If It Looks Like Permaculture and Walks Like Permaculture…

Permaculture simply means “permanent agriculture”, but another definition might read that it is a system of agricultural and social design principles centered on simulating or directly utilizing the patterns and features observed in natural ecosystems.
There are three permaculture ethics: care for the earth, care for the people, and return the surplus. These ethics were demonstrated time and again during our stay at Linnaea Farm, where even those who claimed ignorance of permaculture in general were employing these ethics and the 12 principles that accompany them.
Collective agreements made by the students for our time at the farm.
Tamara McPhail, executive director of Linnaea Farm operations, told our group during a tour of the farm that she has never studied permaculture, though her actions speak much louder than her words. During her routine movement of the cow herd from one carefully laid out plot to the next, she explained that she observes how much grass the cows eat during their 24 hours in that section, and then uses that to gauge how large the next section will be. Optimal foraging that allows the cattle to put on weight while not just cherry picking the most tender grass enables her to maximize the productivity of their pasture land.
Tamara staking out a new plot for the cows to graze.
One lucky cow getting the green grass from the other side!
This intuitively makes sense, and while Tamara might not know the language of permaculture, she is clearly practicing it. Principle 1: observe. Principle 2: catch and store energy (harvest while it is abundant). Principle 3: obtain a yield (make sure you’re getting valuable results). Principle 4: self-regulate and listen to feedback. Just in this one example alone, Tamara has employed the first four principles. This shows that permaculture is not just a set of rules or theory that cannot be applied, it is intuitive and pragmatic at its core.
Caring for people was also demonstrated by not only the farm stewards but the course students as well. Never have I seen such a diverse group of strangers cement friendships so quickly. The care, concern and genuine openness were evident from the first day. It was clear to see that we not only wanted to learn about permaculture from the farm, but we wanted to see how far it could go within ourselves as well. The so-called “zone zero” that encourages us to reflect and build ourselves up from the inside, so that we may better inhabit our space with others.


Learning a secret handshake that ends with the “eagle flying to the sky”.
Another way that Tamara paid tribute to permaculture principles is when she explained how necessary redundancy is for the farm to function. When one of the stewards fell ill, and their duties were obviously neglected as a result, things began to fall apart. Tamara noted that if they had set things up properly, that wouldn’t have happened. So they learned. They adapted. They made sure they had multiple people covering the same task.
They experienced and taught permaculture, without knowing the language.

From Patterns to Details.

While at Linnaea Farm, I heard for the first time the concept of “the doctrine of signatures“, a technique developed by Paracelsus, circa 1500 A.D.,  to determine what function a particular plant may impart by studying its form.

For example, the plant lungwort (Pulmonaria officinalis) is an herbal remedy for, you guessed it, lung health. Its leaf shape resembles a lung and also has spots on the leaves reminiscent of a diseased lung. While the doctrine of signatures, as well as efficacy of herbal remedies, is controversial, it is hard not to feel some sense of truth when exposed to multiple examples. Another illustration of this is with comfrey (Symphytum officinale); upon breaking the stalk, long strands are exposed which are comparable to skin. Comfrey is known to be an exceptional skin healer, so much so that you must be certain you don’t have an infection (e.g. deep wound that hasn’t been cleaned properly) before applying it to your skin, as the skin will heal over the infection, causing disastrous results.

The doctrine of signatures also shows up in the permaculture principle “design from patterns to details“. Stepping back to see the grander plan and its patterns, you can then move inwards to the details. Without this approach, it is easy to miss the forest for the trees. While the doctrine of signatures may be controversial (not every form displays its function), the same is true with farming advice. Each farmer approaches a problem using different solutions, reminding us to listen to our own hearts when making decisions.

Like Adam Shaikh of Linnaea Farm told us, “you have to farm for you”. At the end of the day, if you planted 50 rows of beets because you thought people really want beets and then no one buys them….well, you better really like beets. “Don’t plant something you don’t want to eat,” Adam said, “because chances are you’ll be eating it, especially if it goes wrong” (i.e. gets a pest/disease and no longer looks nice enough to sell).

Adam leading us through the garden, full of things he likes to eat.


Oliver Kellhammer, ecological artist and activist, explained this well when we visited his home on Cortes Island. By planting fig trees below the upper deck of his house, he didn’t have to use a ladder to pick the ripe fruit – he simply had to walk out onto his deck. Designing with yourself in mind (Oliver doesn’t enjoy heights) is not only smart but useful.

Oliver’s home with fig trees surrounding the deck.
Oliver at Hank’s Beach.

Farming has to work for you and your life. Don’t employ methods that sound great but mean you have to be on the farm every hour of every day. You’ll burn out, and worse, you’ll think that you’re not a good farmer. Maybe you’re a great farmer, but you were too busy listening to what others thought was best. By taking your time, observing, interacting with and being curious about your land and how the living world interacts with it, you’ll know how to bring things into balance. It might take weeks, it might take years, but if you have patience and community, anything is possible.  These are the tenets of permaculture.

Like Adam said, “if you want something done fast, do it yourself. If you want something that lasts, do it with a community”.


