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Teaching Children with Permaculture

Meghan Orbek
Posts: 52
Location: Yonkers, NY/ Berkshires, MA USA
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There are some wonderful threads in these forums about children, and there's this one about 3-4 year olds specifically: http://www.permies.com/t/15321/permaculture/Teaching-Permaculture-year-olds

But I have specific questions, whether you have/work with children or not:

-How can we teach ecology, botany, biology, and soil science with the garden? Children need compelling interactive activities that last the right length of time.

-How can we apply permaculture design to an educational program? (Re: Holmgrens Principles and Practice- permaculture design can be applied to anything http://permacultureprinciples.com) What does it LOOK like?

-What insane looking plants do children love to see, smell, touch, taste, etc? (i.e. amaranth)

I am developing an art and agroecology curriculum for a summer program, ages 5-13. I would love to share an discuss my/your ideas. I have experience teaching ecology and agriculture (and art. lots and lots of art) to children but never before have I had so much freedom or the opportunity to design the garden as a classroom. Unfortunately the program ends beginning of August- in Massachusetts at high altitude, peas aren't even ready until July.

I hope to incorporate the use of: plants, vermiculture, compost, mushroom cultivation, and more... I have many specific ideas that I will be happy to share here, but they are not organized yet so I will have to share later.

Dawn Hoff
Posts: 371
Location: Andalucía, Spain
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We homeschool, so our approach is a little different than a curriculum based - but we are considering making permaculture workshops for our homeschool group and permaculture for kids courses (that they take while their parents do a PDC).

Some of the things that are important to me is that participation is voluntary and that learning happens on the periphery as well as in active participation. My
kids participate at some times, and opt out at others - they play with their own tools away from us - and model what we do, at their own pace and in their own space.

Now how do you teach specific things? By doing them! I would involve the children in discussing what they'd like in the garden - and then of course discuss the options in season, which things work
Toghether etc.

My son 7 yo is learning about compost, water harvesting (and composting in Drylands areas) and mycelium - because we do it, talk about it and show him when he asks. I am very inspired by the French pedagog Celestine Freinet and his Paedagogie du Travaille (the pedagogic of work), and a Danish pedagog called Erik Sigsgaard - and his thoughts about child raising and work.

My experience is that they model what we do, and that if we work, they will too. Though if they have never been given the choice it might take a long time... Maybe more time than you have. They are some times on the periphery some times at the centre of action. They absorb so much when you give them time when they are ready to learn.
John Elliott
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Meghan Orbek wrote: Children need compelling interactive activities that last the right length of time.

And that what makes it difficult, since plants don't grow very much during a child's attention span. What probably works is to have lots of different things going on, so there is always something to look at and study and discuss. That's never a problem in a permaculture garden, with all its diversity -- there's bound to be something interesting going on.

Here's a suggestion I have: Take a bulb onion and make 4 lengthwise cuts on it, carefully avoiding the spot where the roots were. Use the rest of it for cooking, but now you should have a rectangular block of onion with a pointy top and a rough bottom -- the growth plate. Now cut the rectangular block lengthwise and cut the two halves so you now have 4 rectangular blocks, each with a piece of growth plate at the bottom. Put them in individual pots (growth plate down) filled with potting soil and put them on the window sill or some other bright place.

In not too long, maybe a week or two, you will see little green onion tops poking above the soil. Onions grow fast enough that each day children should be able to see the difference, maybe measuring how fast their little clones (yes, these are clones of the parent onion) are growing.
This little lab activity can lead in a lot of directions: can you do this with all bulbs? do some bulbs do this on their own? can you also grow onions from seeds? are there bulbs that don't make seeds? If I was still a child, I could think of a lot more questions, but I think you can see where this is going.

Dawn Hoff
Posts: 371
Location: Andalucía, Spain
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You can also sprout stuff like beans and watch the stalk come out of the pea.

The last two weeks we have been planting a small food forest - we had small trees from our old town house garden, and we dug holes watered, made swales and hugels - put compost in from the kitchen (and when we ran out took composted goat poo from the stable). We mulched and peed on the plants, we planted beans and alpha alpha, garlic and different root veggies. And the kids have been helping all along asking questions. They have learned how different plants have different functions, how they help each other, how the plants need nutrition and water - and how we get the water to them. How the water destroys the soil if there is no ground cover, and how to make the water walk slowly across the land. We have bought a box of oyster mushrooms and looked at the network of mycelium underneath the plastic.

