What Problem Does It Solve?

I listened yesterday to this 1-hour-plus talk on permaculture by Larry Santoyo, posted at Living Architecture Daily. He articulated some ideas and principles a bit differently than I had heard before, or perhaps I am just in a different place now than when I may have been exposed to these thoughts before. Some of the concepts and formulations that struck me as important or useful now (list includes my links to other people’s explanation of them):

** Permaculture is about creating the conditions for X to happen, anywhere in our lives, not just in a garden, though the garden may be its “most elegant” application.

X could be a sustainable garden or a food forest, and it could as easily be resilient community, good health, parenting with integrity, compassionate discrimination, intimate friendships, water conservation, wilderness conservation, diversification of energy resources, financial security, and so on.

As Juliana Birnbaum Fox says in  Sustainable Revolution: Permaculture in Ecovillages, Urban Farms, and Communities Worldwide, “One of the most important things about permaculture is that it is founded on a series of principles that can be applied to any circumstance—agriculture,urban design, or the art of living. The core of the principles is the working relationships and connections between all things.”

**  We use permaculture, we don’t do permaculture. Permaculture is not a discipline in itself, but any discipline that can be designed can use permaculture. Permaculture is about design, not about the technology and techniques; we can get lost in the techniques and forget the problem we want to solve. We use permaculture to solve problems, and in doing so, we arrive at solutions instead of imposing them. And, the problem is inherent in the solution.

** Nature is our only teacher. Look at the patterns of nature. How is nature doing it? Do that.

** Looking at and understanding ecosystems and habitats tells us what to do next, in gardening in particular and elsewhere in design in general. For example, nature starts small, and then nature repeats what succeeds. It doesn’t just get bigger and bigger. Don’t try to figure it out all at once.

** Indicators of a sustainable system, drawn from natural systems and biodiversity in the wild, include:

  • natural succession modelling — think about what naturally comes next;
  • functional relationships — the elements relate to each other so that there is not random diversity but instead a diversity of connections that function effectively to keep the system flowing and flourishing; slightly paraphrasing Bill Mollison in Extracts from Permaculture: A Designers Manual (1988; 7-page PDF), it’s not the number of diverse elements in a design that leads to stability, it’s the number of beneficial connections between these elements;
  • energy flows that are recycled — energy moves through the system and is converted; e.g., plant waste products become compost or mulch for soil fertility, soil fertility in turn grows plants, plants can be used for food for humans and others, for fibre, dying, fencing, heat, beauty, nesting, air cleaning, etc, with energy being used as much as possible before it leaves the local system;
  • elements have multiple functions — e.g., trees might give shade, lumber, fiber, fruit/nuts and other forage, nesting space, cover, wind break, soil building, etc.
  • multi-tasking (or stacking functions) — in a natural system, it takes multiple elements to complete one function, and there are multiple functions for each element;
  • everything happens not just in space (niches) but in time (cycles), i.e., sequencing; Niches are opportunities in space and cycles are opportunities in time. A holistic vision is not a freeze-frame but an evolution over time.
  • all biological solutions are exhausted before moving to technology to solve problems; adopt biological processes that have been worked out for millions of years.

** Beware the peddlers of fear, and don’t turn fear into anger and hate. Don’t make decisions based on fear; channel the angst, and be aware of abundance.

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The idea of asking “What problem does this solve?” is one that I am playing with lately. It’s cropped up in many ways, including in the context of making juices, making/fermenting kombucha and kefir, sprouting seeds and beans, and eating weeds. More on those in a second.

First, how this question cropped up while watching HGTV last week. I found myself yelling “What problem are you trying to solve?!” at a woman on TV who had to have a loft in her log cabin. Every place she went into, she asked plaintively, “Is there a loft?” If there wasn’t, big disappointment. The couple chose the one house they saw that had one. Absent any clues, it wasn’t at all clear what the loft represented for her. It didn’t seem to offer anything functionally; other houses had more square footage and room upstairs; other houses had soaring ceilings and a sense of spaciousness. I was left wondering if the loft somehow manifested her eidos of a log cabin, part of the essence of what “log cabin” means for the home buyer, such that without one, a log cabin wouldn’t be a log cabin, wouldn’t feel authentic to her, and that anticipated inauthenticity was a problem? Did it remind her of earlier connections — camping out in the woods with family? time with friends in a treehouse? the innocence of a youth spent climbing trees? — that she wanted to access again? I wonder if she herself knew what the loft represented or what problem it solved for her.

