeks. Here is a photo of them taken yesterday:
I'm hoping I can get away with some do-nothing tomato gardening. I'll be looking to see if the dense growth of the tomato vines will be self-supporting so I don't have to stake anything. This vigorous indeterminate vining tomato variety may grow completely out of control. I'm not expecting high production, but it might happen. Decent production without having to do any ongoing work would be fine.
I'm also experimenting with some do-nothing potato growing. I planted my own seed potatos from last year into a rotten hay pile about a month ago. A few have started to sprout and grow above the hay.
Growing potatos in hay is not as simple as it is often portrayed to be. I've tried 5 different approaches and only one has panned out so far. The depth of this pile of hay is quite thick to retain moisture better and to provide more room for growth, this hay pile was turned last fall bringing rotted bottom hay to the top and disturbing any rodent habitat, there is not alot of new seed to attract rodents and I created a nearby pile of newer hay (unfit bales from this year's haymaking) that might attract any rodents better than this pile. I'm looking for fairly high production from these potatos, higher than when planted in the ground. I'm also looking for unblemished potatos with a mix of smaller and larger potatoes. They should be clean enough to eat without much cleaning. Just because it is a do-nothing method of gardening does not mean that I always have low expections.
In business we often expend effort unnecessarily trying to control a process that might unfold better if left alone. This is also true of gardening. Do nothing gardening can help change your perspective on gardening and business. A business will not become successful by "doing nothing". That is not what I am suggesting. What I am suggesting is that you evaluate whether you really have to put out effort to control a person or process, or whether you would get better results by standing back and letting things happen naturally. You often need to setup the context (based on some pattern understanding) in which do-nothing happens but then you can step away and see if that is all the effort you need to put in to get and keep the ball rolling rolling for awhile. Put your time into something else that is more worthy of your time and attention. Doing nothing frees up time for doing something in other areas that need it more.
Easier said than done. The Japanese farmer/philosopher Masanobu Fukuoka was the founder of Natural Farming which is a farming approach that is popular in Asia. He discussed the philosophical bases and practical techniques he used to minimize the amount of work/intervention required to grow grain crops, veggies, and fruits. You can find inspiration for this approach in his books. It is a buddism-inspired approach so should appeal to those with that inclination or background.
The decison to use natural methods versus more conventional growing methods is not an all-or-nothing decision. I don't put all my eggs into the natural approach as I've gotten burned trying to grow potatoes in hay. I am currently also growing some tomatoes and potatoes using conventional approaches. If I ever develop enough pattern understanding to use natural methods effectively, I would probably opt to use natural approaches as there is not much point in putting in more effort than you have to to get the same or greater yield. I have better things to focus my limited resources on. Strategically doing nothing means you have time to do something else and is, paradoxically, a key to productivity.
Posted on June 10, 2016 @ 06:30:00 AM by Paul Meagher
The architect Christopher Alexander wrote many
influential books on architecture and landscape design. He is especially known for the concept of a "pattern language". Christopher
was lead author of the book
A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction in which 253 design
patterns are discussed. An example of a design pattern is the Street Cafe design pattern:
The street cafe provides a unique setting, special to cities: a place where people can sit lazily, legitimately, be on view, and
watch the world go by... Encourage local cafes to spring up in each neighborhood. Make them intimate places, with several rooms,
open to a busy path, where people can sit with coffee or a drink and watch the world go by. Build the front of the cafe so that
a set of tables stretch out of the cafe, right into the street. ~ Christopher Alexander et al., A Pattern Language, p. 437,439
So the idea is that you would learn all these design patterns and together they would create a design language that could be
used to inform the design of towns, buildings and construction.
Christopher Alexander wrote 13 books, many of them thick books, so it is not easy to access the totality of his thinking. Recently,
Dan Palmer wrote a useful and provocative article called
Christopher Alexander’s Neglected Challenge to Permaculture
in which he points out that Alexander had a very different idea of what wholistic design consists of than Permaculture appears to.
This is a bit embarrassing because Permaculture often claims to draw inspiration from Christoper but seems to have missed how
radically different his approach to wholistic design is.
In a nutshell, Christopher views wholistic design as evolving from a vague pattern into differentiated parts, where Permaculture
often advocates a view of design as consisting of the assembly of parts into an integrated functional whole. Dan Palmer created a nice diagram to illustrate the difference:
Dan's article has sparked some interesting discussions with leading Permaculture thinkers, David Holmgren and David Jacke, and you can follow these discussions and Dan's progress at Making Permaculture Stronger.
So is wholistic design a process of parts assembly, or is it a process of differentiating a whole into more defined parts, or both? It is both, but the view of wholistic design as a differentiation process has been revitalized by this discussion and it is worth evaluating as it has implications for how you approach design problems.
Here is part of the first paragraph from that article:
An adaptationist programme has dominated evolutionary thought in England and the United States during the past forty years. It is based on faith in the power of natural selection as an optimizing agent. It proceeds by breaking an organism into unitary "traits" and proposing an adaptive story for each considered separately. Trade-offs among competing selective demands exert the only brake upon perfection; nonoptimality is thereby rendered as a result of adaptation as well. We criticize this approach and attempt to reassert a competing notion (long popular in continental Europe) that organisms must be analyzed as integrated wholes, with baupläne so constrained by phyletic heritage, pathways of development, and general architecture that the constraints themselves become more interesting and more important in delimiting pathways of change than the selective force that may mediate change when it occurs.
The issue of wholistic design arises in evolution when we try to figure out how integrated systems such as humans have come to be. The wholistic design process that nature uses is generally one of parts differentiation at the level of embryonic development (cylindrical blob morphs into a being with arms and leg, then toes and fingers, etc...) and Gould & Lewonton are arguing that it may also be one of parts differentiation (from a "baupläne" or "body plan") over evolutionary time. Gould and Lewonton also mention the term "constraints" which is necessary to introduce when discussing design and the role that it might play in the process. The "constraints" recognized and used in a version of wholistic design as a parts-assembly process is probably different that the constraints recognized and used in a version of wholistic design as a parts-differentiation process (e.g., what you currently have is probably recognized as more of a constaint).
The purpose of today's blog is to introduce you to an interesting discussion about the nature of design that happening in Permaculture circles and to explore a bit whether Steven J. Gould and Richard Lewonton were trending in the same way as Christopher Alexander in their thinking about what wholistic design consists of.
Posted on November 24, 2015 @ 11:04:00 AM by Paul Meagher
I stayed up later than I should have last night watching Permaculture Skills videos at PermaSkills.net.
One of the people behind these videos is permaculturist Ben Falk whose work I follow because it is generally of high quality. I was not disappointed
with the quality and the selection permaskills he has focused on teaching in these DVDs. They also offer streaming of these videos which I opted for.
The videos are broken down into 4 groups corresponding to the 4 DVDs you would be ordering if you opted for that format.
This video series was successfully crowdfunded to finance their development and are now generating revenues on an ongoing basis through good reviews
and recommendations such as my own. Nice example of how crowdfunding can be used effectively and profitably in the long run.
There are many high quality permaculture books you can read to learn more about Permaculture but often it is hard to convey some of the more
practical skills you need to practice permaculture in a personal or professional capacity. Those into Permaculture often enroll in more than
one Permaculture Design Certificate (PDC) under multiple teachers so they can be exposed to a range of people with practical know how of various sorts. Most of my permaculture studying to date has been online and on my own, so I jumped at the chance to learn by being exposed to some of the practical content they teach in their PDC training course.
So if you want to learn some practical design, living, landscaping, maintenance, and growing skills then I'd recommend you check out
PermaSkills.net to get useful and professionally produced content all in one
place by a variety of experts in the different skillsets.
Posted on October 13, 2015 @ 09:05:00 AM by Paul Meagher
For the last few days I've been exploring the collection of YouTube videos that 20 yr old Jordan Osmond has published on his Happen Films channel. As an example, on Oct 7th he published this time lapse of the construction of an earthbag super adobe tiny house.
These YouTube videos are part of the documentary research he is doing as he works towards the goal of editing them all together into a documentary film. The documentary research to date is quite impressive and, like I said, I have spent some enjoyable time exploring his work over the last few days.
Three other aspects of this documentary startup project are noteworthy. First, the project has raised the goal amount of documentary funding ($10k AUS) in their Indigogo campaign. Second, the film maker has partnered with Samual Alexander who has the connections to help Jordan gain access to the documentary places and people that will potentially make this a top notch documentary. The decision to partner with Samual was critical to this project happening and Jordan showed good judgement in knowing that he had to partner to make a documentary film and picking a good partner. Third the process of making the documentary is quite transparent to the public with source material being published on a regular basis. This is an interesting strategy and we'll see how it pans out in the long run.
The numbers involved in the financing of this project are very small at this point. It is possible that this is the first round of financing and what gets produced might lead to another round of financing with a much bigger funding goal. Whatever transpires I look forward to more content from Happen Films.
I'll leave you with this feel-good YouTube video featuring the Limestone Permaculture Farm in Australia.
