Want to design a better, earthier and more rewarding life with permaculture? Solutions-based thinking is not just for big design projects. Permaculture can also be used to improve the everyday, the little things, to create a happier you.
Over the last 10 years, we’ve been gradually using permaculture principles to create better daily lives for ourselves – in lots of small ways. Habits, hacks, call them what you will – they all add up, and they make a difference. To us, our family, and our impact on this planet.
Having lived on rural properties, in deep Australian suburbia, and now on a peri-urban permaculture farm in these last ten years, I can confidently say all these life hacks are doable in some form – no matter where you live.
Whether you do all of them – or just some, or one, or some others of your own, depends on where you’re at right now.
Because permaculture design can be used to create a worthwhile, kick-ass life – that benefits you, your community and the wider world, out of small habits. Little, tiny changes.
‘Start where you are, use what you have, do what you can…’
No big absolutes, no ‘must do’s’.
Forming habits is not easy, and not often quick. This is slow work.
But it’s worth it, and the changes that emerge – with no special training, equipment, knowledge or permissions – are beautiful. A recipe for life worth living, with less impact and more connection.
Permaculture is a design system and approach that challenges us to engage in whole systems thinking to create better designed stuff. It can be used to design farms, gardens, houses, community structures, accountancy practices or kitchen drawer layouts. Here’s the 12 permaculture principles, as outlined by David Holmgren:
| 1. Observe + interact | 2. Catch and store energy | 3. Obtain a yield | 4. Apply self regulation + accept feedback | 5. Use and value renewable resources | 6. Produce no waste | 7. Design from patterns to details | 8. Integrate rather than segregate | 9. Use slow and small solutions | 10. Use and value diversity | 11. Use edges and value the marginal | 12. Creatively use and respond to change |
In addition to the above, there’s 3 permaculture ethics: Earth Care | People Care | Fair Share.
So what does using this thinking look like in real life? Many habits and choices, some that you’re maybe already doing. Big things and small things. Everyday things and sometimes things.
Spend less – do more real stuff – sleep well.
So. Here’s a bunch of permaculture habits + hacks that we use to get the most out of daily life, while creating the least impact we can. These are just a few, but they’re all dear to our hearts. You’re probably already doing some of them, which means you’re already in motion! Yeah. Keep going.
Even just a little bit. A pot of parsley, or chives. Or a whole, year-round garden full of potatoes, carrots, tomatoes, herbs, peppers and greens.
To grow some of your own food is to create a relationship with the soil, the weather, and the ecosystem where you live. Whenever we’ve grown food we eat much more seasonally, based on what’s available today. And if it’s just spinach, then that is what’s for dinner, with a little help from the pantry in the form of gains, pulses and preserves.
Growing food slows us down, and makes us look at ANY available homegrown veg as a treat, and a meal. No matter what it is.
Food miles reduce, resilience increases, and so does our understanding and knowledge of where we are, and what that place can provide – whether that place is a riverside fibro shack, in a small suburban backyard, or on a rural property. Growing food helps us to eat where we are, and be thankful for what that place (or sometimes pot) can provide, no matter where it is.
Taking responsibility for our fuel needs is a big one – especially now that we’re in a cold-temperate climate. Learning how to gather wood regeneratively (forestry thinnings, fallen branches, stickwood) as well as how to cure, stack and chop it so that it lasts all winter is a learning curve, to be sure – but worth the effort.
Alongside this energy gathering goes how we use it – as little as possible, in a well-kept woodstove that also heats our water and warms our home, as well as providing heat for cooking and baking. The small amount of charcoal generated is stored for adding to garden beds (biochar), and the ash is stored for soap making, cleaning and other uses.
Minimise clothing. Minimise kitchen gadgets. Minimise farm infrastructure. Minimise shopping trips, and devices, and anything we can. Being happy with less is powerful. I find I want far less ‘stuff’ now. City trips involve doing things, not buying things. Advertising makes me laugh, not want.
