Thursday, April 19, 2012

Holmgren Design Principle #11: Use the Edges and Value the Marginal

Going through David Holmgren's version of the Permaculture Design Principles, here's #11.

Use the Edges and Value the Marginal

This principle is not a contradiction to #8 (integrate!), instead it recognizes the potential richness in transitions, especially between biozones.

Edging towards Wealth

The theory goes that an interface between two zones supports the lifeforms from both zones and unique forms that can only exist in the transition space. Take this with the usual salt speck ("all general rules are false, including this one"), but there are some great examples.

Forest interior, absent disturbance, mostly has plant life as canopy and ground cover, pretty much ignoring the other 5 layers. Edges, man made or otherwise, tend to be filled at all layers, and frequently difficult to penetrate.

Lake shores support unique forms, river deltas are massively productive, swamps know, and if you aren't Joel Salatin then everything interesting happens in the top few inches of your soil.

Marginal doesn't (always) mean Insignificant

Valuing the marginal is a reminder that democracy can devolve to bread and circuses, so don't count on the majority do value the collective good. Sometimes the nut job in the tinfoil hat is right, and we've got to look past the packaging to hear the valuable message. Case in point, I'm listening to Mollison's PDC audio from the 1980's, and he is the guy with the conspiracy theories and he does sound a little bit less than mainstream sane! 30 years on, he's being appropriately recognized as the father of permaculture, but he was pretty fringe in the day. Just because everyone is doing it/thinking it/believing it doesn't make it right, so don't dismiss the margins.

That doesn't mean the margins are comfortable places! I hold my nose and skip past the "permaculture produce can cure cancer" (prove me wrong, please, but do it with science), I fast forward past the "essential oils are your first aid kit," and I mute the parts about "tuning in to the harmonic energies of the universe" (feel free to vibrate that way if you want, just not my cup of hot chocolate). But I wade through that in order to get to the great stuff that does resonate with me: paddock-shift poultry raising, aquaponics, and edible forests!

Today's Internet and social media provide a platform for the marginal - we can find those who share our interests and provide support and pool knowledge - I follow permaculture sites all over the world, and I'm in awe of the work that is being done!

Watch the marginal because sometimes it transitions to mainstream, and the entertainment factor is high even if it never goes mainstream.

Pretty picture of the principle at

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Holmgren Design Principle #10: Use and Value Diversity

Going through David Holmgren's version of the Permaculture Design Principles, here's #10.

Use and Value Diversity

The monoculture vs. polyculture comparison is the starting point here:
  • disease risk of entire crop
  • pest-prone
  • loss of soil fertility
  • external inputs needed

  • disease can only affect a portion of the harvest
  • pests have difficulty finding the next plant
  • pest-confusing odors
  • predator habitat
  • builds soil fertility
  • minimal external inputs needed

Genetic diversity is a good idea - just ask the European royal families. It highlights that too much similarity reinforces the drawbacks (recessives) instead of aiding in group survival.

Cultural diversity brings different viewpoints to problem solving, broadening the range of possible solutions and helping us question our unstated assumptions. Want to have a fun couple hours over some beer? Ask some foreign-born friends what their childhood jokes were - elephant and knock-knock jokes aren't universal.

Systems diversity (remember: each important function is supported by multiple elements) provides resilience and flexibility. Let's look at electricity:

  • Grid

  • Assume that the grid is your primary power source. Seriously. There is no way you will ever be more efficient at power generation. Major commitment to renewable energy at the governmental and corporate levels is going to come at some point (please let it be soon), and the economies of scale will continue to apply to provide greener energy in a very broad way. Until then, stay connected anyway - if nothing else you can make some money by feeding your local systems back to the grid.

  • On-site renewable

  • You can't seriously rely on big brother to provide your energy?!? That puts you one storm away from spoiled food in the fridge and shivering under the blankets. Wind, PV, micro-hydro - they aren't cheap and they all have their issues, but a second layer is a great idea.

  • On-site emergency

  • And what do you do on calm, cloudy days when the stream is frozen and the grid is down? A fuel-based generator doesn't need to run on fossils - some moonshine, I mean home-distilled fuel, will work fine, as will bio-diesel.