Posted on September 3, 2015 @ 10:08:00 AM by Paul Meagher
I was flipping through Introduction to Permaculture (2002) by Bill Mollison & Reny Mia Slay and found their motivation for a commonwork business model quite interesting:
For commercial orchards, grain and seed crop, market gardens, and small animal systems
(poultry, pigs), small areas of 5 acres or less work better than large acreages devoted
to single or even double cropping. It is impossible to completely mulch, water, maintain
and raise a large variety of plants and animals for multiple functions and multiple
yeilds over a large area (as can be accomplished on a Zone I or Zone II level). Extensive systems, therefore, tend to simplify.
However, this factor can be overcome by a "commonwork" model, where families or groups
agree to divide up the work and the products, so that one is responsible for the orchard,
while another grows green crop beneath or runs poultry. Someone else might bring
bees in during flowering for pollination (and honey production), and manage the firewood
crop interplanted with the fruit and nut tree crops.
Smaller systems are usually easily managed by a farm family with seasonal helpers, and
provide high yeilds due to mixed cropping and intensive management (pp. 142-143).
Commonwork is often viewed as a way to achieve superior functional stacking. The business is designed
to support multiple functions/yeilds with lots of beneficial interactions between these
functions/yeilds. The Commonwork model has been very successfully applied to farming by Joel
Salatin of Polyface Inc. He runs
a dizzying number of businesses under the umbrella of Polyface Inc. Salatin prefers to talk
about commonwork in terms of "stacking fiefdoms" and I would encourage you to listen to his
Permaculute Voices presentation at this link to learn more (note: Joel is an exceptional speaker and his business ideas are often applicable beyond farming):
Another successful farm enterprise that uses a sort of commonwork model is Freedom Farms. The farm family consists of a large
number of brothers with each brother assigned to their own separate but related fiefdoms.
I hope Joel's talk and these examples whet your appetitie to investigate in more detail the commonwork business model. I think a commonwork business model can be structured in different ways but Bill's version of what a commonwork model ideally consists of would be a reference point to compare other versions to.
Posted on August 7, 2015 @ 07:48:00 AM by Paul Meagher
One reason I like to get out in nature is to experience the abundant and regenerative power
of nature. Yesterday I had to stop and take some pictures of the hayfield I was mowing so
I could soak in how abundant and regenerative nature can be sometimes. All I do to grow
this hay is cut it once a year and put the bales from it in my barn to sell to horse owners.
I don't reseed it or attend to it all year except when I have to bale it. The hay is
apparently quite capable of taking care of itself. It regenerates each year and comes
in abundance with minimal intervention by me.
Last night I was listening to a lecture by Permaculture co-founder Bill Mollison. He talked about two ways to figure out how to manage a farm property. One way is to plan what you want to grow and grow it. Another way is to look at what is already abundant and then figure out what to do with that resource. The previous owners of the farm must have figured out that hay grew abundantly and set aside most of the land to grow it. Whether the vines and apple trees I planted will yield as abundantly is still an open question.
In conclusion, the purpose of this blog is to underline a couple of nice experiences that can accompany working with or going out in nature, namely, a feeling that nature is abundant and regenerative. The hayfield can be viewed as symbolic of what most businesses strive to attain, namely, a state of abundance that can be sustained indefinately through regenerative processes. That is not easy to achieve but nature makes it look easy.
A final note. Abundance is not the same as yield (see the Obtain A Yield permaculture principle). Yield is what you get when you are able to catch and store energy and then make use of that abundance.
Posted on July 24, 2015 @ 06:35:00 AM by Paul Meagher
This blog goes into further detail on the 12th permaculture principle that advises us to "Creatively Use and
Respond To Change". In my last blog on this principle,
I mentioned that ecological succession was one model that permaculture uses to understand change and promised to
address this topic in a future blog. The hope is that models of successional change might be useful for understanding
change and therefore using and responding to it more creatively.
The topic of ecological succession is huge and I cannot hope to do it justice in this brief blog. My goal is to simply to highlight a few ideas from the ecological succession literature that might be used as a starting point for thinking about how change happens in natural ecosystems. These concepts might prove useful for thinking about how change happens in other contexts, such as business or life in general.
The first concept that I think is useful for thinking about change is the hump diagram below that depicts how forest succession works. This diagram comes from the Wikipedia page on ecological succession.
The diagram is fairly self-explanatory about how forest succession works. All I want to do is point out that the hump diagram at the top used to depict this change encapsulates alot of useful information in a succinct form. It shows that some species have their day in the sun but are eventually replaced or dominated by other species that thrive
for awhile before they too are replaced or dominated. Eventually, in a mature ecosystem, one or more species comes to dominate the ecosystem. Note that some species don't completely disappear over time, they just become less dominant in the landscape. The end of this particular sequence has a couple of species dominating with a couple of other species
doing quite well (one appearing to rebound a bit) and one just hanging on. So succession doesn't necessarily involve completely replacing one species with another. It mostly involves changes in which species become dominant over time.
So the diagram gives us a way to think about what succession looks like over time but it doesn't give us much in the way of tools for thinking about why succession has this form. So the second set of concepts I want to discuss are some of the mechanisms that drive this succession.
One mechanism is called faciliation which is the idea that some species prepare the ground for later species. For example, the early species that emerge after a distrubance, the pioneer species, are often nitrogen fixers
that cover the ground and help to retain moisture in the ground. This moisture and nitrogen provides an environment for later species to enter and become dominant.
Another mechanism is inhibition which is the idea that some species become dominant by shading out or releasing alleopathic chemicals that cause existing species to become less dominant or die off.
Another mechanism is symbiosis where, for example, a nitrogen fixing tree helps another tree to grow while also benefitting from the moisture, wind protection, root exudates, or mycelial network associated with adjacent trees. One tree may appear dominant, but if the surrounding non-dominant trees were removed, the dominant tree might do less well
or die off. This phenomenon is often observed in suburban developments where a few trees are spared but do less well as singular trees.
To conclude, this blog offers up some ideas for how to think about sucessional change in natural ecosystem - what it looks like when it is graphed, and some of the mechanisms that might be used to explain the humps in that graph over time. In permaculture we try to use this knowledge to accelerate successional change in our cultivated systems (e.g., gardens, orchards, forests). Perhaps these concepts might also be useful for thinking about how your products, services, or business might need to evolve over time to become dominant or co-exist successfully in a business ecosystem.
Posted on July 17, 2015 @ 07:13:00 AM by Paul Meagher
Today I want to discuss an aspect of edge design that is not discussed enough in Permaculture, namely, edge removal (you can read past blogs on edge design here and here). Generally we look at edges as offering benefits but sometimes they can just be a nuisance.
This is the case with fences on our farm property. The previous owners had sheep & alpacas and erected several pastures for them. We don't have any animals and don't intend to for awhile as we are not always around to take care of them. The fences have gone into disrepair and are both an eyesore and make the process of mowing the field for hay more
difficult than it needs to be. So yesterday I decided to start the process of removing the fence, removing an edge that once served a purpose but which is now just an obstacle. This is what the edge of the hayfield looks like now without the fence.
Today I'll be removing more fencing so that an upper and lower field are no longer separated by a fence and can be mowed as one unit. This will mean less turning and I'll get more hay because I usually bush hog on either side of the fence before I mow it. I will no longer need to. Lots of benefits of not having fenced edges anymore.
We all inherit situations where edges were erected in the past and are no longer as useful to you. Perhaps before we start creating edges on a landscape we might consider doing some house cleaning and remove edges that might not be useful to our present situation.
Next week it will be time to make the hay for the year. I'll be getting my old mower-conditioner hooked up today to see how it works (notice the useless fencing in the background that will take awhile to fully remove).
When I drag this mower through the field it will be nice not to have to deal with fields uselessly subdivided by old fences. Less turning, more hay, and less chance of getting machinery caught up in old fencing.
Do you have any edges on your landscape or in your business that should be removed? What function did these edges serve in the past? Is it still performing that function? Do you still need that function? If the answers are no, then removal might be advised. Open things up and enjoy the benefits.
To introduce this principle I'll let it's author, David Holmgren, explain:
This principle has two threads: designing to make use of change in a deliberate and co-operative way and creatively responding or adapting to large-scale system change that is beyond our control or influence. The acceleration of ecological succession within cultivated systems is the most common expression of this principle in permaculture literature and practice.
So change comes in two main forms - change that we have some ability to control and change which we must adapt to. The principle advises to to be creative in our use of change when we have that option, or in our response to change when the change is trust upon us. If we are looking for models in nature of the creative use and response to change then a primary model we might use are cultivated systems like gardens and forests, particularly the successional processes that happen in gardens and forests and which we try to accelerate through our cultivation efforts.
David Holmgrem comments on another aspect of change that is worth noting:
Permaculture is about the durability of natural systems and human culture, but this durability paradoxically depends in large measure on flexibility and change.
