Small steps pay off with many benefits

The events of recent years involving genetically modified organisms (GMOs), drastic weather and environmental changes, monoculture vulnerability to diseases, concern about peak oil, economic turbulence and regulatory failure collectively demonstrate the shortcomings of our industrial food system. The enormity of the situation seems too overwhelming for personal action.

Without being too alarmist or going into survivalist mode, there are some positive and practical steps you can take. Learning how to practice permaculture will allow you to gain control of the most essential aspect of your life: the food you and your family eat. You will reap not only health and financial benefits but also intangible ones, as you will engage in many activities that bring you closer to nature and give you something precious to share with your children.

Here in San Diego, we are used to thinking about our home as an asset or investment. We try to add value to our home as we decorate and remodel the interior. On the exterior, we put in landscape and hardscape. This approach to home improvement is embedded in our popular culture. But aside from shelter, our homes, and the land they sit on, are often not producing anything of tangible value. Wouldn't it be exciting to be able to cook a meal entirely with ingredients that you have produced from your yard? How would you like to eat a delicious omelet with eggs from your pasture-raised chickens; organic heirloom tomatoes, mushrooms, spinach, onions and herbs from your garden; and cheese made from raw milk from your own milk cow or a community cow share program?


Permaculture—a combination of the words "permanent" and "culture"—is an ecological design system for the sustainability of life. It teaches us how to grow our own food, restore diminished landscapes and ecosystems, catch rainwater, build natural homes, creates communities and so much more. Permaculture is rooted in a system of ethics that promotes caring for the Earth and its people while limiting one's consumption. Whether you have ¼ acre or 1,000 or have no land at all but access to a community plot of land, permaculture encourages you to apply general principles of sustainable design.

These past few years, my family has been developing and implementing elements of permaculture on our three-acre San Diego property. We are adapting many techniques from our larger cattle ranch and farm in British Columbia, which is rich in water, trees, grass and other resources. While San Diego has water limitations, the intense sunlight makes it an ideal growing region.

Some key elements of a permaculture plan are backyard chickens, livestock (cattle, goats, horses), gardens, manure composting and soil amendment, rainwater catchment, alternative energy, heirloom seeds and seed-saving, beekeeping, fruit trees, community cow-share programs for raw milk, and ancillary activities such as cheesemaking, canning and preserving and root cellaring.

Taking stock

First, it is important that you realistically assess your property goals and that they align with your logistical and financial capabilities. The habitat you create should meet your lifestyle aspirations. Get the entire family involved, including your children. Evaluate your sun exposure and soil conditions. Always work with, rather than against, nature. What types of crops would you like to grow, bearing in mind those that grow natively in the San Diego soil and sunlight? What are the water and energy requirements for your property, and how can conservation play a role? How can different design elements be integrated?

A garden is at the core of any permaculture plan, and you must decide where it should be located. If there is no ideal place, perhaps raised beds or boxes on a patio would suffice. If you are part of a homeowners' association, maybe your community can designate common areas for gardens. Once you decide what crops you want to grow, you need to determine which soil type you'll need. Is it necessary to amend the soils?

Getting your hands in the soil

For our first crop, we chose wine grapes, planting about 500 vines of eight different varietals on a sloped area with full sun exposure. While there may be a debate about whether wine is an essential component of a healthy and happy existence, this proved to be a great "pioneer planting" as it became fodder for many species.

The soil is a "poor soil" with good drainage, perfect for wine grapes. During planting, we dipped the rootstock in mycorrhizal fungus to help the root systems take hold, and it has paid off. After five years, we rarely have to water the vines. While one cannot live on wine alone, this proved to be the perfect project for overcoming our inertia and trepidation and literally getting our hands dirty. The vineyard came alive with living creatures, including birds, bees, deer, rabbits, gophers, ladybugs and a vast array of other insects. It was something we could build upon.

Backyard animals: the key to sustainability

Next, we started raising chickens for egg production. Backyard animals are the cornerstone of any sustainable ecosystem, as their foraging is essential to cycling nutrients, keeping weeds down, clearing fallen fruit, and eating pests. Chickens do this so well that composted chicken manure is referred to as "black gold." At first, owning chickens seemed daunting. However, since we do not keep a rooster on hand, the chickens are very quiet; using pine wood shavings and diatomaceous earth virtually eliminates any odor or flies. Ideally, you can feed your chickens from the kitchen garden and allow them to forage on pests, providing them with a valuable protein source and resulting in natural fertilizer for your gardens.

We mostly free-range our chickens but must be careful of predators such as coyotes. Recently, we have begun using the "chicken tractor" method, a floorless coop on wheels in between rows in the vineyard. We have seeded cover crops to help fix nitrogen in the soil, and the chickens love to forage on six different native varieties. The chickens forage for a while, and then the coop is moved every few days across the rows.

For smaller properties, check your local zoning ordinances. Recently, many cities including San Diego have been progressive in passing urban agriculture regulations allowing for the raising of chickens, bees, and miniature goats. Other municipalities and master-planned communities can be lobbied to adopt similar rules.

Branching out to food crops

Building on our success with wine grapes and chickens, we have gradually added food crops, including tomatoes, peppers, onions, carrots, strawberries, Swiss chard, and herbs. We selected a hillside and created terraced beds using native rocks from the property. This helps to retain water and is perfect for dense plantings and optimal penetration of sunlight. We amend the soil with compost and manure from our horses and chickens. By composting, we never throw away any organic material from our kitchen. This exemplifies how permaculture focuses on the interconnections between things and on not wasting anything. Everything goes towards cultivating the soil. However, you must be careful to amend soils as warranted, since different crops have different soil needs.

Harvesting rainwater

The greatest limiting factor for a sustainable ecosystem in San Diego is water. It is absolutely essential to conserve water. Rainwater harvesting channels runoff into the soil or captures runoff from roofs to be stored in cisterns or catchment tanks. This practice also prevents runoff from rushing down streets, roadways and hillsides, which causes erosion and carries pollution down to the ocean. We are implementing a system of gutters, downspouts, barrels and tanks to collect water from the roofs and then gravity-feed the water out to gardens and trees via an irrigation system. Helpful information on rainwater harvesting in San Diego can be found at

Community cooperatives: raw milk cow-share programs

One of the central themes of permaculture is the formation of community cooperatives. You can get together with neighbors and friends and divide labor so you each grow different foods. You can trade foods or use foods as a form of currency, a type of ecological economics that benefits the local economy. If you or someone in your neighborhood has the ability to keep livestock, then you can form a cooperative where you collectively purchase a milk cow and share pro rata in the expense of feeding. The miniature breeds work best, such as Mini Dexters or Mini Jerseys that produce about two gallons of milk per day. Your cooperative can split the milk pro-rata and also share in the labor by taking turns milking. A milk cow is a lot of work, but it becomes less burdensome when handled by a cooperative. More information can be found at the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund website:

Sustaining ourselves and our world

As Gandhi said, it is easy to lose ourselves in the trappings of modern life. By practicing permaculture, we can restore and sustain ourselves—both literally and figuratively—by digging the earth and tending the soil. Whether you can engage in all of the activities in a permaculture system, or just a few, hopefully practicing permaculture will change the way you think about your home, your land, and your community.

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