Ant other thing that is pretty "fast" is using animals - and they do attract the attention of most kids. Show how the animals work for us - cut the grass, fertilize etc.
Miles Flansburg
Posts: 3598
Location: Zones 2-4 Wyoming and 4-5 Colorado
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Vermicomposting would be cool.


I always enjoyed planting seeds between or in front of glass plates so you can see them grow.

Maybe building hugel beds and swales to talk about water storage and erosion.

Have you ever taken a PDC or know someone who has ?
David Livingston
Posts: 2507
Location: Anjou ,France
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I would recommend "jardine Bio , c'est rigolo " published by terre vivante
Learn about growing veg in french for children

Jen Shrock
Posts: 363
Location: NW Pennsylvania Zone 5B bordering on Zone 6
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I agree with the doing idea. Just do things and it will pique their curiosity. My neighbors two children tend to come running when they see me in the yard to see what I am up to. They have, on their own, helped with transplanting seedlings (they were excited to get to choose some plants each to take home and grow) and building a small raised bed. If I am in my greenhouse, it is a given one or both of them will pop in and, I suspect, they pop in pretty regularly when I am not there. They have a million questions about what I am growing and, if they are not familiar with it, it opens the opportunity about what it is and what it can be used for. They have asked questions about the compost bin that I was building and subsequent sometimes stinky pile that went into it (haha). I like to grow different veggies and of varying colors, so that has opened the door for coversations (and let me have a chance to get some stuff harvested for me before they figure out it is great tasting). Once while sitting on my back deck steps while looking through seed catalogs, they came over and joined me and, because of all of the strange colored and shaped things in there, we got to again talk through how squash and tomatoes and peppers (etc, etc, etc) don't have to just look like....well you get the picture. The same day there happened to be a ton of lady bugs on the back of the garage and flying around the deck. Initially, they were a little afraid of them and then wanted to squish them, so we had a discussion about how lady bugs are good bugs. The chickens...now that has been an adventure with them and trying to make sure they don't open the doors and let them out, but another round of discussions evolved about them.

Regardless, it has been really enjoyable getting to have these mini lessons that I think that they will take with them in the future. The boy mentioned that he doesn't like sports, but he really likes science, so (he doesn't know it yet), I have purchased a bug identification book that I will have him, and his sister too, "help" me to figure out what bugs are in the yard. I have actually found that I sometimes intentionally tailor what I will be working on, anticipating a viist and an opportunity for discussion. I am of the mindset to "get em while they're young". I don't have to force any of this on them and know that I probably have a limited amount of time left to impact them since they are growing up so quickly, but if they want to ask a million questions and, if I can get that seed firmly planted, then I have accomplished something that will possibly grow into something more as they get older.
Zach Weiss
Posts: 294
Location: Montana
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I add my vote to the learn by doing it idea. I think that getting their hands dirty and providing the opportunity to learn from nature is the most important part. Really the children should be teaching us!

I love the idea of building a hugelbed, a pond, or even just seeding and planting with the kids. Start to build a food forest at the site and have the kids help with everything from planning to design. While a 5 year old might not be able to map out a plan, I wouldn't be surprised if they had some great ideas for the project.

If there is any body of water, from my experience, the kids will be particularly excited to play in the water, while learning about water plants and aquatic insects. Insects are a subject where kids have much interest, as they are active enough to be exciting while also providing lots to learn from their observation. In the Ott-Kimm Conservatory is was actually a young child who set up the entire insect ecosystem, because she was so interested in it. The ecology of insects and their interactions with plants could be a great source of content.

The most profound thing Sepp has said to me to date is the following:

"When Children are raised in Nature, When those Children become Politicians, the Silent Revolution is Complete" (rough translation from around the dinner table)

Great work! I am excited to see what comes of this!
Meghan Orbek
Posts: 52
Location: Yonkers, NY/ Berkshires, MA USA
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Thanks for the replies.

I agree that we all learn by doing. I believe that can be assumed. I'm not going to have these children sitting in the garden with me filling out xeroxed worksheets about how to plant seeds.

