Seeding Sensible Solutions in a World of Extremes: A Permaculture Perspective on 100-Year Floods and Beyond

By Jason Gerhardt

In 2004, a major flood in Boulder, Colorado was listed as one of six natural disasters waiting to happen in the United States (1). The week of September 9th 2013, Boulder experienced just such a flood.

While devastating in human terms, this event provides a glimpse into a world most of us are statistically unlikely to ever see again, a glimpse certainly worth using to our advantage to ponder an important question for the Front Range of Colorado and beyond: what does permaculture design have to offer in terms of flood planning? From ecological site assessment to creative design patterns, the permaculture lens provides a different vantage point, one that leads to a collection of unique design strategies.

An unsettling sense of place

Located at the base of the Rocky Mountain Foothills, the landscape is stark, with steep mountains and mesas jutting up from the Western edge of Boulder neighborhoods, and flattened landscapes stretching as far as the eye can see to the East. The mountain canyons drain directly into town and the waterways braid their way through the plains.

Most cities and towns in the arid Western US are logically sited alongside significant water sources. In the Front Range, Denver is on the banks of the South Platte River, Boulder on the banks of Boulder Creek, and Fort Collins on the Cache la Poudre. While the rivers and creeks provide much needed water during droughts, like the area has experienced for the last ten years, they are a double-edged sword. It is an odd experience to be praying for rain one day and cursing the skies the next, but the Front Range landscape is serrated and cuts deep and fast.

The mountains, foothills, and canyons exhibit characteristics of a cool-temperate climate, getting significantly more precipitation (mostly in snow) than the flatlands. The plains and piedmonts, while exhibiting some temperate qualities, are much more of an arid region with yuccas, cacti, and ephemeral weeds providing the prime indication of the need to conserve water. While the residents here are used to wet/dry fluctuations within the various microclimates, none of the usual patterns were useful the week of September 9th in 2013 when the climate resembled the tropics.

History repeats itself…sometimes

While flooding is anticipated on the Front Range, and is an obvious force by looking at the patterns of the landscape, the dry times are far more prevalent, making it quite a shock to experience tropical moisture. Boulder’s previous 100-year flood occurred on May 30th, 1894 and measured on Boulder Creek at ~13,000 cubic feet per second (cfs). 4.5 to 6 inches of rain fell on the mountains West of Boulder over a 96-hour period, during spring snow melt season, making matters significantly worse (2). This caused the most catastrophic flooding the area had ever seen, confirming the flood danger warnings of indigenous people of the area. This event still serves as the benchmark for 100-year flooding in the Boulder Creek drainage.

In 1976, a flash flood hit the Big Thompson Canyon about 20 miles North of the City of Boulder, killing 144 people and destroying hundreds of homes. Up to 14 inches of rain fell over two days from July 31st to August 1st, though the majority of the rain fell over a 4 to 6 hour period. In one location, 7.5 inches of rain fell in a little over an hour. The highest recorded stream flow rate on the Big Thompson was an astounding 31,200 cfs, nearly triple the rate of Boulder Creek’s 100-year flood benchmark in 1894 (3).

Clearly, flooding is nothing new to the Front Range landscape and human populations. The dramatic topographic relief that attracts so many to the area exists, in part, because of massive amounts of runoff and erosion. While flooding is expected in the region, each event bears differing characteristics with one regular pattern being the storms tend to target specific drainages. One of the things that makes the flood of 2013 remarkable is that it didn’t follow this previous pattern.

Clouds lifting off the rugged Boulder landscape at the end of the storm.
Clouds lifting off the rugged Boulder landscape at the end of the storm.

Engines of the atmosphere

Labeled a “100-year flood” for numerous drainages along the Front Range of Colorado, this term isn’t a very accurate way to view the significance of the storm. 100 and 500-year flood calculations are measured by taking stream flow rates in cubic feet per second (cfs), which would seem like a decent way to determine the significance of a flood. In reality, this ignores the broad landscape by focusing solely on major drainages and their floodplains. Comparing flow rates from one decade or century to the next is also making a major hydrological assumption, and an erroneous one at that, that watersheds act in the same way from flood event to flood event.

Such terms also seem to indicate the frequency of flood events, as in, such a flood will occur approximately every 100 years. In truth, the term simply means there is a 1 in 100 chance of such a flood occurring in any given year. In Boulder, Colorado’s 2013 case, flooding to this degree hadn’t been seen for nearly 120 years. It might be more accurate to call it a “historically significant rain event”.

When the rain started the evening of September 9th, there was a feeling that this storm would be different. Rain was forecasted to be in the area for days. The air was uncharacteristically heavy, the clouds extremely low, and the rain was falling perfectly vertical, all of which were out of the norm for the area. Orographic lift, or upslope flow, was streaming moisture up from the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Ocean, due to a low-pressure system that was stuck over the Great Basin and stubborn high pressure in the plains. It rained heavily for three to four days, stopped for 12 hours, then started again for two days. After all was said and done, from Monday to Monday, Boulder’s official rainfall was 17.15 inches, though up to 22 inches were recorded in other parts of town (4). This storm felt like afternoon thunderstorms in the tropics, but for 8 days straight, in the drylands.