The stability of a bicycle is dynamic and is achieved by making lots of adjustments to the bike and our bodies to maintain stability. Likewise, our present circumstance will not persist or improve unless we make ongoing adjustments to try to maintain or improve our circumstance.
In a later blog I'll discuss using ecological succession as a model for creatively using and responding to change, but today I want to end by discussing Dennis Meadow's white water rafting analogy for using and responding to change:
White water rafting provides a useful analogy here. When you are going down the river, most of the time it is placid, but every once in a while, you hit the rapids. When it is placid, you can sit back and think where you want to be, how you should time your journey, where you want to stop for lunch, etc. When you are in the rapids, you focus on the moment, desperately trying to keep your boat upright until you return to quiet waters. During the placid moments, it is very useful to have a discussion about where you want to be tomorrow or the day after. When you are in the rapids, you don’t have the luxury of that kind of discussion. You are trying to survive.
There are a couple of interesting aspects of this way of looking at change. One aspect is the pulsing nature of change. You have periods where the water is calm and you can reflect on all the things you want to do but then you encounter white water and the way you have to operate changes significantly. You might navigate your way through the water and continue on with your plan, you might just make it out of the rapids alive and decide to change your plan, or you might in fact die as a result (due to poor planning, lack of skill - probably both). Sort of like a business plan when it encounters the rapids of the real world. But, keep in mind that change is often of a pulsing nature - you might think it never ends but it may only persist for awhile until the situation becomes more manageable again. Weather pulses daily according to the rising and setting of the sun and seasonally according to the position of the sun with respect to your patch of earth. The change you might need to encourage or adapt to might be a pulse of change symbolized by white water rapids, however, more dangerous rapids can occupy larger stretches of a river - constant change that requires more skill and creativity to navigate.
In permaculture we often say "the problem is the solution". Part of the reason we say this is because that is simply the fact of the matter. Your starting point for solving a problem is the problem itself. The problem has to be part of the solution. In white water rafting the rapids are the problem but we also have to use them as the solution to moving the raft onwards to our destination. The role of creativity is both in formulating a good business plan (using change, the calm part) and being able to react appropriately when you get into the rapids (responding to change, the crazy part).
The rapids can be the fun and exhilarating part of the journey:
Or the not-so-fun part:
Change cannot always be used or responded to creatively and gracefully but life is generally better when this happens :-)
Posted on June 26, 2015 @ 02:20:00 PM by Paul Meagher
In my last blog, I talked about Permaculture Principle 11 - Use Edge and Value the Marginal. Yesterday I was reminded of this principle when I watched permaculture teacher, Tom Kendall, discuss the importance of defining edge in order to collectively maintain systems more easily and effectively.
Tom argues that defining edge early on can save alot of work and second-guessing. Logs make for a good edge between a garden plot and grass, weeds, and path area.
On my walk today I reflected on edge design and thought this picture of a log suspended over a shallow river offered another avenue to think about edge design.
Here we have a large hemlock tree that has recently fallen across the river. The branches and remaining root attachments prevented it from falling into the river and creating an edge perpendicular to the flow pattern of the river. If the tree had fallen cleanly into the river it may have significantly impacted upon the flow pattern and distribution of plants and animals on each side of the log.
This photo suggests that edges are dynamic forces in the landscape. When an edge is put down it can affect flow patterns in a way that can significantly change a landscape/waterscape. Some edges have little effects, others, such as a big log across a river, can have more significant effects on the local ecosystem.
What constitutes an edge is something worth thinking about because it is not an easy question to answer. In the video above the log is presumably the edge, but if there was only one log separating the garden area from the grass would it still be an edge? Does the existence of the edge depend upon the system that it is presumed to belong to? A series of logs around a garden constitutes an edge better than one log strewn between a garden area and the grass. Perhaps the students can see the edge because they can more clearly see the mulch gardening system it contains and defines.
Permaculture co-founder Bill Mollison approaches the concept of edge from many different directions from very practical to very metaphysical. In the metaphysical version an edge arises from an event or series of events that takes place when two different types of "media" interface with each other. If you are looking for an abstract definition of what an edge is this is actually a pretty useful one. On either side of an edge are two different media - water & grass, air & water, gravel and grass, trees and grass, etc... These edges arose as a result of an event or series of events. Edges can be designed by human interventions and/or by nature. Edges are dynamic as their persistence in an event sequence can result in the edge changing gradually or catastrophically. If you want to go deep into what edges are then listen to Bill's lecture on the Fundamentals of Pattern.
As you walk through nature an interesting exercise is to look for the edges that nature has created in the landscape, how those edges came about, and how they might evolve over time. You can then compare how nature creates edges with some of the beautiful designs that humans create by the masterful use of edge. This young circular herb garden is also very fragrant adding to the delight it offers.
Designs that give the sense of a multi-story forest garden along a meandering path are quite nice. The edge design around the local Dalhousie Agriculture campus is simply exquisite with incredible lushness, color and variety on display.
The alpine garden is also spectacular. Here is a small fragment. A stone planter with a playful use of line, color and textural edges.
The last photo shows (to the discerning eye) some natural edge along a riverbank . We have ferns to the left, purple and white wildflowers (of the same species) in the middle, and young willow trees to the right (next to the river below). Each type of plant is neatly separated from each other as if by an invisible edge that arose over time as the result of flood events, patterns of sun and shade, and mutualistic and competitive interactions.
An edge is an interface between two mediums: it is the surface between the water and the air; the zone around a soil particle to which water bonds; the shoreline between land and water; the area between forest and grassland. It is the area between the frost and non-frost level on a hillside. It is the border of the desert. Wherever species, climate, soils, slope, or any natural conditions or artificial boundaries meet, we have edges. (p 26)
Edges are important because where two ecologies meet (land/water; forest/grassland; estuary/ocean; crop/orchard) we have a mixing of plants and animals from both ecologies, as well as plants and animals unique to the edge. This often results in more productive landscapes around the edges.
We are also attracted to edges, particularly the edge between water and land. Half of the world's population lives next to this edge.
If we see a particularly beautiful landscape, we may be able to trace our reasons back to how edges are used in the design. Straight edges are
less interesting than curved edges and as we increase edge through such curves, we also create conditions for a more productive landscape because we have more edge in a given area.
So the imperative to "Use Edge" is a reminder to study edges and use edges consciously in our designs to increase productivity, interest, preserve biodiversity or for other reasons.
I was contacted awhile back by Rick Harrison about his design work on Prefurbia. Prefurbia is suburbia with alot better edge design than suburbia. Suburbia is often laid out in a grid pattern for no particularly good reason. To get from one point on a grid to another point is quite inefficient because you have to zig-zag to your destination. Sewer lines, electrical lines, and roads on grid are also inefficient. A better edge design can produce savings in time and money and a better suburban living arrangement. See Rick's Prefurbia video for some interesting suburban edge design.
The second part of this principle is to "Value The Marginal". The word "marginal" includes the work "margin" which is an edge or border around
something. The word "marginal" originally referred to what was written in the margins of a book. We now use the word marginal to mean something that is on the fringe or less important. The principle advises us to value these fringe or less consequential elements in our thinking and/or designs.
When we design an edge we also have margins around that edge so the principle would advise us to properly value what is on either side of the
edge we create. The principle also encourages us to value what is less mainstream, counter-cultural, and fringe. If mainstream thinking got us into our problems, perhaps we need to listen or appreciate the marginal elements of society to get ourselves out of these problems. If climate change or peak oil come to pass, for example, the lessons we will need to learn will not come from mainstream culture but from cultures that choose to live with less fossil fuel dependence and with greater community. The Amish might be the most well adapted to a post carbon future.
Today I visited our local "community workshop" where mentally challenged people are kept busy stocking shelves of stuff/junk that people donate to the workshop. I'm often impressed with how well this enterprise is doing. It is often difficult to find a parking spot. It is a prime example of what can happen when community organizers properly value the marginal, when we create edges that are more inclusive of the marginal.
There are some obvious and not so obvious reasons to use and value diversity. Nature contains alot of diverse
types of animals and plants but we have not done a good job of conserving that bio-diversity so it makes sense
to use & value diversity because these species are never coming back and we are losing valuable ecological
and cultural resources when a species is lost (either by crowding them out with development or because corporate
interests are trying to control the seed trade so that traditional seeds are dropped in favor of corporate seeds).
Another reason we might use and value diversity is because our agricultural landscape often consists of
large expanses of monoculture that may not work so well in a future with less energy or a changing climate.
Diversity in our agricultural landscapes can help us be more resilient in the face of these major challenges.
This would mean a return to more diversified farming operations that includes several crops, animals, and
probably more agro-forestry type approaches where we mix animals, trees, and crops.
Diversity can help to make systems more stable and resilient. If one pest or disease comes into a monocultural
operation it has a greater chance of wiping out a farm's crop than if we have at least two different types of crops we are growing. The more intermixing of these crops might also prevent the spread of pests and diseases in the same crop.
Diversification in investment portfolios can help to preserve wealth in the face of downturns in specific industries. The oil & gas industry has lower barrel prices that would have had a major impact on investors
with all of their holdings in this sector. Better to have investments in several industries whose economic performance is not strongly correlated.
