Do Nothing, or as Little as Possible

Efficient, labour saving, low maintenance, user-friendly are catch-cries we hear all the time, yet how much unnecessary work do we create for ourselves, often without even being aware of it? Eliminating unnecessary work is intrinsic to good permaculture design.


Bill Mollison describes work as what we need to do to fulfil unmet needs, so the more we can design things to work for each other the less we need to do.

I have a small flock of plump happy ducks working the orchard for me. They keep the weeds down and most of the pests, turning them into quality natural fertiliser for the trees and lovely duck eggs for us to eat – you should try a duck egg pavlova sometime! Of course keeping the ducks creates some work for us. We need to lock them up at night safe from dogs and foxes and let them out in the morning to go back to work in the orchard.

This brings us to the second permaculture perspective on work and that is to work where it counts and get maximum benefit from the energy and time we invest. With my ducks, locking them up at night is how I harvest their wonderful manure for the veggie garden. The duck house has a deep litter of straw which we regularly clean out and compost. Keeping the ducks in overnight means they also lay their eggs in the duck house and it’s much easier to collect them there from a clean straw nest in the morning than a frustrating search in every hidden nook and cranny of the orchard. Good design inherently solves more than one problem.

The Do Nothing Philosophy

Sometimes it simply a matter of letting nature do it’s thing – doing the work for you. In the late seventies I was co-owner of a 180 acre bush block on the mid-north coast. The forest had been bulldozed by the previous owner and the exposed hill slopes urgently needed reforesting. We could have worked incredibly hard setting up a nursery, raising seedling trees and planting them out. This would have meant using massive amounts of resources in the process; shade structures, pots, potting mix, watering systems and so on. Forests can regrow themselves, they just need to be given a chance. All the seed stock was there in the soil, the one thing stopping the forest from naturally regenerating was the neighbour’s cows eating off the young seedlings as they emerged. Once a cow-proof fence was constructed around the property the forest grew back with no further intervention or work on our behalf.

So you find that sometimes the easiest way to get things done is to do nothing at all. In the veggie garden I let many plants self sow. There’s a bed right now full of crisp fresh rocket, lettuce, celery and flowering calendulas all self-sown from last winter. Where they grow too thickly I thin them out to transplant into other beds, saving me the work of raising seedling punnets. It’s really a matter of knowing when and how to act, when to do something or nothing.

No-dig gardens and sheet mulching are the most effective ways to reduce work in a veggie garden. Digging stimulates the germination of weed seeds in the soil, so you find that digging the garden makes weeds and weeds makes work. You can also plant low hedges of lemongrass or borders of comfrey around gardens to stop grasses like kikuyu and couch invading from neighbouring lawns.

Another option to reduce work in the garden is to employ a few chickens. They’re great little workers demolishing the weeds and fertilising the garden as they go and there’s no workers comp or superannuation to worry about. Of course the chickens need to be confined to the area you want weeded or they’ll have a big garden party and eat the lot!

Design for Convenience

We unwittingly create a lot of work for ourselves by not thinking things through thoroughly. Permaculture is packed with basic practical common-sense concepts that make life so much easier. The concept of zonation for example is really about design for convenience. It’s about where we place things according to how much attention they need, how often we need to visit, use, harvest and maintain that particular item, plant, animal or system.

An out-of-the-way veggie garden will soon turn into a weedscape. Distance and inconvenience invites neglect whereas close proximity and convenience is conducive to better management. Some things we can afford to neglect so they can safely be located in more out of the way places. A nut tree can be safely planted where we only need to check it a few times a year whereas a peach or nectarine needs a good location to monitor fruit fly and harvest the soft fruit as it ripens.

The same principle applies to how we pattern the planting of veggies and herbs in the garden. Some plants are harvested regularly over a period of weeks or months like celery, silver beet, open hearting lettuce, broccoli, tomato, capsicum and so on. These plants are best sited close to pathways within easy reach. Zucchinis need a prominent place in the garden and if they’re not checked daily you’ll soon end up with massive zucchinis over a half meter long and there’s only so many stuffed baked zucchinis you can enjoy in a season.

Other veggies take a long time to grow to maturity and then you harvest the plant once and that’s it, like cabbage and cauliflower. These you can plant behind the pathside veggies in less accessible places. Many root crops are treated similarly. Some veggies in this category also need a lot of space like pumpkin and melons and are best planted where they can rampage without smothering all your other garden beds. They love to scramble over fences and also make a wonderful living mulch under fruit trees.

I’ve installed a second hand kitchen sink in the garden right next to the chook yard. It really simplifies life and mess in the kitchen as I can wash all my root veggies there and return the soil and water to the garden, throw the tops and scraps to the chickens.

A herb garden close to the kitchen is one thing I can’t live without, planted with my favourite culinary herbs. It’s so good being able to simply step out of the kitchen door and grab a sprig of parsley or chives, a quick bunch of basil and a fresh bouquet garni to pop in a pot or garnish a dish.

Making the Right Connections

There’s also the art of sequencing things, planning your routines and pathways so they lead you conveniently from one job to the next. If you’ve a small nursery tucked away in one corner of the garden, the compost bin in another and the chickens right out of the way, you can quickly find yourself running all over the place. Look at the jobs that need to be done daily and try to link them along a single path so when you dash out in the morning you go through the nursery to water seedlings on your way to feeding and letting out the chickens, pop the scraps the chooks don’t like in the compost bin and return via the veggie garden in case there’s that zucchini needing harvesting on your way back to the house.

All it really takes is thinking a lot more about what things need and how we can simplify what we need to do then explore ways we can design the system to reduce the workload and maximise the benefits.

© Robyn Francis, 2000

Robyn Francis is passionate about the earth and nature’s abundant beauty and it’s a passion she loves to share through her teaching, writing, music and the permaculture paradise she’s created at Djanbung Gardens. An organic gardener since the early seventies, she is as comfortable up to her armpits in compost as she is discussing the intricacies of eco-village engineering and design with bureaucrats and corporates. Robyn was the founding director of Permaculture International Ltd and ERDA Institute and has received numerous awards for her work including ABC Rural Woman and a Rivercare 2000 Award for her innovative composting toilet and wetland greywater system. Robyn enjoys making herbal and cottage products from her garden, exploring her Celtic heritage and finding new challenges to shift the dominant paradigm in a more sustainable direction.

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