The Druid's Garden

Spiritual Journeys in Tending the Land, Permaculture, Wildcrafting, and Regenerative Living

Recycled Seed Starting Materials: Paper Pots, Watering Bottles, and Venetian Blind Labels April 9, 2017

Seedlings growing in recycled materials!

Seedlings growing in recycled materials!

The spring is a wonderful time to begin starting your seeds–and here in Western PA, we just crossed the “eight weeks before last frost” threshold, so it is a bit of an urgent matter! This means that this weekend is the time to start many of the warm season crops and perennial herbs. Today’s post takes a “recycled” spin on seed starting to share with you a number of tricks for seed starting all using recycled and repurposed materials (drawing upon the permaculture principle, “waste is a resource”). For these seed starting options, we are making use of many typical “trash” and “recycle bin” products: newspaper, styrofoam take-out trays, two-liter soda bottles, and Venetian blinds. Even if your household doesn’t produce this stuff yourself, a simple walk down any suburban or town street will likely yield more of these materials than you’ll likely ever need.

 

If you want to know more about seeds and how to develop a good seed starting setup, you can visit my earlier post. I also have written about the kinds of seeds to start and my spiritual insights on seed starting in earlier posts.

 

Recycled Two-Liter Soda Bottle Seed Waterer

For really small seeds that need to be sown on the surface (like chamomile), watering them with a regular watering can or small indoor plant watering can dislodge the seeds. Then, the seeds flow to the edges of your pot and then sprout along those edges. However, a good farmer friend showed me this trick to create a very effective seed waterer using a two-liter soda bottle.  This waterer offers a very gentle watering system that doesn’t dislodge seeds (it also allows for uniform watering quickly of many different seed starts).

Materials: A drill with a small bit, a two-liter bottle with cap

Instructions: You simply take a very small drill bit and drill in a series of holes, like below.  The more holes you drill, the faster your water will come out (so you might want a few different options).

Drilling holes in the lid of a soda bottle

Drilling holes in the lid of a soda bottle

Once you’ve drilled your bottle, you fill it with water and water away!

Filled bottle

Filled bottle

 

Squeezing the bottle gently gives you a wonderful sprinkle that is just the right size for your seedlings and is kind to the tender plants.  Here I am watering some st. johns wort plants.

Watering St. John's Wort plants (plants for my refugia garden)

Watering St. John’s Wort plants (plants for my refugia garden)

 

Recycled Venitian Blinds as Seed Labels

Venitian blinds made of plastic are in widespread use but often end up being a waste product. Personally, I can’t stand the things, but I’m glad to have found a real use for them. If one or two of the smaller flimsy plastic blinds break, they are typically thrown away.  Larger ones eventually also are discarded. We see this here a lot in my college town–you can probably pick up a dozen or so of the discarded sets of blinds within a year’s time if you keep an eye out. What a friend of mine taught me some years ago was a simple trick to create labels for your seedlings and outdoor plants: using Venitian blinds and marker.

 

Cut up Venetian blinds actually make a wonderful choice for labels because they are hardy and don’t break down.  The only potential challenge is that if you use a sharpie on them, the marker will eventually fade in the sunlight (not a problem for seed starting, but can be a problem for planting out).

 

Materials: Venetian blinds of any size, scissors, sharpie marker.

Cutting up a larger blind into smaller segments for labels

Cutting up a larger blind into smaller segments for labels

To make the blinds: 

Any kind of blind works: you can use both the larger blinds (as in the photo) or the smaller blinds; both cut with a simple pair of scissors. Once you’ve cut them, simply label them and stick them in your pots (paper or plastic; In the photo below have some hand-me-down plastic pots with Veneitan blind labels–some of the seeds I started this week).

A finished tray with labels

Smaller Venetian blind labels

Smaller Venetian blind labels

The labels can be used year after year; even if the marker fades, you can simply replace it.

Recycled Paper Pots

This year, a friend and I experimented with these paper pot makers from the UK. They are nice–you roll up the pot, and then, the pot maker kind of crunches up the bottom as you twist it on a wooden base.

Paper pot makers (commercial)

Paper pot makers (commercial)

After some experimentation and modification, however, we found an even easier way to make these pots–with an added benefit of a bottom watering option using recycled take-out trays.

Paper pots ready for planting!

Paper pots ready for planting!

The process we developed doesn’t even need the paper pot maker–any jar (like a vitamin jar or spice jar) will easily do the trick.

