by Sepp Holzer
This book marked the official start of my sustainable-farming education. First written in German in 2004 (and translated into English in 2010), Permaculture chronicles Sepp Holzer’s 40-plus years of practicing what he calls “alternative agriculture.”
Holzer is a creative experimenter who happens to farm. On a mountain in Austria, 1100-1480 meters above sea level, he and his family have raised vegetables, grains, all types of fruit trees (including lemons!), pigs, cows, chickens, ducks, and geese. All of which live and grow together in happy (not to say chaotic) diversity.
Diversity is the theme of this book, which repeatedly eschews modern conventional monoculture farming with its vulnerability to storms and pests, damage to the soil and land, and use of toxic chemicals to support its fundamentally unnatural goals. In place of this, Holzer gives a vision of a landscape “designed so that all of the plants and animals living there will work in harmony with each other”, working with the natural resources and lay of the land rather than against them.
Permaculture is short (217 pages) and easy to read, with lots of pictures and diagrams. It goes into less detail than some of the other farm books I’m reading, which makes it less of a how-to manual and more of an inspirational exhibit of “Look what’s possible!”
Holzer describes how to build raised beds, terraces, ponds, water traps, and sun traps to create microclimates, which can grow a wild variety of plants that otherwise wouldn’t survive in his climate. He tells how he raises heritage-breed animals and integrates them as “helpers” into his farms/gardens/orchards, where they “plough” up and fertilize soil, keep pests at bay, eat fallen fruit, and keep wild plants in check.
Permaculture gives introductory instructions for building animal shelters or earth cellars out of logs, grafting and cultivating fruit trees, and even colonizing edible mushrooms on dead wood. It describes Holzer’s work on international projects in Scotland and Thailand, and at home in Austria, where he helps design permaculture farms and trains people on how to maintain them.
This is a book that bursts with the joy of nurturing living things, and of seeing what’s possible with some vision, experimental creativity, and good old-fashioned grit. It’s a fascinating read, and I heartily recommend it for anyone interested in growing things!