Permaculture Lessons from Patagonia

It has been almost three years since we visited southern Patagonia just outside of Cochrane in Chile, but the image is still clear. Although it was Summer, the snowy mountain peaks, glacial temperatures and jagged terrain gave us a very wintery feel – coming from the subtropics! We had a lot to learn about practicing Permaculture in a steppe climate and what needs to be done in order to get things to grow. Not only the unique environment but our humble and enthusiastic hosts were magnificent teachers, leading by example and living as one with nature.

Our hosts, “Eco-Centro Familiar” are a family of four; Karla, Mattias and daughters Isaura and Sandra. Their beautiful home is a short drive or a stunning 10 km cycle from Cochrane town and is situated along the bank of a hill overlooking Lake Esmerelda with the Northern Icefields as a backdrop. Their entire two-storey house was built from up-cycled wood and insulated with non-recyclable plastic packaging, their water and house is heated entirely by their wood stove oven, a focal point of their kitchen and home.

Sunrise harvest

Eco-centro is the perfect example of sustainable living where mother nature does not have to be sacrificed for human comforts. Their house is warm, large and comfortable and offers outstanding views of the lake and of the northern icefields of Patagonia.


LESSON 1: Family & Friends are central

Just as their name reflects, at Eco-Centro Familiar, family and friends are at the centre of their lifelong eco-centred project and lifestyle. We learnt that being part of a community who care about environmental issues can fuel the passion to live more eco-consciously from day to day. Karla and Mattias regularly met with friends and groups that worked hard to protect and to conserve natural environments. One such group had endeavoured for years to save the famous Baker River from being dammed up for hydro-electricity to serve the cities up north.

TIP: Look for other people interested in living sustainably and reach out to them. Always knowing what other people are doing to be more environmentally active, will keep you inspired with projects of your own.

LESSON 2: Upcycle

The house on the hill

The entire house was made from wood salvaged from the building works at Patagonia Park. It is not a tiny house either…it is a two storey house built on stilts along the hillside. The top level has two bedrooms and a bathroom and the downstairs is an open plan kitchen, office and living area.  It took four years to fully insulate the house using eco-bricks (made from cleaned soft plastics stuffed into tetrapaks – both of which are not recyclable in this part of the world). Karla would take bags of waste home from functions and kids birthday parties to be cleaned, dried and used, as the family themselves hardly produced any waste of that sort at all. Now the house is constantly warm, and with the kitchen fire going for too long it can even get too hot! 

TIP 1: Look out for wasted materials used from other building sites. Who knows, maybe you’ll get as lucky as they did and build an entire house from it!

TIP 2: Start building your eco-brick collection! If you have a young family, have the kids collect plastic that would’ve otherwise been thrown away and build eco-bricks. If a house sounds like a massive project, why not use them for something small like a shed or outdoor office.

LESSON 3: Use a greenhouse

Rocking out in the greenhouse

In a climate as cold as it was in southern Patagonia, a greenhouse is essential to growing your own food. Many homes in Cochrane had a small greenhouse of perhaps 12 m²  just outside their homes. Karla and Mattias had two greenhouses made out of recycled wood and plastic, which were probably about 40m² each. They grew most of their vegetables in the greenhouse but also used outdoor areas for growing in Summer. Winter would’ve been impossible to grow anywhere but in the greenhouse, due to the wonderful blessing of snow!

TIP: Even if not in an icey part of the world, having a greenhouse can help you to have vegetables on the table all year round. The heat provided by a greenhouse and the protection from the wind, often allows plants to thrive compared to if they were growing outside in harsher conditions.

LESSON 4: The importance of Zoning

view of the lake from the front door

Sometimes when we forget to design from pattern to detail (Permaculture Principle No.7) , we can forget how important zones are for a permaculture design and why it is good to have them mapped out at the very beginning. Being at eco-centro reminded us of the importance of zoning. In their Zone 0, their house… there is always lots going on: Firewood is chopped right outside on the driveway and put directly into a hatch built onto the side of the house, this lands the wood inside the house, right next to the woodfired stove; little seedlings live right in the living room (where else?) and can be tended to all day long; the worm farm is right outside their front door and their workshop is just as close.

Being at eco-centro reminded us that it is also important to be flexible, to respond to your natural environment and to creatively respond to change. Practically speaking, the greenhouses are a bit far away from the house, considering that they require such regular care. This resulted in much walking back and forth, and up and down the hill during a working day for us. Given the nature of the slope the house is positioned on, there didn’t seem to be any alternatives to this arrangement. Quite soon we learnt to pack everything we needed for a day in the garden, and just made the most of our time out there.

TIP: Design your site guided by Permaculture Principles and Zoning to really make your system flow.  We’ll be teaching how to zone your site in our Sustainable Edible Gardens online course.

LESSON 5: Create by designing with nature

Greenhouse built to blend in the surrounds

Our hosts had a background in architecture, and their architectural style of designing to mimic nature was reflected in every detail on their site. Designing with nature does not only mean using natural resources such as wood to build, but also copying patterns you’d see  in the environment around you. For instance, while we were there we built a simple gate to the veggie garden. Mattias impressed on us how to make the gate by following natural patterns of the land. Remember how nothing in nature is straight – the result was a flowing gate that felt like it had a life of its own and blended beautifully with its surrounding environment. 

TIP: Copy the patterns that you notice in nature, like the veins of a leaf or the flow of water and do this from the pattern, down to every detail.

LESSON 6: Use all parts of the plant

Drying plants over the wood-stove, the focal point of the house

We really learnt the value of not wasting at Eco-Centro. Karla was very knowledgeable about all varieties of functional and edible plants, their uses and how to cook them. There were always leaves of different sorts and uses hanging to dry above the wood fired stove, (next to the socks and the soft plastics) she would often cook up a feast just from foraged weeds, and would use all parts of every plant she pulled. 

TIP: Do a little research. Is that weed in your garden perhaps edible? The dandelion for instance can be eaten from flower to root and is actually rather tasty.

LESSON 7: Start small to save energy

The electricity at Eco-Centro is powered by a handful of solar panels, but there was also a back-up generator when we were there in case of emergencies or if they stayed up late working into the night. Remember that in southern Patagonia, there are not many hours in the day to harness the sun’s energy in winter. The wood fired oven was plenty to heat the house and the water, so the solar energy was for lights, computers and power tools and was generally sufficient. The plan was to keep adding batteries and panels until the generator would not be needed anymore.

TIP: Start small with alternative energy, buy a few solar panels to start and gradually build up. Also, don’t rely on one source of energy (for every function there should be multiple elements), a well placed, fuel efficient wood fired stove with a built in hot water tank can cover cooking, heating and hot water energy needs.

Lone guanaco in Patagonia Park

We will be forever grateful to Karla, Mattias, Isaura and Sandra for sharing their home with us and when the time is right we’ll be taking the lessons we learnt from them to build a beautiful home for ourselves.

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