Let's also assume that wise teaching practices will be in effect. No kid will be forced to do something their not into, etc.

I personally was raised by homesteaders and the garden/forest/meadow/creek/pond was my every day playground. While not a parent myself, I make a living teaching and working with children- so I am familiar with the driving curiosity of children, finding and enjoying "teachable moments," etc. It is all very good and rewarding all around.

So let's say that I'm working with children who are all raised much in the same way. They are precocious, focused, and relatively well versed in the garden and extended environment. Furthermore, it's not a group of 2-6, it's a group of 10. If you are familiar with working in such a situation, you may anticipate some common phenomena. Even the most well behaved and interested kids usually need guidance in listening, staying focused as a group, and channelling their energy. This allows them to pay attention for 5 minutes so they know what's going on and can then have fun with it without getting distracted by their friends or whatever. In some environments, this is less important, but in a structured day camp system in which the kids want to learn, play and have fun... it's our job as teaching adults to make things clear and accessible for them- just enough structure so that there is a foundation from which to explore and get really wild.

By next week I will post the "curriculum" I'm putting together. It may sound formal, but with structured lesson plans and planned activities, I will be able to provide a structure for the kids if that's what works best for them. Naturally a garden itself provides structure- as in horticultural therapy, we learn about our own needs by learning about the needs of plants. Same goes for animals in the garden, etc.

Some reasons I can't "just" garden as my program:

-This program runs from morning through late afternoon. A couple of the groups each day will be with me at the hottest time of day. This has been a real problem in the past for the gardening program there.

- The children get bored gardening for an hour (or more) a day every day (in the past, with other teachers). It's a five week program, so there's time for LOTS of gardening, but there has to also be LOTS of other projects that enrich the gardening. For example, science experiments with plants or fungi that can then perhaps be transferred into the garden. It can be simple, but it has to feel fresh for the kids. They are here for summer camp and need a balance of consistency and spontaneity.

-While I would never insist that a child do something they don't want to do, if 80% of the group isn't engaged with our activit(ies) at least 80% of the time, I'm not doing a good job as a teacher. I should have interesting options for when a kid needs a break, when the group needs to expend a lot of excess energy, when it's too hot, when my first idea is a flop, when all our seedlings die, etc. If somebody just needs to chill out alone in the shade, that's one thing, but if the kids are just uninterested then their needs aren't being met as people.

-This is an Art and Science day camp. The more diversity and information I can incorporate into my program, the more appealing it is likely to be for our little arty scientists.

I have taught ecology and alternative agriculture to children before and I know a lot of cool projects and activities. I also love the suggestions here on the forum. I think a lot of people here are interested in developing more and more ways of sharing our own ideas and explorations with children, and there are A LOT of different contexts in which to do that with widely varying constraints. So thank you for all your input and for a continued interest in education for everyone...


Ann Torrence
Posts: 1188
Location: Torrey, UT; 6,840'/2085m; 7.5" precip; 125 frost-free days
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Leaf-printing with paints on paper can lead to lessons on words to describe the shapes, conifers vs deciduos, monocots & dicots, veining, etc. All sorts of botany lessons and plant id can be studied under a shade tree, observing leaves, branch structures, while making art. Why do aspen leaves quake, how simple changes in structure and form make huge differences. If old enough, the kids could make a simple plant key for plants in the garden. Learning to use a plant key is a lifetime achievement skill, IMO.
Talia Ilom
Posts: 14
Location: CO, U.S.A.
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Meg darling,
I recommend this book by a counselor in a K-12 school modeled on "expeditionary learning", also sometimes called experiential learning. The curriculum for the school was created by Outward Bound, I think.
This book provides lots of examples for ways to engage and monitor self-led learning, group work, lessons, etc. for different age groups and desired learning outcomes. Quick example-
A middle school humanities class might time-manage this way: 22 min. mini-lesson, 20 min. work time, 5 min debrief, 20 min work time, 10 debrief, 10 min work time, 3 min debrief
The author describes this as a "catch and release" method.
Well, anyway, gimme your email and I'll happily discuss it with you more. You would super-dig this book, it's too cute- the graphics are hand made by an art teacher at the same school.
You can RENT the book, "That Workshop Book; New Systems and Structures for Classrooms That Read, Write, and Think" by Samantha Bennett here...
Meghan Orbek
Posts: 52
Location: Yonkers, NY/ Berkshires, MA USA
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Alright! Here's my outline. Sorry formatting didn't transfer as nicely as I had hoped. If you want a document file see attachment for pdf:

Note: This outline is organized by content- not chronologically. Its purpose is to compile and organize a body of possible material- that's all. For this reason actual "lesson plans" are not described at all. Some may seem very dry because of wording- they are actually way more fun than they may sound.

