Peter Bane’s handbook, while not quite encyclopedic, is nothing if not authoritative. I can honestly say, without fear of exaggeration, that I hold my head a little higher as I stride about my miniscule fiefdom, now that I’ve read The Permaculture Handbook: Garden Farming for Town and Country.
The stones Bane leaves unturned are few and far between. Once you’ve digested the author’s ruminations on mapping, patterns, and garden elements, perennials, water, soil, plants, crops, seeds, and animal husbandry, not to mention his lists of plants and the jobs to which they are best suited, there’s little chance you’ll walk away dissatisfied.
Bane’s treatment of these various aspects of garden farming (his preferred term) is methodical and complete. It was a relief and a delight to find that he allows both his sense of humor and political sensibilities to creep in from time to time.
He never forgets, however, that his purpose in writing is to distill over thirty years’ experience in the science and the art of permaculture. There is much to be learned. The complete novice may, in fact, find the author’s thoroughness a bit blinding. In this case, a piecemeal approach could well be the best one.
Bane himself advises the reader to start small, and good advice it is. As you proceed to branch out beyond the basics, the book’s tidbits of information and advice will take on more and more relevance.
Pass the salt
For instance, did you know that if your fruit isn’t sweet, or your vegetables are the object of an insect infestation, it’s probably because your soil suffers from a mineral deficiency? Your soil is in need of amending (most everybody’s is, to one degree or another).
It has been my contention, almost from the day we moved to the Cincinnati area, that the foods here are extremely bland. Now I understand why! The soil here is just awful – a tan, clumpy clay that is utterly devoid of worms and organic matter, and therefore completely unable to hold onto water. If it’s possible to be deficient in everything, then this soil is. For folks in these parts, permaculture could literally spice up their lives. Good soil is the beginning of good eating.
Here’s some more great advice that, by itself, is worth the purchase price of the book ($29.67 on Amazon). On page 88, we learn to,
… keep all soil growing some crop at all times …Seed or transplant the next crop as soon as or, better, before the maturing one is harvested.
This book is packed with wisdom gleaned from decades of working the soil. Assuming I get my sonic mole repeller in time (they’re tunneling me out of house and home), the winter squash will go in and around my thriving tomato plants. If I can lay my hands on some more cabbage seeds, they’ll go in at the same time (the first planting was a washout).
With a cluck, cluck here…
The animal husbandry section offers a cornucopia of down-to-earth knowledge and advice.
I’ve long harbored the desire to raise chickens, but here – as elsewhere – we belong to a homeowners’ association, so I’ve been frustrated yet again.
For those among you lucky enough to be able to own livestock, take a close look at chapter 14, “Animals for the Garden Farm.” Interestingly, there are three animals which Bane believes the garden farmer should steer clear of: horses (not worth the upkeep), sheep (prone to parasites, need lots of land), and donkeys (need land).
He also takes on the ethical conundrum of raising animals for meat, as well as the importance of their breeding.
There is a lovely, lengthy section on beekeeping. Yet I believe this section includes a rare, important oversight; that is the failure to discuss Colony Collapse Disorder. This is just too important a problem to ignore. I hope it will be covered in the inevitable second edition.
The Permaculture Handbook is liberally adorned with black and white drawings and photographs. As can sometimes be the case with garden and farming pictures, the subjects of photos are occasionally difficult to determine. This problem is further exacerbated by the fact that permaculturists (I include myself) do not necessarily pride themselves on a tidy garden farm. Everything tends to be a “work in progress,” and it shows. Such concerns notwithstanding, the color photos are particularly well done; the numbered captions are easily understood. The photos appear to have been carefully selected, and truly do add a needed dimension that bolsters the book’s authoritativeness.
If they can, you can!
Finally, Bane’s case studies include an up-to-the minute analysis of his own Renaissance Farm, in Bloomington, Indiana (also home to the magazine The Permaulture Activist). His year-by-year history of the progress he and partner Keith Johnson have made in turning their .7 acre into a working farm makes for genuinely interesting reading. As Bane describes the endlessly cyclical nature of what they do,
Self-reliance and food storage are both increasing. Soils are improving. The growing season is now year-round.
Would that we could all say the same.
Jerome’s is far and away the oldest of the four farms described, established in 1982. It’s also different in that its primary mission is educational, both insofar as garden design is concerned, and with regard to producing successful yields. Jerome Osentowski welcomes students and visitors to his demonstration garden and educational programs year-round.
The other two garden farms were much more recently established. In the case of Old 99 Farm, operator Ian Graham sells winter vegetables, eggs, dairy and cow-shares. Radical Roots operators Dave O’Neill and wife Lee Sturgis offer annual vegetables, nursery plants, and eggs. Dave teaches permaculture design, and consults. Lee and Dave hire paid interns, affording a valuable opportunity to up-and-coming garden farmers.
I’ll leave you with a parting thought of my own – this book deserves to be a part of your gardening library – and one of Peter Bane’s:
The essential work of Permaculture activism is to understand and see abundance in the world around us, often before others do, and then to help others to see it also, to bring it into being.
Sounds exactly right.
–Vicki Lipski, Transition Voice Magazine