Modular Garden Design

Douglas Barnes’s Articles at Permaculture Reflections, Page 4

In 1964, Marshall McLuhan wrote in Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man that, “The medium is the message.” What McLuhan was getting at here was that the tools used influence the product they create. Write a book on Post-its, and that will impact how the book is in it’s final, published form. Paint in oils and you will not tell the same visual story as you would with water colours.

Design is no exception. The tools you design with will affect the outcome of your designs. My early graphic work was all done in pen and pencil. I would make a rough sketch and plan out what I was aiming for, then make reiterations, followed by a final drawn by hand. With all the work involved in this approach, each design feels more precious to me. In other words, I tend to fall in love with a design more (which is a bad thing) after having spent hours and hours drawing it out by hand.

Switching to CAD has been a boon for me in terms of creativity. What I loose in terms of flexibility (the pencil is king here) I more than make up for in editable iterations. If I spend a half hour mapping out a design on CAD only to find a problem, I can correct it quickly, or even scrap everything and start from scratch. A half hour in with a CAD program is more like 3 or 4 hours in with a pencil. With that much time invested, making any major change would be painful to say the least.

I still use a pencil when it comes to brainstorming, and idea formation when designing buildings or large areas of space (over an acre or so). I hash out rough ideas and concepts so that I know where I am headed before I move to the computer. On a smaller site, I often do that hashing out on the computer itself.

A few years ago, I got hired to do a design for a community garden outside of Toronto. Since the garden was to be maintained by volunteers, it had to be a design that would require minimal updating from the gardeners. Or to put it another way, it had to be a repeating pattern of annuals that could be easily rotated from year to year.

Rows are great for machines, and rectangles are easy for designers to draw. But to maximize usable space and have it be functional, curved shapes are needed. In the end, I decided to stick a line of keyhole gardens end to end, connecting them up with access paths.

Each bed could then be assigned a number corresponding to a given plant guild, and easily rotated from year to year. To avoid the kind of confusion that could result from all the possible combinations, I made bed layout templates based on plant size (two – A & B – are shown below). This is where the CAD program really shined. I could work out the best layout quickly due to the nature of the design tool. The computer lends itself to making measurements quickly and automatically. I just choose the size I want and see where it fits. No rulers, no pencils, and most importantly, no erasers.

I do things slightly differently now, but this
shows you the nuts and bolts of how I work out garden design. The end
results are unique for each site, but the gist of it is the same. If
a bed has annuals and needs rotating, I use this system. When it
comes to perennials, I can layout the same way but not concern myself
with rotation.

Helpful Resources:

Google SketchUp

Gadwin PrintScreen

The Mycology of Santa Claus

Douglas Barnes’s Articles at Permaculture Reflections, Page 4

Would Christmas be what it is without mushrooms? I’d like to put forward to you that Santa Claus himself owes at least part of his existence to the mushroom Amanita muscaria.

From Wikipedia

First, let’s have a look at Santa Claus. Santa is based on the Dutch figure Sinterklaas. Sinterklaas owes some of his legend to the patron saint of children, Saint Nicholas. Nicholas had a fondness for gift-giving, making him a popular figure in life and death.

But Sinterklaas also owes some of his essence to Odin, ruler of the Norse gods. Sinterklaas is known for riding his white horse, whereas Odin rides his flying gray horse. Sinterklaas has his mischievous black-faced helpers. Odin has his ravens. Children would leave carrots, hay or sugar in their shoes for Odin’s horse. In return, Odin would leave candy or gifts in exchange. Dutch children leave carrots, apples or hay in their shoes for Sinterklaas who, in exchange,
leaves behind gifts.


Unlike Sinterklaas, Odin has one eye, having given up the other as payment for a drink from the well of knowledge. What one sees when one cuts the stem off an Amanita muscaria and looks at its underside resembles an eye, much like the one Odin would have left in the well as payment. And our mushroom hero in this story is revered by many cultures as a giver of wisdom due to its psychotropic properties.

Odin’s chariot is visible in the night sky as the Big Dipper, which contains the North Star, which in turn shows the way to the North Pole. The North Pole, as we know, happens to be the home of Santa Claus.

I think I’ve made a decent case for connecting Santa to Odin, but not Amanita muscaria to Norse culture, or Santa. Not yet, anyway.


Amanita is a mycorrhizal fungi, meaning that it forms symbiotic partnerships with plants, helping to supply the plant with water and essential nutrients, and helping it to share resources and information (such as warnings about impending pest attacks) with other plants. In return, it gets sugars from the plant.

Amanita muscaria is a striking red mushroom with white spots. This colour scheme is obviously relevant to the argument. It has a number of psychotropic properties owing to the muscimol and muscimol’s precursor ibotenic acid contained in the mushroom (mainly in the universal veil). Among its effects are visual and auditory distortions, impared balance, mild muscle spasms, and the sensation of floating or flying. Some clinical subjects have reported
simultaneous states of wakeful consciousness and lucid dreaming. Another common report is a deeply moving spiritual experience. Considering this, it is not surprising that the mushroom is revered in many cultures around the world. It has a tradition of use among the Norse, some of whom took it in very large quantities to become fierce berserks or berserkers. Odin was said to have a berserkergang of his own to follow him in battle. No doubt it was a relief to Norwegians when the berserk practice was outlawed in 1123 AD.

From Wikipedia

Across Siberia it was highly sought, and its rarity there saw it traded sometimes at a rate of one reindeer to one mushroom. This is a daring exchange to make, considering the fact that reindeer go crazy for this mushroom and will scramble to get at it. One might imagine that someone ingesting the mushroom and watching reindeer might just possibly see them fly.

The Athabaskans also have a tradition of using the mushroom as do the Afghans. In researching this, I came across a 1979 article in Afghanistan Journal in which one elder of the Shutul Valley in Afghanistan fittingly described his experience of the mushroom as thus: “Once, I thought I was a tree.” The Shutul people also use it as a treatment for frostbite and psychotic conditions. Considering that muscimol acts on the GABA-A receptor, it’s likely that this “psychotic condition” mentioned by the Shutulis is depression.

The late eminent ethnomycologist, Gordon Wasson, put forward the theory that “soma,” the sacramental substance mentioned in the Hindu holy book Rig Veda, was, in fact, Amanita muscaria. This is certainly plausible, though the exact composition of soma was kept a secret to prevent it from falling into the wrong hands.

From Tom Volk’s Fungus of the Month

There is another curious connection between Christmas and Amanita muscaria. In Europe, it is very common to see Christmas trees decorated with Amanita muscaria ornaments. While the colour scheme matches, it think there is a deeper cultural connection to the mushroom and makes it show up for Yule celebrations.

So let’s recap. We have this Santa Clause chap who happens to be dressed in Amanita muscaria camouflage. Santa is based on Sinterklaas, who is based on Odin. Odin, with his flying horse, his acquisition of wisdom, and his berserkers, comes from a culture steeped in the mushroom. Santa travels via flying reindeer – the very same beast that itself has a remarkable affinity for the mushroom, as well as historically being swapped for it. Finally, we’ve got people making replicas of the mushroom and using it as a decoration to celebrate the most wonderful time of the year.

Believe what you want to believe. Me? I’m going to nod my head in respect for this mighty mycological miracle.

Compromise in Design

Douglas Barnes’s Articles at Permaculture Reflections, Page 4

[The following is a writeup of a presentation given at the spring PermaCon in Toronto.]

My focus today is to look at a framework for design and the need for compromise within design. Projects that get abandoned due to inflexibility or unrealistic expectations are all too common.

To understand compromise in design we should be clear about the design process. The first step is creating a goal to work from. This goal should be put in as simple and as broad of terms as possible to get at the core of what you are trying to do. Think of this as the Twitter version of what it is you are going to do. Fleshing out comes later.

When dealing with permaculture, we are looking at creating some sort of sustainable system. A sustainable system is one that captures and stores more energy over its lifetime than is used in its creation and maintenance.

Consider an example that we will examine later in more detail: building a house. Faced with the need for housing and the desire to set up a permaculture research farm, I needed to design a home. Since it is in Ontario, I knew that it had to be a passive solar home. (Incidentally, this knowledge also led to my choice in property and location on that property for the home.) So my goal then became “Design a passive solar home for my wife and me with room for guests.” The goal was not “Design a passive solar tirewall home,” or “Design a passive solar straw bale home,” as those to provide specifics that are not important to achieving the primary goal of sustainability.

Putting on the guise of a 4-year-old and repeatedly asking why can help in this instance. Take, for example, the desire for a straw bale home. Why straw bale? If the answer is “sustainability,” then why are other types of sustainable building unacceptable? Is it aesthetics? Why? These questions can help to get at the kernel of what it is you really want.

This step is the core of any planning and subsequent action you will take, so it is vital to get it right. Without this clear statement of intent, you are leaving more room for misunderstanding and potential for the disappointment of not getting what you really want, or something that simply does not work.

A hint to finding if you have articulated your goal is to ask yourself if it actually sounds like a plan. Saying “My goal is to build a 2000 ft² straw bale home with a root cellar and 3 bedrooms” is too specific and has already moved into the planning stage.

With your goal in place, you are still not ready for planning. You are ready for the observation stage. Your task now is to gather data. You’ll need to find out all you can about the proposed site: temperature trends, maximum rainfall, length of drought periods, soil type, site aspect and slope, drainage, local vegetation, notable elements of neighbouring properties, etc. Ideally, you would want to observe a property for a long time, perhaps a year of more. But this is one stage where compromise creeps in. It might be that you don’t have a long time to observe a property before you need to act. In fact, it’s not uncommon. In such instances, even more careful observation is necessary.

