Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Permaculture Design Certification Course

I recently took my first Permaculture Design Certification course. I have wanted to take one for a long time and finally found the time. What is Permaculture? Here is the Wiki definition:

"Permaculture is a branch of ecological design, ecological engineering, and environmental design that develops sustainable architecture and self-maintained agricultural systems modeled from natural ecosystems"

I like one of Bill Mollison's  (the father of Permaculture) definitions the best. He said Permaculture is "the active application of what you observe in nature, to the things you construct". 

Many people have different definitions of what Permaculture is. I like to think of it as "a toolbox of ideas, based on natural observations, that we can use to make smart, sustainable and ecologically beneficial decisions, in construction, agriculture and human interactions."

The core tenants of Permaculture should give you a good idea of what the movement is all about.

  • Care for the earth: Provision for all life systems to continue and multiply. This is the first principle, because without a healthy earth, humans cannot flourish.  
  • Care for the people: Provision for people to access those resources necessary for their existence.
  • Return of surplus: Reinvesting surpluses back into the system to provide for the first two ethics. This includes returning waste back into the system to recycle into usefulness.

The course was full of great information, but one of the best parts of the class was human interaction. Humans are social creatures and I think everyone needs to do more to understand each other. I barely know my neighbors after living in my house for over three years. I need to fix that. How many of us really know the family next door, or down the street?

One of the social activities we did was making a huge crock of fermented vegetables. Everybody brought in a knife and cutting board and cut up cabbage, carrots, ginger and garlic. Not only was this fun, fermented vegetables are one of the healthiest things you can eat. Every culture has some form of ferment associated with them.

After everything was cut up, salted and crushed, it was added to this enormous crock. We then added spices and capped it off. Everyone in the class enjoyed eating this delicious ferment on the last weekend of class.

Ferments were around the whole course. For the catered class lunches, a local companies specialty fermented foods were served. I recommend checking out Fab Ferments if you want to try some amazing products. 

The course was put on by This-Land.org. The two main teachers were Doug Crouch and Braden Trauth. Many other people came in to teach specialty topics. We learned about alternative energy, the finance and hurtles of starting a small business, natural pest and insect control, how intentional communities are formed, fruit tree grafting techniques, community gardens, seed libraries and many other interesting topics.

And of course, we learned the 12 design principles of Permaculture, which are:

  •  Observe and interact: By taking time to engage with nature we can design solutions that suit our particular situation.
  • Catch and store energy: By developing systems that collect resources at peak abundance, we can use them in times of need.
  • Obtain a yield: Ensure that you are getting truly useful rewards as part of the work that you are doing.
  • Apply self-regulation and accept feedback: We need to discourage inappropriate activity to ensure that systems can continue to function well.
  • Use and value renewable resources and services: Make the best use of nature's abundance to reduce our consumptive behavior and dependence on non-renewable resources.
  •  Produce no waste: By valuing and making use of all the resources that are available to us, nothing goes to waste.
  • Design from patterns to details: By stepping back, we can observe patterns in nature and society. These can form the backbone of our designs, with the details filled in as we go.
  • Integrate rather than segregate: By putting the right things in the right place, relationships develop between those things and they work together to support each other.
  • Use small and slow solutions: Small and slow systems are easier to maintain than big ones, making better use of local resources and producing more sustainable outcomes.
  • Use and value diversity: Diversity reduces vulnerability to a variety of threats and takes advantage of the unique nature of the environment in which it resides.
  • Use edges and value the marginal: The interface between things is where the most interesting events take place. These are often the most valuable, diverse and productive elements in the system.
  • Creatively use and respond to change: We can have a positive impact on inevitable change by carefully observing, and then intervening at the right time.

There are many websites and books devoted to explaining the teachings of Permaculture. I recommend starting with Toby Hemenway's book, Gaia's Garden.

We visited many places during the course. One of the weekends was taught at Greensleeves farm in Alexandria Ky. I would like to thank Gretchen Vaughn for welcoming our class to her farm.  

We learned how she grows enough produce to support a CSA. They also sell at farmers markets and to select restaurants in the area. Last I heard they were looking for an intern. If you are interested in an experience like that, get in contact with Gretchen.

It was pretty chilly the day we showed up at the farm. This greenhouse was so warm, I didn't want to leave. They start most of their plants in it and use it to brood chickens. A wind storm had ripped the top layer of plastic off, so the class helped put it back in place. The farm has many laying chickens and a couple sheep.There are plans to expand the farms operations in the future when the food forest begins to produce.

This is looking away from the greenhouse. You can see a series of ditches on contour, in Permaculture we call these swales. The purpose of a swale is to slow water down on a property and hydrate the land. Swales also help control erosion. In front of the swales you can see white posts everywhere. Each one of them is a fruit tree. Eventually support species trees and shrubs will be planted on the downhill side of the swales, supporting the hillside and drinking up all the stored water. Typically herbaceous plants are planted on the uphill side. This landscape will be a diverse and productive ecosystem in 5-10 years.

Here is a close up of one of the swales. Eventually this system will turn into a mature food forest. You can graze animals through the lanes created between the swales. I plan on putting in a small swale in my front yard where the land raises up to the road. I will plant both sides of it, creating a small food forest.


