Practicing Permaculture in Nebraska: A Short List

To many people who hear the term ‘permaculture’ for the first time, even a succinct definition needs an elaborate explanation. Because permaculture addresses a wide variety of topics, a quick ‘elevator speech’ of permaculture necessitates a slow elevator and at least 20 floors for a thorough explanation. For this reason, this essay will simplify the wide world of permaculture into easy steps for every Nebraskan’s daily life.

For the purposes of this essay, the definition of permaculture is the pursuit to feed, shelter, transport and energize your life in your community without compromising the integrity of the world’s living environment. Working with nature allows us to achieve our goals with minimal maintenance. Poorly designed landscapes, buildings and technology that attempt to counter the forces of nature add complexity to our lives and create dependence on a complex system that needs maintenance. With this definition and guiding ethic in mind, here’s a list of sequential permaculture practices that can be adopted for your own personal use.

  1. The first step is to observe your life and land seasonally; and take notes. Notice routines, consumer trends, travel, health, fossil fuel use, plastic use, and social routines. Be real with yourself and try to face the tough work of simplifying the home, your employment life and your community so that your life is efficient, fluid and satisfying. If you are not happy with your life, permaculture will help. But you have to be honest about lifestyle changes and embrace the commitment toward improving the health of your environment.

  2. Get to know your neighbors and your community. You are an important part of a group of people in your living environment that can make life easier for you if you only knew who they were. Like family, communities can come to the rescue when life is difficult or when there is a big community project to accomplish. You would be surprised at the amount of skilled labor and extra time your neighbors are willing to offer when you get to know them. Your neighborhood and the people around you are your greatest resource.                                                                                                                                  

  3. Identify lifestyle steps that can be simplified toward eliminating your carbon footprint. Drive less; use public transportation; ride bikes for transportation (not just recreation); install solar and geothermal energy systems; insulate roofs and north sides of houses/buildings; build homes/ structures into south-facing hill slopes for passive solar; extend roof eaves to block summer sun into south-facing windows (but allow winter sun); install small skylights half way up a vaulted ceiling for less heat loss (not at the apex); minimize north facing windows; site windbreaks to the northwest and shade trees to the southwest; use rocket stoves, masonry stoves, biomethane digesting; and overall just practice conservation to reduce both your energy use and your carbon footprint.

  4. Reduce your daily discarded waste. Try to return everything you discard back to the earth as a composted item or as food for other animals. Discover how wastes can become resources. Learn how to repair items that can be repaired. If it cannot be repaired, can the item be altered or up-cycled to fit another function? If something like e-waste has to be discarded without much potential for upcycling, please make sure it is discarded at a professional e-waste establishment.

  5. Grow your own food and herbs. Don’t worry about growing everything you would ever need. Focus on growing items your neighbors are not growing so you will always be valued for your contribution to the seasonal community spoils. Concentrate on growing perennial crops like tree fruits and berries as much as your annual vegetable favorites. Grow what you love and like to eat. But also branch out and explore. Put in a perennial asparagus patch for a maintenance-free early green vegetable. Erect a plastic-covered hoop house to grow lettuce and spinach all win- ter long. If you love mangoes, try growing pawpaws instead. With the assistance of a greenhouse, there is very little that cannot be grown in Nebraska. Russ Finch in Alliance, Nebraska has proven to everyone that oranges, figs and lemons can not only grow here, but they do NOT need to be sprayed with pesticides. Lastly, grow food for nature too — particularly the pollinators who help produce our human food.

  6. Collect rainwater in tanks and within your landscapes. In contoured landscapes, slow down the movement of downhill moving water with terraces or swales. By not raking leaves or mulching plants, this helps hold the water in the soil longer with less water lost to evaporation or runoff. When collecting rainwater in tanks, please use more than one rain barrel as one 55-gallon barrel will irrigate an average-sized garden for a day or two in a drought.

  7. Save seeds of perennial trees and plants that are successful in your area and replant them in areas that can benefit from more diversity and habitat. Guerilla gardening is a great way to beautify dilapidated areas with new foliage. Start your own hobby tree nursery.

  8. Manicure your yard less. Instead of mowing every inch of your yard, allow some places to become natural. Let low spots overgrow and become wetlands. Don’t mow so close to the trunks of trees. Allowing habitat for nature’s creatures means they will less likely come into your home. A manicured lawn is a desert to most creatures. Do not use pesticides or herbicides. Poisons kill some parts of the food chain creating imbalances in nature, allowing the proliferation of one species to create pest problems.

  9. Buy local. Use a local credit union. Divest from fossil-fuel backed investments. Use cash or trade whenever possible. Your dollar spent in the local economy is the most powerful dollar spent. The value of consumer interactions should benefit the local economy — not foreign banks and corporations. Donate to your local nonprofits. Help your neighbors.