 

Materials: Newspaper (preferably black and white, as this has soy-based inks), stapler, recycled styrofoam or plastic tray.

 

The process:

First, you fold your newspaper into the right size.

Folding newspaper for a smaller seed starting pot

Folding newspaper for a smaller seed starting pot

After folding, you need to roll it on something.  So here we go…

Rolling the paper around the pot maker (jar works fine as well)

Rolling the paper around the pot maker (jar works fine as well)

Now, you staple it or fold in a corner to hold it together.

Staple the pot - one staple is more than enough! You can also use a paperclip here (can be reused)

Staple the pot – one staple is more than enough! You can also use a paperclip here (can be reused)

Now, we place the pot, with the open bottom, into a recycled take-out tray and fill each with soil.  A spoon works really well for this purpose (although I prefer to get my fingers right in the soil).  If you put your soil in a bucket and make your soil wet (getting it to the consistency of brownie batter) your pots will fill very easily and then you don’t have to try to water the seeds after planting them (dislodging them).

Filling the pots with soil!

Filling the pots with soil!

These paper pots hold up pretty well over time.  We’ve noticed that when the plants outgrow them, they start to break their roots through the pot (see photo below).  This is a good sign to plant out or transplant into a bigger pot!

Ready to plant--roots coming out!

Ready to plant–roots coming out!

Not to mention they look really cool by comparison to other plastic options.

Beautiful trays of paper pots!

Beautiful trays of paper pots!

And don’t forget–seed starting is serious business! Someone needs to check your work. Here is our inspector general, Acorn.

Acorn inspects the watering.

Acorn inspects the watering.

 

I hope that the blessings of the spring are upon each of you!  If you have any other good tips for recycled/repurposed seed starting or growing ideas, I’d love to hear them :).

Save

Save

 

Embracing the Bucket: A Colorful Compost Toilet for Small Space Living January 1, 2017

The Druid's Garden beautiful composting toilet! :)

My beautiful composting toilet! 🙂

A few months ago, I posted on humanure and liquid gold as ecological resources. Many are once again realizing that our own waste is a precious resource, not something deserving of a flush. As a quick review, humanure refers to human feces that has been composted down (usually over a two-year period). Liquid gold refers to human urine which can be used immediately (diluted to 10%) as a nitrogen-rich fertilizer.  This waste-cycling practice allows us to reconnect our own elimination cycle with the cycles of nature and bring nutrients back into our landscape rather into toxic municipal septic systems.  Working with our own waste is a very powerful practice for rejoining the cycles of nutrients and flows in the living landscape.

 

And so, as a follow-up to that post, I’d like to share the creation of a compost toilet for my small rental house (as part of my own experiments in rental house permaculture practice).  This post will cover overcoming challenges, basic plans for construction, decoration, and use. I also think this is a wonderful post for the civil new year, and the phrase “out with the old, in with the new” very much comes to mind!

 

Overcoming Mental, Collecting, and Composting Challenges

The idea of collecting and composting humanure includes several challenges we have to overcome: mental challenge and the physical challenge of collecting and composting your waste. I’ll explore each of these first before getting to the specific compost toilet construction and design.

 

When I mentioned that I was thinking about building a compost toilet to my family and certain friends, a number of them expressed a great deal skepticism and doubt, refusing to use it even before it was in place. Elimination is a very taboo topic. The idea of handling a bucket of your own waste, and doing anything with it, beyond flushing it “away” is mentally challenging.  For one, we have to overcome years and years of social conditioning about what “appropriate bathroom behavior” is–and that social conditioning suggests that the best thing we can do is to quietly do our business, to flush it, and move about your day.  There’s also the assumption that it will smell bad or be gross to do anything else.

 

Even if we can wrap our intellectual minds around embracing the bucket (as it makes a lot of sense, as I detailed in my earlier post), we still have to emotionally accept it and overcome that conditioning. After visiting various ecovillages, homesteads, and sustainable living centers, I had already had first-hand experience in using composting toilets, and with that experience, I decided they were pretty cool and worth pursuing.  But more than that, I knew that getting a handle on my own waste streams would allow me to deepen my own nature-based spiritual practice and directly work to regenerate the land by returning nutrients rather than discarding them. So the compost toilet was in line not only with my desire to honor and regenerate the land, but in line with my spiritual ethics.  So these things, along with some positive direct experience helped me to overcome some of the mental barriers, especially emotional ones.

 

Yep, that's a bit hard to avoid....

