Overcoming Permaculture Destination Addiction Part 2 | by Kris Edler

permaculture destination addiction

Because permaculturists are are often futuristic in thinking, it’s easy to get excited about the future and miss the opportunity where we are in the moment.  Many times, I find myself day dreaming so much about the mature food forest I will one day steward and I miss the fact that I need to be applying compost to the soil today.  In the first part of these series on Overcoming Permaculture Destination Addiction, we talk about how to BE right where your feet are and to enjoy the plot of land you are stewarding today.

Overcoming permaculture destination addictionIn order to stay in our power-allies, we have to set up careful parameters in order to keep ourselves focused and living intentionally.  When a permaculturist is focused the system thrives with intelligent design and abundance.  When we get distracted, we end up with 30 half-finished projects around the property.  Learn how to select the most important projects here, with “Five Keys to Healthy Building”.  For me, there are three dangers that often creep up that are easy derailments of my efforts.  These dangers have applications both in and outside of the garden.

Danger #1:  Planting Outside of Your Zone

We have all been at the greenhouse and saw “THE PLANT”.  You know the one… it’s the one you don’t have in your garden that is so perfect and exotic that you absolutely have to buy it.  Even if the plant is just outside of our growing zone, we usually still buy it with the thought in mind that we can nurture it, mulch, or maybe even take it in the greenhouse for the winter.  The fact remains, the plant often looks good at the plant store, because it was just shipped there from Florida and is full of fertilizers.  That is a short lived reality.  Once those two factors wear off, we all know how the story goes – the plant struggles in our midwest garden, will sometimes make it through one winter, but is usually a pitiful stem in the second season…and dead shortly thereafter.  A mistake I have made more than once myself.

Don’t get me wrong, it is fun to plant outside of our planting zone and sometimes (rare as it may be), we can make it work.  However, there is a reason those planting zones exist.  That zone is what is optimal for the plants growth and ability to thrive. Yes, the little plant might survive in your garden, but the chances of it thriving in a system it wasn’t intended for are slim.  As a gardener, I have to deny myself the momentary pleasure of buying that tropical plant in order to give it a better chance in the system it was created for.  Zones exist for a reason – they are the unspoken boundaries of the landscape that allow for abundance.  We cannot simply erase these invisible lines simply because we desire the tropical tree enough.  We cannot wish away the boundaries that nature has drawn.

Danger #2:  Letting Books Frame Your Reality

When I first started researching permaculture, one of the ideal trophies many people touted on about were their “herb spirals”.  These seemed to be the golden children of permaculture design that everyone wanted to have.  As I read my first few books, I started to think to myself, “If I don’t have one of the spirals like this – I’m going to be a bad permaculturist.”  So, during my first PDC, I was waiting for Geoff Lawton to introduce the concept, however, when he finally talked about it, he told us upfront that it was NOT a design for everyone.  Lawton actually tried to talk us out of creating one before he gave the mechanics of designing it.  He specifically said, “there are some growing scenarios that make it a really wise choice, but there are 10 other scenarios that make it a permaculture fantasy.”  They key to a healthy system is doing what IS right, not creating something because it FEELS right.  So what makes it right?  The system.  It is the difference between a system being able to sustain an element and the element actually being good for the system as a whole, where they both thrive because of its introduction.

Just because it’s do-able in someone else’s system, does not mean that it is the best course of action for your scenario.

Danger #3:  Jumping the Gun

apple orchard care in kansas cityOne of the hardest lessons I have learned in permaculture is that real growth takes real time.  Real abundance takes ground work above all else.  I have planted hundreds of trees and bushes the last few years, and some of them do really well while others thrive.  The difference is generally found in how much time I spend nurturing the soil vs. how much time I spend playing the with leaves.  On the trees which I have mulched, wood-chipped, composted, and sprayed with beneficial micro-organisms, I see immense growth and health.  However, there are some trees that I focused on foliar sprays which have really struggled.  The lesson learned regarding my apple trees is to allow 3-5 years of root growth on new fruiting trees BEFORE allowing them to have fruit set.  This creates a tree that will be healthy for 100 years, but requires me to forgo the momentary pleasures of a few apples.  The waiting process is painful, but it’s worth it in the end.