To give an example, I was asked to do a water-harvesting project on semi-arid land in India. I was on site for 3 weeks, so long term observation was not possible. I made up for this and carried out a successful project through careful examination of the site, an understanding of the native plants, lateritic soils, and interviews with locals familiar with the property and climate conditions there.

The next stage is research. With the data you need, what sort of action could you take? Check to see if someone has done something similar and can advise you – even if you spend some money on this, you may wind up saving a bundle by not setting yourself up for further problems later. Don’t reinvent the wheel if you don’t have to.

This period of observation takes a considerable amount of time to do correctly. One of my teachers, Geoff Lawton, is fond of saying that you need one hundred hours of thinking to one hour of labour. This is a nice saying that gets you thinking the right way, but with about 3000 work hours invested in my house so far, I promise you that I did not spend 300,000 hours or 34 years worth of thinking time designing house.

Now you are ready to move onto the planning stage. It is likely that during planning, you will find yourself needing to jump back into observation and research. With your goal in mind, you’ll look at the dictates of the local conditions to see what fits the site. You will identify and available resources you have to work with (A native tree stand might be translated into lumber, but in Canada, that means you will need to mill it yourself, when have an engineer inspect and stamp each piece of wood. Buying lumber and leaving your trees in place is going to be cheaper. It will also save that existing stand of trees, though at the expense of another.) Available funding will also determine what it is you are going to do. Local regulations may put a halt to certain plans as well.

Such constraints may seem like a hindrance, but working with constraints within a design actually makes design easier. Being presented with a blank canvas with which to work is more daunting than being faced with limitations on a site – which is something that always occurs in the real world.

As your plan takes shape, you will need to keep in mind Rule 1 in planning: Assume the plan is wrong.

Assume that the plan is flawed and requires observation of feedback and redesign. More problems are caused by neglecting this rule than anything else. The single greatest flaw you can make is falling in love with your idea.

I’ll give you a few examples to scare you off of falling in love with your own ideas.

There is a retired couple I heard of in Eastern Ontario who spent their savings setting up an apple orchard. Right at this point, they might have been saved from financial ruin had the question “Why?” been rigorously asked. Why set up a pest-prone monoculture for a product that has had its market thoroughly eroded by imports? But the story doesn’t end there. They established the orchard on land prone to flooding in heavy rain events. Flooding and fruit trees don’t mix. The end result was unfortunately financial ruin.

Does this mean the couple were stupid? Not at all. Or at least, considering the number of times I have fallen in love with my own bad ideas, I hope it doesn’t. They got stuck on an idea that they were sure they could pull off. Entire civilisations have done worse. More research and more observation might have pulled them out of their disaster before they were in neck deep. It at least would have stopped them from planning a monoculture and putting all their eggs in one basket.

Another example, roundly reviled, is the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal haphazardly scribbled on a napkin, then transferred to make poorly designed, grand old building into an even more poorly designed nightmare.

First, glass on the north side of a building – bad. Then sloped glass – bad. Then sloped glass that can result in snow and ice accumulation sloughing off and striking pedestrians – bad. I could go on in terms of functionality and lack of aesthetic quality, but we are here for permaculture and only here for one day, so I’ll stop at that.

The Sharp Centre for Design foolishly plopped onto the Ontario College of Art and Design is another example. First, it’s oriented north-south in a cold climate – foolish. Second, it is suspended on stilts, minimising thermal mass heat storage and maximising heat loss on a cold and windy location – foolish. Third, it has very little natural light inside and is reportedly unpleasant to work in – foolish. Fourth, it’s butt-ugly – unacceptable. Hardly surprising then that it won architectural awards for its design.

The phenomenon is not limited to people with too much cash on their hands. I’ve encountered a disturbing number of people who want to build “eco-homes” in cold climates that are round or have a rounded south-facing wall. I suspect it is because artist renditions of buildings of the future are very often round, but I’m not sure. Rounded on the shade-side of the building, where the shape doesn’t interfere with the building’s solar gain and where it minimises the surface area on the cold side, is fine. Round facing the sun just wastes potential solar gain and increases the need for additional heating.

Working with constraints within a design actually makes design easier. Being presented with a blank canvas with which to work is more daunting than being faced with limitations on a site – which is something that always occurs in the real world.

Working with compromise can allow you to complete beneficial action that would otherwise be abandoned in attempts to be a purist. Again, the metric is more energy captured and stored than used in the creation and maintenance of a system.

I have had to contend with compromise within my own site design. The target date to start construction was July, 2008, but technicalities interfered with the close of the sale of our old property, delaying the purchase of the new one. I did set to work designing a tirewall structure for the site, however. My aim was to make something very conventional looking but using tires as a building material. This was not to be an earthship. I paid a visit to the permitting office and was told “Not a chance.” The inspector then changed his mind and said I could do it if I had an engineer on site every day of construction. In other words, “Not a chance.” I could have fought this, but I was interested in building a home, not moving into a new community and getting embroiled in a legal battle. Someone else in nearby Prince Edward County felt differently and did get in a legal battle, winning and clearing the way for similar projects. Perhaps when it comes time to building a barn…

A friend who turned to straw bale consulting told me that the building code in Ontario had changed, requiring vapour barriers on straw bale homes, which is not only a bad idea, it could lead to the collapse of load-bearing straw bale structures. Then straw has the issues of extra footprint to accommodate the thick walls, the problem of acquiring quality straw, and that straw in an area that is naturally forested necessarily means that it comes at the expense of forest. Timber production is certainly open to criticism for its clear cutting and replacement of forest with tree plantations, however.

In the end, I chose Structural Insulated Panels (SIPs). They have the benefit of ease of construction and an excellent R-value. In the final equation of more energy captured and stored than consumed in creation and maintenance, I knew that SIPs could be put to use sustainably.

My first choice of locations for the home was about 500 feet back from the road. This site, however, would have meant that I would need to run primary cable from the road to the house for electricity. It would also increase the cost of driveway construction and the amount of work to plough the driveway. This would have added perhaps $10,000 to the cost of the home. Instead, I chose a spot just on the limit before primary cable is needed.

I will soon be insulating the roof of the building. Wet-blown cellulose was my first choice. But I was informed by a local insulator that he no longer does wet-blown because he can’t stand being so cruel to his customers. It turns out that it uses an adhesive which has a foul smell that lingers for several years. No thank you. Dry cellulose is not acceptable to me as it settles over time leaving uninsulated blank spots at the peaks of the roof where it is most needed. Blown in fibreglass looks to be the better option and more sustainable in the long run.

I designed the home myself to be passive solar – to heat itself as much as possible with the heat of the sun. My real-world backup heat source is a thermal mass stove, which doubles as a thermal mass for the passive solar aspect of the building. Code, however, requires a mechanical heat source – a provision put into the building code by the banks. The cheapest to install is electric baseboard. I’m never going to use it, but its benefits are that it’s cheap and code requires more insulation, meaning that I won’t skimp on that end. The drawback is that I have to listen to everyone tell me how inefficient the heat source I’m never going to use is.

The building is not yet complete, but I am sure there are other areas that I will be forced to compromise with before I am done.

In summary, the key steps are to create a brief but coherent goal that states what it is you are trying to achieve. From there, one can begin observation and research to be able to move onto the planning stage. In planning, remember not to fall in love with your ideas. If reality interferes, yield to it. That will give you a happier outcome, even if you don’t realise it. And remember to assume that your plan is flawed and in need of feedback.

Permaculture in Disaster Areas: Tsunami

Douglas Barnes’s Articles at Permaculture Reflections, Page 4

Special thanks to Steve Cran

The earthquake and devastating tsunami of March 11, 2011 shocked the world with images of widespread destruction. All during my 13 years in Japan, I lived under the constant threat of “The Big One.” It never came while I was there, but when it finally did, its damage directly affected many of my family and friends living in Japan.

While no structure can be completely earthquake or tsunami proof, there are design elements that can be included that may reduce the damage caused by these events. I’ve already written on a simple design tweak to increase the strength of a building in an earthquake, now I’d like to look at strategies for dealing with tsunami.

After the 1998 tsunami that hit Papua New Guinea, permaculture aid worker Steve Cran toured the devastated areas to find out what strategies might be employed to deal with tsunami prone regions. One pattern that emerged was that areas with dense tree belts along the coast suffered less damage from the wave. Inland tree belts also assist in reducing the power of the wave and filtering our abrasive debris picked up by the wave that can lead to further damage of structures. Again, tree belts help, but as Steve Cran pointed out to me in a recent correspondence, “You can’t stop a tsunami but you can reduce its impact inland.”

Structures themselves can be designed to be more likely to survive tsunami. A boat-shaped wall at least 2 metres high with the “bow” and “stern” perpendicular to contour can help to deflect the wave. Additionally, buildings can be boat shaped and built on piers to better allow the wave to pass as it both comes in and goes out (both directions being destructive). Such a building shape could easily be achieved using concrete – a building material that is commonly used in Japan already. While concrete is an energy intensive material, it is durable and can be used sustainably. Existing earthquake dampening systems could be used in such a design as well.

For community design, Steve recommends compounds “laid out like bricks, offset, two over one so when the wave comes, the front compounds break the force of the wave as it moves inland.” In the case of Kessenuma and other ravaged communities in Japan, property is already marked out, making the brick-like pattern inapplicable. However, houses could still be built as described above to lessen the impact of the wave. Whether such a home would survive the over 10-metre waves that hit the coast is uncertain. They would, however, increase the likelihood of buildings surviving.

