The Permaculture Toolkit - An Intentional Design Process
By Emilie Tweardy
Permaculture gives us a toolkit for moving from a culture of fear and scarcity to one of love and abundance -Toby Hemenway
This quote speaks deeply to me because I’ve always seen Permaculture as a toolkit. A common Permaculture frustration is the absence of a specific working definition. Ask any 10 Permaculturists and you’ll get 10 different definitions. In fact, in recent months, I discovered a new personal favorite straight from the mouth of the godfather himself (Bill Mollison) calling Permaculture “the rational man’s approach to not shitting in his bed”. This off-the-cuff approach to a definition is common in the Permaculture world because it’s just such a broad field. The idea of intentional design can (and should) apply to anything you’d like, so how do we pare it down to an elevator pitch? Hence, the toolkit analogy. There are hard skills, soft skills, precision skills, broad skills. Permaculture as a system is the structure - the whole kit. The techniques themselves are the tools inside.
The study of Permaculture is best approached from the bird’s eye view, or “Pattern Level”. Over time, we zoom in to look from a worm’s eye view - what we call the “Details Level”. The pattern informs the details; the context makes sense of the minutia. And what we at SPI emphasize overall, is that in our world the “human sector” (in permaculture, ‘sectors’ refer to the energies flowing across a site or through a project. We study a myriad of sectors - wind, water, sun, human. etc.) is the foundation for all observations, techniques and applications. After all, we’re living in the Anthropocene Era now - even geologists (in labeling current time as the anthropocene) recognize that the study of the Earth at current time deserves an underlayment of anthropology, it simply cannot be escaped. We must take into account the effect of humankind on anything and everything we do. From community design on down to garden design.
Moving through a Permaculture Design Courses (PDCs), students learn hard skills like tree plantings, soil sampling, client interviews, map making, mushroom cultivation, grafting, intensive gardening and so much more. Stocking the toolkit. This is the easy part, frankly - collecting merit badges for all our skills. Nothing gets a group excited like digging in the dirt! And, we all get to know each other in the process. Oddly enough, that’s the hard part. Tensions arise, energies flow, bonds are made, strengthened, made stronger again by sharing and vulnerability and a common experience. This may sound like a metaphor for a drum circle, but the reality is that this simple process of group learning develops intimacy; it supports fundamental human needs. In this ever-connected world of electronic “followers”, “likes”, and “friends”, we see an increasing need for real-world sharing and connection. The struggle is real! That “fear and scarcity” that Hemenway references is just as human as it is economic. We emphasize and explore this in our classes for a number of reasons, but most importantly, we model, learn and practice these skills because they are absolutely crucial tools in the toolkit for successful design. As Dave Jacke says, “90% of all Permaculture projects that fail, fail due to poor design in the human sector.”
As we get to know each other, the “human ecosystem” of the classroom unfolds. We become guilded into useful groups and subgroups as we navigate our own Human Sector experience. There are unique flora and fauna represented by the individuals present. We may have teenage college students, 70 yr old retirees, businesswomen and men, entrepreneurs, execs, stay at home parents, massage therapists and construction workers, all in one room. Any one person might hold several of those titles at the same time. The cooperative learning experience then unfolds as a result of all the people in the room coming together, stepping up to the experience and leaning into the recognition that we are all in this together. We begin to see how we meet each other’s needs. What would happen if we were stranded on an island together? Where are the holes in our knowledge base? What skills are being lost from our communities altogether? How do we identify these strengths and challenges in our projects and for our clients? How do we meet them with grace and understanding, and ultimately - with elegant solutions? Enter the intentional design process. It’s a way to pull all of our skills together and make sense of a situation, whether it’s an office space or a backyard.
Over time, we fill the toolkit with strategies for strength and resilience. And while we learn these skills for independence, we continue to dig into the importance of dependence, not on fossil fuels or electronics, but on each other. We can’t all specialize in everything. We don’t all have grazing lands, we don’t all have mechanical skills, we don’t all have computer savvy. How can we come together to fill those gaps for each other? How can we use the human sector to elevate our design? To enhance our lives? This human sector focus turns all of the other tools into useful equipment, not just blunt instruments. After all, what’s the point of building a community garden with no community? No food forest is meant to feed a single individual. And drilling deeper into skill building and design savvy, we always, always, always return to Principle #1 - Observation and Interaction. If you’re not awake and involved, if you’re not participating, the cycle is broken. Permaculture design requires engagement. It’s as simple as that.
