Thursday, December 25, 2014

Squishy Christmas Address

(If the Queen gets a Christmas address, then so do I.)
Image by Ali Inay

With much reflection over the past two years, I've seen a gap in my approach. I have come to the belief that at the core of what we are trying to do is to build a world that is loving, nurturing, and don't forget fun and rewarding.

At some point, we have all asked the question why we can't just work together to make each others' lives full and enjoyable. I'm not going to explore the "can't" part of that. I am just going to share my thoughts on an expansion of my approach to work toward creating that world.

All around the world, people are disconnected from a truly fulfilling and rewarding life. In some corners of the world, it is because the Earth has been so badly damaged that people are in a desperate struggle just to meet basic needs. In other corners, people are becoming attached to a lifestyle of over-accumulation and consumption, hoping against all evidence that it will bring lasting happiness and fulfillment.

The problem I have faced is how to respond to these challenges in an effective way. In the past, my approach has been science heavy, believing that providing easily comprehendible technical information would be all that was needed. To be clear, that information is useful when it comes to actually planning a project, but it does not directly address the heart of the problems people face. The problem is not a technical one. It is a human one. It is a question of heart and healing.

In some places the healing needed will be of the Earth so that it can provide the basics for survival. In other places, it will be the healing of the mind and the building of human connection.

This promises to be no small task. Frankly, to get to where we want to go will take more time than our individual lives have. But I believe the only fulfilling life we can lead is the life that pursues this goal of healing and growing into what we all yearn for at our deepest level. We can only achieve this the way we achieve anything of significance: Step by step.
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Thursday, September 11, 2014

Guidelines for Semi-arid Sira, India

You can tell the season a permaculturist is in by the frequency of blog posts they produce. Because it has been a while, I'll post a response to some questions sent in to my by a reader near Sira, India.

 I plan to build rainwater harvesting & groundwater recharge structures, and leave the land undisturbed for few years. I will start serious work once I have more time. On a long term basis, I plan to build a small home and settle down in the farm. 
This sounds like a really solid plan, in that it addresses the concern of water right away. Rainfall in most of India can be quite variable from year to year. It might be over 600 mm one year and as low as 250 mm on a bad year. Sira also has a dry period of around 5 months each year.

 Are there any special considerations (Shape of land, amount of gradient, groundwater level, Soil quality) which I need to keep in mind while selecting a suitable piece of land for permaculture?
If Sira were a little farther north, I would recommend a north-facing slope to offer more shade (and thus more protection against evaporation). Because it is at 13°N, it won't make a huge difference. A north-facing slope is slightly better, but not by much.

You will want to avoid slopes that are too steep to work, and keep in mind that any slope more than 20° is dangerous for machinery to work, and you will want to use machinery for earthworks. Labour is cheap in India, but manpower is still more expensive than a backhoe. Safe the human labour for grooming the earthworks. Slopes of greater than 20° can be terraced, though the cost is much greater for terracing than for dams. The most cost-effective, and beneficial approach for steeper slopes is to plant trees on them. Look towards something dual-purpose like Sesbania sesban, which provides, shade, fixes nitrogen in the soil, and can be used as a pole lumber. You could alley crop with S. sesban, provided there is easy enough access to the land.

Sesbania sesban alley cropping

As for soil quality, the more fertile, the better, of course. The problem is, most of the soils will be rather nutrient-poor, lateritic soils. Looking at satellite images suggests that the soil is iron-rich, which would bode well for mango production.

To boost soil life, fertility, and thus water-retention, add powdered charcoal to the site (AKA bio-char or ag-char). This will greatly assist in building soils. Application of mulch on its own, or even compost on its own will not contribute much to long-term increases in soil fertility. The charcoal dust allows biological processes to take hold.

That said, you would do well to build a shaded cement trough that you put compost worms in to produce vermicompost. If the trough is 60 cm by 3 metres, you will be able to produce a fair amount of very high-quality compost. This would be something for the long term, not something you implement immediately.

For ground water levels, the higher the better, unless the water has a high salt content that would damage crops. It does not look like this is the case, however.