Personal Note:

In-laws' home

Many kind readers have asked about the safety of my family. My mother and father-in-law live in the mountains of northern Ibaraki and had to endure many quakes over magnitude 6. Despite this, their 150 plus year-old farmhouse survived just fine – a testament to the traditional home design and construction in Japan. Some earthen plaster did fall off one of the out buildings on the farm, but a little sand, some clay and straw and it will be good as new. They are about 70 or 80 km from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, but so far the radiation has not presented a problem.

This blog’s coauthor Scott Meister also safely but nervously road out many magnitude 6 quakes at his home 16 km from the summit of the slumbering Mt. Fuji.

We Can’t Get There From Here

Douglas Barnes’s Articles at Permaculture Reflections, Page 4

The following is a transcript of a speech given to the Belleville chapter of the Canadian Federation of University Women in Belleville, Ontario on February 17th, 2011.

Tonight, we’ll be looking at the state of the world through the lens of sustainability. Then we will examine what are claimed to be our societal goals to try to unravel how we got where we are today. Finally, we will look at a methodology to put ourselves on a sustainable path along with a few examples of this methodology put into action.

Well, to talk about sustainability, we really are going to have to understand what it is. Otherwise ongoing attempts to reduce it to a meaningless marketing term will succeed. For instance, one infamous agrichemical company has marketed its glyphosate herbicide as a means of “creating sustainable pastures.”

The surfactant in their product is highly toxic to amphibians.

Glyphosate kills Rhizobium bacteria, which are the bacteria that live symbiotically with legumes and fix atmospheric nitrogen, nourishing the soil.

It kills mycorrhizal fungi which help plants attain calcium, phosphorus, magnesium and other minerals. They also help supply plants with water in times of drought. They allow plants to communicate to fight off pest attacks and serve as a network to allow plants to share nutrients. They also help sequester carbon and build up soil humus. Killing them off is an exceedingly bad idea.

Glyphosate is toxic to fish.

While not directly toxic to birds, it has been observed to reduce local bird populations due to its overall detrimental effect on ecosystems.

In humans, it has been linked to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma as well as being linked to liver tumours and thyroid cancer in rats.

If the word “sustainable” is to hold any meaning, it must not be left up to the world of marketing to define it.

Here’s the definition: A system is sustainable if, over its lifetime, it captures and stores more energy than it consumes in its creation, operation and maintenance.

In traditional peasant agriculture systems, the energy required to plant and tend a squash plant is paid back many times over by the harvest. Think of a bank account as an analogy. If you continually spend more than you earn, sooner or later you will reach a point in which you are out of capital.

There have been societies that spent more natural capital than they produced. Sumer, Rapa Nui, Rome and the Anasazi are all examples of societies that did this and collapsed.

But that can’t happen to us, right? We’re exceptional! We have technology.

Consider our industrial agricultural system. It now costs 10 calories of energy on average to deliver one calorie of food energy and that is only counting exosomatic energy, not energy from human labour. This is really bad news considering that we are about half way through our global oil supply, discounting the difficult to extract oil sands. Natural gas production, important for synthesizing nitrogen, peaked in North America a decade ago.

And industrial agriculture has destroyed more soil more quickly than at any other time in human history. We lose 75 billion tons of topsoil globally every year. The Great Plains of North America have lost 6 to 10 feet of top soil since the arrival of farming there; and 38% of Canadian prairie farmland has become significantly salinated. It is worth noting that no civilisation has ever collapsed that did not have loss of soil fertility as a major contributing factor. Soil may not be a sexy topic, but it is premier in importance.

Directly connected to soil loss is deforestation. We lose an area of the Amazon the size of Kuwait every year to soy and cattle farming, which are wholly inappropriate to the climate. Globally, we lose the size of Lebanon in forests every year.

To this I will add that global fisheries are predicted to collapse by 2048; and that global climate change threatens the climate stability that makes agriculture possible while acidifying the oceans, threatening the base of marine food chains.

In this context, we can see that sustainability is another word for survivability.

How Did We Get Here?

A key point in finding our way out of this mess is to figure out how it is we got into it in the first place. To find that out, it’s helpful to examine what it is one has been trying to do.

So, what are we trying to do? What are we trying to achieve? Let’s look at the common answers offered up.

Is the goal to maximise individual and societal happiness?

Happiness is tracked by economists as “Subjective Well Being.” (They call it this because it’s more impressive than saying “happiness.”) In 1974, economist Richard Easterlin asked a novel question in the field of neo-classical economics: “Does Economic Growth Improve the Human Lot?” The answer was yes… to a point.

More recently, Lord Turner, former head of the Confederation of British Industry (that noted group of left wing radicals) admitted that “All the evidence shows that beyond the sort of standard of living which Britain has now achieved, extra growth does not automatically translate into human welfare and happiness”

He was on the right track, but the material standard of living today in the West is much higher than the point at which is required to maximise happiness. A recent meta-analysis by Oxford economic historian Avner Offer confirms this, concluding that,

Since the Second World War, and especially since the 1970s, self-reported ‘happiness’ has languished at the same levels, or has even declined…. On any measure used, the rise of aggregate money incomes has done little or nothing to improve the sense of well being.

Indeed, it can be argued that the influence of monetary wealth on societal happiness has become detrimental. A 2009 study from the London and Harvard Schools of Business has shown that exposure to luxury goods increases self interested thought and decision making. This is counter-productive to a species that is social by nature.

Is the goal of our global society to maximise human potential?

Were this the case, we would expect to see literacy rates at 99%. We’d also expect the average reading grade level in adults to be higher.

The cost of a post-secondary education in the U.S. would not be outpacing the rate of inflation by over 4.5 times, were this true. (The case is similar for Canada with tuitions skyrocketing.)

We would have no national debate about the need to combat mental illness; we would be combating mental illness.

We would not be creating people incapable of relating to other people. The University of Michigan has been recording self-reported empathy among college students and has found it dropping since 1980 when the study started. Seventy-five percent of today’s students assess themselves less empathetic than their average counterpart from thirty years ago. Self-reported narcissism is at an all time high.

A study published in the February, 2007 Quarterly of Economics found that landless squatters randomly given title over land showed increased materialistic and individualistic beliefs, including – and I wish I were making this up – the belief that you can succeed on your own. It also made the newly entitled less trusting of the landless. Apparently, money creates a new paradigm that blinds one to irony.

Is the goal to meet the need for healthy food, clean air and water, and sensible housing?

In addition to costing more energy than it provides (not to mention costing more dollars than it charges – one investigation from the January 12, 1994 edition of the Financial Times found the cost of a hamburger in real dollars was $290 USD, not counting corporate subsidies), industrially produced food is lower in nutrition than traditionally grown produce.

For instance, pasture-raised hens produce eggs that are 7 times higher in beta carotene, 3 times higher in vitamin E, 2 times higher in omega 3 fatty acids, 2/3 higher in vitamin A, 1/3 lower in cholesterol, and ¼ lower in saturated fat than eggs from prison chickens. Sticking with chickens, dark meat has decreased 52% in vitamin A content and increase 54.4% in fat since 1963. Chemist Donald R. Davis has compared data spanning the past 70 years and found median declines of 5 to 40% or more in vitamins, minerals and protein in fruits and vegetables. There is less food in industrially produced food.

Deaths from air pollution worldwide are estimated at 2 million per year by the WHO. Were clean air a serious goal, the only air quality warnings would come during forest fires and volcanic eruptions.

Clean water? You can convince me this is a serious goal when you can safely and confidently brew a cup of coffee with water from every single major river on earth. Deaths from unsafe water are estimated at 3 million per year.

Sensible shelter? Well, shelter, at least, though not too sensible. It is available to most, but the misfits, the mentally ill and those hit by financial disaster fall through the cracks.

Is the goal long term survivability?

We know we are destroying the soil that human health is dependent upon, we know that we use far more energy to produce food than we get from the food and we know that energy is running out. Furthermore, we know that using that energy is threatening the climatic stability that agriculture is dependent upon.

And even if we discover some wondrous new source of energy, it is clear from what we have done with cheap, abundant energy that we would most likely destroy the ecology that makes our lives possible. While survival as a species is likely, if likely hellish, survival as a global civilisation is not in the cards.

No, if these were our goals then we as a species are either grossly incompetent or incredibly stupid.

Looking empirically at outcomes, it appears to me as though the goal of our current system is to accrue and secure financial power for those clever enough, educated enough, lucky enough and/or devious enough to get it and hold on to it. As the saying goes, “He who dies with the most toys wins.”

How Do We Get There?

If the global society is to survive, it needs to have a coherent and overt goal that encompasses sustainability. The good news is that there are precedents of societies that have successfully pulled themselves back from the brink and are surviving to this day. One example is Japan, which faced a serious crisis from deforestation. This was turned around by imperial decree during the Tokugawa era. More fascinating for me as an environmental designer is the example of the tiny Pacific island nation of Tikopia. At 4.7 km2, Tikopia has long been at risk of overpopulation. Environmental destruction has always been a risk, threatening starvation. Yet they have been able to overcome serious challenges that have arisen over the millennia and are still going strong 2900 years after first founding the nation.

To achieve what those nations did, we first need to establish a holistic goal that answers the question, “What are we trying to do?” Perhaps that goal will be the pursuit of happiness, or perhaps it will be to maximise human potential, but it must be clear and it must address human needs. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a pretty good model for determining human needs, and the diagram here is patterned in large part, though not exclusively, from it. I’ve put together some of the needs that I’ve seen have empirical evidence to back them and avoided the influence of spiritual, political or economic ideology as best as I could. For simplicity’s sake, this is not an exhaustive list of human needs, just a sampling of important needs.

