Ready to Try Polyculture for Diversified Crop Production? ‘Practical Permaculture’ Book Will Get You Started

Reader Contribution by Joshua Burman Thayer and Native Sun Gardens

Practical Permaculture: for Home Landscapes, Your Community, and the Whole Earth. By Jessi Bloom and Dave Boehnlein. Illustrations by Paul Kearsley. Timber Press, 2015.

For farmers who have heard the term “permaculture” and are curious as to just what it means, out comes a new book from Timber Press. Practical Permaculture offers vivid ways to diversify the number of crops growing in a given area. As the focus of this book is community-scale production rather than market gardening, it lacks in specific data for large-scale production.

Further, some of the systems proposed in this book are more labor-intensive than machine-based agriculture and thus, not necessarily practical to all market gardeners.  However, what this book does bring to life is the permaculture design process and how looking at the land through a new lens can empower farmers to diversify the crops grown.

New Ways of Observing the Land

The first 40 pages of this book are a permaculture primer. The basic core principles that form Permaculture design are hashed out. Like many other Permaculture texts, Why Permaculture is important is explained in the introduction section of this book.

For Mother Earth News readers, aligned to ecological farming, this introduction section lingers in rhetoric and flag waving. However, it introduces key concepts, such as zone assessment, ecological succession, land stewardship and natural patterning. What the book effectively does is begin to open the mind of the reader to a new way of observing the land.

Published in 2015, the book feels modern and fresh. The layout favors the visually inclined, as nearly each page pops with color and interest. As such, this interactive text is a great primer for young people and those less read on ecological farming.

The illustrations by Paul Kearsley are outstanding. His vivid interpretations of polycultural plant guilds bring life to the concepts hashed out. Each of Kearsley’s drawings is indeed worth 1,000 words.

Permaculture Design Process

The middle section of the book is worth the price tag alone. Over 60 pages of design methods walk the reader through action steps for assessing the land. This aspect of the book shows new ways to see opportunity, right under your nose. These design techniques offer some of the tools necessary to become a landscape consultant. As both authors are Landscape designers, Bloom and Boehnlein generously share some of their design strategies.           

The design section notes the site-specific nature of each farm, (i.e. the USDA Hardiness zone, microclimate) that create the context for certain crops to prosper in their niche and others to struggle. As both authors hail from the Pacific North-West, they offer their experience with that environment. However, as they also touch on Tropical Designs as well as Arid systems broadly, they give some range for the diversity of habitats.

50 Useful Plants

The end of each chapter includes a plant list for many different food systems.  By grouping these plant types, the roles different types of plants offer in a polycultural system is shown.  The plant profiles lend the experience and observational notes of the author’s work with each plant type. I was impressed particularly with the Forage Crops list. The Appendix of this book also houses an expansive array of book titles in the realm of permaculture and polyculture.

By taking the time to assess/re-assess the land thoroughly, the Permaculture design methods outlined in this book (ie: Site and Sector Analysis), offers for some new views of the land that may have been managed for many years. For others, who may be considering a raw piece of land to begin to cultivate, this book will serve to help “think outside the box” and plan innovative ways to make the new parcel productive.

By looking at the specific roles that each plant plays, polycultural systems whose plants assist one another can be achieved. Which plants are most suited to each farm’s conditions is where the designer/observer comes in. In this way, more production can be achieved in a given agricultural space by choosing plants that will harmonize in a guild.

The examples of modular improvements displayed in this text show that indeed there is always room for improvement to the land we tend, and that a fresh lens of perspective can be just what one needs to see new opportunities, perhaps right under foot.

Practical Permaculture is available in the MOTHER EARTH NEWS Store.

Joshua Burman Thayer is a landscape designer and permaculture consultant with Native Sun Gardens. He is the Urban Agriculture Supervisor for Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation in San Francisco, Calif. Find him at Native Sun Gardens and read his other MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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