The most powerful thing about minimising, for me, has been a great lessening of want. Want is an insidious feeling. It can be used and manipulated to skew our days, our paychecks and ultimately, how we live. For our whole lives. It’s been an enormous relief to have figured out (largely) what I do and don’t need, on an everyday level, and to live within those limits. There’s much more time for doing cool stuff now, whether that’s helping out at our community garden, or going for an evening swim down in the lake.
Catching and storing water is catching and storing potential energy. We capture all the water we can, from every roof and surface where we live. Some is pumped up high, via a solar pump, for it’s energy to be used as pressurised water in our home – for drinking + washing. Some water is caught and stored in dams that catch runoff through the landscape, to be used for watering gardens + fruit trees.
When we lived in suburbia, we caught rainwater in simple recycled plastic barrels, under downpipes – the chance to have clean, clear rainwater for water kefir making, fertiliser tea and a billion other uses was too good to pass up.
This is a small one, and also a big one. No screens, nothing else happening. Just eating, and talking, and being. Together. Inside, outside, wherever.
Because humans, and love, and family, and friends. We deserve each other’s undivided attention. And so does the food on our plates.
As we committed to buying anything we needed secondhand, our rate of purchasing slowed hugely – for a couple of reasons. Firstly, we needed to plan ahead – if new shoes (or whatever) were needed, they needed to be sourced by multiple trips to op shops, or the tip shop, or by buying second hand online.
Secondly, no more impulse purchases. Do we actually need that? Can we be bothered to source a good second hand one? If not, that was that. No purchase actually needed.
And then, of course, there’s the hugely lessened impact of sourcing an existing item, rather than buying new. The second time around, this item generates nothing to make, because it already exists. No footprint. No production. No slave labour. Better for every living thing. Including us.
Another little thing, and also a big thing. Very little packaging that can be reused leaves our house as rubbish now. Not a plastic bag, or a newspaper, or string. Yes, I do remind myself of my Nana – she did this also. She treated any and all reusable resources like they were valuable, because they were. Now, we reuse and reuse everything we can. No matter what it’s made from – if it’s reusable, we cherish it, store it, use it.
We’ve worked to find other ways to source the food we need. All involve far less packaging and a far higher standard of food ethics. We make basics from scratch, source wholefoods from our local co-op, buy direct from farms and use our beloved local family-owned fruit and veg shop for the occasional extras.
Choosing not to go to the supermarket was a big step for us. I was CERTAIN we’d still need to go back, regularly. But no. There’s certain things we can’t get anywhere else, so now, mostly, we just don’t get them. In return, no more walking through isles of plastic-wrapped, processed things (i can’t call most of it food, really) from far, far away, full of ingredients I can’t even pronounce. No more deciding which is the least-impact country of origin to buy this week’s pre-wrapped fruit from. No more kids-eye-level endless lollipop displays. We eat food instead.
This is our goal. We’re getting closer. The nutrients in our kitchen scraps go to the chickens, and turn into both eggs that come back to the kitchen, and manure that cycles through the garden soil and fertilizes next season’s food.
The nutrients in our poo goes into compost toilets, and then into compost piles, and then around the roots of fruit trees. Then it transforms back into cherries, peaches, apples and all the rest.
The nutrients in our urine goes into buckets (or directly onto gardens) and is then diluted and used around plantings that need a nitrogen boost. Yes, we wash our veggies before eating them. No, urine is not yucky to use if you add water to the bucket and distribute it out every 12 or 24 hours.
The nutrients in tree prunings get eaten by our milking goats, which turns into fresh milk for our kitchen, or manure for next season’s compost. Once the goats have eaten the leaves, the prunings get chipped into woodchip, which gets shovelled on pathways around the farm, slowly breaking down into the soil.
A subset of not wanting. When I go to the city, the chances of finding a egg-salad sandwich with the same local provenance and taste as what i can make at home (or at a friend’s house, if I’m travelling) is virtually zero. So I generally bring lunch with me. It also saves buckets of money, eliminates waste, and gives me more options for places to be.
