Reskilling Through Permaculture


In the second part of our discussion about permaculture, Jo talks about the types of volunteering work you might expect to be doing for your host, and also some more thoughts on the philosophy behind permaculture. Here’s the link to the 1st part if you missed it.

bread and jam
Baking bread and making jam. Photo by Barbara Piancastelli

Over the last few decades we have become increasingly busy outside the home, leading to the loss of many traditional skills including things that used to be considered basic educational requirements, such as baking bread and making jam.

Couple in rural setting

A permaculture approach values the recovery of these skills, and there are many Workaway hosts offering to teach volunteers how to make cheese, cure meat, etc.

This new host from Quebec, Canada offers prospective volunteers the chance to be in at the start of their new project, learning all sorts of things, including making soap and how to preserve food in a variety of ways.

Design Approaches

As permaculture is based on three ethical principles plus the observation of nature, rather than a set of rules, most projects start from a design process that is local and needs based. Larger projects will have designs in place that will help you to understand the overall plan for the project, whereas smaller gardens may be more exploratory in approach.

It is hard to predict what sort of work will be required, however you can expect to do a lot of mulching in addition to the usual gardening jobs. (What forest have you ever seen with bare earth?) Some practitioners operate a no-dig system of cultivation, others create beautifully shaped mandala gardens with raised beds and lots of curved borders, providing lots of edge and creating different micro-climates… and involving lots of digging, at least at the beginning!

mandala garden

Permaculture doesn’t follow any single approach or set of laws; rather it is a pragmatic solution that looks to adapt a human response to the region, climate and amount of energy available. But permaculture practitioners use a variety of approaches to agriculture, and no list of hosts would be complete without a project based in Australia: on this mixed farm and educational centre in the Hunter Valley, volunteers can learn about biodynamic farming as well as permaculture.

Low Energy Consumption

Expect compost loos, solar water heating, accommodation that relies on renewable energy for electricity… permaculture practitioners don’t necessarily seek to be self-sufficient, but they do aim at low energy throughputs.

Methods include reducing their resource use through recycling, reusing the resources they bring in and seeking resilience through the use of renewable energy sources. In every case they will be using oil with great care.

Even in cities you will find responses such as shared cars and community transport initiatives, solar water heating, etc. Permaculture homes are often very comfortable, but you may not be able to use your hairdryer (!), and you may need to charge your mobile in the hours of daylight. If in doubt, ask your host about the limitations of their systems, and above all enjoy the exploration of what the future might look like when we seriously try to lower our carbon emissions.

Community Building

Permaculture has a lot to teach about organising community as well as agriculture, and in fact the growing transition movement sprang from permaculture seeds. Except for the most isolated hosts, you are likely to find that permaculture projects are well networked and that hosts are committed to connecting and working with their community.

hands holding heart shaped fruit

In the Workaway list you will find an eco-kibbutz and a Palestinian community, both using permaculture principles in their work, along with many other intentional communities. Many hosts in the developing world are using permaculture principles to raise people from poverty and help make them self sufficient in a sustainable way. There are hosts working at transition village scale, and even hosts connected to international movements, like this one in India working with the International Township of Auroville.

Wherever you decide to go, your hosts will almost certainly be actively involved in setting up new community projects, working within the transition movement, exploring in diverse and holistic ways how to create a more sustainable future.

Whether the hosts are seeking input from artists, healers and educators, or extra hands to help with general work, one thing is sure, the focus will be local and ethical, and will involve communicating with people who are eager to share their ideas about alternative ways of guaranteeing a great future for the next seven generations.

Why not join the community?

Permaculture in Times of Change

gardener planting


At Casa Gaia we have received many volunteers over the years, first from WWOOF and more recently from Workaway. Recently there has been an increase in permaculture projects signing up to Workaway, so I was asked to write the following article – posted on the Workaway Blog at the end of 2012, looking at how volunteers can participate in this growing movement!

We are living in exciting and difficult times of change, but the good news is that all over the world people are reacting creatively to the current economic crisis: travelling, learning new skills, starting great projects. Permaculture is one approach that is giving rise to some of the most creative personal and community responses to the global economic situation and to the need to reduce our impact on the Earth. And Workaway is a great place to find and connect to permaculture practitioners.

