Lee Reich on “Why I’m not a Permaculturist”


by Guest Ranter Lee Reich, PhD

I wish I had a catchy name for the kind of farmdening I do. (A farmden is more than a garden, less than a farm; I used to have a garden, now I have a farmden.)

I wish I had a catchy word like, for example, “permaculture.” Everyone loves permaculture. Many budding young as well as experienced permaculturalists visit my farmden to see what I’ve been doing here for the last 25 years. Yes, I have integrated edibles right into the landscape, as do permaculturalists; and, like permaculturalists, I do try to maximize use
of the 3-dimensional space in my farmden with, for example, my shade-loving black currants growing beneath my pawpaw trees. I am also a permaculturalistic in maintaining the integrity of my soil by avoiding its disturbance and by utilizing mulches. And we all try to grow plants adapted to the setting so as to minimize pest problems. And . . . I could go on.

Despite the assertion of one young, “expert” permaculturalist, I am not a permaculturalist. (Perhaps in a futile attempt to strengthen his argument, he went on to say that all gardening/farmdening except commercial agriculture is “permaculture” and that, “as a teacher of permaculture,” he should know!)

I part ways with permaculturalists by growing my vegetables rectilinearly, in straight rows within rectangular 3-foot-wide beds. Ah yes, the idea of organically shaped beds and keyhole gardens is so appealing – on paper. As is the idea of tucking lettuce plants beneath fruiting shrubs and trees. But I eat a lot of vegetables and there’s nothing like straight rows
running down straight beds for packing a lot of vegetables into a given area, and making it quicker and easier to plant, weed, and harvest. And when I go out to pick some vegetables for a meal, I don’t want to be remembering where I tucked the lettuce and then crawling beneath some shrub to get at it.

Permaculture originated and thrives in the dry climates of Australia and our Southwest. Over much of the country, and especially here in the Northeast, rainfall coaxes very exuberant growth from crop plants and weeds alike. Too many permaculturalists are liable to spend their first few permaculture years admiring their efficient and attractive use of space and all the years hence cursing all the cutting and weeding needed to keep growth of various plants in balance. What I need are some straight lines and a little elbow room.

“Forest gardening,” growing and eating from your planted forest, is receiving growing interest within permaculture circles. As you might guess, I’m also not a forest gardener, despite the fact that I have integrated fruiting trees, which do come from forests somewhere, as well as chestnuts, English walnuts, black walnuts, buartnuts, and other nutty things into my landscape. But a forest I have not. And the ground beneath my trees is not planted with herbs and vegetables on which I can nibble. It’s mowed grass or mulch.

I’m growing my own fruits and vegetables because I want quality – quality in flavor and quality in nutrition. I’m growing my own fruits and vegetables because I think it’s not environmentally sound to grow these foods on distant farms, often in monocultures, and then ship them to stores where they sit before being purchased and eaten. I grow my own fruits and vegetables so that I can eat them fresh, very fresh. (Lettuce left over from
making dinner? Into the compost pile it goes.) I don’t even want to have to drive to a local farm for my produce. I want to grow enough to be able to heap my plate. I don’t want to grow a nibble here and there.

So what could I call my method of farmdening? “Pitchfork farmdening?” My farmdening efforts begin at soil level, and the secret to good soil is plenty of organic materials that eventually become humus. Organic materials feed soil microorganisms, hold moisture like a sponge, create good structure that helps aerate the soil, decompose to release nutrients that feed the plants, prompt the release of nutrients from native minerals that feed the plants, and have other effects known and unknown.

Forget about compost tea and various commercial products of “liquid humus.” All these benefits accrue from bulky organic materials, and the way to move these materials, on a farmden (and garden) scale, at least, is with a pitchfork. Now, if only “pitchfork farmdening” or “pitchfork gardening” was more euphonious and didn’t sound like work. Nomenclature suggestions accepted.


  1. I like “farmdening” but it am having a bit of trouble saying it without stumbling over the word…No better suggestions, though, so maybe I’ll just practice saying it a lot…

  2. The labels are never as important as the guiding principles (except to the media for catchy brief tweetable headlines). the guiding principle in permaculture of sustainability: that is, to reduce waste and work in ALL elements of the system, can be accomplished many ways. Hooray for recognizing that MAINTENANCE needs to be sustainable to the farmdener? farmer? gardener? permaculturalist? to the STEWARD of the land. If the patterns aren’t conducive to good stewardship/maintenance, they can’t be sustained by mere mortals nor any helpers we may entice into helping us.

  3. I think I have found my twin. Gardening is about the growth of plants and humans in concert with nature. Gardeners may start with a desire to grow despite nature, but as they grow and evolve they find the blend or “farmden” that embodies their gardening soul. Altruistic terms (like permaculture) and doing something for the sake of them can be detrimental to this growth and actually create barriers to those who might not otherwise make that journey. I like to say if you grow things for the sake of growing things your garden will fail, but if you grow things to create your ecosystem the garden will emerge as you plant solutions for all your problems. This is a great description of that journey through someone else’s eyes.

