Thought Processes

Permaculture is as much a life philosophy as a gardening style


About 10 years ago, Penny Livingstone-Stark and her husband started building a permaculture garden on their small property near Point Reyes. Permaculture, a play on the words “permanent agriculture” and “permanent culture,” uses a set of principles to create sustainable systems that imitate patterns found in nature.

First, the Starks put in a food forest—a garden that imitates the forest ecosystem—full of fruit trees, nuts, herbs, berries, vegetables and flowers, as well as some plants for making furniture and baskets. Next, they made a pond using gray water from their laundry and bath, and filled it with ducks and koi. After that, they took the earth they had dug out of the pond and made a small cob building which acts as a library. They have chickens for eggs, solar power for electricity and a water tank holding 2,800 gallons of rainwater.

On top of all that, the Starks don’t have to fertilize because the soil has been built up. They don’t have to water the plants, except the raspberries, because roots are now deeply established, and because they have used water-saving techniques in the soil. In fact, the garden produces so much food that they have enlisted the local wildlife to help use it all up.

“Sometimes we let the deer come in during the fall because we have so much food, we can’t give it all away,” says Penny. “So they help us clean the garden. I don’t know how many gardeners actually encourage the deer to come in.”

While the garden started out as the Starks private experiment, it quickly attracted attention. When guests stayed at the couple’s now-defunct bed and breakfast, they were amazed by what they saw. Word spread, and soon people were asking to write about the garden in books. They were invited all over the world to teach about permaculture. Soon after, they founded the Regenerative Design Institute (RDI) in Bolinas, where, among other things, people can take courses in permaculture design. In 2003, they began working on the Commonweal Garden, a 17-acre Bolinas farm that is being “transformed into a permaculture model of human beings living in harmony with the earth,” according to the RDI website.

Like her garden, Penny’s career is blooming. “I had never written anything before this,” she says. “I had never spoken or done anything like that. We were just doing this garden, and it brought the world to us that way.”

Permaculture is a design science that centers around three core values: caring for the earth, caring for people and reinvesting surplus back into the system. While permaculture principles can be applied to any human system, for the most part, it starts with a garden. Instead of a grid of vegetables or a bank of flowers, the permaculture approach is to layer different plants—from fruit trees to vines to herbs—while putting an emphasis on planting perennials, building soil, retaining water and using resources at hand. Everything has more than one purpose, and everything works together.

“It’s looking at the intelligence of nature and applying nature’s principles to human design,” Penny says. “It’s about how to address our needs in a way that does not destroy everything and in a way that regenerates the earth rather than depleting it on a large scale.”

Food Forests & More

Permaculture has been around since 1978, when two Australians, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, published a book called Permaculture One. But lately, permaculture has been gaining in popularity all over the world, and the North Bay is no exception. Courses at RDI and the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center (OAEC) fill up fast as people seek to earn a certificate in permaculture design. Food forests are popping up in community centers and grammar schools all over the place. There are permaculture landscape designers, permaculture workshops and even a blog on the subject called

In Marin County, there’s Permaculture Marin, a volunteer organization that meets once a month. The group was founded three years ago by 10 like-minded people and now has some 60 members. In addition to regular workshops, the members work on projects at each other’s houses and in the community. Permaculture Marin recently built a food forest in front of Hall Middle School in Larkspur, a project that involved the students as well as the teachers.

“And the beautiful thing about it is that the public can enjoy the food forest as well,” says Kathleen Lanphier, one of Permaculture Marin’s co-founders. “As it grows into a more mature garden, the fruit and berries will be accessible. It’s a wonderful thing.”

On the surface, permaculture seems to encompass other environmental trends, like biomimcry or urban homesteading or native gardening. But permaculture is more than all these parts because it also addresses the big ecological picture. It is about designing an overall system that people can build step by step, emphasizing the practical while keeping an eye on the big picture.