Yep, that’s a bit hard to avoid….

But what about the emotional and intellectual barriers folks coming to my house who have never used one before?  How could I get them to embrace the bucket? The truth is, based on where I was putting it, even if they didn’t use it, they were going to come face to face with it in my bathroom (see photo). Perhaps pooping in a “fun” toilet would make the difference. I decided that I would create the most beautiful, inviting, whimsical and incredible toilet they had ever seen.  I wanted to create something that people would be excited and overjoyed to poop in.  Heck, I wanted to create something that I wanted to be excited and overjoyed to use! In other words, I would create an artful toilet that was inviting and fun to use, not a plain old seat with a bucket!

 

With the mental challenges considered, there is, of course, the physical reality. Most of us hopefully don’t have a problem with the elimination of waste, but rather the collection of waste and the composting of the waste. The collection is, for a renter, the much more simple of the two. Simple compost toilet boxes, which are a wooden box, lid, and bucket with cover material, are really quite elegant to use. In fact, in my bathroom,  I had a tiny bit of room for a simple compost toilet collection bucket (inspired by the “lovable loo” and the Humanure Handbook).

 

My friend's composting facility (compost delivery was in the dark, so sorry about the poor photo)

My friend’s composting facility (compost delivery was in the dark, so sorry about the poor photo)

The composting itself was my final main hurdle. I live in a small house with a tiny yard that is rented; I can’t be composting my own humanure on land I don’t own (especially less than 10 feet from my neighbors). And so, I don’t have the option of storing it outside.  And I certainly don’t want to store it in my scary and often-flooded basement.  I seemed stuck–how to proceed? Then, a friend of mine told me she was building a humanure composting system just outside of town on a small piece of land she is working. She invited me to make contributions, both because more nutrients is a good thing and because she was having difficulty getting her pile up to the desired temperature. This is community building and teamwork at its best. Since her location is only a few miles outside of town and I got that way often to visit the woods or my family, I realized that it was time to embrace the bucket!

 

Constructing the Toilet (Collection)

The compost toilet is simply a box with a collection bucket!

The compost toilet is simply a box with a collection bucket!

My very first attempt at a composting toilet was going to be very simple: a bucket with an attachable lid designed for 5 gallon buckets. The fact that I had a tiny bathroom contributed to this early choice–there wasn’t really anywhere for the compost toilet to go if it were bulky (as the photo above shows). Some time ago, I had ordered a small lid/seat that would fit a five gallon bucket and was excited to try it out. My excitement immediately dwindled upon attaching it to the bucket.  Sitting on it reinforced my dread: it was small, uncomfortable, and not user-friendly.  Nobody would want to poop on that little seat; heck, even I didn’t want to poop using that little seat. So with this plan scrapped, it became obvious that building a more functional composting toilet was in order.

 

It turns out, building a more functional and comfortable basic compost toilet is a really simple thing: it usually has some kind of outer box that holds the bucket in place, offers a lid, and has a regular toilet seat that is reasonable to sit on to use. Lucky for me, a wonderful man, who I’ll call the Philosopher, has recently come into my life and he has some impressive construction skills (skills that I am sorely lacking).  Witnessing my concerns about the bucket seat I had purchased, the Philosopher offered to build the compost toilet.  The following few paragraphs include his instructions and measurements (although note that this toilet was built specifically for my small bathroom, so you might want to change the measurements).

 

Here is a list of the supplies:

  • 1/2 sheet of plywood (if you are painting it, you can get a sheet that is finished nicely on one side and not as nice on the other); if you are staining it and you want the grain all the same you’ll need more than 1/2 a sheet.
  • 3 five-gallon buckets (assuming off-site storage).  Two of these are collection buckets (so you have a spare) and one is for storing your cover material. Sometimes, Asian restaurants may have these available for free as they often purchase soy sauce in 5 gallon buckets.
  • Toilet seat (the one pictured was less than $10; you can also get this used)
  • Two hinges, wood screws, wood glue, clamps, and basic tools (hammer, screwdriver, table saw)

The following is the cut sheet for the compost toilet based on the height of the bucket and the space I had available in the bathroom.  This assumes one standard half-sheet of plywood.

Cut Sheet for Composting Toilet (one half sheet plywood)

Cut Sheet for Composting Toilet (one half sheet plywood)

The box was constructed by having the four sides rest on the floor and adding the bottom of the box inside the four sides. This is to prevent screws from digging into the floor.  The top of the seat, since it has to lift off and bear weight, sits on all four sides.

