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.

7 Strategies for a Highly Efficient Gardener

Follow these few simple strategies to make every moment in your garden count! No more feeling like you’re going in circles getting nowhere!

Going in circles. Getting nowhere.

Do you ever get into the garden and spend hours toiling away – only to finish up the day not knowing what was actually achieved? Do you ever set out to complete a task, but find yourself wrapped up in a plethora of other tasks instead? Do you ever find yourself racing around back and forth unable to achieve your desired outcomes in the garden? Do you ever feel like you are always just one step behind with everything? Don’t worry I’ve been there!

This post is specifically about gardening – and even more specifically about Permaculture – but the lessons can actually be applied to life in general, or to any other vocation or project. I’ve seen inefficient Permaculture sites and I’ve seen efficient ones. I’ve certainly been very inefficient on my own sites in the past but have slowly but surely turned that around over time. Through observing my own behavioural patterns (my habits and I, we are a sector) and the patterns of others, I’ve been able to use design strategies to become more effective in my Permaculture-related endeavours.

Here I’ve given you 7 strategies which can really turn things around. I’d recommend that you start with one and really commit to it fully until it becomes a habit, and then move on to the next one. There’s a good chance that even committing to one of these strategies until it is a habit will be enough to supercharge your efficiency!

The 7 Strategies

1. Timing – Get a gardening calendar

This one is quite obvious. Most of us use calendars to plan and organise ourselves at work, at home or both. With your garden, a calendar is not only helpful – it is essential! Growing food is all about timing, a planting calendar will ensure that you get the right crops in at the right time instead of forgetting about it and leaving things too late. With a calendar you can plan around the seasons and do the right work when it counts – like composting and planting in Autumn and Spring, harvesting and preserving in Summer, repairs and maintenance in Winter. Check out for some cool Permaculture calendars!

Set scheduled uninterrupted time for tasks. Whether it’s 30 minutes a day, or 2 hours a weekend – garden time is garden time. Know which task you are working on in that block of time, put your phone on airplane mode, let the family know – no interruptions. This is a productive, creative, meditative and liberating time for you.

I’d also highly recommend that you set aside time for idle enjoyment in your garden. Really, a time to stop and do nothing but enjoy… That doesn’t mean weeding or watering your garden… I know, I know these are relaxing tasks and you enjoy them but please, STOP! This is also not the time to think about all the incomplete tasks or things that you need to get either. Stop and appreciate this space with a still body and mind. This is where your creative endeavours and hard hours collide and integrate with natures will. The appreciation of this is in fact a yield. It’s always a different variety, but there is always something available, don’t let this yield go to waste! Remind yourself that setting “idle time” aside will help you to be more productive the rest of the time.

2. Layout – Create a Permaculture design

You wouldn’t build a house without a blueprint. A Permaculture design is a holistic blueprint. It doesn’t need to be beautiful or detailed, it just needs to highlight the key features of your site (zones and sectors) and the grand vision. It will help you reach that vision, it will save you time and money, it will help your site in so many countless other ways. Here’s a free sectors checklist to help get you started.

When getting started on Permaculture design, just focus on Zone 1. Make sure your zone 1 is very small and compact and has everything you need in it. This is where most of your time will be spent, and where most of your energy will go. This is a highly productive small area. Make sure it links and flows well with your zone 0 and zone 2 edges. Double-check that you don’t have elements which belong in your zone 1 out in your further zones. Plan out and implement time-saving access, and integrate elements wherever possible into fluid self-replicating systems – for example I like to build at least one compost heap right inside my vegetable garden, on a  part of the bed itself, and once its finished all I have to do is pull it over and rake it across the rest of the bed, plant again, and build the next heap on another bed.

If some of these words are all just gibberish to you, don’t worry, it’s a lot simpler than it sounds but it will take a little learning on your part. This learning will pay off. I’d recommend you start by learning about zone and sector mapping. These are the foundation of Permaculture design. Check out our Sustainable Edible Gardens online course which covers this and more.