  • Human-powered

  • If worst comes to worst, then I guess the stationary bike is an option :-)
    Still, I'm going to want some way to recharge my Kindle, otherwise I'll be the guy with the broken glasses from the Twilight Zone episode.

  • Non-electrical alternatives

  • But better to diversify in the usages of electricity, not just in the sources: a rocket mass heater, root cellar, oil lamps, paper books, decks of cards.

At a biological level, diversity allows for maximum use of resources - taproots and heart roots and flat roots take up nutrients at different levels in the soil, allowing plants that use to same resources to comix without competition.

In practical terms, diversity still needs thought. You aren't going to get very good results in your polyculture if you just buy a random sample of seeds and toss them at the ground - Sepp's seed mix is the end result of a lifetime of trial and error in what works well at Krameterhof. We've got lots of people trying and erring in lots of locales (see, more diversity), so let's learn from each other!

Pretty picture of the principle at

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Holmgren Design Principle #9: Use Small and Slow Solutions

Going through David Holmgren's version of the Permaculture Design Principles, here's #9.

Use Small and Slow Solutions

Let's start with physics for this one:

  • From Classical Mechanics

  • F = ma
    Force (energy) equals mass (size) times acceleration (change in speed)
    If we reduce either mass or acceleration, we reduce the force necessary to effect a change.
  • From Thermodynamics

  • Okay, thermo requires partial differential equations so I'll skip the math, and this one is more allegorical anyway.
    Heat (energy) equals motion, so moving more slowly requires less energy.
We can apply this principle all over the place:
  • Buy locally/eat seasonally even if we don't grow it ourselves, but growing it ourselves is even smaller and slower (even if I have qualms about the poor energy math behind a lot of buying locally, but assume both the consumer and the farmer walk to the market)

  • Save first, then buy (wait until you have accumulated sufficient energy rather than borrowing)

  • Limit your marketable production to sustainable levels
Our current culture places a high perceived premium on speed - we talk of the velocity of change, we pay efficiency experts for time and motion studies, we eat "fast" food (and then regret it). There is even "the new politeness" in which the common courtesies are omitted under the theory that everyone can take them for granted so you are valuing their time highly by not wasting it with empty pleasantries.

I'm sticking with old politeness: Thank you for coming to my blog and I hope you have a great week!

Pretty picture of the principle at

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Holmgren Design Principle #8: Integrate rather than Segregate

Going through David Holmgren's version of the Permaculture Design Principles, here's #8.

Integrate rather than Segregate

Permaculture loves relationships, and that is how I think about this principle. If you segregate then the only relationships are at the boundaries, but if you mix it all together then each element relates to all the others.

Let's compare some grids to full integration: n(n-1)/2 is exponential

Grid sizeElementsBoundaries in gridRelationships if integrated

You get the picture - Sepp Holzer's ground cover seed mix contains 40-50+ species: that's 780-1225 connections!

In our designs:
  • Each element performs many functions
  • Each function is supported by many elements
These complementary concepts give us ways to build on our multiplicity of relationships to extract as much works as possible from each element by recognizing its outputs, and to build flexibility and redundancy into the system as a whole.

Pretty picture of the principle at

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Holmgren Design Principle #7: Design from Patterns to Details

Going through David Holmgren's version of the Permaculture Design Principles, here's #7.

Design from Patterns to Details

I'm a software architect, so this seems blindingly obvious to me: large complex systems that work are composed of simpler systems.

Designing from patterns recognizes that although each design is unique, there is a huge body of knowledge available about how other problems have been solved. Successful solutions can be mined for their components, and the subsystems can be generalized into patterns. Failed projects can be also analyzed for their anti-patterns so that we can (hopefully) learn from the mistakes of others instead of repeating them.

Abstracted patterns describe the problem, the solution, the benefits of the solution, the risks associated with it, and any mitigation for the risks. From such an abstraction, the pattern can be applied to different problem spaces and yield both structure and insight.

Biosystems are more complex than software ones (or construction ones - the source of the original pattern work by Alexander), and permaculture is still in its relative infancy so this is a rich growth space :-) From some googling, it looks like there are folks working on codifying permaculture pattern language(s), but in the meantime we've got a lot of great permaculture books to learn from.

