One of my very good friends asked me what to do about a proliferation of stinging nettle in her yard. There is a creek running through the bottom of her property, and while once there had been Jimson weed and other natives growing there, now there is just nettle which is spreading to her lawn. Her hand hurt for a day from inadvertently pulling some out bare-handed. Her neighbor had told her that “nettle was bad” and would take over. She was laying cardboard on some of it, but was afraid that wouldn’t be enough.
One of the main practices of permaculture is to take what is considered to be a problem and look at all sides of it, just as in Zen you must think like your enemy, or in some Native American beliefs you must walk a mile in another’s shoes.
Fortunately I knew some things about nettle, and told her that nettle was not only edible once the acid had been blanched away, but highly nutritious. Here is a good description of what it can do. It is a superb compost enervator. The disappearance of the other natives by the streambed was evidence that someone upstream had sprayed an herbicide that washed downstream and killed everything. The prolific growth of stinging nettle, which is an indicator plant for high nitrogen in the soil, showed that someone’s high nitrogen lawn fertilizer came the same way.
Nettle’s acid is simply an excretion by the plant on the hairs along its stem to discourage browsing animals. The sting is immediate and temporary, unlike poison oak which has an irritating oil that can spread with touch and takes a few days to cause a rash. In nature often the cure grows near the problem, and therefore both the riparian plants mint and plantain can be rubbed onto the area to alliviate the sting, but soap and hot water works just as well. Nettle reproduces only by seed, not by rhizomes or other invasive tactics. It likes water therefore it takes root in lawns which are watered frequently and are fertilized with nitrogen.
My friend is always ready to embrace new information, especially where nutrition is concerned, and immediately stopped looking at nettle as a potentially dangerous invader of her property, to an indicator of other problems (stream pollution) and a health goldmine. To control what she doesn’t use she knows she can cut it down before it seeds and it won’t spread (and the cut plants will charge her soil), and if she wanted to restore the wetlands area she could continue to lay cardboard to cover most of the nettle, then top them with soil and straw, cut holes through to the dirt and transplant native riparian plants into the sheet mulch. There are no invaders, no monsters in her yard.
While pulling ragweed out of the pathways at my place with another friend (I have become so rich in friends this last year!), I told her about the nettle. Her reply was that while she worked in the garden she’d see things in a new perspective. Knees to the earth, eyes choosing between ragweed and sprouting wildflowers, lungs full of the scent of good soil, permaculturalists steer away from the stereotypcial gardening approach and see benefits where others see problems.
And this is what this post is all about: applying permaculture practices to everyday living, from personal to global thinking. In permaculture there are no invasives, no bad guys. Even my hated Bermuda grass is a plant in the wrong place, spread because people insist on seeding lawns with the stuff. Its function is to hold soil and moisture and break up hardpack. It does this admirably well, only I don’t want it in my garden. In permaculture, problems are like little moons where you see nothing but black on the dark side until you turn it to see the incredible sunlit topography on the other side, and understand that all those details are there on the dark side as well. A problem is just an opportunity for creative thinking; a resource whose purpose isn’t clear as yet. Therefore there are no ‘weeds’, no stereotypes.
So take these phrases and look at them with the eyes of permaculture: Teens are irresponsible. Old people are antiquated. Dark-skinned people are dangerous. Light-skinned people are dangerous. The government is out to get us. All businesses are bad. All politicians are corrupt. Men are incompetent. Women are hysterical.
Imagine these phrases as balls you can turn in your hand, like little moons. Examine, understand, see that anger and violence all stems from fear. Look at all sides of the phrases and see that they cannot be true. Just as stinging nettle isn’t an invasive plant out to get people, but a plant rich in potentials doing its job, then any potential imagined threat to our safety can be understood and appreciated until we no longer face it with fear. We hire and train youths. We listen to the life experience of the old. We vote to change the government. We support small businesses. We offer training and workshops to teach. We offer safe, sane gardens in which to meditate. We produce good organic food to nourish brains and bodies and activate good health.
By gardening with permaculture in mind we can so easily imagine a more peaceful world, both for our small personal worlds and on a global scale. Therefore it is imperative that we introduce others to permaculture, for the saving of the earth and of ourselves.