Book Notes: The Permaculture Handbook :: Chapter Eight

Here are my highly personal notes on Chapter Eight: Labor — Can You Lend A Helping Hand? 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.


“Most people can live with chaos for a while if they are reassured that it’s being contained and managed.” — Peter Bane 

Traditionally, farming households got labour from having kids and by building extensive networks for social relations (extended family, friends, neighbours). Because of planet overpopulation (and demographic trends), large families can’t be the source of farm labour in the future, so building social alliances is a good strategy; “[c]all it barn raising for the 21st century.”

spouse building a screenhouse, July 1999

In 1900, average U.S. household was 4.6 people; in 2000, it was 2.6 people. (Discussion of demographics trends during that time period.) But since the 1980s, “hard times … have meant that more people share housing” — adult children linger at home or return, the elderly live with others, couples who might have divorced stay together longer.

“The household of one person is a modern phenomenon. Beyond a few recognizable social roles — the witch, the woodsman, the shepherd, the hermit — solitary living made no sense in any traditional society running on the limits of solar energy. It presented no economies of scale, no benefit from division of labor, and it imposed harsh limits on the capabilities of the individual. Redistribution of wealth from the fossil fuel economy … has made single living possible and indeed attractive for hundreds of millions.”

farmer made of Legos, weeding, Ginter Botanical Garden, Richmond, VA, July 2016

But households that want to farm face big challenges that multiperson households don’t; “there are adaptive strategies, but generally they involve getting help. … Multi-adult households (three or more persons) have a significant labor advantage even though they are now a small minority.” Banes says a household of three adults is nearly ideal to garden-farm a small plot of 3/4 to 2-1/2 acres, except that “jealousy and asymmetry among the various dyadic relations tends to be corrosive.” Four adults can do anything he’s written in the book, and two couples with similar interests and goals living next door to each other would be advantageous.  Two people can manage up to 2 acres and make a living as farmers in a working season of 8 months, if they have access to urban markets. Children from ages 8-16 can contribute substantially.

kids interested in Urban Pavilion “backyard chickens” exhibit at Boston Flower Show, March 2016
adults and kids in a permaculture garden in NH, July 2012

“Garden farming is work, but also it involves managing complexity.” Physical exertion: tilling, planting, hauling, mulching, moving animals, maintaining infrastructure, weeding, pruning, coppicing, harvesting, processing. For major work — digging 600 feet of trenches, post-hole digging, chipping the top of a fallen tree — rent a mechanical tool for a day or week. “The permaculture approach in regard to all types of repetitive labor is to keep it to a minimum by design.”

me hauling crocosmia and cosmos stems to compost, August 2017

The essence of permaculture is to “concentrate beneficial energies on the site, scatter hostile forces, and conserve your own energies by using gravity, proximity, and connection to avoid unnecessary steps, transport, and work.”

spouse carrying some materials to make vegetable garden fence, May 2017

Two conflicting demands on garden farmer: to grow and harvest crops, and to build the farm (all the while perhaps holding down a job, raising kids, preparing meals, living an ordinary daily life), and “each task makes the other harder before they become mutually supportive.” You could farm in warm weather and build in cold, you could work a full-time job while building the farm and then slowly move to cropping.

Get Rid of Your Lawn: “Lawns represent a massive expenditure of energy and money that produces no crop; more fertilizer is used on North American lawns than by the entire agriculture of India. … Why do we perpetuate these cultural palimpsests? The psychology is largely one of keeping the deep dark woods at bay, being able to see predators coming at us from a distance, and emulating the rich. Some of these reasons have instinctive roots that we must respect, but this manifestation of our feelings of fear and envy needs a good shaking out. The genuine psychological need for open vistas can be met with very little grass and strategically placed long views. … Looking out over your garden can be just as liberating psychologically. … Apart from small areas for amenity … there’s no reason to grow grass except to feed livestock.” Grass is a poor garden-bed edge because it’s always encroaching [too true].

High Line (New York City) lawn with crocuses, March 2014

Stop Churning the Soil: Tilling is dangerous because it “exposes soil life to destructive forces and increases erosion dramatically.” Keep soil covered with cover crops or mulch, cultivate perennials, develop mulch systems. [He doesn’t discuss sheet-mulching in the text in this chapter but he has a photo of it.]

Plant Once, Harvest Many Times: “Perennials are the heart of any ecosystem. Nature uses annuals (what ecologists call weeds) to cover bare soil. Period. Annuals are opportunists that lurk on the fringes of more stable systems, waiting for a disturbance. In nature they blow in, drift in or germinate in the new sunlight, exploiting the suddenly available resources of solar energy, water and nutrient. Seen in another light, weeds are nature’s paramedics, first on the scene to repair damaged soil. They accumulate minerals dynamically in their tissues. As they die, these become available to other plants through the action of soil organisms. Once the soil begins to recover fertility, the annuals give way to longer-lived plants, a process called succession. Conventional agriculture has adapted its practices to create disturbance and prevent succession so that our field crops, which are mostly annual weeds, can continue to grow. … Perennials are better able to handle fluctuations in weather; their roots are deeper, and they will grow in almost any warm season regardless of when rains or frost come. Most importantly, perennials don’t have to be replanted.”

perennial sea kale at Paradise Lot, Holyoke, MA, June 2016

The remainder of the chapter discusses further how to partner with others through vertical ties (adult-child, older landowner-younger farmer, mentor-trainee, etc.) and horizontal ties (peers, neighbors, nearby siblings, former classmates, coworkers, etc.); how to create an equitable distribution of risks and rewards; building trust among partners; holding volunteer days on your land; and so on.

There’s a small chart of the garden farming year, with month, tasks, and labor demand (low to high).



Featured image (top image) is friends on a garden tour at another friend’s permaculture property, looking at problem areas, giving suggestions, learning from her experiences, etc., in Sept. 2015.

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