Monthly Archives: January 2016

Home Permaculture Design Course

Thursdays at 7:30 to ~8:45 PM

March 10-April 28 at First Unitarian Church, Shaker Heights

Find a new way to combine aesthetics, edibility, and low maintenance in your yard by better understanding the Interdependent Web of Life.

hoverfly and dill

planting dill attracts adult hoverfly pollinators who lay eggs…

Hover Fly Larva Plain

…that produce larvae that prey on aphids.

Our goal with this course is to teach you fundamental permaculture principles and help you apply them to a project you can implement.   Previous students have redesigned parts of their front or back yards or helped launch major institutional projects. 

This will be our seventh iteration of the course (three previous at First Unitarian and one at the Cleveland Botanical Garden and all to positive reviews, including such comments as “life changing”).  Taught by Green Paradigm Partners: Elsa Johnson, landscape architect, whose gardens have been featured on multiple tours and in Fine Gardening magazine; and Tom Gibson, award winning permaculture garden community organizer.

Cost: $175 per family unit (i.e. your partner can come free), with 20% going to the First Unitarian Permaculture Garden.

Contact:  Tom Gibson ( 

Controversy: Relax, Its Just Permaculture

by Ann McCulloh

The word “permaculture” rears up like a mighty monolith: imposing, enigmatic, encoded with a message that will change the world, if we can just decode it and get our heads around it…

My own struggle to define permaculture amuses me, really, because some of the inherent joy in this wonderfully empowering design philosophy/practice is in ceasing to struggle. When we slow down and begin to really observe and understand how the natural systems around us are functioning, we begin to see how we can just fit ourselves into those existing ecological processes with minor adjustments to them and us.

I’m a concrete thinker who appreciates material examples more than intellectual constructs. So, a small example:

Ann's permaculture photo

The Ithaca Children’s Garden was fighting a perennial flooded soggy place in the lawn where the sloped parking lot channeled water into the grass. What to do? Fill it with gravel? Add dirt, level it and seed with grass? Build a dam or install curbing? Dig a drainage system? All solutions that involved expense,  long term maintenance, and commitment to an extended struggle.

Instead, their permaculture perspective suggested digging out a little more, planting bog-loving plants at the edges, building a little boardwalk, and, Voila! A mini-wetland that attract dragonflies, birds, frogs -and children- in droves. As usual, the problem WAS the solution.

On my property, I use all of my autumn leaves as mulch and fertilizer. (Rather than blowing, raking, bagging and hauling, then purchasing commercial fertilizer and mulch.) Dandelions, purslane, violets and other “weeds” are groundcover, bee forage, butterfly hostplants, food and medicine for me, and green manure for the compost. (I could drive myself nuts digging them out or killing them with toxic herbicides, I guess.)These are small-scale adjustments, not permaculture design on a grand scale. But practices like these keep me in the right frame of mind: observing, appreciating and working with the incredible systems of abundance that surround us.

Controversy–The Grumpy (Permaculture) Gardener

by Elsa Johnson

I come by my grumpiness honestly – I am the child of grumps . . .and they came by it honestly too. But I mostly blame my dad. Both my parents were young adults at the start of the Great Depression: she was 19, attending Flora Stone Mather; he was 22, going to Antioch College on the work-study program… in the course of which he became an English major, worked on a Great Lakes ore boat, taught at a progressive school in Michigan, and learned architectural drafting (which turned out to be far more marketable than English over the long haul). Somewhere in all that he was exposed to the agricultural writings of Louis Bromfield, which inspired a dream of having land of his own on which to develop a self-sufficient place.  The dream did not die. After my parents met and married my mother’s father sold them the 40 acres he had bought in Twinsburg to run his hunting spaniels.  They moved there in 1944 to begin their great adventure — in rather primitive circumstances. I was 20 months old.