This month, I took some young 7th grade students out to the apple trees to look at the branches during the fall.  On the trees, you can see the buds setting for the next season.  I told them how we have been waiting for several years to have apples, because the focus has been on root growth, and how next year there will finally be apples!  Here is the Facebook post I wrote that day:

“…Because I am a garden nerd, I know that next year I will have more apple blossoms than ever before.  I can see the bud set starting this fall for the next year.  We are nearly past the tree infancy stages and entering our first production years.  We have labored hard to create the soil that they could thrive in, and have provided companion planting guilds to ensure a healthy eco-system.  All the while, we have strategically plucked the blossoms and early fruit to prevent apples from forming the first few years.  However, this fall, I see buds forming for next year that we will allow to produce fruit!  The promise of fruit – finally!  If I open up the buds to take a peek at the promises before their time, I cannot simply close them back up and hope for them to bear later.  Once opened, they cannot be closed.  The buds need the hardening off of the winter to prepare for the year ahead.  Otherwise, should I act in haste, the fruit sets will fall to the ground.  As a gardener, I watch and wait, and I do my part today to tend the soil and provide a covering.”

Overcoming Permaculture Destination Addiction

So, be patient.  Wait.  Tend the soil where you.  Be wise.  Observe the plot of land that you are responsible for stewarding and ask yourself what is best not only for the individual tree, but also the planting build; not only what is good for the guild, but also the system as a whole.  Be where are you are right now and care for the plot of land you are responsible for.

Don’t worry about what land you are going to steward in the next 10 years, just enjoy today and get outside in the garden.


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Permaculture Destination Addiction Part 1 | by Kris Edler

The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, unless you are a permaculture ninja, then the food forest is always more established on the other side of the hugelkultur swale.  Whether you own 300 acres in the country or 1/4 acre in the city, I am sure we have all had the occasional case of property envy.  This happened to me immediately as I started my permaculture design course (PDC) with Geoff Lawton.  I started researching properties all over the United States that would provide the environment for the ideal food forest.  As I went through the PDC, I started imagining swales, 7-layered systems, hugel-beds, herb spirals, and the multiple zones for growing and production.  Unfortunately, those moments of dreaming quickly made me realize that I wasn’t happy where I was.  I had a horrible case of destination addiction… permaculture destination addiction.

destination addiction

It is easy to get lost in the fantasy of “if I only had that property, then I would…”.  Though it is helpful to dream, it is also dangerous if we allow ourselves to stay there.  Not only do we have the opportunity to be happy and fulfilled where we are, but we also have the ability to experience abundance.  Bob Fraser, a Christian leadership author, says, “Your ministry is right where your feet are.”  In the case of the permaculture ninja, our opportunity for abundance is right where we stand.  It is true, I might own another property in 20 years that will be very different than the ones I manage now.  However, the reality is that I am stewarding land right now that needs my care, attention, and focus.  I need to build right where I am as though I were going to be there for the next 70 years.  I need to live in the present and not in the possibilities of the future.

What system are you stewarding today?

A permaculture friend of mine has a stunning little property in a suburban area that has a lot of old growth.  He has hickory, oak, large maple, etc.  Because of his desire to build a picture perfect permaculture property, he is longing to put in a food forest.  He wants all seven layers with each one expressed in a way that it looks like a picture of Sepp Holtzer’s property.  However, with the amount of old growth and shade he has on his property, having a 7-layer system is just not reality.  He would have to cut down sections of the old growth to allow more sunlight and would need to amend the soil because of the high tannins in the acorns.  In essence, he would need to kill off part of his 150+ year old system in order to add in a few bushes and understory shrubs.  IT’S NOT WORTH IT!!

J.R.R. Tolkien says, “He who breaks a thing to find out what it is, has left the path of wisdom.”

Be where you are – Avoid Permaculture Destination Addiction

Instead of fighting against the natural succession that has already taken place on the property, he has the opportunity to work with nature instead of against it.  Instead of the 7-layer system, he could be expanding the understory to include gooseberries, currants, ramps, fiddlehead ferns, etc.  Instead of a regular vegetative layer, he has a property that would be perfect for mushroom production.  He has a stunning overstay for raising chickens, ducks, turkey, or goats in the dappled shade of the forest.  The maple trees are mature enough to be tapped for syrup, and the acorns are attracting the neighborhood deer and wildlife for hunting.  This may not be a 7-layer food forest, but it really is a horse of a different color.  There is a rare and unique system being offered right where his feet are.

