Saving our Agricultural Heritage

The more I learn about genetically modified crops and seeds, and about the companies producing them, the less I want to have to do with them. Widespread use of Roundup herbicide and “Roundup Ready” genetically modified crops is destined to have serious detrimental effects on biodiversity and the ecology. Human costs could be immense, and numerous deaths around the world, especially in India, have already been attributed to crop failures related to dependence on GMO crops. We owe it to our predecessors to preserve the abundant variety of food crops that sustained them so well in their time.

Monsanto, the world champion of GMO crops and producer of Roundup, successfully fought Proposition 37 in California which would have required GMO labelling. As a couple, Gwynn and I have decided to systematically avoid purchasing products from any of the Monsanto owned companies… not an easy task. Kashi, for example, is owned by Kellogg’s, which is owned by Monsanto, and half of their “natural” cereals contain genetically modified grains. And so it goes with Kraft, Heinz, Campbells, Pillsbury and dozens of others. Goodbye KD mac & cheese :( We are going to make an effort to use more locally grown produce, and to buy Canadian. The most effective way to fight a force like Monsanto is to stop patronising their companies. But the most effective way to do that is to grow our own food.

Stokes 2013 Gardening Guide seed catalogue just arrived in the mail. A little box on the back cover of the catalogue says, “GMO Free.” The FAQ page on their website also categorically states that they do not sell any GMO seeds. Yay!  Heritage Harvest Seeds specialises in rare heritage seed varieties—over 600—and they have a catalogue that makes for most interesting reading. On the other hand, if you take a look at seed packets from your local garden or home building store, don’t be surprised to find patented seeds in them. If the labelling forbids collecting and saving seeds from your mature plants… that’s a clue! Follow the link to our Facebook page for lists of Monsanto companies, and don’t forget to share and like our page.

It’s November. Now is the time to study your catalogues, order your seeds, and be ready for a great growing season in 2013. Get growing!


Design Criteria: Inventory

Whether you are designing your site yourself, or handing the job over to a professional Designer, you will need very specific information before you can proceed. You can gather this information yourself or work together with your Designer. Expect to collect additional information if you have a rural property, or if you plan to harvest wind or solar energy. Monthly average wind speed and direction, and maximums, monthly total solar radiation, and contour maps are just some of the data you may need to consider. Then, armed with accurate information, and a good knowledge of permaculture design principles you can start to formulate a plan. The list below is a pretty good start for our urban site.

Site Specific Information:

  • City lot with gas, hydro, sewer & water, phone, adsl high-speed internet, and cable available.
  • Facing two paved streets, with South-facing frontage.
  • 18.3 m x 39.6 m (60’x130’) lot with a 6.1 m (20’) margin along the South and East sides.
  • Big box retail store across the street with truck loading bay directly East of us.
  • Local noise, light, and diesel exhaust pollution from the East side.
  • Moderate traffic on side street with light traffic on frontage street.
  • Modest 50 year old homes with large, modern infill housing in the same block.
  • Sandysubsoil with organic content on the low end of the scale.
  • Low lying relatively flat lot, barely above street grades and curbs


  • 50 year old frame house with full basement:

80.27 m2 (864 sq. ft.) 2 bedroom and office. Aluminum sliding windows with magnetic plexiglass storm windows. 38 x89 (2×4) insulated walls with added 25 mm (1”) Styrofoam under vinyl siding. RSI 7.0 (R40) insulation in attic. Gas hot water heater and older gas furnace with masonry chimney. 100 amp 16 circuit main panel. 4.2 m x 3 m (14’x10’) covered deck at rear of house gets morning and evening sun in summer.


  • Insulated, unheated garage/workshop:

49.4 m2 (532 sq. ft.) with 1.2 m (4’) mezzanine at one end and 3.6 m (12’) high ceiling. Concrete slab floor. 30 amp 220 volt service. 7.2m x 1.2 m x 3.6 high (24’x4’x12’ high) covered storage rack at rear for building materials.


  • 4.2 m x 3 m (14’x10’) covered deck at rear of house gets morning and evening sun in summer.
  • 2.4 m x 3 m (8’x10’) wooden storage shed.