What’s more was the extent of the rain. Flooding from this weather phenomenon was occurring from New Mexico to the Colorado/Wyoming border. From southern Colorado northward, Fountain Creek, the South Platte River, Coal Creek, Boulder Creek, Four Mile Creek, Four Mile Canyon Creek, Left Hand Creek, the North and South St. Vrain Rivers, Big Thompson River, Cache la Poudre River, and many others were all out of their banks and causing significant flooding. Thus began the largest air evacuation since Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. The scope and duration of the damage was unprecedented.

Boulder County was one of the hardest hit areas, receiving more rainfall than anywhere else. Normal annual precipitation in the City of Boulder is 18 to 21 inches, which is basically what was measured during the length of this one storm. Daily, weekly, monthly, and annual precipitation records were all broken.

While the length and intensity of the rain, along with the topography of steep mountains draining into narrow creeks, was enough to make for a devastating situation, there were two other factors that contributed significantly to the flooding: wildfire and city streets.

From source to sink

Disasters of this magnitude are nothing new to this region. The only difference is the usual natural catastrophes are of the hot and dry kind. From 2010 to 2013, over 200 square miles of mountain and foothill forest, from Colorado Springs to Fort Collins, burned due to wildfire. All of this land is located above the Front Range cities and sheds water directly into the creeks and streams that run through them.

This is always the fear after the threat of wildfire has subsided—once the landscape is burned, runoff rates increase dramatically, causing flooding. One reason for this is that there are fewer trees to intercept the rain, but compounding the problem is that much of the accumulated mulch-like debris characteristic of a forest is burned away, and a hydrophobic, charred-over soil is left behind. Add the steepness of the terrain and you have the ingredients to turn a hot and dry disaster into a wet, muddy one.

While 200 square miles of burn area might seem enormous, the reality is that’s only a 3 to 4 year snapshot. The Front Range foothills are prone to fire and many small fires occur each year that aren’t captured by statistics. Past burn areas, a decade or more old, are also still largely unvegetated. It only takes a trip through one of the canyons or a climb to the top of one of the mountains to see the legacy of fire in the landscape. Unfortunately, it is a legacy that compounds the degree of disaster for years and years to come

Unvegetated burn scar at the top of the watershed, with debris catching/water diverting knee wall and terrace that saved the home to the left.
Unvegetated burn scar at the top of the watershed, with debris catching/water diverting knee wall and terrace that saved the home to the left.

In the floodplain of your own street

The week after the flooding, I had a conversation with long-time Permaculturist Andrew Millison, out of Corvallis, Oregon. In giving him an assessment of what was happening from the flooding, I mentioned some of the worst flooding wasn’t happening along Boulder Creek, but higher up in the landscape in areas that were never much considered at risk of flood. When I told him that one area of Boulder had recorded 22 inches of rain, he quipped, “that’s when you find yourself in the floodplain of your own street”.

Often left out of the conversation when talking about landforms and the natural ecology of a place is the very ground under our feet—cities. One of the most recognizable landforms from space, we would be foolish to think the things that humans have designed aren’t also effecting natural disasters. In the case of rain, the excess of impervious surface in towns and cities can have a tremendous impact on localized flooding. Streets turn to rivers, curbs turn to stream banks, and homes suddenly become sited in a giant grid of floodplain.

And that’s exactly what happened. Residences distant from creeks found their street-sheds sending torrents against their homes and through their yards. Soils became saturated, runoff increased, and basements and crawl spaces became inundated all over the region. People outside of designated floodplains suddenly found themselves scrambling for sump pumps, sandbags, and moving valuable items to higher ground. Many also came to discover their homeowners’ insurance doesn’t cover flooding.

In the floodplain of your own street. Photo Credit: Laura Ruby
In the floodplain of your own street. Photo Credit: Laura Ruby

Everything was undersized

While the scope and scale of the damage is truly hard to comprehend, there seems to be one constant in it all, there was just too much rain for the size of the drainages and drains. It is this fact that needs to be focused on in order to plan for similar events in the future.

Modern water engineering would suggest making both drainages and drains bigger—to dredge the creeks and streams deeper and straighter, and be prepared to shed more water out of the towns and cities with bigger drains. That or accept the fact that these floods will occur occasionally and be prepared to count the losses.

There is another way of looking at the problem though. Instead of looking at the sink, let’s look at the source. During the flood, the City of Boulder’s stormwater drainage system (the sink) reached capacity in many places. To reiterate, there was just too much water running off the landscape (the source). The problem from looking at the source appears to be an excess of runoff rather than a deficit in drainage. As it turns out, other cities, from wet and dry regions alike, are looking at flood problems from this angle too.

Too much water is the problem AND the solution

If only there were a valve to the skies that could turn on the rain when we want it and shut it off when we don’t. Unfortunately, that’s not how the earth works, but we can achieve a similar effect by another means. Rainwater harvesting is fightin’ words in Colorado, but it may just be the panacea to our problems. From drought to flood, water harvesting works both ways. All one needs to do is look to cities like Tucson, AZ and Portland, OR.

In Tucson, city planners are looking at the excess of impervious surface in urban areas as a resource (5). From small rainstorms to deluges, the city street-sides of Tucson are becoming more and more lush. Rain gardens are being installed citywide along the streets to slow, spread, and sink the rain into the soil. This is not only helping to solve their growing outdoor water use and monsoon flooding problems, but beautifying the city, producing food, wildlife habitat, and free air-conditioning, not to mention adding more vegetation to the landscape, thereby slowing runoff before it ever hits the ground. These rain gardens are also helping prevent downstream flooding by capturing the rain as close to where it falls as possible.