The term “permaculture” – from permanent agriculture and, more recently, permanent culture – was coined in the late 70s by the post-graduate student David Holmgren and his mentor Bill Mollison. Walking through the forests of Tasmania the two were struck by the fact that the forest needs no human help to maintain its diversity; in fact the very diversity found in the forest guarantees its sustainability. From its birth in Tasmania, permaculture, grounded in three ethical principles of care for the planet, care for people and care for the future has spread throughout the world.

I entered the word ‘permaculture’ in the Workaway search box last week and 199 hosts appeared, based in countries all over the world, with new hosts signing up each day.

Whether you are a permaculture practitioner seeking more experience or a curious traveller wanting to find out more, there is an incredibly diverse list of hosts waiting for your help. They include skilled permaculture hosts teaching from demonstration sites, as well relative newcomers to the approach keen to share their learning process; hosts asking for help with projects of all sizes, from mini to macro; hosts just starting up and others long established; the list even includes hosts covering rural and urban initiatives. Here are some suggestions drawn from just a few of the hosts that came up in my search.

The old…

A lot can be learned from visiting established projects which allow you to see the results of trial and experiment, demonstrating what can be achieved over time. The best way to see how a compost loo works is to use an established one – and no, they don’t smell! It is inspiring to see how well a garden can grow with little irrigation when swales and other systems to catch and store rainwater are in place.

man building a roof

On Workaway you will find hosts who have been working with permaculture for many years, accumulating great experience.

Check out this new project – a Quintana in Portugal – but run by old hands, combining the best of both worlds: lots to do, but in the early design stages, and under experienced guidance.

As permaculture becomes better known, and the need for designing for sustainability becomes more widely understood, there are more and more teaching and demonstration projects starting up. If you are interested in a thorough exploration of permaculture, there are hosts that offer training from their site. This village farm in Thailand has received great feedback, showing how much you can learn as a volunteer:

“… an incredible immersion into Thai culture. From learning permaculture farming practices, to cooking delicious Thai food with Nong, to teaching English in the local school, I experienced what it is like to live the “permaculture philosophy” – to take care of the Earth, take care of the people and share the surplus.”

(A word of advice: if you choose a host that runs educational projects, be sure to ask about any costs entailed with attending a Permaculture Design Certificate or other official course. Even if the dates of a PDC coincide with your visit, attendance on the course may not be considered to be part of a Workaway exchange.)

…and the new

two people digging

The Workaway host list is inspiring in part because it features so many new initiatives and start up communities. Hosts, like this organic farm in Costa Rica, offer opportunities to join new projects for a few weeks or longer.

Several intentional communities using permaculture in their gardens appear in the host list, as well as new eco-villages incorporating permaculture design principles in the structure of their community.

If you want to be involved in the contagious atmosphere of the early stages of a new project you could try one of several that seem to be springing up simultaneously in Portugal, where the seeds of permaculture appear to be sprouting far and wide.

The big

person handling honeycomb with bees

Want to get away from it all and really immerse yourself in the world of self-sufficiency? There are Workaway hosts in very rural areas with large properties, using permaculture to support mixed farming practices. Learn to care for chooks or sheep, help with harvest, discover the pleasure of eating what you produce, find out how life is lived off-grid – and how life might look post-peak oil – with hosts like this onein South Africa, on 300 hectares of land, 45 km from the nearest town.

…and the small

Permaculture places great value on small interventions, and many of the hosts on Workaway are starting small veggie gardens based on permaculture principles, or working out how to become more self sufficient and independent on smaller plots of land, and in some very interesting parts of the world!

Combine some hands on learning about permaculture with visits to Rome with this host. With an extra pair of helping hands micro-projects can make great advances and it’s a fantastic opportunity for you to really see the difference your volunteering can make.


