What is the potential contribution of permaculture to feeding ourselves?

This post is written in response to a post on the Transition Social Reporters blog entitled “The trouble with permaculture”. The post overall is appreciative of permaculture and what it has achieved whilst raising the following issues that I have distilled from it.  These are that permaculture is typified by:

  • “A desire for more food with less effort”
  • “Persistent myth of uber-productivity of forest gardens, perennial plants and polycultures amongst other sacred cows”
  • “Lack of controlled trials and measured experiments”
  • “Over emphasis on salad leaves, berries, “beneficial plants” and lack of calorie crops”

In no particular order here is my response to these issues:

I am all for collecting data and have made a start on this by measuring the inputs (time) and outputs (kgs of produce) of my perennial vegetable garden.  Along with the methods and the whys and wherefores these are included in my book ‘Edible Perennial Gardening’ due to be published in March 2014.

I wonder if someone can point me to published data about the productivity of traditional vegetable crops grown in back gardens, on allotments and market gardens?  A quick Google search has not produced any answers and it would be interesting to see any data that there is on the ‘tried and tested’ methods.  After all, if we are to compare the outcomes of established practices and crops with unusual crops and permacultural methods, then we need data for both.

We also need to be clear about the calorific value of different foods and how this measures up in relation to the work required to produce them.  McCance and Widdowson (The Composition of Foods) list the following:

Kcals / 100g
Sweet corn 111
Peas 83
Potato, old 75
Potato, new 70
Parsnip 64
Apple 35
Blackcurrants 28
Carrot, old 27
Strawberries 27

By comparison, oca – one of the replant perennial roots I grown has, (by my calculation from a value given in kilojoules) 61 kcals / 100g.  It is also interesting to note that apples and blackcurrants, which take very little work, are more calorific than carrots.

One of my main contentions is that if it more calories are expended in the work of growing a food than it will yield when eaten – then that is not a sustainable way of doing things.  There needs to be careful thought given to the potential components of our food that can be raised in the small scale of garden or allotment or market garden if we are to be able to find truly calorific crops with which to sustain ourselves.  Again, I am not aware of any data by which established practices can be measured.  I have made a start on calculating, as best I can, the calorific yield from my garden alongside the weight of produce and will continue to work on this aspect.

On the other hand there is this consideration as well: whatever the crop grown, even the permaculture staples of salad leaves and berries etc – if it saves food being purchased from a shop it saves a whole host of other inputs to the process.  Commercially farmed salad leaves are part of a massive agricultural machine and the total carbon footprint of a purchased lettuce may be very high.  Given that in respect of their calorific value they are hardly worth carrying down the garden path if they are going to provide any net yield of energy I think they should be grown as close to home as possible.  I grow salad leaves using perennials like wild rocket alongside annuals like corn salad and land cress.  The annuals are allowed to set seed and self sow and this means that all I need to do is to go and pick the salad leaves when they are there.

I have been giving a lot of thought over recent years to the question of how to grow, in a sustainable fashion, as much of the food that is required for a varied and healthy diet.  It arose as a secondary question as I experimented with perennial vegetables, polycultures and low input methods as it became clear that ideally I would wish to grow more components of my diet.  I am currently expanding my ongoing experiments to include grains and seed crops, but am a long way off any conclusions yet.

As well as looking at the output in weight from an area I think it is vital to consider the overall carbon footprint of a growing method.  Does it remove carbon from the wider environment or does have a hidden carbon cost?  Use of additional tools and supporting technologies (eg polytunnels, watering systems, compost / manure imported from external sources, purchased seeds) must to some extent escalate the carbon footprint in comparison to a system, which does not need these inputs; what might that additional carbon cost be?

I am convinced that we need as much work done as possible on as diverse an array of dietary ingredients as possible.  Yes we do need data, but we need it in respect of everything – the accepted, tried and tested methods and crops as well as the innovative, less accepted and less tested ones.   Let there be no sacred cows or even ‘sacred carrots’ in the endeavour of working out how to feed ourselves within the limits of reduced carbon consumption.

As well as permacultural techniques there are specialist interpretations of conventional vegetables and techniques such as John Jeavons’ Bio-Intensive system, Carol Deppe’s take on resilient vegetables and Bob Flowerdew’s contribution in his book ‘The No Work Garden’ (apologies that my original post incorrectly called this the Lazy Gardener) could be considered.

