Book notes on Sepp Holzer’s Permaculture, A Practical Guide to Small Scale, Integrative Farming and Gardening. Amazon link
Sepp started his forte into permaculture in 1962 when he was just 19 years old. Which is pretty cool. Not many people have a passion for something that early in life and stick with it the rest of their life.
Although being in Lungau, Salzburg, maybe he didn’t have many other options that excited him?
He took over his family farm and experimented with numerous different strategies of growing.
The techniques he came up with where in alignment with Bill Mollison and David Holgren’s 1978 book. He just did not have a word for it at the time.
This makes Sepp one of the grandfathers of the modern permaculture scene. His systems have been developing and improving for the last 40 years!
Sepp uses what he calls “The natural way”. Which are the basics of permaculture:
- Everything in a system is related
- Each element should serve multiple functions
- Energy should be renewable, and used efficiently and practically
- Natural resources should be used
- Small areas should be intensive systems
- Use natural cycles and processes
- Create highly productive small-small structures with the use and support of edge effects
- Don’t use monoculture – Diversify!
Sepp learned about permaculture and then decided to label his farm after it. Only to realize there are many so called “permaculture designers” out there who are based solely on theory with very little field experience.
Practical experience is crucial. Only those with it should be advising others.
A small amount fo field work, with some short courses is not enough. Do a little homework on people before working with them.
Holzer Permaculture incorporates:
- Landscape design with the creation of raised beds, water gardens, ponds, terraces, microclimates, humus storage ditches, and more
- Agroforestry with shrubs and trees
- Aquatic plants
- Fruit growing
- Alpine pastures
- Medicinal plants
NOTE: You while reading you can start to get the feel that his property is wayyyy bigger than most peoples in the U.S. BUT… at the end of the intro he makes a statement that holds true. He uses permaculture principles to develop his property that can be applied at any scale and location. So don’t lose hope when he started talking about his billion acre farm on the mountain side.
As a child Sepp experimented in the garden. His parents gave him a small space (maybe 10′ x 10′) to do as he pleased.
This is where the legendary Sepp took his first steps.
He created a stone terrace / raised bed. Which led to the realization that strawberries grown next to the large stones grew and tasted better. A result of the stones’ ability to capture and release heat. While keeping the ground underneath moist and ripe with earthworms and other soil life.
Observe plants and soil closely. If you see plants doing really well or poorly, be a detective and figure out why.
This will help build the skills necessary to work with nature. Which Sepp feels was crucial to his early success.
Sepp discusses more about landscape design in his book The Rebel Farmer. (amazon)
I have not read this book. From the reviews it sounds like it is more about his story than hands on skill teaching.
Not to mention out of print and extremely expensive!
At this point in the book Sepp goes into detail on the destruction of nature due to mono cropping, erosion, agricultural practices, etc.
People have been developing these practices even long before Sepp.
Rice terraces in Asia, terraced fields in Morocco, cliff dwellings used passive solar and earth sheltering.
Our goal with permaculture is to restore a damaged landscape.
The Permaculture Landscape
The design should create harmony with animals and plants in a sustainable manner by using all available natural resources.
Water = Life
Keep water on your property as long as possible. Also work with what nature provides. If an area is low and wet.. make a pond. In dry areas plant plant herbs that like those conditions like thyme, marjoram, and sage.
Drainage is often a bad idea. If an area holds water and you want it to be productive you should not drain them. Instead make a wetland and plant orchids or other varieties that prefer that environment.
Another option is to take it a step further and create a pond or water garden in these areas. With ponds you can breed fish, crayfish, mussels, etc. along with the aquatic plants (also think aquaponics).
Ponds cerate habitats for animals that are beneficial. Like snakes and toads.
Another benefit is that big areas of water balance temperature changes on the hills by releasing stored heat and reflecting sunlight. Increasing moisture levels in the ground and surrounding areas through evaporation.
If you have a good amount of elevation you can even use water to generate power with a hydropower using a Pelton wheel.
For a functioning, reliable, visually pleasing, and ecologically valuable pond look to nature for a lesson. Natural ponds will give you a designs and ideas that will function well and look good.
Look at the topography to ensure stability and minimal leakage.
Naturally occurring water is a great advantage when building a pond. You can pump water into a pond, but it requires more work. A spring fed pond is ideal.
