Permaculture basics

I’ve been wanting to write an introductory post to permaculture for months now. There are thousands of articles online about it already, probably even more on “agroforestry” or “regenerative agriculture” and other techniques which are closely related or seen by some as an integral part of agriculture. I’m writing this as a tiny introduction, so in future posts I can write more about this; I would love to share specific techniques or ideas I’m experimenting with, write about the social aspects of permaculture or talk more about off-grid lifestyle… so consider this a bit of a background story.

Permaculture is a set of design principles and techniques that aim at producing, cultivating and using things in a sustainable way, all the while working with nature instead of against it. To me, it’s mainly a way to minimise input (work, money and materials) while maximising the output. It can be put into practice in very small spaces (an apartment balcony for instance) to very large scale (big farms). Permaculture mimics patterns and features from nature: growing different plants together so they can help each other, creating systems including several elements at the same time, accounting for wind direction and sun inclination, and many more.

A lot of people practise permaculture without knowing it or without wanting to call it that. To some, it has a hippie or extremely green connotation (especially when words and expressions like “holistic”, “care for to the earth” or “synergy” are used). It’s taught at university in many countries; used as a way to re-green desert or depleted pieces of land; a growing number of people are using permaculture (or aspects of it) at home in order to provide for their family or community. There are astonishing examples of what it can do on large scale, the only downside being that it takes quite some time and effort to set up – the average permaculture property will take 5 to 7 years to start producing enough to get some return on investment.

Permaculture is not new or innovative; it mainly assembles techniques and ideas that have been around for a long time. And as the permaculture movement grows, new inventions pop up from time to time as well.

How do we implement permaculture at Mas del Encanto?

Every permaculture project starts off with a design. I made a first draft for our property as a homework assignment for my permaculture design course; we’ve made a few changes since then, but the main thing is still the same. I divided our property into zones, zone 1 being the zone closest to the house, where we’d spend most time and have the things we’d spend most time around; zone 1 being the wilderness zone, where we wouldn’t touch the forest.
Screenshot 2016-07-26 12.40.54

The first permaculture design for our property, there’s the different coloured zones and a few buildings and ponds

Then there’s soil; you can’t keep animals, grow vegetables or produce fruit when your soil is no good. At this moment we’re getting manure from our neighbours’ horses, but some time in the future we hope our own animals will produce enough to add to our compost and build up rich soil. We make sure we rotate plants (& animals) on our land so the soil gets richer season after season, instead of being depleted and needing lots of fertiliser like in traditional agriculture.
We also don’t use chemical pesticides; we use specific plants to deter certain pests and we try to attract the right animals to our land, which will feed on the “bad bugs” and make sure our veggies survive.
The terraces to the east of our finca (the barranco or dry river) are being turned into a so-called food forest or forest garden. We’ve planted many fruit and nut trees already, there are some berry bushes in between them and we’ll keep adding vegetables and edible plants, while at the same time working to make the soil better. We select the plants carefully so they will be able to help each other; for instance there’s legumes that put nitrogen in the soil, trees provide support for climbing plants (beans and tomatoes for now, hopefully grape- and other vines in the future), and the big leaves of pumpkin, squash and zucchini plants provide shade on the ground so the soil doesn’t get baked by the sun. We plant certain flowers to attract pollinating insects, and plant other plants to keep pests and flies away from our vegetables.
Chickpeas looking pretty

Chickpeas looking pretty tasty

Chickens are very important in most permaculture designs; with little input, they have a lot of output. Our chickens take care of bugs and weeds, and in exchange they give us daily eggs and a lot of poo (fertiliser) – and occasionally we’ll get to eat one of the surplus roosters. Although or chickens have a set run for now, we built them a mobile chicken coop so in the spring and the fall, we can drive them to different areas of our land to “clean up” the area: eat the weeds, scratch up the soil, get the whole thing ready for planting. We plan to implement more animals as working elements in our design; we’ll need grazers to keep the grass short, maybe one day some goats to eat weeds and make us cheese, and (who knows) a pony so we won’t need a tractor… There are plans for beehives, an insect hotel and maybe a bit of vermiculture (worm composting). So many plans, we’ll need quite a lot of time to implement them all!
Hills & trenches