Of course, at that age I can’t remember being saved from falling off the hay-wagon and almost being run over by a tire. I only vaguely remember being chased by the geese (a year later). But I do happily remember family excursions through the fields to the woods, ledges, and forest; the beauty of bloodroot and hundreds of trillium in the spring wood; the scent of black walnuts in their pulpy cases; the juice of peaches fresh off the trees, warmed by the summer sun.   

What I missed as a young child was an awareness of the hardship and hard work — that the cow had to be milked every day; that butchering a rabbit took a toll; that half an acre of garden meant hours of weeding (which included me…and I didn’t like it!); that fields had to be tilled, planted and harvested; vegetables and fruit processed and canned; and that despite all that, we really couldn’t live self-sufficiently on 40 acres. My father took a job as a draftsman (and modeled tractors!). Piece by piece the dream began to fall away… first the rabbits; then the geese; then the cow; until, by the time I was 7 or 8 the chickens, the orchard, and the garden were all that was left, and much reduced in size. There wasn’t much canning going on. My mother also took a job (law degrees help). Piece by piece, I became aware.

But there was always a garden up until the year my father, in his seventies, broke his hip.

So I come to permaculture with not the enthusiasm of the idealist and convert, but with suspicion and grumpy pessimism. I know that, unlike a building, something created of nature is not static. In permaculture the model of a food forest that is used is that of a young forest/meadow intermix. But I know forests do not stay young. They grow and change and as they do so, they change the environment of everything around them. And what then, I ask?  So I am skeptical that there is such a thing as ‘permanent agriculture’ (and at any rate, I think, it is definitely for someone younger than I am).

That is not to say I do not see value in permaculture. There is much I value. In particular I value what permaculture has to say about soil, soil structure, soil organisms, how soil functions, and how important it is to have healthy, living soil, because that is the one thing on which everything else depends. ThIs knowledge informs a deeper understanding that I incorporate into my landscape design practice today.

Permaculture Controvery–Tom’s Reply to Elsa

by Tom Gibson

I hear and respect Elsa’s pain.  And I empathize further with anyone unconvinced by permaculture founder Bill Mollison’s rather blithe definition of the term as “working with the processes of nature to grow the most food with the least amount of effort” and his frequent invocations of “hammock time.” (Ha!)

But I think there’s also danger in conflating permaculture with organic gardening.  “”Permaculture is always “organic”, but “organic” is not always “permaculture.” And, done correctly, permaculture can bring greater yields with less effort. Moreover, as I’ll try to demonstrate  in a bit, the last 15 years have brought fresh thinking on how to increase the yield/effort ratio.  (Kind of amazing if we contemplate all the millennia humans have focused on this very problem!)

First, some essentials on how permaculture increases yield per sq./ft:

● Planting perennials instead of annuals. This eliminates the standard practice of tilling, among other things, and builds soil rather than degrading it.

● Filling available ecological niches with companion plantings of different height, root size, fruiting times.  This eliminates significant weeding and often–say, if one companion plant is a nitrogen fixer–strengthens companion plants.

● Slowing water flows via swales, fairly heavy mulch and other methods. Making water available to plants longer means less watering.

There are others (many of which we’ve seen work in practice), but you should get the idea. 

Second, here’s some of that “fresh thinking” that may or may not fit any formal definition of permaculture, but certainly complements it.

● Nutrient balance.  We’re learning just how important to plant health it is to have full nutrient balance, and it’s having a dramatic effect on yields.  One of the leaders in this thinking is an Amish wunderkind from near-by Middlebury. See this article in the Atlantic:

● Biochar.  Biochar is wood cooked in the absence of oxygen (like any charcoal, but without the petroleum additives), but used for growing plants instead of cooking them.  It seems to be especially good at restoring highly depleted soil–just as it did for the pre-Columbian dwellers along the Amazon who used it to create rich, productive food forests.  Starting with anthropological studies of this version of biochar called terra preta, it has become one of the hottest topics in soil science, as well.