“It’s very hopeful,” Lanphier says. “And it has a creative way of looking at the world that I love. This is a time of real despair in so many ways. Every day, the news is so bleak. Permaculture offers a lot of time-tested solutions to some of these problems. That’s comforting.”

Healing the Land

Imagine a world where neighbors take down their fences and fill their backyards with an elaborate self-sustaining garden. Instead of a lawn, their yard is a combination of fruit and nut trees, greens, herbs, chickens and vegetables. Instead of paying for city water, they have retained enough rainwater in the soil that the garden waters itself. Instead of lugging in compost, they have built up the soil enough that the garden self-fertilizes. There is so much spare food that neighbors get the surplus.

Actually, this is a description of Erik Ohlsen’s house. Ohlsen, a permaculture designer and teacher, owns one-third of an acre in Sebastopol. He and his two neighbors took down their fences and built a food forest that serves as a permaculture model for his neighborhood. It has 82 fruit trees, eight chickens, two habitat ponds, and has harvested a stunning 200,000 gallons of rainwater.

The garden benefits the whole neighborhood. The neighbors give Ohlsen their kitchen scraps for the chickens and often receive surplus food in exchange. And anyone who is interested can learn from the garden.

“One-third of an acre makes so much food,” Ohlsen says. “You can support two or three families on just one-third of an acre, so we share the abundance with the community.”

Ohlsen runs Permaculture Artisans, a permaculture landscaping business. In addition to designing systems for his clients, he also partners with Petaluma’s Daily Acts to create designs for local municipalities. In one case, he turned the front lawn of Sebastopol’s Cavanaugh Center into a food forest, complete with storm-water harvesting, edible fruits and berries and medicinal plants.

Many of Ohlsen’s clients come to him because they want to reduce their carbon footprint or have a more sustainable backyard. But recently, he has seen a new trend: they want to heal their land.

“I have people asking, ‘How do I take care of a forest that has been neglected for two decades?'” he says. “Or, ‘How do I care for these grasslands that were overgrazed and have been neglected for 50 years?’ So it’s a trend toward larger scale ecological care.”

Because of permaculture’s focus on building soil, planting beneficial plants, harvesting water and attracting wildlife, it has more than enough potential to improve the ecology of a landscape. Using its principles, people can actually do more good for the land than if they left it to fend for itself.

When RDI started the Commonweal Garden six years ago, the land was closed in with hemlock and wild radish. Now, after seven years of human intervention, there is a dramatic difference in how well the land looks and works.

“I would love to see a comparative study on the number of birds and insects on the farm compared to the coastal chaparral that is next to us,” Penny Livingstone-Stark says. “We’ve opened the land up and it has had a positive effect on the wildlife. There is more structural diversity with meadows and trees and different canopies, and there is more water on the land and more soil.”

Garden Smarter

Over time, permaculture gardeners have less work to do. As the landscape matures, the plants work together and require less human intervention.

A typical vegetable garden is an immature ecosystem with young plants, bare ground and wasted space taken up by paths. So nature, which hates bare ground and wasted space, steps in and tries to fill the gaps with weeds and pests. The gardener then has to mulch and till and weed to keep the garden under control.

A food forest, on the other hand, mimics the mature ecosystem of a forest. Different-sized plants are put in so that the garden has different levels and canopies. As much as possible, perennials are planted that will mature with time. The ground is filled with plants, so there isn’t as much room for weeds. Everything has been chosen because it serves multiple functions, just like in the forest. A plant like bee balm, for example, might be put in because it brings bees into the garden, is pretty to look at, smells good and can be used as an herb. One plant works four ways. If every element does this, the garden begins to work together and to become self-sustaining and efficient.

Permaculture can lead to creative solutions. When snails were wrecking havoc in Penny’s garden, she decided that she didn’t have a snail problem, she had a duck shortage. So she got some ducks and let them wander around the garden. Soon, they ate up all the snails and turned them into fertilizer. With one change, she had taken a problem and made it a benefit for her garden.