Comparing the manifold inputs and outputs of various ‘systems’ will undoubtedly be complex.  Perhaps too complex to do in a very systematic way, let alone something that will convince a hard headed scientist of its veracity.

My own results are, I believe, very encouraging and I would certainly not discount the ‘dream’ of a low input / high output system being possible.  For my own circumstances – not having lots of time or physical strength and energy, a garden that is damp, shady and unsuited to annual vegetables – perennial vegetables have proved a revelation, a delight, and a source of year round produce.  I have grown closer to nature through observing her cycles and interactions and cannot conceive of a better way of gardening / producing food – for me.

All comments very welcome!

About Anni Kelsey

I love forest gardens and forest gardening, nature, reading and everything good about being alive. I have written two books - the garden of equal delights (2020) - about the principles and practice of forest gardening; and Edible Perennial Gardening (2014) - about growing perennial vegetables in polycultures, which is basically forest gardening concentrating on the lower layers.
This entry was posted in Forest Gardening, Perennial Vegetables, Permaculture, Polycultures, Relationship with nature, Telford Garden, Transition and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to What is the potential contribution of permaculture to feeding ourselves?

  1. Simon says:

    Hi Anni,

    I think you are right there is a lack of data on both sides of the argument. I don’t know which one would come out on top, but I think the question of how long it takes for a system to get up to full production is really interesting. I think we need to be planning for the long term and thinking 10-20 years into the future. One of the real problems is that that isn’t necessarily compatible with how long people stay in one place. Most people don’t have the knowledge to get the best out of fruit trees and the first response to taking on a house with a small orchard is often to see what the fruit are like straight from the tree. In a small garden the best choice of variety is one that is a keeper and will ripen in storage. It’s fruit will probably taste bitter straight off the tree and that encourages people to cut them down. I guess the solution is education and also community forest gardens.

    I don’t know of data for any forest gardens that are focused on production on a small scale and how the productivity changes over time. I’ve been collecting data for my small back garden forest garden plot over the last four years and it is slow to develop. It is increasing though and personally I’m much happier with a forest garden than an annual vegetable garden. I don’t know whether it takes more or less work, but I do know that if I’m not at home for a week or two I don’t worry about looking after the plants. I would love to see more data. Simple weight of produce is probably enough for me.


  2. Vivi says:

    Huh, in my experience it does take more time to properly prune a large, mature apple tree and the currant bushes so they keep producing (as well as keeping them free of pests and fungal diseases, and keeping them from throwing off their fruit in our summer drought), plus the time it takes to pick all the fruit, than it takes time to sow a couple rows of carrots (+ onions for pest-control) and then just pull out a few whenever you need them. Also, the fruit get ripe all at once – which means additional time/energy for canning the surplus – wheras I can harvest my once sown carrots over the course of months and the last will even be okay still after the first frosts. Granted, it took a day to build the vegetable bed in the first place, but that work, once done properly, lasts for a few years. It’s not like with tomatos or pumpkins that need fresh compost every year and a lot of watering. I’m all for perennials, but in terms of vegetables, the annuals really do give you more bang for your effort. (I still have more species of perennial herbs, berries, nuts and fruit than I grow vegetables, though. Mostly due to lack of space and light.)

    But be that as it may, I think arguments based on calories are a bit shortsighted. Obviously, you’re never going to be able to feed yourself just from your backyard. That’s not the point. The point is to reduce the need for industrially (oil-intensely) grown vitamin and fibre sources, and to reduce the need for transport, cooling and wastage of fast-perishing soft fruit and salads. Also, it would help immensely if everyone started to eat with the seasons again instead of expecting to be able to eat fresh tomatos in winter (less fuel need for heated greenhouses). That way, your local farmers could concentrate their efforts, arable land, and the soon-to-be scarce fossil fuels on providing easily storable calories and the basic staples of your cultural diet that you will eat much more of than you can grow in a kitchen garden (like peas or onions).