Garden Ecology and Art
1. Garden Ecology
2. Art

I. Garden Ecology
- activity: garden scavenger hunt
A. Plants- Botany
1. Plant Physiology
-discussion: what plant parts do we eat? 10-15 min
-activity: plant dissections
-activity: your mutant fantasy plant (drawing) 20-45 min
2. Basic Plant I.D.
-discussion: safety in the garden- ask before you eat
-activity: the great radish hunt
-activity: leaf rubbings
3. Plant Behavior
-discussion: how plants prefer to be treated
-activity: seed starting in ziploc bags
-activity: growing avocado and mango pits
-activity: making clones- sprouting spuds, pineapple tops, carrot tops, onion pieces
-activity: graphing plant growth in the garden
-activity: rooting cuttings from willow hormone (2 days)
-activity: trying different substrates
4. Plant Ecology
a.) Plant uses in the Garden (Permaculture and Biodynamics)
-discussion: what do plants need to survive and where does it come from?
-activity: Guild Build Game (needs development)
-activity: chop and drop
5. Ethno-Botany: Cultural Use of Plants
a.) Plants as food
-activity: garden tasting tour
-activity: herbal sachets
b.) Plants from other cultures
-activity: native vs. immigrant
-activity: mapping movement of people and plants
c.) Functional Plants
-activity: mini willow construction and living fences
-activity: dye bath from garden plants/grocery store vegetables

B. Animals- Biology
1. Worms and Vermiculture- using my 5 tiered "worm factory 360"
-discussion: how worms prefer to be treated 3-7 min
-activity: daily worm observation and maintenance 3-10 min
-activity: adopt a worm
-discussion/activity: worm physiology- build an earthworm 2 days
-activity: designing and building a bigger and better worm bin from unconventional materials. design: 20-30 min. implementation: 1-2 days
-activity: harvesting the castings! identification of organisms, worm count, weighing the harvest, etc 15-30 min
-activity: making worm tea
2. Insects and other bugs
a.) Pollinators and Flowers
-activity: the great bug search
-discussion: insect physiology
-activity: make and hide your own camouflaged paper bugs
-activity: invent your own specialized flower/pollinator relationship (drawing-comic strip) 15-45 min
-activity: carpenter bee house
3.Microorganisms- see compost and soil science
4. "Pests"
-discussion: who are we to call anyone a pest? (adaptive system design)
-ongoing discussion: beneficial roles of "pests"
-activity: debate- humans vs. pests
-activity: pest/predator observation and documentation
-activity: pest control experiment (homemade slug traps)
5. Humans as Educated Stewards- rethinking our role as animals
6. Vertebrates in the Garden
a.) Amphibians
-activity: toad houses
-activity: the great toad release
b.) Mammals
-discussion: what mammals are found in the garden?
-activity: nocturnal animal tracking
-activity: not your average bat house
c.) Birds
-discussion: how can birds work for us?
-activity: not your average scarecrow
C. Mushrooms- Mycology
1. Mushroom Safety
-discussion: mushroom ID and safety protocol
-activity: deadly mushroom game
2. Fungi Physiology and Ecology- through cultivation
a.) Mushroom Kit
-activity: daily observation and maintenance
b.) Mushroom Bed
-activity: design and prep
-activity: inoculation with spent kits
-activity: daily observation and possible maintenance
c.) Wild/Native Fungi
-activity: cultivation from wild samples