Site Additions:

  • 165 m2 (1776 sq. ft.) asphalt pavement in driveways facing two streets.
  • Four 200 l (45 imp. gal) rain water barrels connected to house downspouts.
  • 2 m x 1m (6’x3’) cold frame.
  • Seven 1.2 m x 1.2 m (4’x4’) raised planting beds.
  • 3.4 m x 0.6 m (11’x2’) brick planter.
  • Double wood crib compost bin (pallets) for Uriah Heep and Gomer Pyle.
  • A mature apple tree. Apples are tart, good for cooking and cider, but don’t keep very well.
  • Two chokecherry trees in poor health.
  • A nuisance ornamental crabapple tree.
  • A nice looking young mountain ash supplies berries for wintering birds
  • Two beautiful Japanese tree lilacs (trimmed as trees, not shrubs) shade the front yard.
  • Two lilac bushes.
  • Eight pyramidal cedars provide privacy and a sound buffer between the patio deck and the commercial activity across the street.


  • British Columbia on the interior plateau at North latitude 53o 50’, altitude 594 m (1950’).
  • Weather inversions due to location in a bowl at the confluence of two rivers.
  • Heavy industrial pollution from pulp mills, and a refinery, and odour from a sewage treatment plant are ignored by official monitors who prefer to point the finger at citizens and wood burning appliances (none of which seem to be cranking hydrogen sulfide or formaldehyde into the atmosphere).
  • Garden zone 3b with an average 85 consecutive frost free days per year.
  • Average annual precipitation = 600.8 mm (23.7”) [418.9 mm (16.5”) rainfall, 216.1 mm (8.5”) snowfall].
  • Degree days below 18o C (65o F) = 5149 (9238).
  • Annual hours of bright sunshine = 1937.
  • January design temperature = -33o C (-27.4o F).
  • Annual daily average temperature = 4o C (39o F).
  • Annual average wind speed = 9.4 kmh (5.8 mph).
  • The most frequent wind direction is South with the strongest winds coming from the South-West.

Thoughtful Observations

Over a week has passed and I still haven’t finished taking stock of our property’s attributes. Or, at least I haven’t put them in writing and posted them.  In fact, I have a pretty good idea of what our location has to offer. So what have I been doing? I put up a Facebook page for PermaPress – - and it’s been a blast. I’ve been scouring the internet for items to post on our page, and there is an incredible amount of stuff out there. I’ve been doing a little reading, working on: Toby Hemenway,  Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture, 2nd ed., Chelsea Green Publishing Company, 2009; Ross Mars, The Basics of Permaculture Design, Chelsea Green Publishing Company, 2003; and Edward Mazria, The Passive Solar Energy Book: A Complete Guide to Passive Solar Home, Greenhouse, and Building Design, Rodale Press, 1979. In the meantime, I completely rebuilt the rear brakes on the Forester, and I am working on replacing the front steps to the house.


 In a nutshell, our place is on a corner lot across the street from the loading bay of a big-box retail outlet. They contribute noise pollution at all hours, air pollution from diesel trucks idling all night, light pollution, and traffic. There is a small house with a full basement, a good sized insulated, but unheated, garage/workshop, and a storage shed for implements of grass destruction. The house faces South, and the roof ridges on the house and garage both run East/West.

A 6 m. margin runs between the property line and the curb on the East and South sides. What do we do with that? City snow crews dump tons of snow laden with gravel, salt, and weed seeds on it all winter long. How do you rehabilitate an environment that is systematically destroyed every year?

We have a mature apple tree in the backyard, a chokecherry tree in poor health, and a nuisance ornamental crabapple tree. The berries on a small mountain ash are popular with the birds in winter. A row of pyramidal cedars add some privacy for the deck at the rear of the house, and act as a bit of a sound buffer. In the front yard, a couple of beautiful Japanese tree lilacs fill the house with a delicious perfume in Spring. Most of the garden space is comprised of raised beds, and far too much of the yard is covered in lawn or asphalt.

