Sunday, July 8, 2012

Food for thought

One of the things I took away from my Permaculture Design Certificate was a long list of books I wanted to read.

Milkwood Farm, where I did my PDC, has an extensive library in the converted woolshed that is its classroom, common room, dining room and well, room for all occasions. But somehow during two weeks of intensive learning and discussion I never found time to settle down and read any of the books properly. There were always fascinating conversations to take part in or just listen to around the campfire, or thoughts to digest from the day's presentations, group tasks and workshops.

So in the last five months I've been working my way through that list, with some additions I came across along the way. Here are some of the books, grouped thematically:


Introduction to Permaculture, Bill Mollison with Reny Mia Slay, Tagari Publications, 1991
This is a readable introduction to permaculture by its co-founder Bill Mollison, covering the main principles and plenty of practical examples. A great place to start.

Permaculture: A Designers' Manual, Bill Mollison, Tagari Publications, 1988
This permaculture classic is the curriculum for the Permaculture Design Certificate. It's nearly 600 pages of densely packed information. Not a light read in any sense, but a must-read if you want to get serious about permaculture.

Permaculture: Principles & Pathways Beyond Sustainability, David Holmgren, Holmgren Design Services, 2002
A wide-ranging exploration of the 12 permaculture principles by co-founder David Holmgren. I found this book thought-provoking and highly enjoyable. More theoretical than the Designer's Manual - you won't find any plans for herb spirals in here. More like plans for a new civilisation.

There are several books offering detailed explanations of how to apply permaculture techniques in your backyard or on your farm, but I haven't read any of them. I'm not really interested in 'how to' books at this stage.

Soil food web

One of the key thoughts I took away from the PDC was that soil isn't just brown crumbly stuff. I've written on this in my previous post. These books are helping me to get to grips with the complex answers to the simple question 'What is soil?'

Teaming with Microbes: The Organic Gardener's Guide to the Soil Food Web, Jeff Lowenfels & Wayne Lewis, Timber Press, revised ed. 2010
This book completely revolutionised my understanding of soil and what we gardeners should be doing in the garden. Please read it.

Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World, Paul Stamets, Ten Speed Press, 2005
What are the biggest and oldest organisms on our planet? What is the key component of a forest ecosystem, connecting the others in a web of life and death? Trees, right? Wrong. Fungi.
This is a beautifully illustrated, engaging and thought-provoking book. I got a little uneasy when, about five pages in, the author informed me that fungal webs are sentient. Stick with it: this guy knows his mushrooms.

Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations, David R. Montgomery, University of California Press, 2007
The fascinating and horrifying story of what we have been doing to our topsoil ever since Neolithic humans invented the plough. Have you ever wondered how civilisation grew up in the rocky and barren soils of Greece and Turkey? Why the Roman Empire came to an end? Why there is chronic famine in Africa? Have you ever wondered what goes into our agricultural soils? This book provides some answers.


This evening I'm going to hear US writer Michael Pollan speak at The Wheeler Centre in Melbourne. Pollan is a wonderful combination of raconteur, journalist and food theorist. I've only read two of his books so far but am looking forward to reading the rest.

The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, Michael Pollan, Penguin, 2006
Pollan uses the preparation and consumption of four meals to show exactly where our food comes from. I'm just never going to look at maize the same way ever again. Hell, I'm never going to look at food the same way again.

The Botany of Desire: A Plant's Eye View of the World, Michael Pollan, Random House, 2001
Based on the apparently whimsical premise that plants have cultivated us as much as we have cultivated plants. This lovely book is actually a profound essay on co-evolution of species and a provocative commentary on agriculture and horticulture. Loved it.


Given that 70 of the world's most important 100 crops are pollinated by bees, and every third forkful we put in our mouths is the product of pollination by bees, bees are pretty important to humans. As gardeners, we love them. However, I didn't know much about them until I did a couple of beekeeping courses and read these books.

Honeybee Democracy, Thomas D. Seeley, Princeton University Press, 2010
This book gives the reader a fascinating insight into the life of the hive, written by one of the world's greatest authorities on bees.

Beekeeping for All, Abbé Warré, translated by Patricia and David Heaf, Northern Bee Books, 2007 (also available online as a free pdf)
This little book explains in detail a beautifully logical and simple system of beekeeping, developed by a French master beekeeper in the 1950s after a lifetime of experiment.
This is the system which Susan and I are going to use in our hives. Having done natural beekeeping courses in Sydney and Melbourne, I'm convinced that the Warré system is far more suitable for hobby beekeepers than the 'conventional' Langstroth hives used by commercial beekeepers.

The Bee-friendly Beekeeper: A Sustainable Approach, David Heaf, Northern Bee Books, 2010
Explores various approaches to beekeeping and explains the natural beekeeping approaches used in systems such as Warré and Kenyan top bar hives.