We cut down a bunch of willow around Gretchen's pond to make a wattle fence. This would be a great place to plant some runner beans or peas.Trellis material from a box store can get expensive very fast. What if you take one "problem" like willow growing on a pond dam wall, and turn it into a solution.

We spent a couple weekends at the Enright Ridge Urban Ecovillage. Our class was in the Imago Earth Center in the middle of the ecovillage. We started building, what will be a very long forest swale, in the woods of the nature preserve. This will slow down the water in the landscape and help fight the massive erosion happening in the area.

After digging the swale, we went on a tour of some of the houses in the ecovillage. Intentional communities are very interesting. Everyone we met had something different going on. We saw people raising bees, chickens, sheep, ducks and many varieties of plants. Some for personal use, some for commercial operations.

Towards the end of the class some of us went to an optional apple grafting workshop. We learned how to take scion wood and graft it onto hardy root stock. I grafted six different varieties of apples and will be planting them very soon.

Here we are mixing cob for a small earthbag and rammed earth tire building on Braden's property. We harvested the straw and clay from Braden's back yard.

Cob is a fun and forgiving building technique. One day I would like to design and build my own Earthship.

For our final design we split into groups and voted on what project we wanted to do. I joined the team working on Long Branch Farm. This farm and the trails around it are used to teach under served children the value of nature. There is a young food forest already in place, birding opportunities, trail hiking, vernal ponds, composting toilets and a large barn for community programs.

This overlay map is what is called a sector analysis map. The purpose of this map is to identify energy inputs like summer sun, water and wind patterns. You use this information when laying out your design of the property.

This is a zone map. In Permaculture, there are 5 zones, with zone 0 being the house or center of your design. 
  • Zone 0 - House or center of your design
  • Zone 1 - Area closest to the house, managed intensely, kitchen garden, herb garden
  • Zone 2 - Further out from the house, perennial plants, raised beds, compost, bee hives
  • Zone 3 - Further away still, less managed, nut and berry shrubs, large scale crop production
  • Zone 4 - Semi-wild area, food forest, timber management, forage, wild edibles
  • Zone 5 - Wilderness area, observation, hunting, generally left alone
Any of the things I mentioned can be moved to another Zone. Your bee hives could be in zone 3 if it makes more sense. Your zone 5 could back up right to your house. These are just general guidelines. Understanding your property through careful, patient observation will show you where to locate different systems. 

Here is our final design. Having wheelchair accessible raised beds will allow people with disabilities to easily garden and enjoy some fresh food. An amphitheater located in the woods will offer a cool shady classroom on hot summer days. Water catchment off the barn will store and slow down water moving across the landscape. A cob oven built near the barn will allow people to cook some of the fresh vegetables grown on the property. Raised perennial mounds will be covered in native edible berries and other useful plants.

I recommend that everybody on the planet should take a PDC. The perspective you come away with is worth every penny. Imagine if the world was filled with people who understand the current methods of mono-crop agriculture cannot be sustained indefinitely. Do you know what the largest US export by ton a year is?  It is topsoil, seriously look at a satellite view of the Mississippi river draining into the gulf. We have to change the way we grow our food and raise our animals before it is to late.

I would like to end with another quote from the father of Permaculture. We could turn the destructive and wasteful practices of modern agriculture around over night if the following idea caught on and spread.

"Permaculture is a philosophy of working with, rather than against nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labor; and of looking at plants and animals in all their functions, rather than treating any area as a single product system." - Bill Mollison


  1. What a nice review of the course... I agree, it would benefit society if a lot more people were exposed to this.

    1. Thanks, were you in the class Mr / Mrs Anonymous? :) I will spend the rest of my life spreading the word.

  2. Really enjoyed reading this Patrick! I have taken an online PDC from Geoff Lawton and am itching to take a more hands-on course as well.

    We recently had a few swales installed on our property. Bill Wilson of Midwest Permaculture came over to help us design them into our property. It was fun!

    I had to chuckle when I read the basic principle "use small slow solutions". In our excitement, we could have very quickly become overwhelmed, but Bill saw our anxiety and said, "A year in the life of a tree is not that much. We don't have to do all of this today."

    Can't wait to hear more about your swales!

    1. Thanks, I am planning on taking the online PDC that Jack Spirko is going to offer soon. I have learned the lesson of take it one day at a time. It all comes together in the end if you just keep doing something. Do you have pics or a blog of the swale project on your property?

  3. Patrick, I agree...an excellent summary of the course. I, myself, have delved deep into permaculture as it has been an integral part of my upbringing and my own core values...So much so, that I immediately started my own permaculture business-line Permaculture Guru LLC and a Co-op, to teach what I have learned through a hands-on approach and exponentially increase awareness, while involving my own family.

    Earth Care, People Care, Fair Share!!!
    Take Care,
    The Permaculture Guru

    1. Hey Michael,

      That is awesome. Do you have a website up yet? There is an online PDC coming up in the near future that is priced very reasonably if you are interested in adding another certification to your resume. Let me know if you are interested and I will send you the details.