In 1996, one of the many trees Hurricane Fran knocked down fell across the road into Will Hooker’s Raleigh neighborhood. It was a week before power was restored, he recalls, and he and his neighbors had to figure out how to eat, among other things. So they pooled their resources.
“Every night, one person would open up their freezer, take all of the food out, prepare a big meal, and the whole neighborhood would eat that meal,” Hooker recalls. Everyone else kept their freezers closed, preserving the food inside as long as possible. To Hooker, a longtime permaculture practitioner and an expert in the eco-friendly lifestyle, it’s a reassuring memory.
“We had community meals every night, and we survived,” Hooker said. In an expression of his guiding philosophy, the neighborhood became a self-sufficient system.
Permaculture originated in Australia in the ’70s as a sustainability-oriented philosophy and design method. Yard, garden and house are maximized for energy efficiency and food production by creating ecosystems within what is often a small area – in Hooker’s case, a third of an acre – and by understanding the interdependence among plants, animals and natural forces like wind, sunlight and rain. All the interlocking pieces seem complex from the outside, but Hooker describes it with guru-like simplicity.
“We’re basically trying to design a system of systems,” said Hooker, a landscape architect and N.C. State University professor.
Hooker’s house doesn’t look all that unusual from the road: It’s a little place with a blue roof, a grassy area and garden plot to one side, and some plants out front by the walkway. Look closely, though, and you find apple branches woven into the street-side fence; eventually, Hooker will remove the manmade elements and have a living, fruit-producing fence. And the herbs grow in a spiral bed with an elevated center. It’s not just for looks, though. “Herbs that like sunshine are planted on the sunny side,” Nicole Faires explains in “The Ultimate Guide to Permaculture.” “Herbs that prefer shade are planted on the other side.”
“It’s important, if we’re going to live more sustainably, for us to understand the component parts of the system,” Hooker said. Permaculture combines human needs with natural processes, maximizing house, garden and yard for efficiency, for food production and for livability. “It’s the combination of both of those that make it go. You’re trying to create a conscious ecosystem that mimics the natural ecosystem.”
How to get started
Watch and wait: To start, then, you have to understand the elements already in place on your land – the direction of the sunlight and wind, where water comes from and what plants already grow there. “What you need to do is not do anything for a year and just see what changes and what’s going on,” he said. Only after you’re aware of the existing system and how it changes over the seasons can you design systems of your own.
Zone: “You zone in permaculture,” Hooker said. “Whatever requires the most amount of work, you put as close to the home as you can.” The home, the center, is zero. Zone one would be the primary food garden that requires everyday attention, expanding out to zone five, which is wild.
Chickens: “A chicken is a really good icon for permaculture,” Hooker said, and the birds come up often in his systems. “We take all of our kitchen scraps and we feed them to the chickens. We’re not throwing that in the garbage or whatever. They then give us eggs, which is a real good thing.”
Living shade: Hooker’s house is too close to the road for a covered porch, so instead he grew grapevines over the entryway. He didn’t want to spend all his time pruning, though, so he chose a cultivar called “Supreme.” It puts more energy into its large fruit, and requires less attention than other grapes.
Japanese beetle trap: Chickens struggle with heat, so Hooker built a grape arbor to shade them, not realizing this is one of the plants Japanese beetles, an invasive pest, will attack. “Chickens love Japanese beetles,” he said cheerily. On early June mornings, then, he’ll shake the arbor for a moment: beetles fall to the ground and are eaten by his chickens. It’s the perfect trap.
Windows: “I’m managing these blinds all year long, because I want to let the light in now,” he said, sitting in his living room with Mentos, his dog. “I want to stop it in the summer. I don’t want it coming it, because that’ll heat (the house) up and I’ll have to crank up the air-conditioner to cool it.” It’s a straightforward, pragmatic thought – let sunlight warm the house in the winter and shut it out in the heat of summer – but it does fit permaculture’s core of mindfulness.
Weed and pest control: “See solutions, not problems,” Bill Mollinson, one of the founders of the movement, writes in “Introduction to Permaculture.” To that end, Hooker works weeds and pests into his existing systems rather than attacking them with herbicide or pesticide. “The peach trees are in the chicken coop because one of the pests of the peach tree is the peach tree borer,” he explains. “The peach tree borer overwinters in the ground, so when it comes up in the spring and tries to get to the peach tree the chickens take them out.” He recently let his chickens attack the weeds in his “food forest” – a collection of fruit trees behind the house – and he fed them soldier fly larvae after the bugs laid eggs in one of his compost piles.
Lawns: “One of the errors I think in the way permaculture has been promoted is it seems to have been solely about production and function,” Hooker said. He has a yard with multiple sitting areas – places to relax. “To me, it’s about creating an environment in which you can live your life in as enjoyable and inspirational a way as possible.”
Reach Hill at firstname.lastname@example.org
More permaculture resources
Web: N.C. State University professor Will Hooker’s website site: 610kirby-permaculture.org. While a little out of date, he notes, it can serve as a crash course in permaculture.
▪ “Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture, 2nd edition,” by Toby Hemenway (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2009). The cover features a photo of Hooker’s garden.
▪ “The Permaculture Handbook: Garden Farming for Town and Country,” by Peter Bane (New Society Publishers, 2012).
▪ “Introduction to Permaculture,” by Bill Mollison (Tagari Publications, 2011).