Principle 9: Use Small and Slow Solutions

Image courtesy of Arun Thomas

Get Small & Slow

Permaculture favors small-scale solutions that are applicable in many ways. Building a system slowly is advantageous because it allows you to adjust to changes and make corrections on a small scale.  This will ultimately be less of a drain on your time and budget. While meeting its objectives, once established, a well-designed system should be as small as possible thus making it more efficient and easier to maintain. Slow systems are easier.  

Garden Example - Perennials

Perennial plants are a good example of a slow solution. Initially, they are characterized by slow producing yields but over time once they establish themselves they have many benefits over annuals. They improve/preserve the topsoil, and save you time, energy and money because they don't need to be planted every year and many of them – for example, rhubarb, tolerate cold well and produce early in the spring.

Image courtesy of Jacques Gaimard

Perennials come in a broad variety, are generally hardier than annuals, and have a wide range of blooming times (though out the summer) allowing you to extend your harvest period.  They are easily propagated by splitting the root clump into smaller chunks that create two or more new plantings.

Image courtesy of Jhenning

They percolate the soil.  Through successive years of growth perennial plants develop root systems that create a porous, arterial-like network in the soil thus allowing water and oxygen to percolate deep enriching the health of the soil and other plants. Fill your raised beds, planter barrels or any flower beds with perennials keep on giving.

Slow Pace but Many Benefits

They add sun cover, nutrients, and water to the topsoil. Perennials have root profiles that tap deeply into the soil allowing them to access nutrients (i.e. nitrogen, iron, magnesium) and water not available in shallower soil and then transport these elements to the topsoil. The water that is drawn up adds moister to the topsoil, therefore, improving its quality, benefitting the surrounding plants, and preserving the topsoil for new growth in the spring.  Perennials are cover crops, so their annual foliage shades the soil keeping it moist and mitigating the effects of wind and rain erosion. 

Image courtesy of Nowaja

Save Time, Energy, and Money

From season to season once perennials are mature, they will always be planted in the same spot (not unless you move them), producing approximately the same amount of yield making it a set-it-and-forget-it kind of planting.  The predictability of perennials makes it easier for growers to predict and prepare for their harvests.

 It’s easy to take for granted the amount of time and energy perennials save you once you have them happily established. They eliminate the need to prepare your soil for planting, the sowing/planting of the plants, and composting the dead plants in the fall.  Plus, the money saved.  No trips to the garden center, so no money is spent on seeds, plants, or other gardening supplies that you undoubtedly would have purchased.

Image courtesy of Mabel Amber

Although perennials take the slow road to establishing themselves their long-term benefits outweigh the more immediate pleasures obtained from a blooming annual.  In the long run, they require less output from the gardener allowing him to focus on other more important gardening tasks. With a little patience and some planning perennials can provide you with a garden that is easy to maintain, healthier, and costs you less money.

Business Example – Real Tiny Estate

A relatively new trend in the tiny house movement is the concept of starting with a tiny house as a way to live inexpensively and save money for a down payment for a traditional home. 

Image courtesy of Aysegul Yahsi

This is an extremely attractive option to young couples starting with little money but eventually wanting to have a house and a family.  If they can manage to live in a tiny house for a few years and diligently save money they can step up to a larger home relatively quickly. 

Living in a tiny home has other imbued financial benefits such as:

  • Less to clean/maintain – less money spent on cleaning supplies and maintenance costs
  • Less space to heat – Smaller highly efficient heating systems mean you pay very little to be comfortable.
  • Less water used – Fewer fixtures & less piping equate to fewer leaks.
  • Less room for stuff - Less room for new and unnecessary purchases.

A sincere commitment to saving money combined with the low-dollar output of the tiny house live style can amass cash quickly not just for a down payment on a house but for investment, travel, and philanthropic purposes.  

Image courtesy of WinnieC

Image courtesy of Sharon Willen

On top of lowering your housing costs, you can sleep well at night knowing you are doing something positive for the planet by the small-scale footprint of your dwelling.

Health/Community Example - Incremental Changes

The general zeitgeist today openly embraces the concept of working locally, staying small, and being innovative with resources so we need to ask ourselves how “small and slow” or local our lives are.

Image courtesy of Jason Strull

 To be self-sufficient, we need to create a small world for ourselves through localization.  A visit to the local farmer's market takes longer than running out to the supermarket but you will be supporting the local economy, buying healthy food, and connecting with others who are choosing to do the same. 

