Amy McDowell is a freelance garden writer, a former regional director for the Garden Writers Association and an Iowa Certified Nursery Professional. She has degrees in horticulture, journalism and English. Amy writes for newspapers, magazines and a blog at

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The Growing, Thriving Permaculture Movement
by Amy McDowell       #Advice

My friend Masha lived in Russia for several years when the grocery store shelves were completely bare of food for several years. Everyone, she said, rode public transportation into the countryside to tend his or her own small plot of land. They boarded the busses together, tools in hand. And on the ride home, they carried bags of produce. They grew and preserved everything they needed to feed their families.

“The good thing about cities here in the United States is that so many people live in homes with yards,” she said. “And I know from experience, that those yards are big enough to grow food for the family living in that home for the whole year.”

The permaculture movement in the United States has been around for a few decades and is gaining momentum, thanks to rising public awareness of the sources of our food, environmental concerns and the ever-present belt-tightening due to the ongoing recession. In many ways, permaculture is a return to gardening practices common long ago.

Permaculture gardens – such as roof gardens – are productive, sustainable and demand less input then a turfgrass lawn. 1

What is Permaculture?

The word permaculture is a combination of the words permanent and agriculture. It is an effort to capture the idea of permanently sustainable agriculture. It incorporates a basic three-facet philosophy:

  1. Care for the earth.
  2. Care for the people.
  3. Return the surplus (recycling any excess materials back into the system).

Permaculture is larger and more all encompassing than just gardening. It is a lifestyle, creatively incorporating organic gardening with home design. Almost anything can be included. Practioners look at everything from design, heating and electricity usage, use of rainwater, harvesting, gray-water recycling, and the list goes on. It’s about thinking bigger and smaller at the same time, from the design and layout of your home and landscape, down to the tiny mycorrhizae and other bacteria in the soil. 

How to Begin

Chances are you’re already somewhere along the permaculture path. And that’s a good thing. It’s a journey toward self-sufficiency with numerous opportunities. Choose and implement whatever works in your life. You are bound to discover a life of abundance.

  • Capture and reuse water on site with a rain barrel to make your home and garden sustainable.
    Go organic. Swear off chemicals in the garden and inside your home.
  • Add a vegetable garden, or expand your garden with a goal of growing everything your family can consume in a year. You will save money at the grocery store, eat healthier and feel the empowerment of food independence.
  • Learn to preserve your harvest through canning, dehydrating, freezing and root cellaring.
  • Compost fruit and vegetable scraps, coffee grounds with paper filters and eggshells. Your soil benefits from every bit of organic matter you can pile on. If your neighbor still bags leaves in the fall and puts them on the curb for pickup, snag ‘em.
  • Garden without tilling. Use sheet mulching, which mimics the nutrient-rich layers of organic matter on the forest floor.
  • Use rain barrels on your downspouts to capture rain.
  • Collect or re-route gray water from your washer or shower for use in the garden. If possible, re-plumb to permanently direct gray water into a series of treatment ponds in your garden.
  • Design smaller. When building or moving to a new home, choose something smaller.
  • Use a clothesline. And if your neighbors see it, be proud that you’re making better choices for the environment.
  • Leave your grass clippings on the lawn.
  • Reduce the size of your lawn by sheet mulching and planting edibles, such as nut and fruit trees, berry bushes and strawberry ground covers.
  • Consider raising chickens or ducks for eggs. Look into the benefits and simplicity of a chicken tractor.
  • Research permaculture more deeply to see what other pieces fit into your life. 

    Tending a few chickens is rewarding and fun. They provide eggs and fertilizer in exchange for table scraps. A chicken tractor makes it easier to move the birds from one part of the landscape to another.

For more details about permaculture:



1. © Photo courtesy of Andrea Meuller
2. © Photo courtesy of Susan Smead
3. © Photo courtesy of Cindy Shapton


Posted: 02/11/14   RSS | Print


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