Portland, Oregon is looking at rain gardens as a solution to water pollution rather than drought. Surrounded by waterways that are home to a wide variety of seafood and aquatic life, the traditional economy of the region is threatened by urban water pollution. Capturing the rain as close to where it falls and infiltrating it into the soil prevents polluted runoff from entering directly into salmon runs and other habitat. As it turns out, terrestrial organisms are much more capable of breaking down pollutants than aquatic ecosystems. The organization Salmon Safe has been encouraging the planting of these water-harvesting, water quality protecting gardens throughout the urban watershed for years now (6).


Imagine a city where every building’s multiple downspouts are passively channeling rainwater through the soil, irrigating the landscape along the way. Imagine every block lined with multiple water harvesting gardens capturing the runoff of the street itself, and using it for street tree irrigation. If you can do this, you are pretty close to seeing the solution.

Soil can hold an enormous amount of water. During the flood in Boulder, it wasn’t that all soils reached complete saturation everywhere, but more that most of the human developed landscape itself wasn’t shaped to retain water, and runoff formed more easily than it might have otherwise. If, as a matter of standard landscaping practice, the land had been shaped to infiltrate water rather than shed it, it could have prevented millions of gallons of water from rushing off into the swollen creeks and streams of Colorado.

The water harvesters adage changes just a little for flooding. If you can’t sink it, you can spread it, if you can’t safely spread it any further, at least you’ve managed to slow it. Applied citywide, the effect of this strategy becomes quite staggering and makes neighborhoods, and the region as a whole, more flood resistant.

All that water stored in the soil will also make the region more drought resistant for when the rains don’t come too. One problem during the flood was getting people to turn off their irrigation systems. A message was broadcast from the Boulder Office of Emergency Management to remind people to shut them off. I know of at least a handful of residences that didn’t have to worry about that. I’ve designed and installed dozens of landscapes that use nothing but downspouts as irrigation. The soil becomes the sponge for runoff and the reservoir for dry times. All of these gardens managed perfectly well in the flood, with no overflow, back flow, or any problems whatsoever. They were simply solutions; solutions to my clients’ water bills and to downstream flooding alike.

In essence, storm water drainage is lacking redundancy and multifunctionality. Instead of solely working on the sink of the problem, we can simultaneously work on the source. In fact, it would behoove us to work on the source before rethinking the sink, and it could be a whole lot cheaper, simpler, and multifunctional to encourage a new standard of landscaping practice rather than undertaking massive stormwater drainage reconstruction.

Water infiltrating into permeable parking lot at Naropa University.
Water infiltrating into permeable parking lot at Naropa University.

A hydrophobic fix

There is no need to stop there either. What if we could apply the same logic to rural areas and wildlands? Dirt roads need rain gardens too, but it would be particularly beneficial to direct our attention to burn scars. The principles are the same—slow the water down, spread it out, and sink it into the soil as much as possible. The form just looks a little different.

In many burn areas, the biggest resource for this work is standing dead wood. These trees can be felled and staked out along the contour of the slope in a fish scale pattern, effectively micro-terracing the landscape. This process already happens when trees fall of their own accord, but by positioning them on contour the result can be magnified by human ingenuity and mobility. This will not only prevent excess runoff, it will also aid in the revegetation of the burn scars by storing water in the soil and allowing a place for seeds to germinate and trees to grow. Vegetation is really the end goal, but you need a way to get it established.

How Rain and Trees Interact, Illustration by: Maggie Field.
How Rain and Trees Interact, Illustration by: Maggie Field.

In the drainages of the burn scars, the left over charred brush can be used to construct brush weirs, built perpendicular to the direction of water flow to capture more seeds, soil, and runoff. In areas with particularly high runoff volumes, rock walls or check dams can be built in the same way as brush weirs to slow the runoff and soak it into the soil.

These solutions are nowhere near newfangled either. In Boulder County, a group called Wild Lands Restoration Volunteers is already doing some of this work (7). A drainage known as Carnage Canyon has been fully restored from fire and massive erosion already. The work just needs to be replicated, and is a longer lasting use of time and energy when compared to current burn scar treatments that Boulder County has undertaken, such as spreading straw from helicopters (8).


While these water-harvesting solutions aren’t anything we don’t already know, they are wholly underapplied. When we look through a permaculture design lens, a more wholistic perspective is achieved, allowing for the consideration of alternative solutions. If we continue to shunt precious runoff out of site (pun intended) and out of mind, we can be sure there is someone downstream that won’t appreciate being flooded out. Plus, there is always another drought on the horizon, during which we will be begging to have the rain again.

So, when the next historically significant rain event occurs, we can either scramble once again to save our homes and cities, or we can dance in the streets, from rain garden to rain garden, watching our drought and flood resistant landscapes passively functioning by the power of creative ecological design.