 I don't want to dig a bore-well. Average rainfall in Sira area is around 600mm. Will Permaculture techniques allow me to store sufficient rainwater to achieve water security? I would need water for both irrigation, and for domestic use (once I settle down). 
You might or might not get away without a bore. The majority of the wells I saw in Anantapur District were dug with an excavator. The town of Talupula, however, drew its water from a bore hole that was something like 1000 feet deep.

What will help you for household use is to make sure you catch the water that falls on the roof of the house you will build. You would also be wise to divert greywater from your kitchen into a heavily-mulched garden. Wasting water should not be done, particularly in such a  dry place.

In terms of earthworks, ripping will not work in your situation. The nature of the soil is such that any ripping you do will be erased with the first rainfall. What will work are large swales, gabions, and rock wall dams (unless you have a lot of good quality clay on site). Dams are the most expensive option and require engineering. Gabions, however, are relatively cheap and can make a large difference when placed across a temporary seasonal stream.

The Land in Sira area is rocky. Is that a cause for concern?
It might present a problem. It sounds like trees and perennial crops would be your wisest bet.

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Thursday, June 12, 2014

Pattern Language: Sheltering Roof

Have you dreamed of building an energy efficient home? When it comes to home design, building an efficient home is only half the battle. A building that sacrifices everything to efficiency will not be one that people will want to spend time in. In short, beauty matters.

When it comes to roof styles, there are a lot of options to choose from. The focus here is not styles, however. Rather, I'd like to look at a few details that I think really help to make your roof design stunning.

Have a look at our short video that shows the points:

To recap, the key takeaways from the video are:

  • Design your building into to the roof, not the roof on the building
  • Have a point where you can touch the roof, if possible
  • Do not cut off your sunlight in cold climates
  • Make your eaves large

For this tip and other excellent advice on building design, pick up A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction by Christopher Alexander.

[Buying from these Amazon link helps support us in delivering more content. Grazie!]

We've got dozens of videos in the works, so stay tuned for more. Sign up for our newsletter below to stay on top of new releases.

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Monday, June 09, 2014

One Creamy Trick for Busting Aphids

OK, so you've got aphids. Here's what you do:

  1. Get a spray bottle
  2. Put milk (2% or greater fat content) in the bottle
  3. Spray it on the aphids. That's it.
Please insert your jokes about lactose intolerance in the comments.

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Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Current Summer Course Offerings!

We currently have the following courses and events in 2014:

A talk on the basics of water-harvesting earthworks at the Farm Open House hosted by Circle Organic in Millbrook, Ontario. The open house starts from 1 pm. For more information, please see Circle Organic.

This class in Kirkfield, Ontario will give students a practical understanding of the water-harvesting earthworks techniques used in permaculture. A theoretical section will be taught in which a variety of approaches will be introduced, including dams, swales, ripping, and more. This section will also cover site assessment, design, and cautions. Students will have practical hands-on time for site measurement, design, layout and implementation. The topics covered in this course will allow students to assess and design their own sites.

$200 for 2-Day Course
Onsite Camping Grounds
Ask about meal and accommodation options
E-mail to register 
or Call: 416-882-2929

Saturday, May 31, 2014

6 Tips for Water-Harvesting Earthworks

If you're reading this, you probably love water-harvesting earthworks. When done right, they can start repairing damaged land right from the first rainfall after they are installed. When done wrong, they can waste a lot of money, or even put lives and property at risk.

Here are six things to keep in mind when planning earthworks for a site.

1. Slow it down

The point of harvesting water is grabbing it and holding it as long as you can before it escapes you by going off your site. The longer that water stays on site, the longer it is available to you. Whether you are choosing open storage, or directing it into the ground, your aim is to make it stay around longer.

It’s worth mentioning a curious misconception that some people have. Some folks have the idea that if you slow water on your site, you are taking it away from anyone downhill, leaving them with less water. This is not at all the case at all.

Allowing runoff rather than capturing it is generally a no-win situation. To regreen a water-starved place, would you encourage water to rush down off the hills as quickly as possible so that all the downhill people could have it? This, in essence, would be designing the land to make water travel out to the ocean as quickly as possible. Not only is this a recipe for erosion, it is a recipe for turning permanent rivers and streams into ephemeral ones that only flow during heavy rains.