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Her loft quest and my guessing at its motivation reminds me that asking “what problem does this solve?” doesn’t only help us decide whether to take an action and what appropriate action to take (although that’s the sense of it in permaculture terms, I think); asking that question of ourselves may also, on a psychic level, lead us to a better understanding of ourselves. If I ask myself, “what problem do I seek to solve by” … eating all these potato chips, making travel plans, rescuing a dog, avoiding this meeting, sending that email, trying to determine the veiled motivations of total strangers on TV, writing a blog post … I might understand my own motivations and hence my actions better. (What problem would that solve?)

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On to sprouts, weeds, fermented things, and juices! Juice making: I tried a blended all-juice drink at a restaurant in early March, when I had a cold and didn’t want to drink wine as usual, and I found that I loved it. It made me feel good. But lots of things make me feel good, and that alone wasn’t enough to spur me to buy an expensive juicer and sent aside 10 minutes to make juice every day.


But I did buy the juicer (well, I asked for it as a gift) and I do make juice almost every day — because I realised, like a bolt from the blue, when I drank the juice that it felt healing, and that I rarely eat fruit, especially in winter but really all year ’round. It’s almost never my food of choice. Juicing solves a problem for me: I typically don’t eat enough fruit and I feel that I need to eat more for purposes of health and well-being. The juice I make now combines an apple, a lime, and a lot of pineapple and pineapple juice, as well as ginger, spinach, cucumber, carrot, and sprouts. I’m drinking the juice as my lunch now instead of eating pasta with cheese, thereby adding a few servings of fruit to my diet each day. And a bonus result: I’ve actually started to desire more fruit each day besides what’s in the juice.

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Kombucha making: I’ve thought about making kombucha (many of my friends do) but so far, it doesn’t solve a big or clear enough problem for me. Some people drink it for the probiotic benefits (problem: tummy issues); some because it replaces sweetened drinks, which they want to avoid; some for a late afternoon pick-me-up (problem: lack of energy and oomph). I don’t have tummy issues and am not taking antibiotics, I don’t drink sugary or diet drinks anyway (my cravings runs to salt and fat, not sweet), and I have enough energy, especially in the late afternoon.

wpid-img_20150422_100139.jpg(various kombuchas at a friend’s)

The only problem I think it could solve for me is that of spending money to buy many (recyclable) seltzer bottles; kombucha would be almost free and would generate less waste, made with just water, sugar (which eventually gets eaten by the yeast and bacteria), and a few black tea bags, with some cooking heat applied to make the tea, plus any flavourings (juices, herbs, spices, fruits, etc.) desired. So far, that’s not enough to move me to make kombucha. Also, kombucha requires some tending to, which creates another small problem: I’d have to remember it, and I might have to find someone to care for it if I’m away for more than 2 weeks. It also requires counter space.

Alternatively, I have thought about buying a home seltzer maker, but the production cost and subsequent disposal of the CO2 charger cartridges requires more research on my part to determine if they’re more wasteful than buying one or two 2-liter bottles of seltzer weekly, which is made with almost-local water from Worcester MA. (But Polar also uses CO2 to make the water fizzy, which is what I seek. I’m not sure what problem fizzy water solves but apparently it’s one I have.) Counter space is an issue with a seltzer maker, too.


Kefir making: Many of my friends also make milk or water kefir. The problems it solves seem to be tummy issues (it’s fermented and contains yeast and good bacteria, like kombucha); buying sour cream, yogurt, cream cheese, whey, etc. for use in recipes, since kefir creates by-products that are similar to these products; lack of calcium, protein, and other nutrients due to lactose intolerance — some people with lactose issues can tolerate water kefir and even milk kefir; having to spend money for smoothies or smoothie base — kefir can be your smoothie base. Like kombucha, it costs little to make, although for the milk kefir you do need to buy or have a source for milk.

I don’t like the taste of it (or most dairy products, or most fermented products, in general), but even if I did, I don’t have tummy or lactose issues; I don’t often make recipes that use sour cream, yogurt, whey, or cream cheese; and I don’t drink smoothies (yet …). So it doesn’t solve any problems for me. Kefir also has to be tended regularly, which adds a minor problem. So this is an easy decision for me: No to kefir. Even though kefir “grains” are seemingly on offer everywhere I go, like party drugs in certain circles. (I do love my generous friends.)


Seed-Sprouting: A confluence of two events prompted me to start seed-sprouting: I had my head turned by some pretty bean- and seed-sprouting paraphernalia at the local farm stand recently, and I was (and am) reading a book called The Wild Wisdom of Weeds by Katrina Blair, which encourages seed-sprouting and the making of microgreens, among other techniques. Both of those are heady enticements.


