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Permaculture in the Midwest: Beautiful, Bountiful Conservation

Mar 31, 2011 11:08AM ● By Bill Wilson

When my wife, Becky, and I sought to deepen our understanding of permaculture, about 12 years ago, there were very few places in the Midwest where we could find classes, instruction or sites to visit. All the activity seemed to be on the two coasts and in the Southwest. Driven by a passion for this matter that would become our life’s work, we started Midwest Permaculture four years ago. Our objective was to make the educational journey of understanding and implementing this brilliant approach to living easier for others to access.

In permaculture thinking and application, we seek to minimize work over time, increase our yields or benefits and minimize all wastes by turning what we create into resources. The objective is to restore or enhance the total environment.

When we are asked by others where or how to begin the implementation of permaculture in their own suburban yards, there are four key suggestions we make.

Put in More Perennial Plants

With annual crops such as beans, peas, tomatoes and broccoli, we need to prepare the soil each year, tend to our plants while they are young and vulnerable, and often end up waiting until the middle or end of summer before we can harvest. However, once perennial plants become established, they leaf out on their own in the spring and do almost all of the work for us. Think of how little work there is and what a great bounty we receive from such plants as asparagus, rhubarb, apples, grapes, currants, hazelnuts, chestnuts, gooseberries, blueberries and the like. Nuts should be considered, too. They are a fantastic substitute for the carbohydrates and proteins we now derive from wheat, corn and soy, and they contain three times the oil. In permaculture, we look to minimize the amount of work while increasing our benefits and yields.

Slow Water Down

In the natural landscape, about 50 percent of the rain that falls to the earth works its way into our soil and water table. In the urban environment, however, with so many streets, parking lots and rooftops, rain soakage can fall to below 15 percent with the other 35 percent running quickly off the hardscape into our creeks and streams, which also adds to flooding and pollution. To hold this valuable resource in the soil for our perennial plants, we use rain-gardens, thick mulches, swales and porous pavers. When the rain is held this way for longer periods of time in the soil, our plants can turn some of this additional water into fruits, nuts, berries, vegetables, herbs and flowers for us, our neighbors and the wildlife around us.

Use Vertical Space

Something often missed in the urban landscape is the use of vertical space. Imagine the amount of sunlight that is absorbed and turned into beauty, shade and food when we place our lettuce next to our broccoli, which is next to our 3-foot gooseberries, which is next to our 5-foot hazelnuts, which is next to our 7-foot juneberry, which is next to our 10-foot dwarf cherry, which is next to our 15-foot semi-dwarf apple, which is next to our 30-foot stately pear tree, which is next to our 75-foot hickory nut tree! Now we are harvesting sunlight and CO2 from the ground, all the way up to 75 feet about our heads. We always recommend the use of pergolas and trellises to support vining plants, such as grapes, beans, cucumbers and winter-hardy kiwi to take advantage of available sunlight, while also producing much-needed shade for gardeners in the hot summer months. Vertical structures also make our gardens more pleasing to the eye.

Hold Carbon to Build Soil Fertility

Every leaf, branch, grass clipping and “weed” that grows on our property is a great source of fertility for our soil. Plants pull CO2 out of the atmosphere, keeping the carbon (C) and giving back the oxygen (O2). The litter from plants (C) falls to the ground and becomes soil via the work of insects, worms, fungi and bacteria. One goal of every homeowner can be to never let any carbon leave their property. Find an out-of-the-way place to put all branches, weeds, grass clipping and kitchen scraps and, if nothing else, just let them break down over time. Just once a year, in the spring, we remove the top of the pile and scrape out the ready-to-use compost underneath. So simple, yet so productive.

Urban Permaculture

So, in a nutshell, what does permaculture look like in a suburban/urban environment and what is its purpose? Even though permaculture focuses only about 20 percent of its principles on gardenining, it is a good way to understand the concepts of this design approach. Imagine walking into your backyard garden, and instead of walking across an open lawn to a rectangular garden patch, you instead walked into something that reminded you more of an arboretum. In this diverse and beautiful environment, you would find food, flowers and healthy herbs, no matter where you looked or walked. The paths would be wood chips or pavers that capture extra rainwater and feel good to the feet.

As you walked around, you would find food growing from many plants at different heights. Reaching up, you might harvest apples, pears, green beans, cherries and chestnuts. At chest height, you would harvest blueberries, hazelnuts, sweet corn, climbing cucumbers and Saskatoon (service berry). If you bent over slightly, you would have a bounty of gooseberries, currants, tomatoes, broccoli and pea pods. Harvesting closer to the ground, you would gather asparagus, rhubarb, strawberries, chard, kale, lettuce, cabbages, squashes, melons and more. And these would be just the food-bearing plants. There also would be flowers and healthy herbs tucked into every nook and cranny.

And the other thing you would notice is that the entire garden would simply feel alive. Insects and wildlife would be present around, not as an annoyance, but rather a simple part of the balanced community of living things. And they would bring many benefits with them, such as pollination, pest control and increased fertility.

A great example of this kind of living, edible landscape is the Nowicki home and yard in Downers Grove, where Vicki and Ron Nowicki have been enjoying a yard full of permaculture principles for 25 years. The Nowickis have not only blended the best of perennial, annual and native plants, but they built their beautiful, comfortable home to use about one-fourth the amount of energy that the average American home uses—that’s 75-percent less energy than the rest of us use.

But permaculture is really about our relationship to everything we do, and use, and experience in our lives. For example, are we doing work that fills us with joy and satisfaction? Ron and Vicki are; they create beautiful landscapes and gardens for others and are also gardening and permaculture teachers. Their lives are full, diverse and meaningful.

Although they have turned almost their entire landscape into a garden-like atmosphere, they grow many plants in beds that almost take care of themselves. There is little weeding or watering in required. One reason for this is their universal mulch-cover of wood chips. These not only provide habitat and food for earth worms—worm castings are one of the best fertilizers in the world—but they also provide a bounty of biomass and humus, which act like a sponge every time it rains.

The point of permaculture, then, is to take the steps that bring us closer to creating a permanent culture—a culture that supports successive generations of humans on a planet that is growing in fertility, greenery and beauty. One of our goals in permaculture is to find those ways of living that leave the planet in better condition than when we arrived.

Bill Wilson and his wife, Becky, are the co-founders of Midwest Permaculture. Contact Bill at [email protected] or call 815-256-2215.

For information about permaculture training opportunities through Midwest Permaculture, many of which are held in the Chicagoland area, and to subscribe to the free monthly newsletter, visit

For information on the monthly Chicago Permaculture group, visit

For information on Ron and Vicki Nowicki’s gardens and classes, visit

For photographs and information on the Nowicki gardens (see photos 15-29) visit