Food & Fiber


Over the last century the typical Western culture home has evolved from a center of production to a center of consumption. Older homes had pantries, workshops, sewing rooms, laundry rooms and workshops. Large kitchens provided space for food preservation and preparation. Productive gardens of the past have been replaced by maintenance demanding lawns and exotic shrubs. It is as if in the 'ideal' consumer society people do not cook; make, launder or mend clothing; build or repair homes; grow or preserve food. (Durning, Alan. 1992. How Much is Enough? New York: Norton. pg. 45)

Permaculture focuses on design for sustenance. As such, its purpose is to grow plants useful for food, fiber and health. The beauty of our landscapes grow from "working with instead of against nature, to be in harmony with natural systems. This harmony is inherently beautiful." (Molly Curry, A Place for Beauty, in Permaculture Activist #33-A, April 1996, pg. 2) Permaculture sustenance means feeding of the body, mind and spirit. A permaculture approach to producing food and fiber can lead to a more self-sustaining life style for the individual, family or cooperative group.

Permaculture gardening starts with intense planting and use of the area immediately around the home. In this area we might establish spirals of herbs, clipping beds for salad greens, pathside vegetable beds for daily plucking, and a series of narrow and broad beds for longer term needs. Our scheme might also contain trellis and pond gardens, seedling beds and nursery areas. Further out in the landscape we might establish fruit and nut orchards, grain crops, fiber producers and forest crops. Mollison and Slay have a good discussion of garden types in Introduction to Permaculture, Chapters 5 and 6.

Since most plants yield at a much higher level than immediate consumption needs, processing and storage become important components in permaculture design. The ideal would be to get a year-round food supply for people and their animals.

Historically, cultures have developed their own methods of food preservation that fit their resources, region and food types. While it would be ideal to have a continuous growing system, most climates and plants do not allow this to happen so we need to rely on other methods. The list of preservation techniques is quite impressive and includes root cellaring, drying, canning, fermenting, salting, freezing, smoking, pressing/juicing, oiling, pickling, sprouting, pitting/trenching, condensing, irridating, culturing, food chaining and gassing.

Some preservation techniques are better than others. We look for approaches that are low in energy and resource use, retain nutritional values of foods, maintain food purity, fit the timing of the crop, add value to the product and have a high value to biomass ratio. The less desirable approaches are freezing (continuous high energy use), tin canning (resource and energy use), gassing (adds substance to food), and irridating (unknown effects at present).

Many permaculture designs will include root cellaring as a practical, tested and economical way to store many basic crops -- potatoes, carrots, beets and other roots. The basic ingredient is that a space be maintained above freezing at near ground temperature; the 35-40°F range is considered good. Moisture must be high enough to prevent dessication but low enough to inhibit mold; there is a wide range. The area should be dark, rodent proof and accessible.

Drying is an excellent and inexpensive way to preserve food. It reduces bulk, concentrates flavor and makes food easy to store. In most areas solar drying is not reliable because of moisture in the air and direct sunlight's destruction of nutrients. However, most homes have built-in systems for drying -- hot water heaters and refrigerators -- both of which give off enough waste heat to dry food on racks in their vicinity.

House and garden, food and fiber production, food storage and preparation may be seen as integrated functions of living. Permaculture design presents an approach to making the home and surroundings a center of living activity.