The importance of a holistic goal is summed up in the following analogy. It is near impossible to arrive in Burbank, California from Belleville, Ontario if all you know is that you need to drive 33 hours to reach the destination. You have to know where you are going if you want to get there.

Once a goal is in place, the next step is to draft a plan to achieve that goal. A vital step that most planners fail to do is to assume that the plan you create is flawed. It is too easy to fall in love with one’s plan and near impossible to create a plan that will not need adjustment over time to achieve its goals.

At this point, it is vital to know the eight most important words in sustainable design: Design action around energy, not energy around action. In other words, don’t plan what it is you are trying to do then scramble at the end to get the required energy. Determine your actions based on locally available sustainable energy. It is typical for a single property design to place elements relative to their distance from the house and the frequency with which you must visit them.

With the plan based on the holistic goal, it can now be implemented. Then observe the feedback and make adjustments to the plan accordingly.

I’d be remiss if I did not caution against looking to technology as a panacea for our problems. In the words of 2004 Massey lecturer Ronald Wright,

Our technological culture measures human progress by technology: the club is better than the fist, the arrow better than the club, the bullet better than the arrow. We came to this belief for empirical reasons.

He points out, however, that “[o]ur practical faith in progress has ramified and hardened into an ideology – a secular religion which… is blind to certain flaws in its credentials.”

Technology may solve a given problem, but it opens up new problems requiring ever more technology to solve. We’ve had all the technology we’ve needed to make global civilisation sustainable for decades.

Now I’ll give the promised examples of this approach in action.

In May of 2009, I visited the small farming village of Talupula in Andhra Pradesh, India and the invite of a local organisation, the Green Tree Foundation, which provides trees to the region at low or no cost. Historically a dry tropical region, biotic pressure and climate change has turned the region into a semi arid zone, with the threat of desertification very seriously looming (desert has sprung up 100 km to the west). The goal in my case was to design and implement a water harvesting system to revitalise a section of land to serve as a demonstration site.

My initial plan had been to establish a system involving a small earthen dam fed by swales (swales are water harvesting ditches dug on contour) along with patterned ripping with a subsoiler to assist in allowing easier infiltration of water and even irrigation of the land.

Well, remember that it is important to assume one’s plan is wrong. While building a dam was an exciting prospect for me, the lateritic soils there made it an unrealistic option. The soil, hard as concrete in the dry season and as squishy as a mattress in the wet season did not lend itself to the kind of dam I had in mind, nor the patterned ripping with the subsoiler. The plan changed.

We settled on a 7-acre patch of hillside that a local organic farmer had abandoned to pigeon pea farming and nothing else. I knew that swales were a good option for the site and could assist in establishing a more water-hungry and more valuable crop of mango trees.

Inspecting the site, I calculated the size and spacing of the water harvesting swales needed and had the site mapped out by a survey crew. With three levels of contour mapped out and with the aid of a backhoe and a labour crew, we dug out 4 swales spanning over 400 metres. These swales capture rainfall that would otherwise wash down the hillside, eroding it, and store the water in the ground, making it available to plants and recharging the water table. When completely filled, the swales hold over one million litres of water. The total cost of the work to make this happen was $650 CND.

The staff at the Green Tree Foundation includes ethnobotanists who grew up in the region, so I left tree and ground cover selection in their very capable hands. This image just six months after I left shows the top swale with nitrogen-fixing Cassia siamea, which helps stabilise the soil along with enriching it. C. siamea leaves and pods can also be cooked and eaten, and helps fight colorectal cancer. It can also be used as a good fuel source. [Correction: C. siamea is not a nitrogen-fixing plant.]

Here we see mango trees that have been established without the use of irrigation. I knew the swales would have a marked effect, but I never imagined mango trees without irrigation.

Directly below the second and largest swale, there was a large tamarind tree that I would frequently seek shelter under (and it no doubt saved my life on the 45oC+ days we had). The tamarind fruits during the monsoon season and typical crops are like this one on a tamarind very close to the site but on the opposite slope.

Here is an image of the crop from the tamarind directly beneath the swales. The difference is night and day. Considering the tree saved my live several times over, this is the least I could do for it.

I had predicted to the team that within 3 years, springs would appear at the bottom of the hill below the swales, if only during the rainy season. Well, slightly to the side below the site, the farmer had dug a well for irrigation. When I was there, the water level was 3 metres down and inaccessible without a hose. Here, six months later, the same well was full, they say as a direct result of the swales.

My confidence in the effectiveness of this technique came from learning of the experiences of one of my teachers, Geoff Lawton. In 2000, he was invited to Jordan by NICCOD, a Japanese NGO and the Hashemite Fund for Human Development.

On a ten acre site in the Jordan River valley, 10 km from the Dead Sea, he led a project to establish a demonstration site for sustainable design. Rainfall at the site comes in 2 or 3 large events and amounts to only 100 to 150 mm per year. Regular hot, desiccating winds contribute to severe evaporation on the site. The soil is very infertile with little organic matter and extremely high salinity. Soil to a depth of 30 cm was found to have 98.1 dS/m, and soil from 30 to 60 cm deep registered 101.7 dS/m, making it extremely salty. [A dS/m, or decisiemens per metre, is a measure of electrical conductivity which can be used to measure soil salinity. The United States Department of Agriculture considers soil over 4 dS/m to be “saline soil.” The soils at the Kafrin site are above this level by more than an order of magnitude!]

To capture every drop of rainfall possible, the site was surveyed to provide a detailed map of the site contours. Once the contour lines were identified, swales were planned for the site to capture as much of the runoff rain to allow it to sink into the ground where it is most easily stored for the benefit of soil life and vegetation. Nitrogen-fixing trees were planted and drip irrigation was used to help establish them, although the site used 1/5th the irrigation of the surrounding farms in the area.

Eighteen months later, the site looked like this.

Geoff’s wife Nadia Lawton used similar permaculture techniques to design her family’s garden in Jordan. At the start, the site was very dry. They dug in a swale to capture rainwater and shunted greywater from the sinks into the swale. Before the trees were planted, the site looked like this.

The next year, the site was unrecognisable.

It’s not just applicable to arid regions, either. Before I left for India, I designed a passive solar home for my wife and I and have been building it myself since the end of 2009. As opposed to active solar, which is used to generate an electrical current, passive solar is a means of utilizing heat from the sun.

At 45° latitude (north or south) there are 957 Watt hours per square metre available for heating on a winter day. We can use this energy to assist in heating rather than relying totally on external sources of heat.

Taking advantage of free solar heat will not only save money, it will also help in making a building sustainable over its lifetime.

South facing fenestration allows us to capture solar energy where it is stored in the concrete pad and the thermal mass of the masonry stove that also serves as a backup heat source.

Though I was busy during the summer with construction of the house, I did take some time to establish 160 square feet worth of garden to supply us with fresh vegetables. In just that little area, I was able to grow about $400 worth of produce. Finding people to give the surplus away to was the main challenge. I will admit that we did need to water the garden a few times during the summer, but when it came to weeding, I report in all honesty that I spent less than 30 seconds weeding the entire summer. Similarly, we had no problems with pests whatsoever, so my recipes for drinkable insecticides were unnecessary.

Design is not limited to individual properties, either. I have recently worked with Transition Toronto, which is part of the Transition Movement. The Transition Movement seeks to assist communities in dealing with the challenges faced by declining energy levels. This includes creating action plans to provide food and energy for people as well as developing commerce strategies for a world that will surely see cast economic changes.

A colleague and fellow student of mine who is from Colombia has taught an entire village design and assisted them in designing a sustainable village for themselves in the mountains of Colombia.

And another piece of good news before I wrap up. It has taken us a tremendous amount of effort and energy to do the damage we have to the Earth. As we can see, if we pattern our actions in harmony with nature and make nature a partner rather than an opponent, positive response is instantaneous.

Once we can establish a sensible goal for ourselves and create a sustainable plan that involves working with nature, we can turn our planet on a dime. So, don’t panic.

Designing a Livable Passive Solar Home

Douglas Barnes’s Articles at Permaculture Reflections, Page 4

The following is a writeup of a workshop given at the fall 2010 conference of The Permaculture Project – GTA.

This guide is aimed at helping you to design an energy efficient, passive solar home in a temperate environment. However, there is more to consider when designing a home than just energy efficiency. The interior of the home must also be functional and inviting. Fortunately, this can be done without compromising on the gains derived from passive solar design.

What is Passive Solar?

As opposed to active solar, which is used to generate an electrical current, passive solar is a means of utilizing heat from the sun.

At 45° latitude (north or south) there are 957 Watt hours per square metre available for heating on a winter day. We can use this energy to assist in heating rather than relying totally on external sources of heat.

Taking advantage of free solar heat will not only save money, it will also help in making a building sustainable over its lifetime.

Passive Solar Design

Firstly, good solar access is necessary for passive solar design. A suitable site will need good access to the winter sun from at least 10 AM to 3 PM to be effective. While deciduous trees minimize the amount of shadows compared to evergreens, they still reduce the amount of solar gain and really interfere with passive solar design.

Slopes that face the sun (southern slopes in Canada) are good candidates, though flat sites will works as well. North-facing slopes are poor sites for passive solar unless the slope is very gentle.

The building itself will be oriented perpendicular to the sun at midday so as to maximize the exposure to the sun. If the building is slightly off, the loss is negligible.