  1. Floods Predicted:
  2. 1894 Boulder Flood:
  3. Big Thompson Flood:
  4. Boulder Flood Rainfall:
  5. Tucson Rain Gardens:
  6. Salmon Safe Gardens:
  7. Fire Restoration:
  8. Burn Scar Treatment:

Jason Gerhardt is an ecological designer and educator based in Boulder, Colorado. He has a degree in Sustainable Design and Diplomas in Permaculture Education and Design from Permaculture Institute USA. He currently teaches permaculture design and ecology at Naropa University and operates Real Earth Design. He can be contacted at jasongerhardt (at) gmail (dot) com.

Review: 2013 Advanced Design Certification and Teacher’s Training in Salida, CO

by Christina Zahn

I recently re-integrated back into “normal” society after attending two intensive 5 day classes, the Advanced Permaculture Design Course followed by Permaculture Teacher Training held at Joyful Journeys Hot Springs. The courses were masterfully held by Peter Bane, Becky Elder and Sandy Cruz.

Upon registering we were told to get ready to stretch and leave our other responsibilities behind. After checking in, setting up my tent and meeting my fellow classmates we hit the ground running, delving deeply into pattern language and fundamentals of design. Peter encouraged us to observe with a beginner’s mind, to tune our instrument (body-mind) and rise above the ordinary. Becky taught us about working with clients and how her first client is the planet. Sandy explained the importance of positive visioning using the highest ideals and ethics.

We formed ourselves into five design teams and immediately began to work on our projects. It was amazing how quickly five days passed. The presentations were thoughtful and brilliant. The students were of varying ages and different paths but we were united in a love of the earth and hope for humanity and together we made a beautiful whole that was truly greater than the sum of our parts.

After a two day break I went back for the Teacher Training Course. This class was more intimate and diverse with people traveling from New Hampshire, Florida, Arkansas and even Italy to attend. Peter lectured about vocation and self development, describing a teachers disposition as sensitive, passionate, patient and inspiring. Sandy taught us about the Huaca or sacred site as being the teacher creating the “container” or sacred space for learning and that teaching can be caught rather than just taught. She stated that a good teacher can teach any subject with the right research and resources. Becky described the dance of co-teaching as a stacking of functions creating a diverse voice and providing mutual support. They all noted the importance of humor and shared it often with us.

We were assigned to do a twenty minute presentation on an area that we wanted to learn more about. I found myself doing my homework in my tent with a head lamp in a thunderstorm. What a stretch! What a blast! Our presentations were recorded and we were able to watch ourselves which I found hilarious (umm…umm..) but afterward I realized that I could refine my speech and actually teach that subject.

These classes were incredible and life changing. The co-teachers made a powerful team. I learned more than I thought was possible and I made connections with wonderful people that I am honored to call my friends.


Herb Gardening

Here are some resources I have found lately for growing herbs as a business.

Denver City Council Hearing

Monday night, June 13, 2011 the Denver City Council had a public hearing on the Food Producing Animal (FPA) Bill to allow up to eight backyard chickens and/or ducks and two pigmy goats. The new bill would allow FPA residence without an expensive ($150) and lengthy (apply to Animal Control, apply to Zoning, post a sign for 10 days and return for review of Committee) process to keep chickens (no ducks). Fifty-four people spoke at the hearing, and only three spoke in opposition. The following is my three minute speech.

My name is Maggie Rice. I am speaking for College View Neighborhood Association, which is West Evans to Hampden Avenue, Pecos to Federal Avenue, and in some parts as far West as Knox Ct. We are a neighborhood of small houses with large lots. We have chickens and ducks and geese grandfathered in.

Modern American children do not know where food comes from. We can teach them to grow sprouts in jars and Victory Gardens are becoming a peaceful sight on our landscape. Adding Food Producing Animals makes sense when you look at the whole picture.

In the United States we spend billions of dollars on fertilizers, weed killers, and pesticides, even more billions on fuel to run large farming equipment and transport the food produced to market. All of which impact the environment and the economy whether or not you believe in Global Warming.

My chickens produce top quality organic fertilizer while they are catching the bugs, producing eggs, tilling the soil, and eating the weeds which they again turn into fertilizer. They organically compost the weed seeds and when they range free, they seek out the hated Canadian Thistle. One hicken lays on average 220 eggs a year. The chicks are a delight to children and adults. The chickens are safe, socialable and friendly pets.

And the eggs deserve a special mention. Free Range Chicken Eggs (as opposed to Commercially raised):

– have 1/3 less cholesterol
– 1/4 less saturated fat
– 2/3 more Vitamin A
– 2 times more Omega-3 Fatty Acids
– 3 times more Vitamin E
– 7 times more Beta Carotena

and recent tests show 4 to 6 times more Vitamin D. Eggs are one of the few food sources that have naturally occuring Vitamin D.

Speaking as a retired Chef, nothing is comparable to fresh eggs. When the eggs are laid, they are covered with a ‘BLOOM’ on the shell as a natural protection. An unwashed egg does not need refrigerating. The commercial process of washing, sealing with parafin, and storing refrigerated for weeks and months before sale compromises the flavor, texture and quality. In fact, most parts of the commercial egg producing process are horrific. Chickens are kept in barren wire cages so restrictive they cannot spread their wings, nest, preen or perform any other other instinctive behavior. They are fed minimum quality food not even equal to the mallow and thistle chicks forage in my yard. What the chicken is fed shows up in the eggs.

A fresh egg has a stiff white that sits up round in the pan circling an orange yolk. The whites are fluffier, the yolks more flavorful. When they wander into onion grass – the flavor shows up in the eggs.