Box and bucket before painting

Box and bucket before painting

To get the hole for the bucket, the Philosopher simply traced the outside of the bucket onto the lid and cut it open with a jigsaw. He assembled it all and brought it back to my house for cat inspection. The felines approved.

Cat inspection of the box

Cat inspection of the box

Cat inspection of painting process

Cat inspection of painting process

Painting the Toilet

After the basic construction of the toilet was complete, it was time to paint–I knew these artistic skills would come in handy! Part of it was that I wanted it fun, colorful and inviting. The second part of it was that I wanted the toilet to be educational–so when you used it, you understood the nature of what your contributions.  After working on some sketches, I was ready to begin.

Starting sketches and using a plate to trace my outer image

Starting sketches and using a plate to trace my outer image

The toilet seat I decorated was a wooden one the Philosopher purchased at the hardware store for less than $10. It had a seal coating on it that I had to sand off (do this work outside with good ventilation and use a mask). Once I had the toilet seat sanded, I began painting the seat, the box, and the rest!  I wanted messages that were inspirational but not overtly intense, so I wove them into the box throughout, making it fun, whimsical, and inviting.

Painting Process

Painting Process

I used regular acrylic paints to paint the seat. I knew that a good seal was critically important for protection and cleaning, so I used three coats of clear acrylic sealer (which also needs to be done outside). This would allow me to clean the seat and protect my paint.

 

I wanted whimsical designs and messaging, things that allowed people to understand more the cycle of waste and nutrients as well as invite them to try it out.

Finished lid and seat!

Finished lid and seat!

After painting and sealing, we put the toilet together and admired our work. What began as a simple idea in our minds turned into a masterpiece both of us could be proud of!

Waste Not (front of Compost Toilet)

Waste Not (front of Compost Toilet)

Close up of lid and seat!

Close up of lid and seat!

Close-up of nutrient cycle painting on inside lid

Close-up of nutrient cycle painting on inside lid

Top of toilet inviting you inside....

Top of toilet inviting you inside….

 

The toilet was now ready to use–but first, I’m going to cover a few considerations for compost toilets as I generally understand them.

 

Preparing to Use the Toilet: Some Considerations

You’ll need to gather a few materials and make a few considerations for your compost toilet, specifically, how much of your business you are going to be doing in the compost toilet and what your cover material will be.  These are two related considerations: cover materials vary in absorbancy, and that will determine how much urine you can add to your toilet.

 

The first is finding a carbon-based cover material. Currently, I am using sawdust from the Philosopher’s father’s woodshop (free resource, and he doesn’t use treated wood) as well as partially composted wood chips from my parents’ house (free resource from local tree work).  In the future I’d also like to experiment with shredded fall leaves.

 

Now, absorbency is also important.  From a good friend who was living in a camper and moving around the country, and using her compost toilet full time, I learned the following: sawdust, woodchips, and the like aren’t very absorbent.  If you are going to be doing all of your business in your compost toilet, something more absorbent is necessary.  Peat moss or sphagnum moss was her choice, although she acknowledged that that’s the best she could get on the road consistently, and she didn’t prefer it for environmental reasons but didn’t always have access to anything better.  She said if you only use sawdust, you are likely to end up with a bucket of soup, especially if you aren’t able to dump it very often.  (I’m interested in hearing from other readers if they have experiences using other more sustainable-yet-absorbent possibilities–I’m also going to try shredded newspapers/office paper combined with some other available materials and see what that does).

 

Cover material for the toilet

Cover material for the toilet

I am currently solving this absorbancy problem but collecting urine separately and using it for plants and offerings back to the land (as I described earlier in my first post on the subject).  I have also seen this design: a separate urinal (for liquid gold) and toilet (for humanure) in many of the more elaborate compost toilet setups (like at Sirius Ecolvillage where I did my Permaculture Design Certificate). These two human wastes have very different uses and necessary treatments.

 

Further, if you are changing your bucket out at least once a week, the solid droppings don’t stink once covered up at all–its really quite amazing. However, urine will go to ammonia the longer it sits, exposed to air, if its not properly absorbed.  So I have found that using my compost toilet with the sawdust mainly for solid deposits (allowing for some liquid during making a solid deposit) doesn’t’ lead to any smell and the sawdust works well.