The subsoil is sandy and is very well drained
once the frost comes out of the ground, but it does not hold water very well. That said, the back of the lot where the garage is located is so low compared to the street and the rest of the property that meltwater floods the garage in the spring until the frost leaves the ground… don’t know how the home inspector missed that one.

Gwynn tells me we are in Zone 3b, whatever that is. It gets cold in Winter, and not warm enough in Summer. About the only thing you can say about our climate is that it is consistently unpredictable. Snow cover in mid-Winter varies from a metre or more to zero. It may rain right through Christmas, and then drop to -40 in January with no snow on the ground to protect the soil and wintering plants. Every year is different. In Summer, we may harvest fresh tomatoes all summer long, or have a Summer like last year. It was so cold and rainy that, when frosts came in September, not a single tomato had ripened. Essentially we are faced with a short growing season, moderately warm Summers, severe Winters, and variable rainfall.

If you care to follow our permaculture design and development process, subscribe to the RSS feed on the blog page and you will receive updates in your browser. “Like” the PermaPress page if you want our posts sent to your FB feed.

What’s Next?

The first of the Permaculture design principles is Observe.

Thoughtful observation of all the elements in all seasons with consideration of the specific site, client, and culture should precede any action.

In other words, careful, intensive, thoughtful observation beats careless, energetic, thoughtless action any day of the week.  We can’t properly develop our own little site without preparation. Do this: take a careful inventory of all the assets the site has to offer as well as all external factors affecting the site. Don’t forget to look ahead and consider all of the design principles, particularly number 6: “Make the least change for the greatest effect.”

So that’s it then.  Our next step is to take stock of what we have going for us and determine what strokes are already against us. Then we can make a wish list of things we would like to do, and make some plans.  Keep in mind that we need to figure out how to get the maximum benefit for the least amount of change ($).

Even on a city lot, I think it’s do-able!

A Culture of Less

This post, borrowed from our daughter’s blog, explains why we should even be interested in Permaculture, let alone adopt it as a lifestyle. - by Alison, “Bluebirdmama”

Today is my birthday.

Thirty-two years ago my mom started having contractions while she was grocery shopping. She went about her day, took care of my older siblings, visited with my grandmother. After my dad got home from work, grandma left and around supper time, I was born at home.

Grandma called to say she’d thought of a name if the baby was a boy and dad informed her, “Too late; It’s a girl!” Grandma came back, made everyone dinner and they had leftover birthday cake from mom’s birthday on the 7th.

And so it is that I grew up thinking that homebirth was special, not dangerous. And so it is that twenty-seven years later, I had my first homebirth.

In some ways, I think that this is as vintage green as it gets. The oldest thing in the book: having babies the way our bodies were designed to, without a lot of wasted resources and unnecessary technology. There are plenty of instances where the resources and technology are useful, life-saving but increasingly, birth, like our culture as a whole, is characterized by excess and waste, with damaging consequences.

Homebirth is only one of the green values I picked up from my parents without even realising until I was older that it was green. My parents moved a lot while I was growing up, from the Yukon to the Canadian prairies to BC, but I think at heart they always think of themselves as Northerners. The term encompasses everyone up north and a Yukoner probably has more in common with an Alaskan than they would with anyone in the rest of Canada. A northerner is a crazy mélange of hippie and redneck: 4x4s and guns mixed with folk music and a back to the land mentality. My dad subscribed to Mother Earth News and the Canadian counterpart, Harrowsmith. They had good friends who lived year round in a Tipi. It was there in the North that they decided to have me at home.

At the time, in the 70s and 80s, it was just how we lived. A kind of quiet environmentalism that was born of Depression era great-grandparents, exalted by our Mennonite heritage (world-renowned cheapskates) and idealized by the Northerners and hippies. They were a product of their location but also of their generation. Now, I wouldn’t really classify my parents as environmentalists at all. But when I think back to the green actions of my parents, what comes to mind is this:

Before recycling, there was reduce and re-use.

Our family with our $375 1967 Beaumont station wagon: Bluebirdmama on the left.