Solar energy is let into the building through its sun-facing windows (south windows in Canada). However, having too few windows will will lead to insufficient heating, whereas having to many will lead to overheating in the day and heal loss at night. The simple rule of thumb is to match the percentage of window coverage on the sun-side wall with the latitude. So, a home at 45o north latitude would have about 45% of it’s south wall covered in windows.

The energy gained from the direct sunlight will be lost after the sun goes down if it is not stored. We store it by means of a thermal mass. A thermal mass is simply a dense object such as rock or concrete that will store the sun’s energy.

The easiest was to do this is by making the building’s foundation a monolithic slab on grade. In other words, the foundation is an insulated cement pad that the building rests on. The good news in that a slab on grade foundation is simple to build and avoids the problems of a leaky basement by eliminating the basement altogether.

The slab is insulated to retain the heat within the building. It is also a good idea to put “frost protection,” or “frost wings” around the perimeter of the foundation to help reduce heat loss.

Here, “frost wings” have been added in addition to the perimeter insulation.

Additional thermal mass can come from structures such as a brick wall inside the house or a masonry heater.

This house in Melbourne, Australia interior brick walls in the kitchen to store solar heat.

A masonry heater such as this one can provide a backup heat source while also being a thermal mass to capture solar heat.

Additional gain can be achieved by using reflectors to direct sunlight into the house that would otherwise be lost. This approach is somewhat limited as the sun sits very low in the sky in Canada during the winter and the pitch of roofs is generally too steep.

Two additional approaches to capturing solar heat are the trombe wall and the thermal siphon. From the outside, a trombe wall looks like a window built over a wall, but it is a very effective passive solar technique. A thermal mass wall is built then covered with glass to trap the heat it stores.

Trombe wall

The thermal siphon is simply a window over an object that heats up (such as a piece of steel painted black) with vents to allow the heated air to escape into the house.

Thermal siphon.

Something to remember is that not everyday is sunny, and that a backup heat source is necessary. Masonry heaters (mentioned above) make excellent backup heat sources. Unfortunately, building codes in Canada require a mechanical backup heat source, meaning that, unless you are building a cottage, you are required to install a conventional heating system. Though electric baseboards are the most expensive way to heat, they are the cheapest to install and will not be needed in a well designed passive solar home anyway. Code will also force you to have a better insulated home, if you are using electric heat, and that never hurts.

Room Layout

The building will ideally be a long, thin structure with the long edge perpendicular to the sun. To maximize solar gain, keep the sun-facing edge of the building a flat wall. Angled or rounded shaped decrease solar gain.

Generally, you want to position the rooms so that their usage throughout the day follows the sun. So, the kitchen will be in the east, receiving the first sun of the day. Most people do not mind sleeping in cool rooms, so locating them on the shade side of the building (the north side in Canada) frees up sun space for other rooms used during the daytime. That said, an east-facing bedroom (perhaps on the northeast corner) is a glorious thing.

Setting the Roof Overhang

The maximum and minimum sun angles during the summer and winter solstices respectively are found with by the following formulas.

Winter sun angle “A”:

A = 90° – (your latitude + 23.5º)

Summer sun angle “A”:

A = 90° – (Your latitude – 23.5º)

Knowing this, you can use trigonometry to set your roof overhang so that you let sun in during the winter and keep it out during the summer.

There is good news if you don’t want to muck about with trigonometry, though. You can have your rafters cut at a suitable length by nailing two pieces of wood together at the angle of the winter sun. Then place this guide flush against the wall at the top of your window and mark the point on the rafter that the guide intersects it.

A guide set to the same angle as the winter sun can be used to determine where to cut the rafters to set the overhang.

With Canadian latitudes, this will mean that the eaves of the house are set rather large – on the order of two feet or even more. While this means more material cost in the roof, it also means the building will be better protected from the elements.

Making It Functional and Beautiful

While the techniques covered so far can help you to build an energy efficient, passive solar home, they won’t guarantee that it will be a home that you would want to spend any time in. There are architectural patterns that will assist in designing a livable home, however.

First, recognize that your home is both a place to meet people and a sanctuary to get away from the world – and it can be both simultaneously. Design your home with spheres of privacy from the public, where you can greet people stopping by, to the semi-private, where you can invite guests to sit down, to the private, where only the family goes.

Next, a good home has a flow to it. Movement through the home takes place through rooms rather than through hallways or passageways. This makes the rooms social and inviting.

There should be a central common area that the major flows of traffic through the house intersect.

That common area will be improved if it has its own semi-private areas where people can sit off to the side but still be apart of the common area itself.

A room will be much more pleasant to live in if it has natural light coming in from two sides.

Crenelate the edge of a building. This will create usable and inviting spaces both inside and outside the building, increase airflow in the summer, and help to create rooms with natural light coming from two sides.

Having different ceiling heights in different rooms creates varied atmospheres in a home ranging from lively to more intimate. Such effects are easy to achieve in a 1.5 story house, which also happens to be the most efficient home to build in terms of building material.

Finally, a large, sheltering roof that the home is built into is both functional and aesthetic. Make at least one slope of the roof visible from the ground; and, if possible, low enough to the ground in places to touch. If this is done on the north side (in Canada) it will help the building to deflect cold northern winds in the winter.

Next steps: You might be interested in our upcoming online course on Temperate Climate Permaculture.

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Introduction to Permaculture: Urban Areas

Douglas Barnes’s Articles at Permaculture Reflections, Page 4

The following is a write-up of a seminar in Toronto on April, 1st, 2010.

Jump to:

I am going to give you an outline of what permaculture is, how permaculture design is done and how it can be applied to urban environments. In order to explain the design process, I am going to be mentioning a number of things that might appear to have no relevance to the urban situation. I do this to explain the principles of permaculture design and hopefully give you a core understanding of how and why I make the suggestions I do.

Before I start jumping into things, I think it’s important to give some definitions. First and most importantly is defining permaculture. The name permaculture was coined by combining permanent and agriculture and permanent and culture. Sustainability was not a buzz word back in the 70s when permaculture was developed. Simply put, permaculture is system for designing sustainable human environments. That means meeting people’s needs for food, water, shelter, energy, waste control and less tangible needs such as community structure and services. It’s also environmentally specific, so the systems I have designed on my land are different from the ones I have designed in semi-arid India, temperate Japan or temperate and sub-tropical Australia or the proposals for a project in tropical Uganda later this year.

This definition of permaculture requires another definition and that is the meaning of sustainable. The word has very seldom been given a clear definition and, as a result, has increasingly been co-opted as a marketing term. Looking to see how the word is misused, I discovered a few years back that a large and infamous agro-chemical company was selling its glyphosate herbicide as a way of “creating sustainable pastures.”

Here’s the thing about their product:

It’s toxic to amphibians.

It kills Rhizobium bacteria, which are the bacteria living symbiotically with legumes that are responsible for fixing atmospheric nitrogen. So, if you plant GM soy in the hopes of boosting soil nitrogen and cutting weeds with the glyphosate, you are unknowingly reducing the nitrogen-fixing capacity of the soy.

It kills mycorrhizal fungi, which are important for soil health. Mycorrhizal fungi help plants attain vital minerals like calcium, phosphorus and magnesium. They help supply water to plants in drought periods. They allow different plants of different species connect together to exchange nutrients and help fight disease and pest attack. Killing them off is very detrimental to soil fertility.

It is claimed by advocates of the chemical that it cannot leach into water systems because it bonds with soil particles. It does, however get into water systems and, when it does, it is toxic to fish.

While not directly toxic to birds, the ecosystem as a whole is affected, reducing local bird populations. This isn’t speculation, this has been observed.

In humans, it has been found to cause non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Clearly, it is not “sustainable” if the word “sustainable” is to have any real meaning. And without a clear definition, the only time we will ever truly know the answer to whether something is sustainable or not is when it isn’t sustainable.

Here’s the definition: A system is sustainable if over its lifetime it produces or stores more energy than it consumers in its creation, operation and maintenance. Think of a bank account as an analogy. How long can you continue your lifestyle if you are continually spending more money than you earn? Sooner or later, that lifestyle will come to an end.

If you run your civilisation this way – spending energy than you store – it will most definitely collapse eventually. The example in this slide is Rapa Nui, but there have been numerous other examples throughout history. Were Easter Island in its original state, it would be covered by subtropical forests.

I would like to point out a little snag with this definition, however. Consider the embodied energy in an artist’s canvas. Finding figures for embodied energy is difficult, but let us say for the of argument that the embodied energy in the canvas – the energy involved in growing the hemp, processing it, weaving it, and its transportation costs, energy costs in the wood, in the metal staples holding the splined canvas together, the energy in the paint, and the energy costs of the artist painting a picture comes out to the equivalent of 10 litres of gasoline. Is the Mona Lisa worth just 10 litres of gasoline? How about 100 litres? Could you imagine any situation where you might trade the Mona Lisa for 100 litres of petrol? For 10 litres? Perhaps.

As you might imagine, accounting for the energy costs of something like a home or a dam could become very complex. What if it is a great design that requires virgin forest to be cleared to create it? What if it will wipe out the habitat of an endangered species? I think there is a way out of this problem.

Consider as an analogy the example of the Greek Korous purchased by the Getty Museum when the directors there wanted to establish it as a world-class museum. All the scientific tests said the remarkably intact korous was genuine. Yet immediately upon seeing the piece, experts proclaimed it a fake and advised the Getty not to purchase it. Stating exactly why it was a fake was difficult. It seems little things like incorrect hand size were registering on the unconscious mind of the experts, but they spotted the fake nonetheless.