Rainwater can be used if ground water is not available. But, in these ponds you should not stock with fish. As fish need a constant oxygen rich water exchange. Aquatic plants are more ideal.
Shallow and deep areas will allow for different uses.
Sealing Instead of Pond Liner
Not using a liner is the hallmark of Sepp Holzer ponds.
Once the excavation is complete you are ready to seal the pond. Fill the pond until there is about 12-16″ of water standing. Then use a small excavator bucket to vibrate subsoil 1.5 to 3′ deep. Depending on soil conditions.
This is similar to vibrating concrete.
This makes the pond water tight without a liner. Sepp feels that a wildlife pond should not be made with a liner. As is stops natural pond life from developing.
You should also put a standpipe in the very deepest part of the pond if you intended on draining it to harvest fish.
An overflow pipe is also crucial.
After the pond is done, work on the banks.
Place some stones that are break the surface of the water. They warm up quickly and will provide an oxygen hole for fish in the spring.
Slopes can be made productive with the use of terraces. Plants and trees can be grown. While also prevent erosion.
While making terraces:
- There should be minimal dead ends so you are not going back and forth on the same path. Saving energy.
- No straight lines, keep rounded and winding to avoid wind tunnels and create nicheNo steep slopes aside from raised beds
- Use forms and features to break up landscape, and create microclimates
- Geological conditions should be looked at to avoid landslides
- A steep slope should have narrow terrace, while a gentle slope can have wide terraces
- What machines will be used on it
- Gradient should be no more that 15-20%
- In dry areas with little rain angle into the embankment slightly to catch water. Otherwise make level to avoid landslides when top terraces get water logged
- Large scale projects should be done in small steps due to risk of erosion. Make a terrace on top middle and bottom of slope the first year and plant. Then each year you can make more between what is already there. On steep slopes start on the bottom and work your way up.
- Sow plants with different root depths on slopes for greater erosion control
- Grow the plants as soon as terrace is created
- Meadow flowers are also a good cover crop. Get seeds from nearby fields.
You can also use raised beds on the border of your property. Build to a large mound and plant with trees and shrubs to block unsightly views. While at the same time providing a habitat for biodiversity.
Raised beds for food production may need to be rebuilt every 5-10 years.
Machines usually only need to be used once. While the system is being setup.
Removing and burning biomass is a bad practice! You lose a tremendous amount of biomass this way.
The material should be used right where it is found. Raised beds, shelters, fencing, mulch, etc.
Before designing your property ask some questions:
- What is your goal
- What do you expect from your land
- Do you want to live off of it for income, or just provide some food for yourself
- What interests you the most, growing plants, agroforestry, or animals
- Will the land be open to the public
- What is more important to you to make you happy
- What will encourage you to grow and learn
Now some follow up questions:
- Soil conditions – best is a crumbly soil like worm castings. Look for indicator plants to give you data
- Climate – This can be changed in some areas using microclimates (a small area created to correct conditions for a plant like a dug out area with water and stones added) and older varieties of plants may work in climates they are not rated for. Always try it for yourself. Never stop experimenting.
These are all needed pieces of data.
Trick – Keep protect newly plants you can lay an entire thorn bush over it to keep animals from eating it. While providing nutrients as it rots.
Also sow plants that animals desire so they avoid eating what you don’t want them to.
Sepp Hulzer Hugelkulture – Raised Beds
- Before building see what direction the wind usually comes from by tying a piece of material to a tree or pole. Beds should be placed against the wind.. acting as wind breaks
- When on slopes angle the lines of the beds to allow proper water drainage. If perpendicular to the slope it will store too much water at the top and not distribute evenly
- On flat ground play around with materials, sizes, height/width, cool designs, etc.
