Posted by: juliegirl | June 22, 2009


I’m trying to wrap my mind around the concept of permaculture. Instead of trying to be a better gardener by learning “techniques” and seeing each individual plant as a separate entity, I’m working to connect all the systems in the backyard together.  Each element in the backyard will have multiple elements supporting it and multiple benefits to the whole system.The idea is that all energy flows in a system (sunlight, human work, rain, money) can be arranged to simultaneously benefit each other. That kind of a natural ecosystem becomes self-sustaining.

100_1044In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollen takes an inspirational trip to Joel Salatin’s  Polyface Farm where plants, humans, chickens, cows, and pigs are all interconnected and producing a self-sustaining ecosystem. The cows graze on grass (which, because their tummies can digest grass, eliminates the need for antibiotics that are required by corn-eating cows) and the cows poop on the grass. Four days later the chickens are moved to the area where the cows pooped because that’s exactly when the larvae in their poop are the most delicious to a chicken. The chickens eat the larvae, and by doing so get their necessary protein and sanitize the pasture. Manure in the cow barn is stacked with hay and corn in ever-increasing layers and, finally, in the spring when the cows head out to pasture the pigs come in and aerate the manure pile and turn it into compost. Which then gets spread on the pastures. “There it will feed the grasses, so the grasses might again feed the cows, the cows the chickens, and so on until the snow falls, in one long, beautiful, and utterly convincing proof that in a world where grass can eat sunlight and food animals can eat grass, there is indeed a free lunch.” (219)

Most inspirational is the interconnectedness of these systems and the utilization of all the waste to complete the system’s loop. “Joel Salatin’s farm makes the case for a very different sort of efficiency–the one found in natural systems, with their coevolutionary relationships and reciprocal loops. For example, in nature there is no such thing as a waste problem, since one creature’s waste becomes another creature’s lunch. What could be more efficient than turni ng cow pies into eggs? Or running a half-dozen different production systems…over the same ground every year?” (214)

100_1355I’m starting to think about the backyard as a set of production systems. If I’m gardening organically, my pests should (theoretically) decline. Chickens should eat table scraps from vegetables harvested in the garden. The chicken poop should be able to fertilize my garden by naturally adding needed nitrogen. The chickens should (again, theoretically) reduce the bug population and aerate the soil. Rain water collected should water the plants and animals.

But in my backyard, I’m still struggling to get the interconnections right.I haven’t reduced my pests by using organic soil and compost. I haven’t even figured out how to get good compost out of my revolving composter yet. I’m not yet realizing my dream of being able to get “off the grid” but I can see things connecting better and better all the time.

Permaculture isn’t just about doing things the “old way,” though it makes sense that people would think this since the old ways of doing things often took into account the re-using of waste and recycling of energy flows. By necessity, our ancestors learned how to make their systems work together. It might take me longer than a single growing season to re-learn those methods, but I’m up for it.

Find out more about Michael Pollen here.

Find out more about Polyface Farm here.



  1. You ate one hot chick julie! I mean you are one hot chick! Damn this technology!

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