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  • Jim Chamberlin

Naturally Productive Landscape Design

Early into my journey as a resource conservationist I had the opportunity to attend a multi-day permaculture training at Garden Farme near Ramsey, Minnesota. Owned by Bruce Bacon -- who I’ll write more about in a future blog -- Garden Farme was a lush oasis in the rolling Anoka sand plain, a mix of woodlands, diverse gardens with annual and perennial crops, a small remnant oak savanna, and a restored native prairie.


Garden Farme was a highly productive system that fed the community, operating as one of the first farm-to-fork producers in the region, first selling vegetables to the Tiny Diner restaurant in the 1970s. Not only did it produce nutritious food, Garden Farme, due to its thoughtful design, also nurtured its other inhabitants, the birds, bugs, and other wildlife.  It did all this while protecting its soil and water resources.  


During the training we learned how the permaculture design principles were used throughout the farm. The annual vegetable gardens were surrounded by a dense pine windbreak planted to the north to block cold winds, and perennial crops were planted on the slopes and contours to prevent erosion. Large wooded buffers followed the small stream through the property and held a mushroom yard growing shiitake mushrooms from forestry thinnings. A small knoll in the center of the property was a remnant oak savanna and a large restored native prairie on the far north end of the property held a bee yard that provided the most delectable honey. 


“The core of permaculture is design, and design is a connection between things … It’s the very opposite of what we’re taught in school. Education takes everything and pulls it apart and makes no connections at all. Permaculture makes the connections, because as soon as you’ve got the connection, you can feed the chicken from the tree.”

– Bill Mollison, Granddaddy of Permaculture


Permaculture was first coined in the 1980s by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren. There are many definitions for permaculture, but I see it as a set of ethics and principles that allow us to better provide for our needs while protecting and enhancing our natural resources. It relies on the premise that nature, when treated well, will reciprocate by providing for our needs with fewer or no harmful or purchased inputs.  


It is based on three simple ethics;

  • Care for the Land - we are part of nature and if nature isn't healthy and vibrant, then we won’t be.

  • Care for the People - our family, friends, and community.

  • Share the Excess - reserve natural areas for times of crisis and share with those in need.


Guided by these ethics, permaculture utilizes basic principles to design landscapes that are effective in protecting resources and increasing abundance, and are efficient in their use of energy, both human and otherwise. 



One of my favorite principles is to Capture and Store Energy.  One way to do this is to design landscapes that capture water high on the landscape through the use of various methods such as rain barrels and water cisterns, or by creating swale and berms to direct water to drier ridges and ponds to hold and infiltrate water into the soil. Another example is using tree shelterbelts and hedges on the north side of buildings, gardens, and livestock areas to capture sun and store heat.  


Water channel in garden filled with water
Swale to capture water - HDT Garden

Another principle is Stacking Functions to increase efficiency. For an example of this they often refer to the chicken. Some things chickens need to survive and be healthy are: food, water, shelter, grit, other chickens, a clean environment, and protection from predators. When setting up a chicken yard, one should look at the needs, products, and behaviors of a chicken to most effectively and efficiently manage them. 


Tree Range farms has done this to design a poultry production system where chickens are run under productive hybrids of trees and shrubs that are native to the local ecosystem. The chickens are able to forage under the protection of the shrubs and trees, gathering calories to reduce feed consumption, and having access to soil for dust bathing and grit. The woody crops benefit from the manure the chickens provide, the chickens rotated through paddocks to avoid overgrazing and concentrating nutrients.The chickens also help break up pest cycles that can reduce plant health and fruit and nut yields from the woody crops. 


Observe and Interact is another, which suggests honing observation skills to see patterns and opportunities, and Value the Edges is a principle which highlights that in nature the edges are where change and diversity are most abundant. And there are others--in all Millison recognized twelve principles (see green chart above).  


Green growth in garden rows seen through a fence
Value the Edges: The Ecotone is where two different habitats come together. These areas are the most diverse places in the landscape. The HDT garden is set up as a mix of perennial and annual crops, to maximize the ecotone and diversity to promote predatory insects and birds that can prey on crop pests.

Another valuable concept that I feel permaculture provides is the Zone and Sector analysis. Zone analysis looks at use areas to maximize efficiency, while Sector analysis focuses on incoming and outgoing energies.  


An example of how people fail at designing for Zone efficiency is the typical kitchen garden located in the back corner of the property. It is often out of mind and neglected, and inconvenient when you just need a few things for supper. If your kitchen garden is located along a sidewalk or other area that is frequently traveled,  you will know when things need harvesting, and if located close to the entrance to the kitchen, and it will be convenient when you do so.  


Mollison advocated for every kitchen garden to meet the slipper test, so when you go out to harvest herbs for morning breakfast, and dew is on the grass, you can wear your slippers and not get them wet.  It's one of my favorite lessons of permaculture.  We have a kitchen garden outside our front door, with many herbs, greens, and peppers, tomatoes, and other things that are needed often and picked fresh.    


Permaculture suggests five Zones, where activities that are undertaken daily throughout the year are located in Zone One. Zone Two is for activities that are completed several times a week, and the Zones work progressively outwards based on intensity of activity to Zone Five, which is considered a set aside area, that is reserved for nature, and for use in times of extreme crisis.  


Sector analysis looks at incoming and outgoing energies such as wind, sun, water, odor, and sight and how they move through a landscape.  Using permaculture principles to enhance or block these energies can make your farm or homestead more efficient, comfortable, and appealing. Shelterbelts around a homestead to protect from winter winds, or a living fence to block an undesirable view are a couple examples of sector adaptation.


For me, permaculture makes a lot of sense. The ethics align with my passion for the natural world and caring for friends, family and community. The Principles and Zone and Sector analysis are common sense tools that can help to organize and prioritize farm layout and operations. But for all its beneficial attributes, permaculture is not a substitute for dedication and hard work. Even the most well designed farms and homesteads still require that.


Arial view of farmland designed for permaculture
New Forest Farm in SW Wisconsin.  Owned by Mark Shepard, author of Restoration Agriculture, Real-World Permaculture of Farmers and Water for Any Farm.

Join us on Friday, March 29th from 2-5 PM for Efficient and Effective Landscape Design, the first in our workshop series, Root Your Knowledge. Contact Happy Dancing Turtle for more information, or watch our website for more details.








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