Taking lunch means the world is your restaurant – the train, the park, the harbourside, up a tree, you name it. With a small thermos and a good book, the public spaces of the city and I are now firm friends.
Making bread means we don’t need to buy it every other day. It’s a skill that allows us to nourish ourselves and others, with one of the best loved basic foods.
Baking bread means we use every last crumb, because we made it. It means we just buy grain every six months or so and grind it as we need it, because the other ingredients; sourdough starter, clear water and salt – we gather ourselves. No packaging, no ‘may contain traces of fish’, no mystery ingredients. Just simple fermented goodness. Made in our kitchen. It’s not tricky if you’d like to learn how.
Now look, I know this one sometimes means digging things. It’s true. But seriously – all that time spend inside an air-conditioned gym surrounded by crappy TV and consumer-centric activewear is… erm, not the only way to get fit, to put it nicely.
Our bodies are amazingly capable engines. Sources of energy that can either run in a circle or tread a treadmill or… turn a compost pile! Or prep a bed for brassicas, or prune, shape and weed, or shovel woodchip, or pot up seedlings, or chop wood, or make a garden bed surround, or go for a big walk to see what street trees are fruiting, or… many other deeply useful tasks. At your place. At your local community garden. At your neighbours house. The opportunities are endless.
Hooray for beans! They improve the soil with their nitrogen fixing abilities, can be grown as climbers if you have limited space, and can be eaten green, or dried for storage. Bean are self pollinating, so seedsaving is easy – which means more resilience and local adapted varieties for you, if you keep at it.
Dried beans store for literally years, and beans are one of the easiest, most climate-adaptable plant proteins to grow. And they lead to bean burritos. So, obviously, we grow beans.
Since we moved to Melliodora, we’ve been starting to adhere to David Holmgren + Su Dennett’s ‘no abattoir meat’ rule of thumb. On a small farm, this means that now prettymuch the only meat we eat is surplus roosters that we dispatch ourselves, occasional fresh roadkill that looks like a good thing, deer meat hunted by friends, and an occasional piece of friends’ home-killed lamb. All up, and spread out over a year, that’s very little meat.
While this hack might be a bit too hardcore for some, it basically turns us into plant eaters with occasional bone broths, a very small amount of liver pate, and a sometimes meat dish here and there. And goats milk, which we milk ourselves. Plus a little butter from our fruit and veg shop. It’s great.
Having this relationship with meat also means that every tiny weeny bit of meat gets used. And then turned into bone broth afterwards. Living within our means.
This one is big for us. Since we moved south from NSW, we’ve both (and Nick in particular) been travelling between Melbourne + Sydney for teaching a lot more. On the train. Every time.
Sydney and Melbourne are quite far apart. The equivalent of several european countries (and many indigenous nations) apart. Taking the train takes time. But the alternative is flying – which generates about 300kg of CO2 per return trip. Taking the train typically generates 10 times less carbon.
Taking the train is slower, it’s true. A whole day, or overnight, depending which train you get. So, a night of reading and sleeping, or a day spent reading and planning.
There’s some great little train hacks we’ve learned over the years – get a premiumdiscovery pass if you’re travelling regularly to make trips mega cheap – much cheaper than tiger air, even, especially once you factor in all the add-ons of air travel, delays, airports and transfers.
Use the sleeper carriage when you need to, make full use of the free hot water refills for your thermos (to go with your DIY miso soup and tea travel packs), book early for the seat you want, and take a hamper of food and a book.
Trains take you from the centre of one city to the centre of the next one – no airports, no shuttles, no traffic jams. All up, it’s doable, and better than air travel wherever possible, in our books.
This means everything. Shopping local. Eating local. Supporting the local food bank when you have too many tomatoes. Showing up at community meetings. Helping out at the community garden. Teaching others to make sauerkraut and other simple, nourishing food storage techniques, for free. Showing up for working bees with the local landcare, or the local school, or the local whatever. Taking lemons to the local crop swap. Starting a local crop swap if there isn’t one. Giving what you can. Engaging where you live.
