A plant library I created while renting.

How to do Permaculture without Land

Can we start Permaculture if we don’t have land? The core idea of PERMAculture is to “catch and store energy” like an ecosystem does, so that we, our friends, families, neighbors and landscapes grow healthier and more abundant naturally. Whether you house sit, rent, or own, that’s the core mission of Permaculture. “Permaculture is a gift you give to the future.” 

So, some things we might want to “catch and store” are plant collections, knowledge, experience, relationships, social capital, and so on. 

We can do that wherever we go!

One of the first things I advise new Permaculturists to do is start building your “collection” of Permaculture plants (plants especially useful to Permaculturists) ASAP. That means both the actual plant capital, but also our relationship with the plants. A plant collection is an incredible gift to give the future you.

Another famous Permaculture teaching: when it comes to “storing” in our culture we often only think of “stocking up” on things. So we think we can only build a plant collection if we’ve got a yard to “stock” them in. But in nature, all beings store energy both in stocks (like seeds, nuts, and tubers) but also in FLOWs, by enriching the relationships, networks, and whole habitats around them.

In Growing Free, we call this growing wealthy by “leaking value” to our communities and ecosystems. 

So everywhere you go, there’s an opportunity to invest in helping the people start their own plant collections, and to enrich the ecosystem with native biodiversity. If you store your plant collection in your friends and family, these plants will almost certainly be available for you when it’s time for you to choose a place and start a garden, you’ll probably have loads of “free” plants to collect from your community.

So we don’t need to “stock” plants to collect them, we can store them in “flows” between our friends, family, and community members. Once we start doing that, we see there’s no barrier to starting Permaculture without land.

And while you’re at it, you’ll be building knowledge and social capital.

Some specific types of plants for renters to collect for this strategy:

  1. Guild Matrix plants, or what Jason Padvorac calls “all-star Plants“ in his brilliant system. These are a set of plants that are highly useful, spread very easily (but aren’t considered invasive) can be harvested and used in large amounts, and play together well. For example, in many temperate areas, that might include walking onions, monardas, mints, crosnes, sunchokes, skirret, strawberries, edible daylilies, and Turkish rocket. Because they spread so easily, it will be easy to return and collect lots of plants from your peeps. Your job is to figure out a few of these wherever you go, so that wherever you decide to settle, you’ll have some goodies waiting.

2. Useful native plants that you can use to guerilla garden, enriching waste thickets with native biodiversity.

3. High value woody perennials that can be easily propagated. For example, if somebody is keen on you planting a fruit tree, you could plant a good one like an Asian Pear, then multi-graft it with several varieties. Now you’ve got a collection of free trees on one tree-library. And you’ve learned grafting.

4. Generally useful hardy, ornamental perennial edibles. These are things that everyone would love to have in their garden because they’re pretty, and are also edible, like sea kale, variegated Solomon’s seal, chives, garlic chives, allium unifolium, dames rocket, monardas, etc.

Make sure you’re not choosing things that are locally problematic or considered “invasive,” because that won’t grow you any social capital!

We may even find opportunities to start local community forest gardens, where we can “store” these plants so that they can benefit many people. In Growing FREE, we talk about how co-author Eric Brown started a set of community gardens where he operated a cut flower business and grow food for his family—without land.  Once we starting growing connections, we may see that the opportunities are only limited by the number of connections we can make. Again, we can start Permaculture without land, Permaculture is about growing connection.

In the same way, we can “catch and store” energy in other ways wherever we go. We can start a local foraging meetup, start a Permaculture club, start neighborhood clubs, join and support local groups that already exist and contribute to them. If we ever find ourselves back in those communities, we’ll have a gift there waiting for us.

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