It’s not uncommon to see a Perma-newbie on a message board saying “Permaculture has all the answers! We can use it for anything!”. At first glance, this sounds so incredibly pretentious, but they’ve hit on something - Permaculture does have many answers, because it’s rooted in observation, adjusts to accommodate feedback, and includes everybody. And when you utilize everybody’s strengths - you can find all the answers. Or at least a lot of them.
But without the design process, Permaculture is just a pile of tools. Mollison famously warned against PDC grads just being “a bunch of woo-woos spinning around in circles”. And it’s a fair criticism. Permaculture can easily be an echo chamber of environmental enthusiasts, and gardeners, natural builders, non-violent communicators, edible landscapers, artists and more. But even Mollison, the founder himself, wasn’t afraid to call it out. Because that’s the heart of the design process - we never stop observing, we recognize feedback, and we re-evaluate as-needed. Permaculture in practice is an evolution. This design process gives us a structure to hold all of the tools, and a method to the way that we use them.
So when people frown on day 1 of a course when we say “this is not a gardening class”, I lean in. When people roll their eyes as we use Hemenway's talk of “love and abundance”, I get excited. Bring on the skeptics! These folks have the most transformative experiences of anyone because the Permaculture design system actually values and validates them and their opinions. We use an intentional design process because we look at all elements together - skeptics included. We design for people AND the environment, and we make each one better in the process. The toolkit is massive and growing all the time, and none of it holds together without the process. And because we are growing with intention, we aren’t just tools, but instruments, tuned to a purpose, playing together. Hell, we’re a symphony for change! Ok... maybe I’m getting carried away. But the moral of the story is that Permaculturists walking the walk aren’t just woo woos spinning in circles. We’re a community spiraling towards abundance, and it’s all by design.
Towards a Permaculture Kitchen: Culinary Techniques for Reducing Waste
By Tom Parfitt
With the exception of the past five years, my entire career was spent working in kitchens. I worked my way up from a beer-soakeddishwasher, to a sous chef in a celebrated bistro, to the head chef of my own market and catering company. I spent time in a tiny 8 table restaurant, a large award winning five-diamond hotel, and I spent almost a decade teaching culinary arts, baking and pastry arts, nutrition and food science, and food service management. Even today as a stay-at-home-dad and fledgling homesteader, a good portion of my day revolves around preparing food for my family of six. Throughout the years I’ve seen it all - drunken chefs barely making it through a shift right up to a Michelin starred chef orchestrating a kitchen brigade with the finesse of adistinguished maestro.I’ve cooked through services standing in a half inch of dirty water and I’ve worked in an immaculate open kitchen where one crumb on the floor was too many. Throughout all my unique experiences with kitchen culture, there has always been one common thread: kitchens produce an amazing amount of waste. The lessons I’ve learned in professional kitchens translate well to meal planning and preparation at home and I’d like to share some of the techniques I use to create a more streamlined and less wasteful permaculture kitchen. Our time, energy, and food resources are valuable and often wasted but with a little know-how and a bit of good design, we can begin to slowly and simply reduce our waste streams.
Teaching culinary school clued me into a couple of things: my kitchen philosophy is driven by techniques and my students are predisposed to think in terms of specific recipes. In general, their mindset is so entrenched in the detail that I had to provide written recipes for everything we made together. But instilling a technique-based philosophy was important to their success. Technique-based cooking frees us up to use what’s on hand instead of making special trips to the store to purchase specific ingredients. This saves time, fuel, and encourages us to use the food that is already in the house, minimizing food waste. It allows for improvisation and seasonal cookery - so we’re not spending valuable time searching for out-of-season vegetables and we don’t scrap the idea of a new flavor combination because one ingredient is missing. I guarantee that the bulgogi will taste just as good if it’s marinated in garlic and onion chives as it would if we used the traditional green onions. Who knows, maybe swapping out the herbs will create a magic formula that makes it truly next level! Here are four easy techniques to start adding to your culinary repertoire: Getting away from a recipe mindset and using cooking methods to make countless dishes, cooking from the pantry, full-value cooking, and making energy multitask.