Even if it’s as simple as growing a few seedlings to take to your local primary school’s small garden. Do it. Get involved. Help out. Grow goodness in all it’s weird and sometimes warty but always wonderful community forms. And if there’s not enough to do, start something.
Keeping bees naturally is one of the great joys of my life. They’re gorgeous to watch, great fun to steward as a hive, provide our gardens and orchards with brilliant pollination, and keeping them results in sweetness and light – honey and wax. You’re also helping with the pollination of your neighbours gardens, too.
One of the big aspects of natural beekeeping in a temperate climate is the appreciation of just how much effort goes into the creation of honey. Literally millions of flowers in each jar. In a society addicted to cheap sugar, it’s quite mindblowing to understand just how much effort goes into creating just one jar of this concentrated energy source. It’s definitely changed the way we approach sweetness in our diet.
Getting enough sleep is a very boring thing to say but jeepers it makes a difference. To our moods, to our health, to what we’re capable of the next day, and importantly, the amount of simulants we need to consume the next day to get things done. Want to limit your impact and do awesome things? Get enough sleep in a quiet room free from blinking charger lights.
(Parents of young children can just skip this one – please know that we feel for you deeply and wish you strength until unbroken sleep comes to you again one day – lucky they’re cute, hey?).
Living in a small house is, in some ways, an antidote to modern living. There’s no rumpus room, or teenager’s retreat, or cinema lounge. It’s all, and I do mean ALL, happening in the one room instead.
Living small means less heating, less cleaning, more interaction and more intimacy. I can’t escape Ashar’s starwars fingerpuppet origami project, because it’s happening on the one and only coffee table next to me. And he can’t escape the fact that we’re baking bread and talking about market garden planning just now. It’s all happening, in the same room.
I know exactly what books my family are reading, and they know exactly what I’m working on for milkwood education needs today. Because it’s all happening right here at the same table – along with breakfast, lunch, dinner, seedsaving, planning, and aforementioned origami fingerpuppets of Han Foldo.
While this can sometimes be chaotic, we generally do a pretty good job of creating extra space for quiet when needed – there’s a treehouse down the hill, and plenty of chores to do outside. Early mornings get used, and so does the quiet of late at night – time becomes an extra space, when you live small.
In return, we have drastically less energy costs, less housing costs, a great sense of where everyone’s at, a lot of fun and the ability to intermittently stir the stew while doing other things.
We’ve never been so busy as since our decision to work less. Because by work, i mean WORK work – ie the kind of work that earns a livelihood. When we moved to Melliodora, we decided to downsize our education business so we could spend more time growing food and being involved in the non-monetary economy of growing, swapping, sharing. The paycut that went with this decision was a bit scary, but we soon realised it was the best thing we could have done for our health, for our family, and for our everyday happiness.
Now, we grow and swap and forage and make and find a way to take care of most of our weekly food needs. We trade our gardening work for living in a beautiful small mudbrick home, so that’s rent sorted. We actively enjoy living in frugal hedonism. The money that we do earn is mostly set aside for when it’s truly needed, rather than spent on the non-necessities of life.
Moving any savings, super and other assets across from major banks + funds and over to an organisation that is actively un-fucking the planet is an obvious way to help create change. But many of us don’t seem to get around to it. Companies like Australian Ethical Super are fabulous for helping your funds make a difference – and there’s also amazing, emerging initiatives like ORICo-op which invest in just regenerative farming. Make the time to sort this out.
The food is all around us. Foraging is a great way to fill your larder with seasonal deliciousness, for free. In Spring, it’s wild greens for our stews and soups and salads, and wild mushrooms like morels. In Summer, it’s greens and endless feral fruit – plums, apples, more plums, and so on. In autumn it’s hawthorn berries, blackberries. and more fruit, and the first of the wild mushrooms. In Winter, it’s back to wild greens, a few more mushrooms, and eating preserved wild fruit from Summertime.
