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Permaculture Advice For Beginners

Gateway to a garden

Trying something for the first time can be intimidating, especially when it’s something as big as learning how to live off your land. But like with any new adventure you shouldn’t bite off too much at once. Instead, it’s better to take the time to properly plan and educate yourself on what it will take to begin living a permaculture lifestyle. To help you get started, authors Olivia Rathbone (The Occidental Arts & Ecology Center Cookbook) and Tao Orion (Beyond the War on Invasive Species) share some advice for beginner permaculturalists.


Jen from Vermont writes:

I’ve been reading The Occidental Arts & Ecology Center Cookbook and so thoroughly enjoying it. It’s written in a way that makes such good sense to me. I’m about to move into a new home and I’m thinking about where to begin with cultivating gardens in partnership with my kitchen. The vision of the OAEC gardens is so thorough and complete. What advice would you have for someone who is beginning?

Olivia Rathbone: Hello Jen! Congratulations on your new place and I am glad you are finding some inspiration from The OAEC Cookbook! As a beginner, just getting started with a kitchen garden design, the first and most important permaculture principle that we advocate at the Occidental Arts & Ecology Center—a farm, educational center, and eco thinktank in West Sonoma County, CA—is PATO, Protracted and Thoughtful Observation.

At this exciting time, it is tempting to jump right in and make big changes, but really the most valuable thing you can do in this first year is to simply study the natural and man-made elements in each area of the land, notice how they change through the seasons and how you can work with rather than impose upon the land that you are stewarding. Get to know every nook and cranny—the soil, the arc of the sun, the flow of water, and all the plants and critters living there. Some people find it useful to keep a journal or to mark their observations on a calendar or a map. A daily or weekly ritual of sipping a cup of morning tea in a special spot or walking a path around the land with the intention of listening and absorbing nature’s clues is a great way to find inspiration and guidance in your design process.

One of the most elegant and practical design features of the OAEC North Garden is the main pathway, which was once the path that the cows had trodden on their way out to the back 40. The original gardeners here had the wisdom to work with that contour line and design the garden around it. Little by little, your appreciation for what you have and your vision for what you want will start to come together.

Another foundational principle is the idea of designing in “zones” as a way to save time, energy, and resources. For convenience, the crops that are used every day—like culinary herbs—can be planted close to the kitchen so that the cook can easily grab a bit of parsley at the last minute to spruce up dinner. On the other hand, the potato patch, which needs very little tending or watering throughout the season and is harvested all at once, can be planted further away, off the beaten path. Likewise, crops can also be grouped together by their needs for sun or water. At OAEC we have the nopal cactuses, rosemary, and other drought tolerant crops planted in a sunny, south facing dry garden and the tender, thirsty salad greens grouped together in a more temperate, irrigated section.

There are loads of great books out there with more ideas on plant groupings, water conservation methods, etc, but ultimately, not everything written in books or online will work for every situation. OAEC’s kitchen gardens of today came about through 40 years of trial and error research and many of those experiments failed miserably! For example, the ubiquitous use of straw mulch that so many permaculture books advocate, turned out to be the perfect habitat for earwigs here. My advice—start small, don’t be afraid to fail and learn, and remember, your most important resources are your new neighbors! Fellow gardeners are almost always eager to share their lessons learned, and hopefully, future meals together to enjoy your garden’s bounty.


Scott from Oregon writes:

My wife and I own some land and are trying to make the transition to being self employed and living on the land full-time. What are some of the more important first steps that can be achieved on a small budget for maximum benefit in your opinion? Are there opportunities for funding that are available to young permaculturalists that you are aware of?

Tao Orion: Hi Scott! First I would undertake a community-scale needs and resources assessment and line it up with your personal needs and resources assessment. Ask yourself, what are your community’s needs, and what are some resources that could be available to you and your wife that could assist you in crafting your rural livelihood? Considering how to piece Beyond the war on invasive speciestogether diverse income streams is also a key component of ‘making a living’ off the land, especially in the developmental years if you don’t have a large amount of capital to invest in building farm infrastructure like fencing, outbuildings, etc. Start with small, slow, scalable developments to achieve some modest yields. Take time to plan and implement your final design—get your home garden, greenhouse, and irrigation system in place and productive before planting your 10 acre food forest. Don’t spread yourself too thin as you will have a long list of projects!

One way to save money is to propagate the fruit and nut trees and shrubs you eventually want to plant. This will give you time to also make the best decisions about where they should go. There are some unique funding streams available for beginning farmers. The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) provides money for building fencing, hedgerows, and hightunnel greenhouses. Also, check to see whether there is an organization that facilitates Individual Development Accounts (IDA) programs in your area, as this unique program matches your savings by a factor of three (up to $12,000 total) while providing business planning and management classes.

Good luck and have fun!


Recommended Reads

The Original Organic Pioneer – An Interview With Eliot Coleman

Hydroponic Versus Soil Growing: Which Should You Choose

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