We hope to buy our own small piece of land, so we can start permaculture in modest proportions. We want to experiment with herb spirals, greenhouses, keyhole beds, guilds of crops, sheet mulching, low-till, swales, gravity irrigation, drip irrigation, natural pest control, reuse of greywater, rainwater catchment, and so on. I’ve been studying the system for a while now, through Geoff Lawton’s video’s and books by Bill Mollison, Toby Hemenway, Masanobu Fukuoka, John D. Liu, Sepp Holzer, and many others.
As an abstract thinker, I have a tendency to contribute ideas before I’ve even begun to do anything.
In this case there’s two little things I want to get off my liver: miniature and hybrid.
I’ve read a lot about planning a landscape, divide it into zones, dig the right waterways, and design it to become a permanent lush garden. The blueprint is normally found in a book and hands-on knowledge comes from expensive on-site permaculture courses. But what if we make a model first? I don’t mean a model like the ones commonly used in architectural design, not a model made out of cardboard and glue, but one that utilizes the real materials. This would of course be cumbersome with currently common building materials like red brick and concrete, but it’s actually very easy using traditional and sustainable materials like earth and clay. We can make a miniature house using cob, small straw bales, mud bricks, or earth bags. This is of course much cheaper and faster than building the real-size structure. We can (with a few limitations due to non-scalable factors such as trees) also make a miniature version of the rest of our landscape: gardens, swales, and so on. This approach has a number of advantages.
- We can learn a lot from it. The primary reason for miniature is learning. In building, we learn about the structural integrity of our building material, and as we go we find out the right proportion of clay for our cob and earthbag structures, we find out which foundation or roofing structure is most appropriate, how we can maximize a wall’s tensile strength, and so on. We will constantly have new ideas about the design of the building, and all functional aspects that are involved. You can make measurements, too. Taking the temperature in your miniature house while experimenting with thicker walls, large glass panes directed southward, and so on. This all becomes practical knowledge for your “real” building.
- This kind of experimenting is a lot of fun. You see immediate result and it’s a great way to show friends and neighbours what you’re up to. They will understand you much better than when you explain yourself with a book. Also, having made such a model guarantees that you and your partner(s) are on the same page and you know exactly what the other person has in mind.
- It is an easy way to get the children involved. If you’re homesteading with your children, you’ll probably want them to develop some interest in sustainable living and ideally integrate it into their playing habits. There is nothing that serves this purpose as well as building a miniature anything together.
- The miniature house can later serve a real purpose, such as a dog house or chicken coop. A miniature garden eventually becomes the experimental patch where you try out certain crop combinations before sowing them into your main production area.
A lot of sustainable builders seem to build a structure using only one technique. In reality I think it’s more likely that a combination of materials and techniques is the better option. It depends of course on the local availability of materials, but I think it’s important to develop a creative mindset that doesn’t want to copy the textbook example, but tends to extend it and adapt it to our needs. You could think of a house with a “winter room” that has thick earthen walls, perhaps a Trombe wall, and areas made with lighter cob walls that are not much used in the winter, and a porch built out of all the stones that just lied around. In terms of the garden, hybrid design can lead to fascinating combinations. In fact, it’s a concept that is already very common if we look at aquaponics (fish and plants feeding on each other’s “waste”), the “Three Sisters” guild (corn, beans, and squash) or the use of chicken inside a greenhouse for heating, fertilizing and weed reduction.
The approaches that we can read in text books are of course not tailored for our circumstances, and we’ll probably put together a patchwork of systems we read about. We should be as flexible as possible here, and try not to treat the systems as black boxes we stack, but as functional aspects of an isolated system we want to preserve in our ecosystem as a whole. What I mean by hybrid design is just the consequence of functional thinking about our systems.