I believe that with a little practice, we can all do with sustainability what the art experts did with the korous, if we keep a conservation mindset and apply rigorous honesty.

Now, I’d like to spend just a few minutes on what’s happening in the world and where we are going. I am sure everyone is well aware of where our climate is headed and the accompanying acidification and pollution that go along with it. The climate is an incredibly complex thing and exact prediction is very difficult. One thing to realise is that scientists are, on the whole, very careful about what they say and certainly about what they predict. As such, IPCC predictions sound somewhat manageable. These predictions, however, do not take into account knock-on effects like methane releases from arctic thawing, methane being 22 times as potent a greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide. This would lead to a feedback of increased warming causing more melting of ice, meaning less albedo, in turn meaning more warming, meaning plant die-off, meaning more carbon dioxide being released, meaning more warming, meaning ocean die off, meaning more CO₂ released, meaning more warming, and along the way, more erratic weather meaning more crop failures.

In the unlikely event that climate change should turn out to be no big deal, we nevertheless face an extremely serious problem due to soil erosion and degradation. Soil erosion is off most people’s radar because it is not a very sexy threat. Roland Emmerich has not and will not make a movie about the world going to pot because of top soil washing away. Yet, not single civilisation that has collapsed has not had loss of soil as a major contributing factor in their collapse. The difference between soil loss today and historical losses that have led to collapse is that we are now doing in the space of a few years what used to take many centuries to achieve. Pivot irrigation in arid and semi-arid regions can make land unusable in just 3 years time, after which they just more on to a new patch of land. This is one of the costs of the technological advancement of the mechanization of agriculture.

Hand-in-hand with soil loss is deforestation. One of the things that forests do is build and maintain fertile soils. For reasons that I don’t have time to go into, they might also be thought of as rain makers.

Pollution, which is really an issue of either unused excess resources or using the kind of resources that degrade other resources, is also a major issue. Climate change is one example of this, but there are other issues such as long term damage of soil and aquatic systems from persistent pollutants such as dioxins. Damage from environmental estrogens is another issue; and even more serious is the death toll in the millions worldwide from air pollution – particulate matter (deaths mainly from cardiovascular disease and lung diseases).

Now this sounds really horrible, and while it is, there is reason to take heart. Nature is very resilient. It takes tremendous effort and a fair bit of time on the whole to damage it. But it you pattern your actions in harmony with nature, the response is immediate and positive.

I could mention the decline of fossil fuels. While this does present a challenge considering that we have designed our food systems to be totally reliant on fossil fuels, it is ultimately more of a solution than a problem. Yes, right now we rely on natural gas to synthesize nitrogenous fertilisers; and we rely on diesel and gasoline to produce and transport that food, and to some extent we rely on the energy from coal to process that food. But there is nothing I can think of that would be more disastrous to human civilisation than the discovery of some inexpensive, plentiful replacement for fossil fuels, be it renewable or not. The issue is the overabundance of energy, not its non-renewability, which will become apparent in a few minutes when we look at design. Look at the damage we have already caused due to easy access to energy. Having a fresh supply in a new form is not going to end this destruction.

For a mega city like Toronto, this leaves a significant challenge. In terms of primary production, cities consume and contribute next to nothing. In some cases, like Tokyo where I lived for over a decade, there is simply no future. The nation of Japan did have a sustainable population at 30 million people but they now have that many in an area a little larger than the size of Algonquin Park. Quite simply, that is a temporary arrangement. They can have a go at growing on every rooftop and balcony in the city, but in the end, the population density is too high to support sustainably. Already the majority of the calories the Japanese consume come from imports and the percentage of calories from food actually produced from within Tokyo itself is negligible.

Toronto has enough unused land within the city to meet a large proportion of its needs. Not all this land is immediately usable, mind you. Lead contamination, for example, is a serious problem in many areas of the city and all soil needs to be tested before being used. Rehabilitation is possible, however.

Meeting energy requirements for heating is another challenge; and, due to Toronto’s odd layout, this will be difficult. More on this later.

There are three approaches that we open to take:

The first is to do nothing. Continue to operate with the energy-intensive regime to meet our material and immaterial needs. But with 10 calories on average being spent to produce one calorie of food, this regime will come to an end sooner or later.

The second approach is a return to labour-intensive traditional approaches. Some approaches were more laborious than others. Rice growing, for instance, is nearly nonstop work when done the traditional way. Other approaches to meeting needs were not always that bad, but still pretty hard work for what usually amounted to a nutritionally meagre diet.

The third approach is the design-intensive approach. Whereas the first relies on letting machinery carry out the brute work, energy in other words; and the second involved using human and animal labour to meet human needs, the design-intensive approach is knowledge and creativity intensive.

Permaculture is a design intensive approach. And different from other systems of design, it is guided by an ethical code, namely

  • Care of the Earth
  • Care of its people
  • And return of the surplus to meet the needs of the Earth and the people.

We may be trying to become sustainable, but even following the ethics, I feel there is a serious piece of the puzzle missing.

What are we trying to do here? This is a serious question. In fact, it is the most serious question one can ask. I believe that we face all the problems I mentioned earlier because we are stumbling along, half-conscious without a real understanding of what it is we are doing. Just what is the goal of our society, or of the global society as a whole?

Is the goal long term survivability, otherwise known as sustainability? Not by any stretch of the imagination. We are living well beyond our means with the dream that some wondrous technology will come and solve this problem for us. There is no better recipe for collapse of civilization than that. Looking empirically, if survivability is our goal, we as a species are either grossly incompetent or incredibly stupid.

Is the aim of our society personal or community happiness? Again, no. We have data consistently showing that while personal wealth has, on the whole, increased, happiness has decreased. As Lord Turner, former head of the Confederation of British Industry recently pointed out, “All the evidence shows that beyond the sort of standard of living which Britain has now achieved, extra growth does not automatically translate into human welfare and happiness.” Communities, too, are becoming less integrated and interdependent than they once were. This is not a good outcome for a tribal species.

Is the aim to maximize human potential? No. The concern of our society is not to get as many people as possible to experience the maximum personal growth possible. National funding on mental health and education are enough to indicate that this is not a serious aim.

Is the aim simply to meet material needs for clean, healthy food, clean water, clean air, shelter and energy for warmth and cooking? The food we eat holds less nutritional value now that we’ve industrialized food production. Furthermore, biocide use contaminates not only the food, but more importantly and more severely the farmers and environment that produced it. There is no clean air unpolluted by man-made chemicals anywhere on Earth. There is no clean, uncontaminated water left, save for what is available in glaciers. Shelter is available, to some at least. Looking at homeless populations, it appears that shelter is available, provided you are both mentally fit and gainfully employed or with sufficient financial reserves to provide you with a roof over your head. And energy to stay warm and cook food? The same conditions seem to apply as for shelter. So, no, this is not the aim of the current system. If it were a serious concern, it would meet these needs better, assuming again that we are not all outlandishly incompetent.

Looking at the outcomes, it appears as though the aim of the current system is to accrue and secure financial power to those clever enough, educated enough, lucky enough and/or devious enough to get it and hold on to it. Again, I base this on observation, not ideology. I am not making an argument for or against markets here, I am only looking at outcomes. I know of situations where markets work brilliantly and others where they fail miserably. I am only interested in reality, not ideology, because reality always gets the last punch.

So now that we consciously know what it is we are actually doing on the whole – not trying to be happy, not trying to improve ourselves, not trying to be healthy, not trying to survive as a species, but rather trying to have power over others – we can ask if we want to do this or do something different.

I can’t stress enough how important this is. I can list a whole bunch of tricks and techniques to capture energy or produce food; but without having a coherent goal, it’s not going to change much of anything.

I mentioned at the start that permaculture is about meeting human needs, both tangible and intangible. Looking at this slide which I have based heavily on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, we can go through point by point and ask how well the status quo system is doing at meeting those needs. Some are met, others are not. Almost none are met sustainably, which is where permaculture comes in.

Let’s now look at the design process.

The kernel of sustainable design is designing action around energy, not energy around action. Most action today is planned and executed with the energy it requires being just an afterthought. A person builds a new house, for instance, and then figures on heating it after they have settled on a design. The usual option is a gas furnace thrown in to keep things warm in the winter and an air conditioning system to keep the home cool in the summer. Energy is an afterthought here. The source of that energy is almost never considered.

Contrast that with my home. It has a passive solar design – windows facing the sun to let the 957 Watt hours per m² available to us from sunlight into our home where it is stored in the concrete floor to slowly radiate into the home throughout the day. A masonry stove is the backup heat source. This very efficient stove channels the hot flue gases though a large brick mass that stores the heat and lets it out slowly. The windows are designed to allow heat to escape in summer. There is no air conditioning; and after over ten years in stifling Tokyo and working in 45°C+ heat on a permaculture project in India last year, I really can’t imagine me needing air conditioning. This is Canada after all.

Another strategy permaculture uses to apply this approach of designing action around available energy is in the creation of zones of activity. It is basically placing elements of the system that are frequently used closer to the home (or centre of activity) and ones less frequently used farther away. As straightforward as this sounds, it is not often applied. Nearly every single garden I have seen in Canada is placed not only far from the kitchen where the food it produces will be used, but in the farthest end of the yard as though a garden is some undesirable thing that you want as far away from you as possible.

On a given site, there are a number of resources and energies that flow through the site that are available to us until they ultimately are lost off site. They arrive to us from a source and are lost to us in a sink.

We want to slow down the path of these resources from the source to the sink, making them available to us for as long as possible.

