Book Notes: The Permaculture Handbook :: Chapter Seven

Here are my highly personal notes on Chapter Seven: Land — Scales and Strategies in Peter Bane’s The Permaculture Handbook (2012). Any misrepresentations of Bane’s words or work are mine alone and completely unintentional. Notes on each chapter linked here.


“Everyone needs access to land — for walking, for playing, for contemplating the beauty of nature — especially in cities. But nature is not a pet, and providing land as a support for health and spirit is a remnant of a far deeper and more complex relationships of humans to land. The most important bond between us and the earth is that we eat what it provides. We developed the habit of walking and running in order to pursue game, to roam in search of roots and berries. We contemplated the infinite complexity of land and sky around us in the process of stalking animals, netting fish, and searching for ripe seeds.” — Peter Bane 

The most important bond between us and the Earth is that we eat what it provides.

Everyone should grow a little food, even if it’s sprouts on a windowsill, mushrooms in a basement, and tomatoes in a pot on the patio or balcony.

growing sprouts (April 2015)

Standard U.S Diet: Americans eat 2,000 lbs/year each, which is 3,800 calories per day, 40% above recommended daily allowance of 2,700 calories. 

Current U.S. diet consists (by weight, not by calories) of 30% milk and dairy, 20% vegetables, 14% fruits, 13% meat, 10% cereals, 7% sugar, 4.5% fat, 2% nuts, legumes, and other foods (not = to 100% because of rounding). Fats have 20x the calories per pound as vegetables. The same diet measured by calories is 25% calories from fats, 22% from cereals, 15% from meat, 14% from sugar, 10.5% from dairy, 6% from veggies, 5% from fruit, and 2.5% from nuts and legumes. [I’m a bit confused by the inclusion of fats in the list — aren’t fats in all these other items, like dairy, meat, grains, nuts, almost everything? Does he mean that dairy is just milk and cheese, and fats are just what we take in from butter, oils, margarine, etc?]

“The nutritional content of food has declined since the advent of industrial agriculture due to the destruction of soil fertility wrought by tillage and chemicals. … [P]ound for pound, fruits and vegetables deliver much higher levels of these essential nutrients than any other food group, though nuts, organ meat, whole grains and legumes — and to some extent dairy products — contain significant amounts of particular and needed nutrients.” Most fats and sugars, which make up 40% of Americans’ calories, don’t have much nutrition. (Honey, maple syrup, butter, coconut oil, hemp oil, and olive oil do have some minerals or essential fatty acids in them.)

honey tasting at Savannah Bee, St. Simons Island, GA, Dec. 2015

Another way to examine food intake is to “measure the amount of land required to grow the food. This gets to the heart of the issue, because land is becoming a limiting factor for the survival and health of humanity. The 2,000 pounds of food eaten per person per year in the US come from three acres of crop and pasture land. In the aggregate, it takes some 900 million productive acres of farm and ranch land to feed the population of the United States.” The U.S. has cropland under cultivation of more than 300 million acres, and pasture and rangeland of 600 million acres, “but the US is still a net food importer. Most of the crop acreage in the US is planted to four commodities: corn, soybeans, wheat and hay. These are converted by the industrial system into sugar, animal feed, ethanol, paints and inks, food supplements and hundreds of feedstocks for industry. Very little human food — mainly bread and cereals — comes directly from these four crops.” Only about 3% of crop  acreage in the U.S. grows fruits, vegetables, nuts and other legumes.

“The broad picture is one of very few farmers raising large quantities of commodity crops, mostly in monocultures, with the labor intensive and nutrient-dense components of the food system offshore or managed with immigrant labor. Food-miles are high, energy costs are unsupportable and there is very little resilience in the system.”

Biointensive gardening – Alan Chadwick and John Jeavons. Well-studied garden-scale agriculture. They can grow a balanced plant-based diet for one person for a year on .09 acres (4,000 square feet), of which only 1,200 square feet are actually used for food crops, the rest devoted to growing compost crops to improve soil fertility.

Somewhere between these two poles of inefficiency and hyper-efficiency is a system of regenerative permanent agriculture for most of us.

A New National Diet: See image below for a diet Banes feels “would be acceptable to most North Americans for its variety, level of fats, protein, and bulk, and that could be grown and foraged by smallholder methods in suburban front and back yards and ’empty lot’ pastures.”


Bane mentions the non-tillage methods of Masanobu Fukuoka for grains and legumes.

