Podcast #5 So you want to be a permaculture designer?

This podcast describes some of the work of a permaculture designer and discusses opportunities for advancing your education and experience in permaculture designer.  Darrell discusses how certification courses, diplomas, and professional organizations, among other things, can help you along your career path. 

Podcast #4 Greenhouse Basics for Winter Food Production

This podcast discusses a variety of season extension options, including cold frames, high tunnels, heated and unheated greenhouses, and bioshelters.  It addresses considerations for greenhouse design and winter food production within the greenhouse. 

Podcast #3 Healthy Winter Diet

This podcast provides an overview of strategies for securing a healthy local diet through the winter months.  Enjoy storing, freezing, and fermenting foods, along with growing your own sprouts and microgreens, or utilizing indoor grow lights or cold frames outdoors.   

Care of the Earth, Care of People, Share the Excess

garfield farm bioshelter
Bioshelter at Garfield Farm

There is probably no better way to explain the ethics of permaculture than to discuss a place that exemplifies these ethics. One such place is Pittsburgh’s Garfield Community Farm. Garfield Farm has been designed and managed as a permaculture project since its inception.  I have been privileged watch the farm develop and to work there part time each summer over the past several years.

First, about the three permaculture ethics: Care of the earth, care of the people and fairly sharing the excess are at the core of permaculture design. Permaculture co-founder David Holmgren states that these ethics are intended to help guide our transition to a sustainable, regenerative future. ( https://permacultureprinciples.com/ethics/ )  Care of the earth requires us to keep in mind that our design work should strive to heal and promote the health of our local and global environment. We only have one planet. Care of the people helps us to keep in mind that we must design systems that provide for our human needs, food, shelter, energy, access to nature and community in a manner that promotes health and wellness. Sharing the excess may sound political or religious. Perhaps it is, but this ethic is based on the knowledge that accumulation of excess material things by one leads to want in another, and often with it, a degraded environment. By fairly sharing resources, when we are able, we fulfill the first two ethics while building strong communities.  

Garfield Community Farm (http://www.garfieldfarm.com/ ) is a project of Open Door Ministries, a Presbyterian Church in the Garfield neighborhood of Pittsburgh. This urban farm was founded, and is directed by Assistant Pastor John Creasy, and the Board of Directors of the Open Door Church.  Day-to-day operations is run by a small core of staff, with much assistance from volunteers from the church and the community. The farm’s stated mission is: We seek to learn, teach, and practice organic gardening and farming in the places that have been neglected and abandoned, in and with the neighborhood of Garfield.

This mission is achieved on a 2.5 acre site which was formerly abandoned houses. The farm features a passive solar bioshelter, with a small flock of resident chickens and a couple of pet rabbits; garden beds, poly-tunnel, food forest orchards, perennial landscapes, and community gathering areas.


Care of the earth is integral to the mission here. Gardening methods and energy systems, such as solar electric panels and passive solar bioshelter, are chosen to be earth friendly. While working to regenerate the farm’s soils with compost and organic mulches, the farm is also working to enhance biodiversity. Habitat for beneficial creatures is maintained between the gardens. A resident Cooper’s hawk and owls patrol day and night for rodents. A great diversity of songbirds share the mulberries and elderberries and help control insect pests and weed seeds. Goldfinch, grey catbird, Baltimore oriole, scarlet tanager, bluebirds, nuthatch and downy woodpeckers are just a few of the species present.  Last year, a five-lined skink, a native lizard long thought to be extirpated in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, was found living in the compost piles at the farm.

Care of People is indeed the core mission of the farm. Garfield Farm provides access to fresh seasonal produce to an under served neighborhood. Each week during the growing season a produce stand built on a small trailer, known as the mobile market, is set up in several locations to sell farm products. People care is further achieved by educational activities, community engagement, and by giving people an opportunity for a direct connection to nature. The farm hosts several annual events to build and celebrate community, engaging neighbors, volunteers and church members with food, music and conversation.