 

Another consideration is what happens to the toilet paper.  From a report from friends, toilet paper takes a lot longer to break down than humanure and you are sometimes left with only bits of TP with otherwise well composted material. Given this, many people don’t include theirs in the bucket.  But to me, this makes more waste, and helps with the absorbancy issue. Also, its possible to get recycled and undyed toilet paper, and that makes even little bit better. Volume here also matters: I am living alone with occasional visitors, and having a family of four would require much more buckets and volume (but also faster turnaround time as the buckets fill up).

 

In the end, a number of factors will impact how you use your compost toilet.  I’m in some ways making it out to be rather complicated, and it really isn’t.  What it ultimately comes down to is this: have some cover material, do your business, cover it up, and go about your day!

 

The edge of the bucket goes right up against the wood to prevent accidents!

The edge of the bucket goes right up against the wood to prevent accidents!

Using the Compost Toilet

Using the toilet is really easy.  You’ll need to do the following:

  1. Start with a layer of cover material on the very bottom of the bucket. I add about 1″ of sawdust to mine when starting a new bucket.
  2. Do your business. 
  3. Add a layer of cover material, covering your deposit. Fully covering the deposit ensures that you can reduce odor. But not all the TP needs covered; people often use way too much cover material, so keep this in mind.
  4. When the bucket is full, transport to the compost facility (backyard, friend’s land, wherever). Make your deposit at the compost pile (see below) and then clean your bucket.
  5. Repeat the above steps!

Composting and Storage

Here are some good instructions for how to build a composting facility for your humanure (this comes from the Humanure Handbook folks, which I would highly recommend for more details and information).

 

For my friend’s facility, the process is really simple. She built two potential piles that are both enclosed (to avoid having vermin or her pet goats in the pile). One pile is “active” meaning we are adding to it, and one pile is “composting” meaning that we are waiting while it composts down. She is using a piece of wire square of fencing (rigid) to keep critters out that covers the pile, then a thick one foot layer of hay to help keep the pile insulated during the cold winter months.  She also is using a thermometer to check the internal temperature of the pile.

 

To add deposits, we simply remove the wire square of fencing and then remove hay/insulating material from the pile, add the bucket to the pile, cover the pile back up with hay. Then we rinse the bucket with Castile soap (Dr. Bronner’s works well) and use a small toilet brush–adding all the liquid back into the pile. In the summer months, she has a water barrel there for that purpose, but in the winter months, we bring a gallon of warm water with us from home to rinse.  Then, the bucket simply goes back to your compost toilet to collect another 5 gallons of resources!  The Humanure will be very occasionally turned, and then added to perennial trees, bushes, and shrubs after composting down for two years.

 

I hope this post was inspirational and informative, and I believe it is a great way to start this new civil year. I know that 2016 was a hard year for many people, but I think its important to focus on what we are able to do, here and now, and find our way forward in harmony with the land. The problems we face ask us to creatively engage with our world, to embrace it with consideration and care, and I know that all of us, in our own ways, will continue to do that into the future.

 

Permaculture for Druids: Design Principles through the Five Elements October 2, 2016

Humans throughout history have looked to nature as the ultimate teacher; nature is the sacred text from which all wisdom flows. As druids, we know the more time you spend in nature, the more you align with its rhythms, and the more you discover its many teachings. One of the reasons I am so committed to permaculture design as part of my outer druid practice, is that permaculture design is rooted in that same natural wisdom. The permaculture design principles, which I’ll be discussing today in this post, are the core of permaculture: we use them, along with the three ethics, to help us make every decision, not only for design work, but also for daily living. If we are going to continue our journey into the inner and outer realms of permaculture, and how this concept ties to druidry and other earth-based spiritual practices, a discussion of the design principles is our logical next step!

 

The elements

The elements

The Design Principles with a Druid Lens

I’ll be drawing my principles from three sources: Holmgren’s (2002) Permaculture: Principles and Pathways beyond Sustainability, Mollison’s Permaculture One, as well as from my Kay Cafasso’s Sowing Solutions Permaculture Design Certificate course.

 

I’ve also found it useful to group the principles under one banner of the elements and the druid animals (with my own addition of the bee of inspiration for spirit). The principles don’t all work in the same way, and this grouping helps us understand them in a new light.  In terms of the actual principles, in some cases,  I have kept the principles the same. But in other cases, I have adapted these principles to be shared and most applicable to those following nature-based, earth-centered paths. This meant that I may given them a more appropriate name that will better resonate with our values, and in other cases, I have created new principles that are rooted in the spiritual traditions in honoring the living earth.