  4. Sounds like you have a wonderful garden.
    Permaculture does seem to have a lot of rules but the individual gardens over time wind up adjusting and using what works best.
    Organic gardeners, wildlife gardeners,sustainable gardeners we do like a label. Gives beginners a goal, a place to start. Without the interest, the dream for each new generation, in a society where it is the norm to let others do it for you, it may just seem like work.
    We need experimenting groups to find workable solutions outside the norm. We learn something from each even if it’s just what doesn’t work well.
    A librarian told me that gardening had not changed much over the years. But our knowledge of science and society have changed dramaticly. A garden has to grow within that context. A garden is always more than a few plants outside our door.

  5. Oh, I don’t know. To me, Permaculture always brought up images of certain retirement homes where each of the residents had the same curly hairdo.
    Pitchfork gardening, on the other hand, reminds me of one of the best Valentine’s Day gifts I ever got.

    But I’m probably just weird…

  6. Well, we used to have a garden when we had our home. Now we grow things that need more space in really big pots while we wait to see if we will buy another house with some land. I like growing fruits and veggies, but I miss the garden we used to have. We had grapes growing up the apple tree, and strawberries just under that. Oh well, one must work with what one has I guess.

    I like your Farmden, but will agree that what it is called is less important than how it grows.

  7. Lee, great post, thank you. I couldn’t agree more: Trying to mimic an ecosystem in the vegetable garden makes infinite sense. But trying to do it programmatically doesn’t. It’s all about listening to your own piece of earth.

  8. Well, now I know what I am doing, I am farmdening 🙂 Brilliant post. There’s what we’re supposed to do and how to do it, and all these reasons why, and then it just comes down to what works.

    If I could not plant in some semblance of a row, I’d be a mess, when it comes to most of the veggies grow. That’s not to say I won’t take advantage of companion planting and using the terrain in such a way as to not disturb it terribly (other than to coax some calories out of it).

    (Town Mouse, don’t forget the purple and blue tints to the perms…)

  9. Excellent post ! I, too, prefer my veggies in rows, but find it impossible in my tiny space. I’ve come to think of it as “square foot chaos”. It’s mine & it works well this way.

    Might I add that I’m very envious of your farmden/pitchfork garden. That much space ( and time) to grow edibles is still just a fantasy for me. As it is I tuck them in where I can – and where the husband won’t notice them until they’re too big to remove.

  10. I have not had much luck with tucking veggies in the flower and shrub beds. Too much competition? I plant in rows, just not straight rows, unless husband makes them.

    Loved the post. A good read.

  11. I third the veggies in ornamental beds comment. I tried that last year. I got exactly three peppers, one eggplant flower (never turned into an eggplant) and a yellow pear tomato vine that strangled my vitex shrub.

    This year, I’ve already had my landscaper come build me three giant raised beds. I’ll plant some marigolds on the edges for their color and pest control, and some flowering herbs here and there, but I’m kind of a “flowers in one place, veggies in the other” kinda gal.

  12. Good point, Lee. Whatever way we find to slip vegetables and fruit into our home gardens, it’s not as important what we call it as that we do it.

    Personally, I tried adding veggies to my ornamental beds, but it was a pain having to decide whether to leave the decorative lettuce border for the visitors to admire or harvest it for their dinner.

  13. What’s in a name? You grow stuff, and your yard-farm-thing is magnificent. (And I’m afraid “farmdening” is even more os a silly mouthful than “permaculture”.

  14. I find that growing in rows, plots, or raised beds helps keep me organized and keeps my plants and beds from looking weedy. That even applies to a lot of my perennials and display gardens as well.

    In addition, thrusting vegetables and edibles into flowerbeds and under trees may put them in conditions that are less than favorable for productivity or even vitality of the plants. For example, putting rosemary and lavender into your tropical annual beds might kill them. You would want to have those herbs in a designated spot, specially grouped with other plants that like similar conditions.

    In addition, many of the ornamental plants are not meant to eat. What if you snipped off some digitalis along with your lettuce? Castor beans fall among your runner beans? I once ate petunia seedlings because I thought it was some rare french greenery in the mesclun mix I had planted.

    It’s kind of like your house or desk – everything should be in its place, and should make logical sense. Otherwise we’ll be hunting for dinner, and wondering if we are eating our spinach or munching on something slightly less pleasant…

  15. A kindred spirit! Love this post. As for labels . . . I find them handy when trying to explain how I farm/garden/whatever, but it’s not so helpful if you then have to explain what the label means.

  16. From a space usage point of view, I’ve never been able to wrap my head around keyhole gardening. It seems more wasteful that rectilinear plot gardening.

  17. Lee Reich has been on my short list of “most sensible gardeners” since I read one of his articles on soil science a number of years ago. I promptly stopped tilling and double-digging, and started just spreading the organic matter on top of the soil. Guess what? The soil structure improved.
    I predict this guest rant will be nominated for one of 2010’s best, amongst other many excellent ones that appear here.
    This inspires. I’ve been planting fruit trees this year, but now realize not enough of them.
    About the term farmden, I can’t decide if it’s a little too precious or not. We’ll probably have to come up with a minimalist but descriptive short phrase for his philosophy/science of gardening.


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