Overcoming the temptation to “be” somewhere else is much easier said than done.  Personally, I could spend all day dreaming about the future, white-boarding it out and making new designs.  however, when I do that, my current system goes into chaos because I am not tending the garden the way that I should.  Creating designs and white-boarding is an excellent practice, I outline a few tips on how to do it here, but we have to overcome the planning paralysis and become people of action and intelligent design.

Action, for a permaculturist, has to be not only balanced, but also optimized to express earth care, people care, and fair share.  Our actions in the garden should pass the following questions:

1 – Am I doing what is right for this plant by creating an environment for it to thrive?

2 – Am I doing what is right for the companion planting guild that surrounds this plant?

3 – Am I doing what is best for the system as a whole?

Notice these questions do not involve topics primarily focused on the gardener.  I am only one element in the system, and that system is quite simply bigger than I am.  The questions are not asking, “Are avocados my favorite fruit?”  This question has merit, sure, I want to grow something I enjoy.  However, the reality is that I live in Missouri, so growing an avocado is not what’s best for the tree or the system as a whole…no matter how much I enjoy guacamole.  In Missouri though, I can grow annual tomatoes, peppers, and other ingredients for salsa.  I can grow perennial stone fruits for apple pie, berries for preserves, and grains for bread.  Instead of focusing on avocados, it is best for me to appreciate the ground my feet are standing on right now.  It’s best for me to intelligently design the system I am in and ask the healthy questions of how to optmimize it for abundance.  Maybe in the future I will be in a system for avocados to thrive, but it is not today.

Because permaculturists are are often futuristic in thinking, it is easy to get excited in the moment and miss the opportunity where we are.  There are three dangers that a young permaculturist or gardener should be careful of in order to create a healthy system.  These are carefully outlined in part two of the Destination Addiction series, which you can read here.

Now, stop reading and get outside and into the garden!

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Black Walnut Tree Guild for the Kansas City Permaculture Ninja

Black Walnut Tree Guild for Kansas City

In our region in Kansas City, like much of the Midwest, we have an abundance of black walnut trees.  This species can be difficult to grow under because it can add toxins to the soil.  The black walnut tree produces a substance called juglone, which prevents many species from growing under the canopy of the tree.  If you have one in your yard, you may have noticed that grass is nearly impossible to grow under it.  The highest concentrations of juglone are in the shell and hull of the nuts, and the highest concentration in the soil is often found around 15-20 feet from the tree.  The toxins can be found nearly 80 feet from the center of the tree on older species.  Because of this substance, it is important to not only identify what can grow around the tree, but also what will create a beneficial, symbiotic relationship with the tree to improve the system.  Our 18.5 acre site at the Daniel Academy has an abundance of these trees and we are getting ready to install a few black walnut tree guilds that are tailored for Kansas City.  Adaptations of these guilds can be used in other regions as well with species that are slightly more suitable for your area.

Permaculture Ninjas and Fitness

This particular walnut guild has been designed specifically to benefit the local ecosystem, but with the purpose in mind of serving those who are into a fitness based lifestyle.  Our weight training program at the school, along with a local fitness trainer have hopes of using this system to not only heal the land, but strategically nourish the participants in the fitness programs.  These plants have high density nutrients and multiple levels of application for fitness guru’s.  Just imagine, if you can tailor a guild to suit a fitness center – what other possibilities are out there!  Companion planting in front of a restaurant to compliment their style of food, exploring planting guilds near a children’s recess area, for a bird sanctuary, a learning garden for kids to capture insects, etc.

Black Walnut Tree Planting Guild for Kansas City
Black Walnut Tree Planting Guild for Kansas City

Black Walnut Tree Guild for the Kansas City Permaculture Ninja

Walnut Tree:  This is the centerpiece and canopy layer of the system.  Generally with a walnut species, we don’t plant anything under the canopy itself, but you could add some spring bulbs like daffodils, crocus, or spring violets.  Wood chipping this area 6″ deep will also help create a healthy fungal network.  We have noticed quite a wide species of mushrooms using this practice and that find this growing environment to be perfect for mushrooms.  An advanced system could use this understory area for mushroom logs to grow shiitake or oyster mushrooms.  The walnuts themselves though are the focal point and are excellent sources of protein, amino acids, and healthy fats.  The hulls can be used to make tincture often taken by cancer patients treating their condition naturally.

