Livingston Photo
Penny Livingston

PERMACULTURE: California Style
An Interview with Penny Livingston

(Originally recorded April 18, 2000)

PART TWO of a three-part series - page 1 of 2
PART ONE of the Livingston Interview


In this second part of her three-part, exclusive ECOTECTURE Interview, Permaculture Guru Penny Livingston speaks out about feeding herself from her Permaculture Garden, Gray Water and the Design of Cities.

Penny Livingston is the Director of the Permaculture Institute of Northern California which offers a variety of courses including the Permaculture Design Certification Course coming in May/June 2003.




ECOTECTURE: Does your garden feed you?

LIVINGSTON: Yes. We don't buy any fruit or vegetables, only staples like bread and the scones we had when you came here today.

Four of us eat out of the garden, my husband and I and my two resident Permaculture students. I didn't even show you the back, but it is real sunny (in early January). We have broccoli, cauliflower, lots of kale, collards, chard, lettuce and onions coming in. We still have tomatoes, because we have had such a warm winter. We still have potatoes and a number of different kinds of tubers all throughout the garden.

I don't have to import anything into this garden any more, and I will be able to grow food for . . . ever. If I kept it managed, with the chickens, and composting and keeping our food loop going from the garden to the table to the compost, there is no need to import any food. This is a sustainable system.

If the Y2K thing had happened, and there was no food, and we did not stock up on anything, we would be still eating just fine out of the garden for the whole rest of the winter, and be starting more. Now is the time to start more seeds. In another two months there would be even more food on its way.

ECOTECTURE: Do you collect your own seeds?

LIVINGSTON: Yes, we do. We collect not all of our own seed. For example, cabbages. If you have broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussel sprouts all coming in at the same time, you will get some weird crosses from the Romenesco Broccoli's, for example. But, you know you could, you could save your seed, people have done that for millennia, and you could create your own varieties. Or, if I only grew one kind of cabbage that I really liked I'd get the two varieties by saving the seeds. But it is insect pollinated, so, in a small space like this, it is a little tricky to do.

On one level, you could say, "Sure, I could collect those seeds and plant them and I would be growing food. Anything I would grow from those seeds would be edible. It probably would taste pretty good. But it wouldn't be necessarily the broccoli that . . . . it would be a brocciflower, or something like that (laughs.)

ECOTECTURE: You are eating entirely out of your garden. How much land to you have?

LIVINGSTON: A little less than an acre. About three quarters of an acre.

ECOTECTURE: And you are feeding four people?

LIVINGSTON: Yes. And out of that—you can see—we are not even planting all of it. We could be producing a lot more. With all this running around we do . . . we are really only growing for our own needs.

ECOTECTURE: With a Permaculture garden, approximately how much space you would need to feed, say, a family of four? Half an acre?

I guess you could probably feed twenty to thirty families on a half an acre.

LIVINGSTON: That's a hard one. I would guess way less than half an acre. I guess you could probably feed twenty to thirty families on a half an acre.

ECOTECTURE: On a half an acre?

LIVINGSTON: Oh yeah. You can grow a lot.

ECOTECTURE: . . . of regular soil. You are not talking about in barrels or anything like that?

LIVINGSTON: No, with Permaculture if you wanted to double that, you could.


LIVINGSTON: Yes, you could. You absolutely could. Because you start thinking in terms of cubic feet instead of square feet. You can start trellising, for example. One of the methods of increasing your production is going vertical. It is called stacking. Permaculturalists think in terms of multiple canopies, so you have the high tree layer, lower tree layer, vining layer, shrub layer, herb layer, ground cover layer and the root layer. You have all these different layers, then you pattern your garden to allow the sun to come in as you need it. So you might create little meadow areas where you can grow cantaloupes or tomatoes or something that needs really hot sun.

One of the things we do here on the (California) Coast is pattern our garden into a south facing horse shoe shape with something like clorin or bamboo with a light colored, big, reflective leaf on the back side so you are not only getting convection heat from the ground, but you are also getting reflected heat from the leaves of the plant. Then you add straw mulch. If you notice . . . . this came to me, though everyone else knows about it . . . I discovered it by walking into an area that is mowed, and it is all brown underneath the mowed area. You go from where it was kind of green and taller grass into the mowed grass and you can feel the heat coming up to your face on a hot day or a warm day, just from the color of the straw. I got, "Oh, we can mulch our tomatoes and our cantaloupes with straw and that will help them ripen in the sun. Otherwise, it is very difficult to ripen tomatoes on the Coast unless you are growing hybrids that are designed for that.

If your goal is to have the most productive farm, to be able to create as many crops as possible, and, say, to make the most money from those crops, you certainly can do it. Working within these Permaculture principles is great.

That is not our goal here. I'm already enjoying about as much abundance as I can stand. I touched down—I've been traveling a lot—I come home and I have one day and it's, "OK. Let's put up two more bushels of apples." Slice them, puree them, can them, dry them and do whatever we can do and that is what we have been doing all summer. So, one of the other principals of Permaculture is that you design these productive systems so that you have some place to put all this stuff, or it will result in pollution.

It will either end up as an imbalance of too much rotting food on the ground, or an imbalance of not enough habitat and too many exotics to have a nice balance with the birds and other critters that cohabitate this place with me. I don't necessarily think that to just go in the full production direction is necessarily wise, but we can certainly provide for enough for you and however many other people you need. From there, you can figure out what you will do with your space.

We got the clay (for the cobb-construction walls) from the pond we dug, and built the building with it.

When we look at a yield, we don't look only look at how many tomatoes we can grow. We consider how many inputs are we adding to the garden, and subtract that from the outputs. We will get all the energy that goes into what we are producing.

My office building is a good example. (See Photo, Part 1 of this interview in the ECOTECTURE library.) We got the clay (for the cobb-construction walls) from the pond we dug, and built the building with it. That is different from importing wood from Pacific Lumber. The little lumber we did use came from a local mill. Two local guys resurfaced old boards. They also resurface old telephone poles, and only take trees that have to come down for some other reason rather than for logging. They have either fallen down, or threatened someone's house, or they are coming down anyway. They will be chopped up for firewood—chipped up. Or, these guys can mill them into lumber. That is where we get our wood. It is all local. The cabinets we are getting for our kitchen come from an oak tree that fell two miles from here. Two years ago, our cabinet maker milled it, stickered and dried it, and now he is going to use it and we are fortunate enough to be able to buy that from him instead of supporting some unsustainable logging operation.