    That’s the way it worked when I was a kid, around the time the Sovjet Union was collapsing because Russia couldn’t afford to export Siberian oil and nitrogen fertiliser at below world market prices anymore. In the GDR in the late 1980s that meant that the planned economy went into scarcity survival mode. It wasn’t as bad as with Cuba’s “special period” – you wouldn’t have gone hungry or died of scurvy, but there simply wasn’t much fresh produce to buy in the shops: potatos, onions, cabbages, carrots, and maybe apples in autum/winter (all stuff that stores well and without special cooling). Citrus fruit and bananas could only be imported for Christmas, because the currency was so weak compared to the West. If you wanted more variety and vitamins in your diet, you had to grow the stuff yourself. Between that and the genuine famine right after the war, it’s no wonder city allotment gardens (which specifically require you by law to grow at least some percentage of edible plants) have survived here more than in Western Europe.

    Sadly, after the Reunion, most people with normal frontyard gardens felled their fruit trees and replaced them with less work-intensive and disease-prone ornamentals (mainly conifers where I live, though that might be because of the very poor soil). We’re basically the only family in our street who still have some fruit- and nut trees, thanks to my father (who grew up on an old family farm), though we too stopped growing vegetables until recently and turned the greenhouse into an opaque-roofed relaxation area. The requirement of construction companies nowadays that you fell all the trees on your property before they come in with cranes and heavy machinery to assemble your prefab house didn’t help either.


  3. Pingback: The Trouble With Permaculture (Again) « Sustainable Vegetable Gardening

  4. As someone with a dry and shady garden I am looking forward to your book. Really pleased that a permaculture book will help people with small urban gardens – so many of us have these but our needs are so neglected by the vast majority of gardening writer (as their idea of a small garden is many times the size of most urban gardens and shade not taken account of). I am aiming for food, wildlife (particularly insects as with all the urban cats I don’t actively encourage birds) and colour, cos I like colour!


  5. Andy OP says:

    I meant to add….

    Your results of your measurement therefore can only be subjective within a narrow context. Widen the context and your results are inaccurate. Permaculture I believe can not be compared with commercial intensive growing as the two are apples and oranges. Commercial farming has a different objective to permaculture. To reduce the idea of permaculture to “how competitive can it be compared to intensive farming” puts you on the same road as intensive farming and will necessitate you doing the same things as them and making compromises. Many parts of a permaculture system do not make sense if you include a competition aspect to grow as much as possible in a small an area as possible…you will naturally end up being intensive and purely focused on yield and if you perfect that goal you will be an intensive farmer who excludes the environment. The idea of “I have grown enough with as little impact on the environment as possible” is as good as it gets and to do any more leads you down the wrong path.


  6. Andy OP says:

    I think that the objectives need to be established, more, or probably better. The idea of low input / high output yield is good but when looked at from a “Lazy Gardener” point of view to getting as many calories out for as little effort as possible misses several serious points. A healthy diet isn’t any good on it’s own when viewed in a wider context. Take the idea to an extreme. If your body needs 500,000+ calories per year and you could grow all of those for no energy expended then you would be in need of exercise to be healthy. Where’s your exercise coming from.

    …An efficient system needs more things to be included and since Permaculture is more than just about how much you can grow, it’s more a way of life, so it would make sense to include your own exercise requirements, (calories burnt), to be included into your input side of the equation, which naturally increases the need for the output to be increased.

    I disagree with the idea of the lazy gardener idea (not the book, I haven’t read it, but just what it implies). I deliberately include digging into my idea of permaculture as that takes care of a lot of exercise. Also many people don’t want to bring nutrients and other things into their permaculture garden thinking that it burns carbon unnecessarily but a slight change is needed in thinking here. Bringing things into your site need not be a bad idea if you walk or cycle to get it as it becomes a necessity to exercise and combining the two can be a positive. Shipping in produce via plane, car or boat can be seen as bad carbon wise but if your objective is a healthy lifestyle with little impact on the environment adding in exercise can put this into a different context.

    Measuring calories is one thing but also put this to an extreme. Grow nothing but nuts and sugar beet and you may easily reach your high calorie output for little effort but how healthy are you with all that energy, no exercise and very little nutrient consumption (from a point of view of I don’t know what is in a nut – it’s just a principle) and you have failed.

    Also, just growing food based upon calories doesn’t take into account wildlife. Wildlife habitat and the impact of your food plants should ideally be taken into account. This would include growing food with little or no calorie benefits to yourself but would benefit the environment for the pollinators. Naturally this would raise your input requirement without being able to measure the output benefit (pollinators and wildlife have benefits that can’t be measured, worms do their stuff etc).