The third ethic, to Share the Excess, is also integral to the farm’s design and activities, and extends from the ethic to care for people. The property spans three city blocks. Farm spaces are open to neighbors and visitors to relax in the pavilion, walk the labyrinth, enjoy nature and sample fruits from trees and bushes. Farm produce sold at the mobile market has a two tier pricing system. Customers have the option to pay the lower, “what you can afford” price, or the standard, “what you can pay” price for higher income customers. Often produce is purchased from a local farmer’s cooperative and is sold at cost to increase the food options offered. The farm’s beekeeper donates most of her honey harvest to the farm for sale as well. Any excess produce, when there is excess after the mobile market sales, is given to a local food bank. The farm also provides the opportunity for volunteers and church members to share their time in good work.

This discourse only begins to describe the manifestation of these three ethics at Garfield Community Farm. In a world of changing climates, growing urban populations and diminishing resources, projects like Garfield Community Farm are leading the way to a regenerative future of livable cities, where we all care for the earth, care for the people and share the excess.

The Mother Earth News Fair- June 2-3 in Frederick, Maryland

MEN Fair talk 2


Join me at the Mother Earth News Fair this year!  I will be speaking at two Mother Earth New Fairs in 2018: June 2-3 in Frederick Maryland and at Seven Springs, Pennsylvania in September 14-16. I have been a featured speaker annually since the first fair in 2010.

Speaking at the Mother Earth News Fairs always feels like a home coming of sorts. The fairs are produced by Ogden Publishing, which publishes Mother Earth News magazine. When I was a beginning homesteader in the late 1970’s, Mother Earth News Magazine was a great source of inspiration and practical information. It was in those pages that I first learned of Permaculture. Bill Mollison was interviewed in the Nov/Dec 1980 issue. He described permaculture design as a way to design sustainable homes and settlements by applying our knowledge of environmental science and a good design system. I knew immediately I would become a permaculture designer.

To me, permaculture design has always been a search for positive, engaging solutions to the dilemma of our human relationship to our planet. It has been said that design is basically problem solving, hopefully blended with creativity. As permaculture designers, the scope of the problems we are addressing, providing for human needs while regenerating the earth, requires a large tool box.

Human needs, of course, start with the basics: shelter, food, water, energy and community; and expand from these to many disciplines. Waste management, contact with nature, engagement in meaningful activities, education, cultural amenities and steady employment are all high on the list. The knowledge, skills and tools to provide for and fulfill these needs ecologically (that is, in a way that builds soil, promotes biodiversity, and preserves clean air and clean water), form the basis of permaculture design.

Access to this base of knowledge, skill and tools is of vital importance. Sustainability is defined as the managing our resources in a manner that does not diminish the quality of life for future generations. The permaculture concept of regeneration goes beyond this, seeking not only to preserve, but to revitalize and build soil fertility, biodiversity and cultural diversity.

I find that the Mother Earth News Fairs offer one of the greatest assemblies of information vital to our sustainable and regenerative future that I have ever seen in one event. Here you can get your hands in the mud with natural building, plant vegetables in straw bales, and learn grow and preserve food.  Here you can find dozens of speakers presenting on gardening, mushroom cultivation, animal husbandry, permaculture design, solar design, wind power and many related topics.  The Mother Earth News Bookstore offers hundreds of books on these topics.

This year marks the eighth year, and eighteenth time, I have given presentation at the fairs, for a total of nearly fifty presentations.  These fairs are held up to six times each year, this year in North Carolina, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Oregon, Kansas and Texas. Join us at the one nearest you.  You will be glad you did!


The Return

Return          The I Ching

It might be considered a writing cliche to reflect upon the past and gaze into the future at the cusp of the new year, but I believe this reflection time is an ancient custom, born tens of thousands of years in the past. My European ancestors most certainly spent the dark and cold months in close quarters, sheltered around a fire, sharing stories of the past, mending baskets and making tools for the coming year. Most places on the earth that are inhabited by humans have seasonal cycles that include times of decline and time of renewal: winter and spring, dry season and wet season, the passing of migrating herds. It is these times that we become most aware of the cycles of time and the patterns of nature. Since our most ancient journeys to the northern latitudes, after the longest nights, when the longer days begin to return, we think back on the seasons just past, and plan for those ahead. And so, as is customary, I will take this time to look back on the year just ended and forward to the year ahead.