Foraging connects you with your local hood in a way that few other experiences can. Get a good guide book for where you live, start talking to folks at the community garden, keep your eyes open and go for it. And if you’re not sure of a species, get a well-informed second opinion before munching on it.
We help manage the gully at the back of where we live. It’s not a massive project, just clearing underbrush in readiness for fire season, grazing down the blackberries with goats, stewarding self-seeded trees that are useful, grafting edible fruit onto wild rootstocks that are not.
Previously, we’d clean the beach, or the riverside, near where we lived. Picking up little bits of plastic as you walk down the beach once a month is not a big deal. But it helps. It all helps.
Or cubbies, or forts, or whatever takes your fancy. From solid wooden beams, or sticks from down the side, or junk or branches or whatever you can find. Collaborative building projects allow us to learn major life skills (for big people as well as little ones!) that aren’t always easy to acquire otherwise. An appreciation for shelter and what it takes just to keep a basic roof aloft, let along waterproof, is a good appreciation to have.
This is a big one. Sharing abundance – of fruit, of clothing, of knowledge, of eggs, of whatever – has been one of the most powerful ways to build community and ALSO to build a sense of ‘enough’ within ourselves.
Once you lower the bar of what you’ve decided you need, it’s more easy to be satisfied. And being satisfied and content is a feeling many of us aspire to with all our hearts.
To pass on, to pay it forward, to share your excess around, is a gift to both your community and to yourself.
Even just choosing one thing, and sharing that. Try it sometime. It’s a great feeling. And it makes goodness grow, all around you.
A skilled community, one capable of looking after themselves and each other, is the sort of town we want to live in. Who doesn’t want to live in a place where people help each other and make things together and fix things for each other and generally know how to do excellent stuff? We do!
Making this happen can be as simple as opening your kitchen on a Wednesday afternoon to anyone locally that wants to learn how to make cheese. Or it might be holding a seed raising workshop outside your local library. Or, if you need help learning, it might be finding someone to give this kind of workshop. Skillshares build confidence and community in the most unlikely ways and places.
The subjects don’t need to be complex. The venue doesn’t need to be fancy. It just needs to have heart. And you’ve got one of those, so you’re perfect for the job.
We live at a time on earth where silence often equates to violence – against minorities, women, asylum seekers, equality, protection of natural ecosystems and resources, human rights, animal rights, and so many other things. These injustices are not ones that we can purely garden or bake our way out of. Nor will only protesting and organising against injustice solve all the issues. It must be both, always, at once and together. Part of living simply and in a permaculture way is to do as little harm as possible, and using our time on earth to do the best we can, with both our hands and our voices.
Part of this work is speaking up, showing up, rising up. Part of this work is looking down to the soil and getting on with planting. Part of this work is establishing tool libraries. Part of this work is helping your community to thrive.
Permaculture design encourages us to design and create the world we want, not just the garden we want.
Being ready to speak up when needed and help out where necessary goes hand in hand with foraging for plums…
So, there you have it. Want to help create the world you want? And a community worth living in? Start with just one thing, habit or skill, and nail it.
And then, choose one more thing. And go forwards from there.
If you’re able to take on just one new permaculture practice a month, within a year you’d be incorporating 12 new practices into your daily life.
Or, if you’re super keen, one new practice a week. That’s up to 52 changes in a year! That’s a lot of change, lessened impact, stronger communities, happier you and general awesomeness.
Sounds like a good way to spend your time on earth, to us.
This how-to is part of the resources from our Permaculture Living online course with Milkwood founders Kirsten Bradley & Nick Ritar & permaculture co-originator David Holmgren . If you want to design a resilient future & permaculture life for yourself, bring it on, we’re ready to help you get the skills.
Here’s our articles + free how-tos on:
- Mushroom growing
- Nutrient cycling
- Permaculture design
And what about you? Taken up any ‘small but big’ habits to change your world lately? Please do comment below, we’d love to hear about them…