With earthworks, you are rehydrating the landscape. Rehydrating the landscape means more water available more often for the people downstream. While they might see a temporary reduction in surface runoff in the short term, in the medium and long term they will have more groundwater available.

2. Safety

Nature will throw enough adversity at you without adding to the list by creating your own disaster. A good risk assessment will help you to make wise decisions. Here are some questions to keep in mind before bringing in the machines.

  • How might this kill somebody?
  • How might this damage property?
  • What happens if there is a catastrophic failure?
Though you may be eager to install a particular feature on a site, safety might dictate that you walk away and leave the site untouched.

3. What does the land want to do?

You might have some exciting ideas about what you would like to see installed on a piece of land, but it is not going to work out very well if the earthworks do not suit the site you are working on.

A great perspective to take when deciding what to do is taking the land’s perspective. What does the land want to do? To answer that, consider what the environment was like before human intervention. That will give you some insight into the most optimal techniques to use on your site.

What the land will do depends on:

  • Climate
  • Topography
  • Soil type and depth
  • Local flora and fauna

Consider what the site would look like if it were just left alone for 40 years. How would it change over time? 

Once you know the direction the land will naturally head, you can choose an approach that will steer it in that direction, rather than fight against what the land naturally wants to do. Nature rewards partners and punishes dictators.

4. Think like water

Bruce Lee wanted you to have a mind like water. I want you to think like water.

If you are water there are a few things you will do such as evaporate, or freeze, but the most important one with respect to earthworks is that you travel at 90° to contour. To put it another way, you flow downhill. (It’s true that if you are flowing through something, you will favour easily traversed mediums like sand over something denser like clay. In this case when travelling through soil, you might go at an angle less than 90o to contour. For planning purposes, however, 90° to contour is the rule.)

With this in mind, how will you, water, travel across the land? What path will you take? Check the land. There might be clues as to where you have travelled before – evidence of erosion, or of sediment building up. This can help you to make decisions of what to place where. 

How much water will there be at one time? Not only do you need to know where the water does and doesn’t go, you also have to know how much there is at one time. How big do the water-harvesting systems need to be? What happens if you get more water than expected?

5. Know what earthworks do what jobs

There are a lot of choices when it comes to earthworks, choosing the right one for a site means that your efforts will go further. 

If you read your site correctly, it will go a long way towards determining what you can or should do on a site. Soil type, for instance, will determine what will be effective and what will not. As an example, ripping with a subsoiler such as a Yeoman’s plow can be very beneficial. It would be pointless to run one on sand or on lateritic soil, however. In the former case, the sand will just fall back in on itself. In the latter case, the land will flow and “heal” the ripping with the first rainfall (assuming you had the horsepower to get the power to break through the soil in the first case).

Next, you need to know what each type of earthwork does. For example, swales intercept water, sending it into the ground. They are great for sending runoff into the ground and helping trees to establish, but they won’t do much of anything at all for garden beds. 

Do you want to get more water in the ground, or do you want open water storage? The answer will depend on your climate and what you are trying to do. If you were in an arid environment, you wouldn't want a lot of open water storage, which would just be subject to evaporation. If you were in a humid temperate or tropical climate, open water could provide backup irrigation as well as opening space for aquaculture.

6. How much money do you have?

You can make a grand plan, but do you have the money to pay for it? You might have to implement things in stages. Hiring a tractor to pull a subsoiler is very affordable. Digging swales is affordable and has a high return on investment, if you are using them for the right thing in the right place. Installing a dam is a higher investment that will take considerable machine time, and thus more money.

You also have a choice of machines to work with. The hourly rate of a backhoe is cheaper than that of a bulldozer. If you are in a humid temperate environment, you can cut in a swale with a bulldozer in a small fraction of the time a backhoe could. If you were in a semi-arid environment with hard, lateritic soils, even if you could cut through with the dozer blade, the swale you made would be far too small and would just be erased with the first big rain event.

Over to you…

What approaches do you take when designing water-harvesting earthworks? What snags and solutions have you encountered with your projects?