 

I want to note that my lens is by no way present in mainstream permaculture, although certainly can be found on the fringes of the current movement and, I believe, is being woven more and more into permaculture as a practice. As people regenerate and heal the land, they are naturally drawn to it spiritually. As a druid, know that these principles go much deeper. I’ve also included the original design principle in parenthesis when necessary.

 

Spirit Principles: The Wisdom of the Bee

The principles of spirit, through the magic of the bee, ask us to observe what is around us, to rethink and resee those experiences, and to understand the connections to all things.  Bees are master alchemists; they transform nectar into honey that can stay preserved for 1000 years.  Bees embody the principle of transformation, teaching us that we, too, can work our magic upon our earth, especially if we work collectively.

 

Observe, Interact, and Intuit (Observe and Interact, Holmgren). This principle is simple—it asks you, before you do anything else, to spend time observing your surroundings, interacting with them in a non-judgmental way, and (and this is my addition) using your intuition to guide you. We can gain incredible insight from this simple activity, and using the information before us is a way into all else. All living beings use this same principle: observing, interacting, and working on instinct to survive and thrive.  We do this in the AODA, where members are asked to spend at 15 minutes a week in nature in stillness and focus, for example.

 

Reflect and Revise (Apply self-regulation and value feedback, Holmgren). This principle has two parts, and we’ll briefly consider each. There is tremendous value in when we simply stop what we are doing and carefully think and meditate on our actions—this is the act of reflection. Reflection, through meditation, journaling, and quietude is a cornerstone of nature-based spiritual practices as well as permaculture. Revise, here, suggests that if we spend time periodically really thinking through and reflecting upon what we are doing, new insights may arise that we will be able to employ in our sacred action.  Revise here also implies that not being too committed to any particular approach is good—revision is a process where we shape and hone earlier ideas into something better. Sometimes, it takes us working through a project or meaningful change partway before we see a better way we can do something.

 

Work on Multiple Levels (New principle). There are a few ways to think about this principle, derived from both systems theory and hermetic occult philosophy. On the side of systems theory, we need to have an awareness and engage in designs that allow us to consider and work on multiple levels: the micro/individual, and the macro/system.  When we recognize that a single element is part of a larger system, that changes the way we think about that system and about that element.  Working on multiple levels encourages us to think in these two perspectives at once, and consider the interplay between them. This same interplay also takes place between the inner and outer realms. The bee, as both an individual and as a superorganism, helps us better understand this principle: a solitary bee functions on her own, but does so as part of that larger hive (system of bees) working for collective good.

 

On the hermetic side, this practice, is perhaps best epitomized by the magical adage, “As above, so below, as within, so without.” The underling idea here is that what we do on the inner planes (that is, realms of experience beyond the physical), has a direct impact on the physical plane. Similarly, what occurs on the outer planes has an impact on our inner realms. This also applies to us as people—the inner work we do (reflection, meditation, journeying, ritual) impacts our outer living; and vice versa. It is a principle that is well worth including here, as this principle has been enacted by humans, upon the landscape, for millennia. Outer transformations lead to inner transformations, and vice versa. We heal the land, we heal ourselves.

 

Air Principles: The Wisdom of the Hawk

Elemental Wheel

Elemental Wheel

The air principles focus on integrating our knowledge and wisdom to see more paths before us and using the power of air through our logic, intellect, and pattern recognition. These principles ask us to embody the energy of the hawk: first to fly high, take stock of what is before us, and offer us new was of experiencing and interacting as we begin the path towards positive change.

 

The Problem is the Solution (Mollison). This is one of my favorite of the principles, and for good reason. We spend so much of our lives hearing about the problems that plague us and feeling unable to address any of them. This principle turns that powerlessness on its head and suggests that the solution to any problem lies within the nature of the problem itself. For example, lawns are contributing substantially to climate change and the loss of ecological diversity; and the solution is there before us: change the nature of the lawn.  It is often than when we look at problems not as insurmountable obstacles, but as opportunities, we can do a tremendous amount of good.

 

Mushroom Eyes (New Principle). This principle is one I first learned as a wild food forager and mushroom hunter. Before we can act, we must see and in order to see we must understand. Observation and interaction is part of this, but mushroom eyes How we see the world is how we inhabit it and how we interact with it. You might think of this is seeing through different lenses–when you put the lenses on, everything is colored by that experience. But these are lenses of knowledge and wisdom. Think about the hawk here—he knows exactly what he is going for. Nature wisdom is about not only awareness but knowledge. Animals teach their young skills necessary to survive; and humans, part of nature, used to teach these same natural lessons to their own offspring. So there is a knowledge component that is necessary for us to do design, and mushroom eyes helps us be able to see in deeper ways.