● System of Rice Intensification. It turns out that rice actually grows more productively when it isn’t flooded!  (Think of all those geography book pictures of water-filled rice paddies and farmers working their water buffalo!) Instead, farmers in India and elsewhere have been quadrupling yields simply by coming up with a different routine.

In short, conventional organic horticulture/agriculture is undergoing a dizzying rethinking. A lot of that is already feeding into permaculture.

Besides, permaculture has also broadened significantly since Bill Mollison’s early definition.  The concept now fully embraces such concepts as energy (solar power, rocket stoves), water (cisterns, gray water, leaky tile), and, especially, community.

The most immediately accessible example of such holistic thinking that I have found is this series of videos from Alberta:

When I look at the neighborhood in these videos, I also see Cleveland. We’ve got the same naked roofs waiting for solar power, the same gutters waiting to be fed into cisterns and leaky tiles, the same barren lawns just waiting for low-maintenance food production.  And, not least, we likely suffer from the same frequent human isolation—–isolation that is waiting for a chance to escape into the embrace of real human   community.  We could do what Rob Avis and his wife have done in just a few years and have the same energy, water, and food independence–with modest long term cost and effort.

Make Your Own Kale Chips!

 by Ann McCulloh

It’s easy, yummy, low-carb and there’s no foil-lined bag to throw away.

5Kale finished resize

Kale is prolific, cold-hardy and very ornamental.

1Kale plant resize

It’s so full of nutrients that it’s consistently included in lists of the Top Ten most nutritious foods.  Crispy kale chips are a revelation – a delicately crunchy treat that have replaced potato chips in my almost-paleo diet.

Crispy Kale Chips Recipe:

Take 1 bunch of curly kale greens. Wash and dry very thoroughly. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Tear kale leaves from the midrib,

2Kale midrib resize

rub gently all over with olive oil and then sprinkle lightly with kosher salt.

3Kale oiled resize

It’s easy to overdo the salt, so just a touch-you can add more later. Adding fresh garlic to the oil, or a grind of fresh black pepper are fun and easy variations. Spread the pieces loosely on a foil-lined cookie sheet and toast for 10-12 minutes in the oven.  It’s best to use several cookie sheets to avoid crowding the chips. Leaves will get crisp and just browned at tips.

4Kale crisp resize

 You may need to remove the most-browned ones from the edges, and put the pan back in the over for another minute to crisp the ones in the middle of the pan.

I chop the leftover center ribs, and add them to my next stir fry or batch of sautéed greens. You can even freeze them if you aren’t using them right away.

Sonnet to a Spider

by Elsa Johnson

It was a strange place to call home   If you’d been

bigger you’d not have fit the gap in the passenger

side mirror where you’d anchored one end of your

filigree web    I’d glance over as I sped down

the road and there you’d be — not tucked safe in your

den but gale tossed   scrunched to a blip   a small

ship clutching threads   When I’d arrived where I

was going    thinking to find you desiccated –

dead –  you’d unfurl your spider legs no worse

for wear    I began to think you liked it     You 

went everywhere with me until the day I 

chose for you a less dangerous life    (I hoped)

Miss you     see you still  :  goggles    jacket    

thin silk scarves trailing in the slip-stream wind    

Take Two: Diana Sette asks, “What is Permaculture, Anyway?”

by Diana Sette, as originally published in Permaculture Design magazine

What is “permaculture,” anyway? Maybe you hear people talking about it all the time, and still have no idea what it is. Maybe someone loosely recommended to you that you check it out, because it might interest you. Maybe picking up this magazine is the first time you are seeing the word. Whatever brought you to this point, I can assure you that there is something in permaculture for you. I can also assure you that even for many permaculture practitioners, it can be challenging to pin down in a quick ‘elevator speech’ what exactly permaculture is. Some say it’s a movement; some say it’s a collection of growing methods; some say it’s philosophy. In this article, we will focus on permaculture as a design system. During my Permaculture Teacher training course, our teachers challenged us to take five minutes to come up with a definition for permaculture. Some people came up with it quickly—some needed more time.