There is no finer feeling than creation – bringing something into existence. We experience this in small ways and large: having an idea, writing a song, birthing a baby, growing food. Few things offer greater satisfaction and worth than creating something, anything, does.


Farming is not only creation, it is creativity. It is the art of making something out of nothing. And this “something” ain’t no joke – food is what sustains us. These creations are necessary for life.

As we’re bombarded with the projections of what 11 billion people will do to the planet, and what it will take to feed them, it can be tempting to fall into the trap of monoculture, large-scale, industrial agriculture. But what if I told you that small-scale farming can produce a yield, using methods designed to return the surplus to the system and reduce pressure on our dwindling resources?

Using only 1.5 acres for garden space, plus fruit and nut trees scattered across the property and pasture area for livestock, Linnaea Farm is not only able to feed the eight stewards that live on site, but sell at summer markets. For 10 weeks they sell their wares almost every single day.

A tour of the market production garden.

Adam Shaikh tends to the Linnaea Farm gardens and has done for many years. He spent time with us explaining how he observed the land and worked with it, rather than imposing his ideas of how things should happen onto it. During a 3-hour permaculture information blitz, he gave us a taste of the myriad things he has learned while cultivating the land. Time and again, it came back to trying something new, seeing how the system responded to that change and then adapting again. This is the perfect embodiment of a permaculture principle: creatively use and respond to change. Not only was Adam responding to the system itself, he was giving time and observing how the system responded to him. Give and take. Guess and check. Try, fail, and try again. Creative solutions for your perceived problems.


Adam teaching us the benefits of permanent mulching.


Not only does this allow Adam to gain critical understanding of the techniques he employs, he also said that “small systems are able to respond quicker and with more diversity and creativity to pests and changing climates than large-scale operations”. In the face of climate change, this kind of adaptability is crucial for survival. Natural selection always picks a favourite – which species will carry the genes that enable it to win out over its competitors. By working with the transitioning climate, rather than forcing old methods to work by adding chemical fertilizers and genetically modifying organisms, Adam is able to produce hardy stock that just might stand the test of time.


It sure has so far.


Guardian Angels, Unsung Heroes and the Sum of All Parts.

Linnaea Farm was not always a permaculture haven. Originally a “dude ranch” owned by the Manson family (no, not THAT Manson family), the farm was bought by Robert Cabot in 1978 after scouring the world for an appropriate property to turn into an intentional community, he then purchased the land and immediately turned it over to a land trust for safe keeping.


Linnaea Farm, in all its glory.


Why did Robert do this? No one really knows, explained Tamara McPhail, current executive director of Linnaea Farm. She likes to think that he recognized the potential for the site to fall into the wrong hands, and having come from an affluent family he decided he could do something about it and actually did. The first guardian angel of the farm.

But with any big idea or project comes many small, unseen parts. The machinery that allows the Steve Jobs of the world to function and thrive.  Permaculture teaches us to recognize all the individual aspects that create a healthy system, not just the keystone species, so we must not forget unsung heroes who support visionaries we celebrate.

Fast forward 40 years and another guardian angel appears. Paul Stamets, well-known mushroom guru, donated approximately $2000 worth of mycelium to Friends of Cortes Island (FOCI) and Linnaea Farm in an effort to reduce the algal blooms that have plagued Hague and Gunflint Lakes for the past few years. Mycoremediation fits perfectly with the tenets of the farm; the inoculated wood chips filter farm runoff before it enters the creek that flows into the lake, which helps reduce the nutrient overload that can contribute to eutrophication and thus a stinky algal bloom.


Jeff showing the mycoremediation bed near the stream.



Anna holding a Garden Giant (Stropharia rugosoannulata).


Now, these two gentlemen have done Linnaea Farm a tremendous service, and their efforts should most definitely be praised. But they offered cameo appearances in what otherwise is an intense, committed relationship. Please don’t get me wrong, I’m incredibly grateful to the major movers and shakers, but I’m even more grateful to the people who wake up in the middle of the night hearing the howling of the wolves, wondering if the sheep are safe for the night.

Aristotle once told us that “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” and this applies to permaculture undertakings. Paul Stamets’ and Robert Cabot’s generosity were necessary parts of maintaining the Linnaea Farm system, but adding them to the myriad “small” actions taken to enable this system to thrive doesn’t come close to explaining the force generated by the site. There is something inexplicable about the “feel” of Linnaea Farm that can’t be understood by adding together the sum of all its parts. Taken alone, even with Paul Stamets’ and Robert Cabot’s actions, the farm is like many others. But lived and understood as a whole…it is so much more.


Meela, showing how the sum of eggs, flour, sugar and butter is so much more as a whole.


Overall, I encourage readers to think about the small pieces of every system.We cannot forget the ordinary heroes of the grander visions, as every spoke is necessary for the bicycle wheel to hold its shape and function. Remember the unsung heroes like the parasitic wasp larvae that eat caterpillars, saving your fruit trees from demolition. Or the painstaking weeding that must occur in order for your tasty veggies to thrive. By all means, celebrate the one who bought the tree, but extend some kudos for the ones who watered it, weeded it, pruned it, and loved it.

Liz and Brent’s cake to celebrate 30 years of farm stewardship.