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Permaculture - use small and slow solutions

This year I have been taking time each month to consider a permaculture principle from David Holmgren's Permaculture: Principles and Pathways beyond Sustainability. This month I am up to “Use Small and Slow Solutions”.

Nancy is small and it looks like halter training will be a slow process....
(OK I couldn't think of a photo to use and Nancy is cute)
Thank you to everyone who comments and follows along with these posts. I have to admit (and I’m sure that its obvious) that I’m learning as I go along too, and part of that is forcing myself to write these posts. In order to write something sensible I have to read the chapter several times and think about each principle and what I think it really means in practice. I appreciate all the comments as it helps me (and everyone else) to think about the meaning and application of each principle. My interpretation is not necessarily right, or complete, so I welcome other suggestions and thoughts on each principle.

The other principles that I've reviewed have been:
Observe and Interact
Catch and Store Energy
Obtain a Yield
Apply self-regulation and accept feedback
Use and value renewable resources
Produce no Waste
Design from Patterns to Details
Integrate, rather than segregate

Small and slow solutions are important in an energy-constrained future. Generally large, fast solutions use more energy and are more expensive, which makes them accessible only to people with the appropriate resources. For most things there is an optimal size that is achievable with the resources available. On a small farm or backyard, this is usually the human scale and speed, things that can be lifted or moved or operated by one or several humans. As the scale and speed increases, more machines are required and more energy to operate the system. I think its important to distinguish between setting up a system and maintaining a system.  It may be appropriate to use considerable energy to set up a system, but the system itself is ideally small, slow and self-sustaining.  For example, we couldn't have possibly built our driveway without the help of several earth-moving machines, but we hope that its now been redirected and shaped to reduce future maintenance requirements.  Another example would be using earth-moving equipment to set up irrigation networks, that can then be operated by opening a hand valve.

In considering examples of this principle I am struggling to find something that is both small and slow! I can think of plenty of examples of small scale solutions, or slow speed solutions, but small and slow? Anyone?

Examples of small scale vs large scale:
  • It takes far less energy to produce food on a small scale, no need for tractors and trucks if you grow a little to feed just you and your family in a vegetable garden.
  • Also milking one cow requires less infrastructure and equipment, and less transport again, compared to milking hundreds of cows in one place and then processing and distributing the milk.
  • Smaller houses require less heating and cooling, less cleaning and maintenance, less furnishings and building materials compared to large houses.
  • Several smaller cells can be more efficient than one large system, for example we have two small chest freezers rather than one large one, so we can turn one off when it gets empty. Also if one freezer stops working, we only lose half the food. This concept applies to numerous other examples, in particular, David mentions the complex food distribution system, which can easily be disrupted, as we saw in QLD when Brisbane, the hub, was flooded, and the food couldn't be distributed.
Examples of slow vs fast solutions:
  • If we associate slow with quality of production, things that are made slowly, such as homemade clothing or homemade bread are slower compared to buying the same article, but better quality and generally “fit for purpose” as they are custom-made for the application.
  • Eating with the seasons can be slow too, but the first egg of spring or the first tomato of summer is tastier because we had to wait.
  • Soaking and fermenting food takes a few days to be ready, but less effort than heating and cooking the same thing. For example, making fermented pickles takes a few minutes to put the ingredients in the jars and then three days to ferment, which is slower, but less effort compared to cooking and preparing vinegar pickles.
  • My hybrid hugelkultur works by slowy decaying logs gradually building soil. We could have achieved the same result very quickly with earthmoving equipment and a truckload of soil. But all that work might have washed away in the next storm. This hugelkultur solution is being formed slowly by nature and will be more permanent.
  • Cycling or walking around our property takes longer than driving, but gives an opportunity to observe changes in vegetation, soil, erosion, animal tracks, fences etc that would not be noticed when travelling by car. This is a form of multi-tasking, using the slower speed of the journey to achieve necessary observations as well as the purpose at the end of the journey. 
  • Mustering cattle on foot or horseback is slower than on motorbike, but the cattle are less stressed when they move at cow speed (which is naturally slow unless they are panicked).
  • Perennial plants grow slowly and take longer to produce a yield, but when they do start to produce, they will yield annually with minimal maintenance requirements, compared to annual crops that produce quickly but require more care. This is a good example where a mixture of fast and slow solutions is useful.
  • Using our milking machine is faster than hand-milking, but requires a connection to mains electricity. Hand-milking would be a slower, but simpler solution.
What do you think about this principle? How do you apply small and slow solutions at your place?


  1. I like this post because it sums up what we are doing. Sometimes it can be more expensive or more time consuming ...sometimes less. We have stuck to being a small operation with the farm stay ...we could have stuck a heap of cabins on the farm , but just catering to one family means so much more to us and the meaning of what we do is captured more fully.
    I love hand milking so much , jobs like this make my heart rate and brain rhythms slow down in a natural way .
    I would like to go back in time and build a smaller house though - it is frustrating when you learn something later and realise you are going against permaculture principles.