- On raised beds higher than 9′ put a small terrace on the top to make harvesting easier
- Use a excavator to dig 3-4′ deep and and 4-6′ wide. Save the humus layer. Place shrubs and trees into ditch and cover loosely with soil. Then top with humus layer
- To promote oxygen in the beds you want the sides to be steep. 45 depress or steeper to prevent compaction
- Height of 3-5′ for the bed allows easier harvesting
- The composting process will provide sown plants with all the nutrients that they need. Keep note of what is used in the bed. As a mulch like material will provide the first year crops with large amount of nutrients and then drop off. Beds with large materials will release nutrients more slowly. Match this to what you are planting
- Mulching and pulling weeds out with roots exposed will keep unwanted plants in check
- Beds can last up to 10 years. They will flatten over time. Which is a signal that they need rebuilding
- A well designed raised bed system that create paths with some attractions can make for a great pick-your-own system as people are looking to harvest their own food that they can see and feel is organically grown. Beds should be steep and tall enough not to climb over, and allow people of different heights to access. Single file is best. Unusual varieties are typically best sellers
You can also compost between raised beds. Make two steep beds that you can just walk through. Around 60-70 degree angles.
Throw organic waste in the middle of the beds each day. Then cover with earth, straw or leaves. Once about 60% is filled to the top you can cover with soil and plant vigorous growing plants like cucumbers, pumpkins, turnips, etc.
It’s also possible to breed earthworms with this process.
Sepp rants a bit about modern agriculture here. He does give some good advice on becoming a contrary farmer.
Don’t grow what everyone else around you is growing. There is already an abundance of it. Use your intuition to find a niche in the market. With a goal of using old time farming methods based on natural cycles that allow you to live in harmony and peace with nature.
Your focus in farming should be to create a healthy fertile soil.
Legumes (peas, beans, clover, lupins) make the best green manure crop. They fix nitrogen by the use of bacteria released into the soil. You can also plant wildflowers, ancient grains, clover, grasses, steep slopes are good picks for lupin and sweet clover due to their strong tap roots.
You can plant them, and then let nature do the work. The first heavy snow will start the decomposition process.
Some plants will go to seed and sow themselves.
After 2-3 years the soil will start to build back up and Sepp is able to grow demanding fruit trees. Which is how he created lush orchards on his farm.
Fruit trees not only provide food, but Cherry trees can provide high quality timber and root art.
Costs are not expensive, because you just sow the seeds, then graft on varieties.
Because of how useful they are, Sepp tries to grow as many fruit trees as he can.
Selling fruit bushes and trees has been one of Sepp’s most important source of income for a long time! Although he no longer has the time to sell individual plants or do small planting jobs.. even though demand is still high. Now, he mostly sticks to large or interesting projects that are well suited to his trees.
Old rare varieties can be grown for distilleries and fetch a
His trees are not watered, pruned, or fertilized.. so they develop into independent, hardy trees. And over time adapt to their climate.
With these methods he was able to guarantee his trees as long as he planted them, and the owner left them alone.
Fruit trees are great on terraces as their roots help prevent erosion.
Sepp likes to plant a mix of wild and cultivated trees:
- Snowy mespilus
- Cornelian cherry
- Service tree
- Wild service
- Wild cherry
- Wild pear
- Crab apple
The advantage to a mix of varieties is that if a late frost hits, the different flowering times allows pollen to be available to ensure amble fruit yield and complete crop failure.
Sepp’s Method of Planting Fruit Trees
Leave all the branches below the graft intact.
Dig root ball up with surrounding beneficial plants in a square shape. This protects the ball from drying up, and does not force you to replant the soil improvers. This also allows soil to stay together without mesh or nets.s
Dig them in well and cover with mulch and nearby stones if available. Stones sweat to provide moisture, attract worms, and balance temps.
Sow seeds of soil-improving plants around tree area. Like sweet clover and lupins, broom, and lucerne aerate soil and prevent water buildup. As if water is able to build up the tree will become stunted. These plants will provide a green manure and provide grazing for deer to distract them from the fruit tree.
Sepp Prozents browsing by planting enough of food for all the wild animals to eat and enough for himself. As he feels nature is fertile enough to provide something for everyone.
I would add that if you don’t have a large area like Sepp has, you may need protection from browsing.
Sepp makes a bone salve to protect the trees which is painted to sprinkled on.
If a tree doesn’t grow properly. It is because it is in not in the right soil conditions or location.
Planting in micro climates with sun traps and windbreaks, or raised beds give the protection it needs from wind, etc.
The soil is improved with the plants mentioned above.
Do not prune the trees. Weight from the branches of fruit will allow sunlight to hit the crown.
Try different varieties that are not suppose to grow in your zone by planting them in microclimates.
To grow fruit trees you have to graft them onto rootstock that “get along”. Dwarf varieties lend to easier harvesting.