But, what problem would seed-sprouting solve for me? Probably not much of one in mid- and late summer. However, when this occurred, on 1 April in northern New England, with snow still on the ground, with the garden and farm stand producing almost nothing fresh and essentially nothing green, my problem was a lack of fresh, local greenness in my diet — and in my visual world, and my scent world — and a strong craving for all of it. Sprouts very quickly solved this problem.

They require few resources (the seeds or beans, water, a mason jar with a sprouting lid or cheesecloth on top), a small bit of counter space (much less than the juicer, for instance), and only a few days of patience. I do have to remember to rinse them in water for 10 seconds every 8-12 hours for 4-5 days but they are forgiving if I’m off by an hour or two, and — since I don’t have my mind cluttered with kombucha and kefir reminders and care-taking — so far I am up to the task and feel rewarded by my little effort. When I have more greens in the garden, I may abandon the sprouts until next October, because they won’t be solving as big a problem for me. (I don’t think you can just abandon kefir and kombucha; they appear to have a beating heart of fermented sliminess that must be kept on some sort of life support.)


Weeds: Again, the Wild Wisdom of Weeds book enticed me with its sweeping descriptions of the health benefits and vitality of common weeds, but eating wild weeds solves many problems that come to mind readily: A profusion, nay a plethora, of weeds growing freely and without any maintenance in the yard and nearby non-sprayed locations; the alternative of spending six months of the year hand-weeding, or spraying either inorganic or organic, very toxic or slightly less toxic things on them, or paying someone to do either of the above (I’ll still get to hear spouse complain about them, though … how do I solve that problem?); a disturbed soil that actually needs these weeds, with their long tap roots, to de-compact it, add nutrients, and make suitable conditions for other more finicky plants; a lack of other free, extremely nutritional, medicinal, very local, vital greens, roots, seeds, and fruits/flowers.


Yesterday I ate someone else’s dandelions but soon I will be eating my own. (How many times have you heard someone say that?) And besides dandelions, also clover, purslane, amaranth (the only one I will be sowing from seed and probably not finding or foraging), chickweed, dock, lambsquarter, mustards, plantain, etc. I will be using these in my juices in a week or two in place of the spinach I now buy. (Eventually, I will have spinach from the garden, too.)

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Of course, there are many things I do that don’t solve a specific problem I’m aware of, like taking photos on nature walks, being part of a bookgroup (or four), making the bed every morning, or even planting seeds and vegetables in my garden.

I do some activities probably from the sense that I would create a problem if I didn’t do them. When on rare occasion I don’t make the bed, e.g., the sight of it distracts me, whereas its neatness somehow facilitates mental order for me and gives me an aesthetic boost.

I know I’m part of some bookgroups in order to read books I wouldn’t typically read, thereby reducing insularity and parochialism in my reading, pushing my identity boundaries. A weekly or monthly group also expands my sense of community, of being part of a place and a people, which solves the problem of not feeling connected.

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Gardening beyond its aesthetic value — for the sake of beautiful surroundings — and for its value to wildlife — encouraging functional biodiversity, providing desirable habitat — is a harder action for me to justify or understand in terms of solving a problem. Why do I plant vegetable seeds and seedlings? Am I simply imposing a solution rather than arriving at one? And a solution for what? Is a lawn a problem that needs a solution? I think it may be.


I really don’t mind the look of a lawn, arid though it actually is in terms of species support. There is something restful to the eye about an expanse of green. But while a lawn is not necessarily an aesthetic problem for me, it is a problem in other ways.

For one, a turf lawn in New England is not conducive to biodiversity, and a lack of bees, flies, lepidoptera, weeds, trees, flowers, birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians feels like a problem and a loss, not just for the local natural ecosystem but for me personally. Second, a lawn feels like a problem in the same way that a blank canvas does, if you like to make art. And I like to make art. When I see too much lawn, I want to get out my paints and dabble a little. Third, a lawn here is difficult to maintain in the way that people want it maintained, i.e., so it’s always green. Most lawn grasses are meant to go dormant in summer, but we don’t like crisp brown grass, so out comes water, fertilizer, and more grass seed. And not only does it need to be green, but it needs to be kept short, which means frequent mowing. Maintaining a lawn is a problem. It may not feel like a problem to the person mowing, watering, seeding, and fertilizing, but it’s a problem for nature. Grass is meant to rest. Polluting, wasting water, and sending fertilizer into the storm drains is also a problem for the community.