The meat allotment is envisioned to include rabbit, poultry, and some lamb, pork, and goat, supplemented by wild game; a little beef might be possible in some farming situations. Fish would replace some meat needs.

© Mike Schiell

Fats would come from animals, in lard or goose fat. [No, not happening here!]

If all the methods he suggests (I’ve listed only a few) were adopted across the U.S., we could feed ourselves on 1/3 the acreage now being used, or on about 5% of the land area of the lower 48 states.

Scales of Production: Garden farms will emerge at five different scales:

Tiny City Lot (6,000 – 11,000 square feet): Emphasis has to be on foods with the most nutrition per square foot. Would include bees, chickens and ducks, pigeons, quail, rabbits, guinea pigs.

asparagus, hoop house, et al. at Paradise Lot (which is 1/10 acre or 4,300 square feet) in Holyoke, MA, June 2016

Multi-Lot or Suburban Plots (Microfarms; 1/4 to 3/4 acre): [Our property is 3/4 acre] Could “achieve a significant fraction of self-provision with some surplus for local trade.” Grow high-value crops for income. Keep medium-sized animals such as sheep, goats, geese, pigs. Aquaculture. Extensive tree and shrub crops. This size system needs a full-time summer farmer. Three-quarters of an acres is enough to support a 40-share subscription plan with 20 weeks of surplus, though it does depend a bit on your climate.

my dedicated veggie garden in June 2016, with transplants and seeds: peas, arugula, tomatoes, lettuces, cucumbers, squash, chard, and green beans

McMansion Redux or Green Island Plots (3/4 acre to 2.5 acres): Could be one big lot or some contiguous lots. Could support commercial intensive vegetable operation yielding a full income ($40K+), much of it from an acre of berries, OR mixed-farm provisioning for a household of 4-8 people. Could have several goats or a small milk cow. To farm for a living, you need 2 acres or more, though you can earn some living on less; “the challenge is to find a property that you can pay for from a modest living.” Helps to have some savings before you start.

Mini-Farm (2.5 to 8 acres, from land in the era before subdivisions). Nursery crops, fruit crops (vineyard, cider orchard), rotational grazing of various livestock, egg and meat sales, some agroforestry or aquaculture, plus elements of the smaller scale lots. Could provision household of 8-12 people.

Green Acres (8-25 acres): Extensive aquaculture. Rotational grazing of large animals is possible. Specialty woodland crops. Artisanal farming (cheese- or wine-making). Could be developed as co-housing with ready labor and captive market on site.

Strategies for Access to Land: “Don’t buy very much house — just what you need. Look for modest houses on larger lots — these will generally be older. A garage or shed is a welcome feature; a basement is less useful unless it has a direct entry door from the outside. If you live in a dicey or changing neighborhood but have an OK house, it may be possible to find a vacant lot across the street or down the block, or a house with more space to cultivate. Look for blocks with neighbors who will stay put, who have kids or who garden. This is very place specific, but clues may be flower beds, unusual paint schemes, statuary, well-occupied front porches.” Talks about urban homesteading. Probably should not pay more than $100,000 for a property — maybe land with a camper-trailer, then build as you can. Can also rent land, or rent out land, or buy land with others (Bane goes into some depth about this).

painted Baltimore rowhouse with crocuses in bloom, March 2014

Reclaiming the Commons: [See my page on Bane’s book dedication for discussion of the commons.] Another “method of sharing land is to use common land and resources.” Neglected land — roadside and median strips, parking verges, road edges, and in economically depressed places, houses, lots, and large tracts may have become derelict: “The public interest is served when local people take stewardship of these abused landscapes.”

chicory alongside road near a CVS pharmacy in Roanoke, VA, July 2016.

Qualities of Land: Best to have land with some elevational change but mostly flat and only gently sloping [this describes my land!]. The house shouldn’t be at the bottom of the landscape but in the middle of a gently sloping bit. Land on broad ridges can be good, land on narrow ridges isn’t. Some of the land should face south, southeast, or southwest. Condition of soil is a minor factor so long as it’s not boggy or pure sand, because you can improve soil tilth. Usually not a good idea to settle a forested tract. Consider access to the land, easements, traffic. Consider subsurface rights, like mining or drilling. Can you farm your front yard? Is there public transit, or can you bike safely to services? And lots more things to think about!

when our neighbours had alpacas in the front yard for a 1-year 4H project, May 2011 … I miss those cuties.


Featured image (top image) is of cherry tomatoes in a window box, in Rockland, Maine, Aug. 2013.

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