Comfrey:  Around the drip line, we have two species of plants.  The first is comfrey, which is a fantastic biodynamic accumulator.  This plant is used to bring up minerals using it’s taproot and make them more bioavailable to the upper layers of soil.  This plant can be used for multiple purposes.  It can be chopped and dropped in place for creating organic biomass and weed suppression.  Comfrey can be brewed into a tea to help strengthen the heart.  It can be applied as a poultice to speed the recovery of injured bones, ligaments, and joints.  It is also a fantastic feed for chickens, goats, or cattle.  My chickens go crazy over a handful of comfrey and it gives them a good boost of minerals, biotin, and vitamin B.

NOTE:  I only use bocking 14 comfrey, because it does not spread by seed.  Comfrey which propagates by seed can be extremely invasive and nearly impossible to get rid of down the road, unless you have pigs.  It’s worth it to stick with bocking 14, which can be easily grown from root cuttings.

Mint / Lemon Balm:  Between the comfrey plants, a mint species or lemon balm would work really well.  This will help serve as both a ground cover and a source of continual pollination in the vegetative layer.  This makes mint a great choice, because there are continuous flowers to serve as a support species, and the juglone in the soil will help control mint from spreading out of control.  The leaves can be used in a tea to aid in digestion and relaxation, or can also be ground into a poultice for injured muscles.  If using lemon balm, the leaves are also used as a tea for insomnia, stress and anxiety relief, and to help digestion.  For those in fitness, both teas are extremely helpful in assisting in the repair and soothing of the muscular system.

Golden Currant:  The next layer has golden currants.  These spring and summer berries are excellent sources of antioxidants and do well in part sun.  They are best planted on the South and West sides of the tree, but can be interspersed throughout the planting guild.  The bright yellow flower clusters in the spring are satisfactory pollinators, but will be very showy and a source of color and beauty within the guild.  The berries are extremely sweet and have high antioxidants. They are easily picked and eaten raw or can be used in smoothies.

Gooseberry:  This plant is a great one to grow in the shade and is very tolerant of the juglone produced by the walnut.  These can be planted on the North and East sides of the tree or interspersed around the planting.  The slightly sour berries can be eaten raw, used in smoothies, or cooked down into a jelly or preserve.  They are high in vitamin C, A, and manganese.  As a berry, they also contain a surprising amount of minerals, including calcium and phosphorus.

Mulberry / Redbud:  In the final layer, it is a great place to put dwarf species that can either be food sources or nitrogen fixers.  In our area, I prefer to use the nitrogen fixing Eastern Red Bud.  The red bud tree produces pink / purple flowers in the springtime, which put on a great visual show.  Later in the spring, they produce a pea like pod that can be cooked and eaten like a snap pea as a source of early season plant protein.  The tree is a satisfactory legume tree, which has a root system producing nitrogen-fixing nodules to help rebuild the soil.

On the other hand, one could also plant a mulberry tree, though in this setting I would prune it to remain a bush for easier harvesting.  Mulberries grown as a tree are often harder to harvest and just make a mess on the ground.  The mulberries are excellent food sources for humans and wildlife.  Mulberries contain riboflavin, vitamin C, K, iron, and potassium.  They are also rich in antioxidants and contain alkaloids that activate macrophages to help build the immune system.

Black Walnut Tree Guild for Kansas City
Black Walnut Tree Guild for Kansas City

This Black Walnut Tree Guild for the Kansas City permaculture ninja has been inspired by The Daniel Academy and Jonathan Elliott who lead the fitness and wellness programs at the K-12 private school.  This school has been a permaculture test site since 2012 and continues to educate students in permaculture practices, health, and wellness.  For more information, visit their website.  

In the meantime, if you have an existing black walnut tree, consider enhancing it with this planting guild.  Watch nature and science work together to create a multi-layered system that will produce food for 100 years beyond your lifetime.   Leave a legacy – plant a permaculture guild.



