Family-Scale Permaculture Gardening, by Tod P.

I started trying to grow my own food, on a small scale, about 10 years ago.  Only this year, did I really begin to see the possibility of growing most of what we need to feed our family.  I have learned to garden through a combination of books, experimentation and tips from others.  I would like to share some of my education and sources so that others can ramp up to self-sufficiency faster than the time it took me. 

Permaculture.  Previous SurvivalBlog contributors have mentioned the term “permaculture”.  It is a general term that describes (mostly) self-sustaining production through diversity, recycling of waste and minimum external input.  The antonym of permaculture is monoculture, which produces a single product and requires high external input (seed, fertilizer, fuel, etc.).  We have all heard of the wonders of modern farming (mostly monoculture), but there are a number of ideas from permaculture that can be applied advantageously to the family-scale gardener.  I will provide specific examples in my garden to illustrate some of the general permaculture concepts.

Since permaculture involves different crops and maybe even animal husbandry, it is critical to learn as much as possible about all of the plants and animals in your system.   A great tool to retain your knowledge is a log book.  In it, record what species you plant at what time – in pots, in cold frames, in the greenhouse and in the garden.  Record successes and failures, note what freezes and what survives.  Once your plants are established, record when the fruit first appears and when it matures.  Note which plants can survive a minor frost and which ones can’t.

The information you gain from your log can boost production and efficiency.  The seed packet instructions may say, “plant outside after last danger of frost”, but even hardened plants can be stunted by cold nighttime temperatures in the 40s or sometimes 50s.   I have learned that waiting an extra week or two for tomatoes and another week past that for pepper plants gives sturdier plants and larger harvests.    When you know there is not enough time left in the season for new fruit to reach maturity, you can pluck the new fruits to allow the plant to concentrate on the viable fruit.  Different things work in different places.  Garlic over-wintered just fine in raised bed in the mid-Atlantic region of the country, but the extreme cold in the American Redoubt knocked out half of my garlic planted in a raised bed last season. Live and learn – and write it down.

Besides the obvious benefit of retaining your knowledge from one season to the next, the log book may also help in the generational transfer of knowledge.  I have met plenty of people who grew up on a farm who went through the motions, did their chores and didn’t really learn the skills and techniques.  They have told me they wish they had paid closer attention to what their parents were doing. 

Choosing your Crops.   There are a few basic criteria for choosing your crops.  First of all choose plants that feed your family.  “Grow what you eat, and eat what you grow”.   I have learned to eat things that are more compatible with my “redoubt” growing climate, including kale and swiss chard.  (As far as I know, I never even tasted these plants for my first 45 years of life).  My wife has learned how to make these items tasty for the children and some of her dishes have even become the kids favorites.  I’ve planted currants and raspberries as alternative sources of Vitamin C, since I know I can’t grow oranges.

One thing that has helped us learn to deal with new foods is a food co-op program called bountiful baskets (, which is available in many parts of the country.  For $15 a week you get a large selection of seasonal vegetables and fruits.  Besides being a good value, the challenge of using it all up has introduced us to new foods (some of which we now grow) and helped us develop new cooking skills.

It almost goes without saying that your chosen plants should be open-pollinated / non-hybrid.  This gives the grower a potential endless supply of seeds and independence from the tyranny of seed companies.  Then choose to grow only one variety of any species so the seed is usable the following year.  For example, pie pumpkins, zucchini and yellow crookneck are all the same squash species and will cross-pollinate and result in strange offspring.  In my case, I have chosen one variety of each of the four squash species, which allows me both variety and pure seeds for the following year.  If there is enough distance between plants, it is possible to grow multiple varieties of the same species.  However, I choose to  just alternate varieties year to year.

Some of the general concepts of permaculture are interaction and diversity, and that can extend outside of your individual garden.  Be good at something – then  you can trade with someone else.  Trade your crookneck for someone else’s zucchini (everyone grows zucchini), eat multiple plant varieties and keep your seed strains pure.  Everybody wins.

In some cases, it is important to avoid interaction with your neighbors.  I am now surrounded by farms practicing large-scale monoculture.  If I do nothing special, my heirloom corn will cross-pollinate with my neighbors crop and give me some genetically modified offspring.   However, the small-scale farmer can do some things to limit cross-pollination that are not practical for the large-scale farmer.  I make small molded blocks of potting mix and jump-start corn and sunflowers in these blocks in the greenhouse 3-4 weeks ahead of my neighbors.  I can plant them under small hoops and row cover while it is still cool out.  My plants can be open-pollinated with each other before my neighbors plants develop their tassels (source of corn pollen).  If you don’t have corn-growing neighbors, you can use this same technique to stagger pollination, grow different species of corn and eliminate cross-pollination of your corn varieties.