Diversity in the workplace can also have many benefits. Under the appropriate conditions, the wealth of perspectives and knowledge represented by a diverse workforce can help the company exhibit a sort of hybrid vigor that can lead to outperformance of companies with less diversity.
The stability that diversity produces in ecosystems is not a simple function of the number of different species in a given region. More important is the number and strength of connections between the elements in the ecosystem. You can have fewer species, but if those species have lots of functional interconnections, then this results in more ecosystem stability than many species with few functional interconnections between them (see the Integrate Rather Than Segregate principle also).
So the way to use diversity to increase stability and resilience is not just to add more species, but to make sure that each species offers and receives services from the other species in the mix. Instead of just putting in different plants for the sake of having a more diverse garden, you select your plants so that they are good companions to the other plants, in the right shade relationships, etc...
In agriculture we often prefer simpler monocultural systems because they are easier to manage (but less stable). Too much diversity can lead to unmanageable complexity so we must take some care to balance diversity against simplicity. Often a diverse planting will simplify on its own to fewer elements that work together better.
David Holmgren also talks about diversity in the context of experimenting to see what works. If you don't try it you'll never know. Using this strategy, however, we must also be prepared to cull when we find that one of our species is not working. Diversity and culling often go together to ensure tight ecosystems.
The concept of diversity has many meanings and subtleties when you research it more. Let this principle be a reminder to spend more time thinking about how much diversity is manageable, how that diversity is to
be integrated into the whole, what types of benefits we might gain from adding or preserving diversity, and what diversity lessons can we learn from nature.
To tell an entrepreneur to "use small and slow solutions" is a tough sell. On Dragon's Den and Shark Tanks the investors are looking for the opposite characteristics - companies that will grow quick and big with their help. We should, however, be mindful of the many successful companies that arise from a slow evolutionary process that can take a decade or more.
For example, Jean-Martin Fortier has been evolving his market gardening business for over a decade
now using a variety of small (staying smaller than an acre) and slow solutions (no large machinery). He has become a trusted brand in market gardening with many people seeking his produce and advice. The fact that he has achieved success in his operation by purposefully staying small is a non-intuitive lesson that might apply beyond market gardening. His focus is to increase the quality of his product and efficiency of his work to become more profitable on the same acre of land.
What is a small and slow solution? Most examples of appropriate technology are small and slow
technologies compared to their industrial counterparts for performing the same function. A small scale machine that allows a household or village to thresh grain is an example of a small scale and slower solution for processing grain than a combine harvester for example.
Many technologies that are small and slower than their industrial counterparts are also easier to afford, typically involves more physical effort to operate, and are appropriate to a smaller scale of production.
Nature uses small and slow solutions to keep soil fertile. The solution is small and slow in the sense that fertility is added in small amounts each season though leaf fall, tree death, animal death, and droppings from animals. The large and fast solution for improving soil fertility is to fertilize with nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and Potassium (K) - NPK. While this can increase and maintain yields, it is often not building up humus in the soil so the fertility of the soil is artificially maintained which is ok as long as fertilizer is available and accessible. A smaller and slower solution involves cover cropping and green manuring of plots along with adding what compost is available. This mimics natures process a more faithfully.
Not all companies burst into success like high-tech startups sometimes do. Instead many successful companies evolve over a decade to become established, profitable, and poised for further growth.
Permaculture Voices interviewed a Sustainablity Education center in Costa Rica that embodied the idea of small and slow growth and how, over time, it might position you better than if you opted for the rapid/large scale growth option. Using small and slow solutions is not a barrier to growth over a longer term.
The way I use this principle is as a reminder that there might be other ways to approach or think about a problem if you adopt a longer term perspective where small things I do today might lead, over the longer term, to achieving some goals I might have. Doing things slower and/or at a smaller scale is a good way to learn how to grow a vegetable rather than scaling up and trying to grow 5000 of them in your first year. Your failure won't be as epic. A smaller scale will allow you to experiment and optimize before scaling. Even then you will only want to scale enough
to meet demand which could become your limiting factor.
I've been busy over the last week planting 35 apple, 6 pear, and 21 hazelnut trees and weeding 2 yr old grape vines. If feels like a series of small and slow solutions to food production. Small and slow solutions aren't always enjoyable or immediately profitable, but over time there
is the hope that something worthwhile will come from the effort. In the case of grape vine weeding, the quick solution is to apply a herbicide to all the rows before the buds emerge (pre-emergence spraying) and be done with it. Because I'm still small, the slow solution of hand weeding with my brother is still workable and allows the farm to remain organic. Perhaps it is the best design option given the goals.
There are many other aspects of our lives that benefit from a design that is small in scope and slow in nature. The solution to large systemic problems is often not an epic assault on the problem (war on ".....") but designs that incorporate smallness and slowness in them. Relationships with children are not based on epic vacations but the small and slow things we do for each other over a lifetime. Consider the small and slow design option to solve your problems instead of looking for the magic bullet that might only serve to create other problems.
The principle does not tell us to avoid large and fast solutions, only that we should consider using small and slow solutions in our design toolkit.
Many designs for catching rainwater off a roof, for example, are inadequate to capture the volume that is available and would benefit from being larger. If we balance large and fast with small and slow in our design toolkit we can perhaps do better than defaulting to large and fast as the preferred solution to our problems.
To integrate is to create relationships between things. To segregate is to remove relationships. We often segregate things to make them simpler to manage or think about. This is often our default strategy so this principle is required in order to encourage us focus on forming connections in our designs.
Each Important Function is Supported by Many Elements
The principle of relative location underlines the importance of positioning elements of the system so the output or effect of one
element is beneficially related to other elements in the system. For example, we can position a deciduous tree in front of the south
facing wall of a building so that in summer it shades the building (and thereby cools it) but in winter when the leaves fall, it allows
sun through (and thereby warms it). When we are designing we can ignore where an element (tree) is placed with respect to other
elements (house) in a system (our property). If we do so we will miss opportunities to exploit beneficial relationships between
elements and our design will be poorer as a result. So the principle of relative location encourages us not to think of elements
in isolation, or segregated from each other, but rather to look for ways we can position the elements in a system so that a beneficial
relationship results. Anything you plant in a garden should, for example, be judged by this principle.
The idea that each element should perform many functions is another way to be more integrative in our thinking. This principle is
the foundation for functional design where we ask of each element what functions it performs and how we might derive a benefit from the various functions the element performs. This is in contrast to only looking at an element as performing one function. For example, we might view a chicken as having the function of providing eggs and design a system around this function only. If we examine a chicken a bit more we will note that a chicken also produces manure and scratches the ground alot as it forages for food. By taking into account these additional outputs and behaviors we can start to see a role for chickens in our gardens to prepare our beds prior to planting. When we add chickens into our system it can play a more useful role when we integrate all of its outputs and behaviors into our farm design rather than designing for only one of the useful functions it offers. So another way to be more integrative in our thinking is to look for more functions that an element might provide and then to "stack" those functions in our design. The
quality of a design is indicated by how many functions each element in our design performs. Functional design is a skill worth cultivating and Permaculture is fairly unique in its preoccupation with, and techniques for, good functional design.
Finally, for each important function we should make sure that it is supported by many elements. When an important function is supported
by many elements, the resilience of the system is increased because if one of the elements fails, another one can kick in and take over. An example is water supply to the home. If the power cuts out, do you still have a way to get water? If your water supply depends on a pump and/or pressure tank and that is your only way to get water, then you will probably have to leave your property to get water. If, however, your water is gravity fed, and you are harvesting rainwater, and you have a pond, then you will be ok in the event of a power outage or drought conditions. So another way to foster integrative thinking is to examine important functions that you need satisfied and then look for multiple ways you can support that function within your system rather than just accepting one solution.
Bill Mollison advised that "The core of permaculture is design. Design is a connection between things. It’s not the human, or the
chicken or the garden. It is how the human, the chicken and the garden are connected.". Permaculture works well in the garden but
it is meant to inspire, and to be applied to, designs outside of the garden.
When you first read "Integrate rather than Segregate" you probably had some immediate commonsense ideas about how to interpret this directive. These commonsense meanings are intended in this directive as well. You can think of the three sub-principles as giving you some less-obvious ways to think about how this integration principle can be applied.
Posted on May 14, 2015 @ 11:09:00 AM by Paul Meagher
The 7th Permaculture principle is to "Design from Patterns to Details" (blogs on the the first 6 principles can be found here).
In order to design from patterns to details presupposes that we have some awareness of what patterns are useful to follow.
Where can we find patterns to follow? Nature comes to the rescue again.
To find patterns in nature requires us to think about the scale of space and time we are observing. Are we using a microscope
and looking at soil microbiology, binoculars looking at landscape formations, or telescopes looking at the stars. Some patterns have the unusual property that they re-occur at multiple scales - simple geometric shapes, spirals, branching patterns, crennelated and lobular surfaces, cracked surfaces, and fractal surfaces are some examples.