Searing-In a New Mindset- Using One Cooking Method to Make Countless Dishes
One of my favorite cooking methods is searing meat and making a pan sauce. There are actually several cooking techniques combined to make this quick and easy meal preparation: Searing, Deglazing, Reducing, and Emulsifying. Don’t let those terms make you think this is complicated - it’s super easy. One of the more famous examples of this method is chicken piccata, which essentially goes as follows: Sear seasoned chicken breast cutlets in olive oil on both sides until browned and almost cooked through. Add a tad more oil into the pan and cook minced garlic in the same pan. Deglaze the pan with white wine and chicken stock, making sure to dissolve the delicious brown bits that are stuck to the pan. Reduce the liquid until it’s almost gone and stir in cold butter little by little until a sauce forms. Add capers, lemon juice and flat leaf parsley and then season with salt and pepper.
Once we cook something like Chicken Piccata, we could think of it as adding a single recipe to our repertoire - but if we switch gears, we can think of it as a method to utilize the food we have on hand to make countless flavor combinations.
Step one - look in the fridge and see what we have on hand. Step two, formulate a plan for specific ingredients. Step three - cook!
Almost any piece of meat that you would consider throwing on the grill can be seared and cooked through. You can make any type of pan sauce by deglazing the pan with stock and/or wine, swirling in butter, and stirring in some herbs. Maybe next time, instead of olive oil, capers, and lemon we can use a sesame oil/grapeseed oil blend, ginger, mirin, and green onions. By switching out the ingredients we’ve made a completely different meal using the same technique. Little by little we can add techniques to our repertoire and a whole world of improvisational cooking is ours to experiment with! You can follow the same line of thinking and apply different flavors combinations to other methods of cooking such as braises, roasts, soups, sautees, and so much more.
2. Cooking From the Pantry
Buying in Bulk
Purchasing and storing rice, quinoa, pasta, etc. in bulk can save us money. It can also reduce our carbon footprint by reducing trips to the store as well as the amount of packaging we buy and discard. It really comes in handy when the roads are covered in ice and we need to get dinner on the table. Whole and bulk spices from an Indian or Pakistani grocer are infinitely cheaper and tastier than the powdered spices from the big-box grocery store. Whole spices last longer because they have much less surface area exposed. Simply toast spices (coriander, cumin, or fennel seed, for example) in a dry pan until they are several shades darker and then grind them in a mortar and pestle or in a coffee grinder.
B. Using Whole Ingredients to Make your Own Specialty Mixes Learning to make ingredients can help as well. For example, lots of southern biscuit makers swear by White Lily Flour because it makes an extremely tender biscuit that also stays together. Knowing a bit about flour and how it reacts to water can help us understand. Water links together the characteristically elastic gluten-forming proteins in flour and the higher the protein count, the tougher the resulting product will be. However, a bit of protein is necessary for structure. White Lily flour strikes a good balance between tender and sturdy and is about 8% protein. So if we mix half cake flour (7%) with an all-purpose flour (about 9 to 10%) we can approximate the ever important protein levels of biscuit flour. We really don’t need to know all about flour proteins to make a substitute ingredient - simply do an internet search for substitutes and we can save ourselves from stocking specialty items. Now, our AP flour and Cake flour are more multi-functional. The same could be said for things like garlic-salt (garlic powder and salt mixed in it’s own little container!?) and lemon pepper. For lemon pepper we could just mix salt, pepper, and lemon zest. It’s more wholesome than the premixed stuff which is full of citric acid, and other free flowing agents. Actually, I suggest zesting all citrus fruit. Even if we don’t plan to use the zest right away it can be frozen and used later - in pie crust, scones, soups, spice rubs (it’s great on salmon), drinks, and so much more! There is so much value in that marginal fruit “waste.”