Overall, the variety of definitions painted a colorful array of nuances and subtleties. Hopefully, this article will leave you with a clearer sense of what is permaculture, with ways in which you may be able to take the next steps on your journey.


First, let me break the word “permaculture” down for you. “Perma:” short for “permanent.” “Culture:” short for “agriculture” and also “culture.” So you can think of “permaculture” as simply “permanent agriculture” and “permanent culture.” We don’t mean “permanent” in the sense of unchanging, but rather in the sense of a deep sustainability. The term was coined and popularized in the mid-70s by two Australian ecologists, Bill Mollison (1) and his young student, David Holmgren (2). “Permaculture” is now a term understood on a global scale.


Contrary to what our digitized and mechanized culture may present at times, humans rely on the land. Our ability to survive rests wholly on plants’ ability to capture the sun’s energy and translate it into a form useable to us through photosynthesis. From the land, we create our food, shelter, water, and clothing—and also our culture. Traditionally, human cultures centered on the seasonal rhythms and cycles of the earth. Observing that the world has grown alienated and disconnected from our intimate relationship with the earth, permaculture looks to re-center our systems (be it food, economic, political, etc.) in the flow of energy and the cycles of nature.

IMG_1467Calendula seed abundant in regeneration.

As we face extreme global catastrophes—climate change, war, and hunger, among others—we can see that if human societies do not change course, we will perish, and the earth will continue to adapt and go on without us. Therefore, the more we work with the earth, learn from her natural cycles, and model human systems on ecological models of adaptability and resiliency, we can better weather the storm to create a permanent and resilient culture. Permaculture proposes this approach.

More than fancy gardening

Permaculture is a holistic, ecological design system that can be applied to everything from urban planning to rural land design, from economic systems to social structures, and everything in between. It is not only one set of practices, or a philosophy—it is a way of integrated thinking, using a set of design principles to work with nature’s energy. This ecological perspective sees the world as a complex web, rather than as a complicated series of segregated events or discrete elements. The design system can produce a paradigm shift that may be comforting and inspiring to those who feel as if they are constantly putting energy into a system (whether it’s their home garden, farm, political, social, or economic work) that never seems to change or offer much of a yield as compared to the input. Permaculture is a way of designing the world we want that cares for the earth and people so that all needs are met in an equitable way. Permaculture design is abundant systems thinking, and prevents the constant banging of one’s head against the wall when faced with supposed constant scarcity. Because the point is that by working with rather than working against natural forces, one can minimize inputs and harvest maximum outputs. It’s a simple idea at first glance. Yet, it is an integrated system with many facets—anything can be viewed through a permaculture design lens.

The Permaculture Design Course (PDC)

As an integrated design system, permaculture incorporates numerous disciplines of study and practice. These disciplines are presented in a PDC resulting in a certification as a Permaculture Designer (3). Because of the numerous systems in which these design principles can be applied, the PDC covers a sort of introductory buffet to design topics that emphasize the core ethics: Earth Care, People Care, and Fair Share.

Each PDC covers Introduction to Permaculture Ethics, Meta-systems, Permaculture Principles, Pattern Language, Design Methods (site analysis and observation, zones, and sectors), Natural Systems, Climate & Biogeography, Ecosystems & Ecology, Earthworks/land forms, Water, Soils (microbiology, remediation, regenerative practices, compost, carbon sequestration), Forest (tree and mushroom cultivation), Arid & Tropical Regions, Cultivated Systems, Home Systems (root cellars, medicinal herbs), Microclimates, Building Design (natural building, energy efficiency), Greenhouses, Forest Gardening, Aquaculture, Agroforestry (alleycropping, forest farming, riparian buffers, silvopasture, windbreaks), Seed-saving, Waste Treatment (grey and blackwater, humanure),

IMG_1965Composting outhouse in Vermont that helps to cycle nutrients on-site.