The recurring patterns tell us something interesting about how nature handles the flow of matter and energy.
A spiral is the shape of our galaxy, it is the shape of a Rams horn and a Nautalis sea shell, and it is the shape of our DNA strands. Because it occurs at multiple scales we can consider this an interesting pattern worth investigating and understanding in more detail and perhaps incorporating into a design.
One matter and energy problem that a spiral form solves is packing alot of surface into a small area. This can be illustrated with a spiral herb garden that gives you alot of planting surface in a small area.
If you unroll the spiral it might be 40 feet long. A spiral herb garden allows you to travel to all planting surfaces much more easily than if the surface was a 40 foot long linear row of herb plantings. You can pack 40 feet of herb plantings by your front door so you have easy access to your cooking herbs. Because the spiral has a shadier and sunnier side, hotter sides and cooler sides, and moister areas at the bottom and dryer areas at the top, it also provides a variety of different microclimates for growing different types of herbs.
So one way to interpret the "Design from Patterns to Details" is as advice to study some of natures recurring patterns and find ways to incorporate them into your designs.
At a more mundane level, this principle is about looking for the big picture and letting that bigger-picture guide your actions. It is the first principle that starts to direct us towards a more wholistic view of the situation rather than a reductionist view. One way to achieve a more "wholistic" view is to look for and design based on patterns. The next 5 principles will give us other directives that orient us towards a wholistic understanding. The development of pattern understanding can help us to design from patterns to details.
In Permaculture: A Designers Manual, Bill dedicates chapter 4 to the topic Pattern Understanding. One of the ideas he discusses in this chapter is the "General Core Model". This is a difficult concept for most people to grasp and I include myself in that assessment. The general core model looks alot like a tree shape and by tweaking different parameters of the general model (e.g., number of branches, order of branching, branch angle, branch curvature, etc...) you can generate a variety of commonly occurring patterns found in nature (by taking various types of slices through the tree and observing the surface patterns under the slice). The diagram below is the main explanation given of what the General Core Model for pattern understanding is:
The tree form above (branches,trunk and roots) is the general model and by tweaking various parameters and slicing through the model, we can expose a variety of patterns commonly found in nature. That, I think is what the general model is about. You can see expressions of the tree model in a blade of grass, a shrub, a tree, a mushroom and most of the plant world. Many of these patterns are also found in water flows, air flows, desert sand accumulations, and elsewhere.
Some fractals are tree-like in appearance. Some of the recent developments in fractal animation software makes me think fractals might be a better candidate for the general model or else might provide the implementation details of Mollison's general tree model.
Here is a concluding quote from Bill's chapter on Pattern Understanding:
Learning to master a pattern is very like learning a principle; it may be applicable over a wide range of phenomena, some complex and some simple.
This principle can be justified by observing how nature deals with leaf litter, dead animals, and other "waste" that accumulates on the
surface. Eventually decomposers break down these items and incorporate them into the soil where they add fertility and nutrients to
the soil. Nature produces no waste. The output of one process or event is consumed by another process or event.
David Holmgren, who defined and discussed these principles in his book, Permaculture: Principles & Pathways Beyond Sustainability, talks
about the 5 main ways we can produce less waste, namely, by observing the 5 R's: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Repair, & Recycle. For example,
refusing to purchase or consume an item is one way to produce less waste. David has adopted a lifestyle of voluntary frugality so refusal
may be his main line of defense in producing no waste. When David discusses the principle of reuse he lists off the many uses we might
have for our waste stream, e.g., for bottles, bags, plastic vegetable trays, milk containers and so on. Because David
purchases so little from stores (supplying most of his own food) he has to ask other people for these items because he has uses for them
on his property (e.g., bottles for home made beer, bags for storing things, vegetable trays for organizing nuts and stuff, milk containers
for transplants and to protect plants).
Each waste reduction strategy is discussed in some detail in his book. David points out that while the "recycling" strategy gets most of
the attention, it is actually one of the least useful strategies because it often requires significant inputs of energy to recycle an
item whereas the other strategies don't incur this cost as much.
David also mentions the concept of "hierarchies of best next use" as a way to think about stuff for the purposes of reusing it. Here
is an example that David uses to illustrate the idea:
Fresh water can be used to bath the family, wash the clothes, and then rinse the nappies before irrigating the fruit trees.
These simple hierarchies of next best use were self-evident to my parents' generation, but they often need to be explained to
younger environmentalists who do not have an intuitive understanding of the energy quality hierarchy.
In addition to discussing the 5 R's as strategies to reduce waste, David also discusses the importance of durability and maintenance in
reducing the waste we generate.
The co-founder of Permaculture, Bill Mollison, defines waste as "an output of any system component that is not being
used productively by any other component of the system". For Bill, the problem of waste is the problem of not being able to
imagine a productive use for a system component output. The "produce no waste" imperative requires us to regard waste as a
problem of the imagination and that we look for solutions that consist of using any waste stream as an input that can be
used to increase the productivity of another system component. See the wikipedia entry on
Life-cycle Assessement for some current
ideas on how the "produce no waste" principle is being used in manufacturing. An important book in green manufacturing is the 2002 book by McDonough & Braungart called "Cradle to Cradle".
Overall David's chapter on the "Produce No Waste" principle is useful because it discusses some of the main strategies that can be used to eliminate and reduce waste as well as the Mollisonian mindset we could adopt when tasked with the problem of dealing with waste in its many forms (e.g., plastics, organics, weeds, stormwater, sewage, etc...).
Sun, wind, hydro, and geothermal energy are renewable resources that easily come to mind, however, there are many more. All forms of
life are capable of reproduction and thus are capable of renewal. A fish stock can be harvested indefinitely if it is harvested in an
appropriate manner. Part of valuing a resource is recognizing the limits of that resource and harvesting it in a sustainable manner.
This principle should cause us to regularly ask "am I harvesting this resource in a manner that is sustainable so that it can continue
to be a renewable resource". Another renewable resource is soil. We can continue to perform karate on our soils through plowing and
chemical fertizing and cultivation but what happens to the soil when we do so? Can the soil continue to provide ecosystem services as a result of this treatment (e.g., carbon sequestration, pollinator habitat, etc...).
Anyone who uses a clothes line to dry their clothes (i.e., solar clothes dryer) is using and valuing a renewable resource. Anyone who
gardens is using and valuing a renewable resource. Anyone in a temperate climate who designs their house to have south-facing windows is using and valuing a renewable resource. Anyone who raises a chicken is using and valuing a renewable resource.
Before we became dependent on fossil fuels to power and build our society we were much more attuned to this principle because our energy, fuel, transport, and food all came from renewable resources. We relied
upon "renewables" to a much greater extent in our past and in a more sustainable future it is likely that we will need to use and value
them more. The principle points towards the future and the need, in our designs, to use and value renewable resources and services.
To do so results in better designs.
Valuing a renewable resource properly is a complex matter. Getting a pig to till a garden replaces motor power, adds manure, and
might not cost as much in time or non-renewable resources as an engine-powered approach would. Getting the pig to do the work reflects
a fairly sophisticated appreciation of how to value a renewable resource. The rooting behavior of pigs can be put to productive use
instead of being a problem.
David is not a cheerleader for renewable energies at all costs and encourages us to properly evaluate each renewable energy source
with respect to energy return on investment: how much energy goes into fabricating, installing, and maintaining and how much of
that energy debt is paid off during its expected lifetime. We have replaced much of our renewable infrastructure with high technology
powered by non-renewable energies like oil & gas. The solution isn't necessarily to keep the high technology but swap out the
oil and gas component for renewable sources of energy. It may be to ditch the high technology part as well and revert to using
animals and nature to do the work as they have in more sustainable traditional societies. The Permaculture symbol for this principle is the horse which played a central role in our pioneer economy.
The horse can still do farm work, provide fertility, mow grass, and provide
companionship if it is not completely replaced with high technology in our farming operations. This is not an issue of returning to the good old days, it is an issue of which renewable resources you want to value and how you want to value them. Whether you want to use them and what uses you want from them.
This principle is about thinking more deeply upon the issue of what is renewable and what isn't, a central issue to figure out
if you want to live sustainably. It isn't simply about hammering down on the oil and gas industry because it is not renewable as David reminds us:
We can aspire to redeveloping this respectful valuing of nature's gifts. As long as we live from the oil well and the coalfield, we would do well to pay homage to them rather than take them for granted like spoiled children who have everything but value nothing.
Elsewhere, David suggests that we could better value our reserves of oil & gas by putting them to "less banal" uses and "more productive" uses in establishing a society that is better able to sustain itself in the long run off renewable resources and their services. That may mean putting up windmills, urban train systems, and so on but it also includes major earthworks using fossil fuels to get our settlements in order for a more sustainable future. We can also put less strain on our non-renewable resources by using appropriate technologies and lower-energy methods of farming so we can do it more sustainably. Here is a nice rant by David on the over-dependence of farming on non-renewables:
Today, modern agriculture is the most pervasive and important example of increases in productivity from renewable resources by the use of
additional non-renewable energies, materials and technology to assist in the management, harvesting and processing of natural resources.