My parents reduced and re-used like nobody’s business. We wore hand-me-downs. We never had new furniture; it was always used or antique. We didn’t buy fancy toys. My dad fixed things when they broke: from electronics to the car to the plumbing. My mom had a garden and she canned. My mouth waters when I think of her pickled beets and carrots, her canned pears and peaches. She sewed dresses for my sister and me for special occasions. We were a single car family and we drove used cars. My parents only bought one new vehicle ever: a 1974 International Scout. They still have it. We shared bedrooms. We lived within our means, never on credit. Even when my dad went back to Universitywith three kids in tow.

They did not over-consume. They did not throw things away. They reduced. They re-used.

Tonight I look around my house and see the same lifestyle. Fifteen year old minivan, used or antique furniture, a house smaller than we might like, a garden. A willingness to build things, grow things, borrow things, make things or do without things rather than buy things. I hear myself saying, “Don’t stand with the fridge open,” “Turn off the water tap,” and “Turn out the lights,” and recognize my mother in my words. We are not the greenest family out there. We could do more, but right now, I’m proud of the legacy that I’m passing on to my kids.

My parents weren’t special. I mean, they are special, but this lifestyle—I don’t mean to make them out to be saints. They were just living. They made some choices based on beliefs and some on financial necessity. It wasn’t uncommon.

This lifestyle is increasingly uncommon nowadays and I am so grateful that my parents somehow managed to instill the less-is-more ideal into their parenting.

In this time of excess, I sometimes feel that the over-emphasis on the 3rd R, Recycling, actually allows for more consumption than there once was. We live in a more, more, more culture (listen to radio and tv jingles and see how many times you hear that word). Recycling lets us assuage our consciences when we buy something we don’t need. “Oh, it’s recyclable.”

It seems like maybe the triangle is out of whack—more Empire State building than equilateral triangle. Reduce Reuse Recycle are no longer in equal parts.

Maybe it’s time to recycle less? Putting something in the blue bin doesn’t keep it out of the landfill; it just delays it. Just as technology and medical intervention are useful in birth when used responsibly and appropriately, recycling has an important role to play, when used responsibly and appropriately. Between media, marketing and recycling, it’s too easy to keep wanting more. It seems high time that we shift the focus back to the first two Rs.

Reduce – use less, go without, don’t buy it.

Re-use – shop thrift stores or craigslist or fix the one you’ve already got.

Use less, buy less, eat less, drive less. Maybe it’s time to become a culture of less?

When I was a kid we didn’t eat organic, we didn’t use environmentally friendly cleaners and we didn’t think about where our trash went but we most definitely consumed less. Perhaps the big difference between now and then is that back in the ‘70s we thought about our consumption and now the focus is shifted to the waste we create?

In my municipality, the recycling truck comes every two weeks and the garbage is collected every week. I am proud to say that our family actually needs to have the frequency of pick-up reversed. But more than being proud of my recycling efforts, I am proud of our commitment to use less, to not waste energy or water, to buy less, to take less, to make-do, to reduce and to re-use.




The future, as Gwynn and Bob picture it, will see their urban property in central British Columbia developed as a demonstration of practical small scale permaculture.

Our goal is to harmonize our indoor and outdoor environment to use sun, wind, and water to protect the natural environment, to produce food, and to reduce dependence on public utilities. In the process, we may someday be able to share what we learn in a consulting or teaching role.

Bob’s Bio

With a background in Surveying and Architectural Design, Bob has a well rounded skill set easily applied to the rigours of Permaculture Design.  A longtime interest in energy conservation and alternative energy is easy to incorporate within the focus on renewable resources mandated by the basic ethics of permaculture design.  Bob owes his skills as a communicator to a university education in Religion and Psychology, and years of experience as a church leader. A “jack-of-all-trades,” he is equally at home building cabinets, fabricating metal, wiring a boat, or rebuilding an engine.

 We were conservationists long before anyone began to talk about ecology and before green became a synonym for energy efficient. We read about modern homesteaders in “Mother Earth News” and “Harrowsmith,” and that was the stuff of our dreams. The idea of homemade wind chargers and passive solar homes appealed to my scientific curiosity and the waste not-want not mentality we were raised with. At work, for the Yukon Government, I conducted energy analyses of government buildings, planned energy upgrades forYukon schools, and pushed for heat recovery systems on generating sets at remote highway maintenance camps.

