Conservative Christians and Permaculture: separating the wheat from the chaff.

 the development of agricultural ecosystems intended to be sustainable and self-sufficient.


Permaculture was originally a portmanteau of “permanent agriculture” and was related to forest gardening.  It has changed over the years though, and now has both very wise gardening techniques and quite absurd new-age-y progressivist elements as well.  This is a common graphic associated with permaculturists:
There is both wheat and chaff in permaculture, and I don’t have them all separated out yet.  Here are some of the things I agree with:
1. Rather than large swaths of sterile, barren lawns, humanity would be much better served if people learned to plant beautiful herb, vegetable, and fruit gardens.
2. Planting gardens the way God made forests is sensible.  Permaculture follows a “forest garden” model:


Without buying into the pagan new age spirituality associated with permaculture (to read a permaculture blog is to read the word “Gaia” ad nauseum), I’m still intrigued by their ideas about what it means to labor and obtain a yield, as well as their smart gardening practices.


We bought a little over ten acres of woods and disrupted farmland this past fall.  The land had been let go, which means it’s becoming overrun with autumn olive bushes, which are highly invasive thorny shrub that can grow ten feet tall and spread like wildfire.  Autumn olive was originally brought to this country from Asia as a means of controlling erosion; the fruit is supposedly edible, but it isn’t a smart plant to cultivate as it will take over and choke out native plants and trees; it even changes the soil chemistry, making the land good only for autumn olive.


I’ve slowly started clearing it out of our forest and meadow.  Here is an area I’ve cleared:


Here is what an autumn olive thicket looks like up close:


Here is another area I’ve cleared, transitioning from our yard into the forest; previously this was a thicket of autumn olive and thorns:


Using some of the techniques I’m learning from permaculture, I aim to transform it into this:

Image source: Starter Permaculture

In the fall I planted apple and peach trees with raspberry and blackberry vines under them.  I’ll add sunflowers, strawberries, herbs and other plants, following the permaculture technique for creating a “forest garden”.  Instead of recycling our cardboard waste, I am using it to mulch under the trees and plants for weed control, which saves labor (saving labor and producing no waste are both permaculture attributes).
As I separate the pagan chaff from the beauty- and food-producing wheat of permaculture, I will share those lessons here.  Looking at ten acres of work feels overwhelming, but the permaculture approach of implementing small, slow solutions is comforting and compatible with both my conservativism and Christian faith.
[This is my second post in an ongoing series, “Separating the wheat from the chaff,” in which I consider the health of our natural world and environment in the context of conservatism and Christianity.  The first post was Conservative Christians and the International Day of Forests: separating the wheat from the chaff.]



10 thoughts on “Conservative Christians and Permaculture: separating the wheat from the chaff.

  1. In your picture “The Seven Layers of a Forest Garden”, I couldn’t help but nod my head to all the improvements.
    Bear approved.
    All my collegues are going to want to spend time over at your house.


  2. Sounds like you’re trying to set up a smallhold, which is an idea that I’m rather tempted by myself. It’s not always specifically permaculture, but I have seeing a bit of a resurgence of smallholding.

    One thing I remember reading was about a smallhold of around 2-5 acres (in South Scotland if I recall correctly) which apparently used support two families back in the old days. In Australia (and I suspect to a lesser extent America) we tend to favour a very, very land intensive farming style, since we have so much land available.


    • The word “smallholding” isn’t commonly used in the U.S.; I had to look up what it meant when I started reading about permaculture in Australia. I’d love to have a self-supporting smallholding, but we’re a ways away from that yet; I’m repeating to myself over and over that I’m making slow changes and improvements. I don’t have to do the whole ten acres yet! You’ve no idea how exhausting removing autumn olive is. 🙂

      We are hoping to buy another ten acres across the street and put up a pole barn so we can have a couple of horses and some goats. Well, the kids and I want goats anyway. The lord of the manor isn’t too sold on that idea at present, but they eat scrubby stuff like autumn olive and poison ivy, which we also have a bumper crop of!


  3. Lovely project. Interesting what you say about permaculture and paganism. I have similar problems with biodynamic farming – the theosophic/Blavatsky underpinnings of it are bonkers.

    But it definitely produces results and more farmers in EU are turning to it, even if it’s still niche at the moment. It may be that it’s a style of farming/gardening that forces you to look more closely at what you’re doing. If you can’t rely on sprays and pesticides, you have to be able to really diagnose trouble and come up with a creative solution that works in harmony with the ecosystem you’re in. Maybe there’s something similar happening in permaculture.

    Does this mean you did buy your piece of land?

    (BTW – you do realise if you kept really good notes you could write a book about this, don’t you? “How I recreated the Garden of Eden and healed my soul” or something. Or maybe: “and healed America’s political rift”.)


    • We haven’t bought the additional ten acres yet. We just bought our home and the ten acres it sits on in late August and moved in the first week of September. We are now working on purchasing that 10.1 acres for sale across the street.

      Ha, I hadn’t though about writing a book, but it might be fun to try my hand at it. I like writing essays well enough. Mostly I’d just like to encourage my fellow conservative Christians not to swallow hook, line, and sinker the idea that we have to be sold out to unfettered capitalism and total environmental destruction. I mean, most Christians probably don’t believe that, but it’s the impression one would get from the media narrative about us. But self-sufficiency and food production should be fairly traditional values.

      Not everyone has to have a smallholding, of course, but even living in suburbia, one could slowly convert that water-sucking fertilizer-drenched grass lawn into an apple tree with an herb garden under it and a gravel pathway. It’s prettier, healthier, and produces something useful. Sort of like modern-day Victory Gardens.


      • There was a wonderful exhibition at the Imperial War Museum in London a couple of years ago, about how the government got everybody growing their own food during World War II – window boxes, roofs, you name it. And everybody’s health improved.

        Re: capitalism. From my outsider’s perspective, the difficulty with this conversation in the USA is that it’s always presented as a false dichotomy e.g. capitalism versus socialism. So any discussion gets people’s hackles up, because they seem to think that questioning the current iteration of capitalism means promoting Marxism. Whereas the reality is there are multiple models of capitalism and the current one is only about 30 years old.


  4. It’s a historic way of doing things, too. In his novel “Space”, James Michener tells a tale of the wives of German rocket scientists doing this in the Alabama woods–ironically making it impossible for their families to buy them because it increased the value so much. If not true, “truthy”, I dare say. There is also the reality that the farmsteads you’ll see scattered across the plains are evidence of the same thing–you had large fields for hay and grain, of course (and the hay is almost permaculture, too), but the 2-5 acres around the house consisted of gardens and orchards. I would submit that the historic poor pay for farmers has a lot to do with the fact that their work is very intense for planting and harvesting, but from October to April, and from May to September, most tend to get a job in town to make ends meet. Not a good “capital utilization” equation, to put it mildly, that we’re driving with corn and ethanol subsidies.

    Some lawn is nice for playing games and such, but once you get past a certain point.


  5. Anything you find that could be called “New Age hokey” is totally added on to the bare principles of permaculture – the basis of permaculture is its 3 ethics and 12 principles – none of which would be called new age.


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