Walking and cycling might be slower than a ride in a car but the benefits to the environment are immeasurable.  This is a “no-brainer” it is easy to see the result of your efforts. 

Not Driven

 I have only driven a handful of days (maybe 10?) a year for the last 6 years.  It started as a 30-day challenge that evolved into a lifestyle choice.  I had been thinking about adopting the non-driving habit for some time and had been mulling over the logistics of the whole thing. 

Image curtesy of S. Herman

When the challenge was presented to me, I just jumped in and figured the rest out as I went along.  Since my main reason for doing the challenge was to reduce my carbon footprint, I was pleasantly surprised by the unexpected benefits.  I have lost 15 lbs. from the additional walking I now do and I’m in better shape overall.  

I get work done or read on my commutes and I never need to fight for a parking spot.  I don’t have worries about gas prices, insurance, and car maintenance so I can afford car services or rental agencies when I need them for longer trips.  Positive action for the planet results in benefits tenfold in return. 

Good for Me, Good for You

You’re probably thinking “Yeah nice, good for you Mr. Permie Pants but I’d prefer to keep driving so next idea please.”  I don’t expect others to give up their rides not unless inspired to do so, it works for me and it’s now completely ingrained into my life.  I completely understand there are justifiable reasons why people can’t let go carless because of their location or other limitations.

What's Your One Thing?

What I would like people to ask themselves though is what one new sustainable practice could they incorporate into their lifestyle that they would be proud of.  A practice that would make their life smaller and slower.  Like with most topics that fall under the permaculture umbrella this is up to the individual to experiment with and figure out. 

What's Your One Thing?

Again, it doesn’t need to be something as big as going carless.  Start small, there are so many small habits you can develop that compound makes a big difference. 

  • Heat yourself locally by putting on a sweater rather than using energy generated miles from your home.
  • Use natural ventilation and fans to cool your home instead of cranking up the AC which consumes energy and the condensers on the refrigeration cycle dissipate heat into the environment.
  • Collect rainwater in a simple barrel or a surface-holding pond from which to irrigate with instead of using water pumped to you from miles away.
  • Use local clothing swaps, consignment shops, and local seamstresses for building a high-quality, custom-fitted wardrobe instead of buying cheap off-the-rack junk shipped to you from overseas.
  • Wash your car at a car wash that recycles its water instead of washing it in your driveway wasting all that precious water and pumping energy.
  • Replace all or some of your lawn with either a xeriscape scape (a method of landscaping that employs water conservation strategies) or plant a learning or vegetable garden.  A garden will still need watering but with strategic plant selection, thoughtful planting locations, and an efficient irrigation system much less water will be used than a green grassy lawn would require. Additionally, the damaging effects of a gas-powered mower would be removed from the environment.
  • Wash your clothes less often and break the habit of just throwing a piece of clothing in the laundry.  Washers and especially dryers are extremely hard on clothing reducing their wearable life.  Reducing your wash load saves you time, and money and extends the life of your wardrobe.
  • Purchase upcycled furniture instead of purchasing furniture manufactured outside your local area and constructed of materials sourced from who knows where.
  • One of the most radical forms of rebellion against the military-industrial complex is to grow your own food.  Doing so saves enormous resources imbued in the industrial farming supply chain such as the treatment of crops with pesticides and fertilizers, irrigation, harvesting, market preparation, shipping, storage, and refrigeration of the produce.
  • According to the Federal Reserve currency turns over approximately once a week. Patronizing establishments in your area that have their headquarters elsewhere in the world weakens your local economy. This is because those companies pull currency out of a local community to wherever else they decide to move that money, which is typically out of the local economy.  The longer you can keep currently circulating locally the stronger your local economy will be so purchase as much as you can from vendors in your area to increase the velocity and strength of your local economy. 

Steady Small Scale Solutions

Small-scale efforts compound and create big results, it’s not always sexy or exciting at the moment but as the benefits of your efforts amass, they are undeniable, positive, and empowering.  When you are willing to be the person that does things differently, a person who doesn’t conform to the norm, you will find that people will emulate your behavior in surprising ways and will inspire you to contribute at an even higher level.

Image courtesy of David Dilbert

I encourage you to get your hands on a copy of Bill Mollison's Designers Manual where he expands at length on this powerful but easily understood permaculture principle. Mollison's Manual will give you the tools to increase slow food production and the skills to use small and slow solutions.

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