 

Design from the Patterns to Details (Mollison). Sometimes, when we are working to solve a problem, we focus on a specific thing we want to do (e.g. I want to build a waterfall) without thinking about the overall patterns (in this case, is there an existing resource flow? What is the overall pattern in the landscape?). Often, designing this way leads to trouble because you have the specific elements you want but you are missing the larger goals and purpose. This principle asks us to start with the biggest picture, like the outer edge of a spiral, and slowly work our way into the details of the problem. We think about the patterns of nature and energy first, and then work or way down to the specifics of that design. We design with the goals first and work our way down to the specific details of how we enact those goals. By starting with the larger patterns that nature provides, we can more effectively design–and attend–to the small stuff.

 

Fire Principles: The Wisdom of the Great Stag

Fire is about energy and change, and these three principles embody what we can do with energy and the many shifting changes around us. The Great White Stag is present in these principles as he lords over the forest: change is a constant in our great earth, and it is the many cycles such as the path of the sun, that we can harness for better life and living.

 

Catch and Store Energy (Holmgren)We live in a time of tremendous expenditure and waste of energy–this principle suggests that we catch and store that energy instead. If we look at a forest as our example, we see that forests are exceedingly effective at harnessing and storing any energy available: the trees grow in fractal patterns to store solar energy, and that solar energy is used over and over again, cycling through the system. In our own lives and designs, catching and storing energy to put to productive use is a key principle. This energy is any resource: external resources like sun, wind, or water and inner resources like time, joy, or passion.  We can harness that energy and store it, later to be used. Humans currently have an unbalanced relationship with energy, and it is cause devastation throughout our lands. This principle, then, asks us to be mindful and think about existing energy flows and how they can be most effectively used.

 

Spiraling Changes (Use small, slow solutions, Holmgren): You might think about your own path as that of spiraling slowly up a mountain. You don’t climb a mountain all at once and you certainly don’t do it without preparation, ongoing evaluation, and occasional breaks.  When we enact spiraling changes, we focus on what is managable for us in that moment and how to build momentum over time.  Because, in reality, it are the small things, done over a period of time, that leave the most lasting impact.Rather than starting big and going all out with a 3 acre design, we create small, slow solutions that allow us to build upon success slowly from within. The principle of the spiral is critical here. We can’t burn ourselves out with trying to do too much, too quickly, and we can’t maintain our momentum. This principle also asks us to consider, for example, the role of ecological succession: we like to create designs thinking 100 years in the future, not just the immediate goals of tomorrow.

 

Creatively use and respond to change (Holmgren). Change happens whether or not we want it to; the world is always moving. Rather than see change as a bad thing, in permaculture we anticipate and embrace changes as a way to open up new possibilities and growth. This closely ties to one of the air principles, “the problem is the solution.”  We often see change as a negative thing–we like how things are going, we don’t want things to be different.  But change brings opportunity, if only we can see it.  Here’s an example: I try putting up an arbor and my plants are so abundant that the thing collapses without adequate support.  A creative response to this is to cut the vines back, use the cuttings for wreaths, and build a better arbor that allows me to sit under it!

 

 

Water Principles: The Wisdom of the Salmon in the Sacred Pool

The Salmon and the element of water focus on interconnections and relationships—and the three water principles ask us to attend to those connections. In order to be effective as practitioners and designers of permaculture, we have to pay attention to many relationships. Permaculture, like druidry, is ultimately a path of understanding and facilitating connections and relationships, and the energy of water helps do this very thing.

 

Integrate rather than Segregate (Holmgren). When you look at a typical vegetable garden, you see the veggies all in nice little rows, just waiting to eaten by whatever pest enjoys a good monocrop. Permaculture sees things differently: a healthy forest, after all, is never a monocrop but rather an integrated system. By integrating multiple elements in a design, we allow them to work with each other for good. This principle asks us to consider diversity in our designs; a diverse ecosystem is more diverse and resilient—it can handle pests, disease, and drought much better than a monoculture cornfield. So, too, is a diverse group of people more resilent! This principle asks us to consider how each part in a system is related to each other and to the whole system. This principle suggests that parts work best when they are working together, rather than in isolation. This principle also builds on the spirit principle of working on multiple levels and understanding better how each individual part plays a role.