Learn different grafting techniques.
You can graft different varieties on the same tree. And even save a tree from dying that is damaged.
Seedlings provide a great rootstock to be grafted onto for minimal cost.
Prep the ground with green manure
The best form of seeds Sepp has found is in the form of pumice from pressing the fruit. Let the pomace ferment for around 4-5 weeks and then spread of the area. Fermenting increases the chances of germination.
Fencing off the area is a good idea at this point.
Let the trees grow for one-two years, then they can be used to graft.
Sepp Holzer Shock Method
Is removing leaves when already in full bloom so that the tree can produce new root shoots. Keep the roots alive during this process.
It’s important to provide ground cover to allow soil life and creatures a refuge. As well as protecting the fruit trees and plants from drying out. Like it would with a neat and tidy mowed lawn. Mulch is also beneficial for ground cover. Just place cardboard down to kill the weeds, then some soil and mulch. Sow with beneficial plants like Jerusalem artichokes, turnips and sunflowers right away.
You should never forget that every creature has its purpose in the cycle of nature and can also be very important to humans
Again.. it is key to observe nature, because you will never stop learning and profiting from it.
Old varieties usually make the best crops. The newer ones are not strong and do not breed well. Forcing you to continue to buy more from seed companies.
When selecting new crops make sure you are aware of how they are pollinated.
You should grow polyculture and not mono.
Sepp feels livestock like goats, sheep, cattle, horses, poultry, and pigs play a large part in a permaculture system.
Make sure you understand the animals natural habitat. Allowing them to be self-sufficient. Introducing forage plants for them.
Allow them to learn to use their instincts when breeding. This makes them more hardy.
For protection you can plant hedges of very horny plants. They give the birds shelter from predators, but also provide a place for birds.
Use varieties of roses and it will give them a food source and give off a beautiful smell. Uses these varties:
- Multiflora rose – Great flowers, smell and bees love
- Dog rose – easy to cultivate, makes fruit tea or jam – medicinal
- Japanese rose – Rose hips – a large shiny fruit. Also know as potato rose
If you need to provide housing for the animals consider earth sheltering. Sepp goes into more detail on this in the book.
You can also create a cellar using an d earth shelter. The warmth of the soil is optimal. To keep proper air temp and movement you should place a bit inlet pipe that is 10m or longer into the ground (sloped away from cellar to prevent water and aid in cleaning) that opens to the center floor of cellar. Then place an air outlet at the highest point. Dome shapes work good.
Mushrooms is also a large player in Sepp’s farm. He sells button, oyster, shiitake, and kind stropharia. And more.
They convert unusable biomass into nutrients plants can use. A crucial role for nature.
Mushrooms are also medicinal. Puff balls can be used to stop bleeding.
Shiitake mushrooms are becoming well known to lowering cholesterol. While also helping to treat cancer. They can be grown on sycamore logs.
Judas’ ear mushroom can be used to lower blood pressure.
Lingzhi can be used for sleeping and to boost the immune system.
Aid digestion in general.
Most will need a substrate of compost, straw, or wood. Straw and wood are the easiest to grow on.
You can buy mushroom spawn from suppliers to inoculate a freshly cut log.
Follow directions according to type and method you’re using.
Place logs in a shady area and close together to prevent drying out. Sink log 1/3 its length into ground in the direction of its growth.
Should be started in early spring or summer for best chances.
The current fast paced lives we live usually don’t allow us to discover the relaxing benefits of gardening. A small garden can be a great way to get into direct contact with nature. Also providing nutritious food and medicinal herbs.
Garden can be low maintenance with the use of mulch and pulling weeds out by the roots add leaving them to dry out.
Some work is required to loosen the soil and repair raised beds.
Sepp feels watering in a garden should not be necessary except in extreme dry spells. With the use of mulch and permanent plant cover this is possible. Making your plants independently thrive without major efforts from yourself.
You should not have any bare soil, and allow some “untidiness”.
Once you have mulched in an area for awhile earthworms will come and loosen up the soil for you. Saving you the work of digging in the mulch in the springs. And providing additional nutrients.
If you have pests in the garden it is wise to think of natural predators. And provide a optimal habitat for them so they can control the pests.
With some strategic thinking there are unlimited possibilities for any space.
Many thanks to Sepp Holzer!