I walk out in the morning, pick up an egg and head right back in the house to a sizzling pan of butter. I know my eggs are safe and what they eat is safe.

So for Denver City Council – The egg comes first. I want to share my bounty with you. Once you have tasted a “real egg” I hope you will not only understand, but want a chicken of your own. Thank you.

I offered them 19 (all the chicken eggs I had on hand) my ducks are still illegal – and several people offered to buy them off me before I got to speak. It was a good and informative 4 hours with City Council.


The Benefits of Perennial Vegetables

Think about how much work your perennial flower beds take compared to your annual vegetable garden. In a busy year, your perennial garden largely sails through despite neglect. Once your perennials are established, and if they are suited to your climate and site conditions, they can be virtually indestructible. An annual vegetable garden, as we all know, requires much more watering, weeding, and work to get a good crop. Once established, perennial vegetables are often more resistant to the attacks of pests, due to their reserves of energy stored in their roots.

Many readers undoubtedly grow, or have grown, asparagus. In fact, asparagus is the only perennial vegetable most people can think of. Let’s take a moment to reflect on your experiences with asparagus. Every year it comes back, providing a long and delicious season of harvest. Sure, it needs some weeding and fertilizing. But I know a lot of people who neglect their asparagus terribly and still have good harvests. Many other perennial vegetables are a lot tougher than asparagus. In fact, some perennial vegetables fend for themselves so well that they require frequent harvesting to keep them from becoming weeds. This phenomenon of little care for multiple years of harvests is, to my mind, the number one reason to grow perennial vegetables.

Their deep roots and soil building abilities make them more self-sufficient in terms of watering, and their canopies which leaf out so much earlier than annuals better suppress the growth of weeds. What else can these remarkable plants do?

Perennial vegetables are great soil builders
Perhaps the best ecological benefit from perennials is their beneficial effect on soil. Bare soil quickly dries out, and can be eroded by wind and rain, especially in sloping gardens. Tillage also kills many beneficial elements of the soil food web, particularly some of the best kinds of mycorrhizae (beneficial fungi that share nutrients with crop plants). Well-mulched perennials don’t need any tilling once they are established.

But the soil benefits of perennials are not just from an absence of tillage. Perennials improve organic matter, soil structure and porosity, and water holding capacity through the slow and steady decomposition of roots and leaves. Perennial vegetable gardens build soil the way nature intended—by allowing the plants to add more and more organic matter without tillage, and letting the worms do the work of mixing it all together.

Perennials provide ecosystem benefits
Perennials, especially trees, slow global warming by capturing atmospheric carbon dioxide. Trees also moderate microclimates, making the areas around them cooler and moister. Large numbers of trees can moderate the climates of whole regions in a similar fashion. The root systems of perennials catch and store water and nutrients that would otherwise be washed away. Perennials provide critical habitat to a number of animal, fungal, and other life forms, many of which are highly beneficial in gardens.

Perennial vegetables extend the harvest season
Perennials often have different seasons of availability than annuals, helping to spread the season of harvest throughout more of the year. While you are starting seeds indoors, and transplanting tiny vulnerable seedlings out to the garden (which must be watered and weeded frequently), perennials are already in robust growth and ready for harvesting. In my own garden I begin eating the first tender perennial shoots not long after the snow melts. Later, in the heat of mid-summer, I visit the sweltering hot beds along my driveway to harvest some delicious tropical heat-loving greens. Perennial vegetables can “pad out” those times of the year when your annual garden doesn’t have much to offer.

Perennial vegetables often can perform multiple functions in the garden
In addition to years or decades of low-maintenance yields, and soil building benefits, perennial vegetables can do other important jobs in the garden. Many are beautiful ornamental plants, offering the potential of attractive edible landscapes. Some species can function as hedges, groundcovers, or erosion control for steep slopes. Some provide free fertilizer for themselves and their neighbors by fixing nitrogen or accumulating subsoil nutrients. And some help out with pest control, by providing habitat or food for predatory and other beneficial insects. Vines like chayote and perennial cucumber can be grown over trellis frames to create “edible shadehouses” to snack in a cool place out of the sun. See page X below for tables of multifunctional perennial vegetables.

Drawbacks of Perennial Vegetables
No crop is perfect, and perennial vegetables are no exception. Here are some of the disadvantages of growing perennial vegetables.

Some perennial vegetables are slow to establish, and may take several years to begin yielding well. Asparagus is a classic example.

Like annual crops, some perennial greens become bitter once they flower. Thus their greens are available only early in the season. Perennial vegetables are not meant to replace annuals, but to complement them. In this case, perennial greens are available early in the season, providing greens until the annuals are up and running.

Many of the minor perennial vegetables have rather strong flavors, especially those adapted to cold climates.

Many perennial vegetables are so low-maintenance that they can become weeds in your garden, or escape and naturalize in your neighborhood.

Perennial vegetables will also not fit into your ordinary annual garden management plan, and will need an area to be set aside for them (just like you probably do now for asparagus, globe artichokes, or rhubarb).

Perennials have special disease challenges. First, you can’t use crop rotation to minimize diseases. Second, once they have a disease, they often have it for good—for example, plant viruses are problematic with some vegetatively-propagated perennial crops.

You will find suggested solutions for each of these challenges under “Techniques” (page X).