Even in the area of family recreation, there were no snowmobiles, motor boats, or motorhomes.  We tented, canoed, sailed, and cycled, and still do. We have taken our kids on foot over the Chilcoot Pass, and by canoe through the Bowron Lakes, and sailed the Gulf Islands and Strait of Georgia.

When something broke we fixed it. We didn’t throw it away, and most often, we fixed it ourselves rather than pay someone to do it for us.

Gwynn and I are now living in a small bungalow on our 60’ by 130’ city corner lot inCentral British Columbia.  Bit by bit, we intend to turn our property into a permaculture oasis in the city. Come back here for updates on what we are learning, and news of our progress.


Gardening is my therapy.  There is something about digging in the soil, planting seeds, watering them and watching them grow and then harvesting the food that ministers to my soul.  It nourishes my mind as well as my body and keeps me in touch with my roots.

As a young girl, growing up inSaskatchewan, we didn’t have a lot of money.  Gardening was a way of life both at home and on my grandparents’ farm.  We depended on that garden for food.  Most summers, all water had to be carried to the garden, by the bucket from the town well or pulled by horses on the stone boat from the dugout.  Early childhood experience taught me what a precious resource water is.  From my parents and grandparents I learned that wastefulness is wrong.  From them I learned how to take something old and no longer used and make it into something new and beautiful.  From them I learned that whatever we have is a gift from God to be thankful for.  Nothing should be wasted or mistreated but used and cared for, respectfully, to benefit ourselves and others.

Generations before they became the current buzz words, reusing and recycling were a way of life in my family.  Raising our children in the 70’s during the “back to the land movement” was simply a continuation of my childhood.  Part of it is about survival.  We deliberately chose to be a one car family, to have a smaller home and non-motorized sports equipment.  We chose to not have a television.  We chose to use lunch kits rather than paper or plastic bags for school and work lunches.  We chose vacations and other activities that got us in touch with nature.

In choosing this kind of lifestyle, we discovered that when faced with unexpected power outages or being stuck in the woods, our ability to adapt and make do helped us get through situations that others found impossible to cope in.  Choosing to grow your own food, harness other energy sources, make use of rain water are things we can do so we become a little more independent, even within an urban environment.

Permaculture is just a continuation of my heritage, a further expansion of my roots.



Permaculture Design Principles


Core principles condensed from Toby Hemenway.*:

  1. Observe. Thoughtful observation of all the elements in all seasons with consideration of the specific site, client, and culture should precede any action.
  2. Connect. Place design elements to create useful relationships and as many beneficial connections as possible for a healthy, diverse ecosystem.
  3. Catch and store energy and materials.Opportunity for yield is enhanced by collecting and storing resources.
  4. Each element performs multiple functions. Stack elements in space and time to add function and beneficial connections.
  5. Each function is supported by multiple elements. Apply multiple methods to important functions.
  6. Make the least change for the greatest effect.  Understand where your efforts will achieve maximum benefits—“leverage.”
  7. Use small-scale intensive systems.  Start with the smallest system that will do the job. Repeating a small system that works, with variations, is called “chunking.”
  8. Optimize edge. Diversity at the intersection of two environments encourages energy and materials to accumulate.
  9. Collaborate with succession. Accept the trend for systems to grow from immaturity to maturity and work with it.  Mature ecosystems are most productive.
  10. Use biological and renewable resources. Renewable resources reproduce and grow.  Favour them over non-renewable resources.
  11. Turn problems into solutions. Look for the seeds of solutions in the problems themselves and use the opportunity for innovation.
  12. Get a yield. Design for immediate and long-term returns.
  13. Be creative. The limits of diversity and productivity are often found in the designer’s limited imagination and skill.
  14. Mistakes are tools for learning. There are few penalties in mistakes you learn from.


*Toby Hemenway, Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture, pp. 6-7.