The Permaculture Podcast

    Episode 1446: Experimenting and Experience in Permaculture (Permabyte)


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    Welcome to the Permabyte for Friday, June 6th, 2014.This episode are my musings on the importance of experimenting and experience in permaculture.

    Before beginning I would like to thank Jason of The Fifth World RPG for sponsoring this episode. Imagine a collaborative, structured, storytelling experience where you and your friends can come together and explore what the future could hold for your descendants, hundreds of years from now. The Fifth World is a free open source, open world RPG that uses the framework of permaculture to consider these possibilities. Find out more at

    Experimenting and Experience in Permaculture

    Experimentation is important to our work as permaculture practitioners because it expands our personal understanding though experience, adds to the body of knowledge available to the community, and allows us to expand on the common permaculture answer, “It depends.”

    This topic came to mind because of the experiences I’ve had recently sitting in and documenting an apprentice program being run by my friend and colleague Ben Weiss, and the experience of sealing a pond with natural methods. The gley technique currently being tried is the third different attempt.

    As the newspaper was peeled back from the fermented manure, a conversation began peppered with questions:

    • “What should we expect to see under the paper?”
    • “Ben, what are you looking for?”
    • “Did the manure ferment long enough?
    • “How long will it take the suspended solids to filter out?”
    • “When can plants go into the pond?”

    Even as the water filled the pond space and it appeared to be holding water, more questions arose and the conversation continued. In many cases, there were no clear answers, just a diverse consideration of what was possible, and what would be learned whether or not the pond held water, with an understanding that we could learn as much, if not more, if the pond lining failed.

    At that time we didn’t know if the pond would hold water. Even after filling it, several hundred gallons later, more questions arise. As we work through this, there will be more places for success, and failure, but on the other side of it all everyone involved in the project, even me documenting and discussing from the sidelines, will have learned something from the process. We’ll know more than was known at the beginning of the process, and be able to say more than simply, “It depends,” when asked a question about pond building. You can see pictures of this pond building exercise at and I’ll be adding more as the experiment continues. An episode is also planned with Ben Weiss to discuss the process and what was learned throughout.

    I use this as a single example of experimentation and learning more, but implore all of you engaged in this work to ask questions, experiment to find answers, and share what you find with others. Be, as Stephen Harrod Buhner implores us, to be citizen scientists. Add to the wealth of human knowledge, and the application of permaculture. If you’ve seen a tree growing in shade, but all the literature says that it shouldn’t do well there, plant one of your own and see whether or not that example you found was an outlier, something distant from other observed data, or something unobserved before.

    Take the permaculture model and design something you do with it. Jason Godesky wrote The Fifth World Role Playing Game with permaculture in mind. I use permaculture when designing educational materials in cooperation with friends, an when creating the online PDC+ programs.

    Even with this podcast, a lot of the work is an experiment within the framing of permaculture. Stepping back to see what is and isn’t working. Asking for feedback, applying it and trying new things, such as the Permabytes. Now, when a friend asks me for advice about running a podcast, I can answer their questions. When sitting down to talk with a friend about permaculture, the answer now makes more sense than it ever did when I tried to define the word succinctly. There’s a method, a dialog, and understanding that I could not properly relay before gaining further personal experience.

    We can all do this. We can all experiment. Use the prime directive, the ethics, and a set of principles, whether Holmgren’s or someone else’s, and play with them. Try different things. See what works. See what doesn’t work. Then share it with the community.

    Whatever your experiments and experiences are, I’d like to encourage you to keep trying and doing more, and let me know how things work out. Get in touch.

    Phone: 717-827-6266
    Twitter: @permaculturecst

    The Permaculture Podcast with Scott Mann
    P.O. Box 16
    Dauphin, PA 17018

    (Episode: 2014Byte0606)

    1 Comment

    1. June 12, 2014    


      Listening to this Permabyte just now was a very timely reminder for me that experimentation and mistakes are sometimes much more useful learning tools than successes. I recently experienced my first big “permafail” (I think I need to copyright that term, as I’m sure I’ll need to use it again), and I’m trying to keep perspective and make the most of this learning opportunity.

      Eager budding permaculture student that I am, I jumped in with both feet this Spring and built a 30 ft long hugelkulture bed right on the border between my house and my elderly neighbor’s (with his permission), about 10 ft from our houses. Then I built a high wire trellis system and planted 14 tomato plants along the top of the bed and scattered lots of different herb seeds along the sides. About a month after all of this was completed and the tomatoes were growing beautifully up their lines, my neighbor came to me and told me that he had not understood what I was going to do when I first told him about it and was now very concerned. His primary concerns were the potential for attracting termites and carpenter ants by having buried wood so close to his house, the space that the bed took up in his yard, and the untidy and unconventional look of the whole thing. He acknowledged that he should have let me know about his concerns earlier, but he asked me to remove and level the whole bed after the tomatoes finished producing in the fall. This is no small task, given the hours of labor and tons of carefully created compost and other ingredients I have invested in this bed, so I was quite depressed about the whole thing. My wife and I are also expecting our first child in July, and I don’t expect to have much free time again any time soon. But it is really important to me to maintain a good relationship with my neighbors as much as possible, so I agreed to take the bed out as soon as I could once the tomatoes were done.

      As I try to look at this experience from a positive light, here’s what it has taught me so far:

      Slow down. I’ve heard this said by permaculture instructors many times, and I’ve tried to really heed it, but it’s hard to know how to balance this with the other often mentioned recommendation to just go out there and get your hands dirty. In the research I did about building hugelkultur beds, I hadn’t encountered any warnings about termites or carpenter ants or to avoid building close to structures, but then again, I didn’t really read any indepth articles or books on the topic that might have included such details. I don’t actually think that the two pieces of advice – to slow down and to go ahead and start trying new things – are contradictory, especially when you factor in the concept that our failures are the best teachers. True, we may want to avoid massive failures that are difficult to recover from or that may have lasting negative impacts on the systems around us. But in this case, by going out there and trying something new before getting all of the necessary learning, I learned better than I could have otherwise the important lesson – SLOW DOWN!

      So thanks for the reminder and perspective adjustment, Scott!



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