A note on “perennials grown as annuals”
One occasionally sees a crop described as a “perennial grown as an annual” (some of these crops re referred to here as “plant/replant perennials”). Sometimes there are good reasons to grow perennials as annuals. For example, if left in the same place year after year, potatoes would build up terrible disease pressure. On the other hand, many crops usually grown as annuals make fine perennials (such as skirret, which actually has better flavor when grown as a perennial). In some cases, we just don’t know what would happen to these crops if they were allowed to persist for multiple years. Perhaps new techniques would need to be developed to manage them in this fashion. It is my hope that readers of Perennial Vegetables what happens.

Why you’ve probably never heard of them before
Why are asparagus, rhubarb, and globe artichokes the only perennial vegetables most gardeners have heard of? I have a few practical answers, and some speculative ones addressed in the accompanying article.

Lack of information
When I first became interested in perennial vegetables, I found that I had to fish for little bits of information here and there. There was no single book or website devoted to perennial vegetables. One could read many gardening books, review issues of garden magazines, and never get an inkling that this other class of vegetable crops even existed. My sincere hope is that the publication of this book will help to rectify the situation.

The chicken-and-the-egg problem
Only a small number of nurseries and seed companies offer even the best perennial vegetables – some are still commercially unavailable in the U.S. and Canada as I am writing. These plants will never have the chance to become popular if no one can acquire them. On the other hand, nurseries and seed companies will never offer them if there is no demand.

Readers of Perennial Vegetables can break us out of this cycle by requesting (nay, demanding!) perennial vegetables from your favorite companies. With your help, these useful and delicious plants will soon be widely known and grown.

The Origins of Annual Agriculture in North America
In the United States and Canada, most of our gardening traditions come from Europe, where there are few perennial crops (except fruits and nuts). But much of our land mass is well suited to crops from warm and tropical regions—where, it turns out, there are numerous perennial vegetables.

But why haven’t people been growing perennial vegetables in the United States and Canada for centuries? In the tropics there are many more perennial vegetables. Why were so few perennials domesticated in colder and temperate climates? The answer may have its roots in the multiple independent origins of agriculture itself, and the historical peculiarities of the areas where crops were domesticated.

In tropical areas of Africa, Asia, and Latin America, agriculture developed strongly around root and starchy fruit crops as staples. This enabled crops to be grown in mixtures of trees, vines, perennials, and annuals. Cold and temperate Eurasian agriculture was built around annual grains and legumes.

Why did this happen? Partly it is a question of the plants available as raw material for domestication—perhaps, with a far greater diversity to choose from, more perennial candidates were available in the tropics.

But, remarkably, Europeans actually took some perennial wild edible plants and bred them into annual crops, such as beets and brassicas. In contrast, ancient Andean people domesticated the perennial, rather than annual, forms of arracacha. In fact, a strikingly high number of perennial vegetables originated in the tropical Americas, like chayote, chaya, and perennial beans.

One possible explanation is that the Americas were without domesticated draft animals to pull plows.

All farm work had to be done with hand tools, allowing different parts of the farm to get custom treatment with no real extra energy cost. In most of the Old World, draft animals were used to plow up large areas. Growing perennials would have required areas set aside for different management systems. Perhaps this explains the “annualizing” of perennial wild crops like beets and brassicas.

Jared Diamond’s book Guns, Germs and Steel offers an intriguing history of agriculture. It turns out that agriculture in Eurasia began in the Mediterranean, in a winter rain-summer drought climate that favored annuals. These crops were adopted in Europe, and may have superseded any development of perennials that might have otherwise occurred.

Another factor could be that early crop domesticators’ most important goal was getting enough food to eat. Perhaps raw material from annuals gave quicker rewards than perennials, particularly in cold climates where a short season often requires several years for perennials to begin bearing.

Whatever the origin of our neglect, there is certainly no longer a valid reason to ignore these useful and productive crops. They can be made much more widely available, and I believe that a network of gardeners will prove them to be an important new component of food production in the United States and Canada in the coming years.

By Eric Toensmeier
ArkValley Permaculture
PO Box 688
Salida, CO 81201

An Interview with Toby Hemenway

Toby Hemenway Lecturing

Transition Colorado’s “Eat Local” campaign recently hosted a series of workshops with Toby Hemenway, author of Gaia’s Garden and hero to some of us who fell in love with Permaculture after reading his book. He graciously took time out of his schedule to submit to a brief interview for the newsletter, telling us how he got into Permaculture and about his upcoming Permaculture Design Course here in Denver!

Toby Hemenway grew up loving nature and wanting to help people. He went into genetics research with the best of intentions: to learn about the intricate workings of life and to find a cure for cancer. Decades later, he found himself as a senior manager at a drug company, and his current life and his original goals seemed very far apart. So, when he came across Bill Mollison’s Permaculture: A Designers’ Manual at the Seattle Public Library while playing hookey from work, he also found a new calling. He and his wife quit their jobs and moved to southern Oregon. They discovered that living slower and more frugally suited them. Toby took a PDC with Jude Hobbs and Tom Ward in California and another with Bill Mollison and Scott Pittman. He wrote articles, taught and consulted as well as built his own food forest to learn from. He wrote his book during this time. Its laid-back tone and practical, entertaining stories made it very popular, bringing Permaculture to many people who wouldn’t have found it otherwise and he found himself traveling the country giving workshops.