D. Compost and Soil Science
1. Playing in the Dirt
-activity: miniature ponds
-discussion: what is soil made of?
-activity: soil sampling and analysis
-activity: mulch experiments via path maintenance and observation
2. Vermiculture- see #1 under "Animals" above
3. Bokashi, LAB, BIM, EM, and IMOs
-discussion: microorganisms in our lives (ongoing)
-activity: LAB cultivation and observation (ongoing)
-activity: Sourcing native Beneficial Indigenous Microorganisms (30 min)
-activity: looking at microorganisms (and drawing them) (30-40 min)
-activity: bokashi inoculation or newspaper bokashi (15-30 min)
-activity: ongoing IMO vs. worm vs. regular compost systems
II Art
A. Observational/Imaginative Art
1. Field Illustrations
-discussion: field illustrations throughout the ages
-activity: drawing in the field (30-60 min)
-activity: "Drawing from Nature" exercises/meditations (5-15 min)
2. Still Life Drawing/painting
-discussion: setting up a still life
-activity: micro/macro charcoal drawings (1-2 days)
-activity: bouquet still life paintings (1-2 days)
3. Art for the Garden (also see habitat building activities under "Animals")
-discussion: the role of art/artists in the sustainability movement
-activity: constructing informational signs and markers
-activity: functional garden decor for bird repel (1-2 days)
-activity: edible mandalas
-activity: stone creatures
-activity: not your average scarecrow (also under "Animals")
-discussion: gardening as art
-activity: upcycled garden containers
-activity: vertical growing systems
4. Art from the Garden
-discussion: fine art from organic materials
-activity: leaf print textile art (after traditional Indian tapestry design) (1-2 days)
-activity: pressed specimen portraits
-activity: making paint from scratch
Filename: Art&AgroEcologyOutline.rough.pdf
File size: 36 Kbytes
[Download Art&AgroEcologyOutline.rough.pdf] Download Attachment
Matu Collins
Posts: 1968
Location: Southern New England, seaside, avg yearly rainfall 41.91 in, zone 6b
bee books chicken forest garden fungi trees
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Working with kids is fun and intense, thanks for bringing these ideas to the next generation. Cultivating the future is essential!

It looks like you have your plans pretty well in line, but I have another idea that might be fun. Water is fun to play with, do you have a good supply of it? Watching water run downhill and doing experiments with water flow and water catchment on a miniature scale is a good way to get children to an understanding. You could test how long it takes for water to drain through different types of soil/sand, water a mulched bed and an unmulched bed in the morning and check how moist it is at the end of the day. Building tiny swales would be fun too! Having worked with children I know that it's good to have some extra activities in your back pocket.

What works depends so much on the ages and temperaments of the children. Gardening as curriculum is a great and wonderful thing, but it does take patience and care. Children are good at garden destruction without meaning to be and it is no fun having to tell them "stop, don't" all the time, so if you can d3sign your space, your Zone 0 so to speak, so that there are lots of physical things for them to do it will help. Two things that I always try to have available are a loop to run around and a place to dig vigorously as deep as they want. Another thing is to have the places where the children should not step be very clearly defined.

Cooperation is foundational to permaculture, so cooperative games are easily a part of a permaculture class. Do you know some of these? I prefer them to competitive games, especially for children younger than 9.

Doing plays/acting out stories is a fun way to engage children of different ages.

Are you using books? Having a cool reading corner is a nice option to give them in the summer. I could think of a few good books if you like, and if you know any good ones I'd love to hear!

The essential key in teaching children about this stuff for me is my own enthusiasm. Taking a moment to take a deep breath before the children come and remember the wonder and enthusiasm I feel for the natural world makes a difference. Probably you know this, it sounds like you have a solid pedagogy already, but I thought I'd mention it anyway because it is so essential. If I feel, at the beginning of a class, that my plan feels boring, I throw it away and do something else, or at least cut it short. And if something works and I find myself looking back fondly on it, I find a way to do it again! Fun is key for all of us.

Roman Sapla
Posts: 7
Location: Cascadia, Oregon
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Thanks for the amazing outline, Meghan. It will be very useful when lesson planning.

Also, there are a lot of points I'd like to address in this thread but alas I need to head out and feed the animals. I'll revisit this soon to share some helpful resources...

Matt Powers
Posts: 343
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I teach a holistic all ages course for homeschoolers, families, adults & kids. I have it stepped out for K-12 as well to make it easy for homeschoolers.

Link the streaming version of the couse signup :) :) :)

Here's my course outline:

The Permaculture Student Online
Course Outline

Mission Statement
To spread permaculture youth education to all families, schools, permaculture sites & youth globally.