Energy, Appropriate Technology & Tools, Livestock (pasture management, holistic animal care), Social Systems, Urban/Rural/Suburban Ecologies, Community Design, Economics (local, slow, and regenerative), Invisible Structures (governance structures, personal patterns), Broadscale Farming & Land Use (keyline design, land trusts), and Ecological Restoration & Wildlife.

The standard PDC is an intensive 72-hour course, sometimes split into two separate weeks or several weekends. Various teachers emphasize different subjects, but all PDCs should touch on all the above.

IMG_1861 Daniel and Rosemary checking out an aquaponic system in action at Seedfolk City Farm ( an urban youth farm in Rochester, NY.

Considering that any one of these topics warrants a life study (!), there are numerous entry points to design resilient systems. A PDC is a way to step outside your daily life and take a fresh look at an expansive array of topics. Permaculture marries indigenous ways of knowing with regenerative agriculture, modern green infrastructure, and progressive socio-politico-economic structures.

Permaculture is a process of looking at the whole, seeing what the connections are between the different parts, and assessing how those connections can be changed (4) so that relationships function more harmoniously.

But where to start?

My advice to someone just dipping their toes into the permaculture ocean? Get a lay of the land, observe what themes and topics attract you, and then walk toward them. Don’t try and figure it all out at once. Start small and build on your successes. Ask lots of open-ended questions and listen with curiosity. A few tips…

1. Get rooted in permaculture principles and ethics. David Holmgren presented the 12 Design Principles as the petals of a cyclical flower (5).

David Holmgren wheel

These guiding principles can be adapted to any systems thinking. Ethics are core, as People Care may seem simple, yet lead us into a deeper journey of unlearning and teaching ourselves new communication patterns and listening skills—or rethinking urban planning to be centered on the real needs of human beings. This is perhaps the area that continues to expand the most and require the most experimentation and feedback, as every city, town, neighborhood, street, house, and bedroom has its own social microclimate, and healthy social ecosystem models and patterns are myriad (6). Earth Care has perhaps gained the most attention and focus, at times creating the misconception that permaculture is just a set of practices, rather than a way of approaching a problem. Nevertheless, permaculture has a lot to offer in food growing and land stewardship. Finally, Fair Share is the third essential piece of permaculture, teaching us to be aware of the existing yield in front of us and to know when we have enough, but also to act ethically to distribute surplus resources when our ‘cup runneth over.’

2. Attend a PDC, read everything you can about permaculture, listen to podcasts, and visit working permaculture sites. A PDC can be like a trip down a rabbit hole that leaves the sojourner wanting more at the end. It is one of the best ways to get significant exposure to what’s possible with permaculture. Studying permaculture through reading (7) will help you gain more clarity to know where you want to dive in more deeply. For many people, simply spending time in a place that is a thriving permaculture model leads to tremendous shifts.

3. Find what interests you most and work from your niche. Evaluate your strengths. What existing assets and resources are already present? Use that as your starting point. What interests you? How do those interests overlap with the needs of your community? From there, take the smallest steps possible to make the biggest impact on existing systems. Maybe that means meeting your neighbors, planting perennial onions, saving seeds to plant out the next year, collecting rainwater off your roof, getting involved with or starting a food cooperative, building a humanure composting system on your property, or simply recording patterns where you are working for a year or more. Whatever your entry point, make sure to take a step back and observe the social, biological, and economic ecosystems and listen for feedback before taking the next actions. That is our civic duty as residents and stewards of this earth and of our communities: listen and accept feedback.

