The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, unless you are a permaculture ninja, then the food forest is always more established on the other side of the hugelkultur swale. Whether you own 300 acres in the country or 1/4 acre in the city, I am sure we have all had the occasional case of property envy. This happened to me immediately as I started my permaculture design course (PDC) with Geoff Lawton. I started researching properties all over the United States that would provide the environment for the ideal food forest. As I went through the PDC, I started imagining swales, 7-layered systems, hugel-beds, herb spirals, and the multiple zones for growing and production. Unfortunately, those moments of dreaming quickly made me realize that I wasn’t happy where I was. I had a horrible case of destination addiction… permaculture destination addiction.
It is easy to get lost in the fantasy of “if I only had that property, then I would…”. Though it is helpful to dream, it is also dangerous if we allow ourselves to stay there. Not only do we have the opportunity to be happy and fulfilled where we are, but we also have the ability to experience abundance. Bob Fraser, a Christian leadership author, says, “Your ministry is right where your feet are.” In the case of the permaculture ninja, our opportunity for abundance is right where we stand. It is true, I might own another property in 20 years that will be very different than the ones I manage now. However, the reality is that I am stewarding land right now that needs my care, attention, and focus. I need to build right where I am as though I were going to be there for the next 70 years. I need to live in the present and not in the possibilities of the future.
What system are you stewarding today?
A permaculture friend of mine has a stunning little property in a suburban area that has a lot of old growth. He has hickory, oak, large maple, etc. Because of his desire to build a picture perfect permaculture property, he is longing to put in a food forest. He wants all seven layers with each one expressed in a way that it looks like a picture of Sepp Holtzer’s property. However, with the amount of old growth and shade he has on his property, having a 7-layer system is just not reality. He would have to cut down sections of the old growth to allow more sunlight and would need to amend the soil because of the high tannins in the acorns. In essence, he would need to kill off part of his 150+ year old system in order to add in a few bushes and understory shrubs. IT’S NOT WORTH IT!!
J.R.R. Tolkien says, “He who breaks a thing to find out what it is, has left the path of wisdom.”
Be where you are – Avoid Permaculture Destination Addiction
Instead of fighting against the natural succession that has already taken place on the property, he has the opportunity to work with nature instead of against it. Instead of the 7-layer system, he could be expanding the understory to include gooseberries, currants, ramps, fiddlehead ferns, etc. Instead of a regular vegetative layer, he has a property that would be perfect for mushroom production. He has a stunning overstay for raising chickens, ducks, turkey, or goats in the dappled shade of the forest. The maple trees are mature enough to be tapped for syrup, and the acorns are attracting the neighborhood deer and wildlife for hunting. This may not be a 7-layer food forest, but it really is a horse of a different color. There is a rare and unique system being offered right where his feet are.
Overcoming the temptation to “be” somewhere else is much easier said than done. Personally, I could spend all day dreaming about the future, white-boarding it out and making new designs. however, when I do that, my current system goes into chaos because I am not tending the garden the way that I should. Creating designs and white-boarding is an excellent practice, I outline a few tips on how to do it here, but we have to overcome the planning paralysis and become people of action and intelligent design.
Action, for a permaculturist, has to be not only balanced, but also optimized to express earth care, people care, and fair share. Our actions in the garden should pass the following questions:
1 – Am I doing what is right for this plant by creating an environment for it to thrive?
2 – Am I doing what is right for the companion planting guild that surrounds this plant?
3 – Am I doing what is best for the system as a whole?
Notice these questions do not involve topics primarily focused on the gardener. I am only one element in the system, and that system is quite simply bigger than I am. The questions are not asking, “Are avocados my favorite fruit?” This question has merit, sure, I want to grow something I enjoy. However, the reality is that I live in Missouri, so growing an avocado is not what’s best for the tree or the system as a whole…no matter how much I enjoy guacamole. In Missouri though, I can grow annual tomatoes, peppers, and other ingredients for salsa. I can grow perennial stone fruits for apple pie, berries for preserves, and grains for bread. Instead of focusing on avocados, it is best for me to appreciate the ground my feet are standing on right now. It’s best for me to intelligently design the system I am in and ask the healthy questions of how to optmimize it for abundance. Maybe in the future I will be in a system for avocados to thrive, but it is not today.
Because permaculturists are are often futuristic in thinking, it is easy to get excited in the moment and miss the opportunity where we are. There are three dangers that a young permaculturist or gardener should be careful of in order to create a healthy system. These are carefully outlined in part two of the Destination Addiction series, which you can read here.
Now, stop reading and get outside and into the garden!