3. Full-Value Cooking Speaking of valuing the marginal, I’ve watched so many vegetable stems and usable parts of meat get thrown right into the trash. Whole tops of peppers, broccoli stems, asparagus stems, peach pits and skins, carrot tops - all have value. Here are a few techniques for maximizing the value of your food.
A. Using the Less Prized Portion of Vegetables We can micro-dice pepper scraps, zucchini ends, onion tops, the tougher outer layers of brussels sprouts, etc. and sautee them for use into a wonton filling, rice pilaf, goat cheese spread, or into ricotta cheese for ravioli filling. I like to julienne and pickle broccoli and cauliflower stems for a sour note in salads. I love cooking beets in vinegar and honey and then serving them over their own stems and greens with a little cheese crumbled on top.
B. Pureeing Scraps and Adding Them To Sauces One way to use scraps and disguise vegetables for picky eaters at the same time iis to puree and hide carrot peelings, mushrooms stems, etc. and mix it into pasta sauce. Carrot tops, beet greens, and radish greens are great in pestos and smoothies.
C. Steeping In The Flavors Peach pits and skin can be steeped into cream for a delicious ice cream or custard base as can coffee grounds - espresso creme brulee with churros anyone? This technique is never ending - chive stems steeped in milk and added to mashed potatoes, roasted Hatch Chile skins steeped in cream and used to make green chile queso, and on and on. D. Using Less Valued Meat Scraps One of the most tragic waste streams is usable meat scraps. These animals gave their lives for our sustenance so the least we can do is utilize them wisely. Of course we can use chicken bones, beef bones, as well as shrimp, crab and lobster shells for stocks and broths, which are the basis of countless soups, braises, and sauces. We can also save chicken fat to cook with or enrich rice dishes, beef fat and tough chine meat can be made into ground beef. Chicken skin tacos - enough said! There are levels of usefulness when it comes to “waste”, so let’s starting with eating it when possible. Of course not all food waste is edible or palatable, but it typically has value anyway. We can’t eat rosemary stems but we can certainly use them to smoke fish or to skewer and grill chicken. And we can always vermicompost, compost, or feed animals with food waste. 4. Making Energy Multitask
Beyond food waste we can better use resources while we cook by making energy work for us in multiple ways - through batch cooking, by capturing escaping energy and valuing/using would-by “waste” and by making meal-prep a bonding experience. A. Batch Cooking By cooking in batches we can save fuel, wash water, and personal energy. It takes much less energy to cook twice or three times the amount we need for a meal, as it does to cook the same meal three separate times. Batch cooking and then freezing portions of prepared meals comes in handy and we all need a night off from cooking and washing dishes. B. Capturing Escaping Energy Boiling a big pot of water to make pasta uses quite a bit of electricity or gas and there is a good deal of heat energy going unused as steam escapes off of the pot. There are several ways we could we use that energy: we could steam dumplings, veggies for the week or even fish or shellfish in a bamboo steamer, right on top of the pot while the pasta cooks. We can also blanch veggies in the hot water before we cook the pasta. When the cooking is done we could use the pasta water for making stocks or simply watering plants. Similarly, potato water is great for making gravy and actually increases the volume of the yield. There are other energies that go unused in a kitchen, such as a cooling but still warm oven. This heat can be used to proof sourdough bread for the bulk fermentation stage, or for drying herbs, breadcrumbs, and more. C. Stacking Functions - Turning Meal Prep Into Teaching and Bonding Time
Yet another waste stream is wasted opportunity. Kids can easily be integrated into the cooking process (ginger can be peeled with a spoon - great for really young kids!). We can also invite friends and share the experience of learning from each other and bonding as we cook. From my personal experience, my children are way more likely to try new foods if they’ve had a hand in preparing them. I love seeing their pride as they present their dishes. My three year old made breakfast potatoes the other day and all his sisters liked his small batch better than the ones I cooked - success!
By using cooking methods instead of recipes, cooking from a smart pantry, changing our mindset to full-value cooking, and making energy multitask for us, we can waste less food, energy, and opportunities. What techniques do you think are important to setting yourself free from the details of recipe preparation?