Toby Hemenway Entertaining the CrowdAfter 35 years in Oregon, he and his wife needed more sun so they traded their food forest for the road. They bought an RV and toured the country, eventually settling in Prescott, Arizona (perhaps temporarily!) where the Permaculture movement has taken off and is even taught in classes at the college. How can a Permaculturist have such a nomadic existance? “We are in a time of pretty rapid change. It feels right for me to be flexible,” he says. He’s done enough gardening for now and is very interested in invisible structures, economics, community and how to incorporate Permaculture into urban settings. With his lifestyle of teaching around the world, “I can live anywhere,” he says, and he is loving not putting down roots right now. He is learning so much and getting to meet great people.

He is putting together a Permaculture Design Course in Denver with an urban, big-city focus. He plans to bring in experts from all over the country as well as invite local teachers to participate and he wants to incorporate design projects that are on a large scale such as city parks, schools and businesses. The course promises to be unique, deal with current issues and hopefully make a difference in how we see Permaculture’s role in our cities and communities. The course will run one weekend a month from October 2011 to March 2012. The details have yet to be worked out, but watch Colorado Permaculture and The GrowHaus for dates, sites and guest instructors!

He had a bit of advice for the fledgeling Colorado Permaculture Guild as well. We should engage in visible, community-oriented projects, give practical workshops where participants leave with something tangeable as well as knowledge, and remember that the Guild is its own invisible structure. Coordinating alliances between groups is rarely easy and we should use the principles we all know as the language to move forward. Thanks for a great weekend, Toby, and we will see you in the fall!

You Know You’re a Permie If…

raccoon – You’d rather have your hands in manure than sit in a cubicle all day (unlike most civilized people)

– The sight of a refrigerator box makes you quiver with excitement

– You routinely have to clean compost and leaves out of your pockets/hair/sink drain/vehicles/pet’s fur/etc etc etc

– You crack a joke about stacking in a meeting and wonder why nobody laughs

– A bucket shows up in the kitchen at the office with a note saying “please donate coffee grounds and tea bags” and everyone knows it’s yours

– You have to explain the difference between compost, recycling and trash every time you throw a party because guests forget what category dirty napkins fall into

– You actually appreciate the work the raccoons do turning your sheet mulch beds upside down looking for a quick meal

(mostly from personal experience!)

A permie road trip: lessons in diversity

It was a lovely Saturday when three country permies decided to venture beyond the edge and head off in the direction of the big city.

After deciding which vehicle would be easiest on our sacred environment, they moved all the climbing gear, granola, and a ukulele from the middle seat into the back along with the bike and snowshoes.

They were ready to burst into a rousing rendition of “Children of the Earth Tribe” so moved were they by the changing scenery and glimpses of newborn calves along the way.
Only after realizing the uke was in the way back and being mindful of the safety provided by mandatory seatbelts, it was decided by consensus to forego the music for now and revisit the directions.

Hope (the aptly named GPS) was secured to her place of honor on the windshield, while the others busied themselves by checking various tools of navigation on cell phones, laptops and Ipads.

“Here….I’ve also got a printed version on recycled paper”

“Remind me to take it with me if you don’t need it after the trip. I’m sheet mulching next weekend. Are there any colored dyes on it?”

The permies flashed peace signs and blew kisses to the children in the passing Westphalia as they headed onto the highway. They settled in to the rhythmic Om of mother earth as the Subaru ambled along.

“Holy Shit!!! Look at all the traffic!”

“Speed up! Speed up! They’ll blow us off the road at the rate they’re driving!”

“Don’t these assholes know we’ve passed peak oil for the love of God? Why do they have to go so fast?”

“That reminds me; I just finished reading…..LOOK OUT! A black car with tinted windows….CHANGE LANES!’

Just then Hope chimed in “re-calculating”……

“We missed our turn….we’ll be lost now for sure”

A voice came from the back seat…”Let me check my phone…I’ve got mapquest……oh, oh….battery’s getting low. We should get to a coffee shop so I can recharge.”

“See if you can find a Starbucks on that thing”

“Here….turn left. Says there’s coffee shop in 3 blocks”

“Dang, I can’t turn left. It’s one way…”

“That’s why I never come to the city…..every other block is ONE way…..”

“Maybe if we go an extra block….”

“Yea, good idea…here we go”

“I SEE IT!!!!”

“Hey look….there’s a parking space. I don’t see any meters though”

“How primitive”

“Do you think the Subaru will be safe in this neighborhood?”

“I bet that guy smoking out in front is the owner.”

…he shot the permies a suspicious look as they came his way…..he followed them into the shop…

“I’ll have a double shot, skinny latte, with extra foam”

“A chai please”

“Apple and ginger juice for me’

One of the permies offered to treat in thanks of their safe arrival.

“9 dollars and 38 cents” said the smoker. “What’s that?”

“Oh sorry,……you don’t take Gaians here?”

As the permies settled in and recharged and dreamt of the day when all such devises would be solar powered, they felt oddly at ease….

“This is a really nice coffee shop….and look! There’s a medicinal marijuana dispensary just across the street.”

They came to an agreement through concensus that the city probably wasn’t that bad after all and took a collective deep cleansing breath together………

*Most of the circumstances in this fable have been altered to exude humor and irony!