  10. Permaculture is most effectively used as a design strategy for land stewardship systems. However, it is still useful to understand all of the little mundane moments in our lives that can enhance our cohabitation with our living environment. With this short list, I invite you to permaculture your community. 


Why did the chicken cross the road? To go to high school.

At an early age, it is important to teach our children as to where our food comes from. This week, Bryan High School in Omaha was highlighted by the Omaha World Herald regarding their brand new chicken coop. As a member of the Omaha Bryan High School Ag Academy Advisory Board, I was delighted to donate my time to design and consult the teachers in building a chicken coop for their property.

Over 2 years ago, my colleague in the nonprofit Omaha Permaculture, Andy Waltke and I, approached Bryan High with the opportunity to help raise chickens in incubators for the kids to observe. After the first trial run with over 100 newly-hatched baby chicks, Bryan high had no choice but to find new homes through Nebraska 4-H as the school was not prepared to raise chickens themselves. On behalf of Omaha Permaculture and Douglas County Nebraska Farmers Union, I decided to push the conversation towards a permanent chicken residence on the high school premises.

After approaching school administration, the dedicated teaching staff at the Ag Academy was approved a location to build a chicken coop with an outer pen on the North East side of the school building. The site is thoughtfully placed underneath the protection of three Australian pine trees. However, there were some issues to address in it's site location. Unfortunately, the preferred location was a low spot that forms puddles during rains. As a solution, we moved the site a little bit more uphill and added more clay to build up the pen foundation; away from stormwater runoff courses. Placed on the North West side of the building and on top of a hill creates the situation to produce the full accumulation of prevailing winter NW winds as it careens around the school building. As a solution, I suggested a robust wood panel pallet/fence-side on the the NW corner of the outer chicken pen; while maintaining an open-air fencing for the sun-exposure sides. 

After some networking and outreach, the Ag Academy at Omaha Bryan High School was able to find a little bit of funding to purchase the coop and the materials needed to construct the coop and surrounding pen. In sourcing materials, I recall the only hangup was finding someone to approve a certain type of 'approved' clay for the foundation of the pen. Even though other construction projects were occurring on the premises, all clay was spoken for. Eventually, approved clay was brought to the site to build up the foundation that would keep the chickens dry from stormwater runoff.

Thanks to this Omaha World herald article, the rest is history. Click the Title for the OWH article.

An Introduction to Permaculture in Nebraska

(Published in March/April 2016 Nebraskans for Peace)

An Introduction to Permaculture in Nebraska


In a strong agricultural state like Nebraska, most people would not think there is much room for improvement. As a Permaculture designer, I can confidently claim that if Nebraska were to adopt permaculture principles throughout the state, we would passively create THE healthiest and most abundant paradise on earth. 


Permaculture is an ideology that funnels the revelations of sustainability and science through community ethics. Permaculture philosophy begins with a deistic reverence for Mother Nature and encourages ecosystem regeneration through natural or low impact solutions. Once you have created a system that creates abundance for you and your family, permaculture invites you to assist the less fortunate members of your community. In the city, permaculture is an ecosystem-sensitive design approach to neighborhood development. In rural communities, permaculture is ecological land stewardship that improves the air, water, and soil for the next generation and the world. For the world citizen, permaculture addresses how we consume, what we consume, how much we consume, and how we manage our waste. 


Many endeavors of life can benefit from Permaculture principles: energy, commerce, finance, health, farming, transportation, building, culture and leisure. To many people, Permaculture may sound like a return to the days of sweat and toil when compared with our current farming and land management methods. While there is definitely some initial investment when establishing a Permaculture design system, the subsequent growing years benefit from a perennial landscape that delivers productivity without the dependence on an annual planting cycle. Through Permaculture's "downhill, downwind, downstream" design approach, passive abundance is provided effortlessly on cue like a Swiss watch throughout the seasons. In many respects, the permaculture farmer works a lot less than your conventional farmer. When people experience a property designed with Permaculture principles, one observes the connections and overlaps of functional landscape features. It is these complementary relationships throughout systems that set the stage for resilience.


Resilience and passive abundance are two important themes in Permaculture. In the current volatile global energy market, new winners and losers are determined virtually year to year. This global volatility ripples throughout the global economy until they reverberate most devastatingly in our rural communities; the same communities pressed to feed a growing population that is migrating to the cities. Therein lies the problem and the solution from a permaculture perspective. Nebraskans are very well aware of our relationship to global markets. As the breadbasket of the world, Nebraskan products should demand a premium price on the global market for a Nebraska grown product produced in an ecologically-sound manner without federal subsidies. If a clean environment were incentivized through a local economy rather than playing slave to global economic tradewinds, Nebraska would sit very proudly as a regional agricultural powerhouse of passive abundance.