 

Layered Purposes (Each element performs many functions, Mollison). This principle suggests that each element can serve multiple purposes. For example, meditation works for calming the mind, focused thought, relaxation, and spiritual development (that’s at least four functions, there are others).  My chickens produce eggs, create compost from household and garden waste, provide enjoyment and companionship, and reduce problematic insect populations. The more purposes a single element has, the more effective the design.  Any single plant or animal species in the forest offers an example: an oak tree provides shade, captures the energy of the sun, prevents erosion, drops leaves to offer habitat, offers nuts, and so many more things.

 

Use the Edges and Value the Margins (Holmgren). As a wild food forager and herbalist, I know that the margins are always the most abundant and diverse in an ecosystem–that’s where I go for much of my medicine and food. The edge of the pond or forest is where the activity is happening, where the bursting of life is taking place. This same principle can be applied to many other things: it is often at those edge spaces where we find the most interesting things happening!  This can be the space between a forest and a field, the edge of your yard or, even, the spaces between two people, the spaces where we overlap.

 

Earth Principles: Wisdom of the Great Bear of the Starry Heavens

The element of the earth and the great bear focus on the material things: what we do with the resources that we have and how we gain those resources. The earth principles ask us to manage and understand our own resources so that we can live in an earth-centered way.  The bear, and his medicine, is often of root, seed, and stone.

 

Obtain a Yield (Holmgren). This basic principle says that we should work to obtain some kind of yield for our efforts. However, in permaculture, the idea of a yield is not limited to that which benefits humans (like a crop of tomatoes). Yields can certainly include food and medicine (the most obvious) but also intangibles like beauty, harmony, and peace. Yields in the natural environment can include blooms for nectar; fruit, seeds, and nuts for wildlife; habitat; soil fertility; erosion prevention, and more. This principle asks us to go beyond our own immediate needs and understand, ultimately, that the abundance of nature is for all to benefit from.  Nature is a great provider, and intentional design can help maximize the many yields she offers.  This principle also asks us to see a yield beyond that which is immediately physically beneficial to our own lives.

 

Waste is a resource (Mollison): Our culture is drowning in our own waste; I detailed some of the problems we have with waste in earlier posts on waste and humanure. In permaculture, waste (of any kind) is seen as a resource that has not yet been given a proper place.  We can work to, as Holmgren says, “produce no waste” by focusing our efforts on redirecting waste streams towards productivity.  For example, human waste and urine can safely be used as a fertilizer under certain conditions.  Old office paper can be turned into greeting cards using basic papermaking practices.  Spent grains from brewing can be added to the compost pile, and so on. Producing no waste goes far beyond recycling and instead encourages us to re-envision our waste streams.

 

Embrace Renewables (Use and value renewables, Holmgren): Stemming from the permaculture ethic of earth care, one of the major issues we have in industrialized culture is an over-dependence on fossil fuels and other non-renewable sources of energy and goods. Our planet has finite resources and the extraction of these resources is causing increasing suffering, destruction, pollution, and habitat loss. In permaculture, we instead embrace things that are renewable or free (like the sun or wind for energy).  When we integrate renewables into our designs, we slow and/or eliminate our dependency on fossil fuels.

 

 

Elemental Wheel

Elemental Wheel

Weaving the Design Principles and Elements into Practice

Just as we weave together the elements in rituals and in our own lives, so too, can we weave the different permaculture principles into our daily living.  As I discussed in my post last week, these principles aren’t just useful to us as “designers” when we are planning, but they also can be useful to us as mantras for meditation and just as principles for daily living–I try to use the principles as I go about my daily practice.  In the past, when I was first learning permaculture, I spent a month intensively studying each of the principles (you could do this for a week or even a day). This meant that for the “problem is the solution” month, I would spend time reflecting on it in meditation and working to embody the principle, seeing where it would work in my daily life, and using it to explore and think through larger societal problems.

 

It has taken me the better part of two years to come to this understanding of permaculture and how it maps onto the druid animals and elemental symbolism. I hope that this framing, along with my new additions and revisions to the principles, are a useful way of understanding these principles and how they can work in your life. In our next post, we’ll explore these same principles from an “inner landscape” perspective and then subsequent posts will move into exploring each individual principle and how we can use it to change our lives, regenerate our lands, and better our world.

 

PS: I especially want to thank David N. for his conversations and feedback on this line of thinking!