Permaculture principles are applied wherever people are found. Nowadays many permaculture courses are offered in urban or semi-urban areas, and permaculture principles are put into practice on terraces and balconies, in small yards, and in community gardens.

building a haybale house

Workaway hosts include people who have joined their neighbours to create suburban homesteads, like this host in the USA with a tiny backyard flock of laying hens, honey bees, and approximately 2800 square feet of garden space in eastern Pennsylvania: as well as families who are working to retrofit their suburban homes in more sustainable ways, like this one from just outside Canterburyin the UK who want to take their cottage off-grid.

…or urban?

You will also find dedicated urban projects ‘turning grey into green’, such as this one run by a host out of Flanders, in Belgium, apparently one of the most urbanised places in the world, with more than 50% concrete.

In the second part of this post about permaculture, we discuss what you might learn and the volunteering work you should expect to be doing.

Projects – our pond

The pond started almost accidentally – our track is eroded by rain running down it, so Chris channelled the water to one side and a shallow pond formed. Next time he saw a bulldozer in the area he arranged for some earth to be scooped out and the pond deepened. Our clayey soil held the water until late spring, and life flourished. We even had some Glossy ibis appear for a short stopover during their migration. But it was sad to watch the oasis dry up and see the frog spawn left high and dry.

We dug out more earth for a natural building course in June and began to think about how to make the enlarged pond more permanent on a minimal budget. Our friends and permaculture practitioners, Andrew Zionts and David Arribas, have a small pond they made and lined with ordinary agricultural black plastic, and after seeing how full of life it is, we asked them to help us design and create a permanent pond at Casa Gaia.

We held a volunteering day on the autumn equinox and an unseasonably hot day saw a group of 30 of us sweating it out, taking turns with the digging in full sun. Following the permaculture principle of maximum return on energy use, one team wheel-barrowed the sticky clay to a shady spot where it was turned into adobe bricks by  another team, or placed in plastic lined pools containing water, to be used for the natural building course the following weekend. We dug out more earth to give the pond a better shape with more edge, and used this top soil to form a hugelkultur bed next to the mandala garden.

Andrew supervised the shaping of the pond, aiming at maximising the variety of available microclimates and ecological niches by creating different depths as well as shaping the edge. Using a simple level made from 2 sticks and a length of transparent plastic tubing filled with water, we created a narrow level top shelf to hold the plastic, a wide shallow shelf and a deep central reservoir, which will serve as retreat space in our long dry summers if we are unable to maintain the water level through grey water recycling.

The rough outline shape was created and levelled in one day, but some stages aren’t suitable for the joyful chaos of large groups, and also the clay was like rock. Rain was forecast so we left the pond for a week, and after the rain had softened the clay we finished off with the help of a smaller team of volunteers. The finishing process involved shaping a bit more, smoothing the surface and laying cardboard under the plastic, to avoid punctures. Once the plastic was in, it was time to wait for the rain to come and fill the pond… and hope that no animal decided it was a good place to play meanwhile! Chris used this time to slowly cover the entire surface of plastic with stones. This has a double function: the sun degrades agricultural black plastic over time, even through water, and the stones will slow this process down considerably. Also, as the water inevitably retreats in our long hot summers, we will see more and more stones as the level drops, rather than black plastic. In addition, the stones and accumulated mud will provide niches for wild life too. Chris placed a pipe to channel the water from the road, to limit erosion at the entrance to the pond, and also to facilitate filtering should it prove necessary.

The rain came with a vengeance with one small corner to go – we had more rain in one weekend than fell in the entire previous year, a lot of it overnight, filling the pond to over-flowing and backing up to form an unmanaged wetland! That last corner will have to wait until spring, when the level drops again. Meanwhile we are not the only ones enjoying the new pond: plants, pond skaters, frogs and birds all arrived within hours and tadpoles within days. We have already turned down offers of gold fish – we want to allow the pond to be colonised by animal life already found in the area – but we have accepted pond weed and water hyacinths, and planted papyrus and mint around the edge. The next step is to connect our grey water recycling system, so we can maintain water inflow during the long period we have with no rain – sometimes from June to September. Come back in a few months to see more photos of this developing ecosystem as we add the to the album below!

Projects - Pond

Creating a pond/Creando un estanque