The Movement to Dismantle Civilization

Why all permaculture designs should include supporting a culture of resistance

By Jennifer Murnan

Currently, permaculture operates in the realm of bright green environmental activism and seemingly believes that the current culture can be transformed. Why should permaculturalists choose to align themselves with the deep green environmentalists that support dismantling civilization in the belief that it is irredeemable, and, in fact, is destroying life on our planet?

Here are the few reasons that have occurred to me:

The Permaculture movement has always run counter to the beliefs and principles of global civilization. It views nature as a partner, a teacher, and a guide whom we honor and are totally dependent on.
This is completely contrary to the cultural view of western civilization; that the natural world is here to serve us, to be used and abused at will, and that this abuse is justifiable.

Permaculture practice, by definition, is an attempt to depart from the model of exploitation and importation of resources necessitated by civilization. To live permanently in one place is the antithesis
of the pattern exhibited repeatedly by civilizations. Civilizations cannot live in place. They violently import and exploit their human and natural resources, exhaust their ecosystems, experience population overshoot, and collapse leaving an impoverished land base in their wake. Western industrial civilization is currently playing this scenario out on a global scale. Permaculture not only cannot exist within the confines of civilization, it cannot coexist with a civilization that is devouring the world. I believe it is neither ethical or practical on the part of permaculturalists to attempt to do so.

Another reason lies in the common visions of the primacy of the earth shared by deep green and permaculture activists. The first ethic in permaculture is ’Care for the Earth’. Without this basis, the second and third ethics, ’Care for people’, and ‘Redistribute surplus to one’s needs’, are impossible. Healthy organisms produce a surplus as a way to feed and enrich the ecosystem in which they exist. Simply put, there is no health unless the earth is cared for first.

As Derrick Jensen states in premise 16 of Endgame “The Earth is the point. It is primary. It is our home. It is everything.”

There are attitudes shared by Permaculture and the Deep Green movement. Permaculturalists believe in working with nature and not against it. Fostering a respect for all life is inherent in permaculture practice. Valuing people and their skills creates more diversity, creativity and productivity in permaculture and deep green communities. Alignment between Deep Green and the Permaculture movements is especially apparent in two permaculture design principles. Seeking to preserve, regenerate and extend all natural and traditional permanent landscapes is a goal of both communities.
Preserving and increasing biodiversity of all types is recognized as being essential for survival by both Deep Greens and Permaculturalists.

A primary reason for permaculture to become part of a culture of resistance is that permaculture’s two guiding principles logically mandate dismantling civilization. The precautionary principle states that we should take seriously and act on any serious or destructive diagnosis unless it is proven erroneous.

Civilization has proven itself to be destructive to ecosystems since its inception. Western industrial civilization is causing the wholesale destruction of every ecosystem on Earth.

“The dominant culture eats entire biomes. No, that is too generous, because eating implies a natural biological relationship; This culture doesn’t just consume ecosystems, it obliterates them, it murders them, one after another. This culture is a ecological serial killer, and it’s long past time we recognize the pattern.”

-Aric McBay

A large scale and effective response to this destruction is necessary. The tactics of the environmental movement, up to this point have been insufficient. We are losing. It is time to change our strategy. This is why the Deep Green movement is advocating for all tactics to be considered as a means to stop the murder of the Earth. This includes, but is not limited to, practicing permaculture, legislation, legal action, civil-disobedience, and industrial sabotage.

There are problems with holding the permaculture movement as the sole solution to global destruction. While transitioning to sustainability in our personal lives is important,
even more important is confronting and dismantling the oppressive systems of power that promote unsustainability, exploitation and injustice on a global scale. In fact, if these systems are left in place, the gains made by the practice of permaculture will be washed away in civilization’s tidal wave of destruction.

“Any economic or social system that does not benefit the natural communities on which it is based is unsustainable, immoral and stupid. Sustainability, morality and intelligence (as well as justice) require the dismantling of any such economic or social system or at the very least disallowing it from damaging your landbase.”
-Derrick Jensen

The second guiding principle of permaculture, ‘intergenerational equity’, also necessitates immediate action in response to the destructive force of civilization. This principle states that future generations have the same rights as we do to food, clean air, water and resources. This statement applies to all humans and non-humans equally. On a daily basis entire species are being eliminated from this planet as result of the activities of industrial civilization. ‘intergenerational equity’ for them has ceased to exist and every day this destruction continues more species go extinct. Allowing this to continue is unconscionable.

Permaculture is based on close observation of the natural world, and I believe can only realize it’s full potential in a human community that acknowledges the natural laws of its land base,as primary. Practicing permaculture in any context other than this necessitates subverting our principles and betraying everything that nurtures and sustains us, all that is sacred, our living earth. We can only truly belong in a culture of resistance.

Both permaculturalists and deep greens know that the earth is everything, that there is no greater good than this planet, than life itself. We owe her everything and without her, we die.

This is it, we need eachother, everyone, every tactic we can muster in defense of the earth.

We have never been able to afford civilization.

“The task of an activist is not to navigate around systems of oppression with as much personal integrity as possible. It’s to bring those systems down.”

-Lierre Keith

Derrick Jensen, Aric McBay and Lierre Keith are co-facititators of the DGR workshop and co-authors of the book, Deep Green Resistance. Read more here. Questions? Email the author.