Tuesday, July 8, 2014

My Permaculture Journey (so far)

I first learned about Permaculture in late Fall of 2013.  I had been interested in aquaponics before then, but didn't know what permaculture was.  I had seen the term permaculture mentioned on posts in reddit.com/r/aquaponics but didn't know what it was all about.  I read a little, and watched some youtube videos, and more and more, it just felt right.

In my garden

During college, I didn't have much of an opinion on politics or activism, and I had no interest in gardening or ecology.  Don't get me wrong, I've always loved nature, and camping, and wildlife.  But in my youthful ignorance, I felt that the world's problems could wait until after I finished engineering school (and in all fairness, they did wait).  I didn't have the sense of urgency to action that I feel these days.

Toward the end of school, my friends started composting, and eating healthier, and I noticed, but didn't change my own habits for a good while.  But eventually, I started feeling bad when I didn't recycle in front of them, or if I used excess paper towels.  And eventually I learned more about the world, and I wanted to use my skills and education to make it better, because frankly, the future seems pretty bleak at times.  I started recycling, and turning off the lights more often.  I had grown edible mushrooms in my college years using waste coffee grounds from a coffeehouse near my apartment, and was already very fascinated with fungi.  Then I learned about aquaponics, and that fascinated my engineer mind.

My first aquaponics project

Earthship in North Philly

I'd read about earthships online, and even got the opportunity to help build one on an abandonded lot in North Philly.  It was that day working on the earthship that I met a guy who told me was into Permaculture.  I went home and looked up this Permaculture thing, and it was all downhill from there (in the best-possible way, like riding your bike downhill).

At Burning Man in 2013

I had been building art (a friend's projects at first, then my own) at the Burning Man Art festival since 2010, and adopted the idea of radical self-reliance (encouraging the individual to discover, exercise and rely on his or her inner resources) and leaving-no-trace.  So, I had already entertained the idea of a possible homestead in my future.  Over the 2013/2014 Winter, I listened to countless podcasts, watched video after video on youtube, and read books and articles all about permaculture.  I had a 3 hour commute every day to listen to podcasts and an hour lunch to read books and articles.  That's around 4 hours a day studying Permaculture for about 3 months.  I was amassing a good knowledge base, but had little experience outside of my aquaponics projects and my mushroom cultivation years prior.

My apartment's windowfarm herb garden made from recycled materials

Rosemary in the Windowfarm

Oyster mushrooms in my kitchen

Lion's Mane mushrooms in a homemade fruiting chamber

In Spring 2014, I started a garden in my landlord's yard, and convinced him to pay for 2/3rds the initial cost for half the produce in return.  The garden is now supplementing our diets, and giving me fresh ingredients to learn about canning and preserving.  I signed up for a 7-month, one-day-per-month Intensive Organic Gardening class with Ben Weiss, a local Permaculture instructor.  I've learned a ton, and this has really made me look forward to being able to take a Permaculture Design Certification Course (PDC) in the future.  I've used much of what I've learned in the class in my own garden.  I tried composting in a bucket.  Then I heard about my friend composting with worms, and had to try that out.  Now I've got tons of worm castings for the straw bale gardens I just set up.  The straw came from a local farm.  I got a load of mulch from a local tree service.

Learning to use a broadfork for a no-till garden in Ben Weiss's 2014 Intensive Organic Gardening Class

Serviceberries (Juneberries) foraged from outside my work's office building.  They made a delicious dessert for my family reunion thanks to my girlfriend!

I've taken wild plant foraging classes with local teachers, and have realized a more symbiotic relationship with nature.  I've found that my landlord's property is filled with edible and medicinal plants like Woodsorrel, Bitter Dock, Lamb's Quarter, Feverfew, Violets, Lady's Thumb, Dandelions, Clover, Purslane, and Plantain.  I've even gotten my landlord to start eating the weeds!  It turns out, the property used to be a chicken farm, and when my landlord moved in, it was covered in grape vines, and berry bushes, and different fruiting trees.  It sounded like a permie's wet dream!  He cut everything down except one apple tree, and paved over a large portion of the yard.  Since I've moved in and started gardening, we've had many conversations about organic gardening and permaculture, and I think he regrets having "cleaned up" the yard all those years ago.  Now, we're working to re-create a productive landscape on his property.

Scott Kellogg and Stacey Pettigrew's amazing urban farm in Albany, NY

I took a Regenerative Urban Sustainability class at Scott Kellogg and Stacey Pettigrew's urban farm in Albany, NY, which was amazing to see all the interconnected, regenerative farm systems.  They were growing mushrooms, keeping chickens, ducks, and rabbits, gardening organically, maintaining large aquaponic systems, composting, and utilizing many other permaculture systems.  From that workshop, I brought home some Stropharia (Garden Giant) mushroom spawn to introduce to my woodchips in the garden.  I'm nearly finished the second herb spiral I've built, and I have two more planned for community gardens that I volunteer at.

My first herb spiral, at my parent's house in Delaware

My second herb spiral, it just needs plants!

The point of this post isn't to brag about how much fun I'm having learning and practicing permaculture.  The point is that, you don't need to be in an ideal situation to make your situation work for you while reducing your footprint, and increasing your handprint.  Large changes require small steps.  I try one or two new things out at a time.  This allows me to focus on getting it right, without taking up excess energy and time and becoming a chore.  I've done my best to cut out distractions like mindless TV and video games.  I try to keep track of my projects and keep notes as a citizen scientist.  I don't have any formal schooling in permaculture or ecology, but experience is the best teacher, and I believe that with dedication, anyone can teach themself to become an expert at almost anything.

My most recent garden update

I've got a number of things working against me right now.  I don't own land, I rent.  I have a 3 hour commute every day.  I don't know that much about gardening.  I don't have all the skills that I want.  But, I'm using permaculture design and ideas in my every day life, regardless of my situation.  I have friends who do container gardens on their balconies, and they compost, and that's all that they can do at the moment, but that's better than nothing.  My first aquaponic system wouldn't even fit in my apartment, so I asked a friend if I could put it in his bedroom.  My next aquaponic system was in my second floor apartment with a WindowFarm and a 5 gallon water cooler tank as the fish resevoir.  When I moved to Trenton, NJ, I volunteered at a community garden and met some new artist friends with a studio and space for my next aquaponic system (currently under construction).  Through working with these new friends, I've potentially got a space and all the supplies needed for a large-scale, multiple IBC tank system that we've just begun to work on.  I've also helped out with their community improvement efforts through guerilla gardening on Saturday mornings.

Guerilla Gardening in Trenton, NJ

My largest, system to date is a single IBC-tank system in Delaware at my parent's house.  Space is a huge limitation for me, but I've used my network of friends and family to find space to practice my passion.

My IBC Aquaponics in Delaware

One of the most important lessons I've learned in life is to never limit yourself.  There are enough circumstances in life to hold you back, don't let your own fears and insecurities prevent you from following your dreams.  The more you explore and learn about how to live a more harmoneous and regenerative life, the more you can create the world you want.  Prioritize the things that make you happy and fulfilled.  Focus on what's important to you, and cut out the excess.  If I can do it, so can you.  One step at a time.

Advice from one of my heros

This post was inspired by the 7 July 2014 episode of The Permaculture Podcast with Scott Mann.

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