2017 was a time for learning and organizing affairs. An opportunity to travel gave us practical experience into permaculture in another climate, and we took the time to reorganize our education and design services, including the launch of threesisterspermaculture.com.  The year also saw the release of The Food Forest Handbook by New Society Publishing, which I co-authored with Michelle Czolba.

My partner, Jessy Swisher, and I traveled to the Andalucia region of Southern Spain. From January until April we had the great pleasure to volunteer at Suryalila Yoga Retreat Center and work in the gardens, landscape and olive groves. While we were there Suryalila launched the Danyadara project, which aims to use permaculture design to restore their land and to serve as an education project for the region and beyond. Our immersion in both yoga and permaculture systems establishment deepened our commitment to our work in regenerating natural systems.

The summer of 2017 was a time to cleanup Three Sisters Farm and to develop these web pages. I am deeply appreciative of Jessy Swisher for her focused attention to both tasks. After two years of minimal use, the bioshelter and farm required a summer worth of weekends to  clean and organize. We are currently offering the bioshelter and farm for sale to the next generation of permaculture market gardeners.

After this time of learning and renewal, we are renewing our commitment to permaculture education. As 2017 draws to a close and 2018 begins, we at Three Sister Permaculture are gearing up for a return to teaching permaculture workshops and courses, as listed in our events calendar.  In 2018 Three Sisters Permaculture is offering two permaculture design courses, one in Spain, one in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and a series of permaculture workshops.

When preparing to teach permaculture classes, it is a good practice to study the basic permaculture texts. These include Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual by Bill Mollison and Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability by David Holmgren. As I look forward to re-engaging with permaculture students and with design clients, a look back at these primary guides to permaculture design is instructional and inspirational.

I prefer not to compare these books as much as see them as two parts of a whole. Holmgren’s book is widely considered to be more accessible to the average reader, and his 12 principles serve to illustrate permaculture design in simple and elegant terms. Mollison’s book is often described as dense and difficult to read, but a careful study reveals a broad depth of knowledge, insight and experience. Holmgren, rooted in his decades of experience and consideration, presents permaculture as a series of regenerative design principles. Mollison provides a very high quality synthesis of cultural studies, environmental science, physics, animal husbandry, and horticulture into a comprehensive design system.  Together these two authors, who collaborated in the 1970’s to present permaculture to the world in the landmark book Permaculture One, provide the definitive guides to a design system for truly permanent cultures.

And so the serious student of permaculture design should begin with David Holmgren’s Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability.  (For more details of Holmgren’s principles see the website: permacultureprinciples.com.)  Once the fundamental principles are understood, the student then should proceed to study Bill Mollison’s Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual. In subsequent posts, we will further explore these books and the details of permaculture design. For now we wish you a very good New Year and trust our combined efforts will yield a regenerated planet.



Permaculture and Yoga: Suryalila and Danyadara, Cosmic Play of the Sun on the Blessed Earth


Danyadara Permaculture Educator Jacob Evans tends to the trees while kitchen staff harvest herbs and edible flowers at Suryalila’s Kitchen Garden.


There are as many definitions of permaculture as there are practitioners, or so it seems. But they all revolve around the ethics of taking care of the earth and taking care of people. At its core permaculture is about finding a path to live in the right relationship with our landscape and planet. This right relationship seeks a harmonic balance between our needs for food, shelter, housing and culture and the needs of our Earth’s bioregions for long-term ecological health.

Yoga too has many forms. At their core is the striving for a balance of forces: breath, body, mind and spirit. A regular study and practice of yoga, (as well as tai chi, and similar moving meditations), promotes good health, confidence, strength and flexibility. These give us resilience and can help to balance the conflicts modern life imposes on our bodies and our spirits.

The roots of yoga can be traced back over 3500 years. Today’s many yoga traditions have developed to integrate yoga into modern society.  The roots of permaculture seem more recent, but were strongly influenced by the study of aboriginal cultures’ relationship to their environment. In many ways, permaculture is an attempt to utilize ancient knowledge of how to live more ecologically  to design solutions for the best way to live today. And so, both yoga and permaculture strive to promote harmony: yoga, harmony within ourselves, and permaculture, harmony with each other and with nature.

It is not surprising then, that there is an emerging kinship between permaculture and yoga. Many yoga retreat centers world wide are offering permaculture programs, and are utilizing permaculture design to develop more sustainable and regenerative facilities. Many permaculture teachers make time for a daily meditation and yoga practices in courses and programs.