In the context of climate change, resilient land stewardship will be the only way to create enough opportunities for passive abundance through macro-scale ecological habitat restoration. Assuming that you are observing the local weather change caused by increasingly erratic global climate trends, we should begin to imagine our landscapes as dynamic, not stationary ecosystems trapped in time. As Nebraska paleontology in Ash Falls points out, Nebraska is in a constant state of change. From an inland sea to rhinos, elephants and the buffalo, Nebraska is very familiar with ecosystem transitions. It is in this wide-swing climate resilience reflected through our hardy flora and fauna species that positions Nebraska in one of the best geographic situations for future experimentation with nature’s climate change-related fluctuations.


To the gardener’s delight, permaculture does not need to be an aggressive management strategy for suppressing weeds manicured to golf course standards when designing for resilience and passive abundance. Many of the plants growing around produce is grown for soil fertility, moisture retention and ecological habitat. For example, to distract our neighborhood garden predators, we should allow some of our ‘ weeds’ to grow around our plantings as a distraction and another option on the menu.  Also, plant another nature garden away from your personal garden. Your personal garden may be the the only source of tasty vegetation for our bunny friends(foes?) on your block. By planting a landscape that encourages biodiversity, you are creating the harmony that must exist between man and nature; even in our cities.


To those who aspire to live sustainably beyond the garden and the farm, careful consideration is necessary when building the farmstead, the home or the neighborhood. From building materials to building orientation, Nebraskan homeowners should consider growing forests to create homegrown homesteads. When designing for our climate, we need to become acquainted with our native and local tree options to develop the proper windbreak from bitter cold northwest winds and hot southern winds that dry out out the landscape. While we have many prairie enthusiasts throughout Nebraska who do not wish to give up any more acreage to invasive forests, the case can be made for both habitats in different regions throughout Nebraska when considering homesteading.


Then, let’s imagine developing all neighborhoods, homes and farmsteads positioned halfway-up south-facing slopes throughout our riparian landscapes. Hilltops are vulnerable to winter winds and valleys are where the water flows. Like the days of our great grandparents, lets imagine homes designed with sufficient shade trees that reduce summer energy use.  When building the homestead, the wild weather extremes of Nebraska weather need to be considered. Through permaculture and sustainable design, a neighborhood can be developed to create heat pockets for winter and cool spots for summer, reducing our needs for high energy use.


So often, a development company likes to imagine a blank canvas. Let us imagine we are a set-designer for a future agricultural sci-fi movie. What is the future of Nebraska’s landscapes? As a new homeowner or aspiring farmer, all you can do is assess the pros and cons of each parcel on the market. I would consider developing your own slice of heaven on a cost-effective parcel of improperly used land; giving a Nebraskan the opportunity to restore and nurture a slice of Nebraskan ecosystem paradise proliferated with Savannah Oaks, Little Blue Stem, cottonwoods, goldenrod, deer, beaver, seasonal birds, prairie dogs, bobcats, cougars, quail, eagles, buffalo, dung beetles, pheasant, cranes, groundhogs, butterflies, squirrels, and fish. Who needs a zoo?

Horticulture is the bomb! (Click here)

LaRue Diehl and Faith Kurtyka's backyard.

LaRue Diehl and Faith Kurtyka's backyard.

Today, I am fortunate to bask in the graceful pen strokes of the Omaha World Herald’s Marjie Ducey. She interviewed two of my ambitious clients, LaRue Diehl and Faith Kurtyka. As with many of my clients, I could tell that they were recently exposed to internet permaculture dreamscapes and simply needed a tiny boost of confidence to apply their newly found backyard perspective into reality. Times are changing. People are starting to question the manicured lawn. This is where it begins. After realizing the potential of what could be grown instead of grass, most people want to dive in with both feet but are usually wary to put a toe in. This world of community-based covenants dictating manicured spaces in urban settings has left people wondering what is acceptable in their neighborhood when displacing grass with something more natural. Ultimately, my job is to simply bestow confidence for people who acknowledge that while the climate is changing, there is still opportunity. When I say opportunity, I mean to say that we can grow practically anything in Nebraska; you just have to believe in the vision in addition to doing the research. I am truly honored that LaRue and Faith dropped my name in the article. Their enigmatic personalities are taking the bestowed confidence they received to ambitious heights. I cannot take much credit for the dreamscape they envision.  Grocery and energy prices will continue to rise. Food will continue to imitate engineered products. We need to teach these skills of natural gardening and the confidence to do this in our communities. If food forests were the future of your neighborhood, would you ever leave?  A wise man once said, “Horticulture is the bomb”!