Other posters have mentioned the book “seed to seed”, which is a great resource for saving seed.  I misplaced my copy in our recent move but have still found plenty of good resources on the web for saving seeds of individual plant types.  A couple of general tips:  1) For herbs, just hang the mature plant upside down in an open trash bag and the seeds will dry and fall off in the bottom.  2) For all seeds, give them plenty of drying time.  I let my seeds dry on a plate for a couple of months before I put them in a bag or jar.  Even a little moisture can cause them to sprout or mold.

Starting seeds.  For beginning gardeners, just buy some potting mix to start with.  The first year I scoffed at the idea of buying dirt and just dug some soil from the yard to start my pepper plants.  Well I ended up yanking the seedlings and growing some nice weeds.  Once you know what you’re doing, then you can make your own potting soil if you want.

The seed packets tell you to plant the seeds too close together and then thin to the correct spacing.  That has always seemed wasteful to me.  Another potential problem is using old seeds – what do you do when the germination rate decreases over time?  In TEOTWAWKI, it may be important to get everything you can out of your existing seeds. 

A technique I have used for starting seeds comes from the “The new Seed Starter’s Handbook”.  Place the seeds on a paper towel and moisten, fold the towel up and place it in a ziploc bag.  The paper towels keep the seeds evenly moist which speeds the germination process.  To prevent the roots from crossing the folds, I have amended the technique by sandwiching the moist paper towel between two sheets of wax paper.  Once the seeds sprout, plant the sprout and the attached paper towel into potting soil.  Overall, this technique helps the seeds start faster by about a week and produces higher germination rates.  I have used it successfully on many herbs and vegetables.  It doesn’t work well on peas or beans.  It does take extra labor, so I don’t use it all the time. 

Companion Planting is not possible, by definition, with monoculture.  It involves planting multiple crops / plants together for mutual benefit.  I haven’t found a real good book on the subject, but will give a couple of specific examples where I have found value.

Some plants are a natural repellent to harmful bugs.  It is common practice to plant marigolds with tomatoes to repel bean beetles, squash bugs and harmful nematodes.  In fact, planting marigolds the year before, and tilling them in, can kill and prevent harmful nematodes for the next year.  Non-GMO rapeseed can do the same for nematodes harmful to fruit trees.   Nasturtium is a flower which is known to repel potato and squash bugs. 

I suspect there may be other useful plant pairings for bug control that are not as commonly known.  Cilantro is extremely pungent and is never eaten by the bugs in my garden, plus it is a useful herb for mexican dishes and salsa.  Valerian is a very pungent plant which I sometimes use as a sleep aid.  I haven’t done an exact controlled experiment with these pairings, but I do plant them around my tomatoes and seem to not have problems with bugs in my plants. 

Some crops also grow well together because of their physical characteristics.  Last year I tried to grow the “Three Sisters” -squash, corn and pole beans.  Ideally, the squash keeps the corn roots cool and the beans climb the corn stalks and provide nitrogen for the corn.   It was not really successful (I have really bad luck with pole beans.) 

This year I just planted my squash by themselves every 8 feet or so where I had grown some sunflowers the year before.  When a few volunteer sunflowers sprang up from last year’s seeds I decided to let them grow.  The results were dramatic.  My healthiest squash plant at the start of Spring did not have any sunflowers near and withered in the heat and drought that affected the redoubt this year – in spite of regular watering.  A much weaker squash plant (that I even accidentally stepped on) thrived in the midst of a small sunflower patch and became my most productive plant.  When we experienced a mild frost on September 10th, it killed all my squash, except for those plants mixed in with the sunflowers – so the pairing helped for both heat and cold.  It dawned on me that this was a variation on the three sisters method, with sunflowers replacing the corn.  I will be doing at least “two sisters” next year on a larger scale.

Irrigation  Large-scale farming requires reliance on rainy weather or commercial irrigation.  With family-scale gardening, I have found it possible to collect much of the water needed for a small garden from roof runoff.  Even in a drought year like this one, we had a few large cloudbursts with lots of nothing in between.  The ability to store water gives additional flexibility and is the best “quality” water, with fewer dissolved salts or other contaminants.

My water collection system is a complex-looking network of inexpensive or free collection, storage and distribution elements.  I have painted them the color of my house so that they don’t stick out. 

For collection, I first looked at commercial products.  I found many rain gutter collection attachments for around $70 each.  They have many nice features, but with more than 10 downspouts on my house and barn, it was more than I wanted to pay.  My solution was to use 4″ PVC pipe with a screw cap on one end.  The downspouts fit completely inside the PVC pipe and fill up with water when it rains.  I occasionally unscrew the end to clean out any collected debris or to prevent freezing in the collector.