Then, when she got tired of changing the ducks’ water, she decided to build a pond for them to swim in. Instead of filling the pond with city water, she employed another principle of permaculture—using the resources at hand—and filled it with a combination of roof water and gray water. Today, the pond thrives with koi, ducks, frogs and other wildlife.

“And in almost 10 years, I have never seen a fish belly floating upside down in that pond,” Penny says.

Water is important. Large gardens are notoriously expensive to irrigate, and California is notoriously mired in water issues. But with permaculture, something like storm-water runoff becomes a boon for the garden.

Instead of draining water away from the house, which can dehydrate the soil and cause erosion, permaculture contours the land with shallow ditches called swales and small hills called berms, which catch rainwater and allow it to slowly sink into the ground. Over time, this method can build an underground water table.

“This way of conserving water is applicable to every single property in Sonoma County,” Ohlsen says. “It is applicable to every property in the world.” But this is just one way to make the most out of water on your land. Taken together with other techniques—cisterns, roof-water catchment, gray-water purification and so on—it’s possible to get something like the 200,000 gallons of water that Ohlsen has reaped from his one-third acre.

Sharing Abundance

For some, permaculture is a way to take day-by-day actions beyond bringing a reusable bag to the grocery store. It is about seeing the whole ecological picture and applying principles in a practical way to live intentionally on the planet.

“Permaculture is a way of looking at how I live, with complete honesty about my lifestyle,” says Terrie Schweitzer, who runs the blog “It’s a way to really consider the things in my life, where they come from, how they’re made and whether or not something is made ethically. It’s about looking deeply at the truth behind your life.”

Schweitzer became interested in permaculture about three years ago and was hooked. A former employee at tech-book publishers O’Reilly Media in Sebastopol, she started in January 2009. While she practices permaculture through gardening, composting and collecting water, her blog also contributes to the online permaculture community.

The word “community” is important here. Much of this is practical—one must do something with all that surplus food, after all. But community is also important as part of the overall philosophy.

“Permaculture is not a back-to-the-land movement or a self-sufficiency movement,” says Brock Dolman, permaculture program director at OAEC. “It’s permanent culture, which means creating community sufficiency and resiliency through collaboration. If it’s just applying these techniques to an individual homestead, that person or family could live a nice life for themselves, and it’s all very quaint, but I don’t think it gets at the aspirations of intergenerational continuity.”

People like Dolman believe permaculture principles can be applied to everything from logging to the government to finance. In fact, there’s even a permaculture credit union in Arizona. He says the principles here can apply to any system or landscape, which includes those in the hearts of cities.

Case in point, OAEC is partnering with Movement Generation in Oakland, an ecological-justice organization for urban communities. Together, they are offering a permaculture design course for leaders of other urban social-justice organizations. The leaders will then go back to their communities around the Bay Area and teach permaculture principles to their communities.

“By cultivating those skills, we are preparing communities for the inevitable harsher impacts of ecological damage,” says Carla Perez, programs coordinator for Movement Generation. “In five or 10 years, they are going to be dealing with ecological issues like food scarcity, water scarcity, cuts in basic services and cuts in city-led services. Permaculture, for us, is teaching people to harvest rainwater, grow food, to do things in a way that doesn’t require being plugged into the grid.”

The idea that permaculture could heal a damaged, poverty-stricken section of a city as well as it could heal overgrazed ranch land is certainly intriguing. And perhaps that, more than anything, is what makes permaculture stand out from a lot of other environmental thinking: it factors people back into the deal. It allows them to take small actions to work toward bigger solutions, and it allows them to start in their own backyards.

In the end, it’s this optimistic, pragmatic approach that makes permaculture so hopeful.

“My general approach is to trust in the natural system,” Penny says. “The sooner we get that, the sooner the human species will be entering back into the garden, which we have been banished from by our own design.”

Craftwork Coworking Healdsburg