As a child, Jenni Blackmore always wanted to be an artist, a writer or a farmer, depending on the day. She was also determined to live by a quiet ocean beach, all of which was quite a stretch for a kid growing up in the grimy industrial North of England. However, here she is living on a small island just east of Halifax Nova Scotia, writing, painting and tending a micro farm called QuackaDoodle. She keeps ducks and chickens (obviously) along with geese and turkeys, goats and meat rabbits. As well as growing an extensive variety of typical, and not quite so typical vegetables, she is developing a small food forest by concentrating on indigenous and perennial food crops. Her book, Permaculture for the Rest of Us, describes how this journey came to be and her blog, Quackadoodle Farm, posts the ongoing activities. Read on for more information about this book from New Society Publishers and enter to win one of two copies!
How did permaculture become your passion?
I was actually practicing several Permaculture principles long before I’d even heard of the word. Necessity, common sense and slugs were the main instigators that caused this to happen. While building the house I still live in it was necessary to live in a tumbledown shack that had no plumbing or insulation. The roof leaked like a sieve and required full sized garbage cans to catch the water that constantly poured in, creating an indoor skating rink overnight. These collected ‘leaks’ soon became the water source of choice as they were much easy to access than chopping through a couple of inches of ice in order to drop a bucket down the well, and in fact the leaked water was much purer than the well water. This inspired me to reroute the rain gutters on my house into a cistern which still supplies all our plumbing needs with an abundance of beautiful clear water.
It was unbelievably cold that winter (the coldest in seventy years) and those freezing nights caused me to think long and hard about heat distribution when designing the house with an open-plan concept. Twenty some years later we’re still using the same high efficiency wood burning stove I started with and definitely use way less wood than others living in similar sized homes.
It was my dream to grow at least some of my own food but I soon discovered that soil on this rocky island where I live is virtually non-existent or impenetrable. I certainly couldn’t afford to truck in any soil and this forced me to search for other options such as seaweed, leaves and other locally available, organic materials. Most of the soil I grow in today was ‘manufactured’ in this way. Slugs were another roadblock until we acquired ducks and yes, to quote a popular Permaculture truism, I really didn’t have a slug problem… I just didn’t have enough ducks!
So you see, I was already efficiently using naturally occurring, renewable resources such as water, sunlight and organic materials harvested locally when I first encountered the principles of Permaculture. Of course, I became an instant convert.
Why should we consider permaculture as a way of life?
There’s something innately satisfying about living in tune with the natural world. It brings about a subtle shift in perception that seems to enhance every experience with a deeper dimension and also with a stronger sense of connection. From a purely pragmatic viewpoint, Permaculture simply makes sense. Mother N. already has every little thing figured out to perfection and by following her lead, by mimicking natural systems, we’re actually making things easier and more efficient. A well designed Permaculture plan eliminates wasted energy (including our own) and strives to produce maximum yield from this minimized input.
Permaculture is notoriously hard to define. What does permaculture mean to you and has your personal definition of it changed over the course of your own journey to self-sufficient living?
I am so glad to learn that I am not the only one who finds permaculture notoriously difficult to define! I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s pretty near impossible, which makes sense when you consider that Permaculture can be both incredibly simple yet amazing complex, just like the world around us. My definition could easily change from day to day, depending on what aspect I might be working on at the time, but my one constant is that it’s a way of integrating with, rather than imposing upon, my surroundings. The more I learn about the intricacies and interdependencies of natural systems, the more awestruck I become. It’s amazing really that we, as humans, think we can do better and that we dare to disrupt and destroy the sheer magic that surrounds us.
What does your book have to offer to those on the road to real-world self-sufficiency?
Encouragement, encouragement and more encouragement! I truly believe that if I can do it, anyone can J When I think back to how things were and look around at how things are now it’s sometimes hard to believe I’m living in the same place. Of course there have been times that it seemed like an impossible dream, such as when a hurricane ripped through and left an impenetrably tangle of splintered and uprooted trees. We tried the ‘just-ignore-perhaps-it’ll-go-away’ approach for quite a while after that, but it didn’t work so well!
Also, I like to keep things simple. Lofty scientific explanations tend to overwhelm me, so I prefer to think (and share information) in a more tactile, hands on way, with just enough science to explain the rationale where needed. And I like to stress the common sense of Permaculture and especially the flexibility of the principles, how they encourage creativity. No two places on earth are the same so why we would we expect every homestead to conform to a specific diagram. To paraphrase Bill Mollison, the originator of Permaculture: there are no problems, just creative solutions.
Is the practice of permaculture beyond the reach of those living in less than ideal conditions – in challenging climates without access to wonderful soil or plentiful water? If not, how does your book mentor people living in these conditions?
I would say Permaculture is even more appropriate for anyone living in adverse conditions. Back to the creative solutions; Permaculture gives us the understanding to design for our own particular space. No soil? Build your own using methods such as hugelkultur, lasagna beds, straw bale and raised beds. All my soil has been produced using one or another of these techniques and I describe the whys and wherefores of which works best in any given situation. Obviously, excellent soil is definitely an essential and it is relatively easy to build. Water issues? Construct berms and swales to better manage ground water and of course use cisterns and other water conservation techniques such as mulching. I believe my book is especially useful in that it concentrates on the northern climes and less than fertile terrain and also on smaller parcels of land. I refer to myself as a micro-farmer because I work slightly less than one acre.
As your book attests, the journey to self-sufficient living will not always be smooth. What advice do you have to offer those interested in permaculture that might help them avoid some of the common pitfalls and setbacks that you yourself experienced?
I think that perhaps the most important piece of advice I could give anyone just starting out is, be patient. Much easy to say than to actually ‘be’, especially for me, who likes fairly instant results. A year or two might seem like a long time to wait for a shrub to produce fruit but I would say plant those trees and bushes and they will amaze you. I would also ban discouragement! It’s easy to look at picture perfect images of other places and decided that your special place will never look that way. A fertile little pocket here and a small bed there have a way of stretching their boundaries and ultimately uniting into a veritable Eden, but it does take time. I remember feeling totally discouraged when we first started trying to clear away the carnage left by the hurricane but by the end of that summer we had beans and squash growing in heaps of soil we piled onto of the root-snaggled, reclaimed forest floor, and some mammoth sunflowers smiling down from the feed sacks full of dirt they were planted in. I remember that as a pivotal, yes-you-can moment.
I would also recommend starting small and not trying to do everything at once. Enthusiasm is a wonderful thing, but it can get a little out of control. Being surrounding by partially finished projects is a sure way to become discouraged. Believe me, the voice of experience! We all make mistakes, and I think that perhaps I make more than average because I tend to be impulsive, but at least I’m not too proud to share my failures. I believe there’s lots to be learned from our mistakes. I feel fairly confident in suggesting that very few of us get it all right first try and I think it’s important to remember that what generally gets publicly displayed is the best, not the worst case scenario. So, in closing I would encourage anyone to accept some disappointments as learning curves and not to ever let a failure distract them from their permaculture dreaming.
To enter, simply leave a comment on this blog post by midnight on Sunday, November 13, 2016 (be sure to provide a valid e-mail address) in answer to the following question:
Do you plan to start practicing permaculture? If so, how do you plan to transition to a permaculture lifestyle?
Be sure to include a valid e-mail address. The winner will be drawn at random from all qualified entrants, and notified via e-mail. (See rules for more information.)