4. Finally, walk the walk, and work to establish good working demonstration sites. Starting with one or two systems that are manageable is wise so that you don’t become overwhelmed. In modern society, we have grown quite ignorant of energy systems, and by creating these working systems that demonstrate that there is no free lunch in ecological systems—something always comes from somewhere, and waste is food for something else—we can demonstrate a new paradigm in action (8). Share replicable systems with those who are interested, and focus your energy on creating a world we want, rather than being drained by fighting against systems that are broken. As Buckminster Fuller puts it, “you never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

As one of my permaculture teachers, Peter Bane, tossed out in a PDC class one day while reflecting on ancient Viking culture, “it’s better to adapt than die.” I will add to that: better than not dying is thriving! And I think permaculture design principles and ethics present a way to rethink our current social, political, economic, and agricultural systems with new eyes embracing the transformation to thriving whole communities of abundance. ∆


1. Mollison, Bill. Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual.

2. Holmgren, David. Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability.

3. One can learn more about the standardization of PDC certification and accreditation from the Permaculture Institute of North America (, the Permaculture Institute of the Northeast (, or the Permaculture Institute ( Also, look in the back of Permaculture Design magazine for listings of upcoming PDCs and workshops.

4. Whitefield, Patrick. What is Permaculture?

5. Holmgren, David.

6. A few social permaculture resources: The Black Permaculture Network and Pandora Thomas’ work, People & Permaculture by Looby McNamara, Karryn Olson-Ramanujan’s “Pattern Language for Women,” The Permaculture City by Toby Hemenway, The Empowerment Manual: A Guide for Collaborative Groups by Starhawk, Adam Brock’s work with Invisible Structures (, Food Not Lawns: How to Turn Your Yard Into a Garden and Your Neighborhood Into a Community by H.C. Flores.

7. See the book catalogue insert included in the magazine for great resources.

8. See “David Holmgren on Permaculture: An Interview,” The Permaculture Podcast with Scott Mann, April 4, 2013.


Diana Sette is a Certified Permaculture Teacher and Designer working primarily in Cleveland, OH, after almost a decade of growing in the Green Mountains of Vermont. She serves on the Board of The Hummingbird Project ( and GreenTriangle (, two permaculture-based non-profits working locally and abroad. Much of her work in social and urban permaculture experimentation is centered at Possibilitarian Urban Regenerative Community Homestead (PURCH) in Cleveland (Facebook: Possibilitarian Garden). Diana currently works for Cleveland Botanical Garden as the Youth Manager of Green Corps, its twenty-year old urban agriculture work-study program for inner city teens.

So, What the Bleep is Permaculture?

By Tom Gibson

What better time than January to ask that age-old question:  What is permaculture?  Actually, we trained permaculturists wrestle with the concept ourselves. Partly that’s because we don’t really like the word “permaculture”—which seems clunky and ideological– but we still use it because the rest of world (that is, the narrow part of it that more-or-less understands the term) has made the word part of standard usage. Partly that’s because the question reminds us of too many party-stopping conversations that go on for 10, 20, 30 minutes and get increasingly down in the weeds.  And partly that’s because everyone seems to have his or her own–albeit overlapping–take on the concept.

But, in the end, permaculture is a concept worth wrestling with. Few things once grasped, in our experience, seem to generate such enthusiasm. Many of our students, including quite experienced gardeners, call their exposure to permaculture and its possibilities “life-changing.” It is, in fact, a different take not just on gardening, but on life.  That is perhaps best illustrated by David Holmgren, one of the co-founders of permaculture, in his flower of interconnectedness:

David Holmgren wheel

See something in that wheel that resonates with you? That’s the point.  All of us come at the topic differently.  Over the next few weeks, we’ll be giving you our personal takes on the concept and where it can lead.  And, if you have your own thoughts on the topic, we’d love to hear from you.

BE (Before Electricity)

by Elsa Johnson

Our friend in Iceland sent the scene  :   a grave

yard    stone-cross studded   grey-sky-grey-sea    and

in another shot a rainbow muted 

melting     pale cold sun a-slant old stone walls      

It is always changing he says        That was

on the Solstice    two hours and fourteen minutes

of diluted daylight      My mind boggles

over this  :  twenty-one hours and six

minutes of dark winter night after night     

all of them tunnel hours     Our northern sires 

knew nothing else             Perhaps it was a gift      

that slow time  :   to sing  :   to  carve  :   to love in

darkness                    No    no –  no turning back you say

not for us      We are through the looking glass