Vegan Permaculture – A Beginner’s Guide

Permaculture isn’t about having to get your head around untold facts, figures, Latin plant names and complicated techniques. It’s more to do with learning to recognise universal patterns and principles, and applying these ‘ecological truisms’ to our own gardens and life situations. We can identify the underlying forms that recur throughout the natural world, and use them to embed greater sustainability into our lives, whether we are creating systems for food production or community building, whether the land we care for is a windowbox or a 2000 hectare woodland. Underpinning all permaculture systems are fundamental ethical values around caring for the earth and its peoples, as well as the fair and just distribution of resources – To me these fit well with the vegan philosophy of compassionate living.

But is animal-free permaculture actually possible? Of course not – neither would it be desirable. For example, how would we fence out the earthworms that build our soil and maintain its fertility, or the bees that pollinate our fruit trees and vegetables, and why would we wish to? In fact, we actively design in features that are intended to attract wildlife – Ponds for frogs, toads and dragonflies, and flowering plants to bring in the ladybirds and hoverflies that are essential to maintaining healthy productive ecosystems. What we don’t include are those ‘system components’ that perpetuate exploitative relationships with our non-human earth co-citizens, such as pigs, goats and chickens, whose primary function is the production of meat, milk and eggs.

The Naturewise forest garden in north London is one example of an edible landscape that is ‘stock free’, although in actuality members of several of the Kingdoms of Life work together here for mutual benefit. Deep rooted comfrey plants mine nutrients from the subsoil, making them available to fruit trees and bushes. Birds and bees buzz around the canopy layer, whilst insects and arthropods patrol the undergrowth and leaf litter, checking and balancing pest populations and playing their role in the cycles of growth and decay. Fungi and bacteria continue the process, breaking down dead matter into rich humus, sugars and minerals via mycorrhizal soil networks. Based on the structure of a natural woodland, the forest garden is a complex web of which humans too are an integral part – Aside from a bounty of apples, pears, figs, grapes, strawberries, currants and edible leaves, one of the most important yields of this mini-woodland is the sense of community that the space offers to the volunteers that spend time here. And being situated in a school playground it also acts as an open air classroom where children are able to interact with nature, an opportunity that is often all too rare in the inner city.

A very different permaculture project can be found in Palmdale, a small town just to the north of Los Angeles. Ars Terra (‘Earth Arts’) is a small community of vegan artists, musicians and activists exploring the concept of self-reliance in the suburbs of Southern California. Here they are preparing for a post-peak oil future when fossil fuels are scarce and the currently ubiquitous lawn sprinklers running 24/7 have run dry. The focus is very much on reskilling; learning the transitional arts of food growing, harvesting and storage. In this high desert climate, dryland strategies and backyard-scale permaculture techniques such as grey water harvesting, sheet mulching and raised bed gardening are the order of the day. Shade structures protect crops from the searing Californian sun where temperatures frequently reach over 40 degrees. A small orchard of drought tolerant fruit varieties is at the end of the garden, whilst a herb spiral has been constructed right by the back door in order to produce fresh basil, mint, thymes and rosemary for the kitchen.

Here the principles of ecological sustainability merge with those of compassion, as project co-founder Monica Richards explains; “Watching “Peaceable Kingdom” was the deciding factor for me – it merged the horror of factory farming with the emotional needs of animals, it clicked for me. Before that, the Disconnect was strong, loving baby chicks but eating chicken was not something I thought about. Now that I know what I know, I wish I had learned it all when I was a child…”

The Ars Terra ethos is one of turning negative anger into positive action, and the homestead is shared by several dogs, cats and ducks that have all in one way or another been rescued from a life of misery at the hands of humankind.

In terms of climate and context, Ars Terra and Naturewise are literally a world apart. But what they and other permaculture projects across the planet share is a focus on solutions rather than problems, on taking individual and collective responsibility for making change happen; “I had spent a great many years explaining what I was against; what I found wrong in the world” says William Faith, a resident of Ars Terra who also volunteers at a nearby animal rescue sanctuary; “With my discovery of Permaculture I realized that it is impossible to move toward a positive vision if you spend all your time in a purely reactionary “anti” state of mind. By creating the positive changes we want to see, and helping others to do the same, we begin to actually see positive change occurring all around us.”

NOTE: Unfortunately since writing this piece in late 2010 the Ars Terra project has closed down and the residents of the project have now moved away, although they continue to be involved in other projects in the USA.

Graham Burnett is the author of The Vegan Book of Permaculture and Permaculture – a Beginners Guide and has had the privilege of working with both Naturewise and Ars Terra. Graham also runs Vegan Permaculture Courses around the UK and elsewhere in the world.

This article originally appeared in The Vegan magazine, Autumn 2011 issue