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But I could solve the problem of a lawn by growing ornamental perennials, shrubs, trees, annuals — without resorting to (human) edibles. Yet I persist in growing annual vegetables. What problem then does growing vegetables, herbs, fruits and nuts for human consumption solve for me, if any?

An annual vegetable garden, laid out in neat rows or in raised beds, doesn’t seem to solve a problem for me. It has never provided more than a token portion of our food for a year or even a growing season. It’s a lot of work for a small harvest. The food tastes great but so does the food at the local farmstand, and I like to support the local farmers. So a vegetable garden per se isn’t really giving me much that I need or want. But an edible forest garden might. Dave Jacke and Eric Toensmeier describe forest gardening this way:

Edible forest gardening can be described as “the art and science of putting plants together in woodlandlike patterns that forge mutually beneficial relationships, creating a garden ecosystem that is more than the sum of its parts. You can grow fruits, nuts, vegetables, herbs, mushrooms, other useful plants, and animals in a way that mimics natural ecosystems. … As Masanobu Fukuoka once said, ‘The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings.’ How we garden reflects our worldview. The ultimate goal of forest gardening is not only the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of new ways of seeing, of thinking, and of acting in the world. Forest gardening gives us a visceral experience of ecology in action, teaching us how the planet works and changing our self-perceptions. Forest gardening helps us take our rightful place as part of nature doing nature’s work, rather than as separate entities intervening in and dominating the natural world.”

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vegetable garden, early Oct. 2014
vegetable garden, early Oct. 2014
fruit guild, early Sept. 2014
fruit guild, early Sept. 2014

Above: the first photo is of the dedicated vegetable garden, in full sun, fenced from deer. Last year I grew, in loose rows, cherry tomatoes, scarlet runner beans, green beans, cosmos, zinnias, squash, cucumbers, chard, and attempted broccoli and cabbage, but they were eaten by bugs. It’s adjoined by sections growing milkweeds, asters, lemon balm, Russian sage, lavender, crocosmia, hydrangea, blueberries, elderberries, vervain, lilacs, bee balms, garlic, spring bulbs.

The second photo is the free-range peach tree guild, in part-sun, starting its 4th year, which could become part of a food forest. The peach tree guild has peach trees, chives, strawberries, milkweed, blueberries, winterberries, sand cherry, tansy, fall asters, dill, fennel, borage, yarrow, anise hyssop, wildflowers, baptisia, and usually annual crops such as carrots, peas, greens, beans, squash, cucumber, and other veggies.

My problem is that most edible (vegetable) gardening — such as the dedicated vegetable garden — seems to require that I act against nature, against succession surely, by intervening, weeding, always digging holes and replanting, cleaning up, restarting the process each spring — when what I want (not least as a lazy person) is to barely manage the ecosystem of my yard as part of its larger ecosystem in a way that mimics nature, works with nature, and is beautiful to me. The solution could be an edible food forest, to include — as the fruit tree guild does now — not only human edibles (fruits, nuts, herbs, vegetables) but animal edibles, animal habitat, pollinator plants, plants to attract beneficial insects in all of their life phases, animal cover and nesting sites, and so on. I think that somehow expanding on the fruit guild — perhaps even creating another one where the sunny vegetable garden is now — would cheer me.


My next problem might be that deer are destroying my nascent food forest; but if the solution is inherent in the problem, as they say, then possibly it’s not that I have too many hungry deer but that I don’t have enough hungry coyotes in my yard.

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In a way, asking “What problem does it solve?” ties together many of the points Santoyo makes in the video, which in turn summarises most of the permaculture design principles.

The problem that often needs to be solved when something isn’t working well– in relationships and community-building, housing and building, the justice system, finance and the monetary system, politics, business, and other disciplines as well as gardening, farming, and land management — is simply that we are out of sync with the rest of the natural world. We’re designing without any sensibility of the abundance and patterns of nature. We’re mindless of functional and spatial relationships, beneficial energy conversions, stacking functions (each element has many functions, each function is performed by many elements), the power and diversity of the marginal, how niches and cycles present opportunities, the stability inherent in beneficial connections among elements, the rules and flow of natural succession.

The solution to these multiple problems is so simple that even a lightweight like Albert Einstein realised it:

“Look deep into nature, and you will understand everything better.”

Even the deer. (How do you solve a problem like Cervidae?)

deer last week, on motion camera
Yes, I see you.

(Top photo: chard nibbled by deer.)


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