  2. Small and slow would have to come under micro managing for me. It's like the tiny drops which eventually make up the pool. We are limited by time available to work the land, so small and slow breaches that time gap nicely because it can manage itself over time. Large and fast solutions can fail quickly if they haven't been thought through properly, or managed with enough energy.

    Any kind of compost system would count as small and slow if you're gathering your ingredients (as most people do) on a daily basis. It's made up of a lot of small components gathered over time, and therefore breaks down slowly. But it's still an ecological solution to waste and eventually returns to the land as nutrient.

    Small components gathered over time makes for a slow process, but it also ensures there is very little waste. I'm using small and slow at the moment, building a herb nook. I've gathered a few hardscape materials, an old wheelbarrow and plants as we an afford them. I chip away at the workload very slowly and because of this, I get to see what I need to do next.

    I took down a large tree branch which was starting to overhang our roof. It took an hour to cut down by hand and then break down into smaller pieces, but it meant I could augment them nicely into my herb nook. They helped to hold back the soil and keep in moisture. If I look at how my herb nook is developing, I can see how it was made up by a multitude of small tasks, done by hand. Eventually though, the nook will manage itself, as all plant based systems tend to do.

    If we look at nature on a micro level, every process and organism is based in real time, but it's managed over a succession of seasons. The sum total over time is massive biomass, but it's achieved on a micro level first. That's how I'm starting to approach my work on the land. It use to be disheartening at first, because you don't see a lot for the effort applied and it can be tediously slow - but in the end you get an interconnected system which needs very little input from you PLUS it multiplies.

    That's the pay-off for small and slow. Over time it achieves an infinite amount more, for the energy applied. But you do need a heck of a lot of patience. ;)

    1. Thanks for your comment Chris, I see what you mean, small and slow over time can build into something big, without the risk of the whole thing collapsing catastrophically. And it works in with "observe and interact" because it gives us time to change things as we see how the system works.

  3. I too love the small and slow approach. Everything we do on our property is accumulative; I collect one wheelbarrow of rotted wood every day off to build my Hugelkultur beds, I collect two wheelbarrows of soil for my Hugelkultur beds every ten weeks or so as I dig a new toilet hole. I build the soil in my chicken runs/ vege beds when I take food scraps and cardboard to the chickens every day. I reduce the small fuel buildup on my fire breaks every time I move the sheep electric fencing (although in fire season I wish this process was much faster) and I save tiny amounts of fuel by walking the 1 km to the bus stop and back every day that I work. It all adds up and you don't see a difference until you look back.

    1. Accumulative is a great word for this principle :)

  4. I love the small and slow solutions! A few examples at our place are: the compost heap, soil-building in the garden, slowly filling a hole on our property with leaves and wood debris, moving the greywater hose from the washing machine over a few feet to water a fig tree, and slowly reshaping the earth to redirect water flow downhill.

  5. I too have been studying David's Book and spending a little time on each of his chapters. Haven't studied this one as yet as I've been picking the chapters at random. But I have written a few posts on slow living looking at the various ways I've incorporated this into life on the farm.

    1. thanks Kate, I will be interested in your interpretation of the chapters too, I'm glad I've taken a year to review it, there's so much information, its not a quick read!

  6. We have planted many trees and bushes on our property in the hopes of building animal diversity as well as providing a wind break from the incessant prairie wind. Some bushes are just starting to show significant growth and they've been planted for three summers.

    I like the idea of small and slow but I think there has to be a time for fast and small. We decided we didn't want to wait for ten years for pine trees to grow five feet (our kids would be leaving home and have never used our lawn as a play place) so we purchased several trees from a grower that were eight years old to get a boost on our shelter belt. Of course I dug all the holes by hand and hauled the 300 lbs trees on a truck and trailer and maneuvered them all by hand into the holes. So maybe fast versus slow is relative and its a fine balance with too slow or too fast.

    I also like using a water heater in the winter for animals. Sure it costs me electric energy but it save a ton of time chopping ice and hauling water. Electric fencing is another fast and small solution. It took me a while to do this but the time it saves for moving and containing animals it was worth the $400 investment for solar power charger and equipment.

    Thanks for the post.

  7. Wow! I have nothing to offer on the small and slow question, but your examples of small vs large and slow vs fast have really got my mind whirling! Great post and thoughtful comments, too

  8. I love this series Liz. Although I'm feeling very removed from permaculture in my landscaped town section now. Our worm farm has already filled up and the fruit flies are going crazy so I've been wanting to get a compost bin here but can't fit one in my car. Maybe I need to think smaller and slower and just dig little holes around the place to put compost in, then cover them up with soil to keep fruit flies away.

    1. hey Emma, I'm pretty sure I got a compost bin in a flat pack, so maybe you can fit one in the car... althought I do you like your hole idea too :)

  9. For small and slow solutions visit Walter Jeffries farmblog . He started with very acidic soil on his farm, but by using livestock and plants this has been resolved, albeit after more than 10 years, read Then he decided to build a cottage with a vaulted roof, but first he made a much smaller dog-house with a roof made out of a real brick arch, start small he says, read A link to why Walter think small is important:


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