Compost heap directly in the vegetable garden. Chickens with the compost.
Image: We prepared a vegetable garden for a family in Durban, South Africa (A family of people- not chickens). We placed this compost heap right inside the back corner of the vegetable garden. Watering was no problem, as it received water when the veggies did and adding plant matter was easy too because of its proximity. When it was fully broken down and ready for use, a hoe or heavy rake could easily be dragged over the top (layer by layer) and spread over the beds in front. Alternatively, one could start the process of taking it apart and then let the chickens do the rest of the work of spreading it (just be sure to get them out of there before they eat too many of the good bugs)!

3. Pack for the day

Have a wheelbarrow or basket always packed with everything you ever need while out in the garden. Water, snacks, hat, sun cream, must-have tools, string, paper bags or containers to collect seed or produce, etc. Don’t make it unmanageably hefty, but even if your garden is close to the house, having these things out there with you reduces distraction and keeps the flow going.

4. Get Organised

Make sure everything on your site is well organised, clean and ordered. Start putting a system in place today. Don’t wait! Once it’s ordered, always set aside time to clean up and reorganise at the end of every session. When you think of tasks to be completed that are related to order, always do them first.

This might sound unpleasant, and in the beginning, it just might be… but if you’re like me (basically a wild animal) once some order is established it becomes addictive. Not in a bad way. The reason being – it is much easier to do work and to enjoy your work when things are ordered. No more running back and forth searching for that confounded knife and twine… no more.

5. Focus your efforts

If you find that things are never quite where you want them to be, and that you are always just one or two steps behind everything, it is definitely time to make cutbacks to narrow your focus toward some achievable goals. Cutbacks that you might consider: Make your zone 1 even smaller (this is my personal favourite); set up auto-irrigation; buy or trade for seedlings or direct sow (instead of raising your own seedlings); stop making compost and start sheet mulching instead. There are many other cutbacks that you might make which are site-specific: Try to think of where you spend large amounts of your time and see how you can make cutbacks to reduce that time spent.

Permaculture zone 1. Grey-water pond next to hugel kultuur vegetable bed. Densely planted organic vegetables.
Image: Our home in Cape Town, South Africa. This is where our journey started. This is more or less the extent of what we were calling our Zone 1 (with a similar size stretch behind the photographer – not pictured). A pond which was fed by our house grey-water, a large hugel bed, and some edges. This picture was taken before the area was fully maxed out, and having such a small area helped us to REALLY max it out! The walkway seen next to the house leads to the front door – it was used multiple times a day by everyone coming in and out of the property, not to mention those logs against the wall which were our morning coffee benches. The use of a hugel bed maximized our vertical space and massively reduced our time spent watering (among the many other functions it served). The use of a grey-water system right there in our zone 1 also cut down on the necessity to be constantly watering. The keys here are that our zone 1 is small and therefore manageable, it receives so much traffic that keeping it well comes naturally and easily, there is limited space so it is used well, and we still included measures to save time wherever we could.

6. Take a full day

A full day in the garden can often be more productive than multiple short days. Some things need steady maintenance, but the impact of a real full day’s work can often last weeks.

7. Invite Community

Try to find someone to help you in the garden. You could offer to help someone else out in their garden and hope that they return the favour – or you could just be upfront about it and ask for some help. If the idea of growing community around your garden appeals to you, you could always start up a Permablitz group. Check out what they are doing in Melbourne with Permablitz – you can do the same!

Natural building workshop. Mingha / Permablitz. Green roof, bioconstruction. Community.
Image: In Uruguay we attended what is known there as a Mingha. This is where the local community band together and use their many hands to make light work of larger homesteading jobs for individuals in the community. This is usually done on a shared rotational basis, as in: you host this time and get the help of the community – next time someone else hosts – you show up and help them back! This model has been practiced the world over under many different names for centuries. More about Mingha’s/ Permablitzing coming soon…

Well, there you have it. The 7 Strategies that I think will make the most difference to your site and your efficiency right away! I won’t use any more of your time with a long-winded conclusion – better to get out there and be productive right!?

Here’s the seven strategies again:

  1. Timing – get a gardening calendar
  2. Layout – create a Permaculture design
  3. Pack for the day
  4. Get organised
  5. Focus your efforts
  6. Take a full day
  7. Invite community


Let us know which is your favourite strategy, and share this page to those who you think will appreciate and benefit from it!