In North America, and many other countries, the culture of capitalism steers our view towards personal benefit while blocking out the wider picture of how we fit into the wider community and world.  We evaluate what we invest our time, money, energy or other resources using a lens of personal gain.  It’s not that we never do anything selflessly for one another; however, we can often even in the kindest gesture identify a root of self-serving benefit.  Do we drop off that meal to a struggling friend simply to be helpful, or are we just a little bit feeding our ego when they are grateful for our efforts?  For several years I have been exploring my own web of currencies and how I come to decisions on where I invest myself.  Trying to consciously acknowledge when I am only looking at an investment for my own gain (and yes it IS okay to have a positive yield for yourself!) while avoiding doing something where the benefit might be greater for another- be that human, planet, animal or community.

And here is where my garden comes into the picture.  I have a “nice” garden.  It has well ordered plants, requires little maintenance, gets lots of water from rainfall, and is partially to full shade.  The downside is that I have limited growing space, there is a lot of shade, and the only yield is a few raspberries.

This is how I’ve viewed my garden for much of the past 12 years I’ve lived here.  Why put in more effort if I’m not going to succeed in getting what I want from it?  And then I started exploring permaculture and it has taught me the following: if I change my mindset about who the yields benefit it will also benefit me, just maybe not in the way I expect.  So if I put in the effort to heal and nurture my space the benefit will be that I am caring for the earth that supports my family, support pollinators that are the foundation of food production, create animal habitat, and the list continues.  Maybe the food/medicine/materials yield for myself will never be the level I dream of but that doesn’t need to be my only goal or reason for investing my time, money, and energy.

When I think about changing my garden space, I encounter a lot of “problems”.  “Problems” that make me throw up my hands and say, if I’m not going to get X, then I’ll do nothing at all!  Why the quotes?  Let’s look at the issues and I think the quotes will be more evident… Also let’s keep in mind the permaculture tenant of “the problem is the solution”.

I can’t grow more plants that produce yields (foods, medicines, materials) because it’s too shady.  Why put in the effort if I’m not going to get a lot of food out of it (there’s that thinking about ME part)?

Is this true?  My garden isn’t in pure darkness and even where it gets almost ZERO sun I can still grow hostas and ivy.  It’s actually mostly partial sun and the rest is a dappled sun/shade.  If I spent more time looking at a variety of plants that tolerate less than full sun I would likely have a huge list of options.
I’ve never even looked at medicinal plant choices!
I have also stubbornly refused to look at completely redesigning the layout in order to use more of the sunny areas.  If I moved my path (which could care less if it’s in total shade!) to the other side of the garden that would free up several square metres of food growing area.

My garden is too small and so it won’t produce enough for my efforts to be worth it.

Firstly, what is enough?  If I step back and consider enough beyond a material benefit I can see that a space that is used more effectively will actually yield a TON.  A lush green garden that grows limited food (material gain) would be a wonderful space to bring together friends on a summer night (social and community benefit).  It would be a beautiful space to meditate or be creative in (spiritual, intellectual and cultural capital).  It would repair and feed the earth and insects (living capital).  It would be a space for me to learn, and to teach others and share knowledge (experiential capital).  Is all of that enough?  Yes.
Ok, now to the physical size.  It is a long narrow lot that needs to have some area for my children to play; however, I’m not using all the possible growing space or being creative with that space.  There are vertical spaces not in use- fences and deck supports.  Because my original design was based on traditional gardens there is a lot of open “lawn” area that is just not used.  Even my garden beds are fairly underplanted.  And then you need only search online for small scale permaculture and you will readily see Small Is Only Limited by our Imagination!!

Then we come to my final “problem”, and this is the one that really speaks to my original point on a capitalist mindset.  I have been, and am still, seriously considering moving.  Overhauling a yard to a permaculture design set up is going to have significant costs associated.  Those can be monetary (if you buy all the resources needed), time (both creating and maintaining; or in the case of getting free resources it could be in researching and gathering those as well), or energy (are you doing the work alone?  Will you gather and organize volunteers?  Everything takes energy).  These 3 outputs are always in balance so if you save in one area it increases another area.

If I am going to move in a year or two, why would I deplete my own resources if I’m not going to get the long term benefit?

We are all temporary.  Even if I move tomorrow to the perfect home and parcel of land, it will be temporary.  What do I want to leave behind as my legacy to that land?  I want to leave it better than I found it.  And I can do that in one year or forty years.  Permaculture isn’t about me.  I am an element in the cycle but I am not at it’s core.
I would be leaving a new owner with something beautiful and productive.  I would be passing on knowledge.  I feel one of the most important responsibilities as a permaculture student is to share and educate.   This is knowledge that isn’t meant to be horded or hidden but to be disseminated so it can enact change.

In permaculture yields and investments need to be evaluated, not with tunnel vision, but with a kaleidoscopic view.  Permaculture is activism, which makes it bigger than each person who practices it.  It is a radical stance against the mainstream.  Every seed we propagate, person we share our knowledge with, or land we heal sends a ripple of change out into the universe.  When I put my hands in the earth of my tiny temporary garden this spring I invite you to join me in sending those ripples of change out using your own space no matter how small or shady or temporary.