Zones and Sectors

A common permaculture design approach is to analyze the site in terms of zones and sectors, working from broad strokes down to the details. Zones are classed by distance in time/space/energy/attention (or any other useful metric). Here's a standard view:

  • Zone 0: your home/primary living space

  • Zone 1: herb/vegetable garden

  • Zone 2: perennial fruit/nut orchard, small livestock

  • Zone 3: large livestock pasturage, commercial crops

  • Zone 4: managed forest/wetlands

  • Zone 5: wilderness

Sectors then work with radials from the design center (or any point of attention), and specify things like summer and winter sun, seasonal wind directions, fire risk, and flood patterns. You can also use sectors to layout just about anything - good views vs. bad views, privacy vs. display, etc.

Looking at the intersections between the zones and sectors can provide a first cut for which design elements will go where, then each element can be worked in turn. Going from the broad strokes to the fine details is a winning design strategy that works in many industries, and it works great for permaculture!

Pretty picture of the principle at

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Holmgren Design Principle #6: Produce No Waste

Going through David Holmgren's version of the Permaculture Design Principles, here's #6.

Produce No Waste

I love this one! Waste == Work. If my system doesn't use an output, then I've got to do something with it - find a spot for it, move it there, find another spot when the first one fills up, wash, rinse, repeat. Better to remove the word "waste" from our vocabulary and instead consider "outputs."

The Linear Model
One type of system model takes energy from source to sink in a line, extracting useful work along the way, but at the end releasing the leftovers as waste. This is a pretty good model for much of our consumer society, with raw materials being transformed into products that eventually wend their way to landfills or ocean dumping.

The Circular Model
A more permaculture system model is a circle with partial inputs being added at various points, and partial outputs being extracted, but with a clear flow linking all outputs to another stages inputs.

A longer, better slogan

Refuse, reduce, reuse, repair, recycle

The general approach of using less, and extracting maximum yield from what we do use is something that doesn't need to wait for a system design - start today!

I have to admit to being periodically overwhelmed by the futility of personal recycling in the face of corporate waste. Many offices in which I have worked have no white paper recycling, and they generate more potentially recyclable material in a day than I do in several years. Why waste time on personal recycling that could be invested in lobbying for the larger impact? I guess the right answer is to do both, because the personal habit can inform and reinforce the broader effort.

Pretty picture of the principle at

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Holmgren Design Principle #5: Use and Value Renewable Resources and Services

Going through David Holmgren's version of the Permaculture Design Principles, here's #5.

Use and Value Renewable Resources and Services

More sun comes tomorrow (or at least more solar energy), as do the wind and tides. On a longer timescale the fruit and nut trees produce a harvest each year and the alfalfa covers the back field. The trees provide shade each summer, the flowers give pollen to the bees, and the hedgerow is a windbreak.

The first list, energy and food, represents resources that are consumed and will be replenished. The second list represents intrinsics that can be thought of as renewable services since use of the service is non-consuming. Both aspects should be priorities, as we try to eek out every useful bit in our designs.

Holmgren takes an interesting approach to the consumables, asking "what is the half-life of the product?" I'm not sure I agree with this, since his example is the lifespan of paper (a few years) compared to the trees that produce it (decades), and suggests that the trees be put to more lasting use (we'll get to slow solutions in a later principle). I think a better method would be to appropriately value the replacement cost/time for the underlying resources into how we value the products. By being more plugged into the true costs of the things we use everyday, we can make better choices about how we consume.

Sticking with trees, the rule of thumb is that you can sustainably harvest about a cord per acre. Here's what one paper industry site says you can get from a cord of wood:
  • 12 dining room table sets (seating eight)
  • 30 rocking chairs
  • 250 copies of the Sunday New York Times
  • 942 one-pound books
  • 1,000 to 2,000 pounds of paper (depending on grade)
  • 1,200 copies of National Geographic magazine
  • 2,700 copies of an average (36 page) daily newspaper
  • 4,000 one-gallon milk containers
  • 61,370 standard (#10) envelopes
  • 89,870 sheets of letterhead bond paper
  • 460,000 personal checks
  • 4,384,000 postage stamps
  • 7,500,000 toothpicks

I'm thinking that this means that a reasonable size woodlot can sustainbly produce a range of products in differing amounts that balance both the productivity of the forest with the needs of the community.

Pretty picture of the principle at