Simply Lush: A Guide to Permaculture

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The cob face of the sleeping hut sits firmly on a stone foundation.
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Outside the salvaged window of the meeting room, James and Penny prepare their winter beds for planting.
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Salvaged windows and a window seat incorporated into the straw bale meeting room look out toward the pond and a Balinese sleeping structure known as a bale.
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Penny prepares walnuts for a pizza that will be baked in the dragon, once James gets it stoked.
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Excess corn is put to use as a bird feeder.
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Straw bale and cob provide sculptural opportunities for niches and alcoves.
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James and Penny’s chickens are kept in a portable pen known as a “chicken tractor.” Once they’ve weeded, fertilized, and rototilled one bed, they can be moved to another.
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Roses climb bamboo support poles outside of the sleeping hut.

The aim is to create systems that are ecologically sound and economically viable, which provide for their own needs, do not exploit or pollute, and are therefore sustainable in the long term. Permaculture uses the inherent qualities of plants and animals combined with the natural characteristics of landscapes and structures to produce a life-supporting system for city and country, using the smallest practical area.

Introduction to Permaculture, by Bill Mollison with Reny Mia Slay, Tagari Publications, 1991.

It’s immediately apparent upon entering the thriving acre just a quarter mile east of the San Andreas Fault in Point Reyes, California, that something extraordinary is happening here. Apple, pear, and peach trees laden with fruit beckon wild birds. Ducks play duck-duck-goose on the pond just a stone’s throw from an arched-roof straw bale cottage. Rainbow-hued chard grows along a path laden with mulch over cardboard and newspaper that discourages weeds. Squash plants, interbreeding to create delightful new hybrids, have taken over one corner. Chickens feed on bugs in another, scratching and fertilizing the soil with their droppings.

To the traditional gardener, this chaos may seem unsettling, undisciplined. To James Stark and Penny Livingston, who live on and from this Garden of Eden, the untamed acre is evidence of a grand experiment gone right: permaculture at its finest. “Here, plants are being allowed to grow instead of being made to grow,” Penny explains. “We don’t coddle plants.”

Penny, a landscape designer, discovered permaculture during a meaning-of-life crisis nine years ago. “I was doing organic, native plant landscapes, but what I was missing was a relationship between people and the land,” she says. “I went through a questioning period about being more effective in transforming the human relationship with the natural environment.” Her questions led her to enroll in a permaculture course at the Lost Valley Educational Center in Eugene, Oregon, where she became a disciple of working with, rather than against, nature. “I realized that’s almost the exact opposite of what’s being done,” she adds.

Introduced in the mid-1970s by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, permaculture addresses the relationships between sustainable agriculture, architecture, forestry, and animal husbandry–all with the goal of self-sufficiency. “I think harmony with nature is possible only if we abandon the idea of superiority over the natural world,” Mollison states in Introduction to Permaculture (Tagari Publications, 1991). His philosophy of “using food and natural resources that are abundant in such a way that we don’t continually destroy life on earth” encompasses energy efficiency, sustainable building, water use, and food production. The key to this approach is that the energy needs of each system are provided by that system.

It’s really as simple as watching Mother Nature work and then mimicking her behavior. “We frame permaculture in terms of observing natural systems–some basic principles at work about how to stay healthy, alive, and beautiful,” James explains. “Then we integrate these principles into the way we live: how we grow our food and build our buildings. Permaculture is a way of taking the principles of nature and integrating them into our lives so we’re in balance with the natural world.”

The Permaculture Institute of Northern California hosts garden tours the first Sunday of every month at 10 a.m. Call (415) 663-9090 for more information. An on-site bed-and-breakfast cottage is open year-round. For more information or reservations, call (415) 663-9139.

Growing an institute

Haunted nightly by dreams of bringing life back to the earth, Penny committed to spreading the word about permaculture shortly after she returned from Oregon. “I knew just enough to be dangerous,” she says. “And this garden became a grand laboratory where we can try putting these things into place.”

Penny and James founded the Permaculture Institute of Northern California in 1994 and began to implement permaculture on their property by trial and error. Recognizing that they had a “duck shortage” (sow bugs were eating their strawberries), they dug a pond that made use of graywater from the house and is also home to koi. They combined the soil they excavated with sand and straw to build a cob office building anchored by a dragon-shaped bread oven with coils in its neck that heat water for the radiant heating system. “Anything you locate on the site should have at least three functions,” Penny explains. “For example, a tree can help shade the west side of the house, provide food and habitat for wildlife, and, if it’s deciduous, build the soil.”

Permaculture is all about closing loops or, as Penny explains, “joining all the dots in the way we live so everything in that cycle is interrelated.” Rather than clogging up landfills with the detritus of their lives, James and Penny are cognizant of the need to turn everything into food or shelter. When they discovered their need for a place to meet with clients, for example, they chose to build with straw, a waste product from the rice industry. Next to the office, they combined straw bales, cob, and stone in a snug sleeping hut. Tree stumps became garden seats that also provide moisture sinks for the plants. “We’re always looking at materials and the nature of materials and how they can be integrated into other aspects of life,” James says.

It’s really as simple as watching Mother Nature work and then mimicking her behavior.

Garden to table

Growing food is one of James and Penny’s most important steps toward reducing energy use and waste. From currants to walnuts, their backyard food forest is a constant source of nourishment that allows them to bypass food that has been shipped thousands of miles. “Any time we need anything, we just run and get it out of the garden,” Penny says. “So much is there. We never have to worry about running out of lettuce or greens or squash. We eat out of the garden in January.”

The couple boosts their food production with a number of canny but simple solutions. Worms (also used to feed the ducks) recycle food scraps and old newspapers and keep the soil aerated and healthy. Bees in a hive cantilevered over a rainwater-catchment pond (so that dead bees drop in the water and feed the channel catfish) pollinate the plants and provide honey. Chickens weed, fertilize, rototill, eat insects, and give eggs. “We don’t eat them,” says Penny (a meat eater) of her chickens. “They’re our friends.”

A living fence made of pear trees invites birds to the site; new species arrive every year as the site matures and grows more complex. “The bottom line is, people think that when you get involved in living more ecologically, that somehow you have to give something up,” Penny says. “And the opposite is really true–our place is really overflowing with abundance. All you have to do is give a little bit back to the earth, and the earth responds in such an amazing way.”

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