Although these processes have increased total yields, they have transformed agriculture from our prime means of harvesting renewable
resources to one of our largest consumers of non-renewable resources.
The days may be coming to an end where industrial agriculture can keep ignoring some of these objections regarding its dependence on non-renewable resources. Urban agriculture has been a fringe movement but it has the potential to be the thin wedge of a movement that might disrupt our entire food system (back to a time when urban farming was common). The techniques and technologies for intensive urban farming are getting better each year. Is urban farming a way to better use and value our renewable resources and services than industrial farming? I don't know but it is an excuse to listen to this week's podcast on urban farming by Curtis Stone where he discusses irrigation and poly low tunnels and other issues in urban farming (example of appropriate tech & low energy?). I'll be out in the back yard garden this weekend hopefully using and valuing nature's gifts, the renewable resources and services that surround us all.
Posted on May 6, 2015 @ 08:31:00 AM by Paul Meagher
The fourth principle of Permaculture is to "Apply Self-Regulation & Accept Feedback" (see previous blogs for discussion of first three principles). Here, David Holmgren, author of the 12 Permaculture principles, is invoking central ideas from cybernetics and systems thinking which encourages us to map, create, and monitor feedback loops so that we can appropriately regulate some action or set of actions.
The "self" in "self-regulation" is also worth noting. Self-regulation can be contrasted with regulation by law or government.
Self-regulation can also be contrasted with top-down regulation by others. Self-regulation means you accept personal responsability
for your actions and believe in limiting your actions through voluntary choice rather than top-down regulation. David Holmgren
argues that self-regulation should be the preferred way to regulate behavior because he does not believe meaningful change happens
when it is regulated from above. David sees meaningful change happening when individuals take it into their own hands to be the
change they want to see in the world, instead of expecting government to regulate behavior into the change we want to see in
We can relate this principle to ideas in Lean Startup Theory, a popular framework for guiding startups. One way to view
Lean Startup Theory is that it spells out the details of how to map, create and monitor customer feedback loops that can be used to regulate
startup behavior more reliably towards successful outcomes. Lean Startup Theory is a combination of applied scientific method and
cybernetic principles, with "apply self-regulation" and "accept feedback" being two such principles.
Self-regulation involves a set of positive and negative feedbacks. These terms hold no value-judgement. Positive here means that the
effect of the feedback is to increase the trend the system is already following; it is therefore an accelerator for the system. Negative
here means that the effect of the feedback is to decrease the trend the system is following; it is therefore a brake for the system.
So accepting feedback involves accepting both positive and negative feedback signals to guide behavior.
The "Apply Self-Regulation & Accept Feedback" principle is a design principle. A principle that is supposed to help us design better landscapes, products,
and services. Perhaps we do this by designing the principle into the landscape, product or service. Perhaps we do this by designing
the business so that it operates on this design principle. Perhaps we apply it to how we design our diets by creating feedback loops with local
food growers and regulating our behavior according to what is seasonal or locally available. There are many ways to interpret and apply this
Many people view this principle as having to do with limits and how to navigate them properly. As entrepreneurs and investors our job is to overcome limits to growth but there are some environmental limits that we should respect as we do so. Chris McGee has an excellent Permaculture song dedicated to the forth principle and specifically this issue of environmental limits.
There are a huge number of ways that we can "Catch and Store Energy". For example, we all need food energy to live and the food we eat is a way to store the solar energy in a form that we can use. So the imperative to "catch and store energy" can simply mean grow some food while the weather is favorable to growing it. We need to collect food during times when food is abundant so that we can store and use it when we need it. The seeds produced by our plants are another form of energy (i.e., reproductive energy) that we should store so that we can continue to grow food.
The advice to "make hay while the sun shines" captures the essence of this principle.
The basis for our real wealth lies in our ability to catch and store energy. The income we derive often comes from the release of value from
the energy storages we have built up.
We must all interpret the imperative to "Catch and Store Energy" in our own way because we must all decide what energies we want to catch and store. Physicists offer us one viewpoint on what energy is - the capacity to do work - that is useful in deciding on what constitutes "energy". Things like solar, wind, water, geothermal and biomass are primary and derived forms of energy. The theoretical biologist Howard Odum encouraged us expand our view on energy to include the concept of embodied energy, or the amount of energy that was used to create a particular thing. That
thing could be a fish, a 2x4 piece of lumber, a cell phone, or a wind turbine. Each of these things can be evaluated with respect to how much energy was used to create that thing. The amount of money we pay for goods is often correlated with the amount of energy that was used to produce that good. What about things like good will, popularity, positive affect towards a brand, music? Are these energies?
The challenge of living by the principle of "catching and storing energy" is to identify the energies that you want to capture and how you will go about storing it in a high value form. In farming it is relatively easy to identify some energies worth harvesting and storing. Food, water, soil carbon, seeds, wood, hay, animals are all storages of energy and wealth for the farmer. The farmer must manage these energies wisely and create proper storages so that she can eventually obtain various yields from these storages (e.g., food, heat, income).
Anyone who practices Permaculture is familiar with a sector map. A sector map is designed to map the energies that flow around a particular point on a landscape. Common energies to map are summer sun, winter sun, summer wind, winter wind, water drainage, wildlife, noise, fire, views, traffic, and pollution. Here is an example of what a sector map looks like (source):
A sector map can be conceptualized as base map of your property with an overlay for each major type of energy that impinges on it. That overlay typically includes a depiction of how energy flows towards a particular point of interest, often your home. A common way to depict an energy is by drawing a pie shape with the skinny end of the pie facing the house. The direction and width of the rim of the pie represents where an energy is coming from and over what parts of the landscape. A sector map can be used to help you design landscapes, buildings, wind breaks and growing systems in a way that intercepts good energies and deflects bad physical energies.
If we are to create sector maps for the energies that impinge upon us in our business lives it might look a bit different than the standard
sector map. It may be be difficult, for example, to establish a specific direction where the energies are coming from. The traffic to your
website might be coming from all over the world. A circle around your business probably doesn't provide much useful assistance to design you
web-based business. Perhaps a better way to go is to use the size of the pie to represent the importance of that energy to your business. The
energies can be good or bad types of energy (sectors filled with plus signs and negative signs respectively?). The exercise of creating a sector map of the energies critical to your business may be useful for designing your business to catch and store energies while deflecting other energies that might prevent you from doing so. These are just some early speculations on what an energetic analysis of a business might look like, one that is not exclusively concerned with physical energies (although they are important to map), but also might include embodied energies, and more abstract forms of energy such as web traffic, positive word of mouth, advertising, product quality, virality, etc....
To conclude, the imperative to "catch and store energy" is an abstract principle that directs us to pay particular attention to how energy
flows through the landscape and to take advantage of opportunities to store that energy in a valuable form. If we can store that energy in a valuable form then we can create paper wealth by drawing down on the real wealth contained in our energy storage. The imperative is easily understood in the context of physical energies like sun, wind, water, geothermal, nuclear, biomass, and food. The imperative is less easily understood when extended to "business energies" like popularity, positive reputation, negative reputation, usefulness, beauty, durability, quality, cheapnesss, etc... but may have some applicability to business design if you can create a way to map these energies for the purpose of business design.
Posted on April 22, 2015 @ 01:40:00 PM by Paul Meagher
I drove down to the farm yesterday to prune some grape vines and get some repair projects underway (new door and windows).
I also came down to observe and interact with the farm during the spring melt period. The water is flowing off the
landscape on this wet windy day. The lane is the main channel for moving rain and melted snow off the landscape. The
landscape is getting a deep watering which is nice. Some small trees that my wife and I planted in the fall of last
year have emerged from the snow intact. The ground is still frozen and there is still around a foot of ice in the
harbour. The winds are blowing the ice out to sea today which is good. It will be a late start for the lobster
fishermen as they must wait for the ice to clear.
These are some of my observations today. The first design principle of Permaculture is simply to "Observe & Interact"
with the system that you are designing. In the context of farming, it is often suggested that you spend a year
observing nature around your farm before you make any major design decisions for the farm. If you are planning a
business you should take some time to observe and interact with the people and technologies of that business. So the
first principle of permaculture design is to observe and interact because when you do so you create better designs.
This is true in farming and arguably also true of starting any business. Every day you could be asking What did I learn
from my observations? What did I learn from my interactions?
David Holmgren is the author of Permaculture: Principles and Pathways beyond Sustainability (2002). David is the
younger co-founder of Permaculture and some of his best work is his work on specifying 12 design principles for Permaculture.
These have become a standard part of the cirriculum. His book consists of a chapter on ethical principles and then a chapter for each principle. In the second chapter discussing the "Observe & Interact" principle, he has a section that is titled "The Landscape is the Textbook" where he elaborates his take on the principle:
The development of good observation skills requires time and a quiet-centered condition. This in itself requires a change from a lifetstyle that is indoor, semi-nocturnal and media dominated to one that is outdoor, mainly daytime, and nature-focused. At Melliodora we try to balance indoor deskwork with observation and physical work in the
garden that supplies most of our food. As well as feeding us, working with nature provides the inspiration for, and testing of, the more abstract ideas epressed here.