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Friday, April 11, 2014

The Blessing of Constraint: Why Limitations Make Design Easier

It’s so fine yet so terrible to stand in front of a blank canvas” - Paul Cezanne
"Blank canvas" in AP, India
Many people might imagine their dream design scenario to be one in which they are completely free to express their creativity. But like a solution needs a seed crystal for crystals to form, so too does a designer need something with which to get the design started. If we view constraints as seed crystals, the more there are, the faster and easier the design process is likely to be.

Constraints narrow down the possible to the doable. They simplify the process. Limitations are focal points around which you can design.

You might consider a site with a lack of an essential resource such as water. Your focus will then be around the capture and conservation of water.

As another example, it can make the style of element you add to a design clear. If you face the constraint of freezing temperatures, then you are not going to look at thatched huts as a viable option for housing. In fact, just by having freezing temperatures, your building shape and orientation are largely predetermined for you.

Constraints can also bring you down to Earth, focusing you on what you need rather than what you happen to want at the moment. Financial restrictions, for instance, weed out “what would be great” from what you or your clients actually need.

If you find yourself faced with a big, empty site, look for fixed points you can work around. These serve as a starting point. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle. You find a piece that stands out from the others, and then fit it together with its neighbours bit by bit, forming a foundation.

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Friday, April 04, 2014

Empathy in Design


If touchy-feely stuff really turns you off, relax, that's not what I'm going to be talking about here. I'll be talking about a way of viewing systems that opens useful perspectives for assessing and designing them.

The type of empathy we will be looking at is cognitive empathy. Normally, cognitive empathy is assessing the thoughts and feelings of others – getting into their heads, as it were. In applying it to permaculture design, I am using the term cognitive empathy to mean understanding a system's situation and needs.

For example, when I designed my house, there were a lot of appealing design elements and approaches that I really loved. Would I have tried to fit them all in my blueprint, I would have made a disaster. To make the house functional and pleasant to be in, I had to 'get into the head' of the house I was planning. What would the house require given the physical and legal restrictions of location I was to build on? How many of my desires could it accommodate before it started to perform badly? What would the environment throw at it in the future, and how could I design for that?

Use in Design

Empathy is a useful design tool. I'd go so far as to say it is essential for good design. It allows us to design systems that will be more in harmony with natural processes, making them perform better with fewer external inputs.

The water-harvesting designs I have done, for instance, have greatly benefitted by observation of the land in an effort to figure out what the land needs, how it currently behaves, and how water behaves on it. Allowing space for each of these facets allows me to see what I otherwise would have overlooked.


Get a feel for your site. A great way to do this is through passive observation using mindful walking. Mindful walking is a technique of clearing the mind of thought. The approach is quite simple. Walk slowly. For each step forward with your left foot, breathe in and focus on your breath. With each step forward with your right foot, breathe out and focus on your breath. Keep alert with your head up, looking around, but don’t think. Don’t grasp at ideas or think thoughts like "What am I seeing about water availability?" You are walking the land without agenda. Let the observations come to you. Don't force them out. When they do come, note them in your mind, but let them pass. Don't fixate on them.

After you do that, write down any insights you gained about the site. Next, walk the land applying thought and questioning. Actively observe. Take notes. Think. Think like the land. Think like water. Think like the system you are going to put in place. What is it like for you on a regular day? What is it for you on an extreme day? What is going to happen to you over time?

This approach of 'getting into the head' of the system you are trying to design will always help you in designing better systems.

Friday, March 28, 2014

“I love this plan! I'm excited to be a part of it! LET'S DO IT!”

It may have worked for Dr. Venkman and the crew, but loving your plan is a great way to get yourself into a lot of trouble.

The permaculture design process starts with the creation of a clear and concise goal – something that elegantly answers the question "What are we trying to do here?" Your goal is what is distilled from asking why as many times as you can tolerate.

Once you settle on a goal, you enter in on the process of planning. You create a strategy whereby you try to achieve that goal. This is also a stage where you can get into a lot of trouble. One easy way to get into trouble is to fall in love with the plan you've created. You see, the problem is that a plan is just an idea. And let's face it, a lot of ideas are just plain bad. Loving a bad idea makes reality your adversary, and you don't want that. Trust me. Love for a bad plan will have you wasting energy and resources. It will sap your time, money and strength, only to leave you with disappointment.

