What the Hell is Permaculture?

Permaculture continues to fascinate me. Bill and Becky Wilson from Midwest Permaculture delivered several workshops at the Midwest Renewable Energy Association’s Energy Fair, and I attended nearly all of them. So what the hell is permaculture? You can find a complete description here, but my short version is this: permaculture is a design system that integrates sustainable agriculture and sustainable building to produce sustainable human culture. Permaculture practices heal the earth, and provide sufficient resources for living today, while not taking from future generations.

One example: creating a “food forest.” Build a swale to catch and hold water so the soil moisture is abundant. Then you can plant a variety of food-producing trees and shrubs, such as hickory, oak, hazelnut, apple, and walnut. Next work in smaller plants like blueberries, grapes, and gooseberries. This food forest will produce an abundance of food each year with no planting and minimal work. It’s also a resource for lumber, supports the honeybee population, and may provide meat from game and/or domestic animals. It’s a productive, robust, and sustaining system. And after you get it going, you reap the harvest without planting.

Bill’s own rain garden is another great example. His house has no basement and sits on a flat lot, so clearly this project is easier than one dealing with a basement or a steeply sloped lot. He directed the flow from the home’s gutters to the front yard, where he contoured the land into a slight swale or channel so the water flows slowly through the front yard, across the side yard and next to a substantial berm that directs the flow, and out to the back yard. All along this path the water is seeping into the ground, maintaining soil moisture, and recharging the ground water. This is treating rainwater as a resource, and not waste. And by planting perennials near the swale, the plants rarely need supplemental watering.

These are some tenets of permaculture that bear repeating:

  • wastes become resources
  • productivity and yields increase
  • work is minimized
  • the environment is restored.

Bill also talked about hugelkultur, which is a German method of burying logs to create a highly fertile area. After a few months, the bacteria growth explodes as the wood decomposes, and they produce an abundance of nitrogen, which feed the roots of the plants you plant there. Here’s a video of hugelkultur construction.

This is just a fraction of the workshops I attended at the Energy Fair, but is a good example of all you can learn.

The Farmhouse Media is all about living sustainably with

  • green building
  • permaculture
  • green cities

A Permaculture Approach to Renewable Energy

Last weekend was the Midwest Renewable Energy Association’s 23rd annual Energy Fair in Custer, Wisconsin. Over the course of the weekend I attended 11 workshops, on topics such as Wooden Cities, Suburban and Urban Permaculture, Small Scale Permaculture Farming, From Foreclosure to LEED, Getting to Zero, Lifestyle Entrepreneurship, Sustainable Living Simplified, and A Permaculture Approach to Renewable Energy, which has really stuck with me.

First, presenter Bill Wilson of Midwest Permaculture talked about rocket mass heaters. I’ve read about these before but haven’t seen them in action. The story with these devices is their efficiency and ease of construction. They use only 25% of the fuel of an equivalent wood stove for the same heat output. They usually are built with a cob bench/seating area as thermal mass.

Bill described helping his neighbor build a rocket mass heater for the first time. The stove required some tweaks, such as learning how to get it started with minimal smoke, and realizing that the house was too tight with too little air leakage, they added a fresh-air intake for the heater. And they built the whole unit for less than $100. Simple, cheap, and effective.

As for wood, the rocket mass heater requires so little fuel that trimmings can work fine. Rather than cutting, splitting, and drying firewood, Bill mentioned a technique called coppicing to cultivate and harvest trimmings from deciduous shrubs and trees; a little goes a long way! Here’s an example:

Another fascinating topic was downdraft wood gasification. When burned in a certain way, wood produces abundant hydrogen which can be captured and used to power a gasoline engine. A group in Jefferson County, Wisconsin, produced the following video demonstrating the process. I’ll have to look into this more, but it seems like it could be a viable way to power a home generator for electricity production.

As for permaculture, a complete description of the 12 design principles is a little long, but Bill emphasized that permaculture is simply care for people, the planet, and the future, with these benefits:

  • waste becomes a resource
  • productivity and yields increase
  • work is minimized
  • the environment is restored

As always, I learned a lot, from people who are actively doing what they teach. I’ll add more in another post.

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The Farmhouse Media is all about living sustainably with

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  • permaculture
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5 Great Things About the Midwest Renewable Energy Fair

All right! It’s time for another Energy Fair! This Thursday, June 14, I’ll be driving to Custer, Wisconsin, for the Midwest Renewable Energy Association’s 23rd annual Energy Fair. If you’re into sustainable living and building and energy, this event is one of the most interesting and compelling of the year. Besides the camaraderie of like-minded people, you can learn so much through more than 200 workshops, as well as from the vendors and exhibits.

Here are 5 great things that attract me to the Energy Fair each year:

  • 1. Free education at the workshops; it’s incredible how much you can learn from the speakers, and how many workshops there are! In each time slot, there are usually 15-18 workshops happening simultaneously.
  • 2. Inspirational stories from people who have done it (built a wind turbine, or a veggie car conversion, or a tiny home) and from the keynote presenters who are typically working on global issues such as climate change and sustainable agriculture.
  • 3. Great local beer from Central Waters Brewing, a food court where you can meet new friends and chat, and fun musical entertainment!
  • 4. Hands-on demos so you can see how it’s done in real life, by people who do it.
  • 5. Fascinating demos by my friend Roald Gundersen, of Whole Trees fame. Roald uses whole trees and branched columns in his buildings, and has been involved in pioneering research at the U.S. Forest Products Lab in Madison to quantify the strength of branched columns. I’m looking forward to hearing the latest.

In addition, there’s a Clean Energy car show, a Green Home Pavilion, and Sustainable Tables that demonstrate sustainable methods for transportation, home building, and food production, respectively. I’ll see you at the Energy Fair!

The Farmhouse Media is all about living sustainably with

  • green building
  • permaculture
  • green cities