Practical Permaculture

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It’s easy to think of permaculture as a sustainable lifestyle, but it’s really based on ethics— and it applies to much more than just gardening.


Permaculture is a term that is not always understood— is it organic gardening, or something different? This spring, local permaculture designers and teachers Jessi Bloom and Dave Boehnlein have published a book that answers the question with 336 pages of insight, inspiration, and practical application. We recently spoke with Bloom about using permaculture to live a more sustainable life.

How would you describe permaculture?


Permaculture is a design system for creating human habitat—what do we need to live, and how can we meet those needs within the ecological imprint on which we live? It’s easy to think of permaculture as a sustainable lifestyle, but it’s really based on ethics—and it applies to much more than just gardening. Water is a big topic right now. It’s something we take for granted here in the Puget Sound, but how we manage water is critical. Permaculture empowers people to take back their own lives.


Can you give examples of how permaculture works in the garden?


Permaculture models after nature—and in nature nothing is wasted. We look to turn waste into a resource so the nutrients are not lost. Composting is a good example of a closed loop system. You can have a passive system where nature does all the work, or you could have a more active system [hot composting] where you’re in control and it goes faster. But you don’t need to pay to get rid of your yard waste and then pay to bring compost into your garden. We look at what is going out and coming into the system. Maybe you let your vegetables grow a little longer and collect the seeds rather than buying them, or you can harvest rainwater. We’re installing a lot of cisterns these days.


What is the first thing people could do to better their gardens, according to permaculture?


The biggest thing I see people miss is mulch. We need to take care of our soil—making sure you’re not putting chemicals into it or compacting it. Mulch is the easiest thing you can do to start building up your soil. Don’t use the manmade “mulch” either—wood chips from an arborist are great. I go into new sites and see exposed roots and bare soil and people don’t understand why they have to water so much and have weeds. But soil won’t let itself be exposed for very long. If soil is not covered, plants will grow.


What are some other easy ways to use permaculture in the garden?


How you water is important. If you water deep and infrequently, roots will grow deeper and won’t dry out as much.

Focus on perennial food plants instead of annuals—all the cane berries, asparagus, fruit trees, shrubs, grapes, artichokes. We have so many berries to choose from in the Northwest. Consider native perennials like salmonberry and huckleberry.


What are the unexpected benefits of permaculture?


Our connection to nature is so strong. A client of mine had a golf course landscape—just lawn. We transformed his garden and it brought so much life in: butterflies, and birds, and insects. Hummingbirds came to visit and it was just magical. I recently visited him at his new place and he and his wife have a farm now. Developing that relationship to nature changed his life. We’re designed to be connected to the natural world—there are a lot of calming psychological effects.

Another benefit is savings. I just moved away from a permaculture homestead I had been developing for fifteen years to a new place and don’t have a garden yet. I’ve had to buy my produce—things I would normally grow—and I’m shocked at how expensive it is!


What advice do you have for someone wanting to get started with permaculture?


Analyze what you eat a lot of and plant those things. I was just doing this with a client. She grows 60 pounds of raspberries each summer— half she freezes and half she gives away to friends, which benefits everyone. That’s another principle of permaculture.

There’s such a vast amount of information—there’s no way to digest it all in one book or one course. But one of the principles in permaculture is to start small. Find a way that is seasonally appropriate and affordable. Don’t get overwhelmed. Do it in bite-sized pieces. It’s a lifetime of learning


Jessi Bloom is an award-winning landscape designer, owner of N.W. Bloom, and author of Free-Range Chicken Gardens.

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