Don't panic. There is a way to avoid the pitfalls of love. Once you have crafted your goal to the point that it is a concise statement reflecting what you really want, you then set out to make "an imperfect plan." Seriously, call it this, even if only to yourself. We all have imperfect knowledge and imperfect information. What can we hope to create from this? Imperfect plans. Acknowledge that the plan is imperfect. If you admit up front that it is imperfect, you won't be hesitant to make changes in the face of conflicting feedback.

Monday, March 24, 2014

When Swales Can Kill

by Douglas Barnes

Sensationalist title, yes, but unfortunately swales can cause damage, or even loss of life. When designing and building earthworks, "Don't kill people" should be your first rule. I'm going to highlight 3 situations in which these water-harvesting earthworks could be dangerous and perhaps even fatal.

The swale is a water-harvesting ditch on contour.

You've Heard of Quicksand. How About Quick Clay?

When I get a call from a client who is east of me inquiring about earthworks, I immediately head for a soil map. The reason is that much of Eastern Ontario was covered by the Sea of Champlain around 10,000 years ago. Here silt, clay and organic matter were deposited in the sea’s saline environment, leaving a deposit of a particular kind of clay known as Leda clay, quickclay, or Sea of Champlain clay. The salt in the water acted as a flocculating agent (fancy way of saying a substance that allows small particles to form larger clusters). When the sea disappeared, this clay was then exposed to fresh water from rainfall, washing away much of the bonding properties of the salt.

Under pressure, or sometimes when highly saturated with water, Leda clay can liquefy – something which has triggered a number of landslides in Eastern Ontario. If you place a swale somewhere, you are going to make the ground downhill of the swale wetter. This creates conditions that could make the ground unstable, triggering a landslide.

So what do you do in this situation? I don't have any set rules. I look at the need for swales and if other approaches would suffice. I also look at the slope and the likelihood that the land might slide. (Keep in mind that these slides can cover a lot of area and might start a long distance off site.)

In some situations, swales just might help prevent damage. Leda clay contracts a lot when dry, which can lead to foundation damage. If sliding is not a danger, you might help a building keeping the ground hydrated with swales. Personally, I'd look to preserve moisture with mulch and ground cover in those situations, just to be safe.

In short, Leda clay makes me nervous. I've yet to install or recommend any swales in these situations. If you've had any experience dealing with quick clay, I'd love to hear about it in the comments, or via the contact form.

Video by Christian Olsen.

Trouble in Paradise

Swales can trigger landslides in tropical highlands. These hilly areas get tremendous volumes of rainfall. Forcing more water into hillside soils in these regions can trigger a slide, even when they are forested. Consider the following passage from Jared Diamond's Collapse:

Image by Radhakrishnansk
[O]ne European agricultural advisor was horrified to notice that a New Guinean sweet potato garden on a steep slope in a wet area had vertical drainage ditches running straight down the slope. He convinced the villagers to correct their awful mistake, and instead to put in drains running horizontally along contours, according to good European practices. Awed by him, the villages reoriented their drains, with the result that water built up behind the drains, and in the next heavy rains, a landslide carried the entire garden down the slope in the river below.

These are areas of 3 or more metres of rainfall a year. There's no problem with available water in these regions. Don't risks potentially deadly landslides by floating mountainsides with swales.

Swales to Stop a Leaky Basement? No

As mentioned above, swales make the area downhill of the swale wetter. I had someone near the waterfront in Toronto contact me a few years back about doing some work on her property. Her house was at the bottom of a bluff, and she was wondering about swales above her home to keep the water out of her basement in the spring. In this situation, there was the increased risk of sliding, as well as a good guarantee that spring flooding would be made much worse. Sometimes the best advice is not to do anything. I was happy not to ruin her home with swales and I suggested some drainage to carry water away from the uphill side of the home.

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Friday, March 21, 2014

Permaculture Home Design, Part 1

The first volume of The Rhizome: Permaculture Journal of Ontario and Qu├ębec is out! [76.5 MB PDF]

You can read many fine articles, including a piece recounting part of my journey designing and building a passive solar home.