The interaction part is as important as the observation part. You can observe your garden all you want but until you start growing stuff you won't know some of the things you should be looking for. Ulric Neisser in his 1976 book "Cognition and reality : principles and implications of cognitive psychology" talked about the perception-action cycle and created this graphic to explain the idea.
I'll be reading more of David Holgrem's book at the farm and hope to eventually start doing a mashup of Permaculture principles and Lean Startup principles. I started discussing The Lean Startup in my last blog.
Posted on April 15, 2015 @ 08:24:00 AM by Paul Meagher
Diego at Permaculture Voices is doing weekly podcasts with Curtis Stone, owner of Green City Acres urban farm. These podcasts will follow Curtis Stone through a season of growing, harvesting, and selling his crops on his successful urban farm. Curtis Stone has been urban farming for 5 years now and last year was averaging around $3000 a week in sales from small urban plots. Not a bad living and with enough margin to keep growing his business.
In these podcasts Curtis Stone and Diego offer many practical insights into what urban farming is and how to do it successfully. Urban farming has tremendous disruptive potential because of the proximity of the farmer to a potential
customer base. You can't grow all crops on an urban farm but you can grow enough to be very profitable provided you do it right and this podcast series is an excellent resource for learning how
to do it right. As in any farming endeavor, there are startup costs and they are not insignificant (cold storage, tiller, greenhouse, compost, soil amendments, seeds, irrigation, plastic, hand tools, etc...). I expect we will see more avid home gardeners making or seeking investment to take their passion to the next level to become urban farmers possibly at scales larger than Curtis Stone is operating at. It is important to know, however, whether your market is big enough to sustain whatever size you decide to grow to. At this time, urban farmers don't generally have alot of competition from other urban farmers so it is probably
a good time to consider market entry.
The week 3 podcast is not officially released yet on the site, but is available on SoundCloud and is called Going No-Till.
Even if you are not interested in becoming an urban farmer, these podcasts are interesting because Curtis Stone is a savvy and innovative businessman. He excels at marketing his business, listing to his customers and adjusting his operation accordingly, and is an innovator within his urban farming niche. He is a good case study for how a lean startup/business conducts itself.
Posted on March 30, 2015 @ 07:02:00 AM by Paul Meagher
Happy Dancing Turtle is a project of the Resilient Living Council. The term "Resilience" is a word that comes up more and more each year - perhaps as an antidote to the perceived fragility of our current manner of living.
The mission of the Resilient Living council is:
The Resilient Living Council is a catalyst for sustainable living, renewable energy, and high efficiency housing. It fosters entrepreneurship, innovation, and locally resilient economies; ultimately supporting a healthy quality of life.
What I find interesting about this mission is that it puts sustainable living, renewable energy, and high efficiency housing all under the same concept of Resilience. If you think about it a bit, each of these ideas and technologies can help to create communities that have a greater ability to weather whatever comes our way in the future. The council also adds the ideas of entrepreneurship, innovation, and local economics to their mission because having secure employment is another big factor in having resilient communities.
The reason I discovered the Happy Dancing Turtle is because they published a number of YouTube videos that I found interesting, a few of which I'll share with you in this blog. These projects are interesting as examples of projects that increase community resilience that are also entrepreneurial enterprises (the high-performance housing project is more research-oriented at this point but has alot of market potential). They illustrate that designing for resilience is not just nice, but can also be profitable for all concerned.
Posted on March 16, 2015 @ 10:57:00 AM by Paul Meagher
You might have heard the compliment that so-and-so has a good attitude. Or the criticism that so-and-so has a bad
attitude. One's attitude has a significant bearing on success in business and life.
What is an attitude?
An attitude would appear to be some type of filter or bias that is used to process events. We probably develop some of these filters and biases from people we want to learn from as we grow up. Some might consider attitudes to be hardwired in and not subject to being trained or trained very little. That may be true, but it is also true that we may lack a good set of attitudinal principles that would guide us towards more successfully processing events. Perhaps if we had a good set of attitudinal principles that we could frequently invoke or meditate upon than we might begin to assimilate them into how we process events and that could result in more success in business and life?
The following are a set of attitudinal principles that Bill Mollison, one of the co-founders of Permaculture, claims that he uses:
Problem is the Solution
The Yield is Theoretically Unlimited
Work with Nature, Not Against
Least Change for the Greatest Effect
You can probably figure out for youself what he means by each of these mantras, however, if you want to find out what other people think they mean than you can find out more by googling each attitudinal principle.
I don't want to claim that these are the best set or only set of attitudinal principles you want to consider but they are a starting point to developing your own set of mantras or attitude adjusters.
Posted on November 10, 2014 @ 09:17:00 AM by Paul Meagher
Geoff Lawton is one of the major figures in the Permaculture movement. Every month or so he films an exemplary farm from different locations around the world to share some of the permaculturally relevant things they are doing on the farm. The most recent video features Mark Shepard's farm and the video is called Permaculture For Profit. Mark Shepard wrote about some of his ideas in a book called Restoration Agriculture: Perennial
Permaculture For The Farm (2013). I purchased the book but have not had time to read it so I was happy to see a new video from Geoff that features his farming operation.
I'm calling this blog Systems Thinking For Profit because what impresses me most about the farm is the level of systems thinking Mark has done on his farm and how that appears to be translating into a good amount of profit. I've blogged many times about systems thinking on this blog (see my Systems Thinking and Sustainability blog among others) so will not go any deeper into it here other than to note that while system thinking may not be a necessary aspect of successful farm operations, those who practice
it well are likely, on average, to exhibit more success as farmers than those who do not. It is hard to make the case for why systems thinking matters to business by citing books or ideas by systems thinkers, but when you see an operation like Mark's you can better appreciate the value of systems thinking for creating profitable business operations.
I cannot show you the complete 15 minute video on Mark's operation because you have to register at Geoff Lawton's website (geofflawton.com) to login and view the complete video. What I'm showing here is just the teaser for the full video. I enjoy getting Geoff's updates regarding new videos so I don't mind recommending that you consider registering on his site as well to tour around the world with Geoff visiting exemplary farms and sites.
There are a few different definitions of what Permaculture is. The one I like is the one by one of its co-founders David Holmgren who called Permaculture "systems thinking for farmers". So when I look for good examples of Permaculture I'm generally looking for good examples of systems thinking in agricultural design and management (but also increasingly in social contexts as well, i.e., social permaculture).
Posted on April 3, 2014 @ 12:50:00 PM by Paul Meagher
For those of you into growing plants, you might be interested in this video on Mullein. Mullein is often considered a weed, but as this video shows it has many medicinal uses, can be used to amend soil, to create pagan torches, and is apparently an excellent replacement for toilet paper.
Mullein is a good Permaculture plant for all these reasons. It can also be used to illustrate one of the principles of Permaculture, namely, that "The Problem is the Solution". This is a difficult principle to grasp but essentially it says that the problem may only be a problem because of the particular way we are looking at it. The problem is potentially a solution to another problem we might have. In the case of Mullein, the problem might be that it is a weed in our garden. Why is it a weed in the first place? Perhaps because our soil is disturbed and needs nutrients which Mullein is capturing for us, so it is a solution to the problem of amending our soil so we can better grow our vegetable plants. Also, when we have the knowledge about the many uses of Mullein, we can see that it is a solution to other problems we might have - bronchitis, smoker's cough, ear infection, toilet paper emergency backup, etc...
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!
A weed is often defined as a plant that is in the wrong place. Armed with some knowledge about the many benefits of Mullein, we might regard Mullein in our garden as being in exactly the right place - alongside other plants providing useful food and medicines for our household.
The lesson here is to be careful about how you frame your problems; when seen from a different frame your problem might also be the solution to another one of your problems.
Posted on January 20, 2014 @ 06:26:00 AM by Paul Meagher
If you've been following this blog you know my recent preoccupation has been with Permaculture owing to the fact that I'm working on getting my design certificate in the field. David Holmgren is one of the co-founders of Permaculture along with Bill Mollison. David was a student of Bill's and in 1978 they published the first permaculture book, "Permaculture One: A Perennial Agriculture for Human Settlements", with Bill as the lead author. Bill is generally acknowledged as the leader of the Permaculture field/movement, but David is also very influential in defining its principles, philosophy, and concerns.
David has been influential in his work on defining future scenarios that humanity might be headed towards. These future scenarios are labelled as Brown Tech, Green Tech, Earth Stewards, and Lifeboats. You might be able to get a quick sense of these scenarios by
examining the axis on this diagram:
In December, 2013, David updated his work on future scenarios by publishing a provocative article Crash on Demand: Welcome to the Brown Tech Future in which he integrates his recent thinking on financial systems and current trends to warn us that the Brown Tech scenario is looking increasingly likely. This article is generating quite a bit of buzz in the Permaculture world and one of the responses worth examining is Nichole Foss's Crash on Demand? A Response to David Holmgren. There are other leaders in the Permaculture movement such as Rob Hopkins who disagree with the conclusions and suggested strategies so the article does not represent a Permaculture consensus about the future, but all agree it is a line of inquiry that needs to be explored and debated.
