Five Permaculture Tips for a More Sustainable Organic Farm

Reader Contribution by Lindsay Mcnamara
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Nestled deep in the sticks of Schoharie County in upstate New York, lays Raven Crest Botanicals, a 250-acre sanctuary of an organic farm. Over 80 herbs are grown at Raven Crest for a variety of teas, tinctures, elixirs and skin care products. Susanna Raeven, owner of Raven Crest Botanicals, strives to bring “non-toxic, safe and effective, hand-made herbal products, made in small batches with love and intent” to her clients to “help them find balance in their lives with the generous support of the plant kingdom.”

Raven Crest teas, elixirs and tinctures are derived from Mother Earth without harming her, made well for Susanna’s supporters to be well. Ms.Raeven uses a variety of permaculture methods to ensure that each and every one of her products is natural, organic, and pesticide and fertilizer free.

Austrian farmer Sepp Holzer, the “Father of Permaculture,” describes the farming method as an environment where all elements within a system interact with each other; plants and animals working together in harmony. Holzer outlined major themes of permaculture:

• Multi-functionality: every element fulfills multiple functions and every function is performed by multiple elements

• Use energy practically and efficiently, work with renewables

• Use natural resources

• Intensive systems in a small area

• Utilize and shape natural processes and cycles

• Support and use edge effects (creating highly productive small-scale structures)

• Diversity instead of monoculture

Keeping the themes of Sepp Holzer in mind, below are five permaculture tips for a more sustainable farm, as used by Susanna Raeven at Raven Crest Botanicals:

1. Try Sheet Mulching

“If you don’t have good soil, you got nothing,” Susanna Raeven said. Sheet mulching establishes a great foundation for planting by using different layers of inorganic and organic materials to help the soil build itself. Start with slashed vegetation, and then add a layer of cardboard, a thin layer of manure, a foot of straw, compost, and end with mulch. Organic fertilizer can be added too.

At Raven Crest Botanicals, Ms.Raeven uses Espoma plant-tone, blood meal/dried blood, bone meal, azomite, rock phosphate, and lime for soil amendments. For added trace minerals, kelp or seaweed works well too.

The inorganic cardboard brings the carbon and the manure brings the nitrogen into the system, which are both needed for high quality soil. The key to excellent soil is a healthy ecosystem of microorganisms working the land, and sheet mulching is a way to provide good habitat for them.

2. Build Permaculture Guilds

Permaculture is based on utilizing and shaping natural processes, like those seen in forests. One way to mimic nature is to build a “food forest.”  Similar to a natural forest system, food crops and other plants that provide for human needs can be planted together to create multiple layers of vegetation and a diverse environment.  

A good start for a long-term food forest is a permaculture guild. A guild is a grouping of plants, animals, insects and other natural elements that work together to survive, grow symbiotically and help one another reach their fullest potential.

At Raven Crest Botanicals, sheet mulching was laid around fruit trees to provide the ground work for other herbs and flowers to be grouped together around the tree, and eventually establish a permaculture guild, when the soil is ready to be planted in.

Typically, monoculture grass and fruit tree root structures lie at a similar depth in the soil, thus creating competition for resources like nutrients and water. By planting herbs and flowers in a guild instead of planting grass, the competition for resources is eliminated and the plants can grow together symbiotically.

To build a strong permaculture guild, companion planting can be used to facilitate the smaller symbiotic relationships that contribute to the functionality of the system as a whole community. Planting different crops that compliment each other can also help with pest control, pollination and increase productivity. Tarragon and eggplant can be planted as companions. A common example of companion planting is the Three Sisters: corn, beans and squash. The stalk from the corn serves as a trellis for the beans to climb, as the beans fix nitrogen to benefit the corn. Squash vines act as “living mulch,” shading emerging weeds and preventing moisture in the soil from evaporating. 

View the companion planting guide put together by MOTHER EARTH NEWS here.