As one example, here is a system in Australia I helped consult on with a company there called Permaculture Solutions:

In this case, not only is the flow of water slowed as it moves from the top of the system to the bottom, nutrient flow is slowed as well. The fertility from the animals flows from the top, helps to fertilize trees, and helps grow reeds at the bottom of the site which are then cut and physically transported to the top of the site.

We can look at this as assigning each element in the system multiple duties. This builds redundancy into the system, making it more resilient. For nonliving systems, it conserves resources to assign multiple duties to each element. For example, the more duties we give water, the more effectively we can use water. (Don’t include grease filters in your greywater systems.)

Elements in the system do not act in isolation, they are linked together. The goal is to make the total system as self-regulating as possible. This will save human or mechanical labour.

In the chicken-heated greenhouse, chickens are given shelter and heat from the greenhouse and nutrients from the plants. The plants supplement the chickens’ diet and are fed by the chicken manure. The greenhouse provides both of them with water with its water catchment system. Putting complimentary systems together saves energy.

Now, you will notice in these examples that what might otherwise be considered a waste product is cycled into another process. What would happen, though, if the product from one process went unused? Well, then it would be a form of pollution. A cattle farm on a holistic management system can produce high quality meat, improve pastures and be carbon neutral or even sequester carbon. But what of the case of shed-raised animals? Industrially produced feed, usually in the form of grains, which is not part of the natural diet of cattle, makes them farty, meaning more methane produced. The dung then collects, releasing both carbon and nitrogen into the air, contributing to a global climate problem and a local stench problem. It can also contaminate water systems, putting lives at risk. The problem here is an excellent resource, cattle manure, is in excess supply. This gives us a definition: pollution, then, is the situation in which an unused resource is in excess supply.

We have this problem now with energy, as I alluded to earlier. Supply a system with too little energy and it will struggle and possibly die. Supply it with too much and chaos will ensue. Industrial production systems have too much energy and are thus leading to demented results. I also assert that the same holds true for monetary wealth. It may be a little bit of a philosophical journey, but consider what happens to the individual who suffers from wealth pollution.


Now that we have an understanding of what permaculture is and how the design process works, let’s look at addressing some specific problems, starting with heating. In a cold climate, up to 20% of the economy can be devoted to keeping warm. Conservation is the first issue to address.

For home owners, a home energy audit is a good place to start. The Ontario Ministry of Energy and Infrastructure will help pay for an energy audit. If you get one and follow the recommendations and can demonstrate that you lowered your energy consumption, the Ontario government will reimburse you up to $150 towards the cost of the audit. The Ministry’s website explains the program and how you can receive up to $10,000 in rebates for improvements to energy efficiency (perhaps unavailable now after the recent announcement from the fed). The improvements boil down to bringing insulation up to par, fixing drafts and putting in a more efficient heat source, that kind of thing. But there are other approaches to take that are effective as well.

All my life I have been cursed with energy efficient homes. During my wife’s first winter in Canada, we rented an insulated cottage in Muskoka. With temperatures dropping down to -27°C, the insulation didn’t really suffice. One problem was, and I am not making this up, the homemade double pane windows it had, not to mention the glass-on-glass sliding windows. I knew it would be well worth it to create window plugs the help hold the heat in during the day. These were simply 1-inch sheets of Styrofoam cut to fit the window sill and surrounded with foam weather stripping tape to make a good seal. Good windows, such as the ones pictured only have an R-value of around R-4. Putting the plugs in moves you to about R-8 or 9, and if you use the denser R-10 foam, you would get closer to around R-12. I would put them at sunset each day and I knew they worked because when I took them out in the morning, the inside pane of glass would always be covered in frost – something that would not happen without the plugs. This was a temporary set up, but I will be using a decorated version of the same thing in the home I am currently building.

If these plugs are not suitable, you can make windows a little more efficient with floor-length drapes. A fablic “sausage can be placed on either side of the drapes and a piece of cardboard over the top of the rail to fill in the space between the drapes and the wall. Better still is a piece of foam rubber. It works best if the curtains are sealed to the wall at the sides – either tacked or velcroed.

A crash course in passive solar retrofitting

There are 3 types of heat available to us for heating: Convective Heat; Conductive Heat, and Radiant Heat.

Conductive heat is the sort of heat that comes from a hair drier or a forced-air furnace. It feels nice but is the least efficient way to heat. Conductive heat is the kind of heat that one gets from direct contact with a hot object, such as a fry pan or sitting right against a masonry stove. This is the most efficient form of heating but it is not always too practical. Radiant heat is the sort of heat that you feel coming from a fire or warm object at a distance. It is radiant heat that we utilise in passive solar design.

As I mentioned earlier, on a clear day, there are 957 Watt hours per m² available from the sun at 45º latitiude Since this amount of heat is so significant and is free, we should take full advantage of it. Passive solar works by allowing light into a building where it heats up objects inside.

To make passive solar effective, one needs a large, dense mass to store the heat and slowly radiate that heat out. Otherwise the heating effect only lasts while the sun is directly shining into the home. This is usually done by either having the home built on an insulated concrete pad or having a brick wall inside the home. If you don’t have either of those, such as is usually the case for people living in apartments or condos, you can build a variation of the trombe wall.

A trombe wall is simple a dense wall (usually concrete or brick) with a window over it. I realise that it is not very likely that people are going to go home and build a brick wall over their windows. Consider this retrofit instead:

If you build a frame to hold stacked bottles, the bottles can be filled with water, which will act as a thermal mass to hold the heat. As dark colours heat up better, purple wine bottles work well, plus you get to drink a lot of wine to make the wall.

Another approach is a thermal siphon. There are companies that make these ready to install, though I recall that they are a little pricey. I know someone who has one and they work very well while the sun is striking them.

If you are comfortable building yourself, you could make a thermal siphon rather cheaply. If you built it like a box, it would be installed on a roof and have a fan to force air through it. There is a product in Australia that is a version of this called the Sun Lizard.

Now here I should mention a real problem facing Toronto. This image shows with greatest challenge for passive solar retrofitting: dense housing on streets laid out north to south. For the life of me, I cannot understand why the city founders chose to design their city to minimise solar gain as one would in a desert community, but they did. Needless to say, this makes design very difficult.

The use of reflectors can maximise the amount to solar gain by harvesting sunlight that would otherwise be lost. Using stainless steel, mirror or Mylar, sunlight can be directed into either an east or west window and, if the architecture allows, a north window. The gain is significant enough that it is well worth it to take advantage of if possible.

Here is an example of a system I designed for a west-end home. It was the north-end of a duplex and the only scrap of sunlight I had to work with was off of the northeast corner facing the backyard. There was a grape trellis already, so the reflector could easily be mounted on it.


If you are a home owner and your site is suitable, you can take advantage of Ontario’s Green Energy Act. With it, the Ontario government will give you a 20-year contract to buy power you generate, with the best price paid being 80.2 cents per kWh, which is for solar power. Switch is a third party non-profit that will consult with those interested in taking advantage of this program. Their site is

As I mentioned earlier, the end of fossil fuels is in sight. A permaculture classmate of mine in Australia, Darren Doherty, thinks we are headed for a charcoal economy. This may be the case, though we would not be able to and should not consume energy at the rate we currently do. Biomass through coppice crop is a possibility, but if it is done in an industrial way, it is would just be yet another harmful activity. The Swedes have coppice cants of willow that they use to mop up excess nitrogen in sewage treatment plants and harvest them with modified combines. While it is a step in the right direction, it has its problems.

Green roofs and green walls are all the rage. They are very effective at reducing rooftop temperatures in summer and contribute to insulation, helping to reduce heating costs in winter. Aesthetically, I find them much nicer than looking at concrete. The federal government used to have a very good incentive program to encourage the retrofitting buildings, but I am not sure if this program is still in effect. As far as green walls go, there are numerous approaches one can take as you see here. It’s also possible to build a trellis and send climbing vines across them.


If you are going to be doing any gardening other than growing in containers with potting soil, you should have the soil tested first as heavy metal contamination can be a serious problem in some parts of the city. Here are some labs that can do testing:

A&L Canada Laboratories

Agri-Food Laboratories

Soil and Nutrient Laboratory and the UoG

Tests will be in the neighbourhood of $10 to $20.

When it comes to gardening, the first step is assessing the site. As I already mentioned, sunlight is a problem in Toronto and it is the first thing to consider. If you get 6 or more hours of sun, you can grow plants requiring “full sun.” If you get a minimum of 3 hours sun, you have “partial sun.” Remember that reflectors can help to increase access to sunlight and can be used in a garden.

The next difficulty to consider is wind. This can be a real problem for people growing on balconies or on rooftops. If may be necessary to provide a windbreak to protect plants.

Space is at a premium, so gardening needs to make the best use of space. If you have lawn space, you can densely plant as shown. There is no reason to grow things in rows. Rows are designed to facilitate machinery and tools. You don’t need to limit your growing area by making rows.

Make sure your site has easy access and workable pathways that are at least 40 cm wide.

You can make use of vertical space and even balcony ceilings.

Whether growing in containers or on reclaimed lawn space, the following images give an idea of mulching and soil-building:

See Creating the Permaculture Balcony Garden for more information on growing in small spaces.

If you have about 40 square feet of indoor or greenhouse space to work with, aquaponics might be an option. Simply put, aquaponics are a mix of hydroponic plant production and aquaculture to produce fish. Hydroponics on its own can be somewhat tricky, but adding fish makes the system function more like an ecosystem. This results in a more self-regulating system. Systems that are smaller than 1000 litres are prone to sudden fluctuations in nitrogen levels that can lead to dead fish. Better to stick with larger systems.