Week 1
Introduction to Permaculture, Ethics & Principles
Cooking Eggs: Hard Boiled, Poached, Scrambled & Crustless Quiche
Mapping Your Land
Plant Focus: Orange Giant Amaranth

Week 2
Behaviors of Nature, Patterns, Niches, Cycles (the Water Cycle) & More
Cooking Milk & Flour: Pancakes, Biscuits & Scones
What’s your land’s story?
Jar Soil Test & Planning Amendments, Mulch, & Legumes
Reverse Engineering our Diets part 1
Plant Focus: Mennonite Sorghum

Week 3
Soil, Legumes, Worm Compost, & Compost Tea
Cooking Soup & Greens
What soil building strategies work in work area?
Reverse Engineering our Diets part 2
Plant Focus: Corn

Week 4
Fungi, Mushrooms, Inoculating Paper & Cardboard
Burgers: 3 Ways
Planting Legumes & Fall Gardens
Mushroom Hunting (Identification)
Mushroom Projects: Shiitake logs, Oyster mushroom paper remediation, king Stropharia wood chip beds
Taking a Spore Print & Bioremediation
Plant Focus: Tomatoes: Seed Saving & Breeding with Brad Gates of Wild Boar Farms

Week 5
Trees & their Interactions
Cooking Sauce: Red, White & Green
Weeds & their Functions
Trees & Large Landscape Repair
The Layers of a Food Forest
Cutting Swales with Permaculture Student Josh
Tree ID
Climate Analogs & Local Plant Research
Plant Focus: Potatoes

Week 6
Cooking Potatoes & Roots
Squash Seed Saving
Regrowing Food
Design a Microclimate
Plant Focus: Artichokes

Week 7
Observing & Planning part 1
Sun Angle Observation
Observation - Protecting Seed
Water & Milk Kefir
Highland Downs’ duck pond irrigation system
Planting a Tree
Using a fan to seed save
Design Exercise
Plant Focus: Cowpeas

Week 8
Observation & Planning part 2
Starting your Design
Lemon Balm
Setting up a Greenhouse
Greenhouse Aquaponics - Strawberry Aquaponics
Pollinating by Hand
Your 1st Design - emailed to Matt
Create a Rationale for your Design
Cooking Popping Grains

Week 9
Permaculture Design Part 1
Vietnamese Daikon & Carrot Pickles
Okra Refrigerator Pickles
Water Cured Olives
Potting Soils & Greenhouse Plantings
Sunchoke Windbreak
Plant Focus Sunchoke

Week 10
Permaculture Design Part 2
Biofertilizer, BoneSauce & Chinampas
food preservation
Red Aztec Spinach Harvesting
Making Sauerkraut
Blossom Bluff Orchards
Squash Pickles
Drying & Freezing Squash
Rethinking our Diets
2nd Draft of Design
Plant Focus Squash

Week 11
Permaculture Design Part 3
Graywater & Rainwater Catchment
Greenhouse, Shadehouse & Food Forest Management
Wofati, Walipini & Zone 0
rocket mass heaters
Laundry Graywater System
Olla pots & Dripline Irrigation
My Seed Collection
Cooking Candied Buddha’s Hand (Citron)
Chicken Tractors
The Underground Cabin
Designing your Water Harvesting Systems exercise
Design an Animal Paddock Shifting System exercise
Willow Water recipe
Plant Focus Garlic & Alliums

Week 12
Permaculture Design part 4
Our Story
The Kefiry - a business based on water kefir
The Permaculture Skills Center - a place for higher learning in permaculture
Farm Share Farms, CSAs, geoff lawton’s OPDC
The Future of Permaculture
Erik Olsen’s homestead tour
The Guayaki Yerba Mate Company - an ethical, sustainable business model
Cooking Sourdough Breads
The Petaluma Seed Bank
Planning out your seed bank
Plant Focus: Strawberries & Cane Fruit

Every Week also has Exercises, Activities, Coloring Pages, Critical Thinking for all ages & Seed Sources for the Plant Focus.
Matt Powers
Posts: 343
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I also am writing the 6-12th grade permaculture curricular arc, so that public and homeschooled kids can be on track to be advanced in the nascent collegiate permaculture programs. I'm currently working on vol. 2.

Here's vol. 1:

Link to the Permaculture Studen 1 textbook & workbook set (only available here)

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