3. Rethink Your Gardening Space

To save money on soil and to reduce water use, consider building a Hugelkultur raised garden bed. A permaculture concept, a Hugelkultur is simply a raised garden bed filled with wood. At Raven Crest Botanicals, trees, branches and stumps were used to build a raised bed. Then, perennial herbs were planted to keep the soil in place. (See lead photo)

The rotting wood contains high levels of organic material, nutrients and air pockets for the roots of the plants in the bed. With time, the soil becomes rich and loaded with helpful microorganisms. As the wood shrinks, it makes more air pockets; allowing for a little bit of self tilling. The wood also helps keep excess nutrients in the soil, not leak into the groundwater, acting as a self-fertilizer. The water held in the tree stumps and branches allows for very little irrigation. Only a foot or so of soil is needed on top of the rotting wood, so Hugelkultur cuts down on soil costs too. 

Another interesting way to completely eliminate soil expenses is to try straw bale gardening. No need for a big plot of land or soil, straw bales allow for gardening on roof tops, in parking lots, and high density urban areas. The bales are moveable too!  To start planting in straw bales, simply add a lot of heavy nitrogen and organic fertilizer for one week, to help aid the decomposition process. Then, spend another week watering the bale. The straw bale will get very hot inside, but once the temperature comes down to 100 degrees, it is time to start planting seedlings. Straw bale gardening makes for an easier harvest too, since roots don’t have to be dug out.

For more information about straw bale gardening, read this article in the New York Times.

4. Go Solar!

Part of the vision of permaculture is to use energy efficiently and work with renewables. At Raven Crest Botanicals, a solar powered irrigation system waters the herbs and flowers with the water from the pond on the farm. Also at Raven Crest is a passive solar, earth-sheltered greenhouse. The greenhouse was built using the plans from The Earth-Sheltered Greenhouse by Mike Oehler, a book featured on Mother Earth News.

The Raven Crest greenhouse is insulated by the Earth and has a cold sink to give cold air a space to settle away from the tender seedlings. The oil-filled pistons of the temperature-sensitive automatic vents allow the greenhouse to regulate its own temperature. The oil in the pistons contracts in the cold (closing the vents) and expands in the heat (opening the vents). There are also ten 55 gallon water drums to help regulate the temperature in the greenhouse.

The hanging beds naturally keep mice away and serve as drying shelves when all of the herbs and flowers have been moved out of the greenhouse, hardened and planted. Although Ms.Raeven has a solar drier to dry her herbs for teas, elixirs and tinctures, the added space from her greenhouse gives her a better chance to dry all her herbs at their peak when they are the most medicinal.

5. Grow the Organic Farming Community – Host a WWOOFer

Susanna Raeven describes her farm as a “single woman operation.”  In order to grow her small business and reach more clients, she needs help planting and harvesting her herbs and tending her farm. Because of this, Susanna has become a part of the WWOOF program as a “host farm.”

Worldwide Opportunities in Organic Farming (WWOOF) is an “effort to link visitors with organic farmers, promote an educational exchange, and build a global community conscious of ecological farming practices.”  The program connects people who would like to learn more about the organic movement, permaculture and sustainable agriculture, with farmers who want to share their knowledge. No money is exchanged between host farms and “WWOOFers,” just room and board for the volunteers (and amazing food if you are lucky!).

WWOOF is a great way to cultivate the movement for organic, healthy foods and to engage the younger generation in permaculture, farming and the environment. WWOOF creates an atmosphere of trust and respect, with emphasis placed on the value of hard work and integrity. The program shows that living off the land is a way to eat well, be well and wash your spirit clean.


Top photo – Hugelkultur raised garden bed.

Middle photo – Sheet mulching in progress on Raven Crest farm.

Bottom photo – Hanging beds inside the greenhouse.

For more information Raven Crest Botanicals, Susanna also offers flexible CSA packages at an affordable price that can be shipped throughout the United States.