In this blog I want to highlight just a couple of aspects of David's article that I found interesting and useful.
One of the most useful aspects of his article was a diagram that represents each future scenario as nested scenarios that take place at different scales. So Brown Tech is how our federal governments appear to be trending, Green Tech is how our state and provincial governments are trending, Earth Stewarts is how our county and municipal governments are trending, and Life Boats is how we are trending in our households. This to me is a very insightful and integrative way to look at how the future is unfolding and is one major takeaway for me from reading the article.
Another takeaway is the main thesis of the article - that we may be headed towards a brown tech future. If this is true, we can ask ourselves what investments we might make to prepare for such a future where climate becomes more unstable while green house gas emissions stay relatively high. In general the concept of "investing" is quite difficult to pin down in the context of a future that might involve radical change so keep that in mind. In his article, David makes the suggestion that climate-controlled green houses located near major hubs might be required to maintain food supplies. On our Canadian Investment site, you can invest in such a project with Salad Greenhouse Inc. A brown tech future will also increase demand for disaster resistant buildings. On our Texas Investment site, you can invest in disaster resistant high and low end housing. These are the types of investments we need to make when the future appears to be a brown tech one requiring adaptation rather than a green tech one in which we are better able to control or reduce green house gas emissions.
In general Permaculturists are optimistic about the future and have a can-do attitude about strategies we can adopt to create more permanency and sustainability in the world. The reality in many parts of the world, however, is not that optimistic and if permaculture is to retain relevancy it has to figure out how to address the current and future fallout to be expected from a brown tech future. One person who is attempting to address that fallout is Permaculture pioneer Rosemary Morrow.
Posted on January 10, 2014 @ 11:16:00 AM by Paul Meagher
For those of your not familiar with Permaculture, here is a useful video from one of the emerging bright stars of the Permaculture movement, Ben Falk. In this short video, you get the gist of some of the essential reasons why people are getting into Permaculture - harvesting natural energies, working with and learning from nature, growing food, sharing food, becoming more self-sufficient, and promoting a more optimistic stance towards the future (in part because of the confidence that comes with having Permaculture ideas and techniques that can help you to better adapt to uncertainty in climate and economics). I like Ben's message that if you are operating sustainably and in a positive way, your environmental goal should become one of increasing your impact rather than the often negative goal of lessening it.
Posted on November 19, 2013 @ 07:56:00 PM by Paul Meagher
Making my way through Ben Falk's permaculture book, The Resilient Farm and Homestead (2013). In today's blog I want to reflect a bit on the concept of resilience and how important it might be going forward.
Merriam Webster defines Resilience as:
The ability to become strong, healthy, or successful again after something bad happens.
A resilient farm, then, is one which is prepared in the event that one or more doom-and-gloom scenarios come to pass, specifically, that climate change makes the planet less inhabitable, that peak oil makes it more difficult to obtain fossil fuels, or that a financial meltdown grinds the economy to a halt. A resilient farm is one designed in such a way as to be prepared if one or more of these scenarios come to pass.
In practice this would mean things like having gravity-based access to water, becoming less dependent upon machinery to manage the land, growing your own food, stockpiling some goods that might become hard to get but essential to making life easier (e.g., chainsaw replacement parts), etc...
Many farms are heading away from resilience, becoming ever more dependent upon fossil fuels, tractors, hybrid seeds that don't produce viable seeds to plant next year, irrigation pumps, and so on. They will not be much use to us when the shit hits the proverbial fan.
It is easy to brush off the need for a resilient economy as so much end-of-the-world blabber, but I think to do so would be to potentially miss a big opportunity. Ben Falk offers landscape design and architecture services, using permaculture as his theoretical basis. He appears to be doing quite well at it. He has a growing business for a service that people desire - to develop a landscape and living arrangements that offer the possibility of becoming more resilient.
The transition movement (http://www.transitionnetwork.org) is becoming
more popular with each passing year with innovation focused on developing a more resilient local economy; one that is better prepared if "something bad happens". The leader of the transition movement, Rob Hopkins, recently published a book, "The Power of Just Doing Stuff" (2013) that documents some of these resilience-oriented innovations.
Whereas Ben is focused upon making farm's more resilient, Rob is more focused on making urban environments more resilient. The transition movement is experimenting with some disruptive social innovations that threaten to radically alter how the economy works, what they call the Reconomy, which could be construed as a shorthand for the "Resilient economy". I look forward to learning more about the transition movement's latest innovations, not just out of academic interest, but because I think innovations directed at making the economy more resilient are harbingers of where the economy needs to be headed and is starting to be headed.
Posted on November 13, 2013 @ 11:30:00 AM by Paul Meagher
I am enrolled in an online permaculture course where the goal is to achieve a permaculture design certificate at the end of 1 year or sooner depending on how much I want to study. An important permaculture idea that I want to focus on today is the idea of "stacking functions". I think this idea is generally useful to know about so will be sharing some of my research.
One of the permaculture books I consulted is Gaia's Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture (2009), 2nd Edition, by Toby Hemenway.
Hemenway introduces the concept of "stacking functions" by way of a home gardening example:
...every part of the garden does more than just one thing. Permaculture designers have a bit of a jargon to describe this. They call it "stacking functions". Nothing in nature has only one function; it is furiously efficient in this way. A shrub, for example, doesn't just cast shade. It feeds winter-staved birds with its berries, offers shelter, mulches the soil with its leaves, provides browse for hungry deer and porcupines, blocks the wind, holds the soil with its roots, collects and channels rainwater, and on and on.
Nature always stacks functions, because that shrub, or any living thing, represents a big investment in matter and energy, two things that nature husbands with immense stinginess. Nature is supremely skilled at getting the most bang for the buck, squeezing every erg of energy out of that shrub, tying it into lots of other cycles to maximize the return... By making plants perform multiple functions, nature users her energy investment very efficiently. (p. 33)
.... The two aspects of function stacking - each element performs multiple functions, and each function is served by multiple elements - can be used throughout the garden, on many levels, to align the landscape with nature's might. (p. 35)
Ben Falk, in his permaculture book, The Resilient Farm and Homestead (2013), uses a nice down-home wood cookstove example to convey the idea of "stacking functions":
Ben has this to say about how his wood cookstove stacks functions:
The homestead's most important power plant is our wood cookstove. It is pictured here in typical midwinter action performing multiple functions simultaneously: boiling tea water; cooking a multiday meal of venison, lamb, squash, potato, seaweed, shiitake, sunflower seed, kales, and garlic; boiling gone-by squash for the ducks; baking cookies; simmering chage-reishi chai for desert; heating all the hot water needed by two people for bathing and dishes; and heating fifteen-hundred square feet of space to 72F on a 20F day. (p. 220)
Gloves appear in the drying rack so I would add "drying out clothes" to the list of functions that Ben's wood cookstove provides. Ben's stove is not just functionally stacked, it is literally stacked with objects that carry out the different functions through their relationship with his "power plant".
These are good examples to use to grasp the concept of "stacking functions", however, it is interesting to note that Bill Mollison, in the primary text for the field of permaculture, Permaculture: A Designer's Manual (1988), does not appear to use the jargon of
"stacking functions" explicitly in "Chapter 3: Methods of Design" where much of his discussion on the importance of functional design first takes place (it is also not listed in the book's index as such). Perhaps the "stacking" metaphor puts too much focus on the object attributes rather than the relationship between object attributes. This is what Bill has to say at the beginning of chapter 3:
Any design is composed of concepts, materials, techniques, and strategies, as our bodies are composed of brain, bone, blood, muscles, and organs, and when completed functions as a whole assembly, with a unified purpose. As in the body, the parts function in relation to each other. Permaculture, as a design system, attempts to integrate fabricated, natural, spatial, temporal, social, and ethical parts (components) to achieve a whole. To do so, it concentrates not on the components themselves, but on the relationship between them and on how they function to assist each other. For example, we can arrange any set of parts and design a system which may be self-destructive or which needs energy support. But by using the same parts in a different way, we can equally well create an harmonious system which nourishes life. It is in the arrangement of parts that design has its being and function, and it is the adoption of a purpose which decides the direction of the design.
Definition of Permaculture Design
Permaculture design is a system of assembling conceptual, material, and strategic components in a pattern which functions to benefit life in all its forms. It seeks to provide a sustainable and secure place for living things on this earth.
Functional design sets out to achieve specific ends, and the prime directive for function is:
Every component of a design should function in many ways. Every essential function should be supported by many components. (p. 36)
I'll end my permaculture study today with this. Hope you find this discussion of stacking functions useful in thinking about what good design might consist of.
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