Greywater and Rainwater

It is odd that the approach cities take to rain – a vital resource – is to shunt it as quickly as possible to a disposal site. Cities are full of hard, impervious surfaces; and water is carried out in storm drains as quickly as possible. If one were designing a city from scratch, the smart thing to do would be to apply the principle of slowing the flow of resources through a site by catching as much as possible.

You might have access to water off of hard surfaces such as roofs or pavement that can be captured and used for irrigation.

Greywater is another option for irrigation. In the time we have I can only scrape the surface, however. Greywater is any source of used household water, excluding that which comes toilets. Water from wash basins, kitchen sinks, baths and washing machines are all greywater. They can assist in growing trees or vegetable crops, but not root crops.

Intangible Structures

Cooperative action can help facilitate sustainable projects. Things like co-housing require a well-mapped, shared vision among the group – one of the reasons they so often fail. Establishing communities garden space, however, is a simpler matter. Then there are actions like Permablitzes. The permablitz is something started by my friend and colleague Dam Palmer and his company Permaculture Solutions in Melbourne. A permablitz is an event whereby a designer gets together with a large group of people and implements a permaculture garden in one day. Of course the planning takes more time than that, but the physical work is done all in one shot.

For a complete permaculture reworking of society, alternative structures need to be set up. This may seem like a pipe dream in Toronto, but the Australians are making headway in some places towards making this a reality. In the third world, taking this sort of approach can make a huge difference as there is no government structure serving the people to speak of.


Douglas Barnes’s Articles at Permaculture Reflections, Page 4

I was interviewed by Bob Ewing of Digital Journal. The interview can be found here.

BE: Why is permaculture relevant today?

DB: I think more and more people today are realizing that the current industrialist-consumerist game is up. It is obvious to anyone who stops to look that we are burning through the earth’s capital in a way that will end in a very ugly manner in the not-too-distant future. We are currently in what is a serious economic crisis under our current economic model. World leaders are struggling to try to get us back to 2% growth, or thereabouts. Well, that means an economic doubling in 35 years. Now, doubling the economy requires the consumption of all of the resources used throughout history up until the time of the moment you are doubling from (i.e. all the resources used throughout history until now). Anyone who doesn’t recognize that this is a catastrophic disaster in the waiting is someone who is not willing to face the facts – and that is of very dangerous thing to do because reality always gets the last punch.

Read more:

Image of compost

Compost in 18 Days

Douglas Barnes’s Articles at Permaculture Reflections, Page 4

Fancy 2016 update:

We all know that compost is an excellent fertilizer for plants. It is also a sensible way to deal with organic wastes. In my climate, one can construct compost bins and dump his or her organic material in and, after two years time, finished compost is ready to go. Seriously, two years? I don’t need compost in two years, I need compost this year – this month! And if I keep throwing crud onto my compost pile for two years, it will be huge! Furthermore, I have to start new piles to let the old piles mature so that I am not digging through garbage to get down to my compost at the bottom. There has to be a better way. There is. When in doubt, let nature help out.

Microscopic workers

Lovely things bacteria. Different species of them have adapted to survive in almost any environment on earth. Some can even exist in temperatures that would burn your skin in seconds. In fact, some can generate that heat themselves. Enter into our story thermophilic bacteria. These little darlings seem to be ubiquitous, waiting for the right environment to present itself so that they can have their own little barbeque. If enough of their food is served to them in the right proportions with the right amount of water and just a touch of heat to start them off, they will hold their own little party and really get things cooking, literally.

So you’ve guessed by now that we are going to partner with these little bacteria to create our compost. Well they need to eat, so here’s the composting rule: If it has lived, it can live again. Forget what other composting guides have told you about no weeds and no meat, both those are fine. We are just concerned with carbon to nitrogen ratios. Thermophilic bacteria like a diet that has 25 to 30 parts of carbon for one part nitrogen (i.e. ratios of 25:1 to 30:1 carbon to nitrogen). Now, I don’t want you to get the impression that you need to go out and buy scales and weigh your garbage. It’s not like bacteria are as fussy eaters as cats. As long as you know basically what is carbon-rich and what is nitrogen-rich, you can make composting more of an art than a science.

Common compost ingredients

Compost ingredients and their carbon to nitrogen ratios
Material         Carbon:Nitrogen Ratio
   Bark (Hardwood) 223:1
Bark (Softwood) 496:1
Coffee grounds 20:1
Fish 3.6:1
Grass clippings 15:1
Leaves 54:1
Manure (Cattle) 19:1
Manure (Chickens) 10:1
Manure (Horse) 25:1
Manure (Pig) 14:1
Manure (Sheep) 16:1
Paper 800:1
Poultry scraps 5:1
Sawdust 500:1
Straw 80:1

Measuring compost ingredients

Again, you don’t need a scale. What you should take out of this is dry, brown things are high in carbon. Wet things that get stinky easily are high in nitrogen. Things that come out of your kitchen are going to be high in nitrogen. Dry plant scraps are going to be high in carbon. For most people, the hard part is going to be supplying the carbon, not the nitrogen. You might even need to hunt for someone else’s carbon-rich waste to get it. Your pile will basically be 2/3 carbon-rich material and 1/3 nitrogen rich material.

If you want to optimize speed, here’s a secret ingredient you can use: ash. Adding some fireplace ash will ensure that the pH doesn’t go too low. This will create a better environment for your bacteria, which will do the breaking down of the material.

A word of caution, though: If you use sawdust, make sure it is not from pressure treated lumber. Pressure treated lumber is impregnated with chromated copper arsenate, and unless your goal is cancer and cadmium poisoning leading to osteomalacia, you must avoid it at all costs. It is dangerous stuff.

Small pieces for faster composting

When I was a boy, I was not too good at cutting meat, particularly steak. I would pin the steak down and pry on it with my fork. The result all too often was that the steak would fly across the table and hit my older brother who frowned on that sort of thing. To avoid this, I would pick up the edge of the steak with my fork, bend down to my plate and chew on it. My mother frowned on this. She put a stop to this by cutting my steaks into small pieces for me. Problem solved.

Well, you need to do the same thing for your thermophilic bacteria. No, chucks of compost will not fly out of the compost pile and hit someone’s older brother if you don’t, but your pile will compost much better if you do. By chopping things up finely – ideally to pieces 1 cm long or less – you will be creating more surface area. More surface area means more area for more bacteria to munch away on the material in the compost pile. A small garden shredder can help you here. I have seen hand-powered choppers (a crank with a circular blade attached) in developing countries, but sadly I have not found such useful, human-powered choppers in Canada. If you like, you can throw in some larger, nitrogen-rich items once the pile has warmed up. The largest I’ve heard of was a roadkill rock wallaby. I was told that it melted away into nothingness inside the pile in about 6 days with only a shoulder blade remaining.


Mix up your material – a pitchfork can really help you here. Add water it as you go until you can just squeeze a single drop from a handful of material. This is just the right amount of water for the bacteria to do their thing. Also, to get the thermophilic reaction going, there needs to be enough material for a sort of “critical mass” to occur. This will occur when piles are 1 cubic metre or larger. What this means in practice is a pile that is about shoulder height.

Day 4

With the mixing done and the watering right, set a tarp over the pile and leave it 4 days. (The tarp is so that neither rain nor evaporation messes up your water content.) On the 4th day, turn the pile with a pitchfork. Don’t skip the turning part because we are dealing with aerobic bacteria. They need air. Just put the top and sides in a pile next to the current pile and put what’s left of the old pile on top, checking to make sure the water content is right (by squeezing the material) as you go. Now the pile will essentially be inside-out. Once you rake the last bits of the old pile onto the new pile, it’s ready to cover up with the tarp. Have a beer if you like.

Day 6

On the sixth day, take the tarp off and stick your arm in the pile. If everything is going correctly, you will instantly pull your arm out, cursing my name. If the pile is composting properly, it should be around 70ºC inside – literally hot enough to cook with. This is why it is ok to put weeds in. Any weed seeds will be cooked to the point that they are not viable (if they aren’t just melted away in the compost). Turn the pile again checking the water content as you go. Sorry about burning your arm. Have a beer, you deserve it.

From Day 6

After day 6, turn the pile every 2 days, checking the water content as you go and putting the tarp back over the top each time. After about 18 days, you will have finished compost. If things are a little cooler where you are, it may take longer. If they are hot, you might match the best time I’ve heard, which is 11 days.


Things don’t always go according to plan. Here’s what to do if they don’t:

On day 6, you grit your teeth, stick your arm in the pile and find it is not hot. Is the pile big enough? One cubic metre is really big. If it’s not really big, make it bigger. If it is big enough, is it too wet? If it is, spread the material out and let it dry a bit. Is it big enough and not too wet and not too dry? Then there is not enough nitrogen.

Inside the pile is there a white powdery substance? If so, there is too much nitrogen, Add carbon, check the water content and cover the pile with a tarp.

Does it smell bad? Good compost piles don’t smell bad. If it smells foul, add more carbon.

Adding compost to design

If you live in frosty climates like I do, composting like this is limited to the warm seasons. However, if you have a greenhouse and are willing to sacrifice some space for a pile, you can compost inside the greenhouse. A nice little feedback effect occurs where the heat of the greenhouse allows the thermophilic bacteria to take hold, which, in turn, help to heat the greenhouse. There are people who heat their greenhouses with compost every winter. Similarly, larger piles that are not turned can heat water by running plastic plumbing pipe inside the tube. French innovator Jean Pain used to heat water to 60ºC in 40-tonne piles that would cook for 18 months.

Happy composting