To get the water out, I attach a 3/8″ hose connector near the bottom of the PVC tube.  The connector has a MNTP (male national pipe thread) on one side that can be screwed into a hole drilled into the PVC.  The other end of the connector has a ribbed connection to which hard tubing can be connected.  I use the same connector near the top of intermediate collection vessels for overflow protection.

For water storage I have different containers.  I first purchased some large water storage drums.  I have also found 55 gal round drums used for molasses at the local bakery outlet for a cost of $10 each.  I also found some large 275 gallon IBC totes from the fire station which were used to hold fire fighting foam (basically, dishwashing detergent.)  I have hooked these together with 3/8′ hard plastic hose and connectors.  I put some of my smaller drums higher on my deck so I have some water at higher pressure.

For distribution, I tap the final collection drums. with larger garden hose-sized valves.  I have literally spent hours sometimes trying to figure out all the different adapters needed to make all the different connections.  In the end I have had to violate the male code of honor to occasionally ask for assistance at the hardware / plumbing store when trying to get the correct connection from (for example)  3″ IBC tote outlet to a garden hose.

Fertilization  For a sustainable garden, it is important to recycle as many nutrients  as possible.   Composting is the most common method for recycling simple plant material.  “The Complete Composting Guide” was a valuable book for me, not just for the techniques, but also for ideas how to make compost piles more visually appealing. 

Vermiposting is a technique which uses worms to compost simple plant material.  The advantage of vermiposting is the intermediate product (worms) can be used to feed poultry or fish.  I have used different types of boxes to grow worms inside with kitchen waste.  Scale-up requires expanding to outside the home, and facing the challenges of a hard winter.  However, I encountered a great idea for 4-season vermiposting in a cold climate from the book “Small Scale Poultry Flock”.  Vermipost bins are built into the floor of a greenhouse, to insulate it from extreme heat or cold.  I will be giving that a try for next season.

There are other permaculture techniques that mimic nature to accelerate and focus the recovery of nutrients from other sources.  Growing wood mushrooms (maitake, shiitake) is a great way to convert cellulose (wood) to something edible, and the leftover material is a great component for potting soil.  Paul Stamets is an innovator, the author of a great reference book for growing mushrooms and also sells many supplies through his web site useful for the beginning mushroomer.  I have started small with purchased mushroom plugs for culled trees in my yard.

Maggotry can be used to convert animal material into useful poultry and plant food.  Again, the book “Small Scale Poultry Flock” book describes a technique for drilling holes in plastic bucket, putting screens on the bottom and hanging rotting meat above the poultry flock.  Flies enter through the holes and lay their eggs.  Maggots burrow down, fall to the ground and are eaten by the poultry before they turn into flies.   In more moderate climates, black soldier flies can be bred for the maggots (grubs).  They quickly consume bad meat and dairy products and self-harvest by climbing up inclined tubes as part of their life cycle.

Of course you need a source to feed these various nutrient recovery mechanisms.  We collect our unused vegetable matter in a small can for composting.  I work at a 24-hour manufacturing facility and have supplied compost buckets for them to dump coffee grounds, egg shells and other wasted vegetable matter.  My children collect coffee grounds from the local coffee shops.  I have talked to a local butcher about animal waste (guts, organs).  Nanny-state regulations prevent them from disposing of animal waste through non-FDA-approved outlets, but they can get a waiver if they apply for it. 

In the end, the more that you recycle, the less you have to import.  So far, darling bride has rejected any discussion of composting human waste.  However, I entered a contest to win a free composting toilet and would have no problem using composted humanure in the orchard.

Involve Others.  The more I try to do, the more I realize I cannot do it all myself.    The children and devoted wife have helped in matters plant, animal and fungal (mushrooms) – sometimes cheerfully 🙂  As they have become more adjusted to a rural lifestyle, sometimes they even come up with some of their own ideas for projects they would like to try.   I share my experiences, seeds, plants and excess produce with others who have similar interests and we all benefit from the exchange.  In the end, gardening is a skill that is learned from others, and through repetition.  Like shooting a gun or a bow, we shoot, make adjustments, and shoot again.  In gardening, when the time between “shots” is a year, I hope these tips can help your readers get their food production “on target” within a short period of time.



Seed to Seed

New Seed Starter’s Handbook

The Complete Compost Gardening Guide

The Small-Scale Poultry Flock

Growing Gourmet and Medicinal Mushrooms

Soil Block Makers