Hills & trenches (with mustard and beans)

The way you manage waterflow on your property to minimise costs and effort but maximise the outcome (irrigation), is a very important aspect of permaculture. We started on waterworks here and there on our land; we made trenches around many trees to catch more water when it rains, dug canals in the barranco so the waterflow gets redirected to a pond, and all the rainwater from the roof of our house goes to one point where one day, we’d like to have a natural swimming pool. Hopefully this fall we’ll get to rent a digger to do some landscaping around the house as well.
We know we have many, many more years to come before we can get our little farm to its full potential – but we have so many inspiring examples, challenging ideas and so much time before us that we’re very much looking forward to the potential results.

A few videos for further watching – Geoff Lawton has tons and tons of videos on all things permaculture. You only need to register (it’s free) to watch them.

Green Gold, a fascinating and eye-opening documentary by John D. Liu about re-greening deserts around the world. Worth sitting down for. It’s also got a very positive message to oppose the defeatism of global warming…

A Farm for the Future, a fascinating documentary by Rebecca Hosking about farming in the UK. It not only explains what’s wrong with relying on fossil fuels and synthetic fertilisers, but it also talks about the many alternatives. The images around minute 25:00 show exactly what the problem is with plowing and killing the soil, these are things that cannot be unseen. And as a bonus, it features the late Patrick Whitefield.

November update

It was only when reviewing my last post (I was in a philosophical mood) that I realised I haven’t been posting updates for a very long time… Now the winter months are upon us, I am writing this in the comfort of a nice house in front of the fireplace, and I can finally reflect on those crazy summer months.

Jabba & the chickens

Jabba & the chickens

As you have probably already read in my blog, we had guests almost all of the summer (happy campers!), and before the last one even left we welcomed our first workaway-volunteers. In the last two and a half months we had help from 7 different people: M. & S. from New Zealand, F. the Dutch Canadian and A. the wandering German, V. & L. from Belgium and M. from the UK. We have learned that works really gets done when there’s people around: 1+1 = more than 2 when it comes to farm work. We had the almond harvest in September (a rather poor one, as expected, but we still got loads of almonds and not sure what we’re doing with them this year); pathways were created, fences destroyed and erected (in that order), we finally finished the entrance to the maset cellar (no more building stuff everywhere), and we harvested a lot of blackberries, figs, acorns, tree strawberries, chickpeas, tomatoes, zucchini, squash, pumpkins, melons,… the only harvest we’re still looking forward to is the olive harvest (probably around the end of November, and probably a poor harvest as well this year after the wet spring).

The beginning of a food forest: 20 fruit & nut trees

The beginning of a food forest: 20 fruit & nut trees

We now officially have a (young) orchard: we planted 20 trees – nectarines, peaches, plums, kakis, white figs, medlars (mispel / nisperos), apples, pears, pomegranate, raspberries, and our newest additions are hazelnuts and pistachios. Those trees will probably take a few years before they start to produce – in the mean time, we’ll make do with our (blue) figs, grapes, quinces, blackberries and trees strawberries.

More help is coming at the end of November; after (or around) the olive harvest, we want to start building the stables and the chicken coop. Now we’ve got loan chickens, we’ve gotten used to our daily supply of fresh eggs – when their owners come back in February, we’ll want to get our own flock.


Looks almost finished (but not quite...)

Looks almost finished (but not quite…)

The construction of the house is going very well, as far as we can tell: the roof looks almost finished. Soon, one team should start finishing the outer walls (with local old stones) while another team tackles the electricity and plumbing; after that it will be time for us to start on our part – floors, bathrooms and kitchens. And decoration, of course (so much to do, so little time!).

We’re still working towards an opening party in May – if nothing crazy happens, we’ll be able to welcome the first guests to our casa rural in June 2016, and stay open all summer. Very much looking forward to that!