My own journey into yoga led me to spend three months at the Suryalila Yoga Retreat Center in Andalusia, Spain. Suryalila, which means Cosmic Play of the Sun, is an excellent name for this sun filled retreat, located amidst hundreds of ancient olive trees and vast vistas of mountains and valleys and distant white washed villages. Here one can indeed play in the sun. Yoga classes are offered several times each day for guests. Fruit trees and gardens help supply the kitchen, where the chefs prepare three creative and nourishing vegetarian meals each day.

While Suryalila offers guests and yoga students a taste of paradise, the owners realized that they needed to manage and develop their land in a manner that regenerated the soils and the ecosystem. And so they created a not for profit permaculture project they call Danyadara. The name Danyadara is derived from Sanskrit words meaning Blessed Earth.  The Danyadara Project has several goals. First and foremost is to reverse the process of desertification that is occurring in the worn soils and changing climate of this region of Spain. Permaculture design is being used to guide the development of the gardens, surrounding landscape, manage the olive groves and to transform a large wheat field into a food forest of legumes and tree crops. Other goals of the project include: regenerating the soil;  increasing food self reliance on site; educating guests, students and neighbors about permaculture and ecological land use; and building community and networks to increase the impact of their efforts.

The merging of yoga and permaculture at Suryalila Retreat Center is an inspiration. The daily practice of yoga and meditation, the nurturing environment and the meaningful work of regenerating a tired landscape are combined with a long term vision implemented at a steady, measured pace. The work of the staff, the gardeners, and the volunteer permaculture students all flows together, like the cosmic play of the sun on the blessed earth.

For more information about Suryalila and the Danyadara Project see suryalila.com and danyadara.com.

Three Sisters Permaculture Design is working with Danyadara to offer a Permaculture Design Course in March of 2018.  www.threesisterspermaculture.com

Paw Paw Haven


paw paw


As another paw paw season winds down, I reflect on my first experience with North America’s largest native fruit. Asimina triloba, the paw paw, is a small understory tree, with a native range extending from south eastern US, to the great lakes region. I grew up in the mountains of northern Pennsylvania, just beyond the native range of paw paws, and so did not cross paths with this sweet, aromatic and flavorful fruit in my foraging expeditions.

In the late 1980’s my work as a permaculture teacher led me to be the featured speaker of a Natural Living Group in Butler PA. One of the audience ask if I know of Tom Mansell, telling me his home was similar to what I was describing as permaculture. Through mutual friends I was able to arrange a visit to Tom’s property, which he called Paw Paw Haven. As luck would have it, my sons, Zack and Chris and I happened to visit at Paw Paw Haven during paw paw season.

Paw Paw Haven was a residential property situated at the northern edge of paw paw territory,  high on bluffs of the Ohio River, just outside of Aliquippa. Tom, then in his mid 80’s, had been developing his property since the late 1940’s. An avid gardener, and plant collector, Tom had created what we now call a food forest, and permaculture site, long before these concepts were devised. When we visited, Tom’s failing health had caused him to scale back his activities, but he still maintained his food forest, selling his products at a local farmers market. Tom was a long time member of the North American Fruit Explorer, www.nafex.org , and his plant collection featured selected varieties of fruits and nuts traded with other NAFEX members over many years

Paw Paw Haven was a marvel and huge inspiration to me. The one to two acre property was edged with hedges of filberts and hazel nuts. His apple orchard had 80 varieties grafted onto 25 trees.  Edible chestnuts, walnuts, heartnuts, hickory nuts, mulberries and grew tall through out the property. Under and among the trees were gardens, stone fruits, raspberries and twenty two varieties of Paw paws. Tom’s own paw paw selection “Kirsten” was the result of his own cross breeding trials.

The amount of perennial foods Tom Mansell had collected, planted, grown and tended on this small lot was living proof of the theories behind permaculture. Tom graciously shared his knowledge with me as we toured his property, and sent us home with nuts, paw paw fruits and seeds, and one of his grafted paw paw seedlings. I also took home inspiration and the knowledge that, with time, effort and good design, my permaculture work would yield many fruits.