    I think therefore any measurement system you have needs to start from the point of view that your input doesn’t start from zero, it must start from a fair few thousand calories to take into account all the extra preparation you needed to input before you plant just to help the environment and wildlife.

    I therefore think that collecting data, although fun, interesting, important and useful, would give relatively meaningless answers to the point that having a measuring system that results in an answer of “I have enough food and have helped the environment” is as good as “I have grown exactly 500,000 calories for 320,000 calories of effort”. The precise measurement has no extra benefit compared to your “feeling” that is has been a good year. To be any more accurate than “I have grown enough” becomes extremely difficult to quantify unless you take a huge amount of variables into account.

    I’d be interested in your results all the same thought as life is dull without data and some sort of comparison 🙂


    • annisveggies says:

      Hi Andy
      I am sure my objectives could be thought through more clearly but what I wrote about in this post are the general principles that have guided what I have attempted to do over recent years, for reasons that suit my own personal circumstances. As I reach the milestone of 60 next year and have never been physically strong tasks like digging were too much for me even when I was in my 20s. To undertake it now would be beyond me.
      Also with a busy life with two part time jobs, helping with childcare for grandchildren – which takes takes up a lot of time and energy so when it comes to doing the garden(s) much as I love being outside and doing stuff I really need it to be as productive as possible for the time available.
      Also I am very aware from friends and relations who are older than me that as time goes by people who have loved doing their gardens and allotments and did have lots of energy are becoming less able and with sadness find that they cannot keep up with the tasks that once came so easily to them. It is therefore people who are ageing or have disabilities or the ‘time poor’ modern day families that I have in mind as well.
      Re all your other points I agree that there is potentially a huge set of variables that could be taken into account. I have no wish to be pedantic about anything and have been measuring the things I have as it is of interest primarily to me, and if it is to anyone else then that is all to the good.
      However I do think it is useful to have some indication of what is possible (however that be measured and whether or not it is comparable with anything else) because as far as I can see there is precious little data around on anything related to home food growing.
      For the future I will be looking at the other nutrients provided by the foods I grow – I am trained as a nutritional therapist and am very interested in maximising the range of nutrients as well as the other benefits from the garden.


  7. mortaltree says:

    Just as an after thought. Alan here, from what I have seen on his blog, is one of the best working models of this system for distributing plants locally that I know of. Keep up the good work Alan.


  8. mortaltree says:

    I think that Jon Jeavon’s research would be the perfect comparison to your garden Anni. It is the perfect equal in that Jon works specifically in small, backyard spaces that everyone can have, like you, and encourages a diverse planting/companion crops; yet he is at the same time the perfect antithesis with his double digging of all beds every year and separately made compost.
    His research is, as many others have said, ‘extensive’ as to the calorie, and nutrient value of garden crops. I think he would be the best model for you to compare to.
    For my own project, I have to admit I’ve spent thousands accumulating plants with lots of shipping from around the globe, but I think this is due to the situation we’re in. Few of these permaculture plants are widely/locally available. As a remedy, it’s my own goal to encourage others in my near area to start food forests using the plants I can propagate several years down the road to eliminate most of the expenditure and carbon footprint for them and me.
    It wouldn’t be hard either. We all know shipping, licenses for shipping between state lines, and just licenses to sell plant (who says I have to “sell” plants for monetary value?) costs a lot. I could make just as much a general benefit out of the business as any nurseryman, but offer a smoking deal to my clients just by staying local.
    Of course, compare the carbon footprint of my buying and shipping an apple tree to that of buying and shipping all its fruit over the years? There’s the real difference.
    Go get’em


  9. Alan Carter says:

    Good luck with that project. It is something that I want to do some day in my forest garden, although I think I am still at the stage of experimenting with getting the system up to full productivity. The more I think of doing it, the more complexities come to mind. Do you measure the weight of the produce, the calorific value, what it would cost to buy it? What sort of system do you compare it with: conventional agriculture, conventional veg gardening, leisure gardening? I do agree with the authors of the blog though that there are a lot of claims in permaculture which aren’t backed up by any real research, so I look forward to seeing your results.


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