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Overcoming Planning Paralysis | by Kris Edler

overcoming planning paralysis 2

As a type-A, leadership driven, slightly OCD personality, I know what it is like to get stuck in the planning phase of the building process.  This brain freeze in the midst of a project is often referred to as planning paralysis.  Overcoming planning paralysis is something that every good permaculturist struggles with at some point in time. From the very beginning of my permaculture journey, PDC leader, Geoff Lawton taught me that, “for every hour of work on a new project, you should have 10 hours of planning and observation.”  At first, I thought, “NO WAY!”  After all, I am a doer, a mover, and a shaker… not a philosopher.  However, after realizing just how easy it is to walk around a property and get lost in your thoughts, or how fast time flies when you go out to the chicken coop “for a minute”…I quickly found the wisdom in his words.

Chicken tractor system on contour
Chicken system on contour

One of my favorite ways of thinking through a new process or idea is by using a white board.  I have one in my office, another two 8′ wide ones in the meeting room, and a portable one in my shed.  Wait… I also have one portable one in my car and another one at home in the front closet incase an idea hits me in the evening.  Sure, I use a whiteboard app on my iPhone, but honestly I prefer the size and functionality of using the markers.

How Do We Overcome Planning Paralysis?

In the past, when finishing an idea, I would let the board sit and sometimes erase it without following through on any of the components.  The nagging fear in the back of my head has always been, “What if I forget something and mess it up?  Maybe it’s better to wait until I have the perfect plan before starting anything.” Regardless of how much planning I do though – I will forget something and will find things I want to improve upon.  Period.  No plan is ever going to be perfect and no prototype is going to be the end-all-be-all.  So, how do we then get out of the project planning phase and start overcoming planning paralysis?

Using white boards to overcome project paralysis
Using white boards to overcome project paralysis

Step 1 – Think with Strategy

Embrace the inner planning addict and let yourself have whiteboard time.  Think, dream, and go big!  Look for problematic areas and potential hang-ups.  Examine the possible fruitfulness of the project and who you might include on your project dream team.  Draw pictures, diagrams, make lists, and color code with 11 different colors of markers.  GO FOR IT!  Tweak one part of your process though, and add a column in your brainstorming for “Steps to Get Started”.  The addition of this simple column in your planning will help you formulate the initial strategies for moving forward. Sure, the idea might fail, but at least you will know how to get moving.

Step 2 – Bring Someone Along with You

Even if you never want to pursue the idea, take someone else along with you for the ride – a student, intern, family member, friend, or co-worker.  It is always good to have an extra eye on a project, but it is even more beneficial to have someone who can see things differently than you.  Don’t bring someone with you who will agree with everything you say.  Remember, you want to examine a full-spectrum.  At the end of the brainstorming session, maybe you decide the project is not for you, but it’s possible that the person thinking along with you will want to take it on (or know someone who could).  Fruitful conversations deserve their seeds to be planted.

Step 3 – Take a Picture of Your Brainstorming

Do not erase the board and walk away!  Take a picture of your work to capture it “as is”.  This visual can often be helpful to look back on, especially if there are images or diagrams.  Plus, it is fun to look back on concept drawings from previous projects after a few years.  Trust me, you can learn a lot from your own drawings and note-taking.

Step 4 – Type it Out

The last two steps are the most important in overcoming planning paralysis.  After you have taken the picture of your brainstorming time, type it out.  This simple step makes it searchable on your computer, easy to send to others, and helps make the process more streamlined.  Often times when white boarding, we think conceptually.  Something happens when we start typing and our brain begins to make things more linear.  A natural process begins to develop and clear steps begin to form.  The fact is, the pictures and images of the white boards often get lost in our photo albums of 400,000 other pictures of kids, trees, and mushrooms.  However, making a digital file folder to organize your dreaming can give you the ability to go back and search them later.

overcoming planning paralysis 2Step 5 – Take Actionable Step Toward the Goal

The last step is the most important in the process of overcoming planning paralysis.  Take a practical and actionable step.  It doesn’t have to be huge or involve a bunch of money.  Your step might simply be to share the idea with another person.  Projects that involve people get traction.  Remember, every good idea is like a seed that deserves a chance to be planted.  Who knows what fruit might come of your actions, but if you never try – you will never find out.

Let’s start planning and see what happens!  For more information on Healthy Building, click here. 

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